First chapter of Where it all Began #1

(The Manx Cat Guardians)

Chapter One


The year 1200, the Isle of Mann 


Maximillian

Maximillian shifted his massive bulk, his pure white body standing out against the dark stone wall. The giant Viking castle barricade had been built to protect the west coast from the possibility of an attack. From his vantage point Maximillian could see the vast expanse of the Irish Sea and out towards Scotland.
The castle sat at the edge of the coastline giving it a view of the fields and hills that stretched as far as the eye could see. This ensured there were few surprise attacks from either land or sea.
Over the centuries there had been many attacks on the Isle of Mann. The fight for ownership of the small parcel of land continued to be bloody, with loss of life a price many were willing to pay to conquer the small magical Isle. The large stockade was manned at all times by hulking Norsemen ready to protect their boundaries. 
Clanging swords, battle axes and spears were wielded with precision, creating a music that filled the air and distracted Maximillian. Their manoeuvres mimicked a macabre dance, the noise only blocked out by the cry of birds as they circled above, as if waiting for an offering. The Norsemen trained on the practice field daily, keeping their skills honed ready for the next attack.
Max ignored the sharpness of the rock biting into the soft pads of his paws as he surveyed the men below with unblinking, bicoloured eyes. The lowering sun glowed orange, the colour-streaking the sky causing the metal beneath it to glint. The sun blinded Max, and he blinked owlishly, a feeling of unease washing over him. 
His hackles rose and he searched through the thoughts of the sweaty Norsemen for the source of his unease. Assaulted by rage and anger, his stomach heaved, as he was once again forced onto one of the Viking longboats amid a storm.
His bicoloured eyes narrowed to pinpoint the source of the rage—a big brute of a Norseman, Arngrim, who was wielding his battle-axe with intent to harm rather than keeping with their daily training practice. Max could hear the whistle of the axe as it cut through the air with murderous intent, barely missing its intended target. 
Arngrim’s determination to harm the smaller red-haired man, Magnus, formed a ball of ugliness inside Arngrim, one that was unravelling fast.
With his fur bristling, Maximillian concentrated on Arngrim. The stench of malicious intent pulsed around him. Hate and viciousness appeared on his face, his determination increasing ten-fold. Arngrim’s lips peeled back to reveal rotten teeth, spittle flying from his mouth with every nasty obscenity as he attacked Magnus with every ounce of his rage.
Maximillian held his breath, watching Magnus stagger back beneath the force of the axe hitting his shield. The strain of the battle was evident, their hair glued to their sweaty faces. Droplets of sweat ran down their flushed necks, soaking their kyrtills, which clung to their heaving chests. Their eyes were locked together in a battle of wills that Maximillian sensed would not be in Magnus’s favour, given their differences in stature and weight. 
The fear in Magnus became all-consuming as Arngrim drove Magnus towards the stockade behind him, ensuring there would be no escape from his axe.
To the Goddess Freya, this was too much!
Centring himself, Maximillian took several strands of his magic and concentrated on reducing the violent thoughts pulsing through the larger Norseman, while giving Magnus something to fight harder for. Maximillian’s body bowed with tension as he willed different things for both men. It took all of his effort to stay centred, only stopping when he felt a reduction in the violence and Magnus’s acceptance of what he needed to do.
Maximillian arched his spine, stretching to release some of his tension in the hope that it would reduce the tightness inside him. When it eased a little, he sat back down and rubbed his whiskers, letting his mind seek out Magnus’s thoughts. Sensing a newfound determination to battle his way out of the dangerous situation, Maximillian couldn’t stop a broad cat grin from spreading across his face. As Magnus’s fierceness increased, Maximillian’s eyes twinkled with relief. He chuffed in delight as he caught Magnus’s silent prayer to the God Njord and Goddess Freyja that the images in his mind would come to fruition.
There was tutting in the back of his mind and he rolled his eyes. “I’m the king for Njord’s sake, and if I want to assist, then I bloody well will. Anyway, I didn’t do much more than pluck out some violent thoughts and give Magnus some incentive,” he muttered in disgust.  
None of the voices answered him directly, but that didn’t stop them from complaining about what he’d just done. All he’d done was safeguard Magnus and give him something to fight for—his soulmate. What was wrong with that? 
There was a commotion below as a servant came to summon Magnus to return to his duties. The evil intent still lingered in the air, but thankfully Arngrim didn’t question the servant.
Arngrim watched as Magnus walked away, his eyes gleaming with a cruelty that came from a deep-rooted hate of otherness. Arngrim sensed it, even if he didn’t understand what it was. Maximillian’s insides shook at what he found hiding inside Arngrim as he searched his thoughts. Maximillian’s eyes narrowed with concern, a sense of foreboding slithering through his massive body. With it came the need to move, Maximillian prowling along the stone barricade and heading to the one place he knew he’d find solace—Christina’s cloister.
