The Birth of Modern Merlin

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Chapter 27

The next afternoon

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Isle of Mull

I never met anyone who waited well. You would think Marcus, Arthur and I, people who experienced the passage of time differently than average humans, would be better prepared to hold our emotions in check and think rationally as the clock ticked slower. No; we didn’t handle this down time well. As Friday became Saturday, we did the math, figuring out the earliest time Marcus and Nessie might return, if everything went perfectly. What a waste! All it did was make us more anxious as the afternoon progressed.

Mid-afternoon; something was up. Animals sense disruptions before humans so when the two flying, fairie horses started to snort and neigh, Scratch and Etchemin noticed.

“What is it, boy?” said Scratch, running his hand along the horse’s long mane, trying to calm him down.

BOOM-BOOM…BOOM-BOOM…BOOM-BOOM. Three ear piercing, chest thumping sonic booms, in quick succession, rattled the four of us, sending the horses into a tizzy. The ocean rippled with new waves, fresh whitecaps moving south to north, creating an identifiable trail behind these fast moving objects.

“Speed fairies, on the deck,” said Etchemin, “Mach 1; maybe 1.1. When those fly boys amp up, they really bring it.”

“Hop on, boys,” said Scratch, untying his horse. “Let’s ride; we’ll double up, git us some elevation. Let’s see what’s go’n on, up yonder.”

Doubling up on a flying horse isn’t like riding double on an earth bound horse. The flying horse’s wings attach to their bodies where you would normally place your legs if you were the second rider. So Arthur and I had to sit on the flying fairie horse’s back and wrap our legs around Scratch and Etchemin’s waists, then hold on for dear life. It was, a-hem, a “peculiar experience.”

We cleared the treetops and rose higher, above the height of the nearby mountains for an unobstructed view to the south. First, it was one fairie; then another, and another. After ten minutes the northbound numbers tripled. Within a half hour, hundreds of ecstatic fairies flew in every direction, their wings spread freely for the first time in ages. For many, it was their first flight, their first taste of freedom.

One of those newly freed fairies, a friend of Scratch and Etchemin, pulled up his flying horse when he recognized them circling over our campsite.

“Hey, Scratch,” said the old grizzled, cowboy. “You go’n t’ the show? Adele’s on the main stage tonight.”

“Rufus,” said Scratch, “The Injun ’n me, we don’t know nuth’n. Been here two days. What happened?”

“Oh, Scratch, you missed it, bro. We’s free. Outta there! That guy, rid’n the dragon? He done it. He freed us.”

“The First Nation captives; are they alright?” asked Etchemin, concerned for his Canadian born brethren.

“They fine; everybody fine,” exclaimed the newly freed cowboy, overflowing with joy. “Them Cherokee friends of you’rn did yus people proud. They had this medicine man, knew’d what were happn’n a fore it were happn’n. Some of them Scotch fairies say he have the second sight. Them Cherokees start to whoop’n and holler’n, git’n everbody all het up. We knowed sumpt’n go’n down. I gits me a place by the windeh and I can seez all the way to the festival. Place were packed with folk watch’n the music.

Then the room took t’ shak’n and mov’n, like an earthquake were on us, bad. But twern’t no earthquake, it were the freedom man on the dragon, come to set us free.

That damned wall, it were gone, Scratch, GONE, I tell you. Oh, you shoulda been there. We start fly’n out of there; Din’t matter which way, we wuz jist go’n.

I folle’d that dragon to the festival and all the folk there just stop party’n when he fly over. It were right ’bout 8 o’clock, right after ZZ Top done play’n.”

“I know ZZ Top,” said Scratch. “They a bunch of good ol’ boys from Texas. It musta been ’85 or ’86. I were rid’n a cattle car thru Amarilla when I hear’d they was near, soz I…

“Shut up, Scratch,” said Etchemin, now annoyed at his partner who never missed a chance to talk Texas. “Rufus rode a long way to give us the good news. Let him finish. Go ahead, Rufus, pay him no mind.”

