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The Calling Chapters 4-6

CHAPTER FOUR

Month 5

A New Realm, A New friend

__________________________________

“In Annwyn you will visit with the Celtae Warriors, the spiritual forefathers of the Celtic people. Arawn is the king of them. Gwynn Nudd is the king of Galli Warriors, who are also the spiritual forefathers of the Celtic people. It can be slightly confusing,” Merry lectured me, as Lance, who knew all of this already, stood beside me. Both Lance and I were dressed in all black, just like Merry. “But these proto-warriors helped father the early Celts, which explains why the early Celts were great warriors, but had a difficult time playing nice with each other. They were more individual great warriors rather than a great army like the Romans.”

“You mean they don’t like to be told what to do by a central authority,” I commented.

“Yes, well, sort of. There are also many other races in this Otherworld Realm. There is the Nisse, who are a race of farmers. That is all they do and all they live for is farming the land and reaping the fruits of their labor. There are the Slyphid, who live in the clouds of this realm, and are a kind of air bound Fey folk. Next are the Nixes, who live on top of, as well as underneath the great ocean. They are one of my favorite races. I find them calming. Finally, and I chose them for last for a reason, we will meet with the Huldra, who are a race of highly seductive wood nymphs. I must be very careful with the two of you when we meet with them, as they will want to mark you, as they call it. All in all it will be a busy schedule for us to keep.”

“Yeah, it sounds like it’s going to be a real party for us going from race to race to be observed and judged,” I sarcastically remarked.

“Now, Bear, you must be on your best behavior here. Sometimes first impressions are the only impressions you will ever make on someone. I know that you were enjoying the Christmas vacation with class chums, but you have greater responsibilities than having fun. These responsibilities cannot be put off just because you were enjoying your vacation. They must be lived up to,” Merry advised me.

“I should have brought my PSP with me,” I joked, much to Merry’s chagrin.

“How long will you be gone for?” Chota asked, as we stood near a large rock on the Merry’s mist isle.

“Four days tops, no more than that. Every race in Annwyn should be able to have a looksy in that time period,” Merry answered.

“Well, I think I’ll spend the time you guys are gone as a dog. Life can be easier that way,” Chota said then he gave us a nod and started to jog away. As he went he slowly transformed into a dog, this time leaving all his clothes behind.

Merry took out his pocket watch and looked at the time: “Happy New Eve. Another year comes, and another recedes and time goes on. MY, my, I’ve seen so many years, so many decades, centuries.”

“Is it time to leave then?” I asked.

“It’s time,” Merry answered.

Merry approached the large rock and placed both his hands on it. Lowering his head and closing his eyes, he concentrated and began to chant in his head in one of the many ancient languages he knew. The rock turned to sand, but didn’t break apart and fall to the ground but it turned into a shimmering silver doorway to the next realm.

“After you, gentlemen,” Merry motioned us to walk through the doorway.

First, I walked into the shimmering silver doorway then Lance followed behind me. When we exited we were in the Otherworld Realm, or Annwyn. Much to my surprise Annwyn reminded me of pictures I’d seen of Ireland and Scotland, but with some obvious differences. Instead of a blue sky it possessed a slightly purplish one and the clouds were more powder blue in color than white. The grass was emerald green and I had never seen trees with such thick and wide barks before. A cool wind scented with the smells of nutmeg and other spices blew in our faces.

Suddenly, over the hill a party of fifteen warriors, dressed in what I thought was ancient Celtic kilts, appeared. These men were extremely large men, six foot seven inches or better in height, with knotted, thick muscles and they carried with them wooden spiked war shields, spears, and various sized swords. They were intimidating to behold with rough, garrulous exteriors that seemed to revel in battle. Merry came through the doorway and noticed the large men: “Ahh, good, our greeting party is here. And they look happy to see us.”

He walked passed me and Lance and then he waved to them then called out: “King Arawn and Kind Gwynn Nudd, it is a pleasure to see you again.”

“Merry, you are always welcome to this realm,” King Arawn, an orange haired brute with a thick beard, answered him in an accent that seemed familiar yet foreign to me.

“Your company is always good,” said King Gwynn Nudd, a blonde-haired giant without facial hair, in a similar accent as Arawn.

As they approached these large warriors, Merry bowed elegantly, as did Sean and Lance, just as Merry had taught them, not too deep a bow and never take your eyes off the kings. Arawn and Nudd came up close and looked at the two young boys. Though Lance was taller than Sean by several inches, he appeared small in comparison to these giant men. Arawn took a hand that was almost as large as Sean’s head and lifted his chin up then turned his head to the right then to the left, as if he was examining Sean’s head. He then released him.

“He bares a resemblance to the original Cathal, a strong resemblance. I expect that is a good thing since he was a great leader,” Arawn observed. “What name do you go by?”

“Sean McCoul.”

“McCoul,” said Gwyn Nudd, “That is a fine clan name. It is a warrior’s name.”

“But Sean. That is weak sounded. It will do for now. If he is Cathal, he’ll need another,” Arawn spat.

“He’s kind of small and fragile looking. Is this all there is of him?” observed Gwynn Nudd.

“He is not done growing,” Merry told him.

“How old is he?” asked Nudd.

“He is thirteen years. He will be fourteen years soon,” Merry answered.

“It takes humans so many years to mature. Such wasted time. We mature by the age of ten.”

“Yes, they do seem so frail. They must break easily,” Arawn wryly observed.

“Not as easily as a giant oaf breaks when it is felled,” I retorted, much to the surprise of Lance and amusement of Merry.

Arawn stared into my eyes for a moment. I stood there defiant and stared back. There was no way I was going to back down. Arawn then began to, as did Gwynn Nudd.

“He has courage. I like that,” Arawn said.

“Let’s hope he isn’t as fragile as he appears,” Gwynn Nudd laughed.

“You won’t always find me so amusing, when I have matured,” I boasted.

“Let us hope that is true,” Arawn stated.

“Kings of the realm, what do you have in store for us this day?” asked Merry.

“First, you shall visit with the Nisse. They will feed you. Then the Slyphid expect a visit from you, where you shall find rest…,” Arawn said.

“Then a visit to the Nixes for feast followed by a date with the Huldra, who will do as the Huldra do, ending in a…,” Gwynn Nudd told them.

“In a grand tournament and feast with us in the Celtae encampment. Celtae and Galli battling against each other for the hero’s portion,” Arawn completed their itinerary.

“Several Annwyn races to see and you will take several days to see them,” Gwynn Nudd told them.

“It sounds like a busy few days then, doesn’t it? I should have packed an alarm clock to keep us on schedule,” Merry commented. “Have you scheduled sightseeing time for us? I’d like to show them some of the highlights of this realm.”

Before Arawn could answer this comment a long black haired warrior from the greeting party guards broke away from the rest, unsheathed his broad sword, raised it above his head and let out a blood curdling scream of defiance, and rushed towards me to slay me. Lance stepped quickly in front of me to protect me and bravely took an unarmed defensive position to face the oncoming warrior. Both Arawn and Gwynn Nudd drew their swords from their sides, also, but there was no need for their actions. Merry raised his hands chest high, concentrated for a moment in order to connect with nature then delicately made the shape of a ball with his hands.

Much to the surprise of the warrior attacking me, the ground beneath his feet came alive and quickly formed an earthen ball around this raging warrior to subdue him. From the force of the warrior inside of it the ball rolled for a few feet but then came to a stop imprisoned in a natural jail.

“What treachery is this! Ahk, this cannot happen here in this realm,” cried out Arawn.

“This cannot stand. A traitor is in our midst. A price must be paid!” called Gwynn Nudd.

Four of the warriors ran to the earthen ball and stood guard over it, even though there was no way for the warrior to escape. The rest of the warriors ran to guard me, who patted Lance on his right shoulder to let him know that he could stand down. Lance moved to my right side.

“Druid, is this Aes Sidhe treachery? Are they that foolish to attack in our realm?” asked Arawn.

“Yes, I am afraid they are that foolish, but they did not attack themselves. They corrupted one of your own to do it for them,” Merry answered. “It has to be either the Aes Sidhe or one of their allies: Dark Elves, Sprites, Goblins, or maybe the halflings. Yes, they would be responsible for this.”

“Whoever it is who did this, they will pay,” Arawn predicted.

“We shall make them pay, all of them, for their actions,” added Gwynn Nudd, “as they have violated our realm, which cannot be allowed ever! We must prepare for an immediate invasion of their realm.”

“No, do not battle them like that, sirs. They did not attack you face to face, but used corruption and manipulation to cause an attack from within,” said Merry. “Wait, wait for the Cathal. I ask you kings to wait. Wait for Bealtaine! See if Sean is the one. The Aes Sidhe provokes us here because they fear what Sean might be the one. Let him become what they fear then let the war be brought out into the open.”

“I want revenge and I want it now druid. They have insulted the kings of Annwyn and to wait means weakness. We are not weak,” Arawn stated.

“Allow the revenge to wait, to become icy in its execution, and it will be all the greater when you serve it to them,” advised Merry.

“The druid makes some sense,” Gwynn Nudd said. “They did not come here in person, but used one of ours against us. They will expect an invasion now and use that against us somehow. Those realms that remain neutral may not remain so. They may see it that we are the aggressors.”

“Maybe so,” Arawn said then he looked at Lance and I. “If this boy is the Cathal, he already has a loyal lieutenant, who stood up to protect him, I see. That is a sign of good leadership. Maybe this fragile boy is the next one. It is possible.”

“It was impressive to see the boy protect his leader and well done,” added Gwynn Nudd.

“Yes,” Merry said as he turned and looked at Lance and I. “It is very impressive. You have chosen well in whom you brought with you, Bear. And you, Lance, have shown yourself a brave warrior. Your mother would be proud.”

Lance blushed, as I once again patted him on the back with appreciation.

“Now, you will have two of my best men…,” started to speak Arawn.

“No, two of my best men,” said Gwynn Nudd.

“How about one from each of you and no more than that,” amended Merry.

“Yes, that sounds fair,” Arawn agreed. “You will have two of our best men as guards for your duration here. They will give their lives to protect you. We will not allow any more treachery.”

nnnn

The Nisse were a simple folk and proud of that fact, too. As a matter of fact they took such pride in their simplicity that it almost took on the air of superiority. They wore plain work clothes and lived lives that would seem boring to many, but which they found rich and fulfilling and this showed in their demeanor and attitude towards one another. To find a smile on the round, pudgy, pug nosed faces of the Nisse, faces that contrasted with their slender hard bodies, was pretty easy. A perpetual smile graced their faces, which was a sign of the contentment, which they had in their work and their lives.

After borrowing simple clothes from the Nisse to wear for their dinner Lance, Merry and I sat down at the head table of Moss, the lead farmer of the Nisse farm they visited. Arawn’s and Gwynn Nudd’s guards stood at attention outside, ever vigilant and ever ready, of the great hut. Like all Nisse, who had any hair on their heads, Moss, who was average in height at five foot three inches, had a sort of brown stubble growing on top of his head. Along with eyes that were all brown, cornea and iris, he possessed a kind of rosy complexion that highlighted his olive colored skin.

“Bring on the good food. We are hungry from hard work and ready for sustenance,” Moss called.

Twelve male and female Nisse, each carrying an overflowing platter of cooked vegetables prepared in several styles, came into the common hall and started to serve up the food to the fifty who had gathered there. With each server who came by I said yes to their offer of food in order to be polite, so that by the end of the serving time I had two plates of foreign looking vegetables in front of me. Though these mainly root vegetables smelled delicious, causing my mouth to water from hunger, they were completely strange in appearance and color: deep scarlet, orange, purple, blood red, pitch-dark, sunburn, and brown.

“We do not wait for fancy words, or unnecessary talk, here on the farm. That is for other, fancier places. Things are too busy on the farm and our lives are too simple for that. Eat,” Moss told me.

I spied Lance, who began to heartily eat the food on his plate. I decided to ignore the colors and focus on the appetizing smells and sampled the food. The vegetables had flavors I never tasted before and more satisfying than any I had ever eaten. I actually liked them.

“So, Sean McCoul, who doesn’t like the name Arthur, which is a fine name with great tradition and much to be admired about it; are you the Cathal?” asked Tuck, Moss’ son-in-law.

“Well, I think that is hard to say. Um, I…,” I said then paused.

“Aahh, nonsense words,” Tucker sighed.

“Do not be humble falsely with us, Sean McCoul. It is an insult to the Nisse to be falsely humble. We don’t trust humble. Humble hides things, humble can be a false face to show others and hide the truth. Modest we accept, but humble is a mask. The truth is best,” Moss added.

“I might be the Cathal,” I answered.

“Sounds like a bit of humble to me. Might, maybe, could be, these are hiding places for the truth,” said Floss, Tuck’s wife, who sat by his right side.

“It’s not humble. It is honest. Sean, here, does not know yet if he is the one, though all indications make it easy to believe he is the one. He has doubts, though but I faithfully follow him,” Lance told her.

“You don’t have to say that, Lance,” I said to him.

“I mean what I say, Sean. I don’t misuse words. My mother is the Lady of the Lake. She taught me the importance of words,” Lance replied.

“The Lady of the Lake’s son. We are honored,” Moss said and nodded towards him.

“Thank you, Lance,” I retorted.

“Humble pie is an inedible pie. It tastes are false and measly without any nutrition. We don’t eat humble pie here,” Moss stated. “Honesty, it is simple and the simple ways are the best ways.”

“Life is often not simple, though. It is hard and complicated with many choices to make and many people you can disappoint depending upon your decisions. Simple…well, simple is something that died with my parents one night. I do not live a simple life,” I asserted in a modest tone.

“Ahhh, I see,” Moss said then paused to think for a moment. “Growing things is a simple thing, especially for us, yet the weather can be unpredictable, even here in this realm. Rain comes sometimes too much and then sometimes not enough, cold can sneak up on us, and too great heat can wither crops, but we must adjust and tend the field. Life is like the weather, or so it is for you.”

“You are wise, Moss, a very wise grower of good foods,” Merry spoke up then he took a taste of a mound of mashed black root vegetable. “Delicious. I really need the recipe for this dish. It is one of my favorites.”

“It is called Batata. I will give the recipe to you along with some seeds for planting, so that you may make it on you own,” Floss said.

“You are too kind. My little isle needs a nice victory garden,” Merry replied.

“How do you like our food?” asked a bald headed Nisse named Mould.

“I have never tasted anything like it before in my whole life,” I answered him.

“Ahh, and that would mean what to us who have planted, nurtured, harvested, and prepared the food for you?” asked Mould suspiciously.

“It would mean that it has taken me by surprise. As a child I hated vegetables, they were almost a punishment to eat. Yet, I find the smells, the odors of your vegetables appealing, though I do find the colors kind of off putting. I am not used to the colors,” I told him.

“And the flavors? How do you like the taste of it?” asked Moss with great interest.

“They are the best tasting vegetables I have ever had. They make me think vegetables are not a punishment to eat when bad but a reward for good work.”

“Very good,” Moss nodded his head. “I hope that you are the Cathal as you appear to have fine taste in food. We would accept you as Cathal.”

“We were worried that you might not like it, as those in Alfheim have said you enjoyed their food, which is abhorrent to us,” Tuck noted then he waited for a response.

