The Calling - Merry's Apprentice

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Chapter 7


Month Thirteen

Learning Leadership

______________________________

For the rest of the Highland Games I had a constant contingent of bodyguards made up of Chota, who never left my side, Kieran, Lucan, and several handpicked men from the clans. These men were there when I awoke in the morning and tucked me into bed at night. This was a frustrating few days for me, as I didn’t have a chance to spend any time alone with Branwyn. There was always someone around standing guard over me protecting me from whatever. For a handful of minutes here and there I saw her, was able to exchange smiles, and even told her to text me, but there was no time alone for us. The text I did receive from her stated: I understand. We’ll talk when we can.

Once back at Watauga Lake, Merry, who had been informed about the werewolves, ushered Chota and me back to the isle for protection. Any talk of staying around and letting me spend time alone with anyone my own age was ruled out because it not only endangered me more, as well as those around me. The Aes Sidhe were boldly on the move against the potential Cathal, more so than any one could remember in the past. The isle was the only answer to protect me. So, heading back to the isle for more training to learn how to protect myself, as well as others. The sooner I was trained up the better for everyone involved.

September came and Chota started to upgrade my training forcing me to defend myself more and more, forcing me to grow up faster. On the beach we fought as always, but now I had a distraction on on mind. It could happen while dodging the war club when suddenly I’d see an image of Branwyn flash in my mind, or feel an emotion that I knew wasn’t my own. She was always there on the periphery of my thoughts causing me to loose a moment of concentration here and there. To counter this lack of focus, Chota stopped holding back giving me the full brunt of his speed, agility, and strength. And it hurt.

Finally, the heat of August dissipated and a cooling breeze made an appearance as September ended its first week. Chota pushed and pushed me trying to get me to not have slips in concentration or momentary lapses in focus. Those slips of concentration were deadly, not only for me, but also for those who counted on me. My safety now called for me to be better trained than anyone else and be better disciplined, especially since I was no ordinary boy, so I needed to be treated like no ordinary boy. At fourteen, I was as strong as an average male, maybe even stronger than most average males, and my speed and agility were definitely as good as a world class gymnast and track and field athlete. I was growing up quickly, but not quickly enough for Merry’s taste or for Chota’s taste. As a matter of fact Chota set his own level of expectations for me to live up. To Chota, I was always a conduit to lift his curse and become mortal again, so he wanted me to do better than anyone expected.

“Okay, buckaroo,” Chota started their afternoon lesson, “you can’t kill a werewolf or a bloodsucker without a weapon, but you can hurt them enough to make them think twice about attacking you. But you have to know how to hurt them.”

“And you’re the man to teach me, right?”

“You bet that I am,” Chota growled then he dove hitting me with a cross body block and sending me to the ground.

Months earlier I would have rolled around in pain after the block because of having the wind knocked out of me, but now I took Chota’s weight and let it push my body backwards in a control fall then I rolled backwards and came up easily to my feet. Chota anticipated part of my reaction, so he was there to place a flying kick with his right foot into my chest sending me backwards again. Instead of letting the blow guide me, this time I rolled to the left then I caught another kick on my right shoulder. It was a glancing blow that only knocked me to my knees.

I had enough of being on defense, though. I had enough of waiting for others to come for me. With Chota coming at me for another attack, I decided to get aggressive. I did a head roll forward into Chota’s path and then came out of the roll with kick to Chota’s abdomen. Unfortunately, Chota saw this move coming and grabbed my foot and swung me into the air then he threw me with great force. I landed hard on his buttocks and back.

“Too slow that time, buckaroo. I know you have more in you than that. You got to be better than that to get me,” Chota goaded me.

“And this is teaching me how to defend myself without weapon against beast and blood drinker, how?”

“Now, you have to figure that part out for yourself. I’m the werewolf; or I’m Jumlin, the blood drinker, or one of his minions: how do you slow me down? How do you fight me to tie so that you can survive? Use your greatest weapon, Sean; use your head. You got a good one on your shoulders. If you can’t outfight your opponent than you must out think them.”

“Let’s see: I could give you a math problem to do to keep your mind busy?” I joked.

