I know . . . it's been four months, all through the summer of 2012, right through a first anniversary for this story since it began, and yet no word from Lance and his world.
Truth is I've been writing a second full-length original motion picture screenplay, a science fiction one without space battles amazingly, and even made a trip to Northern California to market both this and my first historical fantasy screenplay. No word back yet however. I've also been hurriedly writing a few original short stories for fun and prizes in contests in recent weeks, as well as doing some complicated technical writing and interpretation, and starting another screenplay.
But enough readers have been quietly tapping me on the shoulder through private messages that I felt I really should return to the saga here. So with other things and deadlines finally seeming to quiet down for the moment, I have been working on the next two chapters of 'Legacy of Myth' this past week.
While I had wanted to get this out at the beginning of the American Labor Day holiday weekend, I am pleased to now, and finally, present the next chapter of Lance's life in New Berk . . .
I originally travelled to the Drager Vertshus months, seemingly eons, ago, in search of a long, quiet vacation and sabbatical. But meeting Roana and discovering that dragons existed had kind of thrown all that out the window . . . or rather out the door, as Berker houses tended not to have much in the way of windows.
Now however, I was catching up on that sabbatical . . . whether I liked it or not. I was waited on hand and foot without having to do a thing. My sole, and enforced, assignment was to rest and allow my broken right leg and arm to heal—not that almost constant near-arctic snowstorms were much of a reason to go outside anyway as I woke up another morning . . . or midday, as it turned out.
When my eyes opened, I saw Rökkr and Spring busy bringing frozen blocks or chunks of fish, meat and vegetables in from our outside stores against the side of the house, as they helped Tana and her Zippleback to start making the main meal of the day for everyone. No sooner had Rökkr shut the front door against a howling snowstorm outside though, than Roana reopened it as she trudged in, quickly muscling the front door closed behind her as well before shaking powdery snow off her heavy winter sheepskin coat.
"Finally up, huh?" she smiled at me.
"I would like to be doing more than sleeping, but . . ." I sighed, holding up my arm and leg casts from the bedding.
"You're doing good," she assured, smiling warmly at me as she took off her coat and moved to hang it up to warm and dry from a wooden peg mounted on a vertical house beam near the cooking fire, briefly pausing to warm her hands in front of it as well.
"Been 'chiefing' again?" I wondered with my own smile.
"Guilty," she replied, turning back towards me. "Just checking on everything around the village—"
A slow pounding on our front door interrupted her. From its almost measured pace, I could tell it wasn't human. Our front door was surprisingly busy this midday. No wonder it seemed so cold in the house.
"Ah, there he is," my mate replied, seeming to be expecting our visitor as she turned and moved to the door. "He said he wanted to drop by."
She reopened the door to the blowing snow, and what I can only describe as essentially an ice and snow encrusted Night Fury then walked in. It looked and grunted to Roana as she moved back from the door though, before it then proceeded to close the door using its tail with far more ease than she had.
"Frelsari," I said in both greeting and surprise, having seen him enough times now to recognize him from his somewhat more wrinkled muzzle than most other Night Furies—that, and guessing. I was chief after all, and felt I should be able to recognize and greet at least the village members of my own tribe.
He murmured, nodding affirmatively towards me.
"He wanted to visit you, and Substance," Roana conveyed as Frelsari continued murmuring, looking at me, "as he imagines neither of you get many visitors right now. Also, having almost become chief himself back in 1943, he wanted to be available to you as an elder and counselor."
"Why didn't you take the job?" I posed directly, sitting up amid my bedding. "Either in 1943, or now?"
As my mate translated, Frelsari emitted a single, two-tone grunt, almost cutting her off.
"Helga," Roana translated back to me. Neither of them said anything more as he looked at me. They didn't have to. I just looked aside and nodded.
The dragon then grunted some more. "He wants to inform you that he and Helga have adopted Alexi as their grown son," my mate continued, "to better ensure his integration and acceptance into the village. Now that Alexi is a family member of a house here, he will no longer be shunned."
"Thank you, Frelsari," I replied, somewhat moved at his gesture and dedication. Even though he wasn't chief, he had the dedication and wisdom of one—a great one I felt. I briefly imagined what Berk might have become under this dragon's leadership, and wound up feeling somewhat inadequate.
To my surprise, he then stepped forward, stretching his neck across me to nudge Substance on her neck and head, closing his eyes and murmuring.
"He's saying that even though Alexi can't be here, and Substance can't visit Alexi right now," Roana conveyed, "he asks for Substance's prayer and blessing on Alexi and their family."
I had to quietly smile as Substance raised her head and began humming as Frelsari and the rest of us joined her. Deferring to Substance and asking her to fulfill her role in our tribe, Frelsari wasn't missing a thing.
After Substance had finished her prayer, and he seemed to be turning to leave, "Frelsari," I then called to him, "sure you wouldn't like to be part of our leadership? I could make you Guardian of something."
As Roana translated my offer, the dragon again emitted that same two-toned grunt, shaking his head. My mate saw me nodding in acceptance with a knowing smile, so she didn't bother to translate. At least I was learning a little Dragon . . . even if it was just 'Helga'.
Frelsari then murmured again, looking at me. "He asks if there is anything else he can do for you, or the village," my mate resumed conveying.
"Just keep doing what you are," I accepted. "You have no idea how valuable that is."
Our Night Fury visitor nodded to me after Roana had translated for him, then grunting to Substance who grunted in reply. He grunted and nodded to Roana as well, before flipping our front door open again with his tail and backing out, so he could pull the door closed himself with his teeth as the snowstorm blew, saving Roana the trouble.
"He is a remarkable dragon," I admired to my mate with a sigh. "I wish he would accept a leadership position, but I'm seeing why he won't."
"He leads in his own way," Roana noted as she sat down next to me on the bedding, "by example to us, as much as anything else. Alexi won't have any more problems in this village though, thanks to him."
"He told me earlier when I visited them," she continued, "that he will be working with Alexi's Nightmare on finding Alexi a mate, and asked me to put a request in to the Outside Berkers recruiting new villagers to join us for one or more young single women. Frelsari even requested that they be, quote, 'Skinny, like he is.'"
"If he told you all this before, why did he come here?" I wondered.