Voices, he was used to hearing, continued to witter about his actions. They were fearful of what King Manannán would do to him for breaking the rules and interfering with fate. To his mind he was helping and protecting his charge, Óláfr. Wasn’t that the purpose of a guardian?
The volume increased inside his head, so he shut it out, drained after expelling so much magic. 
Their chatter often made him weary, but it was all part of being the king of his kind. Although he was too young to remember the creation of his kind, he knew he held powers that other guardians did not. 
His parents had passed down stories of their origin. Manx cat guardians had been created by King Manannán, king of the Otherworld. He’d foretold of times when the human race would come to despise those who chose a different path to love. He’d said that those destined to be together would be forced to hide and consider a different path than the one chosen. He’d chosen Manx cats as guardian protectors of male soulmates, ensuring humanity never forgot what life was all about—love, in its purest form. A reminder that life had been created for love, not hate, regardless of sex, religion, colour, creed, or race.
Maximillian witnessed the truth of Manannán’s prediction more and more as the years passed. The hate of those that were different was forever a battle that the human race needed to fight against, whether they remembered that love didn’t have a gender or not. 
He slumped at the weight of responsibility that came from his role, at the mammoth task he faced with his current charge. Maximillian gave an internal yowl of disgust, heaviness pushing into his soul.
As if sensing his distress, the other guardians increased their presence, breaching the wall he used to stay sane. Their method of communication was through telepathy, and it was vital to maintaining a connection to his kind. As a significant part of who and what he was, he’d had to accept that they were a part of him, even when they were annoying. 
Born of royal descent, his bicoloured eyes, one green and one blue, along with his snow-white fur signified his status. As his kind lived long and indeterminable life spans, Maximillian had believed he’d have centuries of freedom before picking up the mantle and becoming king. Unfortunately, his parents perishing in a fire before his fortieth birthday, had left him with no option but to become king of the Manx cat guardians. 
All of this had been before he’d fully come into his powers. Too young to manage in the eyes of Manannán, he’d received a Manx Wicca guide, Christina. Maximillian had reluctantly accepted his fate, using Christina to help him negotiate the magic inside him. He’d learned many things during their years together, so he pulled the magic from his core and put up a shutter in his mind. 
Maximillian used a little more magic than was probably necessary to block the guardians out, but he needed time alone to think.
As he trudged to Christina’s home, he recalled their many conversations about the introduction of Christianity and Catholicism as it replaced Paganism. Men loving men had created a struggle with the new religious beliefs becoming embedded in the fabric of the small island and the world as a whole. 
Christina believed that his kind—cat guardians, would be even more pertinent to sustaining a force of love and commitment for those who might struggle to acknowledge or accept who they were, and who they loved, as society judged them with hate under the guise of religious beliefs.
Maximillian hadn’t initially taken the warnings as serious, but now as he struggled with this evolving civilisation, he had to admit he was worried. What if he couldn’t convince his charge to accept his soulmate?
The new religions were portraying same-sex relationships as blasphemous. The cost attached to being found out was a price no man who loved was willing to pay for their soulmate—death. Maximillian’s intuition spoke of something coming, though he was uncertain what it was, or how it would impact on him and his charge.
His thoughts were derailed as Óláfr’s cries of rage reverberated through his body. Images of Magnus filtered through his connection with Óláfr mixing with fear. A fear Óláfr fought against, his inner thoughts full of confusion. Anger and sadness poured through their link, giving Maximillian a sense of foreboding that lifted his fur.
A low growl of frustration was lost beneath the sound of sword fighting as he skulked away from the castle and his charge.
Óláfr had been a squawking, red-faced, infant when they’d first met. Óláfr had been born in 1177 and destined to inherit the lands and title of King due to his status as the son born in wedlock. Óláfr had been only a child when his father, King Guðrøðr, had died. Too young to claim his rightful position, it brought much discord to the people of the island, allowing his much older brother, Rögnvaldr, born out of wedlock to take control.
Aged twenty-three, Óláfr had fought for what was rightfully his, only to be betrayed. It had taken years to regain control from his brother. It was during this time that Maximillian had come to understand why he’d been put in charge of the baby. It also gave him an understanding of why Óláfr needed to be King of Mann. That didn’t help Maximillian though, not when it appeared to be detrimental to Óláfr’s connection with his soulmate, Magnus.