“So I git t’ the front, down near what they call the pyramid stage. And the next band, Foals, they be all ready t’ go. But the dragon, he be hang’n there, hover’n. But this tall dude got his back t’ the stage. He say Foals put on the best live show in the UK. But he can’t see the dragon ’cause he ain’t look’n dat way. But I seez ’im; the crowd, de seez ’im, and den the tall dude turns ’round, and he seez ’im too. Den the dragon rears up. The dude rid’n ’im sez, ‘Arise my darl’n and fly. Let us kiss the moon.’ And off they go. The crowd be freak’n out. The band start t’ play’n and the tall dude sez t’ iz mate, ‘see, I tolds ya.’ He think the dragon part of da show. I still laugh’n. It were real funny, Scratch; ya shoulda been there. Ya oughta go t’ the show; festival ends t’morrah, if ye kin make it.”

“Thank ya, kindly, Rufus,” said Scratch, “me ’n the Injun here be on a bidness trip. Az soon as we be finish, I be head’n home. Git me some ribs. Some dat Luziana hot sauce. Git me some new boots. Yeee, HA!!! TEXAS!!! I be com’n for ye, honey!

Let’s ride, Canoe Man; I ain’t got no more time for no UK nuth’n.”

Rufus rode on, to continue with the fairies’ wild celebration, and the four of us descended to our isolated campsite to await Marcus’s return.

“I know you two boys want to get back to North America as soon as possible,” said Arthur as we climbed down from atop the horses. “But can you stay with us just a little while longer, at least until Marcus gets back. In case something goes wrong.”

“We’d be happy to, Your Majesty. Won’t we?” said Etchemin, now glaring at Scratch.

Scratch’s mind was already back in Texas, floating on a pontoon boat in the middle of Lake Travis on a hot, windless day, sweat pouring out of every pore in his body, seventeen naked women on board to answer his every call, mostly for another cold beer.

“Won’t we?” said Etchemin, again, now whacking him on the head with his hat, waking him from his dreams of Texas yet to come.

“What? What cha do that for?” said Wilson Kilbride, annoyed he was awakened from his dream, his mind plunging back into the present.

“That would be a ‘Yes,’ Your Majesty. We would be happy to stay, for as long as you need us,” said Etchemin.

The four of us settled in, a rerun of the boring, do nothing time, putzing around the campsite. At least we knew Marcus was successful and the Glastonbury gulag was history. All we could do was wait for our two heroes to return.

Saturday night turned Sunday morning. No sign of Marcus and Nessie. I was content to wait, knowing our most optimistic hopes and expectations might be off by a wide margin. Arthur, too, seemed his normal self, calm and in control. Scratch slept most of the time. But it was the wily, experienced Algonquin warrior who was most concerned. When he suggested it was time to mount up and head south, despite the dark, late hour, Arthur was quick to take his advice.

Arthur loaded Excalibur into the long, leather scabbard normally meant to hold a rifle then climbed on Etchemin’s horse. We were off, headed south, flying over the dark waters off the west coast of Scotland.

This flying ride was the most uncomfortable long trip I ever took. This wasn’t Nessie’s platform, a luxury flight by comparison. Her huge size and broad graceful wing flaps smoothed the ride, turning a flight with her into a soaring, majestic experience. I now rode on the back of a flying, fairie horse, in the dark, my cold feet buried in the crotch of a man easily distracted by dreams of home. If he fell asleep, we might plunge into the cold, icy ocean below. The up and down ride was worse than a squared tired drive on Pothole Boulevard in the rumble seat of a ’31 Ford. I was one unhappy Time Pilot.

We flew 80 miles to a point over the ocean, just south of Islay, where I expected a course correction if we were to follow the most likely route Marcus and Nessie took towards Glastonbury. However, just as Scratch was about to turn to the south east, into the skies above the North Channel, the green marble rock from Iona, buried deep inside my pocket, started to glow green.

I don’t know if I would have noticed if it started to glow during the day and wasn’t seated as I was. But in the dark, with my trousers’ pocket positioned forward of my eyes, I saw the rock glowing through the fabric.

Scratch continued on his new, south east course. The rock stopped glowing.

“No, no, no,” I exclaimed, sitting up smartly, shouting in Scratch’s ear. “Stay on the previous course.”

“The Irish Sea,” said Scratch, pointing to a spot in the far distance, south east. “He went thataway; right?”

“Yes,” I said. “But we need to keep heading south.”