"Because you're chief, and Substance is Guardian of Memories," she replied, not saying anything further, or really needing to.
"He could do so much good as a leader though, even chief," I said.
"I know, but he does have universal respect in this tribe," my mate replied. "He doesn't need a position or title to do what he does among us. His name is all he needs."
"I feel so . . ." I sighed.
"Loved, needed," Roana encouraged, moving on her knees to embrace and rub me from the side. I finally looked up at her. "And don't worry," she added, "you're being a very good Ýsa. Your line is famous for such self-doubting, all the way back to Hiccup himself."
"These casts aren't helping," I sighed, raising them a little.
"Just five more weeks to go for your arm, nine for your leg, my love," my mate encouraged with a kiss on my cheek.
Her kiss alone kept me from swearing with frustration at that reminder. "This is little better than a prison sentence," I said anyway.
"Well let me also tell you that Frelsari is having Alexi begin teaching him English and even Russian," Roana continued, seeming to distract me, "along with his Nightmare. He basically knows from your experience that Alexi is unlikely to be able to learn Dragon anytime soon. And he is also asking me questions about how to help Alexi regain his strength and mobility. Now that he considers Alexi a son, he simply won't allow Alexi to fail, or fail to recover."
"So that Night Fury really is head of that household and family," I observed, letting Roana's distraction begin to work.
"Yeah, he is," Roana agreed, "and has been since Helga's parents were killed in our World War II battle. But since they were both fairly young at the time, Helga being a small child of course, they've matured as basically equal partners. It's difficult to describe in Outsider terms."
"Amazing," I remarked. "But if he's so interested in a mate for Alexi, why didn't he find one for Helga?"
"I've been told she never wanted one," my mate replied. "After seeing her parents killed, even as a two year-old, Helga began renouncing being human, for a good long time. She just kept running away to live in the caves as a dragon, away from other humans. She even stopped speaking Norse for the longest time, and would only grunt at the rest of us in Night Fury. Frelsari stuck with her, and patiently brought her back to the village, swearing she would always be protected, and never apart from him. He came to realize he could never have a mate of his own in their family arrangement, and realized that she never wanted to relate closely with another human. So they've just matured into their own commitment together, and now, neither of them would want it any other way. Frelsari wants to cement Alexi into the village though, and agrees with Alexi's Nightmare that could best be done by finding him a mate, and settling him down with a family of his own to protect and nurture here."
"Well, put a communique through our MJK to the Baroness," I responded.
"I already have," Roana assured with a smile, "even spoke with her briefly on a radio-phone patch, as well as faxing a photo of Alexi to her. Plus on my other rounds, I also hitched a ride with O'Connell and Garrison up to the caves so Rökkr and Spring could keep helping Tana here, and I reminded the cave dragons to come down to the village for more fish anytime they want. They're still used to fending for themselves up there during winters, even with all the wounded and handicapped among them they're caring for now."
"That will always be with us now, won't it," I sighed regretfully, now sitting up in my bedding against Substance.
"And there has never been more joy and meaning in those caves than I am seeing there these days," Roana assured, kneeling down next to me and taking my good left hand in hers. "Dragons are caring for each other, even bonding, like I have never seen before . . . ever. You've seen some of that, remember? They're even starting to celebrate Yule up there already—what we also used to call 'Snoggletog' in some of our ancient writings at times, for some weird reason. The dragons up there are burning logs, tacking up tree branches, sometimes whole trees on the cave walls, as well as planting a big Yule tree front and centre, right near the main cave entrance, for everyone to see."
"Dragons, doing this on their own?" I wondered.
"We humans are helping them, as they request it," she replied, sitting down next to me in her layered tunics, leggings and boots as Tana brought her a warming mug of mead tea without being asked. "þakka þér, Tana," Roana said gratefully before facing me again. "But as I've told you," she continued, "they rub off on us, and we've rubbed off on them."
"Do dragons have any holidays of their own?" I wondered.
"Dragons don't keep calendars," Substance reminded next to me in her deep voice. "Moons, seasons just pass for us. We don't care how many suns or moons pass before we can have Yule. It snows, it's time for Yule. We enjoy feasts, tea, cider, even presents, too. Fish is all we care about mostly as presents. Deer though," she sighed, " . . . that is special."
"I have never gotten used to eating deer here," I sighed. "All those movies and stories I've seen them in—they're just too . . . nice."
"Humans get attached to sheep and cows, too at times," Substance noted. "Have Outsider book in archives about lovable farm cow and sheep who work together with child. Yet you eat cows and sheep."
"Before I came here," I replied, "I never met what I ate."
"You feel more aware, grateful towards them as you eat them now?" she wondered.
"Yeah," I sighed, "I do."
"That is all they ask," my dragon replied. "We all die, our bodies all eaten by something. Flames, mouths or insects—it makes no difference."
"Dragons have never gone vegetarian?" I wondered.
"Need concentrated proteins found in meat, Doctor," Substance reminded me, "for flight, and gas generation. We could not be what we are on grass alone. Neither could birds."
"Of course," I sighed with some chagrin. "Basic biology—let alone chemistry."
"Just treat animals well while alive," my dragon counseled, "give them good lives, then be grateful to them in death as they feed you. Gratitude gladdens their spirits, makes them feel complete after passing on."
"I wouldn't presume to doubt you on that, Guardian," I said.
"You Guardian, too," she countered. "You as responsible as I for preserving and interpreting our ways."
"It's true, Lance," Roana chimed in next to me as she finished her tea. "A chief must know all."
"Does that mean it's 'back to work', for me here?" I asked optimistically, looking at her.
"Nope," she said, rising up. "It's a sponge bath for both you and Substance first, then dinner."
"It doesn't sound all bad," I relented.
"It's good, trust me," my mate winked.
— — — — —
I could only roll further to one side and watch as Substance was bathed and scrubbed right where she lay.
"Our bedding needs to be changed and washed anyway," Roana noted, excusing the fact that our mattresses, quilts and sheepskins were now all getting soaked.
"But we only just got here a few days ago," I replied.
"Shhhhh!" she countered, fortunately with a smile as she and Tana resumed scrubbing Substance hard, before changing the bandage wraps around her wings and midsection.