To escape his moodiness and the urge to huff at circumstances beyond his control, Maximillian hurried to find Christina. Silently, he prowled along the walls, jumping effortlessly, his padded feet making no sound as he landed on the hard dirt floor. Following the light infiltrating through the castle wall slits, he travelled undetected down the dim passages and through the stockades. 
He threaded himself carefully through the small gaps, his whiskers never a good indicator when his backside seemed more prominent than their width. Attempting to squeeze through the last stockade, Maximillian hissed and spat, his lips peeling back to reveal sharp white teeth at his embarrassment at having to wiggle from side to side. 
Rumbles reverberated out of his heaving chest as he rolled his massive shoulders, backside swaying as he stalked away from the stockade wall, not looking back at the offensive stockade.
Padding over the soft, sun-warmed grass, Maximillian avoided the rocky cliffs as he skirted the wall. He moved stealthily under the fading sunlight for fear of being spotted, his gleaming white fur standing out against the thick green grass. Maximillian travelled swiftly, the birds in the sky quietening as if they sensed a predator.
The coolness of the air indicated the changing season, the winter solstice drawing closer. His hope that Óláfr would have claimed Magnus by then was diminishing. His ability to read Óláfr’s thoughts was irrelevant when Óláfr’s actions spoke louder than any thought or word.  
Óláfr’s uncertainty about Magnus had him heading off to sea and conquering lands. It appeared he was avoiding his soulmate at all costs, which added to the unease growing in the pit of Maximillian’s stomach. He’d often contemplated the possibility that Óláfr might not return from one of those trips before he could fulfil his destiny.
Magnus’s status didn’t help either. He was a lowly peasant to Óláfr’s mind. Magnus fetched and carried for Óláfr. He was his equal only in battle, in the protection of their Isle.
For months he’d watched Óláfr stare longingly at Magnus. Every time Magnus entered the room, Óláfr’s dark gaze landed on the lithe, red-haired man. Yet, Óláfr hadn’t acknowledged Magnus’s existence. 
Óláfr’s thoughts on the other hand were completely different. They’d make a virgin sweat. The heat of them was so powerful that Maximillian found it hard to be in the same room with them. The sparks of energy from their souls ignited the space. But to the Goddess Freyja, they seemed to be ignoring it. Were they struggling not to act on it? He’d been encouraging Óláfr for weeks now to make contact and create the connection, but to no avail. 
He snarled at his misfortune, and at his increasing need for space to clear the torment of Óláfr’s constant tirades from his mind. He’d hoped that space would help him to see a path towards aiding both men, because if Óláfr’s confusion continued Maximillian would surely go mad. 
He ran across the open fields, heading inland away from the sea and travelling up the small hill covered with deep purple heather towards Christina’s small cloister. It sat unobtrusively next to the church overlooking a small inlet. The enclosed bay offered privacy for Christina, and protection from the harsh gales that tended to batter the coastline for the Viking longships. 
There was an irony to where she lived, because if the village people learnt of her true nature, she would have been tossed in a barrel down witch’s hill to the south of the island. Ignorance and a lack of understanding had their fear of witches increasing year by year. As with everything in life, there was a balance between good and evil. Despite the good in Christina, he knew it would be outweighed by prejudice if people knew she was a witch.
Christina’s magic was something he’d come to respect. It was pure and strong, allowing her to mask her true identity. She was old, but how old exactly he was unsure, her magic concealing her true identity. To the naked eye, she had a youthful beauty that enticed many of the Norsemen to her cloister.  
Opening their mind link, he spoke. “Christina, are you home? I’m in need of your help.” Maximillian kept moving through the long grass in the fading light of dusk. He let it conceal him while he waited for a response.
“Yes, I’m home, but you will need to hide behind the woodpile and keep out of sight. The Bishop of the Isles has visited me,” Christina replied, sounding anything but pleased.
Maximillian’s rarity made it challenging to camouflage himself. Most of the other guardian cats were black or multicoloured. His presence here would raise suspicion because everyone knew he belonged to Óláfr. He had no reason to visit, so he tended to go under cover of darkness but his need today had been too great to wait.
He sidled behind a giant pile of logs, the stench of decaying wood making his nose twitch. Avoiding the damp timber, he stretched out on a clump of purple heather that surrounded the herb garden next to the cloister. Letting it cushion his body, he buried his nose in the fragrant lavender, allowing the scent of the herbs to calm his mind.
Unsure how long the bishop would be, he settled in for the duration.