• September Archives

  • John R. McCormick Facebook

  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 65 other followers

  • Author Marketing Club

    Author Marketing Club Membership

The Calling: Chapters 7-9

CHAPTER SEVEN

Month fourteen

Samhain on Ice

___________________________

“I can’t believe that Samhain has crept up on us again so soon,” Merry said, as he sat in Kieran’s backyard.

“Lucky us,” Denara joked. The druid warrior yawned, as if she was bored.

“Well, I hope to make this a safer and easier Samhain for some of us this year,” Merry announced.

“Nothing happened last year,” Denara commented with disappointment.

The sky was clear and the fifty-six degree evening felt like autumn. With four to five wooden tables pulled out of storage, they had all gathered for dinner and a council with Kieran and Lucan grilling up some steak, hamburgers, hot dogs, and ears of corn. Most of those invited to this grill and council sat waiting to eat and hear Merry’s plan, but not all. Some took advantage of being off of the isle. With Lance and Wayne acting as my personal bodyguards, I was allowed to mill about the house and front and backyard area with adult supervision allowing me my first real chance to speak to Branwyn since the werewolves attacked us. Slipping away with Lance and Wayne hanging back, each had a dirk attached to the waist of their jeans, Branwyn and I walked to the water’s edge.

Things had gone so fast with Branwyn that I couldn’t remember exactly when my feelings for her changed from stranger to someone who could sense when I was being attacked by werewolves and saw me through the mist. If I thought about it or was forced to give my opinion, I’d admit I found her kind of cute, slightly attractive, the first time I ever met her. Yet, early on awkwardness and quick sarcastic comments were the norm for our meetings before it became young attraction. But now, I am thankful for this change of heart.

“What’s Merry’s plans for you this year for Samhain? Are you going back into the Fey?” she asked hopefully.

“I don’t think so. He fears repeated visits to one realm will entice the Aes Sidhe to make an attack on me in that realm. Merry doesn’t want open war yet, since he doesn’t think we are ready,” I answered her, as I took my right hand and ran it through her now long red hair. This simple action made her blush, which I liked.

“He thinks the Aes Sidhe are ready, though, right?” Branwyn asked with concern, not liking to be made to blush so easily.

“Yeah,” I admitted. “He thinks that the werewolf attack on me at the games and the shadow wraith attack are signs that they are more ready than us. They are willing for direct confrontation in our own realm. They don’t fear us.”

“They fear you,” she countered.

“They fear what I might be, that’s all. They don’t know me enough to fear me.”

“So what’s his plan for you this year, Sean?” I asked.

“He wants to keep them guessing, which means a new realm for me to hide in this year. Somewhere I haven’t been yet and probably somewhere unexpected.”

“Oh, a new realm,” she sighed with disappointment.

“I know I feel the same way. I kind of hoped for another visit there, too, so that we could spend a few days together in the Fey. He doesn’t want to impose on them when there is a potential for an attack.”

“Sean, I…,” she paused. “I had a speech worked out that I was going to give you, but now it seems silly, so…”

I stopped her with a kiss. It was a gentle kiss on the lips, but one I’d wanted to share with her since the end of the Highland Games. Branwyn, who now came up to my chest, put her arms around me and I hugged her. I could feel that she didn’t want to let go.

“I remember when we first met I wanted to kick your butt because you were rude and arrogant, especially to Fintain. You know why I’m protective of Fintain?” she looked to explain herself.

“Because you were in diapers together and you feel badly that his mother left him. I understand that now.”

“He was really hurt by his mother, but he won’t show it to anyone but me. You see he wants to show his father that he is as strong as him. I saw how hard it was on him, though.”

“Branwyn, I really do understand. Anyways, I deserved a good swift kick I was rude and arrogant and worse,” I replied.

“No, you weren’t. You were alone and afraid and I was being a bit of jerk trying too hard to protect a friend.”

“No, you weren’t,” I contradicted her.

“Are we dating?” she asked me.

“Sort of, I guess. I don’t know how, but we seem kind of linked to each other and to be honest I like it.”

“I guess so. You know you could make it sound a little more romantic,” she kidded me.

“You want romantic from me,” I said with an expression of horror.

“Yeah, I’m probably asking too much.”

“Dinner is ready,” Cedric called to us, as he came up behind Lance and Wayne.

Lance and Wayne didn’t move, but waited to see what I wanted to do. Both of them seemed as if they were suppressing smirks. Although the thought of eating at this moment didn’t appeal to me, I knew that Merry had other reasons than food to be here. I kissed Branwyn’s head.

“We should go back,” I told her.

“I know,” she answered me.

With Lance and Wayne in the lead we walked hand and hand back to the backyard. Morgana, Kieran, Lucan, Merry, and Chota waited for Branwyn and me to join them. Sitting down side by side, we grabbed a paper plate, which we put an ear of corn on, and a hamburger and a hot dog then we grabbed buns, mustard and ketchup and prepared our food. Merry stood up as everyone began to eat.

“I have some good news for you: this Samhain will not be spent on my isle. You may stay at home and enjoy yourselves while keeping an eye open for Aes sidhe and their allies,” announced Merry.

“Terrific, now I can go trick or treating instead of standing guard,” joked Cedric.

“I’m surprised you’d actually expend that much energy for trick or treating,” Merry cracked back causing Cedric to blush slightly.

“You’re telling me,” sniffed Denara, causing her son to blush a deep red.

“Who will protect Sean during Samhain?” asked Lance. “We know that the Aes Sidhe are actively hunting him, so he needs to be protected by one of us.”

“I have considered every aspect of the situation and have decided on a bold course for this year. Arthur Sean McCoul will be in the Vind Realm,” Merry told everyone, “with Caillech Bhuerr.”

I felt Branwyn tense up beside me. I had never heard of this Realm, or that name before. Whoever this was their name wasn’t well received by those around me, as I saw that most everyone had a negative impression over what Merry said.

“That witch!” Kieran exclaimed.

“Yes, Kay, that witch,” Merry said.

“But, she can’t be trusted,” Morgana added.

“I don’t trust her,” Denara stated.

“On the contrary, if she gives her word she can be trusted completely. Remember Caillech Bhuerr is allied with no one. She does whatever she wishes to do for reasons only she knows,” Merry stated.

“Merry, who is she?” I asked.

“Caillech Bhuerr is a creature of winter. She lives in the Vind Realm alone without minions or others of her kind, who she banished to other realms. Her only companions are some of the more fearsome snow beasts that you will ever encounter,” he began to explain to be interrupted by Etain’s mother.

“I have dealt with her, Merry, she can be trusted only if you receive a blood oath from her and no other time,” Gwendolyn stated.

Gwendolyn Roy was a truly stunning and beautiful woman, much as her daughter was. Yet, where Etain had warm brown eyes, and chestnut colored hair as well as a warm, secure feeling about her, Gwendolyn possessed hair so blond that it was white and eyes the color of blue ice.

“I know you have dealt with her, Gwen. How could you have avoided dealing with her, as she is your mother? Caillech can be treacherous only when the mood takes her, so we must take precautions. I do not trust her and believe a blood oath is necessary, too,” Merry said, “which is why Etain will accompany Sean into the Vind Realm. Etain is her grandchild.”

“No, I won’t allow that,” Gwendolyn asserted, “I have kept Etain away from her for a reason. She uses her relatives and never for the better of the relative.”

Fergus Roy, who possessed the warmth found outwardly and inwardly in his daughter, placed one of his large hands on his wife’s shoulder to calm her then he spoke in a deep voice that sounded as if it came from an aged oak barrel: “You will make arrangements for this to happen, including getting a blood oath from Caillech. But I set one condition, Merry. I want Sean to have a weapon made of Elf steel with him; Elf steel and no other. I will give him my own weapon if I must.”

“You know how those in the realms, Fey, Fiery, Sidhe, all of them, fear Elf steel. A wound from a blade made from Elf steel doesn’t heal easily for them. It burns and causes great pain for them and if used expertly will kill them,” Merry pointed out.

“I know. It is our greatest weapon against them. If my daughter is to meet her grandmother then I want Sean to have an Elf steel weapon on him to protect her and him. There is no argument here.”

“I shall speak to her about this and see if she is willing to make an allowance,” Merry agreed. “If she is willing then I shall make arrangements for Etain and Sean to go to the Vind realm.”

I peered over to Etain’s table. She sat quietly beside her mother looking as if she was in a state of shock. Her mother seemed almost on the verge of tears, which was the most emotion I had ever seen from her. I would have much preferred Branwyn with me, yet I had no choice in the matter. Branwyn placed her small hand on my right arm, which lay on the table. I squeezed it with my left hand.

“I’ll give her some lessons in the spiritual arts before you go off on your adventure, Bear. Etain isn’t as useless as she likes to pretend to be in the arts. I may be more powerful, but she isn’t far behind. She just doesn’t like using her spiritual powers. She’ll be ready for the Vind Realm, though, I’ll make sure of it,” Branwyn whispered to me.

“Protecting me,” I said softly.

“I have to protect you.”

“Why?”

“I’m not sure. I just do,” she answered.

“You’re more powerful than her, Branwyn,” I said, “I wish you were going.”

“Is that the only reason you wish I were going?”

“No, and you know it.”

“Good, I just like hearing you admit it” she said and she put her head on my shoulder.

nnnn

It was the first night of Samhain and Merry, Chota, Gwendolyn, Fergus, Branwyn, Kieran, Morgana, and Fintain were waiting along with Etain and me for the doorway to open to the Vind Realm. While everyone else was dressed for a chilly evening, Etain and I wore long, thick black hooded robes with sweaters, jeans, and heavy snow boots underneath. Branwyn and I stood side by side, hand in hand. The tension of waiting was starting to build up. If Caillech Bhuerr changed her mind before the blood oath was completed, she wouldn’t even bother to let Merry know. Like winter Caillech Bhuerr was unpredictably cold.

“Your mother enjoys keeping people waiting,” Merry said to Gwendolyn.

“I know. She has done it to me my whole life,” she answered embarrassed by her mother.

Suddenly, there was a moan and a great silver light appeared in thin air. A doorway hung an inch above the ground in the air. With grace and an air of royalty, Caillech Bhuerr exited the doorway then it disappeared.

“Greetings, Queen of Ice, Mistress of Cold,” said Merry, as he bowed.

“Hello, druid,” she answered.

I noticed that when she spoke puffs of smoke exited her mouth, as if the air was below freezing. I observed Caillech Bhuerr for a moment. She was as tall as Denara, which put for just over six foot one, and she wore a white gown that barely covered her body. As for her body, it was a combination of soft and muscle and the color of cobalt blue. Her face had a cold expression of aloofness and her hair was white, and eyes icy crystal blue.

“I see you kept us waiting.”

“Yes. I had preparations to make,” she stated then she looked at Gwendolyn. “Daughter, it is a pleasure to see you as always, even if you are a disappointment. I see that you are still warm and have not allowed your internal cold to overcome you and give you power. Shame.”

“Mother,” was all Gwendolyn said in reply.

Next Caillech Bhuerr observed her granddaughter and sniffed: “She has coldness in her, but it is suppressed. She doesn’t even realize it exists in her. And you daughter have not shown her it, so she doesn’t know the power that she possesses. This is wrong.”

Etain blanched. She stared at her grandmother and everyone could see that she feared her. Branwyn gripped my hand tightly. Caillech Bhuerr next gave me her attention: “So you are the one…”

“I may be the one,” I corrected her.