Merry looked over at me with a smirk barely visible on his face. He, too, wanted to hear how I answered this question.

“Well, as I am human I enjoy a wide variety of foods. There are some humans who eat only vegetables, but I am not one of them. Elf food has its positives as your vegetables have theirs. A perfect diet for a human would be a combination of both kinds of food. This is our way. We enjoy the greatest variety of things,” I explained.

“Well, that is interesting. I have never tasted meat and never will, but if that is your way of your people then that is your way. We must respect races’ differences,” Tuck stated and started to eat his food.

“If you are the Cathal, you will do,” said Moss.

I glanced over at Merry, who winked at me then to Lance, who let a smile slip. The Nisse were satisfied.

nnnn

Leaving the Nisse and their borrowed clothes behind them, the three of us proceeded to fields of Myriah, where we were to meet up with the Slyphid. Arriving on time and back in our black clothing, a single Slyphid came to prepare us for the next part of the trip. In order to visit with all the Slyphid, Lance, Merry, and I needed to be enchanted so that we could fly. Merry himself could have done the enchantment, but the Slyphid insisted as a guest that they should do the enchantment, so if anything should go wrong with the enchantment then it was their fault. It was twilight when the translucent bodied, winged Slyphid, who I thought looked like a see through marble statue of an angel wearing a see through robe, flew down and performed the enchantment on us. This Slyphid was named Beeze.

The language of the Slyphid was unlike any spoken in the Otherworld Realm and completely unintelligible for Lance and I to understand. There were no real words, consonants, vowels, or the rest. It was ephemeral, as the Slyphid themselves, and was based on emotions and images that were transmitted through sounds. I closed my eyes and listened to it, as Beeze spoke to Merry, who understood their tongue well enough. In its change of decibels and smooth hollow sounds, I thought it sounded like a song sung by the winds with whistles added. I was shocked to hear Merry answer in the same tongue.

“Beeze tells me that we will be sleeping with them tonight in the clouds. Slyphid do not like to mix with other races, but they wish to observe you, Sean. They hope by watching you it will tell them something about you and potential you hold. Are you ready to fly?” Merry asked us.

“They just want to watch me? That’s it. Nothing more, just watch me?”

“Yes, that’s all,” Merry answered me then he leaned in close and whispered in my ear. “The Slyphid judge people by how they sleep and what they dream when they do sleep. They will be reading your dreams.”

“I hope I don’t have a nightmare tonight. I’m pretty gassy after eating all those vegetables. If I have a nightmare, it will probably freak them,” I whispered back.

“Do I have to come along then?” asked Lance, who hated being watched.

“You wish to stay on the ground with the guards, Lance?” asked Merry.

“Um, well…”

“Come on, Lance. Please, don’t desert me now. I mean we will be going up into the clouds to sleep. That’s an experience you won’t want to miss. How often to you get a chance to sleep on a freaking cloud?” I begged.

“All right, I’ll go with you.”

Merry waved goodbye to the two guards, who merely stood with stone faces, waiting for us to leave. He then bent his knees and jumped into the air and flew. Since it looked easy Lance and I did the same. After doing several dozen uncontrollable rolls in the air, Lance and I understood that flying wasn’t as easy as it seemed once we stopped rolling chaotically around in the air. Another attempt to move upwards led us to smack our heads and then do cartwheels in the air until Merry stopped us. Beeze took me by the hand and Merry took Lance, and they flew us to the nearest gathering of Slyphid near a cloudbank.

Once we reached the clouds, Beeze dropped me on a cloud and joined his people, who had gathered to observe by the dozens. They flew about me taking inventory of the potential Cathal, looking closely at me and checking on how I reacted to them, on how I reacted to being so high up in the air. I tried to remain passive and calm on the outside, even though my stomach was planning a revolution on me out of fear and anxiety.

On a positive note, much to my surprise the cloud had some density to it, a sort of feathery softness that was comfortable to sit on. Merry, who had deposited Lance next to me on the cloud, did not join us. Instead he flew around the cloud acting as if he was enjoying himself. Maybe it was the enchantment, but as I watched Merry fly about, I noticed that I wasn’t cold even though I was fairly certain that this far above the ground it should be very, very cold. Finally, Merry stopped his buzzing of the cloud.

“Gentlemen, I am going to explore the skies a bit. I had forgotten how much fun it was to fly. It’s been decades since my last time. I shall return in the morrow,” Merry said then he waved goodbye and left us to be observed.

I looked down at the ground. I never was one to like heights, preferring staying on solid ground, and now I knew why I felt that way. The ground seemed to be miles below me, too many miles in fact, which made my stomach scrunch up even more into a ball of anxiety and fear. Since looking down caused me great anxiety, I decided to look around me pretending I was sitting on the grass instead of on a cloud, but that didn’t help much. Other than curious Slyphid, all he saw was a navy blue darkness and all I heard was a wind that deafening me.

“Sean, Sean,” Lance yelled.

“What?”

“What about…,” the rest of his questions became jumbled in the wind.

“I didn’t hear you,” I yelled.

“Bathroom. What do we do if we have to go to the bathroom?” Lance called out.

“Aim carefully,” I yelled back to him and for a moment I thought I heard shrill, little laughs coming from the Slyphid, who still observed me.

“I’ll wait until we get back down on the ground then,” Lance called back.

I understood his decision. Since the wind made conversation almost impossible, I decided I might as well take this time to take stock of things. In a very short time, I had visited three realms, moved to a mist isle, and been told I might be something called a Cathal. Although, I knew Merry would have an answer, I wanted to ask him with all things considered why I still needed to learn geometry or even logic, which my life seemed to defy. Chota taught me martial arts and weapons. That made sense. What Merry taught me didn’t make as much sense, but I was sure it was just as important as martial arts and weapons.

I noticed that Lance had lay back on the cloud and now stared out into the dark infinity of what was above us. I lay down on my side. Again, I was surprised at how comfortable the cloud was. A jaw, crunching yawn crept up my throat and broke wide my jaw and caused me to make a sound that reminded me of a walrus being fed. Another yawn followed and then another. I guessed it was time to allow the Slyphid to read my dreams, so I closed my eyes then I found that sleep was waiting patiently for me.

It didn’t take long for a dream to take hold of me. What was surprising was what I dreamed of: my dreams were of Branwyn. She was dressed in a short, gossamer white gown. In the dream I was watching Branwyn, who was shining in her Fey form, dancing in a field of lavender grass. The color of her glow was pinkish, as when I had embarrassed her in the Fey. Her white gown changed into the clothes they were much like the Fey Folk I had met in the Fey Realm, too, as she danced through the field with a lithe joy and grace that transfixed me. Spinning, jumping, and performing, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I didn’t want either the dream or the dance to end, but they both did when suddenly she stopped dancing and looked at me and said: “What are you doing in my dream?”

“Wake up, gentlemen, time for breakfast. It appears that the Slyphid have seen enough of you,” Merry said with a chuckle, waking me from my dream before I could answer her. For a moment I wondered if somehow I had gotten into a dream Branwyn was having, but dismissed it. I then wished the Slyphid had never read my dreams, as I started wondering what they thought of me now.

“Come on, lazy head, up, up, up. We have much to do,” Merry said again.

I could be easily heard over the wind, which made me think that Merry could have done something to let Lance and I speak easily to each other but I had decided not to. Merry had his ways.

There was only one Slyphid left when I looked around the cloud and that was Beeze. He waved at me with a smile on his face then he drifted off on a stiff wind. Merry offered me his right hand and Lance his left. We grabbed hold of him and he gently lowered us to the ground.

nnnn

     The ocean in Annwyn was located in the Eastern domain near the Charcoal Cliff, which towered over the ocean like a great marble wall. According to Merry the Nixes lived both above and below the waters of this domain, as they were aquatic by nature and choice. A peaceful people, their whole existence revolved around the ocean in this realm. All that they needed from food, to clothes, to decorations were cultivated from the waters of Annwyn. There was nothing on land that enticed them, yet they were known to be gracious hosts to land dwellers.

As Merry described it, Marei was the name of their primary above the ocean city, a grand wooden structure consisting of buildings and piers that floated elegantly on top of the water. The city was the color of an ocean at sunrise, while the wind and the salt water weathered their piers and buildings. Marei housed a population of over a thousand, while thousands populated their underwater city of Gupi. Since the Nixes had the ability to breathe both air and water, they rotated their population every season from Marei to Gupi in order to give everyone a chance to experience a different way of life. Though, the underwater city fascinated me the most, it was the above water city we were visiting. Merry had an enchantment for flying, but neither he nor the Nixes had an enchantment for gills and breathing underwater. One had to be born with that ability.

For the first time since we had arrived in Annwyn, Merry was so excited in anticipation of their visit to Marei that he appeared to be almost anxious to get there.

“Merry, why do you like the Nixes so much?” I asked him.

“Because I like seafood,” he answered flippantly, as he was in a good mood.

“It’s more than that,” I prodded him.

“Yes, Merry. Why do you like them so?” added Lance.

“It’s hard to explain in words, but you’ll see why in a few moments. They are a people that not only make you welcome, but bring a feel of calm.”

We were strolling on the Salt Plain headed towards the Charcoal Cliff, where a member of the Nixes was waiting. Ahead of us was a figure made diminutive by distance. Merry looked through his hands, as if he was looking through a spyglass: “That is our guide ahead of us. Let us pick up our pace.”

Merry picked up his step from a saunter to a greatly increased stride. Though it was a sunny day, I felt a chilling breeze coming off of the water. We had changed before we started this journey into clothes appropriate to the Nixes, which included a one piece swimsuit that came down to the knees that left the arms exposed and reminded me of a sort of early twentieth-century swimsuit, the kind seen in history books, and a thin pull over sweater, as well as flip flops made from dried seaweed.

It took less than half an hour for them to reach the Nixes, which was both singular and plural, at the edge of the Charcoal Cliff. The two guards were winded and sweaty by the end of our trek, and Lance and I were ready for a nice rest. Merry was ready for Marei.

“I am Piskos,” said the male Nixes, who greeted us in a deep calming voice.

I was intrigued to see that the Nixes almost sparkled in the sunlight, much as some fish did because of their subtly colorful and shiny scales. The first layer of Nixes skin was scale-like, which they occasionally shed then grew back. Also, I saw that they had long, luxurious hair the color of sand that fell to their lower backs and orange and yellow eyes, which were hypnotic. Both their hands and feet were slightly webbed for swimming. Between his appearance and his attitude of relaxed confidence there was something very calming about the presence of Piskos, just as Merry told me. Dressed much like we were, Piskos carried with him a short spear for fishing and defense.

“Greetings, Piskos. I am Merry and this is Lance and…”

“Sean, the reason you are here,” he said. “Greetings from the Nixes. I hope you don’t mind but there are many waiting to greet you in Marei, so if you will follow me, we will dive from the Charcoal Cliff and swim out to Marei.”

“Dive off the cliff,” I said with apprehension. “We have to do cliff diving?”

“I assure you that you will be fine. Even our children dive from the Charcoal Cliff. The water will greet you well and accept you into its bosom,” Piskos assured me.

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” I commented.

“Well, then, let us get started, shall we?” Merry interceded ignoring my concerns.

“I shall go first to make sure there are no predators in the water,” Piskos stated.

“What kind of predators?” asked Lance.

“The Schork, which is a large predator with a white belly and grey top and great, sharp teeth and no conscience.”

“I hope we don’t run into a schork then,” I said.

“I hope we do,” Piskos said with a raised spear, “they make for a delicious meal.”

Without any more discussion, Piskos moved to the edge of the cliff and dove nimbly into the water below. He broke the water and then disappeared underneath it. Lance, Merry, and I peered down into the water to saw Piskos waving up at us motioning us to join him.

“Well, who goes first?” asked Merry.

“Well, since you like these people so much, you go next,” I said to him.

“Sir,” interrupted one of the guards.

“Yes,” answered Merry.

“We cannot swim,” he said with great shame.

“Then you should go last so we can save your lives,” joked Merry.

“Yes, sir.”

“He’s kidding you,” I said. “You may stay here. You don’t have to go into the water.”

“Thank you, sir,” the guard replied relieved that he didn’t have to face his fear.

“Well, I’m in the mood for a nice swim,” Merry whimsically stated then he took three steps backward and fell from the cliff in a standing position.

Both Lance and I peered over the edge again looking for him. It took almost forty seconds, but his head finally broke the surface then he began to do the backstroke towards Marei, while Piskos waited for us.

“So, Lance, instead of deciding who goes next, why don’t we both go at the same time?” I suggested.

“You don’t want to dive off the cliff alone, do you?” Lance said.

“No.”

“Neither, do I,” he agreed. “How about we get a running start and jump off the cliff and hope for the best?”

“Sounds like a good idea to me.”

We took several steps away from the cliff’s edge then we turned and began to run off the cliff. When our bodies left the cliff and began to fall towards the water, we both let out a scream of excitement and great fear, which was only muffled when we hit the water and were submerged underneath. The water was cold and refreshing. When we broke to the surface, we started to swim frantically. I noticed as I swam towards the surface lights shining from underneath me. Trying to see what the lights were as I swam, I realized that those were the lights of Gupi, which was far underneath the surface.

Merry, Lance, and I were greeted by a dozen and half young swimmers as we approached the city of Marei. Many sets of hands grabbed at us helping us onto the pier then we were offered towels to dry ourselves.

“I should have twittered this visit to the rest of our classmates. I think they’d be amused by it all,” I said to Lance.

“They’d only be jealous,” Lance laughed.

“Welcome, welcome,” a large Nixes male bellowed, as the other Nixes parted. “I am Porpais, the elected leader of the above water Nixes. We greet you and your friends. Please be welcomed to our home.”

He was similar in appearance to Piskos, except for some added weight and hair that now had streaks of white in it. Porpais walked up to Merry and hugged him then he advanced to Lance and did the same. When he finally came to me, he gave me a hug then he stepped back and observed me for several moments. I started to become used to being observed by the denizens of Annwyn.

“You have an interesting face, a face with great potential, as it shows signs of seriousness along with humor and caring,” Porpais stated. “Yes, I even see a hint of the former Cathal in you. He was a great one. What a great bloodline you come from!”

A cheer came up from the crowd for the former Cathal. I realized I had never asked who the former Cathal was and Merry had never offered an explanation. Some day I’d have to ask so he knew from whom my bloodline flowed.

“Now, we have food from the ocean for you to share,” Porpais stated, “and some entertainment planned. This will be a wonderful time for you.”

“Excellent!” exclaimed Merry.

Now in the presence of so many Nixes, I understood why Merry liked them so much. I could feel their calm and their joy wafting off of them. It was as if they had a form of empathy, which washed over you. I liked being around them, too.

“Let us go to where the tables are set up and get to know each other,” Porpais announced then he said to me: “I hope you are hungry. We have made a great feast for you.”

The tables were set up in what seemed like an outdoor amphitheater overlooking an enclosed section of ocean, where male and female Nixes performed a water ballet. Reminding me of dolphins when they came up out of the water on their tales then they danced through the water using their powerful legs to propel them. The food reminded me of Maine, which made me sublimely happy. Crustacea and fish by the platter full was paraded past me and I took my fill of it, while Porpais and the female elected leader Nakara, who had prepared the feast and entertainment, filled my glass with sponge wine that was the color of the ocean itself.

