Chapter 85: Inheritors Of Strife
With each day, the world we live in is made anew.
I say this not as a religious mystery or philosophical quandary, but as a statement of fact, because each day, we rebuild the world that defines us and that we ourselves define, based on the world that defined us yesterday. All of us, man and dragon alike, are defined by our histories and choices. Consider this conundrum. Suppose that tomorrow, upon rising, I were to state that the ancient laws and duties incumbent upon my station and status did not apply, and that I owed no man my efforts or time.
Well, I would be seen as mad by all of those who had risen that day and expected that those laws and duties would apply to me. How they would react would depend on many things, but what manner of things tells them that such laws and duties should apply? Nothing, except for their own histories and choices, the teachings and expectations passed down by our predecessors. And so, for all that the world is made anew, it resembles the old one quite well in its fidelity.
But now consider: suppose that I taught my own children that the expectations upon them are different than my own? Or suppose I taught such a thing to all of the children? Would I be freeing them from my own history, or freeing myself? Or both? Is such a thing possible? Would the definitions shift? What if I had a particular vision of how the world should be? Or if I saw the world I live in now as an ideal to be cherished and preserved?
As the world is invented anew with each day, we each have a choice whether to accept the world of yesterday or create the world of tomorrow through our choices of what we accept from our predecessors and and what we teach to our inheritors.
I myself choose to try to make a better world, one where I feel that I am fulfilling my responsibilities to my ancestors and to my descendants, and hope that they, in turn, will work to preserve or improve upon what I have given them.
—Fyrir Hiccup House Haddock VI, Collected Public Sermons & Private Contemplations
September, AD 1042/Muharram AH 434
Former Estates of Georgios Maniakes, Eastern Anatolia, Roman Empire
Sigurd felt like his eyes were going to pop out of his head as he stared at Gudmu—Heidrun while she put her tunic back on.
"Hababaha…" he stammered, trying to speak.
"I think you may have broken him," Gunnar said cheerfully.
Heidrun scowled and sat back down in his… her chair, crossing her arms over her chest with a humph.
Still chuckling, Gunnar handed over a cup of wine to Sigurd, who took it gratefully in shaking hands. Chugging half of it in a swallow, he almost choked but managed to get it down, and then put the cup down on the table. "I, I, I…" he stammered, and then swallowed, coughed, and said, "You… you… you're a girl!"
Heidrun covered her eyes with her hands as Gunnar burst out laughing.
"How does he manage to be this oblivious and yet still this endearing?" Heidrun groused from behind her hands.
"Well, being fair, he has had a very rough year with a lot of distractions. And it's not as though you have attempted to determine if he was interested," Gunnar said reasonably. "And neither have I, for that matter."
Sigurd looked back and forth between the pair of them. "So… you… you both? This whole time?"
Gunnar stroked at his chin. "I know that Heidrun was interested in you first."
"But when we got to the cells in Bari and found that you'd already freed yourself by ripping the cell door off its hinges, Gunnar finally admitted to me the next day that he was smitten," Heidrun commented dryly. "Meanwhile, he'd been teasing me for months about having a crush on my commander."
"I, ah, bah, buh, buh," Sigurd stammered, still hung up on the fact that Gudmund was a girl! Who had kissed him!
Gunnar scoffed and grinned at Heidrun. "Given that when I first brought it up, you thought that I was going to blackmail you into sleeping with me, I believe a bit of gentle teasing was more than fair payment for the slight against my character."
"How, how… how did you figure it out?" Sigurd managed to get out.
Gunnar shrugged and Heidrun rolled her eyes and sighed. "He accidentally copped a feel during a glima bout."
"And let me tell you, it was quite surprising to suddenly feel breasts under my hands," Gunnar said jovially. "And then she threw me in the river!"
"I do that to everyone! You're not special!"
That was true enough, Sigurd noted, still slightly stunned. Gudm—Heidrun threw everybody into whatever available body of water there was handy when they sparred.
Then the next bit registered, really, actually registered, rather than coming through and going like a wave of water. "Wait."
They both paused in their banter and looked at him. "Yes?" G—Heidrun asked.
"You, you… this whole time, you've been interested in me?"
Heidrun shared another exasperated look with Gunnar before looking back to Sigurd. "Yes. And I'm kicking myself, because maybe, just maybe, if I had made a move, you might not have gone on that disastrous bender."
Sigurd blinked, his mind still reeling. "But… but… you can't blame yourself."
Heidrun put her hand on the back of Sigurd's. "Look. Did I push you into bed with those whores? No. But I could have whacked you over the head, carried you off to your room, kicked Demetrius out, dragged you off to bed, and had Gunnar bar the door. And believe me, I considered that before then anyway!" She chuckled. "Demetrius does do good work."
Gunnar laughed. "Aye, that he does."
"And if I'd done that, then you wouldn't have had that sense of failure that made you do something so horrendously stupid as that bender," Heidrun said sternly. She looked him in the eye. "And now you have to promise us that you won't do anything stupid like that again! Not when it's not just your neck on the line, but ours too!"
Sigurd nodded and said hollowly, "I promise. And you both have the right to whack me over the head if I do something stupid again."
Gunnar smiled. "Good. And I'll hold you to that."
"But… but why me?" Sigurd asked plaintively. "I… I'm… why?"
Gunnar's expression fell and he sighed. "Because, Sigurd, you're our friend. You're a good man—most of the time—and one who has acted honorably. You've been generous and friendly, taking jokes at your expense with equanimity… I remember when that Rus' marshal tried to provoke you at dinner and you didn't lose your head, despite him telling that your home had been destroyed and then threatening to try to take you as a thrall! And then, when we arrived and Harald took you on staff, you didn't suddenly forget the rest of us with your new high station! No, as soon as there were dragons available, you trained us, your friends, to make friends with them and ride them. You didn't give them to lordling sons or hold them out as favors from nobles. No. You remembered the men—and the woman—" he nodded towards Heidrun, who leaned back in her chair, crossed her arms and gave a shrug and a smile, "—with whom you had arrived. Despite the fact that we were not able to offer you anything other than our friendship and our loyalty." Gunnar smiled and said, "Well, you have that."
Sigurd looked Gunnar in the eye, half expecting mockery, only to see the taller man smile at him, his expression honest and earnest. "Do… do you really mean that?"