“That’s stupid,” said Scratch. “That be Ireland, over yonder. He din’t go there.”

“How much longer can the horses fly before they get tired?” I asked.

“We be good, for now,” he said. “But it ain’t like we kin jus stop and rest ’em a bit. We over the ocean. We gotta keep mov’n. They get tired, some point. If that be over water, we fish food.”

“I understand. Since we’re good for now, let’s head back on that previous course. I have a hunch that’s where we need to go.”

“OK,” said Scratch. “You the boss, boss.”

He pulled the reins to the right, correcting our course. Within thirty seconds the green rock began to glow again.

We flew on this heading for another five minutes before I got the idea to course correct again, to see what happened. When Scratch pulled the reins to the right and we headed out to sea, the green rock began to glow even brighter, pulsing more frequently. I felt my hunch was paying off, even though we were well off the Irish coast.

As the first rays of Sunday’s sunlight began to creep over the eastern horizon, we entered the danger zone. If we were in an automobile with the fuel gage close to empty, I could estimate how much longer we could drive before we had to scrub the mission and head towards land. But these were horses, not cars. I had no clue how much longer they could hold up under double weight and still have enough muscle power to make it safely back to the Irish mainland. I didn’t even know if we were headed in the right direction. But the glowing rock was a convincing reminder of the special nature of our mission and since it now began to vibrate in my pocket as well as glow, I felt compelled to follow its siren’s call and continue our all or nothing course towards the wide open Atlantic.

As the first rays of pure, sunlight blasted the night, the whole of the open ocean lit up, greatly aiding our search for, I don’t know; a floating dead dragon? Maybe.

All through the night, Arthur rode behind Etchemin on the second horse. He saw the green glow of the rock so he was content to stay on our wing and follow us. Etchemin, more responsible than Scratch, kept a steady eye, looking everywhere, below and forward, always alert, always focused. Now that he could see clearly, from horizon to horizon, the vigilant Algonquin warrior was the first to notice the large sailboat drifting aimlessly towards the south with Nessie’s regal head riding high above the waves beside her. He called out, in his native language, “Wàbi”, meaning “See,” and pointed towards the boat, adrift in the distance. It was Poseidon’s Trident. Protecting her from potential enemies who might threaten her or her master, asleep below, the virtuous young dragon swam next to the boat, on guard, vigilant.

We started our descent. Nessie recognized us and became very animated, snorting and flapping her wings, in and out of the water. The commotion was enough to wake Marcus and he emerged from below as we glided closer towards the boat.

Scratch turned his head back to me and said, “We gots a problem, boss.” Fly’n fairie horses ain’t like your dragon, cain’t hover none. They’s either mov’n or they’s stopp’n. That ity bity boat ain’t got no place to land. Whatch ya want ta do?”

Scratch was right. No way a horse could stand upright on a bobbing, tossing boat long enough so I could climb off, even if there was enough clear space to land. It looked like I would have to jump, take my chances.

Then I realized what that involved. The sailboat’s tall mast was supported by the boat’s forestay and backstay, high tension steel cables which ran from the top of the mast to the bow and stern. Then there were the wire shrouds, amidships, steel cables which held the mast in place, preventing it from moving side to side. If the horse tried to fly close enough to drop me off, it might get tangled in the mast’s support structure, likely injuring the horse, dooming the attempt to failure.

There was only one way I was getting on board that sailboat. I was going to get wet. This seemed to be a recurring pattern in my life.

We settled into a holding pattern, like jetliners stacked up over Heathrow. We couldn’t wait too long, the horses were tired, they needed to get back to land, quickly. We circled low above the boat, slow enough so I could talk to Marcus and tell him what we needed him to do. I only had a few seconds when I was close enough for him to hear. I needed to make my instructions short, loud and clear.

“Get the ring buoy and line,” I shouted. “Toss it as soon as I hit the water.”

Marcus heard me and understood, giving me a thumbs up as we flew past the boat.

Arthur and Etchemin were close enough that I could tell them what I planned to do.

When Marcus was ready, ring buoy in hand, the rope coiled, I gave him the signal. Scratch started to make his low and slow approach, getting me as close to the side of the boat as he could.

