Struggles in Paradise
Master Zaichi together with the ever, mischievous Inari stood behind me as I was blindfolded and waited as I attempted to discern where they were. As Zaichi taught me, I listened and used my senses to feel everything around me. I listened to the movement of the grass in the wind; felt the direction of the wind; listened for subtle movements of nature and those not of nature; felt the sun on my skin giving me the direction of the sun; and smelled for scents. I took all the information into my brain and decided to trust my instincts and turned to my left and swung with my bamboo sword at the air. Master Zaichi took a stone in his hand and threw it hitting me in the side of the head.
“Ouch!” I cried.
“Instincts are important but your senses are better, more dependable than instincts. That is why we have senses. Trust your senses and stop preferring your instincts,” he ordered then he stormed away towards the large wooden shelter where he, Lance, Benedict, and I now lived.
Inari chuckled: “Animals have better instincts than humans. Our senses are better, also.”
“Thank you for that insight, Inari. It’s real helpful to know right now,” I said rubbing my sore head.
“The fox is right, though. You should listen to her. She has great insight,” declared a black robed Merry as he slowly strolled towards us.
“Merry,” I yelled, dropped my bamboo sword and went running to him.
We hugged for a moment then Merry stepped back to appraise me. He smiled at me as I stood in front of him. I knew that I had made great strides.
“You are no longer a boy, Bear, you are a young man. I would wager that you have grown another two inches and put on another ten pounds of lean muscle,” Merry said with appreciation then I whispered: “And caused all sorts of trouble here, too, Bear.”
“Sorry, Merry,” I said.
“Nothing to be sorry about, Bear. This place needs to have someone shake it up a bit and cause some good trouble for a change,” he replied then he looked at the Fox. “Inari, I presume.”
“Call me Merry.”
“I like Merry better than Merlin,” Inari said. “Merlin is serious and a legend. Merry is a potential friend.”
“Exactly how I feel, Inari,” agreed Merry. “May I speak to Sean in private for a few moments, Inari?”
“Of course, Merry. I will tell Master Zaichi that you are visiting and won’t mind Sean taking time with you.”
“Thank you, Inari.”
The fox trotted off to the hut. Merry draped his right arm around my shoulder and started walked along the lake with me.
“The Lady is furious with you, and that I find amusing and encouraging at the same time,” Merry said.
“Because I think she is as mad about you taking her son away from the palace as well as causing trouble in her realm. Where are Lance and Benedict?”
“They are on a long jog. Master Zaichi has them running for not doing well in their morning training with him. Warriors are guarding them on their run. Lance is being trained by Master Zaichi and Benedict is being trained by Inari,” I informed him.
“Ahh, this is too good to believe. I could not have planned it better myself. How is Benedict doing in his studies?”
“Inari says someday after years of apprenticeship to you that he might be your equal in his spiritual arts. She has convinced him to let go of his barriers and feel his true spiritual powers,” I happily told him.
“Exactly, as I hoped. I knew that he had talent but I wasn’t sure how much talent and if he would ever release it. And Lance?”
“Lance is being trained by Master Zaichi, who says that he too can be a sword master. Lance is thrilled by this fact. Master Zaichi thinks he will be one by the time we leave, too,” I excitedly informed him.
“This is also excellent news. Sean, you have done wonders here. You have nine months to go and you have already shaken things up in Avalon. I had hoped for this, Bear—Druids always undersestimate the human element and its great power. Very well done, Bear,” Merry enthused.
“You are happy about all of this, Merry.”
“Yes, I am.”
“All right, Merry, explain yourself. Why do you side with humans instead of druids?”
“You see, Sean, I am an outcaste in many ways. Avalon, druids, they look at me, he who trained the great Arthur, and think to themselves that he chose the ways of humans over us. It’s time I tell you a little something about Arthur, my friend and student. I often counseled Arthur to do what was best for all the realms not just Avalon and the Human Realm. I encouraged him to think of himself as the protector of all realms that stand in alliance with the Human Realm not a tool of Avalon. Unfortunately, at least in the eyes of Avalon, my counsel led to an invasion of the Avalon led by Medraut that eventually was repelled by Arthur at the cost of his own life and Medraut’s life. He felt great guilt that his decision led to Avalon’s fall to the Aes Sidhe. However, the alternative was the fall of the Human Realm, which I thought was more important than this one. I counseled the protection of the Human Realm over Avalon. I am seen as a traitor in the eyes of many here. As a matter of fact if it wasn’t for my prodigious gifts, I think they would shun me, but, alas, they still need me. Dux Maximi and Ualgargs are human beings, and I understand humanity much better than those who live here because I think of myself as merely a gifted human,” explained Merry.
“No wonder I get the feeling that people are both awed by the mention of your name but also dislike you at the very same time.”
“Yes, I have that effect on them, especially the druids. The warriors think better of me. I elevated them from slave to the druids to warriors who deserved better treatment and rights. This is why I wear a black robe instead of a white one like the rest of the druids. It is the Lady’s way of saying that I am more warrior than druid. Silliness, but I actually prefer the black robe. It doesn’t get dirty easily like the white one does,” Merry smiled.
“Benedict has taken to wearing a black robe now in your honor,” I told him.
“Really. I knew that boy showed great potential and a good mind,” he said with a smile.
“How long are you here for?”
“Until I finish a favor for the Lady,” he told me.
“The Lady of the Lake wants you to repair the relationship between me, Lance, Benedict and her,” I guessed.
“Yes. It seems that you spend all your time with Master Zaichi and show her envoys little respect and say no to most requests that come from her.”
“But I do everything they ask of me without argument when I think it right,” I interjected.
“I bet you do. And I bet you do it with an attitude, too.”
“Is that really why you are here?”
“No, it is only one reason I am here. I missed you, Bear. I wanted to see you,” Merry admitted.
“And I missed you, Merry. How is...everyone?”
“Branwyn is fine. She is moody of course, as she misses you more than most, but fine. Morgana says that all she does is pine for you and practice her gifts, which are starting to flourish. I think she wants to show off that she became almost as gifted as any Fey for your return. I told her that I would give you this,” he said then he took a photograph of her in her overalls and T-shirt with long hair and a smile from his right sleeve and gave it to me.
“Thanks, Merry,” Sean said. “I wish I had a photograph to give her, but this realm allows no technology because they say it corrupts.”
“They are right,” Merry replied then looked around to make sure no one saw him. He took a disposable camera out of his other sleeve and took a picture of Sean. “Don’t tell anyone. And remind me to get a picture of Lance and Benedict later for their families.”
“You are the best, Merry.”
“Am I? That’s nice to hear,” he said and we began strolling along the lake again. “I am going to try to repair things a bit while I’m here, though, maybe, not quite the way the Lady expects them repaired. Why don’t we discuss a plan of action to make this help this realm?”
“Whatever you say, Merry.”
“I like the sounds of that.”
“I’m glad we can have a meeting under civil conditions,” the Lady of the Lake stated with a less than civil tone.
Merry and I sat on large pillows at the table in the personal chamber of the Lady of the Lake. She, too, sat on a large soft pillow, as her table was only one foot six inches tall. On the table were mixed vegetables and fruits, as well as grass rice and drinks made from several fruits found only on Avalon.
“Receiving civility from Avalon is the best I can expect,” said Merry.
“I was speaking to he that would be the heir to Arthur,” The Lady retorted.
“I know you meant it for Sean, yet I still managed to say what I did,” said Merry, who then took a grape and popped it into his mouth.
“I like what Master Zaichi serves for food better than this,” I commented.
“Really?” said Merry. “What does he serve?”
“Fish, fowl, and occasional deer,” I answered.
“Master Zaichi is the only one allowed to hunt for food here in Avalon,” stated the Lady.
“Yes. It is a shame. I like a good venison steak now and again, too,” commented Merry.
“You eat meat, Merlin?” asked the Lady with great horror.
“Yes. But only cooked and well-prepared meat. I especially like a Hardee’s cheeseburger.”
“That is just another difference between you and I, Merlin. We revere nature here and do not abuse her animals.”
“The last time I checked fruit and vegetables were part of nature, yet you eat them. As for abusing animals, animals eat other animals, so as long as you don’t hunt for pleasure but for food, I don’t think it abusive. It can be a sign of respect and I respect nature,” Merry countered her.
“Again, we disagree, Merlin. Now I understand why the boy who would be Arthur shows such disrespect for the Lady of the Lake.”
“Oh, Niniane, stop trying to be haughty and aloof like your sister. Vivianne was a very impressive Lady of the Lake until she turned traitor and joined the Aes Sidhe. Do you really want to be impersonating her?”
“Let us not speak of my sister in front of the child,” the Lady demanded.
“He already knows many of our secrets, including why I am so disdained here,” Merry said.
“I don’t show Avalon disrespect, or, at least, any more disrespect than Avalon has shown me, Lady,” I finally spoke up.
“What disrespect has been shown to you since you have been here?” demanded the Lady.
“Well, first, I’m a potential Cathal, not a new Arthur, at least, I don’t think of myself as a new Arthur. And, as far as I know, I am not an Ualgarg.”
“You feel pressure being compared to Arthur,” remarked the Lady.
“No, I feel annoyed by it. In my opinion I’d rather be like my father, a man I admired and loved, than like someone I never met,” I admitted.
“Liam was a very good man, but so was Arthur, Bear,” Merlin told me, as I could hear sadness of Arthur in his voice.
“Are you sure this boy will pass Bealtaine, Merlin?” asked the Lady.
“Yes, I am. I am as sure that he will pass as I was sure that his father would not,” Merry answered.
I glared at Merry. I didn’t like the idea of Merry having doubted my father.
“You didn’t believe in my father?” I asked Merry.
“I believed in Liam, as a person. I knew he wasn’t the Cathal.”
“Your father had the courage, the strength, even the insight to be the one, but he lacked something ineffable, a something that I believe you have.”
“And what is that ineffable something, Merlin?” asked the Lady.
“It is just a feeling, a silly little human feeling, something that you have cut yourself off from, Niniane. There is great power in silly little human feelings.”
“I am the Lady of the Lake.”
“And I am the Merlin, yet I get no respect for my position or from my people. I don’t whine about it.”
“Myrrydin, do you deserve such respect from us?” asked the Lady.
“As much as you do, Lady.”
A silence and a chill fell over the room. Merry and the Lady stared into each other’s eyes for several long moments. The long silence between them almost felt as though any second they would begin arguing in very loud voices.
“Sean, shall we inform the Lady what we have decided to do about things?”
“Of course, Merry.”
“Allow me to explain then,” Merry said then he took a sip of his drink. “Lance and Benedict will resume staying in the palace, as they are invited guests and do not need to be here but are here because of your good will. Benedict will spend morning with druid teachers and afternoons being instructed by Inari, who has made great strides with him. As for Lance he will train mornings with your warriors and afternoons being tutored by Zaichi along with Sean. As you know that is a great benefit for Lance.”
“What about our once and maybe Arthur here?” the Lady asked sardonically.
“He will stay with Zaichi for the duration of his time here. Master Zaichi believes this will benefit him. Sean will live and train with him and Inari, but once a month he will dine with the Lady of the Lake, as a sign of respect. If the Lady wishes to put him on display for a dinner with allies that will be fine. If she wishes to dine alone with him, and companions and get to know the potential future Cathal, as well as a potential Merlin and her son. How does that sound?”
“It sounds satisfactory,” answered the Lady. “Benedict, may be a Merlin like you?”
“He may be a Merlin. I’m not sure if he will be one like me.”
She smiled for the first time for the evening. Merry noticed this and knew the reason why: “He is already corrupted by humanity, Niniane. He is loyal to Sean; he loves his parents; and I have already promised to mentor him when he returns from Avalon, as long as he makes the right strides. He was thrilled with that news, but agreed only to proceed if I let him train with warriors also. I agreed to it.”
“Why do you hate your own people so much, Merlin?”
“I don’t hate my people, Lady. I love humanity and always have. I just think it a shame that druids no longer consider themselves human. You are human. You know that deep down, even if you pretend otherwise.”
“We have lived in this Realm, we have lived on Avalon, since humanity turned their backs on us and chose to follow another path,” the Lady stated icily.
“Imagine that. They turned their backs on those who expected to be treated with reverence and awe. Most of humanity doesn’t take well to having to treat equals with reverence and awe,” Merlin goaded her.
“Do you accept the proposition that has been made here, Lady?” I asked trying to curtail their argument.
“I accept it under one condition,” she said.
“And that condition would be?” asked Merry.
“On the last day before he leaves we intend on asking representatives from the allied realms here for a great feast in Sean’s honor. You will come, Merlin, and be on your best behavior, as well as get your ward beside you to be on his. Is that acceptable?”
“You intend to show that Sean and I are your loyal subjects with this feast, don’t you, Lady?” said Merlin.
“I intend on a feast to show unity...”
“Under the druids,” Merlin finished the thought for her.
“Merlin, don’t you trust the Lady of the Lake?”
“It depends which one you speak of. There have been several I not only have trusted but I have loved, but that is another story.”
“And this is the end of another dinner,” the Lady stated then she stood up.
“No dessert?” Merry asked sarcastically.
“We have an understanding now. That will have to do for dessert for now.”
“Oh, yummy,” Merry smiled.
Zaichi used just his sense of hearing and smell and easily blocked my attacks with a bamboo sword. I tried to attack from different positions, varying speeds, even different styles, but the sword master effortlessly blocked everything I attempted. Merry and Inari watched it all with great amusement.
“Is not Master Zaichi brilliant?” asked Inari.
We could hear them talk about us as we fought.
“He is experienced and gifted, but brilliant is such an overused word. I will call him expert and professional,” Merry countered her.
“I think him brilliant nonetheless.”
“How long have you known Master Zaichi?” asked Merry.
“Since he was a small boy and still had his sight. We are old friends.”
“How did he lose his vision, Inari?”
“When he was six a tengu invaded our realm to kill a dragon for sport. Since tengu are sneaky creatures, no one knew that it was there. Young Zaichi was feeding a hatchling while its mother watched over them when this tengu appeared. Being brave he didn’t run, but stood his ground to fight the tengu, which spat a poison into his eyes blinding him. I came along just as this evil creature was about to slay both the boy and the dragon and stopped it with my magic. I taught him how to see without seeing by using his sense. He taught himself the sword. The tengu hate him because he survived and became their bane,” explained Inari.
“You are proud of him,” remarked Merry.
“No more than you are of the boy you have trained,” said Inari. “He is good, your student.”
“Yes, he is,” Merry proudly agreed.
“Zaichi will have him ready for his test at Bealtaine. Your student will be like forged steel ready to succeed where so many have failed ahead of him,” Inari told him.
“No, no, no,” called out Zaichi drawing Inari and Merry’s attention. “You keep attacking me thinking only of your attacks, but not of your opponent. Think of me, young one. Think of what I am capable of; what skills I possess and base your attack on that?”
“What if your opponent’s skills are too formidable?” I asked.
“No enemy is without weakness, not even a Cathal. You must know your weakness, so it can not be exploited, or that it might become a strength for you,” Zaichi stated. “What is my weakness?”
“You cannot see.”
“And have I turned it into a strength?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“So turn it back into a weakness,” commanded Zaichi.
I stopped for a moment and thought about Zaichi command. The sword master had a weakness and it was obvious, too. Blindness was his weakness, which he compensated for by honing his other senses. There was the answer: turn his senses against him.
I looked around me. There were yellow and sage flowers blooming not too far from me. Zaichi’s olfactory could be overwhelmed by then then there still was his hearing remaining and taste. I needed to overwhelm him completely. Touch would not be a problem, as it would not get close enough for that. But there was something else about Zaichi. He had a certain instinct that was almost like a sense. How do you confuse instinct, I tried to think then an answer occurred to me: surprise.
Running over to the blooming flowers I grabbed a handful and stuck them in my belt. Next, I ran towards a few rocks and stones and picked them up a decent size grey stone with some weight and held it in my left hand, while my sword occupied my right hand. I was now almost ready for my planned attack against my master.
Taking a few deep breaths, I readied myself. I placed my bamboo sword on the ground and removed the flowers from my belt then I moved as silently as hI could towards Zaichi waiting for the right moment. A breeze came along and I crumbed the flowers in my hand releasing their scent into the air. I then moved silently to my left. Next, I took the stone and readied it for throwing while I removed from my belt a knife, which I kept in its sheath. I threw the stone hitting Inari in the butt causing her to yelp loudly and Zaichi to turn towards her to check what was wrong then I threw the sheathed knife hitting Zaichi in the shoulder.
“He cheated,” cried out Inari with great disappointment.
“He improvised. That isn’t cheating, it’s thinking,” Merry corrected her.
Zaichi turned and faced me. He had a broad smile on his face: “You learned; very good, student. It was not a killing blow, but you got by my defenses. Next time I will be ready for minor subterfuge.”
“So I will need major subterfuge the next time,” I said.
“Exactly. Though, I think now we will work on you beating me fairly. Our lesson is done for the day,” Zaichi happily told me.
“Thank you, master.”
Nodding his head in appreciation, Zaichi turned and strolled towards the lake so that he could meditate. Inari left Merry’s side and ran along side of him. The two continued side by side. Merry joined me.
“Well done, Bear,” he said to me.
“I was just using what I had been taught. You can tell Chota that I used more than a little of what he taught me against a sword master.”
“He will be proud to hear that.”
“Merry, I still have a long way to go.”
“I know that, Bear, though it is good to know that you know it,” Merry said. “I must leave today.”
“Why leave so soon?”
“The Lady has decided that it is time for me to leave. Though she agreed to our deal, she is more than a little peeved at both of us. Ladies of the Lake never liked being outmaneuvered. I hope some quality time with her son will rekindle her humanity, so to speak.”
Before we could say their goodbyes, two female druids in white robes approached Zaichi’s encampment. Merry smiled when he saw them, as he recognized them.
“Ahh, have you met Lance’s siblings, Bear?” asked Merry.
“You will now. It appears that the Lady is going to try to butter you up. Is that the right expression?”
“It’s an expression, Merry.”
As they got closer I saw that the two druid females were close in age, only a few years older than me. One had blond hair down to her shoulder and delicate features and the other had raven black and strong features that reminded me of a much more attractive version of her mother. With them close, I saw the dark haired one was at least 5 feet eleven inches and the other almost two inches shorter. They finally reached us.
“Merlin and Sean McCoul,” the dark haired one greeted us with a sensuous voice, “a pleasure to see you.”
“Nan, a pleasure,” Merlin greeted her then looked at her sister, “and Tegan.”
“Merlin,” Tegan said shyly.
“Have you come to say goodbye?” asked Merry.
“Unfortunately, we have. Our mother has had us going through our final training, which meant six months in seclusion ending today. This is our first chance to meet Sean McCoul and to visit with you,” Nan said.
“Thank you for reuniting us with our brother,” added Tegan.
“Did your mother send you here?” asked Merry, who then listened carefully to the answer.
“Yes,” said Nan. “She thought our beauty would awe young Sean, who is not so young, and who I believe loves a Fey. What chance does a druid have against a Fey?”
Tegan flinched at the answer. This answer caused Merry to smile. Nan was not to be used by her mother. As for Tegan, she was sweet with a hint of duplicity.
“How did you know about the Fey?” I asked.
“I could sense a connection between you and a Fey. It is very strong,” said Nan.
“Her name is Branwyn and she is three quarters Fey.”
“Which makes her almost complete Fey,” said Tegan with a hint of disdain.
“She must be lovely,” commented Nan with sincerity.
“She is. Thank you. What does Nan stand for?” I asked her causing her to blush slightly.
“My mother has burdened me with a difficult name. Nan is short for Nantosuelta. I am named for a Goddess of fertility and water,” she answered. “Do you like it?”
“I like Nan better,” I replied.
“I do, too.”
“Sister, should we escort Merlin to a doorway? He is to leave today,” Tegan queried.
“Tegan is elder by twenty months,” Merry said, “but she likes to act as if she is the younger. It is her way of surprising people. Isn’t that right, Nan?”
“My sister does not like to give away too much information about herself. You have to work for it, if you want to know her,” Nan said with a smirk.
“Please, Tegan, escort me. Nan can stay here and get to know, Bear.”
“Bear?” I asked.
“It is my nickname.”
“I like it. Bear,” she said.
“But, sister, we should escort Merlin together. He deserves the respect,” Tegan stated.
“We do not escort out of respect, sister, but to make sure he leaves. You can do that alone,” Nan said then she walked up to me and lopped her right arm through my left arm. “Let us take a stroll and get to know each other.”
“Um, Merry, you are leaving,” I hesitated.
“Sean, I will be back in a few months. Go with Nan. I have a feeling she is going to be a good friend,” Merry told him and Sean and Nan walked slowly away from them. “Shall we be going, Tegan. Your mother will want a full report right away.”
“Yes, Let us go.”