“Very funny, a math problem. I’m not sure you are taking this seriously enough,” Chota remarked with a chortle.

“It’s not just any math problem but a really complex math problem, like there is a plane leaving Chicago traveling 450 miles an hour to Boston and another plane leaving Boston traveling at 400 miles an hour going to Boston, over what state will they meet?”

“Not taking this seriously, are you?” Chota said without humor then he sprang for me.

As I got up, Chota tackled me in the midsection. I grabbed hold of Chota’s shoulders, took his weight, and used it to throw him off and away from me. Chota was up in a shot, but so was I. I ran at Chota. Instead of body block or a kick, I slid to the right of Chota and grabbed his leg and twisted it, so that Chota fell. Getting up, I rushed in on Chota, who used both his feet to send me away from him. I landed painfully on my side a few feet away.

“Better, much better. You’re starting to get it. Don’t give up, never give up and use your head, but more importantly, keep your head in the battle. Desire can go a long way in a fight, maybe not as much as skills or talents, but it can be important,” I heard the voice of Merry say.

With some effort I sat up and saw Merry standing there in his long black robe staring down at me. He looked surprisingly happy, considering that he was still less than thrilled at the werewolf attack on me and had been working himself and me extra hard since then. Merry was trying to remove any room for error in my life.

“Merry, you’re in a good mood. It must be some kind of miracle or some obscure druid holiday,” noted Chota.

“I have reason to be in a good mood. I have a visitor back at the cabin, an important visitor, to see Sean. One who will push his education even more.”

“Who?” I asked excitedly.

“A sidhekind.”

“Sidhekind? I’ve never heard of them. What are they?” I admitted.

“In this case it is not a they, but a he. He is the offspring of a Leanan Sidhe, or what is commonly known as a muse as far back as ancient Greece, and human male of great reputation. The offspring of a pairing like this are known as sidhekind. The Leanan Sidhe will choose a male human and inspire him to greatness in whatever field he has chosen but at a price: a short, highly successful life. You see once this male is at his peak, they will suck his life force from him adding all his gifts and experiences to their own. Sometimes, if they think this human superior, they will have an offspring and these offspring are always powerful combining the gifts of mother and the father, or the visa versa. In the case of this offspring, his name is Alkimos and he is the son of a Leanan Sidhe and Alexander the Great, who died rather unexpectedly at a young age after conquering a good piece of the world,” explained Merry.

“What? Alexander the Great? You mean the Alexander the Great?” I mumbled in a state of shock. “How old he is this sidhekind?”

This drew a laugh from Chota: “You live with me and Merry and you ask about someone’s age. Come on, buckaroo, you know that ain’t polite.”

“Oh, yeah. You got a point there. I’m kind of used to you two.”

“Being Sidhekind, he is immortal,” stated Merry.

“He can’t die.”

“No, I didn’t say that. He isn’t invincible, there are few who are, but he is just unaging.”

“Oh, okay, I got it now,” I responded then I paused for a moment to think. “Shouldn’t he be evil if he is related to the Aes Sidhe?”

“Oddly enough, yes, but he isn’t and we should be thankful for that. Alkimos has allied himself on our side in the realms, but never before has he had anything to do with this realm, his father’s realm. He is a teacher by nature, and considering his lineage he has helped trained some great leaders in the other realms. He tutored Arawn and Gwynn Nudd, which is why they are at peace now. This is the first time he is willing to tutor someone of the human realm.”

“Why me?”

“He likes what he sees in you,” Merry answered. “Now come and meet your newest tutor.”

“He’s been watching me?” I said.

“Yes.”

“How?”

“He has his ways, which are for him to explain not me,” Merry answered then he took a deep calming voice. “I have known Alkimos for too many years to recount and we have become friends. I trust him as I trust Chota, as I trust you. He is not here for any nefarious reasons, but only to impart knowledge to someone he believes is a worthy student in need of the knowledge he possesses. Are you ready to meet him?”

“Yes, I guess,” I replied.

“Good.”

“But, Merry, what if I’m not the Cathal after all?” I asked.