It felt like I was on a bomber, the wily pilot about to make the turn to begin the bomb run. The only difference…I was the bomb.

“Thanks for everything, Scratch. We appreciate all your help,” I said as we made our final approach. “Just drop me off then get mov’n back towards land. You got an appointment with Miss Texas, I recon.”

“If you say so, boss,” he said, smiling at the thought, now reaching back to shake my hand. “Tell you dragon man that all Texas love him for what he done. And you dragon, too. If you ever git ta Del Rio, look me up.”

I slapped him on the shoulder as a big ‘thank you’ and prepared to take the plunge.

Scratch steered his flying fairie horse as close to the boat as he dared. As soon as we were abreast of the boat’s stern, I jumped. Scratch instantly spurred his horse forward, its wings flapping harder as Scratch pulled the reins to the left. They veered sharply, then up and away, bomb run complete, heading now for the rest and safety of the Irish coast.

It was a perfect drop. Though I fell about fifteen to twenty feet, the fall and subsequent splash didn’t hurt and I bobbed to the surface just ten feet off the port side of the boat. Marcus was quick with the buoy throw, putting it directly over my head. After a few tugs on the rope, I flopped up, over and in, safely in the cockpit of the boat.

“Permission to come aboard, captain,” I said, saluting Marcus.

“Permission granted,” he said. “Nice to see you again; glad you found us.”

I was curious. What happened? Why was he here, in the middle of the ocean? No time for answers, though. There were more important things to worry about; the story could wait.

“We’re not done,” I told Marcus. “Arthur has to come aboard, too. His situation is a bit more complex. He’s got Excalibur.”

No way Arthur could make that same jump holding Excalibur; it was heavy. I felt its weight when the Lady of the Loch first handed me the sword, back on Coll. Even though I only sank a few feet and came to rest on the silty bottom of the loch, I was still able to walk out with the sword in my hand. I knew…Arthur wouldn’t be able to swim to the surface if he had to overcome the weight of the heavy sword.

Around and around they flew, the horse tiring with each succeeding circle, each pass limited to a few shouted words as we tried to figure out what we needed to do to get both Arthur and Excalibur safely on board.

Toc, tic, toc… Toc, tic, toc.

In the end, we decided on two passes. The first, high above the center of sailboat, would be the most difficult. Arthur would need to drop Excalibur from a position above the top of the mast so the horse stayed free of the boat’s rigging. The sword drop needed to be precise. If it wasn’t, the sword would fall into the water and sink to the bottom of the ocean, gone forever. Since the sword’s center of gravity skewed towards its handle; it would probably fall, handle down. There was even a chance Excalibur could land safely then bounce right out of the boat. The odds did not look good; a low percentage drop. But we had no choice, time was running out.

Etchemin brought the tired horse around to make its final run towards the drop zone. Arthur retrieved the sword from its leather scabbard, took hold of it by its tip, handle down, and waited for the precise moment to make the drop.

Marcus and I waited anxiously on board. He was positioned on the stern side of the boat, I was stationed more towards the bow, each prepared to throw ourselves towards the bouncing sword and grab it before Excalibur had the chance to fall over the side… IF we were lucky enough to be in the right position in the first place.

Arthur dropped the heavy, streamlined sword. With little drag to slow its fall, Excalibur accelerated quickly, gaining speed. So when the sword hit the water three feet off the port side of the boat, it hardly made a ripple and continued its journey to Davy Jones’ Locker below.

My heart sank with that silver sword. My head drooped; so did Marcus’s. At one point I looked overhead and saw Arthur’s noble head in the same, hang dog position.

On Etchemin’s next pass, Arthur jumped from the flying horse. Marcus threw Arthur the ring buoy, we pulled him aboard then watched and waved goodbye as Etchemin flew off towards the Irish coast. That did not end well, either. As Marcus and Arthur discussed our options, I retrieved the boat’s binoculars and watched Etchemin and his flying fairie horse ride off, towards the coast of Ireland. The exhausted horse gave us all he had. It wasn’t enough. Much to my horror, I watched the brave Algonquin warrior and his noble horse fall from the sky, exhausted. Within minutes, their flailing bodies were consumed by the angry Atlantic, multiplying our depression tenfold.