I just sat back and gazed at my dragon companion as she was being pampered. She had come back once before, but as I looked at her black wings that had been injured yet again, I just felt saddened for her. How much more did she have to go through? Substance now seemed to almost be a hard luck dragon to me with all the misfortune and setbacks she had experienced in life. Was she a reincarnation of Alltaf perhaps, the unconditionally loving Night Fury who had also experienced hard luck? I shook it all out of my head though. Substance needed support from me, not pity, and she seemed content enough with all the care she was receiving now.
"Your turn," I then heard from Roana, stirring me from my thoughts.
"Help me to the tub then," I sighed, beginning to strain to get up from my bedding and pillows.
"Oh no, no," my mate warmly countered. "We're just going to lay you flat right where you are, wash around your casts, and then move you onto fresh dry bedding afterwards."
"Could I go to the latrine first then?" I asked.
"Okay, let's go," she accepted, moving on her knees to begin helping me up.
"Wait, no tunic?" I hesitated as she put my good left arm over her shoulder as Tana moved to brace me on my right side as I sat up amid quilts and sheepskins.
"Why?" Roana asked. "We're going to have to take it right off you again."
"But . . ." I hesitated, glancing between Roana and Tana.
"Mister Outsider," my mate sighed, "Tana has already helped me wash you once, and apply your casts and bandages. By now she is already thoroughly familiar with what you look and even feel like. You're as bad as your ancestor, Hiccup, was in the Journal at times, you know that?"
"Why thank you," I accepted with a smile as the two of them now helped me to my feet, and clear of the covers.
"You're in Berk now, let alone Europe," Roana noted to me as both she and Tana helped me hobble over to the latrine closet wearing nothing more than casts and some bandaging, as I remembered reading a passage very similar to this in Hiccup's journal. "We don't have hang-ups about the body . . . at least those of us outside your family line."
I just smiled and surrendered, even turning my head and kissing Roana on the cheek to signal it. After all, it was better than life in Texas had ever been for me . . . a lot better.
— — — — —
Before long, I was scrubbed, dried and relaxing in fresh bedding, next to Substance.
"Wish I could help," I sighed as I watched my mate and Tana now scrubbing the dirty quilts and sheepskins in our bathtub, before hanging them to dry on the rafters around the central cooking fire.
"I'll make that wish come true," Roana replied as she worked, "before you know it."
"You sure you don't want more modern conveniences around here?" I wondered, looking around. "Especially now with the military units being stationed with us now, and all they're bringing. I mean, you could even be washing and drying those in their laundry machines they've put in the bunker."
"No," Roana said firmly as she paused and turned to me.
"But even the Lapps, excuse me, Sami," I corrected myself, "have adopted modern conveniences in most of their homes, from what I've seen in magazines before I came here."
"Lance," my mate said, resting on her knees from her intensive labours for a moment, "we have twenty-seven human villagers here now. Even with just a dozen military being with us as well, our resources are still limited. Imagine what will happen when we rebuild our numbers to sixty or more again. Imagine the electricity alone for all those washing machines we would need if everyone here had them. I've already had to forbid other villagers from using that one washer and dryer in the bunker. The troops use them enough as it is, and I've even talked to O'Connell about getting his Norwegian military counterparts to try adopting our ways, blending in more with us, including hand washing and drying their clothes.
"This is part of who we are," she said, picking up a corner of a wet quilt still floating in the tub. "You and I have to model that, live it. We live within what this island and the sea around us can provide."
I opened my mouth to speak, but she cut me off.
"And don't start with me about importing medical supplies," Roana knowingly countered, "because I started that myself. But Roald and Árvekni were partly right, too. Living in balance with our surroundings, independently, is as much a part of who we are as living with our dragons. Yes, you and I have shifted that balance, but you know as well as I do that we risk losing something important if we adopt too many Outsider ways, even conveniences. We tread a fine line, on so many things now. Our family lived at the station for a while. We used the conveniences they had there. But did we feel like Dragon Berkers, true Berkers and Vikings, while we were there? Or were we already starting to lose parts, maybe important parts, of who we were, and wanted to be?"
This time, Roana seemed to wait for an answer from me.
"I remember that as much as we had there," I slowly realized, "I wanted to be back here . . . in this house, just as it was, and is. It is medieval. There's nothing like this on the Outside, except in museums."
"No, there isn't," my mate answered. "Isn't that, even this," she said, picking up the corner of that wet quilt again, "worth protecting? Even if it's a pain in the butt?"
"Yes," I replied as Roana now rushed over to me. "Yes," I repeated as I held her tightly in my one good left arm, rocking her against me as I kissed her forehead hard. "I'm sorry," I admitted.
"Believe me," she sniffed, "having lived on the Outside at times, I would like to just throw clothes, even food, into machines, and have it all done for me. But then, I feel I wouldn't be Viking anymore—I wouldn't be Berker. I'd just be a modern Norwegian . . . and much of what our ancestors fought and sacrificed for would be lost. Every Berker who chooses to live here, in this island village, fights this battle, Lance. Some lose it though, and leave, like my parents did. But thank the gods some of us stay, and keep fighting this battle, washing our clothes by hand, and cooking food over fires . . . just as our ancestors did. That, to me, is just as important as protecting our dragons. It is, Lance, and I need your help, even just your support right now. It is up to you and I to continue this, or allow it to be abandoned, overtaken by convenience. It's that simple."
"We really are co-chiefs, aren't we?" I smiled, kissing her forehead once again.
"Protecting our people and ways together," she agreed, resting against me, "right down to how we wash and cook."
"I support you, Roana, just as I love you," I assured, "all the way. Just get me out of these casts as soon as possible, so I can help you."
"You can help me right now," she suggested, looking at me as she now sat up and began stripping her tunics off of herself. "I need a break. Just leaning against you here isn't bad."
"How about a one-handed rub?" I offered.
I didn't need to ask twice as Roana immediately stripped off her remaining top and rolled over on the fresh bedding for whatever massage I could give her. I did have to work things out though, as with my right arm in a cast and sling and my right leg in another cast right to the thigh, positioning myself so I could even apply some pressure with my left arm and hand would be a trick.
"Uhh, could you move over to my right side?" I finally asked after puzzling it out for a moment as she just lay on my left side, waiting.