“If you aren’t the Cathal then there will never be another one to come along,” mumbled Merry sounding almost frustrated by the question, as he motioned me to follow him back to the cabin.

He wore a black hooded robe much like Merry’s and stood six feet two inches tall. Alkimos possessed short golden blond hair, deep gold skin, and gold eyes that gave him a certain strangeness to his appearance, which caused you to stare at him even if you didn’t want to stare. He offered me his right hand.

“Arthur Sean McCoul, my name is Alkimos. I wish to be one of your tutors in your noble pursuit,” he said in a rich, baritone voice.

“Thank you, sir. I don’t know if I’m worthy of such an honor, as being taught by you.”

This remark caused Alkimos to smile with appreciation. He sat down at the head of the table where Chota, Merry, and I ate their meals. Merry sat at the other end.

“He answers well. It is not practiced but comes out of him naturally,” Alkimos said to Merry. “He has not been tutored in these answers. They are instinctive, which is one of the reasons I am here.”

“Yes, they do come naturally to him, which is why I am so high on him, Alkimos. He has the ineffable about him.”

“This shows an instinctive understanding of sentient beings, which is necessary to be a great leader. Without you may become a brutal dictator, which I would never support,” Alkimos remarked then he looked at me. “I will tutor you in leadership. My father was many things good and bad, but the one thing he was, when at his best, was being a leader. If you are to succeed in being the Cathal, you must be a great leader.”

“Now, Sean, I am going to take a stroll with Chota along the beach giving you some time alone. Why don’t you two get to know each other because I believe Alkimos will be a great tutor for you,” Merry announced then he stood up to leave.

“Yes, Merry.”

“Toodles. Have fun,” Merry said then he left.

Alkimos stood staring at me, as if he was looking at a lump of clay and he was a sculptor. I swallowed.

********

“You’ve told me that your father died before you were born,” I stated.

“This is true. He died on the way back to Greece. I was born six months after he expired and moved on to the hereafter,” answered Alkimos.

“Then how do you know him so well?”

“Because I possess all his memories, as my mother does, also. When she sucked his life force from him, she also took all his memories and I, being part of her at the time, also received those memories.”

“That is just freaky,” I remarked.

“I have to agree with you. Before I could speak, I knew how my father felt fighting under his father, King Philip, at the Battle of Chaeronea. Before I could walk, I would recall intimate details about the Battle of the Granicus River. I knew why my father did what he did, how he justified his actions to himself, not how he justified them to others. It made me a sullen youth, one who did not fit in with the other half breeds in the Sidhe,” explained Alkimos.

Alkimos and I strolled through the mist isle. Where Chota enjoyed exercising along the beach, Alkimos liked to venture into the isle, where he appreciated the trees and bushes of this unique isle.

“My father in his early days was a great leader. He cared for his men, yet not so much so that he lost sight of the battle plan and what needed to be done to achieve victory. He led them from the front not from the rear; he knew them; he trusted them; and they trusted him. Alexander would place men in danger but not frivolously, and no more than he placed himself in danger. As his victories increased, he became more of a ruler and less of a leader. He co-opted religions, cultures, and traditions in order to gain the adulation of whatever people he conquered. To the Zoroastrians he was known as the Accursed Alexander. In Persian he was known as Eskandar. Throughout the Middle East he was known as Dhul-Qarnayn, the two-horned one, as in Aramaic he is known the two-horned one, Tre-Qarnayia. He was known by many names, including Al-Iskandar Al-Keeber in Arabic, Skinandar-E-Azam in Urdu, Skandar in Pashto, and Alexander Moksdon in Hebrew. His men, his warriors, followed him then because he won, no longer did they follow him because he was a great leader, who they trusted. He was still a great strategist and tactician, but no longer a great leader. He came to care too much about being Alexander the Great,” further explained Alkimos.

“Is your father unique in his form of leadership?” asked Sean.

