The Calling - Merry's Apprentice

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Chapter 10

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.”

*********

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 their 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.

********

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 you 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 I am? 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 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 prefect 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. He hoped, though, that the room chosen for him, 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 embroided 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 him.

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 bookshelves 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 betweens 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 encourageingly.

“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.

*********

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 using his cane to lead him he 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 hr 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 him?

“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.”

*********

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 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 birthline 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 he 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.

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 and I and my companions were off to Zaichi’s.

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