“The druid wouldn’t bother hiding you in my realm unless you were the one, child.”

“Why is that, madam; is your realm so special?” I boldly asked her.

“No, it is so dangerous for those who don’t belong unless I give them permission to be there. My granddaughter belongs but you do not.”

“Then I shouldn’t go into your realm. We can cancel this now and I can stay here,” I countered.

“You have my blood oath that no harm will befall you by me or any of my minions,” she stated then she sneered as she realized that she had given her blood oath to me without negotiating a favor from Merry.

Merry smiled as he had prepared me to act this way with the Queen of Ice. I looked over to Merry, who smiled warmly and gave me a wink.

“Clever, boy,” Caillech Bhuerr said. “We shall go.”

She turned and with a wave of her hand, along with a cold mist exhaling from her mouth; the doorway reappeared where it had been.

“Wait,” called out Merry before the three could enter the doorway.

“What is it, Druid?” Caillech Bhuerr asked with great annoyance.

“You forgot the agreement,” Merry said warmly then he waved Chota towards me.

Chota walked over to me and took from behind his back, a short sword that I recognized. It was a replica of Alexander the Great short sword with its curved blade with its brass lion and pearl handle. He handed it to me.

“It’s a gift from Alkimos. Elf made and in honor of another great leader, or so Alkimos told me to tell you. He said you used your men well and now you must learn to use yourself well,” Chota said.

I took the sword and unsheathed it. The blade was shining and sharp. And it was a gift from Alkimos. I put it back in its sheathed and hung the blade around my waist.

“Keep that away from me, child, or I will make you regret it,” Caillech Bhuerr warned.

“Of course, madam. I would never unintentionally give you a wound with it,” I answered.

The three passed through the doorway. Facing me on the other side was mountains of pure white snow, planes of blue ice, and in the distance a modestly huge crystal ice castle. A hard frigid wind was blowing, which Caillech Bhuerr still with a wave of her hand. Awaiting us as transport were three white, jellyfish looking creatures that appeared to swim through the air.

“They are fleoge,” Caillech Bhuerr stated. “They will transport us to my home.”

Etain, Caillech Bhuerr, and I each got on a fleoge, which then flew us lazily through the air to the door of the castle. The fleoge made sweet humming sounds as they floated atop the cold air currents towards the castle. This made for a calming trip. Up on arrival we dismounted the fleoge and followed Caillech Bhuerr to the castle door. A lithe, tall, over seven feet tall, soft white furred creature with ice blue eyes opened the door. I was taken a back by this huge creature.

“This is a Yeh-Tehh. When they escape into your realm they become known as yeti or big foot,” Caillech Bhuerr told us with great amusement. “They are gentle creatures unless someone attacks me or mine.”

Entering the crystal ice castle Etain and I were awed by its cold beauty. Everything appeared to be made of ice, from the ornate furniture to the thick walls and ceiling. Ice globes lit the rooms. The Yeh-tehh escorted us through the grand main entrance hall and to the dining room. On top of a long crystal ice table sat frozen fruit from several realms and a cravat of ice wine. Caillech Bhuerr proceeded to the head of the table where another Yeh-Tehh pulled an ice chair out for the queen. She sat down.

“Etain, come sit by me,” Caillech Bhuerr purred and her granddaughter moved to her right side and sat down in the chair nearest her.

I decided to sit at the other end of the table. Walking around the Yeh-Tehh that showed us in, I went to the other end of the table and sat down. Although the ice appeared to be frigid, it wasn’t cold to the touch. I thought this must be some sort of enchantment done by Caillech Bhuerr for our comfort, or, at least, Etain’s comfort, as I doubted she cared for my comfort. The Yeh-Tehh began to serve us ice-cold fruit and ice wine.

“We have days to get to know each other, granddaughter,” Caillech Bhuerr began to speak, “I hope to convince you in that time to encourage the cold within you which holds great power, greater than druid power. Your mother only allowed a little of her cold to come out. She is a disappointment to me. There is great magic in the cold.”

“But at what price does this power come?” she asked her grandmother.

“Well, you will loose some of your lovely warmth, which you get from your human father,” she said the word father with great disdain, causing Etain to blink. “Your hair will turn white, your eyes will become ice blue, and you will become slightly less human and more like me.”

“Does that mean blue skin and a mean streak, too?” I asked.

“I don’t believe that I was speaking to you, child,” said Caillech Bhuerr.

“No, you weren’t speaking to me, but you were speaking to a member of my fealty, so I am obligated to defend her from attack and annoyance,” I replied.

Etain looked over at me with surprise. She did not remember being made a member of any fealty. A blush warmed her cheeks.

“Do you protect all your fealty so well?” asked Caillech Bhuerr.

“Yes.”

“Isn’t that lovely! This is family business, child, so you may stay out of it.”

“Fealty is family business,” I retorted.

The Yeh-Tehh standing behind me growled a soft laugh. He liked someone standing up to the Queen of Ice.

“Child…”

“I am not a child. As a matter of fact since my parents are dead, I am no longer anyone’s child. You may call me Sean,” I corrected her.

“You are not a man, yet, either, and I only give men a name,” she coldly explained to me.

“Oh, I understand now. There are only children and men in your world. As a member of the Yuchi Tribe I am considered a warrior. You can call me warrior then,” I informed her.

“Warrior. Ha! You think yourself a warrior. A warrior is an honored title in the realms. You have not earned such a title,” she rebuked me.

“Then I guess you can call me Arthur Sean McCoul, son of Arthur Liam McCoul, and potential Cathal. And if you find that too much to say then you can call me Sean.”

“You presumptuous whelp…”

“Whelp. I am not a dog, but I will accept the title of boy,” I smiled.

“That druid has taught you well, too well. I shall call you boy and I shall ask you to leave so as my granddaughter and I can be alone to speak. As her grandmother I am owed time to get to know her better,” she demanded then she looked at the Yeh-Tehh standing behind me. “Show him to a room.”

I lifted up my glass of ice wine, drank some, placed the glass down then I stood up: “I have sampled something at your table which means we are not enemies. The wine was delicious by the way.”

“The druid taught you all too well, boy,” Caillech Bhuerr snarled.

Etain stared at me, as if she was seeing me for the first time. I offered her a warm smile then I followed the Yeh-Tehh out of the dining hall. As we walked back to the main entrance hall and the staircase, I decided to see if the Yeh-Tehh spoke.

“My name is Sean. What is your name?” I said to the tall, furred creature.

“Murrrhhh,” the Yeh-Tehh growled.

“Hello, Murrrhh.”

“Haaaaarrrooo,” he growled back.

“Your queen has a mean streak, doesn’t she?”

“Gaaahhhh,” he agreed then a soft laugh escaped him.

 

nnnn

The ice bed I slept in didn’t make for a comfortable sleep for me. It was hard, though it didn’t melt from my body heat, yet it was slippery, and I kept sliding too much to one side or the other. Getting out of the bed, I saw that the sky was grey, as if it was going to snow, which was no surprise. Since I slept fully dressed, including my winter coat and sword, I walked over to the bedroom door and opened it. Lying on the ground in front of my door unconscious was Murrrhhh. I bent down and checked him out. I found a large lump on Murrrhhh’s head. Someone or something had knocked him unconscious.

I didn’t sense any immediate danger, but there must be some afoot. Standing up I continued on to the next room and opened the door. Etain was in bed asleep. I walked quietly over to her and woke her up.

“Sean, what is wrong?” she asked.

“I think there is a problem. Get up and follow me,” I told her.

She did as I asked of her. Together we moved on to the staircase and walked slowly down to the first level. Again I sensed no immediate danger. It appeared that no one was around, no Yet-Tehh, no Caillech Bhuerr, either. We continued checking the dining room, which was empty.

“Sean, I’m scared,” Etain admitted.

“Don’t be scared until there is a good reason to be scared. Now let’s check out some of the other rooms.”

“My grandmother and I spent time in her great room. It’s on the other side of the main entrance across from the dining room. She said it is her favorite room,” Etain told me.

“Okay, let’s check it out.”

I unsheathed my short sword, the gift from Alkimos. With me in the lead we made our way across the main entrance and to the great room. Opening the door to a giant room filled with ice furniture in the renaissance earth style, and even an ice piano, I was startled to see Caillech Bhuerr lying on the ground. She looked as if she had been battling some strong opponents and was defeated. Etain rushed over to her grandmother and checked on her.

“She is in a trance of some kind,” she told me.

“A trance,” I repeated. “Did she place herself in it or did someone put her in it?”

Etain placed both her hands on her grandmother’s face and closed her eyes in order to concentrate. She was trying to communicate with her grandmother’s mind, as Morgana had taught her. I waited patiently. Finally, after several minutes Etain looked up at me.

“Unseelie have invaded the Vind. My grandmother was able to ban them temporarily from her castle before they placed her in a prison trance. They are here for you. She is very angry, very angry with them,” Etain told me.

“You can talk to her then?”

“Yes.”

“What else did she say?”

“The Yet-Tehh will be on our side, but she is afraid that her ban will not stand up too long because there are too many unseelie here trying to break her ban. Unseelie are powerful.”

“How many of them?”

“Six,” she answered. “My grandmother is furious with them, with all the Aes Sidhe. She is scary when she is this mad.”

“I bet she is. Too bad she isn’t awake and able to help us. Is there a way you can help her out of the trance?”

“No. She is working on it, though. She is trying to emerge quicker but she fears it will take too much time,” Etain explained.

“All right. I got it. We are on own,” I responded then I looked around.

“Arrrhhhhhhhh!” I heard Murrrhhh rising from his enforced slumber.

“Etain, you stay here,” I told her, “I’m going to get Murrrhhh.”

“Murrrhhh?”

“Yes. He’s a Yet-Tehh. Now wait here with your grandmother and take care of her,” he told her then left the great room.

Rushing up the staircase, I saw Murrrhhh slowly getting up from the floor. I approached the Yeh-Tehh slowly, afraid that the creature might be violent from having been attacked. Murrrhhh got to his feet and looked at me. The Yet-Tehh purred at me.

“Hi, big fellow,” I greeted him in my friendliest tone. “Are you okay?”

“Narrrrhhh,” Murrrhhh answered him.

“Sorry to hear about that,” Sean said though he was sure what Murrrhhh said. “Your mistress is in a trance downstairs. We have enemies in this realm invading. They did this to her.”

“Rrrrrrrrrrrhhhh,” Murrrhhh growled in anger.

“I need you to do something for me, big fellow. Will you do it?”

Murrrhhh nodded his head yes, which relieved me. Murrrhhh was not only going to help me, but he understood me.

“Okay, get your fellow Yet-Tehh. There are six Unseelie in Vind and we need to stop them. We need to defeat them. Understand?”

Murrrhhh nodded his head yes again then he and I headed down the staircase. When we reached the bottom of the stairs, Murrrhhh slapped me on the back, almost making me fall then I went to the front door, opened and left. Immediately, I heard the Yeh-Tehh howling as Unseelie attacked it. The rumpus continued for a few moments then went silent. I returned to Etain and her grandmother.

“Have you talked to her again?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“And?”

“And she thinks you should give yourself up and let them kill you quickly and easy because there is nothing else to be done as she is stuck in a trance. They will leave us alone once you are dead.”

“Nice, very nice,” I laughed. “Your grandmother has a real high opinion of me.”

“I’m sorry. She told me to say it. I didn’t want to,” Etain said.