Fortunately, Roana was a good sport about it all, and after she resettled face down in between Substance and I, and I had rolled onto my right side and propped myself up on my right elbow in the cast, which hurt less than I had feared, I was able to start working her bared back and shoulders with my left hand, even employing my left forearm at times to increase the contact area.
"Tana, gætirtu vinsamlegast fá hút olíu úr læknisfræti rateining minn?" I soon heard my mate request as I worked on her. Soon, a jar of homemade oil was being laid on Roana's left side within my reach. The lid was even already removed for me. "See?" Roana then said as I proceeded to work the oil into her back with my one good hand, "I wouldn't need this if we had a washing machine, would I? I'd be missing out."
I just lowered myself onto her back, whispering in her ear, "You're right as always," then sealing it with a kiss that made her smile as her eyes remained blissfully closed.
"I'm not always right," she quietly replied.
"Shhhhh . . ." I then soothed, breathing around her ear, and making her quiver and erupt in gooseflesh all over.
Roana then rolled herself over underneath me. "Lance, do the rest of me," she quietly invited.
I just smiled, silently signalling my compliant surrender again by drawing the covers over us, careful not to spill the jar of oil, as she slipped out of her remaining clothing. That Tana was less than fifteen feet away, once more quietly working with her back to us chopping the remaining frozen vegetables and meat and tossing it all into a cauldron for stew in the cooking area no longer mattered to me.
Berkers had been loving each other with family around just like this for some nine hundred years, and I wasn't about to break with our traditions now.
— — — — —
With Roana and I feeling very refreshed from our 'break', it was soon time for supper. Insisting that my mate just continue relaxing beside me, Tana told us this was 'her dinner' and she wanted to do all the work. Roana just smiled as she nestled against me, with me kissing and cradling her some more as our portions of stew were brought to us in bowls, while Rökkr fetched buckets of it for his dragon half of our family, and Tana's Zippleback set out platters of raw, unfrozen fish for the dragons in our household as well.
Substance then reasserted herself as spiritual leader of our family and village. "Say prayer first," she then simply said as our food was distributed in front of all of us.
"But Roana, you told me," I noted to my mate as we sat up in the bedding to enjoy our meal now, "or your old self did on our first dinner date back at your uncle's inn, that our people didn't say grace. We haven't before here."
"It appropriate to thank those who provide our meal," my dragon companion noted, reminding me of our earlier discussion, as she then began humming, leading us in a prayer, presumably of thanks to Spirit, and to the animals and fish that comprised our dinner. As our shared humming went on though, I realized this was as much for Substance, to give her a further feeling of being useful again, as much as it was for any of the rest of us, or for Spirit or the animals we were thanking.
Being home, really home—even injured and laid up—it was just feeling good as our family prayer ended and we each began enjoying our stew or fish, with Roana feeding me spoonfuls of my stew in bed as I kept my good left arm pleasurably around her bared back. Howling snow outside; fire, dim candlelight and warmth inside, shared with family. I just closed my eyes, savouring it all for a moment.
"What is it?" I heard Roana ask, as I looked to see the latest spoonful of stew positioned in front of my smiling but still closed mouth.
"Just this," I sighed, looking at the spoon she was holding, as well as her and all around our family and home, "all of it. It's so good."
"You're making it good, too," she replied as she slipped the spoonful of stew into my mouth, before I moved to give her a somewhat messy, stewy kiss on her lips. "Hold still," she then said as she moved her tongue around the edges of my mouth and even my brown goatee. I could only laugh. We both did.
After all we had been through . . . this past spring and summer, the battle, the aftermath . . . it was finally feeling like we were home now, really home. I had never known such feelings of peace, contentment and love as I was feeling now within myself. This was as much what Berk and life here were about, I decided, as any of our traditions or choices.
"Mjög gót máltít, Tana, excellent meal," I praised after we had all, dragon and human, finished enjoying the dinner she and her dragon had prepared for us. "But what would you like? Hvat vilt þú?" I asked.
"Jól," she simply replied. "Þat vertur fyrst minn sítan Ongar litin. Til at fagna því met fjölskyldu, þat er allt sem ek vil."
Both Roana and I looked at each other, moved, as we relaxed curled up together under the covers. All Tana wanted was to celebrate Yule with family. Noting that her own mate had passed this year, she had likely been fearing she would observe it alone, or just with her new Zippleback companion.
"Allt í hag at byrja Jólin bara svolítit snemma hér. All in favour of starting Yule just a little early here," my mate then posed in both languages. Even I couldn't vote against that, for Tana's sake.
But, in keeping with another Berker winter tradition and habit . . . we put off starting to prepare for Yule for another day. Especially when storms were blowing outside, after dinner was for relaxing, even sleeping.
The last thing I remember that night was seeing Roana's left hand and fingers intertwined with mine on my chest as she lay quietly curled up against me in the bedding. Our two gold dragon rings were right together, as they had been the day they were made.
— — — — —
The next morning though, I was awakened with hot tea . . . and a book.
"What's this?" I wondered as my mate proceeded to stack pillows behind me, and strip back out of her indoor tunic. "I thought we were going to start preparing for Yule today."
"We'll do that when it's nice enough to go outside and gather tree boughs and berries for decoration," Roana confirmed as I could hear the icy winds of another storm howling outside. "But today, it isn't. So we observe another Berker winter tradition instead . . . just you, me, our family if they want to join in, and the Journal."
"Come here," I invited, welcoming her back into my arms. "This is pretty special. You and I held the journal together back at the inn, the night we had our big, revelatory talk and you introduced me to Rökkr. But you know, we never read a word of it together then."
"Well," she smiled, "the new me scores again."
"You're scoring with me all the time," I assured.
Roana curled up tightly against me as we opened the journal together, while our dragons laid their heads close beside us, ready to listen. Tana was now resting from her labours as well this morning, relaxing against her own Zippleback as it turned both heads to listen, too.
"Where did you leave off?" my mate wondered as the hand-copied pages, still in runic lettering, were revealed.
"Shouldn't we start at the beginning in this family?" I suggested.
"Yeah, let's," Roana agreed as she rested her head on my shoulder and we flipped back to the front of the compact but thick book.
Then, as head of our household, Chief of the village, and an Ýsa myself, I began reading in the original Norse . . .