"But… but I'm not like my cousin, and…" For a moment, Sigurd felt so utterly inadequate that he almost pulled himself free from his seat to run for the door. Yes, he'd wanted someone to want him… but deep down, he'd somehow gotten the expectation that nobody would be interested in him for his own sake. Even Sophia…
He groaned and put his face in his hands.
"What's wrong?" Gu… Heidrun asked as Gunnar refilled their cups.
"What about Sophia? I can… I shouldn't… she'd claim insult…" He sighed. "And I really like her. Even if…" he glanced at Heidrun, "even if she's only interested in me because I'm close to the Empress."
Heidrun nodded solemnly. "Honestly, I think you should still pursue her."
Sigurd blinked. "What?"
Scoffing, Heidrun shrugged and said, "Child of a concubine, remember? Who do you think my father loved more? The chieftain's daughter he married so her father would have an heir? Or the three women he found, kept, freed, and brought back to the cold north with him? I don't know what Sophia's game is exactly, but it's a game you need to learn to play in order to survive here," she said.
Sigurd nodded as Heidrun hesitated. That made sense.
Then she continued, "And… well… I might have been wrong about some of her motivations."
Sigurd blinked and Gunnar gave her a sidelong glance. "How do you think you might have been wrong?" Gunnar prompted.
"Meaning that since Inga arrived, she's been pointing out some things to me about Sophia's position at court." She nodded towards Sigurd and said cheerfully, "While nothing gets past our incredibly observant commander here—"
"Hey!" Sigurd protested.
"It is true, though, and you know it," Gunnar commented.
"—I did miss a bunch of what Inga pointed out. And, well," Heidrun shrugged, "your lady friend isn't exactly well loved at court."
Sigurd cocked his head, confused. "Meaning?"
Heidrun sighed and rubbed at her temples. "She gets bullied and shoved out. The other maidens say nasty things about her, calling her perverse and desperate, that no Greek man would want her, that she isn't a proper lady…" She gave a pained shrug. "I… I actually find myself liking her."
Gunnar gave her a sidelong look. "Well. That is a distinct shift."
"You don't spend all that time with someone acting as their bodyguard and translator without starting to get a feel for who they are as a person," Heidrun said defensively, and vigorously motioned between the three of them.
Gunnar nodded in acknowledgment while Sigurd rubbed at his head. "So what does that mean?" he asked, frustrated.
Softly, Gunnar said, "My friend, we've inflicted significant surprise upon you tonight, and it's late. You don't have to make any decisions tonight—nor should you. But you should at least consider where you want to go… now that you know that you have people who are interested in and care about you."
Heidrun nodded in agreement. "What we end up being to you, that's a question we need to figure out, and do it carefully." She gave a small smirk. "Just remember that I can still kick your ass and toss you into the Golden Horn if I want to. I came here to be a warrior and prove my worth, not jump into bed with you. I'm willing to be your lover, not your plaything, understand?"
Sigurd nodded, still feeling a bit stunned at it all. "Got it."
"I feel the same way," Gunnar added. "While companionship of this nature wasn't what I expected to find on service with the Romans, I must say that the fact you haven't fled screaming from the room is a good sign."
Sigurd gave a small shaky laugh. "I, uh… I don't know what to say." Then a thought occurred to him. "Hey, wait. Are we safe? I mean, you two kept watch for me…"
Heidrun shrugged. "Thorred and Ben know about me and have promised to help keep the secret."
"Oh." He thought on that numbly. "And Ketilbjorn?"
"Doesn't know, but he keeps his own counsel. And he's loyal to you, at least," Gunnar said.
Sigurd nodded, and that bob of the head turned into a major wobble, with him almost falling off of the stool. He suddenly felt very, very tired.
"Hold on there," Gunnar said, reaching to steady him, and turned to Heidrun. "Come on. Let's put him to bed." Sigurd started to say something, only to get quieted by Gunnar. "No, none of that. We just hit you hard. Time for sleep, but nothing else. We can talk in the morning."
Fatigue coming over him in a wave, Sigurd nodded as the pair of his… his friends hauled him off to his bedroom, gently placed him into the bed and pulled the covers over him.
As he fell asleep, his last thought was a stunned why me? He'd so desperately wanted people to like him, to want him… and the two people who knew his failures and weaknesses the most—who had cleaned him up and carried him…
Why did they want him?
Kurfürstentum Köln, Holy Roman Empire
Hunched over the borrowed scribing desk, Hiccup was intently sketching out a design for a new fin mechanism for Toothless as Astrid and Wulfhild slumbered in the bed behind him. He was finishing up the sketch of the internal mechanism when his concentration broke at the sudden sound of Astrid laughing, hurriedly muffled to keep from waking Wulfhild.
He looked up to see a thoroughly disgruntled Toothless huffily walk in, water dripping off of him.
"What happened to you?"
Toothless blew out a gust of air from narrowed nostrils, pointed at Astrid and Wulfhild, and mimed flapping, with his claws clenched tight—and then abruptly opening them.
Hiccup put that together, and felt his face darken. "Stormfly and Mistletoe picked you up and dropped you in the river?"
Toothless nodded, his expression cranky.
Astrid's giggles cut off and she looked at Toothless with concern.
Quietly, so as not to wake Wulfhild, she asked, "Toothless, do you want me to talk with her?"
He snorted, turned away, and curled up by the small hearthfire in their room. Astrid looked at him helplessly before turning back and burrowing under the covers next to Wulfhild again.
"Well, bud," Hiccup said as Astrid settled in, "I don't know if I have a solution to your lady problems, but I have this." He held up the sketch and Toothless cocked his head, confusion written all over his face. "It won't be as good as me helping you work the saddle, but I can at least give you some mobility back on your own…"
Toothless tilted his head the other way, still confused.
With a fond sigh, Hiccup turned back his desk. "Go to sleep, bud. I'll have it ready as soon as I can. You too, Astrid."
With the sounds of his friend and lovers sleeping near him, Hiccup turned his focus back onto the sketch, and picked up his straightedge and charcoal.
It would be a rough job—the muscles that pulled the fin up and down stretched for a good length of Toothless' tail, and this would be forcing the intact side to pull for both itself and for the maimed side—and if it jammed…
Well, he had to hope it wouldn't jam on short flights.
Also, it wouldn't help as much as having Hiccup operate the fin from the saddle, as the automatic fin would only be able to mirror the intact side's motions, instead of allowing for each side to have different trims.
It would let his friend fly on his own.
And that was good enough.
Satisfied as the sun rose, Hiccup got up from the desk and stretched—and heard each and every one of the bones of his spine pop in sequence.