“Excellent question,” smiled Alkimos. “Though I have not interfered in this realm, I have observed it. Humanity holds a great fascination for me. I watched Julius Caesar, who was a great manipulator of men. Napoleon was similar to Alexander in style, though he wasn’t as close to his men. Emperor Constantin found a great symbol to unite his men behind, which awed them and brought them together. Saladin was a brilliant tactician who cared about his men and honored his opponents. Boudica, the great Celtic female warrior, led her men from the front as she rode her chariot into battle. Patton was a supreme tactician and strategist, but his empathy for his men was limited, though his sympathy was vast. The same was true of MacArthur. Of course, there was the first Cathal.”

“Tell me about him,” I suggested.

“That is not for me to do. You will discover what you need to know about him when the time comes, that is, if you are the one. Now, back to my lesson I wanted to impart for our first time together. Each one I mentioned was a great leader, yet they accomplished it differently. What I can tell you, though, is that there are certain characteristics you should have to be a leader. First, have sympathy for your men. Notice I say sympathy not empathy. Sympathy makes sure that you care for your men, while empathy can mean that you care too much about your men. Sympathy will stop you from needlessly sacrificing your men, while empathy stops you from risking their lives at all, and sometimes can stop you from doing what’s best in order to win a victory. Next, a leader needs to see the whole picture not just focus on a small piece. He cannot lose track of what the overall goal is. A war is made up of many battles. Yes, you have to win the battles, but don’t lose sight of the overall war.”

“Sometimes it’s best to lose a single battle than to loose a whole war, right?” I said.

“Exactly! Very good,” exclaimed Alkimos. “Another characteristic a leader needs is personal bravery. If you aren’t brave then how can you expect your men to be brave, as well? During World War I two young officers, both part of General Perishing Expeditionary Force, stood on a battle engaged in conversation while bullets whizzed by their heads. While the other soldiers keep their heads down in trenches, two officers George Patton and Douglas MacArthur stood fearlessly in the line of fire and had a conversation. They would not be cowered by the other side.”

“Are you sure that it was bravery and not stupidity?” I asked.

“Well, I must admit that it bridges the line between the two. The reason they did this was two fold: one, they were ambitious officers who knew about the other and were waiting for the other to blink; and two, they both knew that the United States soldiers were need both examples of bravery since they were an untested lot.”

“I don’t think I’ll have to worry about leading an untested lot. Those who protect this realm, the Protector clans, already have sacrificed and continue to sacrifice. They understand their duty.”

“Which leads me to the final characteristic I believe a great leader needs,” Alkimos segued. “You must be willing to sacrifice. That sacrifice may be personal or it may be something greater, but you must be willing to sacrifice.”

“Alkimos,” my voiced tensed up, “why did you want to tutor me?”

“As your tutor I owe you honesty. You see I am not sympathetic with my mother and her people. The Aes Sidhe has always held an ambition to rule all realms, and they have come close, but for this realm stopped them. My father’s people stopped them. In some ways this gives me some pride, as I am half human.”

“You don’t like the Aes sidhe.”

“Sean, I truly abhor them. They are conquerors by nature and rule as dictators. Peace is foreign to their nature. And that nature is asserting itself again, which means this realm is in danger. All peaceful realms are in danger. We will need a Cathal to lead those who have been chosen to protect this realm, all realms, from the Aes Sidhe. Beware, Arthur Sean McCoul, the Aes Sidhe arise; they are coming; slowly, they creep into this realm, into all realms; slowly, they begin to wage their war.”

“How can I defeat them, Alkimos?” I asked.

“By becoming the leader you are capable of being.”

********

Alkimos was intense in his lessons for me. He lectured me, gave examples, posited scenarios for me to deal with, and delved into the philosophical reasons for making one decision over another. By the end of a lesson my head ached from too much information. After two weeks my mind was brimming with almost too much information for it to assimilate. Asking to see Chota and Merry alone in the cabin, it was then that Alkimos proposed to Merry a first test of leadership for me. I was to take a small fealty, no more than three and myself, be dropped in the Blue Ridge Mountains and told to find our way back to Watauga Lake.

“You realize this will leave them open to attack by abominations sent by Aes Sidhe, who are gaining access to all realms with greater ease now,” was Merry’s response to the proposal.

“Yes.”

“And you think that to expose him and others to danger is a good idea for a first test of his leadership?” added Merry with concern.