"'Þetta er Berk. Þat er tólf daga nortur af Vonlaus og nokkrar grátur sutur af Frystingu til Dauta. Þat er statsett sterkbyggtur á Mitjunnar á Eymd. þorpit mitt—í orti . . . traustur. Þat hefur verit hér í sjö kynslótir, en hvert einasta bygging er nýtt. Vit höfum veitar, veiti, og heillandi mynd af sólarlags. Eina vandamál eru skatvalda. Þú sért, at flestir statir hafa mýs eta moskítóflugur. Vit höfum . . . drekar!'"
"Lance," my mate gently interrupted as she looked at me, "I've heard and read those words like that my whole life. I'd kind of like to share it now in our language, the language this family shares alone. Spring knows the story. It would help him learn English, especially as he reads along beside us. It's how I taught Rökkr."
"What about Tana and her Zippleback?" I asked Roana while partly glancing toward our elderly housemate.
"Ennglissh," Tana said, evidently beginning to pick up some anyway being around us.
"Alright," I accepted, clearing my throat and readying myself for a real mental challenge of reading one language while speaking another. "You want me to start from the beginning again?"
"Please," she asked with a kiss, "and let me know when you want a break. I'll be happy to share the reading here."
"So this is what families do here when winter sets in?" I double-checked.
"Yep," she smiled, "and we talk about what we read, too. If we're lucky, when we finish the journal, spring will be here."
"Spring is always here now," I replied, giving my son a pat and a wink, as he smiled, too, laying next to us.
"Start again," my mate requested as both she and Spring looked at the book with me as Rökkr and Substance just rested together around us, ready to listen, as were Tana and her dragon.
"'This is Berk,'" I now read in our chosen family language. "'It's twelve days north of Hopeless and a few degrees south of Freezing to Death. It's located solidly on the Meridian of Misery. My village—in a word . . . sturdy. It's been here for seven generations, but every single building is new. We have fishing, hunting, and a charming view of the sunsets. The only problems are the pests. You see, most places have mice or mosquitoes. We have . . . dragons!'
"You know," I interrupted myself, "I should be writing this down. My cousin, Brigader Husa, or Gunnar, says he can't read runes. But he can read and understand English."
"You don't think that even as an Outside Berker now, he should understand the language of Berk?" Roana wondered.
"I don't know," I replied. "Maybe I wouldn't be doing it for just him though, but for the future. One day, gods willing, we will be able to reveal and share ourselves with the world. Wouldn't it help if the world could come to understand what we live for, and why, without having to learn an entire language to do so? If the Bible can be translated from the original Greek and Latin, or from even Elizabethan English, couldn't this Journal be translated beyond the original Norse?"
"Looks like you have a winter's project here," my mate smiled beside me, "maybe for several winters to come."
"I should be getting back to my biology work," I sighed.
"Not exclusively," she soothed, caressing the right side of my face with her left hand, "and definitely not now while you're healing. Just read," she invited.
"'Most people would leave,'" I resumed reading, "' . . . but not us. We're Vikings. We have stubbornness issues . . .'"
Both Roana, along with Rökkr and Substance, laughed at my chosen translated words.
"Hey," I defended, "that's the closest approximation I can come to with what's written here. He wrote in a colloquial, casual manner—I'm reading it in English that way, using modern terms."
"It's wonderful, Lance," my mate sighed with a smile, catching her breath amid her laughter. "You're absolutely right. That's just the way he had written it. Your translation is much better than mine was. And besides, you're a son of Hiccup, part of him is in you. He is speaking through you now. Just let him speak, and allow the rest of us the honour of listening to him, and you."
I held Roana close now with one arm. "Thank you," I said. "Thank you for both of us . . . Hiccup and I."
"Read on, my wonderful Ýsa," my mate encouraged with a kiss as she began turning pages in the Journal for me. "Just read."
"'My name's Hiccup,'" I resumed, looking at the new runic page in front of me. "'Great name, I know,'" I accurately conveyed to everyone's amusement again, really getting into the spirit of it now. Last time at the inn, I was just reading these runes silently to myself, in almost stunned disbelief. Now, I was reading them aloud in a new language, breathing life into them again with Ýsa breath itself, in a new way. The words were flowing as I spoke them, almost as if I was Hiccup, telling his story, our shared story, to a new generation of Ýsa humans and dragons.
"You definitely have to share this, my love," Roana encouraged with a kiss, still curled up, still unclothed on my lap under a shared quilt as I paused reading sometime later to take a breath, as she gave me a needed sip of water as well. "But we, your family, want to hear it in full, first."
I read and read from the Journal that day, forgetting time, forgetting to eat. Even Roana thought I was doing just too good a job at reading the Journal in English to warrant her taking over. Such was the magic of the story, and how we were sharing it.
"It's why every household here is probably reading this book today," my mate shared as we finally took a real break to eat, and do everything else. "It helps us stretch out our food supplies, conserve energy, and pass winter in the most wonderful way imaginable."
"You know," I had to admit, "when I was reading it the first time back at the inn, I didn't eat much then either, and I lost all track of time."
"It's what the Journal does," she replied with a smile, finally rising off my lap and donning an indoor tunic to take care of things now with Tana.
"Anything I can do?" I offered as I still sat in our bedding among our dragons.
"You have done more than enough today, my Ýsa," she assured as Rökkr stirred himself as well, inviting Spring with a bark to venture outside with him and take care of what even dragons needed to.
"Lannce . . ." Substance now warned.
"Go right ahead," I invited with a smile. "Roana . . ." I then called, while glancing between her and Substance as a distinct fishy smell began filling the air.
"Sorry," my dragon sighed. I just warmly rubbed her large black head.
— — — — —
A few days later, it was nice enough for the able-bodied portion of our family to venture outside and start gathering materials for Yule . . . as I was later told most other families were doing as well. We had no astronomers among us to measure sun angles, and it was dark almost constantly anyway. Plus, we shunned calendars in the village, except for the one Roana had let me keep from the Kafé Berk at Wønur. But as Substance had noted, when the dragons decided it was time for Yule and began decorating for it with our help, the rest of the tribe just followed suit.
Soon, amid the simple evergreen boughs and red and white berries tacked up around us, our home began to take on an even warmer glow . . . but maybe that was the hard apple cider that Tana and Roana seemed to be making an abundance of.