But that didn't wake anyone. So, first giving Astrid a kiss on the forehead and then Wulfhild a kiss on the temple where the two women had fallen asleep, entwined, he turned to the door, the sketch under his arm.
Time to find that smithy Henry said he could use.
Isle of Berk, Alban Hebrides
Jonna tried to keep from laughing as she looked at her wife. Hands on her hips, Reidun was tracking the roiling motion of the cloud of dragons flying overhead as if they'd personally inconvenienced her. Which, to be fair, they had, Jonna mused. Oh, they could take a boat back to Eigg anytime they wanted, but for the moment, with the dragons… occupied, all of the work they'd been helping with had a lot of slack that needed to be picked up. So they were pitching in to help, and not going back home just yet—which meant that they'd bedded down last night in guest quarters.
As they watched the dragons display and dance, Jonna leaned over and slipped her hand into her wife's. Reidun leaned against her and they watched for another few moments in silence before Jonna spoke up.
"So… this brings something to mind that Fishswill brought up yesterday."
Jonna tracked one bright red Nadder as it flew through the air. "Yeah. We need an heir. For the clan."
Reidun nodded; they'd managed to corner some Old Tribe Hooligans and get a straight answer on how inheritance worked here—and the answers had been illuminating. "I was assuming we'd be adopting my nephew, but we always just resigned ourselves to never having children of our own, given the attitudes back home. Any man we might have brought in would just have tried to assert himself as being in charge."
Jonna scowled. "Aye." But then she brightened. "But that's not the case here." They could take a concubine—a male one!—or invite a man into their bed on their terms, and he would have no standing that they didn't grant him.
"No, it isn't. But, well, we aren't interested in men, either of us."
"But we do rather need one if we want children of our own bodies," Jonna added slightly sourly.
"Do we? Want them, that is."
"I think…" Jonna turned and put her hands on Reidun's shoulders. "I think that even if I'm not the sire of your children, I would love and protect and cherish them, because they are yours, my love."
Reidun blushed and grinned. "And I feel the same about yours. Although I might not be as good at the protecting part!" She mimed swinging an ax, and they both laughed.
"So… what do we want to do?" Jonna asked after they stopped laughing.
"Well… find someone that we can tolerate, I guess, and... have children. I would assume sooner rather than later. We're both not getting any younger and it would settle the question of succession," Reidun pointed out pragmatically. "And it's not like it's love. Just… sex."
Jonna nodded ruefully. "I find this so ironic, though."
Reidun scoffed. "Oh?"
"Yes. All this time, I've never gone to a man's bed when they were trying to force me, and now that I'm here, where that isn't a risk…"
Reidun cackled and took her hand. "But you're thinking of it wrong."
"Yes. You're not going to his bed. He's coming to ours. Now, come on. While the dragons are busy flirting, let's go figure out who we're propositioning."
Jonna scoffed. "Let's both be honest. We know who we're starting with."
Former Estates of Georgios Maniakes, Eastern Anatolia, Roman Empire
Sigurd moaned into the pillow as he woke, the remnants of the wine thick on his tongue . He wasn't… hungover, exactly, but there was a dwarf inside his head with a pickax and a bad sense of direction trying to tunnel his way out, and he'd used Sigurd's tongue to wipe his boots on his way in.
Rising slowly from the bed, he found that someone had left a carafe of water and some cups at his bedside. Drinking three cups full helped his head feel a bit better and washed some of the gunk out of his mouth.
He'd made it to the latrine before the events of last night hit him.
No, it hadn't been a dream.
Gudmund was actually a girl, and she was interested in him… and Gunnar, tall, strong, handsome Gunnar, was as well.
And Sigurd had no idea how to deal with that. They'd both seen him at his worst, his weakest, his most pathetic, and yet they said that they wanted him?
A ghostly voice came up from the back of his mind, sounding like Snotlout. Well, I am just that awesome.
Snorting, he squashed it. Awesome. Yeah. Sure. Got a bunch of his men killed… ended up deposing Michael anyway and only kept his honor because of a loophole… failed to rescue Zoe… and, oh yeah, got himself banished from his home. And, he reminded that inner Snotlout, back in Nidaros, he'd been so pissed about Hiccup giving away dragons.
And then he'd given them to the Romans. Because Harald was handsome.
At least when Hiccup had given away dragons, he had gotten laid with that princess.
Scowling, he dragged his mind away from that line of thinking, and padded back from the latrine closet.
Touching his fingers to his lips, he remembered Gu… Heidrun's kiss last night.
With a moan, he flopped back onto the bed.
I'm willing to be your lover, not your plaything, understand?
What in Freyja's name was he going to do?
Feeling overwhelmed, he grabbed the pillow and clutched it. His two best friends had offered—in as many words—to bed him. He was publicly courting a noble girl, and had no idea if she was interested in him or his power—the power he'd just realized the other week that he had. Oh, and if the Empress heard about his visit to the brothels, she might have him killed.
Oh, and he was apparently too stupid to notice that they'd been interested in him! 'Sharp as a sack of hammers' indeed! Gah! Hiccup would have noticed! But he was too much of an idiot to pick up on things like that!
Looking back, he realized how many clues he'd missed about Gudmund being Heidrun. Hel, he'd heard her and Gunnar talking about her having a secret after Kormak's attack on him last year! And she'd never come to the baths, and she'd checked him out that night when Michael's people tried to tame the Hydra, and she'd blown up at Benjamin for getting Pelagia pregnant, and she'd given him advice on how to make it up to Pelagia when they'd been interrupted, and…
And now he was supposed to be a leader, when he couldn't even notice that one of his best friends was interested in him?
Sharp as a sack of hammers…
Little pup with little paws, loud yap from loud jaws…
Panicked and overwhelmed, he started to thrash on the bed, feeling like he was being stretched too thinly.
Wham his arm against the mattress—Sophia, chair in hand, breathing hard.
Thud a leg—Gunnar, beaming at him proudly.
A guttural gasp—Heidrun, holding him close as Melfi burned.
Head arched against the bed—the tagma.
Fist pounding the bedframe—the estate.
More thrashing as more images and responsibilities and failures and mistakes and his family and Hiccup, and, and, and…
Panting, tangled in his blankets, he came back to himself, slumped and sweating.
He wasn't good enough.
He was going to fuck it all up and get himself taken to pieces and doom the people who thought he was better than he was.