It’s strange when metaphor and reality become one and the same. I was adrift, both in life and on the ocean. It sucked!

Could things ever get worse than they were right now? Sure they could. Misery always has room for more despair. When the emotions surrounding our dramatic boarding, sword drop and witness to death subsided a bit, my anxiety cranked right up again when I realized Eilidh was not on board. Where was she?

“I know you don’t want to hear this right now,” said Marcus, sitting down beside me in the cockpit. “I found this when Nessie and I got here, late last night. I thought you’d want to know.”

He handed me a soaking wet, blue nylon windbreaker. It was Eilidh’s, the one she wore the day we first met when I saw her standing on the dock at the Glen Watt distillery, her reddish brown hair, like the blue windbreaker, blowing in the stiff, Argyll breeze.

“We were on our way back,” said Marcus. “I wanted to head north; Nessie insisted on heading out to sea. I couldn’t break her resolve. She must have picked up the scent of all the green marble we still have on board. After we arrived and I came aboard, I searched every inch of the boat. I opened every cupboard and closet, looked behind every bilge pump, opened every sail locker. I didn’t find her. She’s not here, Magnus. As you can see, the boat’s trashed. Somebody boarded her and ripped everything apart. I guess they didn’t find what they wanted.

Then I found this windbreaker. It was snagged on a line trailing behind us. I don’t know if it means anything, or not. I’m sorry. I know it’s not what you wanted to hear.”

“Thanks,” I said. A deep, profound sorrow crawled into every pore on my body. “I’d like to be alone for a while.”

Marcus and Arthur understood and went below, leaving me to my thoughts and tears.

I moved to the bow, my special place, and sat on the familiar anchor line, just as in better times, one leg hanging down over the port side bow, the other over the starboard. The first time I sat here was a time before Eilidh, another time I contemplated my unknown future. Those were still fresh memories, memories of our motoring west through the widening waters of the River Clyde when my future was still ripe with hope and expectation. How things had changed.

Dogs and dragons must be cut from the same bolt of cloth. As any dog owner will tell you, they know when you’re feeling blue. They show up at the exact moment when you could use some kindness and affection. As I sat astride the bow, Nessie swam in my direction with exactly that on her mind. She bent her massive head forward to nuzzle at my pocket, looking for her favorite green rock, looking to play her favorite game. I could do that; she was such a fine companion. I succumbed to her demands.

“Good girl, Nessie; good girl.”

I tossed the green marble rock into the ocean and told her to “stay” making her wait a bit for the rock to sink. When enough time passed and I gave her the “OK” to dive, she buried her head in the water, head down, tail up, and flapped her way to the bottom, easily finding the stone before returning to the surface to start another round.

It was good therapy. I had nothing else to do; I was content to play a while. It brought me back to that wonderful time on Loch Ness when we first met the playful dragon. It reminded me of that last, wholesome hour before Swede went away with Nimue, when Eilidh and I took turns throwing rocks and tridents into the loch’s deep waters for Nessie to retrieve as our budding love began to cement itself in our hearts.

Oh, how I would love to go back in time to relive that one special hour.

As I mindlessly played fetch with Nessie, tossing and retrieving, tossing and retrieving, thinking more about the past than the present, I wasn’t paying close attention to what my fun loving dog dragon was doing. Instead of retrieving the same old green rock, now mangled beyond recognition by her sharp teeth, up came something else. It was long, silvery and glistened in the morning sunshine. Nessie dropped it at my side. It was Excalibur.

I’m sure my precious dragon expected me to toss it back into the water and continue our little game. Sorry, girl; not going to happen.

I picked up the magnificent sword and cradled it in my arms. I sobbed, the sound muffled by the brisk wind blowing over the open Atlantic, yet my tears continued to flow. These were tears of joy mingled with tears of sorrow. Joy over the second chance I received to complete my sacred mission. Sorrow over all the lives lost back on Coll, at Cnocan na Ban.

I stood up from my seat and dismissed Nessie with yet another well-earned, “good girl.” But before I returned to the cabin, to show Arthur and Marcus the good news, I said a short, heart felt prayer for the fairies who gave their lives and my absent E’s: Eilidh and Etchemin, one dead and one missing in action.

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