"Looks like I need to be bringing the mistletoe to you," Roana smiled, settling next to me and holding a sprig of it over both our heads as the rich smell of that cider filled our household.
"Is it really over?" I asked. "The hardships, battles, and everything else?"
"Oh I'm sure there'll be more," my mate assured, still holding the sprig above us. "Except for the hard-pitched battles. Those seem to be coming every forty years or so right now. But hopefully with the Norwegian military here, we're putting a stop to that."
Roana's hand holding up the mistletoe now dropped to my chest as we curled up against one another tightly on the family bedding in our indoor tunics. Memories of the battle came rushing back into both our heads. I started to be haunted by the tally of all those who wouldn't be celebrating Yule with us this winter. They seemed like an army in themselves, led by Árvekni and Roald.
"All those Dragons and Riders," I couldn't help saying out loud, " . . . they used to fill the sky."
Roana now broke down and began quietly crying against me.
"I'm sorry," I whispered, now holding her tightly and rocking her a little. "I shouldn't have gone there."
"Every home here is sharing this pain," she sniffed, still resting her head against my shoulder as she almost clung to the rest of me.
"Roana," I said, recalling one healing aspect of Yule that I had read in the Journal back at the inn months ago, "you're right. Call a tribal gathering," I directed, "at the ceremonial area one decent afternoon or evening as darkness returns . . . and find the biggest Yule log there is."
— — — — —
I was on my feet, on crutches, and outdoors for the first time again a few nights later as Substance managed to be up and on her paws as well, once again wearing her battle-scarred strap of office along with the bandages around her wings. She would never have that leather strap repaired or replaced now though, out of respect for all we had suffered, and all those we had lost.
Led by Petty Officer O'Connell and Garrison, our Dragon Riders had found the largest and fortunately dead tree on the island, and had flown a section of it to our ceremonial area. Building a fire around its base as the broad, massive log lay sideways on the spot where our fallen had been cremated, a number of our dragons lit the fire as an icy calm that matched the cold pervaded the village around us while the rest of our village and tribe, and even our MJK platoon, watched.
I didn't try to hide our pain. "We have lost too much, and too many this year," I began as Roana translated as always beside me. "But as one of our founders, and my ancestor, Astrid, encouraged one Yule as recorded in the Journal, let us lay our cares . . . our sorrows . . . on this log; and allow Thor, with his hammer, Mjollnir, to transform them into the sparks of something better . . ."
I couldn't hold it together anymore at that point as Roana and I both turned to each other and let our hidden, lingering grief quietly flow.
My family went first. As flames began to crackle around the base of that massive log, the rest of us silently guided Substance to it as we all—Spring, Substance, Rökkr, Tana with her Zippleback, Roana and I—touched that log. I tried to will all my roiling, turbulent emotions through my good left hand, past the bark and into that wood . . . all the anguish, the guilt at having brought war to us, allowing the Outside to pour into the village as it had, even becoming dependent on it—everything. I also cast the last of my Outside self into that log and developing fire. I had no more use or desire for it. Part of me even despised it now.
"Árvekni . . . Roald . . . everyone . . . I am so sorry," I found myself saying as I leaned forward, pressing my forehead now against that huge, horizontal tree trunk that was somewhat wider than I was tall, grimacing with regret as wisps of smoke rose around my face.
I then felt a kiss—a long, slow one—against my right cheek. "We forgive you," Roana gently said. "You are forgiven, Lance . . . fully. Never forget, or doubt that now. It is done, over. You are our chief, our protector, our guardian. Let that be your sole focus from here on. Leave everything else in this log."
"I am," I vowed, now removing my forehead from it, and standing upright again.
As my family now moved aside for others to touch the log, I realized that I had done this for me as much as for our village. With tears in her lifeless eyes, Substance turned herself around, raising her head towards the dark but calm sky, and began a low, steady hum. As Roana, I, and the rest of our family also turned our faces skyward and joined in that hum, I felt cleansed, focused.
Now Yule could happen in my heart.
Roana and I had made no gifts to give each other, so we just gave ourselves to one another when we began celebrating Yule in earnest the next day, retreating to our old bedding area behind the screen at the back of the house . . . for I don't know how long. We just took care to wrap both my arm and leg casts with sheepskins so Roana wouldn't get scratched.
I felt like a man, a husband and lover again. It was wonderful.
— — — — —
One of the things I felt most thankful for this Yule though was our resident U.S. Navy SEAL, Petty Officer Miles O'Connell.
Even before my fall and injury with Substance, Roana and I had been very busy as we got used to leading and coordinating the entire village, as well as beginning to dramatically improve relations with both the Outside Berker community and the portions of Norway and the rest of the world that were authorized to know about us. So O'Connell, virtually on his own, had taken it upon himself to rally the demoralized remnant of our Dragon Rider force, integrate them with our assigned MJK platoon, and get the MJK commandos paired up with dragons and riding them, even though he had never been a Dragon Rider before he met Dragon Garrison in the aftermath of our battle. Being a bridge between Old and New, between Berker and Outsider, and a never-ending source of 'can do' spirit and optimism for everyone he worked with—Petty Officer O'Connell had wound up becoming the de facto leader of the Dragon Rider force now under Roana and myself. Amazingly our six surviving native Dragon Riders deferred to him, even helping him lead as everyone worked to figure out one another's language—Dragon, Old Norse, the Bokmål and Nynorsk dialects of Norwegian, and English.
Often telling Roana and I through the fall that we, "had enough on our plate," O'Connell had minimized the amount of checking-in he did with us, usually just assuring that things were going fine when we, usually Roana now, asked him. The smiles of the native Riders and the MJK who usually accompanied him were ample confirmation that everything was as he assured us.
So I was surprised when he came to see Roana and I at home one afternoon. Roana certainly was, having to hurriedly dress with even just an indoor tunic before she rose from our family bedding, as Rökkr had kindly answered and opened the door to greet our knocking guest. If it had been a dragon or even a human villager, my mate would have likely just remained as she was next to me.
"Nice to finally see you, O'Connell," I greeted him, donning an indoor tunic myself as he respectfully removed his jacket hood and cap. "Even though I've been right in the village here, I've missed you. So please let's see you a bit more often, even if it's to tell me that, 'everything's fine.'"