With a pained moan, he sagged bonelessly into a sprawl across his sweat-soaked bed, feeling sorry for himself. He watched the line of sunlight inch across the floor with an exhausted sense of failure.
As the sun reached the window, there was a knock at the door.
"What?" he moaned.
Gudmund's … Heidrun's voice came through the door. "You all right? You've been in there all morning."
He groaned and pulled himself deeper into the blankets.
"Go away," he mumbled into the pillow, feeling disgusting and sorry for himself.
"Sigurd?" she repeated, sounding more worried.
"I said go away!"
There was a long pause, and then the door opened.
He raised his head slightly to see Heidrun enter, her expression concerned—and then she winced when she saw him. "You look like something the dog dragged in."
That hit, and he rolled over, pulling the blanket back up over his head. "Go away."
"You keep saying that, but I don't think I'll listen," Heidrun said. "Unless you want to make it an order. In which case I will. But I think that's a mistake."
He pulled the covers back just enough to peer at her. "You do, do you?"
She nodded. "You're hungover. At least have some water," she said, and went over to the carafe and cups nearby. She poured a cup full, then gave it to him and said, "Drink."
Sighing, he protested, "I already had some," but then did as he was told, and then gave a more relieved sigh as the water flushed out more of the gunk and the remnants of dryness from his mouth.
He nodded but didn't say anything.
"So… what's bothering you?" she asked after a few moments of silence.
He snorted bitterly. "Why don't you tell me?"
She frowned. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, why are you asking a guy who is 'as sharp as a sack of hammers' about anything?" he spat.
She blinked and then winced. "Oh."
"Yeah. So I'm an idiot who can't think and can't see the obvious when it's right in front of me. So why don't you tell me what's wrong?" he said petulantly.
She studied him for a moment, her lips set in a frown, and sighed. "You're angry with me and Gunnar," she said simply.
He grunted. "Figured that out, did you?"
"You have every right. What we said… it was a bit cruel, and I'm sorry. But you're selling yourself short."
"Have you seen me? I don't even come up to your nose," he rebutted, motioning to his squat body with a dismissive wave.
"Ha. But no. You caught what we said and asked about it!"
"Yeah. But you had to be pretty blatant about it. You said it straight to me, and it still took me how long to realize it? Gunnar was right—I don't notice anything!"
"So if I can't notice something as simple as you being…" he motioned to her, "you, then how the hell am I going to keep us safe? The Romans wouldn't approve—we've seen that with the punishments for the ergi in court, or what they did to Ben for being with Pelagia." He scowled and gave an angry sigh through his nose. "So why is some unobservant idiot oathbreaker like me worth that risk?" He slumped back onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling.
The bed creaked slightly and he felt Heidrun sit down onto it, and move over next to him. A moment later, her face, drawn with concern, was looking down at him.
He scowled and started to roll over, only to have her grab his arm and pull him back. Looking up at her, he saw that her expression was still concerned, but also somewhat exasperated.
"All right. That's enough self-pity," she said firmly. "This isn't like you."
"How do you know? You've known me under a fake name for the whole time we've known each other."
She rolled her eyes. "Sigurd."
"Think about who you just said that to."
He did, and felt his face flush. "Argh! See!? I'm too stupid to think!" He tried to roll over again, but she pinned him effortlessly with her legs.
"Maybe, but you've been getting better at thinking," she said firmly. "I've watched you get better at thinking. And you want to know why I think you're worth the risk? Because in the last year, I've gotten to know a good man. Not perfect, not by far, but one who's brave, and kind, and generous to his friends, regardless of how high in status he gets, who never treated me as a freak or strange because of my skin color, who was a gracious loser even when dripping with slimy mud—"
Despite himself, Sigurd gave a weak laugh at that.
"—and when I woke you in the middle of the night, exhausted after a day of training dragons, you ran to help that Hydra. You didn't have to. You could have let them die and said 'I told you so' to Michael in the morning. And then you mouthed off to Michael. Was that the smartest thing you could have done? No. But it was very brave, and I was honored to know you in that moment."
Sigurd blinked. "You really think that?"
She nodded. "And I haven't had any reason to change my mind since then."
"Not even my oath to my old chief?"
She shrugged. "Well, it's not good, but I broke an oath too, to my father."
"Do you think my father wanted me to come down here under a false name and with his sword and armor? No, my brother was supposed to come and continue on with a family tradition. But he didn't want to go. So, even though I promised my father I wouldn't, I snuck out of the house and went after him. He gave me the sword and armor, and I took his place so he could go and do what he wanted."
Sigurd winced. "And he's on Berk now, getting taught."
Heidrun gave a small dismissive shrug. "So he is, which is what he wanted. And you're here, being an honored leader of men, like you wanted. And I'm here, being a warrior like few others can even dream of, like I wanted. But I broke a solemn oath to my father that I'd stay and be a good little housewife to whatever man might want to pay my bride price, even though I wanted to fight." She scowled. "So I'm not in a position to judge you—especially since, let's be honest here, Michael would have had you killed horribly if you'd dared to change your mind."
"I… uh…" Sigurd stammered slightly at that and nodded.
"Good." She shifted slightly on top of him, and he saw her realize their position at the exact same moment he did—her practically sitting on him, with him dressed only in his linen undergarments, the blanket having fallen aside. Her smile turned almost predatory. "Well. This wasn't how I planned on getting you into bed…"
Sigurd suddenly felt almost edible. "Uh—"
"You wanted to know how I could want you? Like this." She bent down and kissed him.
Without thinking, he kissed back; it felt clumsy on both of their parts, but it wasn't like he had much basis in comparison. After a moment, panting for breath, he broke the kiss and gasped out, "I think—"
"Don't think. We both want this," she said and kissed him again—and as they did so, she took one of his hands in one of hers and put it at the hem of her tunic.
Sigurd was just starting to explore upwards when there was a knock at the door, followed by Gunnar's voice. "Gudmund? Sigurd?"
Heidrun broke the kiss and rolled off him, flailing, just as Gunnar opened the door—and paused.
Sigurd looked at his other friend with wide eyes as Gunnar paused and looked them over. Almost unwillingly, he did the same, and cringed. He was wearing only his linen breeches, which were heavily askew, and Heidrun was hurriedly tucking her tunic back under her belt and fixing her own disheveled clothing.