“Yes, I do, Merry. Lessons are meaningless without experience. But they will not be without some guardianship. I also propose that I track them along with Chota in his dog form. If the Aes sidhe or their allies attack, we will able to handle it,” stated Alkimos with supreme confidence.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Chota before Merry could respond.

“Why?”

“Because you are right, training is no substitute for experience. He needs more experience,” Chota answered.

“Does he need the experience of being attacked by more werewolves or even worse?” asked Merry.

“Yes, and more,” replied Alkimos.

Merry caressed his beard as he contemplated his answer. He had kept me on the isle for safety reasons and now Alkimos wanted to expose me to dangers in order to test my leadership and mettle. But they were right. I needed real experience and I needed to begin learning how to build fealties.

“I agree,” said Merry, “but I expect you, Alkimos, and you, Chota, to keep a very close eye on them. I will inform Sean and have him give me the three names to fill out his fealty. When should we do this?”

“Starting Sunday,” answered Alkimos.

“In two days,” Merry muttered. “Just two days. Not much time to prepare at all. Okay? We’ll do it.”

“Do not worry, Merry. If I feel this test is too much then I will stop it. Or if I think he proves himself within the first hours or day, I will end it. It is a test, some experience, not a life or death matter.”

The three companions I chose were simple Lance, Wayne, and Benedict. I wanted two warriors and someone with spiritual powers. Branwyn was ruled out because I was sure that having her involved would complicate things for me. Lance and Wayne were easy, no-brainers, as I trusted them and I knew that they would give me their all. For his part Benedict added the spiritual powers, but also he was a warrior at heart. Each agreed to join the fealty.

It was dawn. Along with a compass, a map, four canteens filled with water, and a flint, we were dropped in the thick Blue Ridge Mountains somewhere in North Carolina along with four Dirks, a bow and arrow, a Celtic Flame short sword with its distinctive crescent blade, a twenty-eight inch long blade Celtic sword in the style of Cuchullain and Conn of the hundred battles, each made by elves from elf iron. Each of us was dressed in hiking boots, jeans, flannel shirts, and waterproof Gore-Tex jackets. My first decision of leadership was to see who got which weapon.

“We each get a dirk,” I announced then I looked at the remaining weapons.

It was difficult to admit but I was the least experienced swordsman, so I had to rule myself out for carrying a sword. Lance was the best swordsman, so he was my choice to carry that weapon.

“Lance, which sword do you prefer?”

“I’ll take the Flame sword. I like its style and size,” answered Lance.

“Good. Benedict, I know you are an excellent swordsman and warrior, but you have spiritual powers. Powers such as yours can enhance a bow and arrow, so I want you to carry that weapon,” I told him.

“No, problem,” Benedict happily answered, as he was thrilled just to be part of the fealty.

“Wayne, the big sword is yours,” I said.

“Cool,” he replied then he walked over and picked up the larger sword.

“Okay, next. We need someone to scout ahead,” I said. “Who is the best woodsman here?”

“Lance,” answered Benedict.

I looked at Wayne to see if he agreed. Wayne nodded his head in the affirmative.

“Lance, you are our scout,” I agreed. “We will travel with Lance scouting, Benedict will take the lead with us, I’ll be in the middle, and Wayne will take up the rear. Are we ready to find our way back to Watauga Lake?”

“Yup,” Wayne piped up.

“Let’s get started,” added Benedict.

Lance nodded in the affirmative. I smiled: “Benedict, you have the compass so point us in the right direction home. I merely give the orders. You guys to the hard work.”

Benedict took a moment to look at the compass, judging where Watauga Lake would be then he pointed in Northwestern direction.

“Excellent,” I said then I looked at the cheap wrist watch I got for this occasion and saw that it was 6:30 in the morning. “We’ll walk for seven hours then stop to find food and make shelter for the night.”

“I’ll get going scouting ahead for people, animals and, well, worse,” Lance said then he took off into the woods in the direction we would travel.

In silence for seven and half hours we traveled through trees and shrubs, up inclines, and generally in the direction that was set by Benedict. Through the treetops I could see that sun was high in the sky. There was a slight chill in the air, but on the whole we built up a sweat as we walked. I checked my watch.