“Do you like the entertainment we offer?” Nakara asked me.

“It is amazing. The grace of the dancers combined with the beautiful movements, it is inspiring. I am truly honored.”

“I choreographed it myself,” she said proudly.

“I wish we had this sort of entertainment in our realm,” I told her.

“You honor me. If you are the Cathal, I will choreograph a special piece for you to celebrate you and you shall bring whomever you want to bring to watch it,” she told me.

“Is this not the greatest way to live your life?” bellowed Porpais.

“No, Porpais, that is a question that burdens our guest to make a judgment against other races in our realm, as well as his own realm,” she scolded him.

“I am sorry. I just love our life so much. My pride bubbles out of me sometimes.”

“I can understand why it does,” I said. “This may or may not be the greatest way to live, but it is surely a tempting way to live. I can see why you love it so much.”

This answer delighted both Nakara for the diplomacy it showed and Porpais for the appreciation of their unique lifestyle. They raised their glasses and toasted me with sponge wine.

“You shall spend the night here resting for the completion of your trip. We will ask nothing more of you, but to relax and re-energize. You are our guests,” Nakara stated. “Who is that you visit next?’

“I believe we have a visit with the Huldra next,” I regretfully said.

“No, that cannot be allowed,” stated Nakara, who with a severe expression on her face looked down the table at Merry. “This child cannot be exposed to the Huldra during the day or the night, when they are at their most potent and alluring.”

“I agree, ma’am, that it will be difficult for them, but they must visit the Huldra. It is a responsibility,” Merry replied. “But I shall be there with them and I shall do my best to protect them.”

“Good. They will need you and your great wisdom. You will stay here for the night. Enjoy yourself, Sean. Drink sponge wine, fill yourself on our fruits of the ocean, and be entertained. After this ballet we have planned a game of water polo on seahorses. You will see it as entertaining as the dance, though not as artistic.”

“I look forward to it,” I said then I looked over to Merry and Lance.

Merry had a giant smile on his face, as he lifted his goblet and toasted me then he drank deeply from it. Lance also seemed happy and content. Spending some extra time with the Nixes seemed only right to do and enjoyable as well. I settled back into my chair and watched the ballet as it continued to enthrall and entertain.

After much wine and entertainment, Lance and I were shown into a bungalow that sat alone on a pier. It was a long day and evening and we were feeling tired. Several guards were set about the pier to protect us, as we prepared for sleep. Besides the guards, two musicians were sent to stand outside the bungalow and play their water harp to encourage a restful sleep.

The bungalow was simple. The ceiling was clear, which allowed the moon and stars to be the only light for the room. It had slat floors, which allowed for the sounds of the waves and oceans to fill the room, and two very comfortable beds. Walking across the slat floor, I noticed several of the underwater living Nixes coming close to the surface in order to catch a glimpse of me. I didn’t mind this. As a matter of fact, I was getting used to being on display. I lay down in the soft sponge bed.

“Lance, are you enjoying yourself?” I said to my companion, who also was in his bed.

“Yes, I am.”

“Does being in this realm remind you of Avalon?”

“Yes and no. There are aspects about it that make me feel at home, especially here where everything is so idyllic.”

“Avalon is idyllic?” I asked him.

“In many ways, it is. For some it is.”

“I can understand why you miss it then,” I commented. “Have you asked to live there?”

“I cannot. My mother cannot allow it. It is for her and my sisters not me,” was Lance’s surprising answer.

“Really? Why?” I asked with great surprise.

At first no answer came. We laid in our beds with moonlight casting everything and everyone in a grey paleness. I waited to see if Lance trusted me enough to answer.

“My mother is the Lady of the Lake, the head surviving druid priestess,” Lance finally replied. “She cannot allow her male offspring to live on Avalon, especially one that has no druid powers, but warrior gifts like me. I am not considered druid, though I was born with a druid parent. Avalon must be kept a place of serenity and worthy of training of the priestesses, who are the most powerful druids, except for Merry. Merry is her equal, if not greater than the Lady. But he allows her to sit on the throne of druid power. A powerful male druid like Merry comes around as seldom as a Cathal. I think Merry believes Benedict has his kind of ability, which is why he is so hard on him.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“I know, Sean.”

“You visit your mother, right?”

“Yes. I visit her and my sisters. But she sent me away to live with my human father in the human realm. I have no choice,” he said softly.

“I’m sorry, Lance.”

“No need to be sorry for me, Sean. I am who I am.”

nnnn

I found falling to sleep in my sponge bed, as the rolling ocean waves acted as a tranquilizing rocking chair. Feeling refreshed Lance and I met Merry on the pier, but we did not swim ashore. Instead several Slyphid came to pick us up and fly us to the Forest of Gaudia where the Huldra awaited. Skimming along the winds we traveled the long distance from the ocean to the forest in a shorter time than could be achieved on foot. What the Slyphid did not do was bring along the guards supplied for us, as Merry thought the temptations of the Forest Gaudia would be too much for the two proto-Celtic warriors.

Dropping us a short distance from the forest, Merry produced a set of new clothes for us to change into. Reaching into a small realm he had created just for this occasion, which he called his suitcase realm, he pulled out white cotton pants along with light blue long cotton button shirts and sandals for us. After we changed into these new clothes, we continued on to the edge of the forest.

The Forest of Gaudia was imposing from the outside with trees that rivaled the great Red Wood trees of California. Large, hulking, and intimidating, the trees acted as an obstacle, yet we strolled into the forest. At first there was no party to greet us, or guide us, other than trees and hints of forest animals hiding from us. Even though it was a bright sunny day, within the confines of the forest there were many shaded areas for both Huldra and animal to hide.

“He, he, he, he,” a giggle, light but sensuous and most definitely female, came from behind a tree.

Merry stopped walking, so Lance and I did, also. He looked at the tree that the giggle came from behind, crossed his arms in a gesture of impatience, tapped his foot, and waited for the Huldra to make an appearance.

“He, he, he, he,” the sound of the giggle came again.

Slowly, a naked, well-formed human leg came out from behind the tree. This leg was followed by an animated tail that moved in a sensual snake-like manner, which was followed by the rest of this female Huldra. If I had to use one word to describe this female it would be: stunning. She wore the most minimal of clothing that strategically covered her curvaceous body. Her hair was long and lavender, which matched her eyes, while her skin was a creamy white, but did not glow since that would distract from looking at her in total. On her full lips a shy smile greeted us as her tail elegantly moved her hair out of her eyes.

“And your name would be, dear?” asked Merry.

“I am called Samfti,” she said in a soft voice that sent a chill up my spine and from the look on his face Lance’s spine.

“Do you know who we are, Samfti?” asked Merry.

“Of course, she does,” said a soft male voice from behind a tree.

The male Huldra exited lithely and blithely from behind his own tree. With a perfectly proportioned and muscular body and a tale that held a short sword, he possessed jade green hair and eyes and a small loin cloth covered him: “My name is Mele. I am your guard.”

“And I’m Meerow,” another female spoke up from behind a tree then she made an appearance with grace.

Meerow had slightly longer limbs then Samfti, with her hair and eyes being the color of teal. Merry sniffed the air. He had warned us that they had a high level of pheromones, which smelled of the sweetest fruit based perfumes. It seems to waft off of all the Huldra. He glanced over at Lance and me to see how we were doing. I waved at him and smiled, as I suddenly felt slightly drunk. Merry shook his head in exasperation.

“I am sorry we are so late in meeting you, but it is such a beautiful day to frolic in the woods,” said Meerow.

“No, problem. I thought your timing was absolutely perfect,” I mumbled, not really caring what I was saying, as all I wanted to do was stare at the Huldra.

“Yeah, me, too. I agree with him,” added Lance.

Merry put his right hand to his forehead and rubbed for a moment, in the way he did when he felt a headache forming. The Huldra already had Lance and I enchanted. Merry sighed: “This is going to be difficult. You two are already under their influence.”

“We can make it easy for you, very easy, if you wish, Merry, just leave them with us,” said Samfti.

“I’m sure that would make things easy, but I’ve been around too long to fall for that ploy,” he responded to her then noticed that Lance and I were now in staring at the two female Huldra. I wanted to take my eyes off them, but I couldn’t. They had me hypnotized.

“Only a few of our kind are waiting for you,” Mele stated.  “We did not want to overwhelm you or the boys. This is a visit to welcome you and evaluate the boy.”

“Oh, that’s good to know. I thought it might be a frat party,” Merry replied, as he watched Meerow take Lance by the hand and Samfti took me by the hand. Unexpectedly, another Huldra came out from behind a tree. She took my other hand and purred: “I am Volup.”

“Yes, of course, you are,” I babbled, as all I wanted to do was spend time alone with Volup and Smafti.

“Do you think he is the one?” Volup asked Samfti, as they led me to wherever we were headed. “He is handsome. That should mean that he is the one. I think handsome is important to being the one.”

“He’s cute enough to be the one, I agree. I like his hair,” she answered.

“I think he’d make a stunning looking Cathal when he gets older. He has fire hair and will have great muscles. Yes, he has possibilities,” Volup commented.

“Yes, he has the beginnings of muscles already,” added Samfti with a purr, as she felt my bicep.

I kept looking from one girl to the other. It didn’t matter which one was speaking, as my head just kept going from looking at one to the other. Lance was lucky in that he merely had to stare at Meerow, who seemed to be purring at him. I heard Merry sighing behind me, so I turned my head to check on him. Mele walked beside Merry, who kept shaking his head in annoyance. I guessed that he did not want us to fall under the spell of the Huldra, but I didn’t care. I thought the Huldra were charming.

“Is he the one?” Mele asked him in an almost conspiratorial tone that was both seductive and obsequious.

“Probably. His father was so close to being the one, but was missing only that ineffable quality that cannot be described, which I believe his son possesses,” Merry answered with a hint of annoyance that he answered the question the way he did.

“Really. How wonderful! Should we mark him now and his comrade? We will be glad to mark him now. I know they are wanting to mark him and his comrade.”

“When you say mark him, what do you mean by that term?” asked Merry.

“Make them knowledgeable in certain things and more willing in other things.”

“No. You shouldn’t mark him. At least, just not yet,” Merry answered then he laughed as if he had an idea. “As they are not fully grown yet making them knowledgeable might affect them in a bad way. It might temper their growth. Remember, sometimes delay gratification can make for greater gratification. When they have fully matured, I can send them back to this realm for marking by the Huldra. How does that sound?”

“We can be their path into maturity, you mean,” he said excitedly.

“Yes, of course, you can. Who else could do it so well?” Merry said.

“That would be a great honor for us,” Mele said then whispered to Merry, yet I could hear him. “I will tell them not to initiate the boys just yet. They will have to use the sweetness of patience. There time will come and very soon and it will be all the more delicious for all involved. When will that time be?”

“Oh, they are only a few years away from being ready for it,” Merry told him in a knowing tone.

“Very good. Oh, yes, very good. This is wonderful news for us,” Mele stated then took his conspiratorial tone again. “I will let the females know to tease with ease and make them riper, but not to pluck them just yet. They need to mature, be made sweeter. Is that all right?”

“Yes, tell them tease the two boys. That will be a good first lesson for them,” Merry agreed with a big smile.

I wanted to disagree with Merry’s decision, but I couldn’t as Volup started running her hand through my hair. Suddenly, I didn’t care what Merry said or anything else, just as long as she kept running her hand through my hair.

nnnn

Chastened and in a state of post-Huldra affection reticence, Lance and I sat at the feasting table of King Arawn in his encampment of Caer Annwyn. We looked as if we hadn’t slept for a week and had done nothing but run marathons for exercises. Arawn and Gwynn Nudd sat at the center of the table with Lance to the left of Gwynn Nudd, Merry to the right of Arawn, and I in between Arawn and Gwynn. At other tables sat the men and women of the Celtae and the Galli eating cooked fowl and grilled beast and drinking honey and water based mead, as well as beer made from the finest grains.

“In the morning we shall have a great tournament to honor this potential Cathal,” Arawn proclaimed.

“The overall winner of the tournament shall receive the Cup of Allegiance showing that the Galli and Caeltae no longer war and then will be served the hero’s portion of meat at our next combined feast,” said Gwynn Nudd.

“You got that portion for this feast as you are an honored guest,” Arawn said as he elbowed me. I looked down at a great bloody hunk of grilled beast.

“Thanks, it looks great,” I replied meekly.

Arawn turned and looked at Merry with an expression asking him what was wrong with me. He thought that I seemed too subdued because he didn’t understand where I had been. Merry sighed: “He and Lance were entertained by the Huldra all morning and afternoon and now are suffering the effect of dealing with the Huldra.”

“And fine entertainment they do offer, too,” laughed Arawn, who then stood up and announced knowingly to the crowd: “The boys have been with the Huldra, so they are in quiet mood. They are not at their best tonight, but I bet that they are hungry and tired.”

A roar of laughter went from the gathered warriors then Arawn sat back down. He then gave his attention back to Merry: “I was angered when the guards said that you gave them the slip, but now I understand. You didn’t want to share the Huldra with warriors. Celtae and Galli warriors would make the Huldra wild with excitement. Am I right?”

“Of course, you are correct. They boys didn’t need the competition,” answered Merry.

Arawn turned his attention back to me, as I nibbled on some food: “You will sleep well tonight, boy, very well. They say that the dreams you have after spending time with the Huldra for the first time are the best you will ever have in your life.”

“I bet these two boys will dream very well tonight, so well that they wish those dreams never to stop and never to wake up,” laughed Gwynn Nudd.

The meal continued with Lance and I remaining passive throughout it all. After eating came a song of glory sung by Jenwyn, Arawn’s daughter. She was accompanied on the string instrument called the hearpian, which was played by Gwynn Nudd’s daughter named Dyanna. Her voice was melodic and light and filled the air with a recount of past glories for Celtae and Galli. After the song of glory, which lasted an hour or more, a song of heroes was sung by the daughters then Lance, who looked ready to pass out, and I were shown to a tent where we each collapsed on a hay stuffed bed.

When the dream state finally overcame me, I once again dreamed of Branwyn. This time she was not dancing, but she sat on a mountain in the Fey contemplating the sky. I wasn’t sure if she should be there or not in reality. After the last dream, I now had to wonder if I was imposing myself on Branwyn’s dreams somehow. I wasn’t sure and I couldn’t explain it, but it seemed that we were connected somehow.

“Um, Branwyn, is this your dream or is it my dream that I am dreaming?” I asked her as I walked up behind her. “Branwyn?”

“What? Uh?” she reacted in surprise to hear my voice. She turned to look at me. Her expression was one of shock and interest.

“It’s me, Sean.”

“How did you get into my dream?” she asked me.

“I don’t know. I really don’t know how I got here. I’m sorry for this.”

“So that was really you in my dream the other night,” she stated.

“Yes, it was me. You were dancing beautifully. I mean it was amazing to watch.”

“How did you get into my dream?” she demanded, as her color showed she was embarrassed.

“Branwyn, I don’t know how.”

“I’ll have to ask my mother then. She’ll know how. There has to be a reason.”