Gunnar quirked an eyebrow and said dryly, "I recognize that I'm the oldest one of the three of us, with the most experience in such matters, and as a result of said experience, that it is hypocritical of me to comment that it takes significant self-discipline to voice the statement of 'I really want this, but perhaps now is not the best time'… but now is not the best time. Imagine if it had been one of the servants instead of me."
"The burned hand teaches best, and all," Heidrun commented just as dryly, yanking her tunic's laces and tying them shut with quick, hard motions.
"Yes. And for me it was the man's father, to whom I was oathsworn," Gunnar said.
Sigurd winced and rolled out of bed, reaching for his tunic. "Well, you either came at just the right or just the wrong time," he commented as lightly as he could force.
"Wrong time is my vote," Heidrun added, her voice dripping with frustration. "I think out of the three of us, I'm still the only virgin."
"What?" she asked, crossing her arms and scowling at him.
Feeling his face flush, Sigurd looked down at the floor and tried to pull his trousers on before mumbling, "So was I… until…"
There were two sudden intakes of breath from his friends.
"Oh," Heidrun said.
Sigurd felt his ears burning, and continued to look down, shamefaced.
Gunnar's hand landed gently on his shoulder a moment later. "It's all right, Sigurd. And we have time to figure this out now, as a group, how we can… arrange matters for us all."
Sigurd sighed. "If you say so?" He slumped. "And I still need to figure out what to do about Sophia. Do I break it off—"
"Invite her here," Gunnar said.
"What!?" both Sigurd and Heidrun said at the same time.
"Invite her here," Gunnar repeated. "It's your territory, and she can come with an escort, but we can discuss it all and resolve it in privacy."
"And what if she doesn't want to?" Heidrun asked.
"Then better here than in the capital," Gunnar said evenly. "But we have time and space to get to know each other and figure out… things, before we have issues." He looked evenly at Sigurd. "Send an invitation to her, and we can proceed slowly." He smiled slightly crookedly. "Like all good seductions, we can take our time and see what mutual arrangements we can come to."
"As opposed to bad seductions, where you two practically threw yourselves at me?" Sigurd inquired slightly sarcastically.
Heidrun winced. "Yeah… and I'm sorry for that." She elbowed Gunnar, who grunted, and then nodded.
"And so am I. What am I sorry for?"
"'Sack of hammers,'" Heidrun muttered.
"Oh. Oh. Yes, I am sorry," he said more earnestly. "And for now, I think we have a letter to compose and dispatch to Constantinople, as well as more work to do on the estate." He motioned to the door. "That's what I came up here for. Shall we?"
Kerr gasped as he woke, and tried to bolt upward, only to have strong hands hold him down.
"There, there, it's okay! Everything is all right!" he heard someone say, and there was a sudden splash of warm water dumped over him, making him sputter.
He rubbed his eyes clear, to find he'd been stripped, and was surrounded by several people scrubbing at him, cleaning away the filth, with one holding a needle and thread and examining the wound in his side. He looked up as one person moved aside, to see a tall man at his feet, standing over him. The taller man knelt down, looking Kerr in the eye. "You're safe. Have no fear. My name is Ivor of Glenfinnan, and you are under my protection."
Kerr shrank back as best he could, being prone. "I… I…"
"You need to get to Berk. I heard you mumbling in your sleep." Ivor smiled at him. "Fortunately, you are in the right place. Berk is less than an hour's travel by dragon away. When the next rider visits, you can speak with them then. We are expecting a mail rider any day now; they're late, actually, so they should be here soon."
Kerr collapsed in relief, and as his eyes closed, he heard Ivor say, as if from a long distance, "Rest, young man. You clearly have something of great import to tell our friends."
Kerr slept and, for the first time in over a month, felt safe.
Mead Hall, Isle of Berk, Alban Hebrides
"…and while Hiccup didn't quite get home in time, at least this year we knew it was coming," Gobber said to Stoick as they sat, eating a late breakfast. Thornado and Grump were up in the cloud of mating dragons, leaving the humans to their own devices. But they'd known it was coming, as Gobber had noted, so it hadn't thrown off their plans too much.
Stoick nodded, but before he could say any more, Jonna and Reidun approached, carrying food of their own. "Can we join you two?" Jonna asked.
Stoick gave a magnanimous wave. "Please."
As the two lasses sat down to eat, Gobber asked, "So, I didn't get the chance to ask the other day how you're settling in. Everything all right over on Eigg?"
They both nodded enthusiastically, and Jonna commented, "It would have taken years to build the place up with hand labor, but with the dragons helping, we'll have it done before the harvest starts in earnest."
"Eh, I'm sure you would have managed," Gobber said cheerfully. "After all, hand labor's not too hard," he held up his arms, "when you have more than one hand!"
Reidun choked while Stoick laughed and Jonna thumped her wife on the back and gave him a dirty look.
They continued bantering back and forth, and then Jonna bit her lip in a very uncharacteristically reserved manner and looked to Stoick.
"So… first off, I want to say that I feel deeply honored for being accepted as part of the tribe. And more than that, you're the first jarl or chief I've ever worked with that didn't even try to force me to his bed as a condition of service."
Stoick sighed. "Lass, are you familiar with the concept of 'damning with faint praise'?"
"Aye. I'm not one of those men. But you're still welcome." He sighed and took a drink from his ale.
She gave another nod and said, "Well, Reidun and I were talking, and we were considering an heir for our clan, and, well…"
Gobber, seeing where this was going, did his best to hide his grin.
"And well? Do you need me to approve an adoption?" Stoick asked and took another swallow of his drink.
"No. While you didn't ask… we're offering you right of first refusal."
Gobber leaned back just before Stoick's mouthful turned into a sticky cloud, as he choked and sprayed his drink everywhere. Half-bolting out of his seat, he gaped wild-eyed at the two women, stammered out a, "N-no, no thank you!" and beat a hasty retreat.
As Jonna and Reidun gave each other worried glances, Gobber burst out laughing at the look that had been on Stoick's face. Oh, he was going to treasure this for a loooong time!
Jonna turned to him. "We… we didn't offend him, did we?" she asked, concerned.
Gobber shrugged, still grinning, and took a drink. "Possibly? But he won't make an issue of it. Just apologize to him later. But since he didn't yell, I'd say that you're good."
Jonna exhaled a sigh of relief and shared another knowing look with Reidun before turning back to him. "So… Gobber…"
"We also consider you to be a friend."
Gobber nodded, paused and then what they were offering by implication seemed to leap to the front of his mind. He took a swallow of his drink to buy time to think and then said simply, "You know my preferences don't go to girls, lass. We've had that talk."