“Time to stop for the day,” I called out.

Benedict took the arrows off his shoulder and leaned the bow against a tree then he sat down and leaned against a tree placing his head back. Wayne for his part just slumped down where he was in a heap. I knew that we were hungry and tired, which meant I needed to rally them to find food, start a fire, and make shelter for the night.

“Okay, what can we hunt here that tastes good?” I asked.

“There are bears, which I’m not too sure we want to hunt, and deer,” started Benedict.

“And racoons and...,” continued Wayne.

“And Opossums,” Lance said as he appeared from behind a tree carrying three dead, large opossums.

He tossed them onto the ground, which made Wayne and Benedict perk up. I looked at Lance, gave him a thumbs up and smiled.

“We need a fire,” said Benedict, who stood up and started to collect kindling.

“Yeah, I’ll start to get some wood for a fire and for shelters,” Wayne said and then he got up and started scrounging.

Lance moved over to me and spoke to me in a low voice: “I think someone is following us.”

“Just one someone?”

“Maybe more. They are trying to keep their tracks untraceable but I’ve been trained by some of the best druid trackers. We are being followed. I can feel it.”

“That’s good enough for me. Well, let’s get a fire going, eat some food then we’ll deal with the rest.”

“Yes, sir,” Lance replied then he started to move away.

“Um, Lance,” I called him back.

“Yes, Sean.”

“It will probably rain tonight and I know that you’re good in the woods, so if you know how to I want you to rig something up to catch the rainwater. We can then boil it in the morning and refill our canteens,” I suggested, yet Lance treated it as a command.

“I’ll get on it,” he replied.

Over the next two hours, as the sun began to set and the fire and stars became their light, we started a fire, prepped the opossums then cooked them, set up four small wooden lean-tos, and Lance, using leaves and a hole, manufactured something to catch water. We sat down to eat our food together.

“This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my life,” Wayne commented as he ate some of the steaming hot meat.

“You’re just hungry,” Benedict said.

“No, I mean it,” Wayne corrected him.

“It does taste good, though,” Lance added his opinion.

“Chota would like this,” I remarked.

“So, how’s it going on the isle?” asked Benedict.

“It is hard work, yet Chota and Merry make it as fun and fascinating as they can.”

“I bet. I’d love to be training as a warrior again,” Benedict bitterly said.

“Do you really want to be a warrior?” I asked him.

“Yeah, I do.”

“Really, warrior rather than master your spiritual gifts? Show Merry you can handle whatever he throws at you then we can convince him to allow you to train as a warrior also. I mean a druid warrior is nothing unusual. Denara is one,” I told him.

“You’d help me convince Merry that I can handle both jobs?” Benedict asked excitedly.

“Of course I would. The more you can do the better for me, if I am your leader. This may be my first small fealty, but it won’t be my last. I expect you three in all my fealties,” I told them and in those words I could sense their confidence grow.

“I like that. To be part of the Cathal’s fealty, think about that. So few can have bragged about that over the years, huh? Yeah, I like it,” Wayne smiled.

Out the corner of my eye, I saw a shadow move. It wasn’t a person, or an animal, but an actual shadow. I didn’t panic or react, but instead I slowly got up then stretched and yawned.

“Hey, Lance, can you show me what you set up for water collection?” I asked.

“Sure, Sean,” Lance said and got up.

We walked side by side towards the little area where Lance had set up his water collection. I spoke to him out of the side of my mouth in a whisper: “I saw a shadow move.”

“A shadow?”

“Yes. It was in the shape of a demon, yet human form.”

“Shadow wraith,” stated Lance.

“How dangerous are they?”

We stopped in front of Lance’s work. I squatted down along with lance to inspect it.

“They can steal one’s soul.”

“How do you fight them?”

“Light. They hate light.”

We stood up. I patted Lance on the shoulder and said: “Well done.”

I then saw two more shadows more in the woods. They moved with great speed from dark spots to dark spot. This time Lance saw them also. Lance and I then turned and started to walk back to fire and Benedict and Wayne. More shadows moved and this time it appeared as if they were preparing to attack. I slapped Lance on the back and yelled: “Run.”

