|Coalie’s hair, sunset orange flecked with grey, was his best feature. He was a broad man with a powerful upper body and strong legs, a result of years pounding iron into weapons. Coalie fashioned tools and jewelry and the occasional quality item, but this was Berk. Dragon raids meant dull and broken weapons, and Coalie often mended axes and maces, his son Gobber alongside him.
Berk was a speck called an island only because naming it a heap of wet rocks described most of the other islands dotting this archipelago. The weather froze his gizzard and the work never ended, but Coalie’s adopted home was the place he fit, as he’d never fit in the Alban highlands.
There, he was Conrad, the fifth of eight sons. Clan MacKenzie had large families, and the eleven children in his family closer to the norm than his uncle Dairmud’s seven children. As many trades as there were, Conrad’s sharp mind wasn’t enough to excel. In a competition, only the brilliant MacKenzies prospered. Conrad had skills in several trades and was a good enough smith to have a place in one of the forges at home.
Before he settled in the life expected of him, fourth-best in a group of nine, the thirteenth Conrad in his clan, he left.
He expected to return, for what other place existed for a mediocre man like himself? ‘Twas enough to escape for a time from the stifling company of his parents and siblings and countless cousins. The sea demanded his attention and patience, but not more. Conrad assisted when asked, for a strong back is welcome most places. He embraced the labor, and considered the sea as an occupation. For now, travelling the Barbaric Archipelago was enough.
They stopped at Berk. The sailors wanted food and drink and wenching. Berk’s Mead Hall was well provisioned, and guaranteed to supply two of those things. The mead was less sweet than the Alban variety, but the kitchen provided an excellent mutton with carrots. Like the sailors, Conrad was glad of the break from ship food.
A stroll through the marketplace revealed a butcher and baker, a large and thriving tannery, and the smithy. Conrad said in slow, careful Norse that he wished to ask questions. “I know little Norse, but my Gaelic is good.” The blacksmith was willing to answer his questions. The ice surrounding Berk had broken six weeks ago, and traders visited weekly through harvest time. They accepted paying passengers.
“Have you work? I know smithies. I am a hard worker.” Again, he used Norse, hoping to win the man’s favor. An extra pair of hands were welcome at the forge, and any decent skill earned him a wage as well. The blacksmith’s name was Kelp, and when Conrad was asked his name, he blurted out “Coalie.”
“‘Tis a good name for a smith, and well suited to Berk. The Hooligan tribe has unusual names. My wife’s given name is Beartooth, and she goes by Berta. Come inside, Coalie, and demonstrate your ability.”
For a few months, Conrad would become Coalie, the lone carrier of his name in a clan of one MacKenzie.
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The smithy was smaller than he was accustomed to, but the newly-named Coalie liked the size. At home, he’d be working outside in the weather to avoid crowding. He answered Kelp’s questions on basic skills, then made a dirk for the master smith to examine. The dirk earned him three coins and a battered apron, along with a command to “hop to the sharpening, we’ve not got all day.”
Coalie found the captain. He thanked him for the voyage, and pressed a few coins in his hand. Then Coalie returned to Kelp’s hut, and for the first time in nine weeks, slept on dry land.
The second day, Coalie spent his morning making bolts, brackets, and hinges. Kelp called a halt at midday. “Eat something and have a breather. This afternoon you’ll be making nails until nattmal. The dragons are due to raid, and tomorrow comes early.”