"Care for some of our cider, Miles?" my mate offered, now feeling more comfortable around him being dressed in her indoor tunic.
"Thank you, m'am," the buzz-cut, brown haired SEAL member said with surprising formality without smiling. "Permission to be seated, sir?" he then asked me.
"Of course," I said with a degree of concern now, gesturing with my left hand towards a simple wooden armless chair that was positioned in between myself and the house fire that was warmly crackling away. "How's everything going?"
He seemed strangely unable to speak for a moment, before finally saying, "I'm being recalled to my unit, sir. I was informed by radio this morning."
Roana and I glanced at each other almost in shock.
"Well," I sighed, "I've been fixing things at times with our valued MJK commandos, especially their medic. So it looks like I'll have to go to work on your behalf now, as I simply do not want this village, or especially our Dragon Riders, doing without you . . . at least for the rest of the winter."
"With all due respect, sir," he said quietly, "you don't understand."
"What am I not getting here?" I asked as Roana now brought mugs of hot cider for both of us.
"Since you both have top secret clearance, I can tell you," he said, taking a deep breath. "My unit is being clandestinely deployed into Afghanistan, to recon and assess the Mujahideen resistance against the occupying Soviet Red Army there, and determine whether they're capable and worthy of U.S. support. If so, we are to begin providing weapons, training, and possibly limited tactical support without giving ourselves away, as well as eliminating any enemy that spots or encounters us."
"I'll take this up with NATO Commander, General Thorndyke," I decided. "Roana, please let's get me dressed and over to the MJK house where I can get on a secure radio."
"No sir, please," O'Connell countermanded, rising to his feet, stopping both Roana and I. "Don't do that."
My mate and I paused, with her supporting me as I sat up, as we allowed him to continue.
"I am still first and foremost a Navy SEAL," he said. "I swore an oath to answer my country's call, to go wherever I was sent, and to share whatever risks my fellow squad and platoon members do. I can't back out of all that now, or have even you intercede on my behalf . . . it just wouldn't be right."
"Miles, you're one of several, even a dozen to your platoon," I replied, "but you're one of a kind to us here . . . frankly irreplaceable. What you would do in Afghanistan could easily be done by others. But what you do with us here now, no one else is doing, or could easily do. Our need for you in particular, is simply greater. Not every SEAL is being sent to that Afghan engagement. If you were in a different platoon, or a different unit had been called up, you and I wouldn't even be having this discussion. Don't confuse the luck of the draw or chance with honour. Let me make that call."
"Sir," he responded, "I was sent here because the Soviets were threatening, even killing, an ancient, independent, and proud people. That is precisely what they are doing in Afghanistan. From what I understand, the Mujahideen freedom fighters, and the tribes, the families, they are defending there, are not that much different from what you were defending here against the Soviets. They just don't have dragons, or a leading scientist, to protect."
"Miles," I said, "I, we, simply do not want you to go. You have become part of us, a key part of us . . . and we have lost too much."
"You've given our Dragon Riders hope, Miles," my mate added, "even pride again, after the survivors felt they had failed to protect our people. You and you alone have taken them from a demoralized, even perhaps defeated force, overwhelmed by Outside armies from both sides, and you have brought them back, even integrating MJK Riders in among them. Lance and I couldn't have done that like you have.
"Plus," she continued, "Garrison is your dragon now. We didn't go through the ceremonies, or the training . . . but he is bonded with you. None of us intended for it to happen, I've even told him that you would be leaving one day. But you can't now, without destroying him."
"I've heard the legend of Alltaf," O'Connell admitted, looking down.
"This is now the same kind of thing," Roana responded. "So, for your dragon's sake, even life, if not your own, let Lance make that call."
"You would be destroying me then, in the eyes of all whom I have known," Miles countered, "even myself, if you did. You would be keeping just half a man, perhaps less."
It was clear we had reached a stalemate, one I had never wanted with the one Outsider Roana and I had come to depend on more than any other in our village.
"Let me go, with honor, sir and m'am," he requested. "Let me go to fight a further battle with our common enemy. Let me go to fight them there so they don't return here. If you do, in exchange, I will swear to return—to Garrison, to you, and to this village—and spend the rest of my natural life here. I was planning to anyway when my enlistment was up this time, if you would have me."
Roana rose up, rushing to embrace him now, and I wasn't far behind on my crutches.
"Send me away as an honored son of Berk," Miles asked with emotion as we both embraced him, "so I can return, as just that."
— — — — —
"I walk," Substance quietly assured the next evening as she rose onto her own paws, following me out our front door and onto the snow that was now level with our porch. With both my mate and I dressed in our Rider's garb and Knight's sashes over our winter clothing, Roana was helping me as I limped on crutches that now had small leather and wooden 'baskets' on their tips like ski poles, to prevent them from sinking into the icy white powder as I wore snowshoes under my feet as well.
The entire tribe, both villagers and cave dragons, were already making their way to the ceremonial area at the foot of our village, despite the deep snow that had fallen overnight and that morning. I had been hoping that the storm would have just kept howling, but the dark sky was now clear and filled with stars—unfortunately perfect weather for the U.S. Navy helicopter that had been cleared to land on our island by the MJK.
O'Connell, dressed in his heavy winter garb, was already down in the ceremonial area beside Garrison. Just looking at the two of them standing close side-by-side, they were Dragon and Rider, bound as firmly together as any could be. My heart was already breaking for them, especially for Garrison. I found myself praying fervently to Alltaf for help, even as we walked towards them through the snow.
Hobbling up in front of them both, "I don't know if I can do this," I quietly admitted to O'Connell.
"I don't know if I can either, sir," he somberly replied. "It's been hitting me today . . . what I am doing to Garrison."
I just moved to embrace him, as his dragon turned to nudge both of us with his large, red, toothy snout. That Nightmare knew what was going on, but for devotion alone, he was willing to proceed.
Finally, I turned beside them to face the village. "This is ostensibly a Departure Ceremony," I began, allowing Roana to translate into Norse for me. "But we are not simply allowing one of us to leave for the Outside. We are sending one of our own, a Dragon Rider, off to battle . . . to war. But, we cannot send you as only a Dragon Rider, Miles O'Connell," I smiled, turning to him, "for as a Navy SEAL, you are already better trained and more accomplished than even that. So, for outstanding and invaluable service to the Dragon Rider force, and to our Berk nation, I make you not only a member of our tribe, not just a Dragon Rider . . . but a Dreki Riddari, a Dragon Knight—the first of our new and revived order."