“It’s all right.”

“She did say she will destroy the Aes Sidhe for having done this to her. She’s vain,” Etain told me.

“Well, the next time you speak to her, well, tell her that I have no intention of letting anyone kill me or hurt anyone with me,” I said with a smile then an odd feeling of warmth cascaded over my body. “I’ll make sure you get out of here safely, Etain. Don’t worry.”

I had felt this feeling before when I was with Branwyn. Did Branwyn know what was happening to me now? Was there a way I could speak to her? Or was she feeling what I was going through now? I wasn’t sure about anything, but I hoped she knew I needed help and told others.

A loud cracking sound pierced the air. I ran out of the great room and into the main hall to see that the front door, the whole front wall, was starting to crack under the strain of the Unseelie’s attack. Caillech Bhuerr’s ban from the ice castle was fading. The Unseelie were forcing their way back in; I returned to a frightened Etain.

“Etain, tell me about the Unseelie?”

“They are male and female evil Fey…”

“Say no more. I know what the Fey are capable of,” I said.

“What do you want me to do?” Etain asked me.

“I want you to stay here and protect your grandmother. That’s all. She is vulnerable in her current state. Do your best to help her,” he answered.

“But, Sean,” Etain started to speak, but blushed. “I should be with you. I should be helping you.”

“No. Stay here. I command it,” I said then I exited the great room and closed the door behind me.

I continued to the front door. More cracks appeared in the door and wall around the door. The Unseelie were getting closer and closer to getting back into castle. I got into defensive position and waited. Ife was going to be killed by Aes Sidhe, I was going to die fighting, like a warrior of the protector clans that I was.

A large enough crack appeared that I could see the outside white and greyness of the landscape. But what I heard surprised me. I heard the growl and howls of Yet-Tehh attacking the Unseelie. It sounded as if it was dozens of them. I smiled then I ran at the front door. I was not going to let the Yet-Tehh fight alone.

Crashing through the crystal ice front door I came out of the castle swinging at the first Unseelie I saw. Where the Fey were stunning beings, the Unseelie were grey in skin color with black hair and sharp teeth. Surprised that I came breaking through the ice, the closest Unseelie was so shocked that he did nothing as I cut him with my sword. A spray of black blood came from the Unseelie’s chest wound, as he screamed and fell back. One of its companions immediately sent it through a doorway back to its realm then it turned on me. The Yet-Tehh cheered me.

“Elf steel,” the male Unseelie screamed at me.

“That’s right. Want to eat some? I can feed it to you,” I replied then I attacked.

The Unseelie with a brush of his hand conjured up a stiff wind, which sent me flying back hard against the crystal ice of the castle wall. I now wished Branwyn was here. Even though I thought I might have broken a rib or two, I got up quickly and went to attack the Unseelie again. Before the male Unseelie could conjure more of this realm’s nature to attack him, one of the Yet-Tehh tackled the Unseelie before he could attack me again. The Unseelie reacted quickly and sent the Yet-Tehh flying back and too high into the air, a hundred feet or more, but before the Unseelie could give his attention to me, my prey was upon me.

I slashed the Unseelie, who fell to the ground and tried to crawl quickly away from me. With another swing of my sword I further hurt the Unseelie, causing the male to open a doorway and escape before he was killed. There were only four Unseelie left and they were manhandling the Yet-Tehh, who would not give up the fight. I prepared for another attack, when a fist of ice the size of a Yet-Tehh struck me from behind sending me tumbling hard onto the snow. This time I was sure I had broken bones.

I looked up to see a female Unseelie laughing at me. She was the one who had attacked me. As she was gathering up another attack on me, hurtling through an opened doorway were Merry, Morgana, Denara, Branwyn, Kieran, and ten Fey. Merry and Morgana immediately froze the Unseelie, who were attacking me, in a cube of ice, while the rest of the Unseelie quickly fled back to their realm. The battle was done.

Branwyn rushed to my side. She touched my face gently then with the sleeve of her shirt began to dab the blood away that had formed around my mouth.

“What took you so long?” I asked her with a smile.

Branwyn’s eyes formed tears, as she looked down on me. Merry came quickly to my side along with Morgana; he placed his hands on me.

“He has broken bones and internal injuries,” Merry stated. “You’ll be fine, Bear. With time to heal you will be fine.”

“We should get him back to your isle and set up some guards to protect him,” Morgana said.

“We will take him to Kieran’s and we will all tend and protect him now. The realms, except Avalon, are no longer safe,” Merry, announced.

An invigorated Denara holding a sword whose blade was bathed in black strode up to them then said with great pride: “The Yet-Tehh said that he took two Unseelie down before they got to him. He is a fine young warrior.”

“That is special, Denara. Why don’t you check in the castle and see how Caillech Bhuerr and Etain are doing,” Merry suggested pleasantly.

“Of course,” she said then strode away.

“Bear,” shouted a concern Kieran, who had finished helping the injured Yet-Tehh. He knelt down beside Branwyn and looked at me with great concern.

“Hey, Kieran,” I said with pain accentuating my words.

“Don’t speak, Bear,” Kieran said then he looked at Merry. “Can I lift him up to bring him home?”

“Yes, Kay. Moving him will do no more damage than has been done. Between his own recuperative abilities, Morgana, and I, he will be fine in time. Take him home.”

Softly, gently, Kieran picked me up then he stood up himself. Merry opened a doorway. With Branwyn following closely behind, Kieran, holding me in his arms, walked through the doorway.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

Month Fifteen

Home

_________________

I woke up on November 2 in my old bed in Kieran’s house. With the rising sun barely lighting up my room, I saw Morgana sitting in a rocking chair asleep with a blanket covering her leg. Trying to sit up without waking her, I struggled into a seated position. My sore ribs were wrapped tightly with ace bandage making it even more difficult to sit up. Once I succeeded, I exhaled softly.

“Hurts, doesn’t it?” Morgana asked with her eyes still closed.

“Yeah, kind of. But not as much as it should.”

“You should be in much worse condition. You had four broken ribs, a few micro-fractures of the coccyx bone, and a pretty good bump on the head,” she finally opened her eyes. “Merry put you in a healing trance to allow for your natural healing powers to get to work on your body.”

“How long have I been in a trance?”

“Four days.”

“No wonder I’m so hungry,” I said, which brought a smile to Morgana’s lips. “Is everyone all right?”

“Oh, yes. Etain is fine. She has done nothing but praise you since she came back. I think that Branwyn is jealous of her because whenever she sees Etain now, she glowers at her.”

“She shouldn’t be jealous, though. I’ve got no interest in Etain,” I interjected.

“Sure she should be. It’s good for her to be jealous, bring her Fey emotions out,” laughed Morgana. “Caillech Bhuerr is fine and an angry witch, too. She is angry at the Aes Sidhe and angry at you.”

“At me? Why me?”

“Because now she owes you a blood oath favor and her Yet-Tehh think you are great and powerful,” Morgana told me then she stood up. “Okay, what do you want for breakfast?”

“Whatever is in the house, I don’t care. I’m really, really hungry,” I answered.

“I know what to make you. I seem to be always feeding you,” Morgana said then the door to my bedroom opened and Branwyn, wearing a long flannel nightgown, came shuffling into the room looking as if she was half awake and half asleep. “Branwyn.”

“Hi, ma,” Branwyn mumbled then continued on to my bed and then carefully sat down beside me. “Hi.”

“Hi,” I replied. “You saved my life.”

“I just felt that feeling. I knew that you were in trouble.”

“I was.”

“You two are just too cute together. I’ll make breakfast. I’m thinking steak and scrambled eggs,” she said then she walked to the door and made sure it was opened wide. “This door stays open. Understand?”

“Oh, mom,” sighed Branwyn.

“Yes, ma’am,” I answered, as she put her head on my shoulder and started to fall back asleep.

The sounds of Morgana opening cabinets, taking out pans and such, filled up the kitchen. Next I heard the distinctive sound of sizzling as she started to cook steak and then a fork wiping eggs for scrambled eggs. Combine the sounds with the odor of cooking and soon everyone was starting to wake up. The first one down the stairs was Kieran, who had Chota close behind him. They stood in the doorway to the bedroom.

“Bear, you’re awake,” Kieran said with relief.

“Buckaroo, you look better,” Chota added, as the two men stood and looked at me sitting up with Branwyn dozing on my left shoulder.

“Yeah, I’m feeling better,” I told them.

“I bet,” said Chota.

“We might as well help Morgana cook up some breakfast. There’s a full house,” Kieran stated then he and Chota disappeared into the kitchen.

Soon there was more clattering and chattering coming from the kitchen. Next to check in on me was Lucan, who stuck his head in and gave him a wink and a wave, then Denara, who was now responsible for security for the house, and, finally, Fintain, who came into the room.

“How you feeling?” he asked.

“Beat up and sore,” I answered.

Fintain looked at Branwyn fondly: “She’s been worried about you, she hasn’t slept much for four days. I was starting to get worried about her.”

“I’m not asleep, so be careful what you say, Fintain, or I’ll make you regret it,” Branwyn advised him, though she kept her eyes closed.

“So I shouldn’t tell him how Etain can’t stop talking about you and how brave you are. Oohh, Sean was so brave and he fought shadow wraith and the Yet-Tehh thought he was great,” Fintain teased Branwyn, while imitating Etain. “Branwyn turned red in the face listening to her coo over you.”

“Fintain, I’m warning you. I have more ways of getting even with you than you do with me. You’ll be looking over your shoulder for the rest of your life,” Branwyn opened her eyes and glared at him.

“Jealous of Etain? She is kind of cute. Nay, not cute, but real pretty, maybe even a little hot.”

“Fintain, if I get out of this bed, you will regret it for the rest of your life.”

“Actually, I think I’m the one who’ll regret it not him,” I corrected her.

Branwyn blushed with her face becoming red and a slight pink aura emanating from her. Fintain laughed and went into the kitchen to check on how breakfast was coming.

“Really? You’d regret it if I got up out of this bed?” she asked me.

“Yeah, I really would,” I admitted and her pinkish glow intensified.

“So there is a full house here,” I commented as I heard the noise grow from the kitchen.

“Everyone else, including parents, will be over in a couple of hours. We are all very protective of you right now,” Branwyn told me. “I heard that some of the other Clans have offered to send warriors, druids, mages, whatever we need to keep you safe. Everyone believes in you.”

“Where’s Merry?” I asked changing the subject.

“Avalon,” she answered.

“Avalon? Really? He’s on Avalon?” I asked with great interest.

“Yeah, Avalon,” she said looking at me as if I was slightly crazy. “You know Avalon. It is the Druid Realm and he is a druid, so don’t ask me what he is doing there because he doesn’t tell me those things. Though, I think he should sometimes. None of us know. All we know is that he has been gone for two days and we expect him back soon.”

“Okay, I won’t push for any answers then,” I said, though my mind started to ask questions. What was Merry up to? I knew it must be about me, but what did Avalon have to offer me? And what did I have to offer Avalon?

“Here’s your breakfast,” Morgana announced, as she carried a breakfast tray with a plate filled with scrambled eggs, a steak, and toast with butter on it along with an orange juice and placed it on his lap. “Branwyn, make sure he doesn’t spill anything and eats all his food. He needs to get his strength back.”

“Yes, mom, I’ll make sure,” she said then her mother turned and left the room.