She shrugged. "And ours don't go to men, you old goat," she said with a grin.
Reidun muttered under her breath, "Jonna, you owe an apology to goats." They all laughed, and the tension seemed to melt away. But then Reidun leaned forward towards Gobber and said seriously, "But this isn't love or attraction or anything of that nature. Just siring a child, and we would rather it be from a friend than some man we just picked up out of the crowd."
Gobber nodded and took another drink from his tankard, and then another, mulling it over. He was about to turn them down when he saw Lopsides Clodgallsdoittor near the kitchens, carrying an empty tray over to the cart to be cleaned down by the Scauldron cove.
He felt his mood darken, and then his decision seemed to come together in his mind in a snap. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and nodded. "Aye."
"'Aye'… what?" Jonna asked carefully, in a tone of clarification.
"Aye, I accept your kind offer."
Reidun and Jonna shared another look and then Jonna asked carefully, "What changed your mind? Not that we're offended—"
"Not hardly," Reidun added.
"—but you looked… upset there for a moment."
Gobber sighed, shoved a smile onto his face and said, "Eh, it's history now. Some of it happened… before either of you were born, come to think of it."
Jonna reached out and gently put a hand on the back of Gobber's wrist. "Gobber. We might not love you like that, but you're still someone we consider a good, close friend. And this bothers you. You can tell us."
Gobber glanced back and forth between the two serious women, concern on their faces, and nodded. "Aye. Well… it comes to this. Clodgall and me, we have the same father, but different mothers. Mine was our father's wife, his was the concubine."
Jonna and Reidun shared another look, this one confused. "But, wait, wouldn't that take him out of the line of succession?"
"Well, I would have been first in the line for voting, but our father and his heir—my older sister—died in the same raid. And I was a young'un, years from being an adult, but I was also the only surviving child from my mum. But Clodgall was, is twenty years older than me, and he was already married then, so the clan passed me over in the voting and elected him as heir, and then he immediately became the clanhead. But they picked me as the clan-heir at least." Gobber took a drink, staring into the distance, not seeing the mead hall as it was now, but as it had been during that painful vote… gods, was it already forty years ago? He continued, his tone flat, "Then, when I got older, and my… preferences got known, and I lost my hand and foot…" He sighed. "Since I was maimed, they called a new vote for a new clan-heir, since I 'didn't qualify as heir any longer.'" He took a drink. "So Spitelout became the new clanheir and I was just the village smith, even if I was friends with the chief's heir."
An angry growl came from Jonna. "They stole your birthright piece by piece!?"
"Aye, I suppose. But this was long ago, and I've made my peace with it." Mostly. "But then, my partner and I, before he died, we were courting this one girl to do for us what you asked me to do for you." He closed his eyes and said wearily, dredging up old memories, "I was going to marry her and we'd be a triad all together, just to make the inheritance clear, from me to the child, so that there wouldn't be any… issues with who the child's legal father was." Because with two fathers, it could have been claimed that they were not descended from Gobber's own father, and that claim used as a pretext for blocking their eligibility-but with one of the men being a concubine, the legal line of descent was ironclad, regardless of who was the actual sire. "That way they'd still have a chance to be elected heir, as the grandchild of the old clanhead." Thankfully he saw both women nod in understanding, and he continued with the most painful part without needing to explain and slow down. "But I didn't have the bride price necessary, and she couldn't afford the mandated dowry." That year had been a bad one for raids, and the smithy had been burned down. Twice.
Wearily, he continued. "So I asked Clodgall to take her on as a concubine for a year while I got the bride price together." Gobber finished his cup. "A year later, she decided to stay with him. And Lopsides is their daughter." Why would I want you, he could still hear in his head, when I could have something better? "And then my partner died a few years later. He's in Aegir's hall now."
"Oh," came from Jonna in a voice barely above a whisper, and she glanced towards where Lopsides had been.
There was a long pause before Gobber turned to look at her. "So, lass, are you willing to take on all of that baggage, just for a bit of revenge from a bitter old ergi, knowing that my child with you would inherit a clan?" He took his flesh-and-blood hand out from under hers and unscrewed his tankard hand. "I won't blame you in the slightest if you say no."
Jonna shared a look with Reidun and they both nodded, hesitantly at first and then more firmly. "Knowing that, I literally cannot think of anyone else I'd rather have as a sire for our child." Her lip curled very slightly. "Our clanheir."
The cloud-shaded sun at his back, Ivor was staring off into the distance in the direction of Berk as Father Paul came over to him.
"How is he?" the priest asked.
"Ill, and hard used. And he has such wounds on him… I fear for what news he has to tell Lord Hiccup." Ivor sighed. In the year and a half since Hiccup's first visit to the village, Ivor had seen such wonders. Dragons flying through the sky at the behest of men, trade and visitors from far away, and riches once undreamed of. They had a set of Hiccup's windmills for grinding grain, and next month Ivor would be leaving for Berk itself to be a guest at the noble wedding that Berk would be hosting for their allies.
Ivor still remembered how baffled he'd been when he'd been told that there would be two brides and no groom, but he was in no position to criticize. Not when their flocks and fortunes had grown in only the last year and a half. Even now, he could see some of the hillsides around them speckled with white from their sheep—many, many more than they'd had in years past. His grandson, Jacob, was up there herding a flock of sheep, but Ivor had greater plans for him than living as a shepherd and then jarl of a small village for the rest of his life. No, he would go to school on Berk itself, and become a respected leader of men.
"I heard that he was mumbling that he had to get to Berk the whole time he was brought in from the fields," Paul said.
Ivor nodded. "I fear that he brings dire news. But for all that Berk has never claimed our allegiance, they've never refused it either, and I will not anger God for turning out a man in such dire need."
Paul nodded. "Has he said anything else?"
"No. Not even his name. But—" Ivor paused and held up a hand. "Do you hear that?"
Kurfürstentum Köln, Holy Roman Empire
Sitting on the weirdly flat stones, dozens of walkers from the local nest watching them, Toothless held still as Hiccup knelt down at his tail, strapping the false-fin in place like he always did. As his friend worked, his mind was elsewhere, though. Specifically, up in the sky with the rest of the flyers. But that was going to have to be good enough. Oh, sure, it was great that his friend was taking him out for a flight, but mating dances were all about showing your worth and prowess… and as close as he had grown with his best friend, there was no way that the other flyers would see him as worthy. Not with carrying a walker around on his back.