“And I’ll ask Merry about it,” I told her.

“This is so weird,” she spoke to herself then she looked at me and demanded: “I don’t want anyone other than Merry and my mother to know about this. Do you understand me? No one else can know about this”

“Yes, of course, if that’s what you want. But why?”

“Because it would embarrass me,” she answered. “You’re invading my dreams, Sean.”

“You think I want to be doing this, to be here?” I asked her.

“I don’t know. Maybe?”

“Well, I don’t want it. Believe me I don’t want anything to do with your dreams. I have plenty of other things to dream about and plenty of other girls I can dream about, too,” I bragged then I immediately regretted saying what I said.

“Really, I’m not good enough for you then,” she sniffed.

“I didn’t mean it that way. You misunderstand me.”

“How did you mean it?” she asked me.

“I just have had a lot to dream about lately. It’s been a remarkable trip to this realm. That’s all I meant.”

“Sure, I bet that’s all you meant,” she said defiantly.

Both of us went silent for a moment. Branwyn took to glancing out at a purple sea, while I craned my neck and looked at the sky. There was more than discomfort between us. Even though I had recently been exposed to the Huldra, I couldn’t avoid the fact that there was something about her that got under my skin even more than the Huldra.

“So, how is Annwyn?” she asked me.

“Strange. Fascinating. Amazing,” I answered.

“Have you met the Huldra yet?” she asked me with a tone of deep interest.

“Yes,” was my one word answer.

“So, what did you think of them?”

“They’re umm… they’re too much. They overwhelm you and take control of you. They are way too much.”

“Too much. That’s the best you can say about them. I heard that they were the most hypnotic nymphs in any of the realms. I mean they are supposed to be able to seduce with merely a look.  Is it true?” she prodded me.

“Maybe,” I answered.

“Maybe. You know what maybe means, it means that you liked them more than you are willing to say so. They must be truly as beautiful as they say then,” she teased me.

“They’re not my type,” I defended myself.

“Really… who is your type?”

“Well, I…,” I paused, as I felt my body being shaken, as if someone wanted me to get up. “I have to wake up. The Celtae and the Galli are having a tournament in my honor, which I must attend. I have no choice.”

“Well, you are special,” were the last words I heard before I was awakened.

Merry was the one who awoke me. When I told Merry all about the two dreams, Merry explanation was simple: “The two of you must have made a strong emotional connection in the Fey Realm. The Fey Realm is a highly magical, which sometimes leads to psychic connection. But no need to worry, it will pass in time. At least, it should pass in time. If it doesn’t then we are dealing with a different kettle of fish, which you and Branwyn will have to deal with. I will not be able to help.”

“Oh, that is great because this was weirding me out. It’s going to pass,” I stated with false confidence then I looked about the tent. “Where’s Lance?”

“He is already dressed and out with the warriors watching them prepare. Now the tournament begins after a breakfast of sweet hot rolls and the strongest coffee-like substance you will ever drink, so get up and get dressed in the kilt, shirt and boots that Arawn left for you.”

“I have to wear a kilt?”

“Yes,” Merry answered as he turned to leave the tent.

“What do you wear under a kilt?”

“A smile.”

The tournament was as eye opening to me, as watching the elves fight. Never had I seen such brutal battering of people.  Men riding horseback with shield and wooden horses rode straight at each other trying to unsaddle each other. Besides men on horseback there were men with war clubs that were padded with attempting to beat each other senseless, then spear throwing, followed by a mile long foot race that was without rules and with weapons, next was an ax throwing contest and finally there was a battle royal where the winners of all the other events entered a muddy field and kept fighting until only one was standing. I saw how far I had to go to be considered a warrior by the Celtae and the Galli.

After the overall winner, a Galli warrior, was given the cup, it was time to return to Merry’s isle. Stepping through the doorway Merry created we were greeted by a barely dressed Chota, who was happy to see us.

“Heck, in the name of the Great Spirit, I am happy to see you guys,” he greeted us.

“Chota, you won’t believe everything I saw the passed few days.  It was…” my words to describe failed me.

“Eye opening,” offered Chota.

“Yeah, eye opening.”

“And you think so, too, Lance?” asked Chota.

“I am completely honored to have been the one to go with Sean to this realm.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t tell me how it was. How was it?” asked Chota.

“It was awesome,” Lance admitted.

“Cool,” smiled Chota.

“Well, I don’t know about anybody else,” said Merry, “but I want a hot bath and to get a good night sleep in a soft bed.”

“Hey, Chota,” I called my friend as we wearily headed back to the cabin.

“Yeah, Sean.”

“After seeing all that I’ve seen in Annwyn, well, I need you to step things up with me. I’m nowhere ready yet…and I need to be.”

“Don’t worry, buckaroo, I will get you to where you need to be.”

“Good,” I said as much to myself as to Chota, “very good.”

CHAPTER FIVE

Month 11

Werewolves and the Highland Games

_______________________________________________

July 1st came and with it great anticipation for the Highland Games at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina during July 9th -12th. This was my chance to finally spend some time off of the Merry’s isle. Other than a brief two day visit on February 12th and 13th for my fourteenth birthday celebration in which everyone showed up with presents for an all day cookout at Kieran’s, SI had stayed on the isle with Chota and Merry for training. My growth both physically and in the more important aspects of my life and ability could be measured in numbers and superficial changes of body and height, yet my true growth was so great that Merry now had no doubts that I was the one. Whatever he and Chota tossed at me, I either perfected or surpassed. Merry now knew he needed to prepare me for more than the first test of Bealtaine, but beyond for the more important tests that will come when I was deemed the Cathal.

Wearing a pair of baggy grey cargo shorts, a loose fitting grey T-shirt with a Red Sox logo on it, and a pair of sandals, I was now almost six foot tall with the beginning of some real muscle definition and mass appearing in my body. I had grown my red hair down to my shoulders and all hints of baby fat that kept me looking like a boy was melted away, so that I now appeared older than I was. I looked like a young man. Merry wryly noted that the bear cub was gone and the young Bear was now on the prowl.

“You will leave in the morning for your uncle’s place along with Chota,” Merry told me right before I readied myself for bed. “I am not going to the games, as I find them tedious events, filled with too much testosterone, loud bag pipes, greasy cooking, and haggis. I have never been a fan of haggis.”

Merry had other reasons for not going, also. He needed to prepare the next steps for me. In February I turn fifteen, and after that it was merely a countdown until I would turn sixteen and for my test at Bealtaine during the May of my 16th year.

“Do you want me to not go with them then?” I asked him. “I can stay here for more training.”

“Of course, you have to go to the games. There will be others of our kind at these games, and they will be holding their own special events to participate in, plus they will want to see and to meet with you. You must represent yourself with these folks and not just be some shadow discussed and not seen. They have influence and many of them have rather big mouths and they like to spread rumors. I want the right rumors spread.”

“Then I’ll go but I won’t participate in any games. I don’t feel I’m ready yet for that,” I told him.

“Of course, you won’t participate in the games. Participating in those is for Fintain, Lance, Wayne, Garth and Benedict, not you. They will show off their skills in the special events, win prizes and be hailed by the crowd. But you shall avoid any and all displays of your increasing skills and power.”

“You mean I should just act like a fourteen year old kid. Is that it?”

“Not quite. You should be you, but you should hold back any displays of skills or such so that people can only assume. Assumed power is always greater than real power. These games aren’t for you. Don’t worry, Sean, you will have your own games to participate in when the time has come.”

“What do you mean by that, Merry?” I demanded.

“I mean that you will need to pass your own tests soon enough. You don’t need others.”

“What are you going to do while we are gone?” asked Chota changing the subject.

“I hope to get some reading done, as well as some relaxing in quiet,” he answered.

After my fifteenth birthday, I will take the next step in my training and this will be the most difficult step for me. This step will have to be negotiated with important parties and I will have to pick a fealty for this step. It will be a difficult time for me.

“How is that any different from what you normally do?” I asked.

“I shall be blissfully alone with no one to ask me annoying questions or anyone who needs special private lessons. Now go off and get some sleep. Tomorrow is the beginning of a busy time for you.”

The next morning I faced mixed emotions as Chota and I were driven by Merry to Kieran’s house. The last time I had seen Branwyn at my birthday party and she didn’t mention or speak about my ending up in her dreams. All she did was wish me a happy birthday and give me a new New England Patriots number 12 shirt, as my old one was getting frayed from wear. She seemed distant, which I didn’t like, yet I didn’t know how to bridge that distance. I was sort of lost when it came to her. Even when Chota assured me that being lost when it came to dealing with a girl was nothing unusual for someone my age; it didn’t make it any better.

But if things at my birthday went poorly with Branwyn they went extremely well with Lance and the rest of my so-called classmates. The time spent in Annwyn had bonded Lance and I, as we both became more confident in ourselves during that time. My relationship with the rest got better and better, too, with the more time I spent with them. It was only with Branwyn lately that I still seemed to have any trouble with, which bothered me.

“Hey, buckaroo, I need to get some new clothes before we go off to North Carolina and these games,” Chota said to me from the backseat of Merry’s car.

“I can see that. When was the last time you bought new clothes, other than having Merry pick up sweat pants and T-shirts for you, huh?”

“1889. That was the last cattle drive I ever went on, too. After that I started to shy away from people then I met Merry about 1901 and have mainly lived on his isle ever since then. I’m a very complicated man,” he said.

“We’ll get you some, Chota. Kieran can help us with that.”

“Sounds like a good deal I don’t want to have to transform into a dog to not be noticed,” sighed Chota as he looked out the car window. “It’s going to get some used to being around a lot of people at the Highland games for me.”

“You better not turn into a dog every time you feel uncomfortable, or people will end up hunting you, thinking you are a Pooka,” Merry warned him.

“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Chota laughed.

We pulled up in front of the familiar house of convoluted design and Chota and I got out. With a brief goodbye Merry was off, so Chota and I went up the front steps and onto the porch. It was then that I heard the music playing:

“The Minstrel boy to the war is gone, in the ranks of death you’ll find him; His father’s sword he hath girded on, and his wild harp slung behind him,” the words were sung by a familiar male’s voice.

“Upbeat song,” Chota whispered to me as he rang the doorbell.

“‘Land of Song!’ cried the warrior bard, ‘tho’ all the world betrays thee; One sword, at least, thy right shall guard, one faithful harp say praise thee!’”

Lucan, who was the singer, opened the door. Smiling at me, he opened up the screen door and greeted me with a warm hug. When we parted Lucan offered Chota his right hand. They shook hands.

“You are getting ready by singing some Scottish songs at the games,” Chota observed.

“It wasn’t Scottish; it was Irish,” Lucan said. “Sometimes we forget that we chosen ones are a mix of the Celtic races, and a bit more. I kind of prefer the Irish songs. Come on and take a load off.”

Lucan continued to hum his song, as we followed him into the house. In the main hallway several bags were piled against a wall waiting to be loaded into the truck. We continued down the hall and into the kitchen.

“Where is Kieran and Fintain?” I asked.

“They’re off in the woods. Kieran is giving Fintain some help with his Claymore practice. He is showing him a few moves and tricks.”

“Claymore, those are those really, really big swords, right?” Chota asked.

“Oh, yeah, that’s a Claymore,” Lucan answered him with a proud grin then offered them a seat at the kitchen table. “Are you boys hungry?”

“What do you have?”

“How about cold brisket sandwiches with macaroni salad?”

“Sounds good to me,” replied Chota.

“Hey, Lucan, maybe you can give Chota here a hand. He needs to get some newer clothes than the one he’s wearing. Think you can help him out with that,” I requested.

Lucan opened the refrigerator and pulled out the brisket, spicy mustard, and macaroni salad and placed them down on the table, then he stood back and appraised Chota’s clothes: “About 1884, right?”

“Yup. I bought them in a small Kansas town in what they used to call the Texas part of town where the cowboys stayed after a cattle drive.”

“I bet those were good times, fun times. Stuff has held up well. Heck, you do get your worth out of clothes,” he smiled causing a slight blush from Chota. “I think we can help you out. Kieran’s got pants that we can hem since he’s taller than you and I got some of my shirts which I think can fit you.”

“I was thinking of buying some new ones since there are so old. You don’t have to go to any trouble like that,” Chota said.

“You made Sean a member of your tribe, which means you’re now a member of my clan. Ain’t no trouble for family. Family helps family.”

“Thank you,” Chota sincerely responded to the kindness. “Where’s the bread?”

“I’ll get it,” Lucan said.

“When do we leave for these Highland Games?” I asked Lucan.

“The 8th. It’s only an hour ride from here. Anyway, we would never leave town before the Fourth of July Parade in Elizabethton.”

“That’s cool,” I said, as I got up from my chair and wandered over to my bedroom door.

I opened the door slightly and peered in. Nothing had been changed. My books, computer, PS 3, and games were still in my room. Even my collectible 12inch figures that my father bought me were still on the shelf. There was a time I thought I could not live without any of those items, but I was wrong. I hadn’t missed any of this stuff.

Entering the room, I walked over to the collectibles on the shelf. There the figures stood frozen in their motions, posed for action, and articulated for battle. For the first time I was struck that all my collectibles were superheroes, not just heroes, but superheroes. Like most little boys I was attracted to superheroes, and now I remembered how my father indulged that love. Was he trying to tell me something? Was he giving me a hint of my destiny?

“Food is ready,” called Lucan.

I returned to the kitchen table and sat down. In front of me was a plate with a sandwich and macaroni salad. I picked up the sandwich and took a bit. It tasted good.

“So, Chota, you’ve never been to these games?” Lucan asked him.

“Nay. I’ve been around these parts for a long time, before any of this land was broken up into states, before the white man came, and I have never been to Highland Games. I’m kid of excited by it.”

“I think it will be fun for you,” Lucan commented then looked at me, “and not so much for you.”

“Why not me?”

“Because you’re going to have act like the next Cathal, which ain’t that much fun. I remember your father hated going to these games ‘cuz he never got to participate, but had to be judged and watched. All he wanted to do was beat everybody at the events, but instead he had to act like he was going to be the next Cathal. I think he was relieved when it was finally discovered that he wasn’t it.”

“Really,” I said then I stopped eating to listen to Lucan.

“Yeah. After he failed at Bealtaine, well, that next Highland Games he was a devil. He entered every event and won everything. He was the champion of the games and I don’t think he could have been happier. Yeah, he was relieved to no longer have to act like someone who he wasn’t.”

“You trying to tell me something, Lucan?” I asked. “Don’t hold back, tell me.”

“Yeah, I am trying to tell you something. Just be yourself, Sean, and if that self happens to be the Cathal, then don’t fight it, but enjoy it.”

“You’re a smart man,” remarked Chota.

“Yeah, I know.”

nnnn

It was strange how in a short period of time someone’s opinion of a place or a people could change so greatly. When I first was driven through Elizabethton, I thought it was a hick town filled with hick people, one step up from nowhere and nowhere that I wanted to be. Just eleven months ago I saw this place as a foreign land that I didn’t want to visit, but now I viewed it much more fondly. Elizabethton was a nice little town to visit and a nice one to live by. Though, I spent most of my time on Merry’s isle with Chota and Merry, I made occasionally day visits to Elizabethton, especially when Merry was low on certain supplies, such as Altoid mints or chutney, or we needed some new movies to watch. Now I viewed Elizabethton positively, as it was there that I’d spend an hour or more picking out the movies Chota loved to watch and meet and see the ever friendly town’s people. It was a much better place than I thought.