Branwyn took one of the slices of toast and began nibbling on it, while I cut into the steak. As I ate I glanced over at the collectibles on their shelf. It was odd to think, but I couldn’t remember my life being anything but what it was now. I couldn’t imagine a different life.

 

nnnn

Another three days passed but finally Merry returned from Avalon. As I was feeling better, I was allowed to sit outside in the back on a beach chair reclining in order to get sun and watch Benedict and Lance practice their sword technique. After checking in with Kieran and Denara, Merry immediately made his way to the backyard to check on him.

“Merry!” I called out as I saw the druid, dressed in jeans, a blue Oxford shirt, and a flowing Burberry’s raincoat, exit the backdoor. I noticed from experience that Merry appeared tired with his beard in need of a trim and his eyes with a faraway expression, as if he’d been awake for days.

“Bear, you are looking better than expected,” he called back then he waved to Benedict and Lance. “Your mother sends her love, Lance.”

Lance didn’t comment, but he went back to working on his technique with Benedict. Some day he’d have to deal with his emotions about his mother. The lady of the Lake was not an easy position to live up to in life, as the last of humanities druids depended on her, but Merry always told me that he thought this Lady of the Lake could have changed the rules that had governed the druids for so long. He thought she could have let her son live on Avalon. Wasn’t Merry living proof that rules could be broken and changed, as he had broken and changed rules his whole life?

“Bear, I will want to check your injuries later inside. If need be, I can use my healing gifts to increase your already prodigious recuperative powers,” he told me as he walked up beside me.

“I know, Merry, you want to get me well,” I responded then changed the subject: “Why so long in Avalon?”

“Making plans, Bear, making plans. Many in the other realms are getting excited about you, which means that the Lady of the Lake wants to take a hand in your training. The druids are married to their plans as well as their ways, Bear. I tried to convince them to change their plans for you, but they see wisdom in not changing the old ways, or plans.”

“Do these plans and old ways involve me?”

“Of course, they do. Yours is the bloodline of the Cathal passed onto the first born down through the generations. It is a bloodline that the druids have tracked and, regrettably, have attempted to control on occasion, and have even tried to manipulate, which explains why we have waited so long for another Cathal. But enough of old arguments, as you keep surprising people. You survived an attack in Vind by Unseelie, survived an attack by shadow wraith, and an attack by werewolves sent to hunt you down. And you have done this without being completely trained. They want you completely trained.”

“I wouldn’t mind that, either,” I said.

“Yes, but at what price, Bear,” mumbled Merry. “It is an important question to ask.”

“What do you mean Merry?”

“Well, as is their right since the Cathal and the Protector Clans owe their allegiance to the druids, as it was the druids who imbued them with their particular gifts, the Lady of the Lake can command you until you are tested at Bealtaine. If you are proven to be the Cathal then no one commands you but you after that. And I am afraid that she is going to use that power to have command over you now,” he explained.

“How?”

“This can wait until later, Bear,” Merry said, as he watched Benedict and Lance continue their training.

“No, Merry, it cannot wait until later. Tell me now,” I said in a commanding tone, which made Merry smile. I had come far in my time here.

“On your fifteenth birthday you will be summoned to Avalon for a year of intense training for Bealtaine. For one full year you will live on Avalon apart from family and friends, except for two companions, who you will be allowed to take. The druids understand the need for companionship.”

“Merry, this isn’t fair. That means I have five months and then I have to go away. I don’t want to go away. I don’t want to leave her…here,” I pleaded.

“You must, Bear. It is your responsibility. You have obligations and you must keep them.”

“But…but,” I started then I stopped. I knew there was no argument to win this one. Merry was right. It was my responsibility and I had obligations.

“I’m sorry, Bear. I tried for days to convince them to see it my way, to understand that you are making great strides,” Merry sighed, “but the Lady of the Lake can be obdurate, as you will find out. Plus, I am not one of her favorite people. You see the Druid Realm, Avalon, does not always get along with the other realms. We druids have sometimes given ourselves a greater importance than we should have because the Cathal was loyal to us. In a way druids are the guardians and mentors for the Cathal. This has caused a certain unfortunate arrogance to develop.”

“So the other realms are jealous of Avalon and the druids?”

“I would say that they are tired of being bossed, or of having someone look down at them when there is no need for that. What the druids need is a good kick in the buttocks to remind them that they are great enough not to act great. So who will you take with you?”

“I don’t know. I mean a year away from your family. I’m not sure it would be fair of me to take anyone.”

Merry looked over at Lance and smiled. Here was a chance to give Lance an opportunity to come to terms with his mother by spending quality time in Avalon. Merry pointed at Lance: “There is one here who considers Avalon home.”

“Lance.” I said then I remembered that he spoke fondly of Avalon. Lance wouldn’t mind spending a year on Avalon with him.

“Yes, Lance of the Lake,” Merry pointed out.

“I can take Lance, but who else can I take with me?”

“Well, if I may make a suggestion…”

“Of course, you can, Merry. I always listen to what you have to say.”

“I’m glad to hear that, Bear. Sometimes I have my doubts. Benedict would benefit from intense druid training. On Avalon he may actually unleash his spiritual powers and become as strong as I believe he can be.”

“Lance and Benedict,” I mumbled the names then I wondered if Benedict’s parents would mind if he was gone for a year. “Benedict’s parents?”

“They will be proud of him. His mother has druid powers as does his father. Avalon is a sacred place to druids.”

“All right. When should I tell them?”

“In time. It can wait for a few days.”

“When should I tell everyone else?” I asked.

“Soon…”

“Merry, soon? Can we do better than soon?”

“Once you are up and training again. Let everyone enjoy themselves for a few weeks before they are given this news. How does that sound?”

“It sounds like a good idea, Merry.”

“Thank you, Bear. I had more than my share of good ideas over the years.”

“Merry, will I learn about the first Cathal on Avalon?”

“Oh, yes, Bear. You cannot help but learn about him once you are there.”

 

nnnn

I spent my first day back training working with Chota doing easy exercises. My body was still sore in places, though my injuries were healed, as Merry had declared me healthy and fit to resume work. Chota, who now seemed comfortable living in Kieran’s house set an easy pace that barely made me break a sweat. Under the autumnal colors of the trees in the backyard, they continued for several hours, stopping when Chota deemed that I had enough.

“Okay, buckaroo, hit the showers,” he declared.

“Ah come on, I feel like I’m just getting started. Let’s do some more.”

“I’ll push you to your limits in a couple of days, but not yet, just not yet. I want you all healed up in my opinion before that.”

“Okay, you’re the boss.”

“No, I’m the chief. Remember?”

“Oh, I forgot, Chota, you are definitely the chief,” I smiled.

“By the way when I said hit the showers, I meant it, buckaroo,” Chota told me and then held his nose.

“I got you. You don’t have to hammer it home.”

“Good. I thought I was being subtle,” laughed Chota.

I entered the house through the backdoor to find Morgana and Lucan cooking a variety of foods. Lucan was busy preparing an Irish stew and Morgana was busy making a huge meatloaf along with mashed potatoes and vegetables. She was in the process of dicing up some carrots to add to about ten pounds of hamburger meat that was in a mixing bowl. I stopped by the table and took a carrot then started eating it.

“Smells real good,” I remarked on the way to my room.

“My cooking always smells good,” Lucan declared.

“I seem to do nothing but cook around here. Sometimes I wonder why I just don’t stay here and sleep in the kitchen,” Morgana complained.

“That’s because there are so many darned people hanging around this house now,” Lucan added to the list of complaints. “Not that I’m complaining.”

“You’re complaining and so am I. We shouldn’t be, but we are,” Morgana said.

“I guess I am complaining a little,” sighed Lucan. “Well, I’m allowed to. Complaining is part of aging.”

“So, how was your workout with Chota?” Morgana asked me.

“Light and easy. I wanted to get more of sweat up, but he wanted to keep it light and easy.”

“You’re getting back into the groove, so you have to take your time,” she told me. “Chota will kick your butt soon enough and then you’ll be complaining about that.”

“I know he will and I will,” I agreed then I finished off the carrot. “Where’s Kieran?”

“In his study with Merry and Denara. Let’s see, we have Etain’s father, Fergus, keeping guard out front and Benedict’s parents, Vernon and Ellen Wise, checking out the surrounding woods, and Cedric’s father keeping an eye on everyone in the barn, who are being taught today by Etain’s mother, Gwendolyn. Pretty full house, huh?”

“Yeah, it is,” I replied. “Well, I need a shower.”

“I put clean towels in your bathroom. I also seem to be doing laundry a lot more along with the cooking. I really have to complain to Kieran about that,” Morgana told me, as I went into his room.

I stood under a hot shower for fifteen minutes letting the water go from steaming hot to mild during that period. Getting out I toweled off, grabbed a pair of black jeans, a black T-shirt, and slipped on a pair of Dockers. I exited my bedroom into the kitchen to catch Kieran and Morgana sharing a kiss. With embarrassment they separated and Kieran gave me an uncomfortable grin.

“Hey, Bear,” he said.

“Hey, Kieran,” I responded trying not to smile.

“You have impeccable timing just like your girlfriend,” Morgana scolded me.

“Girlfriend?” I said innocently.

“Yeah, my daughter, who is your girlfriend and who you will be sure to tell the news Kieran just told me before everybody else finds out about it, so that she isn’t completely devastated.”

“Kieran, Merry told you about me going to Avalon?” I queried him.

“Yup.”

“What do you think?”

“I think the Lady of the Lake can be a difficult person, but there is nothing you can do about it. I wish there were,” Kieran stated.

“I don’t want to go,” I admitted.

“I know, Bear.”

“I know someone else who won’t want you to go, either,” Morgana pointed out.

“Branwyn,” I said her name with some regret.

“Yeah. She will be getting out of school now. Why don’t you go tell her and give her some time to get used to the idea of you being gone for a year?”

“I think I will, Morgana.”

I hustled out of the house and made my way to the barn. Leaning against a nearby tree I waited for the home-school class to get out and everyone to exit. I scanned the area. Cedric’s father was nowhere to be found. If he was guarding the barn, he was treating it like he treated hunting deer. The man loved stealth.

The barn door opened and everybody came out of the barn. They looked as if they all had a very long of school. Branwyn came out right behind Fintain then Etain who was followed by Cedric, who waved at the top of a tree and called out: “Hi, dad. See anything?”

“Hey, son,” Credric’s father called back. “Nothing to see so far.”

I looked up and now noticed that he was dressed in camouflage sitting on the treetop. Lance was the first to reach me. He nodded his head.

“You’re looking good,” he said to me.

“Thanks.”

“Hey, Sean, finally allowed out of the house,” Wayne yelled and then hip checked Lance, who turned his head and looked at him with disdain.

“Sean,” Branwyn yelled then she came up running to me and gave me a hug.

“We need to talk about something,” I said seriously, even though I didn’t want to sound serious.

“Sure,” she responded with concern.

“Lance, Wayne can you watch our back while we talk?” I asked them.

“Sure,” they answered almost in unison.

Slowly and regretfully, I explained to Branwyn that I would be leaving for Avalon for a year in a few months. As we walked near the lake with Lance and Wayne giving plenty of space, I gave her the bad news. I noticed that she was biting her bottom lip trying not to cry when I finished.

“But you’re finally off of Merry’s isle and back living with us.”

“I know, Branwyn. I really know.”

“This just isn’t fair,” she stated with a crack in her voice.

“The lady of the Lake demands it, so I have to go.”