He tried to keep from feeling resentful, but it was hard at times like these. Yes, the walker was his best friend, no question, and he honestly loved Hiccup for everything—for the gift of life, of peace, of friendship, and more.
But at moments like this, watching the others fly overhead…
It was hard not to be bitter over everything he'd also lost, even when he'd gained a whole world.
Hiccup's voice interrupted his reverie.
"There we go, bud. Try it."
Toothless blinked. Huh? Hiccup wasn't finished! He hadn't attached the saddle or any… of the…
He twitched his regular fin—and felt the false one move in response.
In shock, he whipped his tail around and examined it in front of his eyes as his jaw dropped open.
Distantly, he heard Hiccup say, "It's not going to be as good as me working the pedal, but it should let you fly on your own, bud…"
Breathing heavily, Toothless moved his intact tail-fin, and yes, it was harder to move the false one, and all it did was copy his real one. He could see that Hiccup had attached something to his real fin's bones that would make them move together.
Overcome, he tackled Hiccup and started to lick every bit of him he could reach, trying to express just how much this meant to him.
"Hey, ah, bud, you're welcome!" Hiccup sputtered, and gently pushed Toothless' snout away from him.
Getting in one last lick, Toothless sat back on his haunches, smiled and crooned at his best friend, before reaching over with his forepaw and doing something that he'd seen Stoick do—touch the hair on Hiccup's head and play with it for a moment.
Hiccup laughed and said, "You're welcome, bud. Now, I don't know how well it'll hold up—remember our first times flying?"
Toothless cocked his head and then warbled in answer. +I do.+
Hiccup seemed to understand that it was a yes, because he continued, "So I'm going to want to check it soon, all right?"
Toothless bobbed his head down and up again for yes, just like he'd seen walkers do.
"But, bud?" Hiccup walked over and put his arms around Toothless' torso. "I'm sorry. And it's not perfect… but I hope that it helps you go up there and fly with everyone else."
Toothless put his forelegs around Hiccup, and squeezed slightly, like he'd seen Stoick do—and Hiccup made the same squeaky noises, too!
He let go, and the pair of them laughed, before his friend said, "All right! Go! Give it a good test, bud!"
Taking a deep breath and stretching out his tail, Toothless bounded up onto the roof, pushing past several of the watching walkers, who exclaimed in surprise. Up on the top ridge of the roof, he looked down at his best friend, still standing there in the center of the area of flat stones.
Hiccup was watching him, and there were tears coming from his eyes. "Go, bud. You can do it," Toothless heard him say softly.
He looked away with effort, stretched his wings, and, with a powerful downbeat, took flight on his own for the first time in over two years.
Feelings inside him pulled him upwards, towards the sky, where many of the other flyers were racing and displaying…
But his heart made him look down, where his friend was cheering as the walkers around him applauded. Across the distance, his eyes met Hiccup's, and his friend motioned him to fly onwards and upwards.
Making one more circle around the building, Toothless tried out the new fin. Hiccup was right—it wasn't anywhere near as good as having his friend in the saddle. It could only copy what his real fin did, which robbed him of a lot of agility. Also, he'd gotten used to having a weight on his back who could help with flight trim and balance by throwing himself around.
He'd gotten used to having a weight on his back at all, and now it felt empty.
But for all of the downsides of the new fin…
He could fly on his own.
As he flew upwards, one thought came to his mind: Hiccup was the best friend anyone could ever want.
A bit more practice made him reasonably confident in his new fin, and then he worked for height.
Surveying the flock below, he spotted the flyers he wanted to see, and dove.
He could see the surprise spread through them as his screech sounded, with heads turning in shock towards him.
With a cheerful waggle of his wings, he blew through the assembled flyers, twisting in a spiral as he went, flying right between Mistletoe and Stormfly before banking in a tight turn and coming to a near halt in front of them.
+Hello there!+ he called with a giant walker-style grin.
+Toothless!+ Stormfly said in shock.
+How… Hiccup where is?+ Mistletoe blurted, craning her neck to get a better look at his back.
+Me he fixed,+ Toothless said proudly, turning in mid-air to show off, and then rolled once more. +Now me you can try to catch!+
And with that, he dove, with Mistletoe and Stormfly in hot pursuit, all of them cheering and laughing as they went.
Fear making his heart pound, Ivor watched the war party—at least fifty strong, with ten men riding horseback—approach his village, following the same path that the injured stranger had followed. What he had heard was them singing war songs—bloodthirsty war songs—as they followed a man holding hounds on a leash.
With the village's paltry few thanes at his back, he went out to greet them, praying to anyone who might be listening that this wasn't as bad as it seemed.
The man in the lead, riding a shaggy chestnut stallion, didn't inspire much confidence. Wearing a steel helmet atop unruly red hair and with a patchy red beard, he had a sword in a saddle sheath and a crossbow slung across his back, looking ready for war. And the men at his side were just as armed—although oddly both of them were clean-shaven.
Steeling himself, Ivor strode up to him with as much confidence as he could muster. Show no fear. "Good day, my lord! What brings you to my humble village?"
The lead man looked down at him and gave Ivor a madman's smile that sent a bolt of pure fear into his heart. "We're hunting."
"Well, my lord, I know there's deer—"
"The name is Mormaer Dagur of Clan Murchadh," he said, cutting Ivor off, "and we're not hunting deer. We're hunting men. Specifically one man—an outlaw against the king. We've been following his trail for weeks." His smile somehow grew more deranged, and Ivor swallowed. He'd heard tales of this man. He'd killed his own father and taken control of a clan already known for its bloodthirsty nature. How many of the tales were true, Ivor had no idea, but he'd supposedly once ripped out the throat of one of his own men—with his own teeth!—for questioning his manhood. Dagur continued as Ivor's thoughts churned. "And his trail comes to here." He leaned forward in his saddle. "Have you seen him?"
Ivor took a deep breath. "Can you give me a description, Mormaer?"
Dagur snapped his fingers at his men, and the one on the left cleared his throat. "He is an Alban man of dark hair and short height, stocky. On his face he bears a brand in the shape of a cross, and a scar across his cheek measuring a finger's length from nose to ear on the right side, and the top half of his ear is missing."
"Thank you, Vorg," Dagur said in a tone of false affability and leaned even deeper across the saddle, to the point that his hands, atop the saddlehorn, were nearly touching his chest. "Have you seen such a man?"