The small town was festooned in red, white and blue for the holiday. From balloons to cray-paper decorations and ribbons, the town was dressed up in the colors of the US flag, as were most of its almost 14,000 residents. As had become habit when I was around Lance and Wayne that they tended to stick close to me acting as my personal bodyguards, while Garth, Fintain, Branwyn, Etain, Benedict, and Cedric mingled with the crowds on the street waiting for the parade to pass by, so the three of us found ourselves in Bede’s General Store along with Kieran, Thomas Lake, Denara, and Morgana. Chota stayed back at Kieran’s to watch satellite TV. The store, which was the kind that offered just about everything crammed into a small space, was mainly empty.

“What are you boys doing in here when the parade is about to start up?” asked Kieran.

“Thirsty. It’s hot out there, real hot out there. Merry keeps the isle a little cooler than this weather. I’m not used to it,” I said.

“Well, I can help you with that problem,” Bede said.

Bede, who said his age was somewhere between seventy and the afterlife, looked like a librarian running a store. Quiet by nature, he sat behind the counter at the cash register directing people to whatever item they wanted without ever getting up. Though, he appeared old with long white hair and a scruffy white bread, his memory was unaffected. Bede acted as the historian for those who protected this realm from the Aes Sidhe.

Bede got up and shuffled slowly to an icebox, opened it, and took out three orange soda pop drinks, which were in a glass bottle. He carried them back and placed them on the counter and waved at us to take them.

“I make this stuff myself. You have never tasted anything so good as this all natural soda made with pure cane sugar,” he said.

Lance, Wayne, and I took the orange soda pop drinks, popped the caps, and drank some. It was the best soda pop that I had ever tasted, and, more importantly, it quenched my thirst.

“You’re going to spoil these boys, Bede,” Denara observed. “They should relish the heat, especially for training.

Lucan placed his hand on the well-muscled shoulders of Denara: “You are a scary woman.”

“I know,” she answered him. “Cedric and his father have a great deal to contend with when I’m angry.”

“So, do you still get out to do some hunting?” Keiran asked Bede.

“Course I do. While you go indulge in the Highland Games, I’ll be out hunting. I love a good hunt,” he answered.

“I don’t know how you still get out there hunting at your age,” remarked Thomas Lake.

“Hunting is easy,” he said then he looked over at me as if he was going to dispense some advice. “All you have to do is let the animal come to you. You don’t go to the animal because then it will have the advantage. Be the predator not the prey.”

“I think you are getting some sage advice, Sean, from a historian and one-time great warrior,” Denara piped up.

“Are you trying to tell our young Bear something?” Kieran asked Bede.

“Maybe, I am, Kay,” Bede said then he narrowed his eyes and focused in on me. “I knew your father, Sean. He had great potential, so much so that for a moment I thought he might be the Cathal, but he wasn’t. He was just a great warrior. It is said and has been written that the Cathal will return when we need him most. I thought we needed him when your father was a boy, yet he wasn’t the one, so I was wrong. Look at what has happened since then: the Aes Sidhe has made great strides in our realm, in all the realms. They inexorably make corrupting progress in bringing down the caul between the realms and spreading their evil.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“If they manage to bring down the caul, then they will have free reign in this world. Presently, their half-breeds lurk about, werecreatures, bloodsuckers, other abominations, as well as those Aes Sidhe smuggled into this realm. They have decreased our numbers. Yet, when I look at you, Sean, I see the Cathal, I see hope and I see a good future for us and the other peaceful realms. But, of course, you have some tests to pass first.”

“What tests?” I asked.

“Ahh, that is Merry’s purview not mine. He will tell you when you are ready or when he wants. Merry can be fickle when the mood hits him,” Bede told me.

“I’m getting tired of hearing that I will be told when it is time,” I sighed.

“How can we help you, Sean?” Lance spoke up.

“Yeah, how can we help him?” added Wayne.

Kieran chuckled to himself. I could see in his eyes that he remembered the time when he was willing to help his brother prove he was the Cathal, but in the end it was all up to his brother. If I was the Cathal, in the end it would be all up to me.

“Be his friend. That is all you can do,” answered Bede. “He will need friends and in time he will need a more than friends.”

“Then we will be his friends and we will stand beside him whenever we can,” Lance said earnestly.

“Yeah, we’re his buds. Nothing will change that. Bring it on.”

“I am hopeful then that this Cathal has the right mix of friends to support him. Yeah, You’re father was remarkable, but I think you will be more than just remarkable, Sean,” said Bede.

“How do you know that?” I asked. “You’ve never seen me do anything.”

“Sometimes all it takes is looking into a man’s eyes to know. In your eyes, I see the one. Your father had confidence, but you got something different: you got the look of someone always observing and always learning. Yeah, I think I see the one in your eyes,” Bede stated.

“Hey, Bear, you’ve just been complimented by a man who doesn’t do that too often,” Kieran spoke up. “You should be proud of yourself.”

“Hope isn’t a compliment; it is a belief. I believe in you, young Arthur Sean McCoul,” Bede added.

nnnn

The highland Games struck me on two points: 1) Grandfather Mountain was nature at its most simple and inspiring, and 2) there were a great many people attending these games. The lush green of the grass and trees, the blue sky, cooling mountain breeze, and rolling terrain evoked a sense of calm and awe in me, which was more than I could say for the games and the people it drew. With a bald eagle drifting in a circle far above our heads, the early morning crowd for the Highland Games was busy re-establishing old friendships as well as introducing each other to newcomers. The families, the clans, were represented: McRae, MacDonald, MacEwen, MacNiel, Burns, MacLachlan, Wallace, Roy, Morton, Rayburn, and more. And along with the names there were the kilts, some official and legal tartans, and others purchased just for the occasion.

I was almost overwhelmed by the gathered throng, as I had grown used to spending my days mainly with Chota and Merry concentrating on my work. Following along with Lance and Wayne at my side, I pushed along through the teeming crowd until I was greeted by a bagpipe playing man, who stopped when he saw Kieran and came forward to meet us. I could see that the man was happy to see Kieran. The man had a ruddy complexion and square jaw. According to Lance he was Donal MacAlpin, head of the MacAlpin Clan.

“Kay McCoul, as always, it’s a pleasure to see you that you’ve made it here,” he said.

“Donal, good to see you,” Kieran replied then he looked over his shoulder at me. “And I have my brother’s son with me this time.”

“He’s here,” intoned Donal knowingly, whose eyes fell on me.

“How many of the Scottish Protector Clans are here with you?” Kieran asked.

I had never heard of the words Protector Clan used before. Protector Clan. I guessed it was appropriate considering our purpose. We were protectors of the realm.

“MacKinnon and Boyle from Canada; Stuart, Adams, and Blair from Australia; Adair, Baird, Blane, Boyd, Arnott, Cairns, Fraser, and Lockhart from Scotland; and Chisholm, MacColla, Menzies, Lamont, Logie, Mackie, MacTavish, Muir, and Munro from the US. We have quite a few Protector clans here for these games and it’s a good thing, too. Your brother’s son is here. These will be grand games this year, truly grand games.”

“So,” Kieran said nodding his head in approval, “is our own playing and living area ready for us?”

“Oh, yes. We are using male mages and female druids to keep an area clear for us. We won’t be bothered by anyone.”

“Well, I guess you better prepare everyone for an important lunch to introduce Arthur Sean McCoul to them.”

“I’ll get all ready for him,” Donal said then he placed the mouthpiece back in his mouth and played his bagpipe as he retreated to collect the families.

Kieran turned towards me: “I hope you are ready to meet the Scottish Protector Clans.”

“I guess I am, and if I’m not, then I’ll have to fake it,” I replied.

“Ahh, you sound just like your father,” laughed Kieran, as he patted me on the back.

While the main Highland Games were gathered in their own area of the mountain with the fields, stands, and stalls to handle the games and where the average participant could watch, snack, listen to music, and watch races, sheep herding, wrestling, dancing, as well as the caber toss, and tug-o-war; certain special clans gathered in another part of the mountain that was more primitive and less built up. The skills of four mages and druids clouded this gathering spot from those who didn’t belong there, so that if an outsider approached an overpowering sense of fear would overcome them stopping them from checking out the area. This allowed for the gathered Protector clans to lunch and hold our own version of the games in private and secret, as they prepared to meet Arthur Sean McCoul. Lucky me.

At a long wooden table, Donal MacAlpin, Donal’s eldest son, who was two years older than me, his wife, Kieran, Fintain Lucan, Chota, Morgana, Branwyn, and I sat, as if we were on display for all those who were gathered there. Donal in his kilt and a golf shirt stood up and addressed the crowd.

“I’m glad to see so many gathered here for our yearly games where we test of mettle ourselves against each other. It turns out that this year is a very special one, as this is the year we get to introduce Arthur Liam McCoul’s…”

As if I had just ignored the fact my whole life, I finally realized my father’s full name was Arthur Liam McCoul. Like me, his father went by his middle name refusing the name Arthur. I wondered why? Why did both of us avoid our given first name?

“…son. Please stand up, Arthur Sean McCoul, and show yourself to the Clans.”

Apprehensively, I stood up. Scanning the tables and tables filled with unknown faces of various ages from old to new born staring at me as if I was some kind of movie star, I felt my throat go dry. Unlike in the other realms where I felt different, out of place, so it was easy being observed since I was an obvious outsider, here I felt like some kind of freak on display. I looked just like these people; I was one of them, yet they stared at me as if I was different. Did my father go through this, too? And if he did then how badly he must have felt when he turned out not to be the next Cathal. He must have felt as if he disappointed so many who expected so much of him. Would I disappoint in the same way?

“Speech,” called out a voice, which then turned into other voices yelling in agreement.

I glanced over at Kieran, who nodded his head in the affirmative. I needed to speak. There was no avoiding it. This was why I was brought here: to be shown off. I had to give the crowd what they wanted: “I doubt you want to hear a long speech from a fourteen year old, so I’ll just say that I’m glad to finally make it here to Grandfather Mountain and these games and to meet all of you. Now let’s all enjoy ourselves and have a good time.”

A roar came from the crowd that was out of proportion from what I thought my speech deserved, but these people greeted me with a great ovation and cheers. Men, women, boys, girls, and children applauded me. I sat down and Donal MacAlpin stood back up: “You heard him. Let’s have a good time.”

With that simple speech ended, everyone started to eat with great gusto and much conversation. They were excited and happy. I looked down at my plate of Shepherd’s pie, took up a fork, and began to play with the food. Kieran, who sat on my right, elbowed me gently.

“Good speech, Bear. I think I have a tear in my eye from it,” he whispered.

“Yeah, sure.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. I just thought about my father. Did he get this sort of attention?”

“His whole life he was under scrutiny. From cradle until he failed at Bealtaine, he was idolized then after Bealtaine he just became another one of us and nothing more,” Kieran said with sadness in his voice.

“That just wasn’t fair to him. He should have been treated better,” Sean whispered.

“No, it wasn’t fair,” he agreed.

“It must have deeply hurt him.”

“Maybe, but he never said if it did or didn’t. Yet, I do know it was a burden that he carried without a complaint or regret and when he had a son, and Merry thought you might be the one, well, he was happy to be sent away, so that you could avoid the adulation and scrutiny and have a childhood for as long as it lasted,” Kieran explained.

I sat in silence for a moment. My father never complained and never regretted. That was something I could learn from. I glanced over to observe Branwyn, who was eating her Shepherd’ pie as she sat beside her mother. She grew more and more beautiful in my eyes every time I saw her. Out of the corner of her eye she looked at me, which caused me to blush. Branwyn laughed then she leaned over to her mother and whispered something between mother and daughter. Morgana and Branwyn giggled together, which caused Kieran to look over at them. Morgana lifted her right eyebrow and stared back at him causing Kieran to blush slightly. The two females giggled again.

“Women, ahhk, Sean, they are confusing, but they are also infinitely interesting and sometimes frustrating. Sometimes they will make you feel as if everything you say is wrong or dumb headed, and other times they make you think you can do no wrong and scale mountains,” Kieran admitted.

“Are you dating Branwyn’s mother?” I asked him.

“Date? Now I would not call it dating,” he stumbled around his words then admitted. “She and I have been almost dating each other for ten years, since my wife left me and Fintain. She and I care a great deal for each other, but we are waiting for our children to mature a little more.”

“Fintain’s mother left him and you?” Sean asked. “I didn’t know that.”

“Yes. She couldn’t take this life any longer. Mabel had her powers, deep druid powers, but she didn’t really try and gain control over them or increase them. She wanted to be normal, just a normal person. You see there was a time that I fought the Aes Sidhe more directly than taking care of my son and letting a group of special kids home-school in my barn. There was a time that I was an active warrior out on adventures risking my life and limb to keep this realm safe. She hated that life.”

“Do you know where Fintain’s mother is now?”

“I haven’t heard from her since I got divorce papers in the mail some seven years ago. I have no idea where she is or what she’s doing, and neither does Fintain. It’s a painful subject for him, my poor boy.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that,” I mumbled. “I’m sorry.”

“Why?”

“Because I didn’t care enough to ask before now about you and Fintain and his mother. I was only thinking about me. I’m sorry about that. It was selfish.”

“It’s all right, Sean. You asked now and that’s enough. The food is getting hot, so let’s eat our food. It’s a long way until dinner.”

“Sure,” I said and sampled the shepherd’s pie.

After lunch came the first event, which turned out to be the seventy-pound hammer toss followed by the clachneart race, where the contestants have a footrace while carrying a fifty-pound stone. Finally, the day ends with the first round of wrestling. Fintain, Benedict, Wayne, and Garth signed up for these events, while everyone who wasn’t going to compete gathered to watch and cheer or jeer. Lance and I managed to find a less crowded spot near a grouping of trees to view the action.

“Why aren’t you competing in these games?” I asked Lance.

“I compete tomorrow. Tomorrow is the Claymore and Dirks, the broadsword and the dagger. I’ll enter those events. The competition will be good for me to work on my technique.”

“Do you use wooden replicas?” I asked him.

“No. We use actual swords, sharpened to their most potent and sharpest and without safeguards. That is where technique comes in.”

“Sounds a little dangerous to be called games,” I sarcastically commented.

“Not really, because the first who draws blood, even if it’s just a nick, wins. It’s more about technique and speed. I like to use a naval dirk and a claymore with a basket hilt,” Lance answered without humor.

“Are you a Vulcan by any chance?” I joked. “You need pointy ears.”

“Oh, humor. I have trouble understanding this human emotion,” Lance said without emotion.

“Very, funny,” I laughed. “I’m glad you do have a sense of humor.”

Before we could continue our conversation, a balding older man with a great salt and pepper beard along with a middle aged man with mousy brown hair and a boy, who looked like the middle aged man and who was around my age, came walking up to me, as if they were approaching a king. The older man, who wore a kilt, a cotton shirt tucked into, and a bonnet bowed to me, as did the other two.