“I am so glad that I am Fey and not druid and have to bow down to her. Fey are the equals if not superior to druids,” she exclaimed then she turned and gave me a long hug.

“I do get to take two people, though with me,” I said apprehensively.

“Really,” she started to become excited. “Who are you taking, Sean?”

“Merry and I discussed it and I am going to take Lance and Benedict with me,” I told her quickly then I stopped walking and waited for the explosion.

“What? You’re kidding me, right? You aren’t taking me,” she growled.

“Yeah.”

“Explain,” she demanded.

“Lance is at home on Avalon. I mean his mother is the Lady of the Lake…”

“So?”

“So, it will be good for him. And Merry thinks being on Avalon will help to bring Benedict’s druid powers out fully,” I finished up.

“Not good enough,” she pouted.

“I didn’t want to take you away from your mother,” I added.

This statement caught her by surprise. Her mother was alone, except for her. Branwyn knew deep down that she couldn’t leave her mother alone for a year, at least, not yet. She wasn’t ready for that yet.

“You’re safe. I won’t hurt you,” she told me.

“You’re not mad at me?”

“I am but you’re safe. You made the right decision.”

“Branwyn, you can’t be mad at me.”

“Oh, yes, I can.”

“Hopefully not for too long. I will be gone for a year,” I said in an attempt to manipulate her mood.

“Don’t play dirty with me or I’ll cry and you’ll feel horrible for days,” she warned me.

She was right, I thought. If she did cry, I would feel horrible for days. I was defeated.

“I won’t play dirty, Branwyn.”

“Good. I hope the Lady of the Lake will allow visits for family and friends.”

“It sounds like those in Avalon want to turn me into the equal of any warrior…”

“You are better than all of them already. They should know that,” she interjected.

Instead of arguing or correcting her, I grabbed her around her waist with my right arm and with my left hand on her back I drew Branwyn in close to me and kissed her. It was a long kiss, an unforgettable kiss and one I knew I would think of during my many days on Avalon. Finally, Branwyn pulled away, as Wayne began to make hooting noises. She shot one look at him and he stopped.

“Kisses goodbye can wait until later. I’m a little bit angry at you now,” Branwyn told me.

“Are you sure about that?”

“Not too sure, but I bet my mother would like it that way,” she said.

“Really,” I smiled. “Did I tell you what I saw Kieran and your mother doing in the kitchen?”

“Give me the dirt, now,” she demanded.

CHAPTER NINE

Month Eighteen

Avalon

_________________

It was nearing dawn on February 13th, my fifteenth birthday. I would leave at twilight for Avalon and return the next year then a few months later I would partake in Bealtaine on Avalon; it was all a year away. A year wasn’t that long of a time in the scheme of a life, just twelve months, three hundred and sixty-five days. Yet, it sounded almost like an eternity to me in relation to my own life. One year. So much could change over a week, a month, even a weekend, that a year away almost guaranteed that my life would never be the same.

Feeling a mix of excitement and anxiety, I got out of bed. Part of me wanted to get the day started, want to see Avalon, and begin the next phase of my life, but another part of me just wanted to stay at Kieran’s. It was starting to feel like home. After showering and getting dressed, I exited the house through the backdoor to be greeted by Fergus Roy, who was keeping guard in the back.

“Good morning,” he said to me.

“Morning.”

“Up early, are you?” Fergus asked.

“Big day.”

“I’ve been meaning to thank you for all you’ve done for my family,” Fergus said in his warm, comforting voice.

“Why?”

“For looking out for my daughter and her grandmother in Vind. You acted like a real man there and, well, I have a feeling we’ll be celebrating a future Cathal soon enough and I’ll be glad to know that it is you. It gives me hope,” Fergus expressed this sentiment with less hope and more assurance then I actually felt comfort with.

In my own mind I had not yet thought of myself as the Cathal. I knew it was a possibility, but it was an equal possibility that I wasn’t, but merely another warrior in the battle against the Aes Sidhe and their allies. Or, at least, I thought that was a real possibility. If my father didn’t live up to my potential as Cathal then why should I? I was no better than my father. No, I didn’t think it was a sure thing that I was who everybody wanted me to be.

“So, do you want anything special for your birthday?” Fergus asked me.

“No, not really. I told everybody to hold off on gifts for now. According to Merry, all I’m allowed to bring to Avalon are my companions and myself. They want no corrupting influences into their realm, so my PSP, games, books, and music stay here. Kind of unfair, but it is there rules. Part of me wishes they thought I was a corrupting influence.”

“So, it’s just a cookout and cake then for you today,” remarked Fergus.

“Yes.”

The backdoor of the house opened and Kieran walked out of the house wearing a pair of pants, a T-shirt, and a terry cloth robe for warmth. He looked as if he hadn’t slept well that night and was glad to finally be out of bed.

“Morning,” he greeted us.

“Morning, Kay,” said Fergus.

“Hey, Kieran,” I added my own greeting.

“When am I ever going to get you to call me Kay instead of Kieran?”

“I’ve thought about that. I kind of like Kieran,” I replied. “Everybody calls you Kay around here, so calling you Kieran is kind of special, different from everyone else, and I like that.”

“Well, then, you can call me whatever you want, just as long as it isn’t a curse word or worse. We are family,” Kieran said then he took of deep breath of the cold air. “I should make us some coffee and breakfast.”

“Morgana’s not cooking?” I laughed.

“No,” he laughed. “She and her daughter will be a little late today. They have things to do. You see it’s someone’s birthday, so they are making the cake at their house and getting all prettied up for this lucky person.”

I blushed: “They don’t have to go through all the trouble for me.”

“Haven’t you learned yet that they do it as much for themselves as they do it for us, Sean. Women like to make a fuss.”

“He’s right, you just have to accept it and life will be easier for you,” agreed Fergus.

Kieran started to walk back towards the house, when I remembered I wanted to ask him a favor. Jogging after him, I followed him into the kitchen.

“Too cold out here?” Kieran asked me.

“Nay, I just wanted to ask you for a bit of a favor.”

“Whatever it is, as long as it is legal and I won’t get into too much trouble, I’ll do it for you, Bear. I think you know that.”

“Can Chota stay here while I’m gone?” I asked.

Chota had grown to like the company of Kieran and everyone else. He was happier here than on the isle and I noticed that, and I wanted it to continue after I left for Avalon.

“If he wants to stay, then he has a home here,” answered Kieran without having to think about it. “You think he wants to stay here?”

“I’m not sure but he’s been living on that isle long enough,” I told him.

“It’s up to him, Bear.”

“Good. I’ll ask him.”

“Now, will you do me a favor?” Kieran asked.

“Sure.”

“Help me and Fintain pull out some Chimineas later to warm up the backyard for your birthday party.”

“Of course.”

“Okay. We’ll do it after breakfast.”

Chota woke about 6:30 in the morning. After a cup of coffee and egg and bacon sandwich, he went for a walk by the lake with me. The day was going to be a chilly one, so we both wore jackets we borrowed from the house. Chota’s jacket was too big for him, but he didn’t care.

“Okay, I’m just going to put this out there to you. You can say yes or no, it’s up to you either way,” I started the conversation.

“Oooh, this sounds like this is going to be good, buckaroo. Let it fly.”

“If you want to you can live with Kieran, Lucan, and Fintain, while I’m gone then it is okay. I asked Kieran and he said yes to it without blinking. You don’t have to, if you don’t want to, but if you want an alternative to being on the isle, you have one now.”

“Really, live here,” mused Chota. A little smile played at the corner of his lips.

“So, what do you think about it?”

“I think it’s something to think about, that’s what I think,” he smiled.

“I have an alternative motive, too. I thought you could keep an eye on my family while I was gone, since you are part of the family now,” I told him.

“You don’t think Kieran and Lucan can handle things here without me,” laughed Chota.

“They can, but family protects family’s back, you know that.”

“I’m starting to remember that fact more every day,” agreed Chota.

“I thought being off the isle might be good for you to start looking for Jumlin, also.”

“Jumlin…yeah, him. According to my brother, if I stick with you, I’ll eventually find Jumlin. That suits me,” Chota told me.

“However, I’ll be gone for a year.”

“I know.”

“And I’ll miss you, Chota.”

“I know, buckaroo,” Chota said then he stopped walking and looked out over the surface of the lake water. The sun reflected off of the water now, as it settled in the sky. It was a peaceful sight.

“And you can keep an eye on Branwyn for me,” I broke the silence.

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Things are getting dangerous. The Aes Sidhe already killed people I loved and I don’t want that to happen again, especially with…”

“You think that they might go after us here, huh?” asked Chota with concern, as he respected my instincts.

“Maybe.”

“Hell, then, I can turn into a dog and stay by her side for a year to protect her, buckaroo, if need be. You don’t have to worry about her while you’re gone. I’ll keep her safe. Heck, I’ll try to keep everyone safe.”

“Thanks, Chota.”

“No problem, buckaroo.”

nnnn

It was getting on to late afternoon when Morgana and Branwyn finally showed up with a large homemade yellow birthday cake with butter cream frosting. The cake said Happy Birthday Bear. But that wasn’t what caught my attention. It was Branwyn. Her hair, which was now shoulder length, shone in the sun, a copper color, and I thought I saw a hint of makeup on her lips and face. She wore a blue sweater dress that went down to her knees and black boots that almost came up to the knees as well as a jean jacket. My face broke out into a big smile, as I stood and stared at her. She reciprocated.

“Hey, Morgana, where’s Branwyn? I don’t recognize the girl with you. Branwyn doesn’t look that good,” called out Fintain. He, Wayne, Benedict, and Garth started laughing, but Lance and Cedric were smart enough not to laugh.

Branwyn’s serene face turned red with fury and Fintain immediately stopped the laughing. Morgana carried the cake into the kitchen, while I walked up to Branwyn. Ignoring the fact that everyone was watching us, I put my arms around her waist and lifted her off the ground and gave her a kiss.

Some hoots and catcalls started from Fintain and the rest, but Branwyn, without breaking off her kiss, caused a stiff wind to blow in their faces to shut them up.

“Hey, that’s not fair. It’s really not fair,” Fintain protested.

I put her down and Branwyn glared at Fintain: “I’ll give you worse if you don’t stop teasing me. Understand that?”

“I’m just having some fun with you. You used to have a sense of humor.”

Etain, who looked and dressed beautifully as always, stepped forward. She now had a few streaks of white in her hair, a gift from being in the Vind Realm. She came up to Branwyn and said: “You look wonderful. Ignore them. They are just jealous of Sean.”

“Thanks,” blushed Branwyn.

“All right, all right,” called out Kieran. “Who wants hot dogs? Who wants hamburgers? Who wants sausages? I need to start taking food orders now.”

Everyone began to call out his or her wants, while I laughed. I knew that Kieran would make too much of everything, so asking for orders was just his way of getting things started. I took hold of Branwyn’s hand. The two of us walked over to a table and sat down.

“Are you ready to leave?” she asked me.

“Not really.”

“What time do you have to leave for Avalon?”

“According to Merry at twilight we will take a mist doorway to Avalon. Real exciting stuff, huh? He’s anxious about this. Merry doesn’t like the idea of me be training for a year on Avalon, so he says he is going to make plenty of visits to make sure I’m not pushed too hard,” I confided in her.

“Good. I’m glad someone will be looking out for you while you’re there.”

“Me, too.”

“I don’t want to talk about you’re leaving anymore. Okay?” she said to me.

“Okay.”

