The Calling - Merry's Apprentice

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Chapter 6

Month 11

Werewolves and the Highland Games

_______________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s Kieran and Fintain?” I asked.

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

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

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

“What do you have?”

“How about cold brisket sandwiches with macaroni salad?”

“Sounds good to me,” replied Chota.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll get it,” Lucan said.

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

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

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

I opened the door slightly and peered in. Nothing had been changed much about the room. My books were still there in my room, as well as his computer, his PS 3 and games, and my clothes, which no longer fit me, as well as my collectible 12inch figures that my father used to buy him. There was a time I thought I could not live without any of those items, but I was wrong. I hadn’t missed any of his stuff.

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

“Food is ready,” called Lucan.

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

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

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

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

“Why not me?”

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re a smart man,” remarked Chota.

“Yeah, I know.”

*********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does that mean?” I asked.

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

“What tests?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, sure.”

“What’s wrong?”

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

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

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

“No, it wasn’t fair,” he agreed.

“It must have deeply hurt him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Greetings,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“No, you honor me.”

*********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why are you here?” I asked her.

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

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Well, you were right,” I admitted.

“I hate being right.”

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

“Yeah, you’re right,” she giggled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Life is really confusing.”

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t leave you.”

“You have to ...”

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

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

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

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

“How?”

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

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

She was taken slightly aback: “Why?”

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

“You care for me?” she blushed.

“Yes,” I said gruffly.

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I answered her.

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

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

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

“Why?” asked Branwyn.

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

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

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

“Werewolves attacked me,” I answered.

“Where are they?” asked Donal.

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

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

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

“I understand, Lance.”

“Me, too,” said Wayne.

“Yeah, you, too,” I said.

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

“Kieran, I’m sorry,” I said to him.

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

“I agree,” added Fintain.

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

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