“I came to introduce myself to the young Arthur,” the old man said.

I was tempted to correct him and tell him that I went by the name Sean, but I decided if I did this now, I’d have to do it over and over again. For the next few days I could be Arthur.

“Greetings,” I said.

“I am Alastair Cairns of the Cairns Protector Clan, and this is my son Callum and his son Fingal. We come to offer you fealty.”

Lance leaned in close to his right ear and whispered: “Fealty has a dual meaning. It is an offer of allegiance, but to us it can also be an offer to join your most intimate and faithful group of warriors.”

I nodded to let him know I understood then I stood up and said: “I accept your allegiance and if I should be the Cathal, I hope that Fingal will some day join my fealty when he is ready and needed.”

The old man appeared to grow in size out of pride. His son also beamed with pride, while Fingal looked to almost glow from excitement.

“You honor us, young Arthur,” the old man said.

“No, you honor me.”

nnnn

For his age group Fintain came in second place on the stone race, second place in the hammer toss losing only because he fouled on his last two throws, and moved on to the next round for wrestling. Benedict came in first for the stone race, first place in the hammer toss, and also moved on in wrestling, while Wayne managed a fourth, a fifth, and also moved on in wrestling. The Watauga Lake boys were so far the talk of the games, as they seemed to be some of the brightest and the best. But then again everyone expected a great deal from the Clan in which the next Cathal would come.

Unlike those gathering for the other Highland Games, many of those in secret and special games, like Kieran’s Clan, were camping in the mountains, as some of the more talented druids and mages continued to keep people away from our chosen spots.  The first day was a rousing success and ended in a group dinner. For that dinner they served colcannon, a mix of cabbage, carrots, turnips, and potatoes, along with salmon or Arbroath smokie, a wood-smoked haddock. For desert they offered black buns and coffee or hot chocolate. In the midst of a relaxed atmosphere I felt slightly tense. An anxious feeling of being followed plagued me making me want to just get away from the crowd for some time alone. While people gabbed away about the day’s events, I snuck away into the trees as dusk fell to night and the bagpipes and fiddles were broken out for song and dance and nighttime entertainment.

With an ever darkening sky, I did something I was never able to do back at Watauga Lake and that was to explore an area without a chaperone by my side. Even on Merry’s mist isle, Chota tended to stick close to me as I walked around the isle. Walking deep into a tree line, I started treading up an incline towards Linville Peak. It was wonderfully silent, so silent the breeze seemed to whisper. I heard some people talking about how impressive the Mile-High Swinging Bridge was and wanted to see it, if not just to walk across it for fun. For some reason, I wanted to cross it at night, as if this showed a greater depth of courage to do. Coming out of the trees, I saw the parking lot for the bridge, which was empty, except for five cars, and then noticed the fifty steps that led up to the bridge itself. The area appeared to be deserted, so I continued on.

“Grrrrr,” I heard the feral and ferocious sound coming from out of the trees and suddenly, as if I had turned on a light switch, my instincts and senses came on and I knew I was in great danger. Now I understood why I hadn’t been allowed to explore Watauga Lake by myself.

I turned quickly to see what was behind me. Something moved out of the tree line. Hanging low to the grass I saw a black shape moving with glowing yellow eyes, but it wasn’t the only shape crawling towards me.

Grrrr, the sound reverberated on the air all around me. I turned my attention to foreground where the parking lot was. There standing in the partially empty parking lot was now a large black werewolf with glowing bright yellow eyes glaring down at me. Werewolves were the offspring of Pooka and humans. Merry had told me about werewolves and other Aes Sidhe and human offspring. He called them abominations and said that they were the servants of the Aes Sidhe. Unlike a real wolf, which could be a loner, these werecreatures were a pack animal with an alpha animal taking the lead and the only way to kill them was with a weapon made by the elves. All I had as a weapon were my sandals and I doubted slapping the werewolves on the snout would cause them to run away.

Grrrr, the fierce sounds came again sending a chill down my spine. This time I saw that another werewolf was crawling on its belly towards me from the right side. They were trying to surround me, give me no escape route. I knew I didn’t have much time to formulate a good play to handle them or the situation, so I decided just to run and hope for the best. Taking off towards the fifty steps leading to the Mile-High Bridge, I sped away from the pursuing werewolves, running faster than someone my age should be able to run, probably faster than most adults should be able to run. The black beasts came after me, except for the large one in the parking lot who just watched what transpired. I noticed this alpha seemed satisfied by what he saw, so I tried to pick up my progress towards the bridge.

As Chota had trained me, I trusted my muscles to do what they were designed for and ran faster than I had ever run in my life. It was easier to run fast when the danger was real, I thought. I didn’t think about running faster, but I just allowed for instincts and muscles to work as one. One of the werewolves almost caught up with me, though, and it was about to pounce on my back and bite me with its sharp, yellowing fangs, when my instincts told me to duck, roll, and run. I listened to my instincts causing the large black werewolf to miss me, flying past me in the air, and landing awkwardly and hard on its snout on the grass causing the werewolf to be knocked slightly senseless.

“Sean, watch out! Behind you!” Branwyn’s voice screamed from behind me.

I ducked again letting another werewolf completely miss me. This time Branwyn using her own special abilities had a hand of grass and dirt there to catch this werewolf and firmly hold him, as she ran towards me. I saw that there was another two black forms creeping behind her, but she wasn’t alone. In dogman form Chota was the one who had shown her where I was having sniffed me out. I knew Chota all too well in his dog form. He ran beside Branwyn keeping close in order to protect her. Hearing the two new werewolves he stopped, turned, and attacked them, as Branwyn continued on towards me. It was a vicious fight between wolf and dog. I wanted to go and help Chota, afraid that he might be outnumbered, but my focus now had to be Branwyn. I didn’t want her hurt; I wouldn’t allow her to be hurt.

Without being attacked any werewolves Branwyn made it to me. I glared back at the large werewolf in the parking lot. This alpha werewolf continued to just watch and direct his pack. The werewolf that Branwyn captured was busy eating away at the grass and the earth in an attempt to free itself, while the other one was recovered from his embarrassing miss and now headed back at us.

“Run,” I said to her then I grabbed her by the left hand with my right hand and we headed towards the steps.

Taking the steps two at a time, I headed for the bridge thinking that we might have a better chance of defending ourselves on the bridge, or on the other side of the bridge. We reached the top of the steps and I spotted the swinging bridge. Made from metal inside of wood, the grey structure beckoned us. Pulling Branwyn along with me we reached the bridge and started across it not stopping until we had reached the mid point. There Branwyn and I stood in the growing darkness of night on a swinging bridge that was a mile high and was suspended across an eighty-foot chasm.

“Why are you here?” I asked her.

“I had a feeling you were in trouble. I can’t explain it, I just knew you needed help,” she told me.

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Well, you were right,” I admitted.

“I hate being right.”

“I don’t believe that. I think you like it,” I joked.

“Yeah, you’re right,” she giggled.

Grrrr, we both heard the sound coming from out of the dark. From both ends of the bridge two werewolves were approaching us, as we stood in the middle of the bridge. I had hoped I’d only be facing one werewolf and only coming at me in one direction. This was not what I had anticipated. The alpha werewolf that watched from the parking lot must have planned this out, I thought. He out thinking; I need to play more chess.

“Sean, we’re in trouble, aren’t we?” Branwyn remarked.

“A little bit, but there has to be a solution to this. I refuse to let them hurt you.”

I looked down at the trees below: “Eighty feet is a real long drop. I know we are special but I doubt that we are that special.”

“Looks like a good drop,” she said thoughtfully then she looked up at me with a concerned expression on her face, as a strong breeze blew her hair across her face. “I think I can help us.”

Reaching up with her right hand she touched my cheek then she got up on her tiptoes and gave me a gently kiss on the lips. I didn’t fight her, but I returned the kiss. For a moment I didn’t care about the werewolves or the danger. The werewolves growled at us causing us to end our moment.

“I’m sorry you are here with me under these circumstances,” I said to her.

“Life is really confusing.”

“I know.”

“Well, here goes nothing. I’m going to make some heavy, duty wind to protect us. I’ve never tried anything this big before, so hold on tight,” she said then she closed her eyes.

“You can do it,” I said and I kissed her forehead.

At first it was a breeze that I felt on my face. It was cooling, drying some of the sweat that had wet my forehead and back, and then this breeze grew in strength. The breeze became a stiff wind, which became much stronger until it was a gale force wind, and the bridge began to sway strongly to one side. I placed my left arm around Branwyn and with his right hand I grabbed onto the bridge’s handrail and tried to anchor my feet. The gale wind increased causing the werewolves on the bridge to become nervous and start howling.

“Sean,” screamed Branwyn, as she held tightly to him, “use both your hands to hold on to the bridge. I hope you’re as strong as you look.”

“I’m stronger than I look,” I said then I let go of her and with my other hand grabbed onto the handrail.

Branwyn took booth her arms and put them around my waist. She clung to me as the gale wind picked up and became a true hurricane wind. I wasn’t sure how strong the winds were, seventy or eighty miles an hour, but I could feel them getting even stronger, as the swinging bridge began to pitch too strong to one side. My hands were turning white as I gripped the handrails as hard as I could. The wind battered our pursuers and us. Two of the werewolves finally succumbed to the wind and went howling and screaming off the bridge and down to the trees below. I didn’t know if that would kill them or not, all I knew was that I didn’t want to join them down there, so I concentrated on holding on.

One of the other werewolves crouching slowly towards us backed off the bridge, while the other werewolf lost its grip and fell from the bridge. I kissed Branwyn’s forehead and yelled: “You can stop now!”

The wind slowed down from hurricane to gale to light breeze in a matter of seconds, while the bridge swung from side to side rocking. Branwyn kept a hold on me, as I kept a hold on the handrails waiting for the rocking to stop. Eventually the bridge stopped rocking and we were safe.

The werewolf that had backed off the bridge came back onto it. I let go of the handrails. My hands were slightly bloody from holding on so tightly. I moved Branwyn so that she was standing behind me and in was not in the path of the werewolf. She placed her arms around my waist again and held onto me. It was almost as if she feared the bridge would start moving again or just feared the thought of losing me.

“Branwyn, let go of me and finish crossing the bridge to safety,” I told her.

“I won’t leave you.”

“You have to …”

“No. End of argument,” she said with an intense staccato tone that I knew not to even try to argue.

The black werewolf came slowly towards us. Its yellow teeth were exposed in a humorless grin and yellow eyes glowed. A wave of fury started to rise in me as I stared eye to eye with the beast, the abomination. This was a servant of the Aes Sidhe. It followed the orders of those who killed my parents. I would not fall to it.

“What are you going to do?” Branwyn asked.

“I was thinking of tossing him over the side to join his friends.”

“How?”

“Like this,” I said then I pulled her hands free from me, got into a slouch and ran towards the werewolf, which ran towards me. When the werewolf was close enough it jump at me. I came out of my slouch, grabbed the werewolf by the fur on its back, swung it around and tossed it off the bridge. I heard clapping. I looked in the direction the clapping to see Chota, wearing only a smile, applauding me. I bowed then I turned to face Branwyn, who was glowing just a little bit.

“Don’t ever risk your life for me again,” I scolded her.

She was taken slightly aback: “Why?”

“Because I don’t want another person I care for to die for me.”

“You care for me?” she blushed.

“Yes,” I said gruffly.

“Hey, you two, can we get going? I’m a little exposed here,” Chota called to them.

“Come on, let’s go,” I said to her and offered her my hand.

“Life just keeps getting more and more confusing with each passing year,” she said and she took my hand. “We are connected somehow.”

“Yeah,” I answered her.

As we exited the bridge, I saw Kieran, Morgana, Donal MacAlpin, the Cairns, Fintain, Benedict, Wayne, Cedric, and a very concerned Lance running towards us. Morgana waved to her daughter, who shyly waved back. I pulled my shirt off and handed it to Chota, who tied it around his waste then the three of us walked towards the group.

“Where are the werewolves who you attacked?” I asked Chota.

“Gone. Werewolves are basically cowards. I showed them some fang gave them a few scratches and they ran away for their lives,” Chota said then he looked at Branwyn and me, as we held hands. “This is going to be real interesting.”

“Why?” asked Branwyn.

“Oh, let’s see if I understand this. He lives on a mist isle, you’re mother is part Fey; and you are three-quarter Fey; he might be the Cathal; the Aes Sidhe wants him dead; and your hormones are starting to kick. Yeah, this is going to be real interesting.”

“Sean, what has happened here?” demanded Kieran.

Morgana moved quickly to her daughter’s side and gave her a hug. Once the hug was over she looked into her daughter’s eyes then she glanced over at me. She recognized now that a connection had been made between the two of us, a strong connection.

“Werewolves attacked me,” I answered.

“Where are they?” asked Donal.

“Gone. With the help of Chota and Branwyn, they are gone now.”

“Ahhk, he must be the Cathal,” the elder Cairns declared.

Lance walked up to my side with Wayne. He stared me in the eyes with an expression that mixed anger and worry: “When you are attacked, I expect to be by your side at all times. Do you understand that, Sean?”

“I understand, Lance.”

“Me, too,” said Wayne.

“Yeah, you, too,” I said.

“Let’s get back to camp. I want guards on him full time until the games are over,” ordered Kieran, who was angrier than I had ever seen before.

“Kieran, I’m sorry,” I said to him.

“Bear, I’m not angry at you. I’m furious at the Aes Sidhe. I won’t have them taking another one of my relatives without a fight.”

“I agree,” added Fintain.

“Thanks,” I said, as I was escorted back by men on every side protecting me.

CHAPTER SIX

Month Thirteen

Learning Leadership

______________________________

For the rest of the Highland Games I had a constant contingent of bodyguards made up of Chota, who never left my side, Kieran, Lucan, and several handpicked men from the clans. These men were there when I awoke in the morning and tucked me into bed at night. This was a frustrating few days for me, as I didn’t have a chance to spend any time alone with Branwyn. There was always someone around standing guard over me protecting me from whatever. For a handful of minutes here and there I saw her, was able to exchange smiles, and even told her to text me, but there was no time alone for us. The text I did receive from her stated: I understand. We’ll talk when we can.

Once back at Watauga Lake, Merry, who had been informed about the werewolves, ushered Chota and me back to the isle for protection. Any talk of staying around and letting me spend time alone with anyone my own age was ruled out because it not only endangered me more, as well as those around me. The Aes Sidhe were boldly on the move against the potential Cathal, more so than any one could remember in the past. The isle was the only answer to protect me. So, heading back to the isle for more training to learn how to protect myself, as well as others. The sooner I was trained up the better for everyone involved.

September came and Chota started to upgrade my training forcing me to defend myself more and more, forcing me to grow up faster. On the beach we fought as always, but now I had a distraction on my mind. It could happen while dodging the war club when suddenly I’d see an image of Branwyn flash in my mind, or feel an emotion that I knew wasn’t my own. She was always there on the periphery of my thoughts causing me to loose a moment of concentration here and there. To counter this lack of focus, Chota stopped holding back giving me the full brunt of his speed, agility, and strength. And it hurt.