Warmed by the Chimineas the birthday party began. The table Branwyn and I sat at was filled out by the rest of the class. We talked and laughed and pretended twilight wouldn’t come. The food was served and eaten then the birthday cake came out with fifteen candles. When everyone finished singing Happy Birthday, I blew out the candles, cut the first piece, and served it to Branwyn. Morgana brought out coffee, hot chocolate, and ice cream.

While everybody sat and had dessert, Lucan got his beat up guitar out and started to sing a song:

“In a neat little town called Belfast, apprenticed in trade I was bound. And many’s the hour of sweet happiness I spent in that neat little town til misfortune befell me that caused me to stray from the land. Far away from friends and relations to follow the black velvet band.

Her eyes they shone like a diamond. You’d think she was queen of the land. And her hair hung over her shoulder tied up by a black velvet band,” Lucan sang in his gruff voice that made the song seem full of meaning.

As everyone listened Merry came walking out of the backdoor. He was dressed in a long black hooded robe and had an expression of sadness masking his face. Lucan stopped his playing. I looked up at the sky and realized that twilight was almost upon us. I felt Branwyn’s hand search for mind under the tables. We found each other and held tight.

“Sean, Lance, and Benedict in the house I have clothes waiting for you. It’s time to change,” Merry announced.

“Can it wait?” I asked.

“It’s time.”

Without any more words Lance, Benedict, and I dutifully got up and went in the house. It took us no more than ten minutes to dress. We all exited wearing black cotton, pants, shirts, sandals, and long hooded robes like Merry’s, except Benedict who wore white.

“Black is the color of the warrior on Avalon. It is tradition,” Merry told us then looked at his own robe. “It is also my color, though that is a choice on my part. For reasons that are between me and the Lady of the Lake, I wear black, also.”

“I’d rather black,” complained Benedict.

“You are a druid,” Merry corrected him.

“I think they look great,” declared Branwyn.

“I do, too,” Thomas Lake agreed proudly.

Benedict’s parents went to his side in order to give him advice and hugs, while Thomas spent a moment with his son. Kieran, Chota, Lucan, Fintain, Morgana, and Branwyn encircled me for their goodbyes.

“A year goes by quickly when you are busy, so keep busy,” Kieran told me.

“I’ll try to,” I assured him.

“Kick butt,” Chota said.

“Yeah, kick their butt,” Fintain chimed in. We gave each other a chest bump.

Lucan shook my hand then Morgana gave me a hug goodbye, leaving Branwyn alone with me for a moment. I saw that she was biting her lower lip, which meant tears were being fought. Lifting her chin with my right hand I kissed her.

“Please don’t cry,” I said.

“Okay,” she replied while taking in a gulp of air.

“I’ll be back and I told Chota to keep an eye out on you for me.”

“Do you think I need someone to look out for me?” she asked defiantly.

“No, but it makes me feel better.”

“You’re lucky I like Chota.”

“He said he’d turn into a dog if he had to just to keep an eye on you,” I told her.

“I can have fun with that,” she said.

“Gentlemen,” called out Merry. “It is time for us to leave, so finish your goodbyes.”

Reluctantly, I left Branwyn’s side and joined Benedict and Lance by Merry’s side. It was then with a wave of his hands that a thick mist came out of the ground and enveloped. After a few moments all view of the backyards disappeared and when things started to become visible days, we were no longer in the human realm.

 

nnnn

Avalon. The name brought scenes of magic to my head. To some it was known as isle of the blessed, to others it was a place of mystery and myth. For Benedict and me it was our first time seeing this realm. It was daylight, a bright shining day, as we stepped out of the mist. The temperature was a perfect seventy-four degrees. Avalon was always summer, but not just any summer, it was perfect summer. It was the summer where bees pollenated flowers; where deer drank water passively at the lake; where hawks patrolled the skies; and where the sun always shone, but never too hot.

I felt a light breeze across my face. The colors of the sky, grass, trees and everything seemed more vibrant with greater depth to me. Scanning the terrain, I saw that to my left was a forest of thick trees and to my right a great green plain. In front of me, a short distance away, on top of conical hill was a group of pristine white marble structures, one of which seemed like a great palace. Looking behind me I saw a great blue water lake.

Besides the terrain, there were two large handsome men, dressed in black robes and bearing spears, and a delicate beautiful woman with golden hair, dressed in a white robe. The woman bowed to Merry.

“Great Merlin, welcome home,” she said with a hint of apprehension.

Merlin, I panicked. Merry was Merlin. But Merlin was a myth, a bit of legend. He couldn’t be Merlin. Yet, here he was in Avalon visiting the Lady of the Lake. Of course, Merlin could exist, and who else would he be but Merry. I should have guessed long ago that he was Merlin. Why hadn’t I?

“Nimue, you look lovely as always. How is the Lady?”

“She is anxious to meet the potential replacement for the great Ualgarg,” she said, “but she knows that traditions must be upheld and the potential Ualgarg must visit the grave of the great one. It is tradition, a ritual of worthiness for his kind.”

“I take it the warriors will escort him.”

“Yes, Merlin,” Nimue said. “I will escort the potential Ualgarg’s companions to meet the Lady.”

“Of course,” Merry said then he motioned Benedict and Lance to join Nimue. “I will go with Sean.”

Nimue stared at Lance for a moment then he smiled: “Your mother will be delighted to see you again. It is fortuitous that you will spend the next year on Avalon.”

“I am Sean’s companion on this visit, not her son,” Lance answered.

“Yes,” she said and then she escorted them towards the hill leaving Merry and me with the two warriors.

Merry patted me on the back: “The palace is called Mell Tor.”

“Merry, you’re Merlin,” Sean said.

“I know that, Bear. I’ve known it my whole life.”

“Why didn’t you just tell me?”

“Because it always confuses things. People start thinking of the myth Merlin, the one who didn’t age but youthened, the one in all those books. I am not he. I am a warrior and druid with great powers and a long life, one who has done many things, some great and some not so great,” Merry explained.

“And who am I? Am I the next King Arthur or something?” I laughed.

“Yes, Bear, you are,” said Merry. “Now let’s go and visit the old King Arthur’s tomb, so we can visit with my friend and former student.”

From the outside the building looked as if a giant black marble had been cut into two pieces with one semi-circle piece placed by the beautiful lake and it had a doorway craved into it. On the inside this black marble mausoleum was where the actual body of Arthur lay in peace. I stood quietly in front of Arthur’s white marble tomb which had but one single Celtic word craved on it: Ualgarg. According to Merry, an Ualgarg was a famous and fierce warrior for the druids. It was a succinct, though incomplete, description of the man who lay in that tomb. On one side in the black mausoleum there stood a statue of Merlin. It looked just like Merry, except for a long beard and longer hair. I laughed under my breath. Like in life Merry stood beside and watched over his famous student. On the other side of the tomb the great sword Excalibur stood stuck in a boulder that had been rolled into the tomb for such a purpose. There it was to stay, unused and trapped by the stone, a memorial to the great Arthur.

Standing at Arthur’s tomb, his Druid dolmen, in prayer was considered a pilgrimage for all potential Cathal when they came to Avalon. It was more than a sign of respect; it was a request for strength and sacrifice. Deep down I felt as if I wasn’t worthy of being in Arthur’s tomb, in the tomb of a man who had given his life standing up to evil and following the code of the Ualgarg and the Cathal. The code of the Cathal was inscribed on a marble rock in front of the tomb: Never surrender to evil, never retreat from evil, and never succumb to evil. I was awed. I felt a slight shiver go down my spine. Because the mausoleum was made of black marble, it always felt a bit chilly inside of it, but that was not the reason I shivered. I shivered because I felt the presence of Arthur somehow and now truly understood what was expected of me.

“Arthur was…like a son to me,” Merry said. “I loved him. He was a great man.”

“Did my father have to do this?”

“Yes, he did. Liam was very funny about it, too. As he and I stood here paying our condolences: he turned to me and said: I would have rather been related to Robin Hood. I thought that was very funny at the time,” Merry smiled. “How do you feel being related to the actual King Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon, and father to Medraut and Amhar, who is the actual progenitor of your bloodline?”

“Small.”

“What a remarkable answer. It makes you feel small,” repeated Merry.

“Yes.”

“Good. That’s an excellent sign. If it made you feel grand well then I would be worried about you. But small means that you have some sense of perspective. Arthur’s boots are big ones to fit into.”

“If I am related to Arthur through Amhar, does Medraut have a bloodline?” I asked.

“Excellent question, Bear. Most don’t think to ask that. Yes, Medraut does have a bloodline. And those in his bloodline are your opposite. The progeny of Medraut reside now in the Sidhe being trained by them. I don’t know if they are a he or she, or if what exactly they look like, though I would think they are dark haired like Medraut was. He was the opposite of his father in so many ways. He took after his mother in looks. Pretty woman, Morgause was. What I do know is that they are in the Sidhe being trained to hate you and kill you.”

“That makes me feel warm and fuzzy all over. Nice cousin I have there,” I replied.

“I believe he or she would be a cousin once or twice removed and I should also think that they will be a future problem for you,” remarked Merry. “We should get going. It’s time to meet the Lady of the Lake. One shouldn’t keep important people waiting unless one is in the mood. I am in the mood to be on time this time.”

Passing six large male guards with weapons, Merry and I walked into the throne room of the Lady of the Lake. I observed that the palace was a mix of hard, cold, white marble decorated by soft fabrics, making the palace appear striking yet aloof. Once in the appropriate room they proceeded down the main pathway to the throne. This pathway was flanked on both sides by white, wax candles that varied in sized from two feet tall to six feet tall and whose wax pooled on the marble floor like small lakes that had their waves frozen hard. Standing on each side of a white marble throne, which had a red velvet curtain behind it, were two women, each white robed, young and attractive. On the throne there appeared to be a soft purple pillow, which I noticed made Merry lips crack a slight smile. Merry and I stopped in front of the throne and waited.

The Lady of the Lake finally made her appearance. Unseen hands lifted the red velvet curtain and she entered. It was unmistakable that Lance was her son. She also wore a long white robe, but hers was bordered by gold leaf. Her hair was black as night and her features, which seemed soft and handsome on Lance, shaped her face in a haughty mask of authority. Walking slowly to the throne, she paused to let Merry and me bow to her before she sat down.

“Merlin, it is good to see you again. You are, of course, welcome here,” she said in a voice that could delivery cold orders, as well as soft praise.

“When I am on Avalon, I always feel as if I have returned to a place that reminds me of home, but is not my home,” Merry replied.

“You have always been welcomed here, though, even if you have not always been on the best terms with Avalon. We are always forgiving of you,” she retorted.

“Isn’t that nice? I see that you now sit on a soft purple pillow like royalty. Do you find the marble throne cold for your buttocks?” he asked in a slightly bemused tone.

“Everyone who stands before this throne can find it cold depending on the circumstances and the reasons that they are here,” she stated.

“I know that better than most, as we both know,” replied Merry.

I detected a deep history between this Lady of the Lake and Merry. I made a mental note to ask him about it at some other time.

“And you, Arthur Sean McCoul, you are the next one to try and replace the great Arthur. Arthur gave his very life for us. He was the best of the best. To the humans, who live in your realm, he is known as the Cathal, but to us he is the Ualgarg, a very special warrior. He was a magnificent warrior who protected us,” she stated.

“And more than that. He protected all realms. Merry told me that. It was all he ever told me of the Cathal,” I added, as I heard implied in her words that Arthur protected only the druids.