With Roana's help, I then presented him with his own Dragon Knight's sash, complete with ceremonial dagger, but without the usual memory drug syringes as he donned it over his winter garb to the enthusiastic cheers and roars of all around us.
Garrison's gaze of pride in his rider and companion was visible, before he then grunted at him.
"He asks you to remove his sash," Substance conveyed to O'Connell for Garrison.
"But those aren't my medals," O'Connell hesitated as Substance grunted in translation for Garrison.
Garrison murmured in reply, looking at O'Connell. "He is aware of that," Substance conveyed. "He is asking you to safeguard them . . . and bring them back."
O'Connell looked down, moved. Then he simply looked back into his dragon's eyes and nodded, before moving beside Garrison's long neck to untie the blue sash that the Nightmare had worn with pride ever since the aftermath of our battle. O'Connell then almost reverently folded the sash until just the three medals that Chief Arland Garrison had earned were showing on top.
The SEAL then looked down at the medals before looking at his dragon again. "I will bring these back," he said. The two then moved to nudge nose to snout, sealing the promise.
Then, without my prompting, the two of them fulfilled the heart of the Departure Ceremony, looking long and deeply into each other's eyes.
"I will return, Garrison, ek mun koma aftur. Ek sver. I swear," O'Connell quietly said with emotion.
The Nightmare dragon gently moved his large head forward as the tip of his tooth-filled snout nudged O'Connell's nose. As I watched, I prayed even harder now that this would be one vow between human and dragon that would not be broken.
Almost on cue, the whine of the helicopter's turbines could now be heard as they powered up at the other end of our village up in the valley. All Roana and I could do as O'Connell emerged from the nudge with his dragon was quietly embrace him. After us, he then turned and knelt for a departing blessing in front of Substance, nudging her face as she began briefly humming.
O'Connell was now Berker. I could not have been more proud of him.
"You take us all with you," Substance said, concluding her prayer. "Just come back. We not ourselves without you now."
"I will, Guardian," he pledged, his eyes now misting up along with the rest of ours.
"Garrison, brother, brótir," O'Connell then said, turning to his dragon, "vit skulum fara. Let's go."
O'Connell placed a bare, un-gloved hand on the side of his dragon's large head, before the two of them then walked together up through the snowy commons from our ceremonial area as the rest of our tribe parted around them. As Alltaf had done for his beloved rider and companion, Garrison had wanted to fly O'Connell to the Outside, even all the way to the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier waiting offshore, over the horizon to the west. But NATO General Thorndyke had denied that, not wanting to enforce an oath of silence and secrecy upon a carrier crew of five thousand for life as a red Nightmare dragon landed upon the ship's flight deck. "Having to arrange for his platoon pilots to fly him off your island to maintain your secret is complicated enough," Thorndyke had told me via radio that morning.
So Garrison was permitted to escort his rider to the helicopter, and then as part of a Dragon Rider escort to the edge of our protected territory, and that would be it.
"Go, Lannce," Substance encouraged me however as the two made their way among our tribe. "Make sure Garrison comes back."
"Yes, Substance," I agreed, looking at Roana.
Unfortunately with my arm and leg casts, other villagers had to help me mount Rökkr behind my mate. By the time I was in the saddle behind Roana, Garrison had reluctantly stepped away from the helicopter as its door closed and the craft was taking off from the other end of our village. Rökkr carried my mate and I into the air, following the rest of our force as it began to escort the U.S. Navy helicopter to the edge of Berk airspace. Where once there would have been dozens of us in the sky, there were now just eighteen Dragons and Riders, including the MJK. The sight of our still depleted numbers made the occasion even sadder.
All too soon, the helicopter and our escorting force reached the boundary of our protected territory, marked by flashing buoys in the waters below us.
"Catch us up with Garrison," I asked as Rökkr picked up his pace.
Even though dragons seemed to be even more aware of it than we were, Garrison ignored the boundary as he kept on pacing the helicopter while the rest of our Dragons and Riders dutifully banked away at its edge in two different directions.
"Garrison!" I yelled as we approached him. "Mundu skyldu til ættkvísl! Remember your duty to the tribe!"
"Garrison, aftur met okkur!" Roana called out more gently as well.
The riderless dragon now slowed to a hover in the air, allowing the helicopter to proceed on its way, out to the waiting carrier at sea. Garrison then bellowed out a long, plaintive roar of pain.
The roar of that dragon tore me apart inside. It was Alltaf's pain—the same anguish, all over again.
I allowed the Nightmare to remain hovering alone in the air for a moment longer, facing out to sea until the helicopter disappeared in the distance.
"Take us in front of him," I requested. Rökkr obediently moved us until we were hovering just a few metres in front of a seemingly utterly lost dragon flying in place over a dark, featureless ocean now.
"Garrison, komdu," I said to him. "Turn us back to Berk," I then asked Rökkr and Roana as our dragon turned beneath us in the air. Fortunately, Garrison followed, turning around as well.
As we all flew back to our island in silence, with the rest of our force surrounding Garrison, in support as much as to ensure he returned home, I figured even I must be part dragon. My heart felt like it had been ripped from my chest—understanding firsthand the pain of a dragon when it loses its rider, its companion. How my great grandfather, Asger, could have done this to Alltaf over nothing more wounded pride and vanity over losing an election, I couldn't imagine. But if he hadn't, my branch of the family would have succumbed to that Tuberculosis outbreak that wiped out the rest of our clan on the island some ninety years ago. Dragon forgiveness and acceptance . . . I was discovering those things for myself now as well.
When we all landed upon the snowy commons in our village again, an MJK rider stepped forward to assist Roana in dismounting me from Rökkr. "We'll keep him company tonight, sir," the rider then assured me in his mild Norwegian accent when I was back on the snow in front of our house, "both Dragons and Riders. We will see that Garrison is not left alone for a moment. We promised that to O'Connell."
"Very well," I quietly concurred.
It no longer felt like Yule in Berk. It just seemed it would be a long, cold, quiet winter now . . . possibly a very long one.