His guts feeling like a lump, Ivor shook his head. That description perfectly matched the man lying on a cot in his house… but he had sworn to the man that he was under Ivor's protection.
Dagur leaned back, seeming to think. "Well then. I guess that means no reward for you. The king has offered a hundred pounds silver for his head."
"Just his head," said the man riding at Dagur's right hand with a nasty smile.
For a moment, Ivor was tempted. Just hand the stranger over and possibly claim a share of the reward. With those sorts of riches, they would be able to do even more than they were already—possibly even buy one or more of the new 'spinning wheels' for his daughter and granddaughters that Berk was making, or hire some more people—
But he examined the hard men before him and realized that if he were to try to claim a portion of the reward, they would happily kill him so that they would not have to share. Furthermore, there was his own honor. He had sworn protection to the stranger—and lastly, he seemed to have dire news for Berk, and unlike the man in front of him, or even the king for that matter, Ivor knew that Lord Hiccup had never acted unkindly or poorly. If the stranger was fighting so hard to tell Berk of something, then Berk needed to hear it.
So he shook his head. "No, Mormaer. We have not seen such a man."
Dagur sighed exaggeratedly. "Pity. Well then." He raised his hand and waved the war party forward.
Just as they started to move and Ivor felt like he could relax, he heard Dagur call, "Search everywhere!"
"What!? No! He's not here!" Ivor protested as the other horsemen and men of the warparty started to run towards the nearly defenseless village.
Dagur turned and gave that smile at Ivor, the one that made his eyes seem to gleam with bloodlust. "Then you shouldn't need to worry!" He turned his gaze to his right-handed man. "Would he, Savage?"
Savage laughed sinisterly. "No, he won't, sir." He leered at Ivor. "Unless… there is something to hide?"
Ivor swallowed and said nothing.
Dagur gave another exaggerated sigh, cupped his hands and bellowed after his men, "Don't break anything you don't have to!"
Ivor could only watch, his heart hammering in his ears, as he saw the Murchadh warriors enter the village and start brutally searching the houses—including his own.
A cry of triumph came a few moments later.
Dagur leaned down on his saddle and looked smugly at Ivor. "Not seen such a man, eh?"
"I don't know what your men found—" Ivor started to bluster, but then two of the warriors came out of Ivor's house, a half-limp form slung between them. The stranger was fighting as best he could, but he was too wounded and too spent to put up much of a challenge—and then one of the warriors punched him in the gut, and he slumped between them.
Dagur put his heels to his horse, which cantered over, and Ivor rushed after him, catching up just as Dagur dismounted.
The young lord walked over, smug satisfaction in every step. Reaching over, he grabbed the stranger's hair and pulled his head back, turning his head this way and that. "That's him all right."
The stranger, by this point, had partially caught his breath after the punch, and gasped out, "No! You have to listen, I need to tell Berk—" Dagur motioned the two warriors to drop him, and the stranger fell to his hands and knees with a gasped grunt. "Listen! Please, you have to—"
Dagur pulled the sword from his saddle and said cheerfully, "No. The king said that you must be silenced!" And he swung.
Ivor watched in horror as the body slumped and the head rolled, staring.
Dagur nonchalantly walked over and picked up the head by its hair, and then looked around. "Savage!"
"Yes, sir!?" came from the man on the horse behind Ivor.
"Do what needs doing!"
Ivor whirled to look at Savage in horror. No, no, no!
Savage laughed and laughed, and the assembled Murchadh warriors around them laughed as well. Beyond them, Ivor could see some of his people fleeing and wished them godspeed, even as he prayed that a flock of dragons, preferably with Lord Hiccup at the head, would appear over the mountain's peak at this very moment.
But no flying forms manifested as Savage looked around the war party. "The king said silence anyone he might have talked to!" He motioned to where Dagur held the head aloft. "Our lord claims the bounty, but the rest of you, you may take whatever booty you might find and silence any that might have heard the king's secrets!"
"No—!" Ivor started to shout—and then something hit him hard in the back.
He looked down, and there was an arrowhead. Sticking out of his chest.
In pain, his breath stolen by the shaft sticking through him, he sank to his knees.
Dagur came over to him, his grisly trophy dangling from his hand, and crouched in front of him. He stroked Ivor's chin softly and leaned forward so that his mouth was by Ivor's ear.
"I'm sorry…" he heard the murderer whisper almost lovingly.
Ivor would have laughed if he could have, but instead a bloody sputum came from his mouth in a cough. The arrow must have pierced a lung…
Dagur stood and walked away, leaving Ivor to watch as his people were massacred or taken captive, their homes set aflame. Blood frothed from his mouth as he knelt there, unable to move.
When death came for him, in the form of a berserking warrior with an ax, it was almost a blessing.
AN: So... I hate to say it, but the extended hiatus I was originally planning to have after completing Book III has been moved up, specifically to now.
I feel like a failure, but I just bounced off of the burnout wall and I don't want to cross that threshold. So I'm going to keep telling myself that I've posted a word count equivalent to the first SIX Harry Potter books in only two years (and moved internationally, got married and started learning another language in that time), and written considerably more than that, counting side projects and deleted scenes. So I've solidly tested my limits as an author.
But, yeah, I'm fighting depression, hit some major writer's block, have zero buffer, need to destress after getting some massively bigoted and assholish comments, and, IRL, we just got a new puppy who is eating up a lot of time (and shoes. And clothes. And furniture), and I need to tone down the hobby and spend more time with my family.
So my plan is to continue writing out the entirety of Book III until it's finished, go back and revise, get a solid start on Book IV, and then start posting again, rather than try to keep up the weekly deadline that was causing me too much stress. Every time I had a buffer, it got eaten by RL, and I need to stop doing that.
I hate to drop this on everyone without warning, but I thought I would be able to keep it up until July and a million words. That turned out to not be the case. Hence the "feeling like a failure".
I'll still be around in the fandom, possibly posting some of the side projects I've got rattling around in my head, and I'm going to do my best to regularly update my progress on my tumblr and Discord server-how many chapters written, proofed, etc. I have zero intention of abandoning this story, just to assuage people's fears there; I know the usual response to "author hiatus" is "that's code for it being abandoned". I still have scenes drafted for Book IV and V that I want to hit you all with, and I won't be able to see the screaming in the comments if I give up now!
So I will see you all in a few months, and with a story that I hope will knock your socks off. Thank you all for reading this far. :)