“You presume to tell me something about Arthur, boy. I would hold my tongue if I were you,” she coldly said.

“I presume to do nothing but complete the praise of Arthur by pointing out all that he did for all the realms,” I said.

“I see cleverness in you. I am not sure if that is good or bad,” she stated then stared at me.

Merry could feel the situation starting to get tense. He knew that I would not be their idea of a perfect Cathal. Unlike Arthur, who was raised to give the druids his loyalty, I had been kept free of such restraints. My father once told Merry that he was glad that he wasn’t the Cathal because the druids would hate to relinquish Arthur and his position as the only one. But a Cathal was needed, and Merry was sure mzwas the one. He yawned as if he was bored getting the Lady of the Lake’s attention.

“He has more to him than just cleverness,” Merry said pleasantly. “Sean is bright, growing in strength every day, and thoughtful, which is the best thing I could say of anyone. Yes, he is more than just clever. He will surprise you.”

“I have met his companions for the next year and I will say that he has chosen well. Benedict will begin training with the druids of my order, while Lance shall train with our top warriors. The three of them will share a room in this palace,” the Lady of the Lake stated.

“What about Sean’s training? Who shall do that?” asked Merry. “It is important that the person who trains him is not just of this realm. He must be someone who understands the important of the Cathal to all.”

“Merlin, you have started his training, as you did with the great Arthur, but he is behind in many things, so I have requested a sword master from the Dragon Realm to finish his training. None of our warriors are on a sword master’s level. The great Master Zaichi will arrive tomorrow. Is that acceptable to you?”

“This is a great honor, Lady. The great Zaichi is an excellent choice, as a teacher for Bear,” Merry agreed. “I request to continue other aspects of his training.”

“That is not granted. You no longer will be an everyday teacher to him. I know you believe in what you call the Humanities, math, philosophy, science and literature, but his time will be filled with other things. He needs to focus on his role of Ualgarg, a fierce, uncompromising warrior.”

“I understand and disagree with great reservations,” Merry remarked to her, though Sean could tell from the look in his eyes that he wanted to say much more than he did.

“Ahh, Merlin, you still believe you have a right to disagree with me, that you know best.”

“Great Lady, I am a druid, which means I give you my loyalty in my own way, but a long life has taught me that I need not give loyalty unquestioningly. And then, as we know, a great many reasons why I have to ask questions when it concerns Avalon.”

“I am amazed that you even deign to give the Lady of the Lake loyalty, as you are the great, all knowing, and powerful Merlin,” she said with a hint of annoyance.

“I am amazed sometimes, too, that I do, but deep down I am a traditionalist,” replied Merry with humor in his words.

“Enough of this. It annoys me,” the Lady announced. “Nimue will show our want to be Arthur to his…”

“My name is Sean,” I interjected.

“You do not like being compared to the Great Arthur?” the Lady suspiciously asked me.

“I don’t mind that. But I do mind being called everything but my own name, which is Arthur Sean McCoul. In time I may have a title, or maybe even accept being called Arthur, but right now I am Sean.”

Merry smiled. With his left hand he patted my back then he bowed to the Lady of the Lake: “I shall be gone. I will return in several days to check on how things are unfolding with you, Sean.”

“You are dismissed, Merlin.”

“I had a feeling that I was,” he chuckled then he left the throne room.

“Nimue, show Sean to his awaiting companions,” the Lady ordered.

Though I felt the palace was cold, both literally and figuratively, I saw that it did have an aesthetic beauty to it. I hoped, though, that the room chosen for me, Benedict, and Lance was less marble and white.

Nimue escorted me down one hallway decorated with portraits of female druids to another one decorated with statuary on the walls that seemed to move every few minutes then up some stairs, down another hallway, which was decorated with tapestries embroidered with the battles of Arthur, and finally stopped outside a great wooden door. She opened it and I was happy to see Lance and Benedict sitting on a cowhide couch waiting for me.

The room was their bedroom. It was a large room consisting of three canopied beds, a couch; a large comfortable padded wooden throne chair that had Arturus Rex carved on the head of the chair; and a low table and several shelves of books. Benedict and Lance both smiled with relief when the door opened and saw it was I.

“Here is your room, Sean,” Nimue said to me with a voice that was both sweet and kind.

“Thank you, Nimue. Do we have any other duties this evening or is the rest of the night ours?”

“No, you are a free to do as you like. The sun will set at nine in the evening, just a half hour from now. You will be awakened tomorrow morning at sunrise, which is 5:30. You will then be escorted by a male druid to a lavatory for morning ablutions then served breakfast here in your room. Your day will begin at 6:30 with Lance joining the warriors, Benedict training with the druids, and you meeting Zaichi,” she explained.

Without thinking about it I sat down in the throne chair with Arthur’s name on it, which caused Nimue to gasp. I looked comfortable in the throne, as if I was born to it. I looked at her amused by her reaction.

“What is wrong, Nimue?” I asked her.

“I have a degree of second sight, which means at times I can see the potential future, and I see you sitting in a throne much like that when you are older and that Arturus DUX et CATHAL will be carved on it,” she said with her face looking flushed.

“And is that a problem?”

“It is a shock to me,” she admitted. “It has been so long since Arthur that we druids thought there would never be another to come along and replace him.”

“I am not Cathal yet. I may never be the one. Can your visions mislead you?” I asked.

“Yes. Like all second sight things can evolve and change based on unforeseen events. Future holds many variables. The Aes Sidhe may eventually succeed in killing you before you are crowned,” she said blandly.

“Never! I will not allow it,” Lance protested.

“And he’s not alone in that,” added Benedict.

“Interesting,” she said to herself.

“What is interesting?” I asked her.

“You have such loyalty already. That is interesting. It was written that Arthur won loyalty like that.”

“I am not him,” I said.

“I know.”

“I hope so. I respect Arthur and what he was and did, but I am not him,” I smiled pleasantly, which made her pause before answering me.

She was perplexed by this answer.

“May I ask you a question, Sean?” I asked.

“Sure.”

“Are you loyal to the Lady of the Lake?”

I thought for a moment. Merry had taught me many things, but there was one thing he taught that I agreed with it. He said diplomacy deserved caution and room to expand but it did not need lies. Truth should always be spoken.

“I am obligated to the Lady of the Lake. For the next year I am dutiful servant to do as I am told, but if I am then Cathal, I owe no one loyalty, though I will be glad to give it freely,” I told her.

Nimue looked closely at me. From her expression I could see that she didn’t see me as my actual age, but thought I must be older. Yes, I had the depth to be the Ualgarg. I sighed. I was not perfect but she could see I had the depth for the role.

“Thank you for being so honest,” she said.

“I try to always be honest,” I retorted.

Nimue left shutting the door behind her. Benedict whistled as if he was relieved to see her go, but Lance didn’t seem relieved. He appeared agitated.

“Sean, do not trust my mother,” he warned me. “She is a manipulator who has grown to care for no one other than her kind. We are not her kind. She ceased being human long ago and druid has become her race, unlike Merry, who is human and druid.”

“I will need your guidance then, Lance, because as the Lady of the Lake I have to trust her for now.”

“She will want to prepare you for Bealtaine by breaking you. The lady of the Lake wants no Cathal who isn’t as loyal and as beholding as King Arthur was to her. You have already gained the trust of the Elves, the races of Annwyn, and the Fey. You even have the grudging good will of Caillech Bhuerr. Sean, this is remarkable. I know because I used to hear my mother talk about how the next Cathal will need the druids to be his diplomats and his go between for the other realms,” Lance stated. “You are already on good terms with some realms and that is without the help of druids. She doesn’t like that. It lessens the importance of druids.”

“I had Merry’s help,” I pointed out.

“Merry is Merry. Not all druids like or trust him. I don’t know why but it’s true,” Lance told me.

“Lance, I am obligated to do what your mother asks, but you aren’t. Maybe if you can repair you’re relationship with her, you can make her less druid and more human, which would make our life easier while we are here,” I said encouragingly.

“What do you mean repair our relationship?” muttered an annoyed Lance.

“For a lot of reasons, you have a difficult relationship with your mother. We all know about it. All that I’m saying is that if you can make her less the Lady of the Lake and more your mother, it may help our overall relationship with Avalon…”

“And maybe she won’t look to break Sean,” finished Benedict.

“I’ll try,” Lance swallowed the words.

“That’s all I can ask from you, Lance,” I said.

“I have difficulties with my mother,” Lance admitted a truth that everyone knew.

nnnn

After breakfast, a silent warrior led me to a field not far from Arthur’s tomb, where Zaichi awaited for me. Under the soft yellow morning light, I got my first look at Zaichi, the great sword master. Zaichi was only an inch taller than me. Dressed in a black ghee with a red belt worn around his middle and grass sandals, Zaichi had short cut black hair and the features of a noble Samurai warrior with blackened unseeing eyes. What stood out about Zaichi was the wooden cane he used since he was blind and a red fox that came up to his knee by his side.

The warrior motioned me towards Zaichi then he receded. I strolled over to the sword master, while the red fox remained where it stood and watched them. When I was five feet away from him, Zaichi turned his sightless face towards me: “I now have your scent. You are Sean I take it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You will refer to me as Master Zaichi or master when you speak to me or answer me,” Zaichi told me.

“Yes, Master Zaichi.”

“Good. Training under me will go easy if you follow the rules I set out for you,” Zaichi said then with his cane walked over to me.

As he got close to me, Zaichi reached out with his right hand and felt my face. After he felt my face, he brought his hand down to my shoulders, giving them a few hard smacks then he tapped my chest. A sly smile crossed my lips.

“You will be a fine warrior once you are fully grown. At least in appearance, you will look like a fine warrior. Your body tells me that you have a growth spurt coming soon. Good. It will give me more to work with,” Zaichi stated.

A bee buzzed my right ear causing me to flinch and for Zaichi to laugh: “You are bigger than the bee. Why does it scare you? Are you afraid of its sting? There are far worse things to be afraid of.”

“It doesn’t scare me, master. It bothers me and it surprised me.”

“Oh. Nothing should surprise you. You must be able to ignore such distractions without flinching, without being surprised by them,” he told me.

The bee buzzed my right ear again. This time my right shoulder came up instinctively. I flinched again and immediately regretted it.

“We must work on your concentration and focus so that nothing, even pain, will bother you,” Zaichi said.

The bee buzzed my right ear again. This time Zaichi reacted with lightening reflexes by pulling his sword from its cane sheath and sliced the bee into two then he replaced his sword back in its sheath. It took seconds. I didn’t flinch at the sword, which amused Zaichi.

“Better, Sean McCoul, much better. A bee makes you flinch but my sword doesn’t. Very interesting. Maybe you will be a great warrior after all. I sense something in you that I like,” Zaichi remarked.

“That was really, really amazing what you just did,” I stated.

“No, that was skill. Skill is about proficiency. Magic is amazing.”

“Yes, master.”

“I can teach you skill, great skill. We will have one year together at the end of which you will have skill. What level of skill will be up to you?”

“Yes, master.”

“I come from the Dragon Realm. Have you heard of it?” he asked me.

“No, master, I haven’t.”