Finally, the heat of August dissipated and a cooling breeze made an appearance as September ended its first week. Chota pushed and pushed me trying to get me to not have slips in concentration or momentary lapses in focus. Those slips of concentration were deadly, not only for me, but also for those who counted on me. My safety now called for me to be better trained than anyone else and be better disciplined, especially since I was no ordinary boy, so I needed to be treated like no ordinary boy. At fourteen, I was as strong as an average male, maybe even stronger than most average males, and my speed and agility were definitely as good as a world class gymnast and track and field athlete. I was growing up quickly, but not quickly enough for Merry’s taste or for Chota’s taste. As a matter of fact Chota set his own level of expectations for me. To Chota, I was always a conduit to lift his curse and become mortal again, so he wanted me to do better than anyone expected.

“Okay, buckaroo,” Chota started their afternoon lesson, “you can’t kill a werewolf or a bloodsucker without a weapon, but you can hurt them enough to make them think twice about attacking you. But you have to know how to hurt them.”

“And you’re the man to teach me, right?”

“You bet that I am,” Chota growled then he dove hitting me with a cross body block and sending me to the ground.

Months earlier I would have rolled around in pain after the block because of having the wind knocked out of me, but now I took Chota’s weight and let it push my body backwards in a control fall then I rolled backwards and came up easily to my feet. Chota anticipated part of my reaction, so he was there to place a flying kick with his right foot into my chest sending me backwards again. Instead of letting the blow guide me, this time I rolled to the left then I caught another kick on my right shoulder. It was a glancing blow that only knocked me to my knees.

I had enough of being on defense, though. I had enough of waiting for others to come for me. With Chota coming at me for another attack, I decided to get aggressive. I did a head roll forward into Chota’s path and then came out of the roll with kick to Chota’s abdomen. Unfortunately, Chota saw this move coming and grabbed my foot and swung me into the air then he threw me with great force. I landed hard on his buttocks and back.

“Too slow that time, buckaroo. I know you have more in you than that. You got to be better than that to get me,” Chota goaded me.

“And this is teaching me how to defend myself without weapon against beast and blood drinker, how?”

“Now, you have to figure that part out for yourself. I’m the werewolf; or I’m Jumlin, the blood drinker, or one of his minions: how do you slow me down? How do you fight me to tie so that you can survive? Use your greatest weapon, Sean; use your head. You got a good one on your shoulders. If you can’t outfight your opponent than you must out think them.”

“Let’s see: I could give you a math problem to do to keep your mind busy?” I joked.

“Very funny, a math problem. I’m not sure you are taking this seriously enough,” Chota remarked with a chortle.

“It’s not just any math problem but a really complex math problem, like there is a plane leaving Chicago traveling 450 miles an hour to Boston and another plane leaving Boston traveling at 400 miles an hour going to Boston, over what state will they meet?”

“Not taking this seriously, are you?” Chota said without humor then he sprang for me.

As I got up, Chota tackled me in the midsection. I grabbed hold of Chota’s shoulders, took his weight, and used it to throw him off and away from me. Chota was up in a shot, but so was I. I ran at Chota. Instead of body block or a kick, I slid to the right of Chota and grabbed his leg and twisted it, so that Chota fell. Getting up, I rushed in on Chota, who used both his feet to send me away from him. I landed painfully on my side a few feet away.

“Better, much better. You’re starting to get it. Don’t give up, never give up and use your head, but more importantly, keep your head in the battle. Desire can go a long way in a fight, maybe not as much as skills or talents, but it can be important,” I heard the voice of Merry say.

With some effort I sat up and saw Merry standing there in his long black robe staring down at me. He looked surprisingly happy, considering that he was still less than thrilled at the werewolf attack on me and had been working himself and me extra hard since then. Merry was trying to remove any room for error in my life.

“Merry, you’re in a good mood. It must be some kind of miracle or some obscure druid holiday,” noted Chota.

“I have reason to be in a good mood. I have a visitor back at the cabin, an important visitor, to see Sean. One who will push his education even more.”

“Who?” I asked excitedly.

“A sidhekind.”

“Sidhekind? I’ve never heard of them. What are they?” I admitted.

“In this case it is not a they, but a he. He is the offspring of a Leanan Sidhe, or what is commonly known as a muse as far back as ancient Greece, and human male of great reputation. The offspring of a pairing like this are known as sidhekind. The Leanan Sidhe will choose a male human and inspire him to greatness in whatever field he has chosen but at a price: a short, highly successful life. You see once this male is at his peak, they will suck his life force from him adding all his gifts and experiences to their own. Sometimes, if they think this human superior, they will have an offspring and these offspring are always powerful combining the gifts of mother and the father, or the visa versa. In the case of this offspring, his name is Alkimos and he is the son of a Leanan Sidhe and Alexander the Great, who died rather unexpectedly at a young age after conquering a good piece of the world,” explained Merry.

“What? Alexander the Great? You mean the Alexander the Great?” I mumbled in a state of shock. “How old he is this sidhekind?”

This drew a laugh from Chota: “You live with me and Merry and you ask about someone’s age. Come on, buckaroo, you know that ain’t polite.”

“Oh, yeah. You got a point there. I’m kind of used to you two.”

“Being Sidhekind, he is immortal,” stated Merry.

“He can’t die.”

“No, I didn’t say that. He isn’t invincible, there are few who are, but he just doesn’t age.”

“Oh, okay, I got it now,” I responded then I paused for a moment to think. “Shouldn’t he be evil if he is related to the Aes Sidhe?”

“Oddly enough, yes, but he isn’t and we should be thankful for that. Alkimos has allied himself on our side in the realms, but never before has he had anything to do with this realm, his father’s realm. He is a teacher by nature, and considering his lineage he has helped trained some great leaders in the other realms. He tutored Arawn and Gwynn Nudd, which is why they are at peace now. This is the first time he is willing to tutor someone of the human realm.”

“Why me?”

“He likes what he sees in you,” Merry answered. “Now come and meet your newest tutor.”

“He’s been watching me?” I said.

“Yes.”

“How?”

“He has his ways, which are for him to explain not me,” Merry answered then he took a deep calming voice. “I have known Alkimos for too many years to recount and we have become friends. I trust him as I trust Chota, as I trust you. He is not here for any nefarious reasons, but only to impart knowledge to someone he believes is a worthy student in need of the knowledge he possesses. Are you ready to meet him?”

“Yes, I guess,” I replied.

“Good.”

“But, Merry, what if I’m not the Cathal after all?” I asked.

“If you aren’t the Cathal then there will never be another one to come along,” mumbled Merry sounding almost frustrated by the question, as he motioned me to follow him back to the cabin.

He wore a black hooded robe much like Merry’s and stood six feet two inches tall. Alkimos possessed short golden blond hair, deep gold skin, and gold eyes that gave him a certain strangeness to his appearance, which caused you to stare at him even if you didn’t want to stare. He offered me his right hand.

“Arthur Sean McCoul, my name is Alkimos. I wish to be one of your tutors in your noble pursuit,” he said in a rich, baritone voice.

“Thank you, sir. I don’t know if I’m worthy of such an honor, as being taught by you.”

This remark caused Alkimos to smile with appreciation. He sat down at the head of the table where Chota, Merry, and I ate their meals. Merry sat at the other end.

“He answers well. It is not practiced but comes out of him naturally,” Alkimos said to Merry. “He has not been tutored in these answers. They are instinctive, which is one of the reasons I am here.”

“Yes, they do come naturally to him, which is why I am so high on him, Alkimos. He has the ineffable about him.”

“This shows an instinctive understanding of sentient beings, which is necessary to be a great leader. Without you may become a brutal dictator, which I would never support,” Alkimos remarked then he looked at me. “I will tutor you in leadership. My father was many things good and bad, but the one thing he was, when at his best, was being a leader. If you are to succeed in being the Cathal, you must be a great leader.”

“Now, Sean, I am going to take a stroll with Chota along the beach giving you some time alone. Why don’t you two get to know each other because I believe Alkimos will be a great tutor for you,” Merry announced then he stood up to leave.

“Yes, Merry.”

“Toodles. Have fun,” Merry said then he left.

Alkimos stood staring at me, as if he was looking at a lump of clay and he was a sculptor. I swallowed.

nnnn

 “You’ve told me that your father died before you were born,” I stated.

“This is true. He died on the way back to Greece. I was born six months after he expired and moved on to the hereafter,” answered Alkimos.

“Then how do you know him so well?”

“Because I possess all his memories, as my mother does, also. When she sucked his life force from him, she also took all his memories and I, being part of her at the time, also received those memories.”

“That is just freaky,” I remarked.

“I have to agree with you. Before I could speak, I knew how my father felt fighting under his father, King Philip, at the Battle of Chaeronea. Before I could walk, I would recall intimate details about the Battle of the Granicus River. I knew why my father did what he did, how he justified his actions to himself, not how he justified them to others. It made me a sullen youth, one who did not fit in with the other half breeds in the Sidhe,” explained Alkimos.

Alkimos and I strolled through the mist isle. Where Chota enjoyed exercising along the beach, Alkimos liked to venture into the isle, where he appreciated the trees and bushes of this unique isle.

“My father in his early days was a great leader. He cared for his men, yet not so much so that he lost sight of the battle plan and what needed to be done to achieve victory. He led them from the front not from the rear; he knew them; he trusted them; and they trusted him. Alexander would place men in danger but not frivolously, and no more than he placed himself in danger. As his victories increased, he became more of a ruler and less of a leader. He co-opted religions, cultures, and traditions in order to gain the adulation of whatever people he conquered. To the Zoroastrians he was known as the Accursed Alexander. In Persian he was known as Eskandar. Throughout the Middle East he was known as Dhul-Qarnayn, the two-horned one, as in Aramaic he is known the two-horned one, Tre-Qarnayia. He was known by many names, including Al-Iskandar Al-Keeber in Arabic, Skinandar-E-Azam in Urdu, Skandar in Pashto, and Alexander Moksdon in Hebrew. His men, his warriors, followed him then because he won, no longer did they follow him because he was a great leader, who they trusted. He was still a great strategist and tactician, but no longer a great leader. He came to care too much about being Alexander the Great,” further explained Alkimos.

“Is your father unique in his form of leadership?” asked Sean.

“Excellent question,” smiled Alkimos. “Though I have not interfered in this realm, I have observed it. Humanity holds a great fascination for me. I watched Julius Caesar, who was a great manipulator of men. Napoleon was similar to Alexander in style, though he wasn’t as close to his men. Emperor Constantin found a great symbol to unite his men behind, which awed them and brought them together. Saladin was a brilliant tactician who cared about his men and honored his opponents. Boudica, the great Celtic female warrior, led her men from the front as she rode her chariot into battle. Patton was a supreme tactician and strategist, but his empathy for his men was limited, though his sympathy was vast. The same was true of MacArthur. Of course, there was the first Cathal.”

“Tell me about him,” I suggested.

“That is not for me to do. You will discover what you need to know about him when the time comes, that is, if you are the one. Now, back to my lesson I wanted to impart for our first time together. Each one I mentioned was a great leader, yet they accomplished it differently. What I can tell you, though, is that there are certain characteristics you should have to be a leader. First, have sympathy for your men. Notice I say sympathy not empathy. Sympathy makes sure that you care for your men, while empathy can mean that you care too much about your men. Sympathy will stop you from needlessly sacrificing your men, while empathy stops you from risking their lives at all, and sometimes can stop you from doing what’s best in order to win a victory. Next, a leader needs to see the whole picture not just focus on a small piece. He cannot lose track of what the overall goal is. A war is made up of many battles. Yes, you have to win the battles, but don’t lose sight of the overall war.”

“Sometimes it’s best to lose a single battle than to loose a whole war, right?” I said.

“Exactly! Very good,” exclaimed Alkimos. “Another characteristic a leader needs is personal bravery. If you aren’t brave then how can you expect your men to be brave, as well? During World War I two young officers, both part of General Perishing Expeditionary Force, stood on a battle engaged in conversation while bullets whizzed by their heads. While the other soldiers keep their heads down in trenches, two officers George Patton and Douglas MacArthur stood fearlessly in the line of fire and had a conversation. They would not be cowered by the other side.”

“Are you sure that it was bravery and not stupidity?” I asked.

“Well, I must admit that it bridges the line between the two. The reason they did this was two fold: one, they were ambitious officers who knew about the other and were waiting for the other to blink; and two, they both knew that the United States soldiers were in need of examples to show bravery since they were an untested lot.”

“I don’t think I’ll have to worry about leading an untested lot. Those who protect this realm, the Protector clans, already have sacrificed and continue to sacrifice. They understand their duty.”

“Which leads me to the final characteristic I believe a great leader needs,” Alkimos segued. “You must be willing to sacrifice. That sacrifice may be personal or it may be something greater, but you must be willing to sacrifice.”

“Alkimos,” my voiced tensed up, “why did you want to tutor me?”

“As your tutor I owe you honesty. You see I am not sympathetic with my mother and her people. The Aes Sidhe has always held an ambition to rule all realms, and they have come close, but for this realm stopped them. My father’s people stopped them. In some ways this gives me some pride, as I am half human.”

“You don’t like the Aes sidhe.”

“Sean, I truly abhor them. They are conquerors by nature and rule as dictators. Peace is foreign to their nature. And that nature is asserting itself again, which means this realm is in danger. All peaceful realms are in danger. We will need a Cathal to lead those who have been chosen to protect this realm, all realms, from the Aes Sidhe. Beware, Arthur Sean McCoul, the Aes Sidhe arise; they are coming; slowly, they creep into this realm, into all realms; slowly, they begin to wage their war.”

“How can I defeat them, Alkimos?” I asked.

“By becoming the leader you are capable of being.”

nnnn

Alkimos was intense in his lessons for me. He lectured me, gave examples, posited scenarios for me to deal with, and delved into the philosophical reasons for making one decision over another. By the end of a lesson my head ached from too much information. After two weeks my mind was brimming with almost too much information for it to assimilate. Asking to see Chota and Merry alone in the cabin, it was then that Alkimos proposed to Merry a first test of leadership for me. I was to take a small fealty, no more than three and myself, be dropped in the Blue Ridge Mountains and told to find our way back to Watauga Lake.

“You realize this will leave them open to attack by abominations sent by Aes Sidhe, who are gaining access to all realms with greater ease now,” was Merry’s response to the proposal.

“Yes.”

“And you think that to expose him and others to danger is a good idea for a first test of his leadership?” added Merry with concern.

“Yes, I do, Merry. Lessons are meaningless without experience. But they will not be without some guardianship. I also propose that I track them along with Chota in his dog form. If the Aes sidhe or their allies attack, we will able to handle it,” stated Alkimos with supreme confidence.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Chota before Merry could respond.

“Why?”

“Because you are right, training is no substitute for experience. He needs more experience,” Chota answered.

“Does he need the experience of being attacked by more werewolves or even worse?” asked Merry.

“Yes, and more,” replied Alkimos.

Merry caressed his beard as he contemplated his answer. He had kept me on the isle for safety reasons and now Alkimos wanted to expose me to dangers in order to test my leadership and mettle. But they were right. I needed real experience and I needed to begin learning how to build fealties.

“I agree,” said Merry, “but I expect you, Alkimos, and you, Chota, to keep a very close eye on them. I will inform Sean and have him give me the three names to fill out his fealty. When should we do this?”

“Starting Sunday,” answered Alkimos.

“In two days,” Merry muttered. “Just two days. Not much time to prepare at all. Okay? We’ll do it.”

“Do not worry, Merry. If I feel this test is too much then I will stop it. Or if I think he proves himself within the first hours or day, I will end it. It is a test, some experience, not a life or death matter.”

The three companions I chose were simple Lance, Wayne, and Benedict. I wanted two warriors and someone with spiritual powers. Branwyn was ruled out because I was sure that having her involved would complicate things for me. Lance and Wayne were easy, no-brainers, as I trusted them and I knew that they would give me their all. For his part Benedict added the spiritual powers, but also he was a warrior at heart. Each agreed to join the fealty.

It was dawn. Along with a compass, a map, four canteens filled with water, and a flint, we were dropped in the thick Blue Ridge Mountains somewhere in North Carolina along with four Dirks, a bow and arrow, a Celtic Flame short sword with its distinctive crescent blade, a twenty-eight inch long blade Celtic sword in the style of Cuchullain and Conn of the hundred battles, each made by elves from elf iron. Each of us was dressed in hiking boots, jeans, flannel shirts, and waterproof Gore-Tex jackets. My first decision of leadership was to see who got which weapon.

“We each get a dirk,” I announced then I looked at the remaining weapons.

It was difficult to admit but I was the least experienced swordsman, so I had to rule myself out for carrying a sword. Lance was the best swordsman, so he was my choice to carry that weapon.

“Lance, which sword do you prefer?”

“I’ll take the Flame sword. I like its style and size,” answered Lance.

“Good. Benedict, I know you are an excellent swordsman and warrior, but you have spiritual powers. Powers such as yours can enhance a bow and arrow, so I want you to carry that weapon,” I told him.

“No, problem,” Benedict happily answered, as he was thrilled just to be part of the fealty.

“Wayne, the big sword is yours,” I said.

“Cool,” he replied then he walked over and picked up the larger sword.

“Okay, next. We need someone to scout ahead,” I said. “Who is the best woodsman here?”

“Lance,” answered Benedict.

I looked at Wayne to see if he agreed. Wayne nodded his head in the affirmative.

“Lance, you are our scout,” I agreed. “We will travel with Lance scouting, Benedict will take the lead with us, I’ll be in the middle, and Wayne will take up the rear. Are we ready to find our way back to Watauga Lake?”

“Yup,” Wayne piped up.

“Let’s get started,” added Benedict.

Lance nodded in the affirmative. I smiled: “Benedict, you have the compass so point us in the right direction home. I merely give the orders. You guys do the hard work.”

Benedict took a moment to look at the compass, judging where Watauga Lake would be then he pointed in Northwestern direction.

“Excellent,” I said then I looked at the cheap wrist watch I got for this occasion and saw that it was 6:30 in the morning. “We’ll walk for seven hours then stop to find food and make shelter for the night.”

“I’ll get going scouting ahead for people, animals and, well, worse,” Lance said then he took off into the woods in the direction we would travel.

In silence for seven and half hours we traveled through trees and shrubs, up inclines, and generally in the direction that was set by Benedict. Through the treetops I could see that sun was high in the sky. There was a slight chill in the air, but on the whole we built up a sweat as we walked. I checked my watch.

“Time to stop for the day,” I called out.

Benedict took the arrows off his shoulder and leaned the bow against a tree then he sat down and leaned against a tree placing his head back. Wayne for his part just slumped down where he was in a heap. I knew that we were hungry and tired, which meant I needed to rally them to find food, start a fire, and make shelter for the night.

“Okay, what can we hunt here that tastes good?” I asked.

“There are bears, which I’m not too sure we want to hunt, and deer,” started Benedict.

“And racoons and…,” continued Wayne.

“And Opossums,” Lance said, as he appeared from behind a tree carrying three dead, large opossums.

He tossed them onto the ground, which made Wayne and Benedict perk up. I looked at Lance, gave him a thumbs-up and smiled.

“We need a fire,” said Benedict, who stood up and started to collect kindling.

“Yeah, I’ll start to get some wood for a fire and for shelters,” Wayne said and then he got up and started scrounging.

Lance moved over to me and spoke to me in a low voice: “I think someone is following us.”

“Just one someone?”

“Maybe more. They are trying to keep their tracks untraceable but I’ve been trained by some of the best druid trackers. We are being followed. I can feel it.”

“That’s good enough for me. Well, let’s get a fire going, eat some food then we’ll deal with the rest.”

“Yes, sir,” Lance replied then he started to move away.

“Um, Lance,” I called him back.

“Yes, Sean.”

“It will probably rain tonight and I know that you’re good in the woods, so if you know how to I want you to rig something up to catch the rainwater. We can then boil it in the morning and refill our canteens,” I suggested, yet Lance treated it as a command.

“I’ll get on it,” he replied.

Over the next two hours, as the sun began to set and the fire and stars became their light, we started a fire, prepped the opossums then cooked them, set up four small wooden lean-tos, and Lance, using leaves and a hole, manufactured something to catch water. We sat down to eat our food together.

“This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my life,” Wayne commented as he ate some of the steaming hot meat.

“You’re just hungry,” Benedict said.

“No, I mean it,” Wayne corrected him.

“It does taste good, though,” Lance added his opinion.

“Chota would like this,” I remarked.

“So, how’s it going on the isle?” asked Benedict.

“It is hard work, yet Chota and Merry make it as fun and fascinating as they can.”

“I bet. I’d love to be training as a warrior again,” Benedict bitterly said.

“Do you really want to be a warrior?” I asked him.

“Yeah, I do.”

“Really, warrior rather than master your spiritual gifts? Show Merry you can handle whatever he throws at you then we can convince him to allow you to train as a warrior also. I mean a druid warrior is nothing unusual. Denara is one,” I told him.

“You’d help me convince Merry that I can handle both jobs?” Benedict asked excitedly.

“Of course I would. The more you can do the better for me, if I am your leader. This may be my first small fealty, but it won’t be my last. I expect you three in all my fealties,” I told them and in those words I could sense their confidence grow.

“I like that. To be part of the Cathal’s fealty, think about that. So few can have bragged about that over the years, huh? Yeah, I like it,” Wayne smiled.

Out the corner of my eye, I saw a shadow move. It wasn’t a person, or an animal, but an actual shadow. I didn’t panic or react, but instead I slowly got up then stretched and yawned.

“Hey, Lance, can you show me what you set up for water collection?” I asked.

“Sure, Sean,” Lance said and got up.

We walked side by side towards the little area where Lance had set up his water collection. I spoke to him out of the side of my mouth in a whisper: “I saw a shadow move.”

“A shadow?”

“Yes. It was in the shape of a demon, yet human form.”

“Shadow wraith,” stated Lance.

“How dangerous are they?”

We stopped in front of Lance’s work. I squatted down along with lance to inspect it.

“They can steal one’s soul.”

“How do you fight them?”

“Light. They hate light.”

We stood up. I patted Lance on the shoulder and said: “Well done.”

I then saw two more shadows more in the woods. They moved with great speed from dark spots to dark spot. This time Lance saw them also. Lance and I then turned and started to walk back to fire and Benedict and Wayne. More shadows moved and this time it appeared as if they were preparing to attack. I slapped Lance on the back and yelled: “Run.”

We ran towards the fire. Benedict and Wayne got off the ground and grabbed their weapons. I yelled to them: “Throw more wood on the fire!”

They did as they were told extending the area in which the fire lit. This also allowed us to see that we were surrounded by shadow wraith, the semi-human in form nebulous shades. Before pitch-black ephemeral hands could touch us, Lance and I got to the fire.

“Benedict, can you create some light with your arrows?” I asked Benedict.

“I can imbue the wood with essence of light with an enchantment that Merry taught me. It will make them glow.”

“Do it,” I ordered then I turned to Lance and asked: “Will our blades have an effect on them?”

“Yes. They will hurt them, cause them great pain because they are elf made.”

“Good. It looks like we are going to have a very late night, gentlemen,” I stated and then took out my Dirk out.

Wayne and Lance took their swords out for battle, while Benedict prepared several arrows to use against them. We moved in close to the fire and waited. I glanced at the woodpile. We definitely didn’t have enough wood to keep a rip, roaring fire going all night, but we had enough to keep a fire going until dawn.

For hours we waited tensely for an attack, but it didn’t come right away. The shadow wraiths were waiting for more darkness to envelope the woods. As the fire ate up the wood and the light of the campfire lessened in intensity, the shadow wraith finally made their first full attack. It was just after midnight.

The first shadow came for me, but it was repelled by one of Benedict’s arrows. The shadow shrieked in great pain, as the arrow passed through its formless chest, and receded into the blackness of night. Several more came for me, but they were met with Wayne and Lance’s blades. These shadow wraiths retreated because of the pain caused by the elf made weapons. But they were not deterred for too long.

Gathering together in a group of thirteen they came at us all at once. Benedict got off two more arrows causing two of the shadow wraiths to withdraw and used a third almost as a sword on the rest, while Wayne and Lance kept them at bay with their swords. Only I ended up being touched by them, since my dirk couldn’t keep the wraiths far enough away. Their touch felt like cold fire, but to take my soul they needed to reach my heart. I kept them at bay, as I grabbed a piece of wood out of the fire and wielded it like a sword at them. For hours this lasted, hours of fighting, pain, and hope that dawn would eventually come.

By daybreak we were exhausted but the shadow wraiths were defeated for now. As the sun rose, each of us collapsed to the ground. We had no energy. With my body feeling sore and in pain from the touches of the shadow wraiths, I tried to stand in order to give us some focus and a few orders, but I couldn’t even will myself to stand.

“Lance,” I said with a dry throat. “It didn’t rain last night. We have no water.”

“No,” Lance answered.

“We need to find water,” I stated.

“I’ll rest a short time then go look for some.”

“Good.”

“Gentlemen,” a familiar voice came from a tree, “rest now. Help is coming.”

A silver doorway opened up in a tree trunk and Alkimos stepped out of the tree. With his golden appearance in the sunlight, he looked almost like a statue of a Greek God come to life. He was dressed in a white robe.

“Alkimos,” I said.

“Yes, Sean. I have sent Chota for help. I have been watching you. Last night you passed the test. There is no need to endanger you any further. You are a leader and you will only grow in the role. Well, done.”

“But…I don’t feel like a leader. I don’t feel as if I contributed anything to last night,” I said.

“You are one, though, Sean. You did very well,” Alkimos told me. “Now gentlemen relax. I will get you water and make sure no one bothers you.”

“I think I can do that,” Wayne said.

“I used to like camping,” Benedict commented, as he laid his head on the ground.

Lance looked over at me. He nodded his head and smiled. I returned the smile then laid I head on the ground. I was too tired and sore to stay awake any longer. My body called for sleep. The four of us surrendered to our exhaustion.

nnnn

Alkimos left me at the mist isle with a promise that he would be present at Bealtaine. Now according to Merry it was time for me to meet the great philosophers, while Chota began his instruction in the sword. If nothing else the test that Alkimos gave me showed it was time for me to learn the sword. Ancient, medieval, renaissance, early modern, 19th Century, and contemporary philosophies in the morning and Chota teaching me sword fighting in the afternoon was my newest curriculum.

“Ancient and medieval philosophies are my favorite because I believe they wrestled important questions. Starting in the renaissance I think philosophers started doing too much navel gazing,” Merry lectured. “Bertrand Russell once stated that philosophy started with Thales, who believed that water constituted the principle of all things.”

“You mean he thought everything was made up of water,” I said.

“Sort of. I know. It’s difficult to take Thales seriously, which is why I like to start with Heraclitus, whose great concept was: everything is in a state of flux,” Merry said excitedly.

The lesson continued on for an hour ending with Merry introducing me to one of his favorite philosophers, Socrates then I was dismissed for a break before my first bit of swordplay with Chota. I left the cabin and strolled to the beach. Although it was a grey, rainy day at Watauga Lake, Merry made today be a nice breezy one on the isle. He assumed it would be better weather for a sword lesson.

“Hey, Sean,” Chota said, as he saw me coming towards our favorite spot on the beach.

As I approached Chota tossed a Scottish short sword at my feet. It stuck hilt up in the sand. I picked it up. It felt comfortable in my hand.

“Elf made,” Chota said.

“I didn’t know you were an expert swordsman.”

“I’ve learned to be out of boredom really. I’ve been practicing with them now for seventy years or so. Merry introduced them to me,” Chota said as he wielded his own dirk.

A motorboat approached the isle. It wasn’t a fancy one, but an old wooden with a loud engine. I looked over at the boat, which seemed to be on a collision course with the isle, and noticed that Fintain with a big grin was driving the boat with Wayne and Garth waving wildly and Branwyn leaning over the boat looking straight at him. She wasn’t mad at me for not choosing her as part of my fealty. I didn’t know how she did it, but I was sure she was looking straight at me. I waved at her and a smile appeared on her face.

Her spiked hair was now gone, as she was growing her hair out and long. I liked the way her red hair blew wildly in the wind. Part of me wished I could dive into the water and swim out to them, but they were actually in a different realm, farther away than my mind could judge. The motorboat veered away from the isle and headed back towards shore.

I didn’t speak of it to Merry or Chota, but I now missed being around Lance, Wayne, Benedict, Garth, Fintain, and especially Branwyn. Seeing them for only short periods of time made it difficult to develop a deep friendship. Hanging with Chota was great and Merry was the smartest man I had ever met, but I missed all the awkwardness and bonding of being with those my own age. But, like most things since my parents’ death, I had to accept that I had no choice in the matter. No choice. I wasn’t sure if that was just being the age I was, or it was being the potential next Cathal, but I made few choices for myself.

“I think she could see me,” I said to Chota.

“She is three quarters Fey, so I wouldn’t be surprised. Fey women can be really freaky. They can read the mind and emotions of those they love from miles away, especially when they are connected to you on an emotional level,” Chota commented. “Now come on, lover boy. We have some sword fighting to learn.”

“You think she and I are connected?” I asked.

“Of course, you are,” Chota answered. “The only question is will the connection grow or will something break it. If it grows, well, that should be very interesting to see.”

“What could break it?” I asked with concern.

“A new connection with someone else,” he replied. “Back to work.”

“Okay,” I retorted with my mind on Branwyn then I faced off against Chota.

“Swing at me, Buckaroo, I’ve got skills.”

“Just swing at you,” I repeated.

“You heard me.”

With great speed and accuracy I sliced that air in the direction of Chota’s left upper arm trying to wound him, but I was met with Chota’s Dirk, which he then used to disarm me a little too easily. My long dagger ended up twirling in the air and sticking in the sand again.

“Okay, you got skills,” I agreed.

“And I am going to teach them to you.”

“Excellent.”

“And once I’ve taught you what I know then you’ll be ready for a real expert to polish your skills and make you a bad mamajamma,” Chota told me.

“Who is this expert?” I laughed.

“You’ll find out eventually, buckaroo. Don’t you know that patience is part of your curriculum,” answered Chota. “Now, we’ll start with the dirk, which is nothing more than an oversized knife then a Celtic short sword, something like the flame sword, and finally a Claymore. I like the Claymore.”

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