We ran towards the fire. Benedict and Wayne got off the ground and grabbed their weapons. I yelled to them: “Throw more wood on the fire!”

They did as they were told extending the area in which the fire lit. This also allowed us to see that we were surrounded by shadow wraith, the semi-human in form nebulous shades. Before we could be touched by pitchblack ephemeral hands Lance and I got to the fire.

“Benedict, what can you do with your arrows and light?” I asked Benedict.

“I can imbue the wood with essence of light with an enchantment that Merry taught me. It will make them glow.”

“Do it,” I order then I turned to Lance and asked: “Will our blades have an effect on them?”

“Yes. They will hurt them, cause them great pain because they are elf made.”

“Good. It looks like we are going to have a very late night, gentlemen,” I stated and then took out my Dirk out.

Wayne and Lance took their swords out for battle, while Benedict prepared several arrows to use against them. We moved in close to the fire and waited. I glanced at the woodpile. We definitely didn’t have enough wood to keep a rip, roaring fire going all night, but we had enough to keep a fire going until dawn.

For hours we waited tensely for an attack, but it didn’t come right away. The shadow wraiths were waiting for more darkness to envelope the woods. As the fire ate up the wood and the light of the campfire lessened in intensity, the shadow wraith finally made their first full attack. It was just after midnight.

The first shadow came for me, but it was repelled by one of Benedict’s arrows. The shadow shrieked in great pain, as the arrow passe through its formless chest, and receded into the blackness of night. Several more came for me, but they were met with Wayne’s and Lance’s blades. These shadow wraiths retreated because of the pain caused by the elf made weapons. But they were not deterred for too long.

Gathering together in a group of thirteen they came at us all at once. Benedict got off two more arrows causing two of the shadow wraiths to withdraw and used a third almost as a sword on the rest, while Wayne and Lance kept them at bay with their swords. Only I ended up being touched by them, since my dirk couldn’t keep the wraiths far enough away. Their touch felt like cold fire, but to take his soul they needed to reach my heart. I kept them at bay, as I grabbed a piece of wood out of the fire and wielded it like a sword at them. For hours this lasted, hours of fighting, pain, and hope that dawn would eventually come.

By daybreak we were exhausted but the shadow wraiths were defeated for now. As the sun rose, each of us collapsed to the ground. We had no energy. With my body feeling sore and in pain from the touches of the shadow wraiths, I tried to stand in order to give us some focus and a few orders, but I couldn’t even will myself to stand.

“Lance,” I said with a dry throat. “It didn’t rain last night. We have no water.”

“No,” Lance answered.

“We need to find water,” I stated.

“I’ll rest a short time then go look for some.”

“Good.”

“Gentlemen,” a familiar voice came from a tree, “rest now. Help is coming.”

A silver doorway opened up in a tree trunk and Alkimos stepped out of the tree. With his golden appearance in the sunlight, he looked almost like a statue of a Greek God come to life. He was dressed in a white robe.

“Alkimos,” I said.

“Yes, Sean. I have sent Chota for help. I have been watching you. Last night you passed the test. There is no need to endanger you any further. You are a leader and you will only grow in the role. Well, done.”

“But...I don’t feel like a leader. I don’t feel as if I contributed anything to last night,” I said.

“You are one, though, Sean. You did very well,” Alkimos told me. “Now gentlemen relax. I will get you water and make sure no one bothers you.”

“I think I can do that,” Wayne said.

“I used to like camping,” Benedict commented as he laid his head on the ground.

Lance looked over at me. He nodded his head and smiled. I returned the smile then laid I head on the ground. I was too tired and sore to stay awake any longer. My body called for sleep. The four of us surrendered to our exhaustion.

*********

Alkimos left me at the mist isle with a promise that he would be there to see me tested at Bealtaine. Now according to Merry it was time for me to meet the great philosophers, while Chota began his instruction in the sword. If nothing else the test that Alkimos gave me showed it was time for me to learn the sword. Ancient, medieval, renaissance, early modern, 19th Century, and contemporary philosophies in the morning and Chota teaching me sword fighting in the afternoon was my newest curriculum.

“Ancient and medieval philosophies are my favorite because I believe they wrestled important questions. Starting in the renaissance I think philosophers started doing too much navel gazing,” Merry lectured. “Bertrand Russell once stated that philosophy started with Thales, who believed that water constituted the principle of all things.”

“You mean he thought everything was made up of water,” I said.

“Sort of. I know. It’s difficult to take Thales seriously, which is why I like to start with Heraclitus, whose great concept was: everything is in a state of flux,” Merry said excitedly.

The lesson continued on for an hour ending with Merry introducing me to one of his favorite philosophers, Socrates then I was dismissed for a break before my first bit of swordplay with Chota. I left the cabin and strolled to the beach. Although it was a grey, rainy day at Watauga Lake, Merry made today be a nice breezy one on the isle. He assumed it would be better weather for a sword lesson.

“Hey, Sean,” Chota said as he saw me coming towards our favorite spot on the beach.

As I approached Chota tossed a Scottish short sword at my feet. It stuck hilt up in the sand. I picked it up. It felt comfortable in my hand.

“Elf made,” Chota said.

“I didn’t know you were an expert swordsman.”

“I’ve learned to be out of boredom really. I’ve been practicing with them now for seventy years or so. Merry introduced them to me,” Chota said as he wielded his own dirk.

A motorboat approached the isle. It wasn’t a fancy one, but an old wooden with a loud engine. I looked over at the boat, which seemed to be on a collision course with the isle, and noticed that Fintain with a big grin was driving the boat with Wayne and Garth waving wildly and Branwyn leaning over the boat looking straight at him. She wasn’t mad at me for not choosing her as part of my fealty. I didn’t know how she did it, but I was sure she was looking straight at me. I waved at her and a smile appeared on her face.

Her spiked hair was now gone, as she was growing her hair out and long. I liked the way her red hair blew wildly in the wind. Part of me wished I could dive into the water and swim out to them, but they were actually in a different realm, farther away than my mind could judge. The motorboat veered away from the isle and headed back towards shore.

I didn’t speak of it to Merry or Chota, but I now missed being around Lance, Wayne, Benedict, Garth, Fintain, and especially Branwyn. Seeing them for only short periods of time made it difficult to develop a deep friendship. Hanging with Chota was great and Merry was the smartest man I had ever met, but I missed all the awkwardness and bonding of being with those my own age. But, like most things since my parents’ death, I had to accept that I had no choice in the matter. No choice. I wasn’t sure if that was just being the age I was, or it was being the potential next Cathal, but I made few choices for myself.

“I think she could see me,” I said to Chota.

“She is three quarters Fey, so I wouldn’t be surprised. Fey women can be really freaky. They can read the mind and emotions of those they love from miles away, especially when they are connected to you on an emotional level to the put of knowing when you are in trouble,” Chota commented. “Now come on, lover boy. We have some sword fighting to learn.”

“You think she and I are connected?” I asked.

“Of course, you are,” Chota answered. “The only question is will the connection grow or will something break it. If it grows, well, that should be very interesting to see.”

“What could break it?” I asked with concern.

“A new connection with someone else,” he replied. “Back to work.”

“Okay,” I retorted with my mind on Branwyn then I faced off against Chota.

“Swing at me, Buckaroo, I’ve got skills.”

“Just swing at you,” I repeated.

“You heard me.”

With great speed and accuracy I sliced that air in the direction of Chota’s left upper arm trying to wound him, but I was met with Chota’s Dirk, which he then used to disarm me a little too easily. My long dagger ended up twirling in the air and sticking in the sand again.

“Okay, you got skills,” I agreed.

“And I am going to teach them you.”

“Excellent.”

“And once I’ve taught you what I knew then you’ll be ready for a real expert to polish your skills and make you a bad mamajamma,” Chota told me.

“Who is this expert?” I laughed.

“You’ll find out eventually, buckaroo. Don’t you know that patience is part of your curriculum,” answered Chota. “Now, we’ll start with the dirk, which is nothing more than an oversized knife, then a Celtic short sword, something like the flame sword, and finally a Claymore. I like the Claymore.”

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