“Long ago in ancient China and Japan, dragons existed. They were magical creatures that brought luck to the lands, but they needed protection, as oni, tengu, and kappa, evil demons, hunted them for game. Slowly, these wondrous creatures began to disappear from the land, and the land suffered for it. It was then that the great wizard Hanasaka Jiisan opened a doorway into a new realm and ushered the dragons to safety along with a group of men and women to care for them and protect them. I am a descendent of those original people, born to the Dragon Realm and a protector of the Dragon,” explained Zaichi.

“These oni, tengu, and kappa are they allied to the Aes Sidhe, master?”

“Yes, they are allied to them. But we have our allies, too, and good ones,” Zaichi said then lifted his hand and motioned to the fox.

The red fox sauntered over to Zaichi and Sean. The fox licked its chops then it seemed to smile at me, which took me back slightly.

“Isn’t that right, Inari you clever old fox?” Zaichi said to the fox.

“That is true, Zaichi, very true. I am old and clever and a very good ally,” answered the fox in a female voice.

I jumped back. In the last year or so I had seen many surprising things, but a talking fox was a real surprise. The fox laughed at my reaction.

“I am a kitsune, Sean. You do not have to fear me. We are allies to the Dragon Realm. I am here to help Zaichi train you,” Inari told me.

“Yeah, sure,” was my cautious answer.

“Inari is smarter than you or I or you and I combined. She is also magical,” Zaichi told me.

“Okay, all right and she’s a fox. My life keeps getting more and more interesting every day,” I said, though my mind was racing with questions, such as how could a fox help train me?

“You do not have a sword with you, do you, Sean?” asked Zaichi.

“No, master, I don’t.”

“Inari, can you conjure up a proper sword for our new student?”

“Of course, Zaichi,” the fox said then she began to run around in a circle.

After a few seconds a shining white light appeared in the middle of the circle. Slowly, that light formed into a curved blade sword about twenty-four inches long still in its sheath with a square safeguard and a long grip for two hands appeared. It was a katana. The fox stopped running.

“It is from the Dragon Realm. That katana rivals any sword made by the elves and their steel, but don’t tell that to any elves, or they will pout and demand blood. My people conjured that katana,” said Inari.

“Pick up the sword. It is yours. Even after you become Cathal, you may keep that sword,” ordered Zaichi.

I walked over to the sword, bent down, gently picked it up, and held it in my hands for a moment letting my hands become adjusted to the weight of the sword. Zaichi took a deep breath.

“First, you will learn how to draw the sword smoothly from its scabbard; how to treat the sword with great respect; how to draw it seated as well as when you are standing. This is called iaijutsu. This is the art of mental presence and immediate reaction. You must always be aware and you must always be ready. Once I am satisfied with your skill at iaijutsu then we will move to kenjutsu. This is the art of the sword. We will work on the kihon, techniques, until the sword and you are one. Once we have moved on to kenjutsu, we will at first use bamboo swords. I do not want to be responsible for your death before you have a chance to prove that you are the Cathal,” explained Zaichi. “Do you have any questions?”

“Yes, master,” I piped up. “Is a year long enough to learn all I need to learn or will I need more time?”

Inari began to chuckle softly, which seemed to amuse Zaichi. The fox walked up to me and rubbed its body up against my legs then she returned to Zaichi’s side.

“He is smart. He will be a good student for you,” the fox said.

“It was a good question, wasn’t it?” Zaichi said to Inari.

“I think his potential is greater than any I’ve met before,” Inari stated.

“A year will have to be enough time, my student. I will make sure that it is enough time,” Zaichi finally answered me. “Now let us get to work and not waste any more time with talk.”

nnnn

By the end of the first week of working with Zaichi I had managed to gain only a hint of praise for drawing my katana when I was on one knee and not another positive word from the master for all my work. Along with iaijutsu Zaichi began to instruct me also in judo, or the Gentle Way, as he called it. This was being taught as a precursor for work with the sword. According to Zaichi, balance was necessary in using the sword and judo was a great teacher of balance. My body was bruised, battered, and sore from the gentle way, as I had been thrown so many times to the ground that I was starting to spend as much time on my back as on my feet. As a special treat at the week’s end, Nimue showed the equally sore Lance and Benedict to a hot spring before our dinner. She told us to bring the linen short pants she provided us with to use as bathing suits.

The spring was not far into the woods, which I had seen everyday since arriving but I had never explored since my time was not my own. A small very hot springs steamed with water heated from the great furnace of magma beneath the ground. The woods were quiet, only the sounds of some birds and the occasional rustle of animals hiding in the bushes.

“The three of you will find the waters of this hot springs soothing to your sore muscles. It is used by many after hard exercise,” said Nimue. “Please undress and go in.”

“Will you join us, Nimue?” asked Lance sincerely and innocently.

Benedict and I exchanged grins, as we waited for her answer.

“No. I am not sore like you three are, Lance. I will keep watch for you while you relax.”

“Oh, okay,” he said then he began to remove his robe and other clothes until he was down to his linen short black pants. The air had a slight chill.

I was the first to step into the hot water. I grimaced with pain at the extreme heat, hesitating for just a moment then continuing in as my muscles called out for the heat of the water. Sitting on a rock edge I let the water cover me up to my chest and loosen my tight muscles. Next in was Lance, followed finally by Benedict. The three of us allowed the water to assuage our sore bodies.

“Sean,” the female voice of Inari coyly came from the bushes.

I sat up and looked, as did Benedict and Lance, though I was not surprised by the voice. Nimue turned and prepared herself for battle just in case it was a foe. Inari emerged playfully from a bush.

“Hello Sean, Master Zaichi told me to check on you,” Inari said. “He was afraid he had worked you far too hard today and wanted to make sure that you relaxed, so he was able to resume your lesson tomorrow. I see that you are working on relaxing now.”

“I’m fine, Inari. And I’ll be ready for tomorrow.”

Lance and Benedict stared at the fox in utter shock, while Nimue relaxed then she observed Inari closely. Inari slowly came up to the hot springs and sniffed the water.

“Too hot for me. I like things warm but not hot,” she said.

“You can tell Master Zaichi that the hot springs is taking care of my body and he has not worked me too hard. I expect he’ll work me even harder tomorrow.”

“He will,” laughed Inari. “Your master has decided that you will work six days and have one off. Tomorrow will be that day for you to have off.”

“Thank you, Inari. That’s good news,” I replied. “Where is Master Zaichi?”

“The Lady of the Lake has supplied a small abode for him near the lake. He is meditating now by the water. When I return to him, he will make us dinner.”

“I am being rude,” I stated as I realized I hadn’t introduced my friends. “Inari, this is Lance and Benedict, my companions. And that is Nimue, a druid with the Lady of the Lake.”

“Druid,” Inari bowed to Nimue then the fox looked at Lance and Benedict, though I could tell Inari bowed with sarcasm. “As companions to Sean, I invite you sometime in the future to join him in his training for a day.”

“Thanks,” said Benedict excitedly.

“Thank you,” Lance added in a more formal tone.

“Inari, I did not know that Master Zaichi came here with his own magical companion,” Nimue said to the fox.

“I am here to guard Sean and the Master from Aes Sidhe and their allies. It is a duty and a pleasure for me,” Inari stated haughtily.

“We druids are able to do protect those here,” Nimue told the fox.

“Not as well as I can, druid,” Inari said with a sniff then moved over to Lance and Benedict and sniffed them.

Walking close to the water’s edge, she rubbed her nose up against Benedict’s cheek, which made him smile. Inari nuzzled him again then spoke: “You have deep reserves of spiritual energy and gifts that you have not tapped yet. I will show you exercises sometime in the future to tap the energy and unleash those great gifts. I can teach you to be a great intuitive user of nature, like Merlin, and not just a ritual user of magic like druids.”

“That would be great!” Benedict exclaimed.

Inari turned from Benedict and the sniffed Lance. She licked Lance’s left cheek then spoke up: “He is related to the Lady of the Lake. He has suppressed all his spiritual gifts since childhood funneling that great well of spiritual energy into his warrior skills.”

“He has spiritual gifts,” said Nimue in surprise.

“Yes. But they are fading and his warrior gifts are growing daily. He will be a great warrior, but he will never be a druid. He does not trust druids,” Inari said then she sniffed Lance again. “His mother missed an opportunity with him.”

“Lance, is this true?” asked Nimue. “You don’t trust druids?”

“I do not trust them.”

“Do not worry, great warrior. Some druids can be trusted but there are those who cannot be, such as Morgause, who lives with the Aes Sidhe and teaches them, as well as a former Lady of the Lake, Vivianne, sister to the current Lady, Niniane, who trains Medraut’s birth line now. You will find and follow your own path, which is best for you. The lady has turned you out of Avalon because she thinks the future of druids lies in the female, not the male, but she has forgotten the importance of the male. Is not Merlin the most powerful of their kind? No, you have found a home at the side of the next Cathal. Never doubt your choice, young one, it was the right one for you,” Inari told Lance.

“Fox! You speak of painful things with young boys,” Nimue started to call out Inari.

“Do not raise your voice to me druid. You are not powerful enough to deal with me. I am of nature, not a ritual practitioner of nature’s magic. You are not the Lady of the Lake or Merlin,” sniffed Inari.

“You are a guest in Avalon, though,” Nimue warned Inari, “so I recommend you act according to the rules of the realm. Hospitality given shall not be abused. These boys will be told only what the Lady wishes.”

“I do not speak of your hospitality, I merely speak the truth. Now I will go. Master Zaichi is probably done with his meditation now and will want to eat,” Inari stated then she trotted off.

Nimue stood staring at the spot, which Inari had vacated. I knew that there was a strain with the other realms and the druids from Merry, who warned him of this, but I didn’t realize how deep a strain it was. Inari was trying to remind the druids not to act so haughty, as they make mistakes, too. How could he help all these realms get along better?

“Nimue, what was this about Vivianne training Medraut’s bloodline?” asked Lance.

“I cannot speak of her and it is none of your concern,” stated Nimue.

“Nor of Morgause?” asked Benedict.

“No. She is none of your concern, either”

“Why?”

“Because we are embarrassed by our failures,” Nimue answered honestly.

“But wouldn’t it be better to speak of them so that those failures aren’t repeated?” I asked her.

This caused Nimue’s face to redden. She didn’t want to speak of these matters, but our curiosity was now piqued.

“It is not that simple a matter and far beyond the understanding of your kind,” she stated.

“I guess so,” I said. “If a Lady of the Lake goes bad it must cause the other realms to either not trust you or to fear you.”

“You are neither druid nor old enough to understand such things. Obey your elders,” Nimue scolded me.

I stood up out of the hot springs then I looked coldly at Nimue. I was obligated to obey, but I was not obligated to obey without an attitude. My manner caused her to pause. In her eyes I could see that for a moment she no longer saw a boy but the Cathal, who was angered. Getting out of the hot springs, I did not speak to her but collected my clothes. Lance and Benedict got out of the springs, also, and collected their clothes, as well.

Once I was dressed I spoke to her: “Show us where Master Zaichi lives.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I am no longer willing to live under the Lady of the Lake’s roof, as I am not a druid and merely a boy. I will seek shelter with those who accept me for who I am.”

“But, you cannot make that decision,” said Nimue.

“Why? I have been told I am obligated to be in Avalon for a year of training and that is all. I am not a servant. Show me Master Zaichi’s abode. He is my trainer; he will also be my keeper.”

Reluctantly, Nimue prepared to do as I asked: “The Lady will not like this.”

“Tell the lady that she can punish me all she wants if it turns out that I’m not the Cathal,” I told her then I and my companions were off to Zaichi’s.

Advertisements
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: