Chapter 8: Meeting the Skirra Vél
Chapter 8: Meeting the Skirra Vél
Chapter 8: Meeting the Skirra Vél

17th Sep 2012, 8:38 PM

by inhonoredglory

She'd prepared herself already for this moment, for looking into the kid's eyes without flinching.

He colored slightly as she stared at him and she turned away quickly, didn't want to break cover.

The Hooligan chief was talking boisterously over the assembled masses in the Great Hall of the tribe, his voice so deep and booming, so familiar, so like her father, when he was in war and sane, when he was raiding and had something else besides the pain to think about. She hadn't wanted to think about her father while she was here. It would make her mad, frustrated, irritated. She'd wanted to put him out of her mind, how horrible that may sound, but only for their own good, that they might carry out this plan without the chance of her… she hated to admit it… the chance she might break down.

She took a deep breath, looked at the boy Hiccup, really looked at him this time, from across the table as the Chief seated them and continued talking. How could such a small thing be the cause of so much misery, how could the fact of his existence cause such death and hopelessness, a screaming melancholy that reached even into her heart and started making her feel warm inside, like the fire of an unquenched storm. She looked away from the boy, took a deep breath. Her hand moved to the curved sword still hanging from her waist. Once he was done with, the war would start. She only had to give the signal. Dad was ready. Her whole tribe was ready.

It would be the final battle.

She looked at him, the boy cringing and smiling like he didn't mean it. A strange nemesis.

Get to know him, his patterns, be kind, be interested. Let Stoick be as surprised as I was when Valla died.

Those were her father's parting words to her, before he kissed her on her forehead and pulled her into the hug that always spoke more than words could.

When I come back, will you finally be well?
_______

Hiccup let out a huge, long breath. Okay, this night was not going to be one of his favorites. Dad had cordoned him off from the other kids (in the excuse of looking "grown-up" in front of the visitors) and had insisted he make some kind of speech about his dragon-training skills, the same way Stoick had his council members right now gab about their great personal Quests. I guess that was part of chiefing, showing off your tribe.

Hiccup looked afar into the crowd, found Astrid and glanced made an expression, hoping for sympathy, got back a big-eyed shrug. He sighed. How am I supposed to compose a speech on the fly? He looked around. Luckily it wasn't his turn yet. The Council was still talking, specifically Astrid's mom Phlegma the Fierce. He snuck away from the main body of the crowd and slumped down in a chair in a nook in the room, which happened to be a nice dark spot where Fishleg's dragon was snoozing.

"Hey there, Meatlug," Hiccup cooed, leaning over and scratching the Gronckle on the forehead. The dragon gave off a snore, didn't open her eyes. "Yeah," Hiccup sighed, "I think you have the right idea there. Sleep's a great getaway, isn't it? Puts your mind at ease." He leaned over in the chair, put his elbows on his knees. "Though I haven't been exactly getting so much of it. Staying up late making the ship, you know. I'm calling it the Night Fury. I think Toothless won't mind, would he? I doubt he'd get confused." He laughed, still watching the dragon, who was pleasantly not paying attention. Hiccup leaned up, sat into the back of the chair. Dragons were so much easier to talk to.

He looked out again, over the expanse of faces and subtle decorations that adorned the Hall, near the doorway the huge pillars of stone carved out in the shape of famous ancestors, black and threatening, gazing forlornly at the unpleasant jollity below. The huge banners that hung wide and low from the ceiling whose top he couldn't even see in the enveloping blackness. The stone walls that glowed a warm and pleasant orange from the fire lamps that stood around the hall's edge. The ridges of carvings on the wall, the one huge pattern swirling on the wall just behind the great fire and table pit in the center of the room. And the wide pillars of wood dotting the Hall, the one great pillar to the right of him, the grain of wood indented with a criss-cross of black, and the lower portion, girdled with metal bands. Way up high new black fabric banners swung joyfully down into the crowd, creating sharp shadows around the Hall and shielding him from much of the light in this spot in the corner.

Another Council member was having his say next, his voice wide and booming across the Hall. Hiccup watched as Phlegma stepped away from the center of attention and wander over to Spitelout. The two of them shared a smile and began chatting. They were pretty close, Hiccup thought randomly, and no wonder, seeing how Astrid's Dad was Spitelout's buddy back in the day.

His eye wandered over to the new folks, the Skirra Vélites. One of them was eyeing Astrid's Nadder with an indignantly wary look, like he wasn't sure how to deal with a tempered fear. Hiccup's brow furrowed. He had almost forgotten that these people weren't used to tame dragons. He found his father's shape in the masses, wondered if he was going to deal with the matter. But Stoick was busy introducing more people to one another. But that was understandable. I'm the dragon kid, so I should be dealing with that.

He stood up. "Well, I guess it's my turn, right, bud?" He turned around, expected to see Toothless there, but only found the snoring Meatlug. His ear caught a sound he found familiar somewhere in the masses. Toothless. He looked up, but couldn't see above the crowd. He plunged into the chatting masses, dodged one huge Viking after another. It was a continual source of wonder to him how all these giants were somehow still his relatives. His metal leg clapped on the stone floor and he squinted to see in the dim light from the glowing firelights that lined the room.

He finally stumbled out into an open space in the Hall, jolted onto his heels when he saw Toothless haunched on the ground, hissing and squinting up at the girl of the Skirra Vél, Heather. She was staring down the dragon questioningly, one thin eyebrow raised and one hand on the curved sword that slung beautifully from her waist. It was a showdown and Toothless knew it. Several members of the Skirra Vél were gathering now, and even a couple of the dragons were assembling, as if something was coming to a head.

"Hey, what's going on?" Hiccup said quickly, stepping up to Toothless, looking up at Heather. She flashed her eyes at him, took a deep breath and continued looking at the Night Fury. Hiccup's eyes were mainly focused on the hand on her sword, and he felt Toothless sense it as well, as the dragon stared at it closely. "He's not going to hurt you," Hiccup said firmly, watching her hand tighten quickly on the handle then ease as her eyes moved now to him.

She put her hand down, and the curved sword slipped into a more vertical position from her belt. "Of course not." Her body was still tense, though, and he stepped forward once, his hand on Toothless, who he still could feel was growling quietly behind him.

She eyed him as he neared, avoided his eyes and watched the hand he put out to her gently.

She locked eyes with him tersely. "You understand that we kill those things where I come from," she said, briskly.

Hiccup inhaled and nodded once, kept back a grunt of horror. Most everyone had no scruples about killing dragons, and he couldn't save them all -- yet. "I know that," he said, swallowing. "Things are different here. We've made friends with them."

She straightened, swished her black hair, and looked over her fellow tribesmen who had been watching the match with nervous interest. She opened her mouth to say something, when a big voice interrupted. Hiccup jerked up. Dad. His great authoritative form hulked into the space and his beard crinkled as the sum of the situation settled itself into his mind. He glanced briefly at his son, a look Hiccup couldn't quite interpret as approval or not, then back at Heather.

"Your place at the table is ready," he said, and Heather turned, swooshed the cape again. Hiccup fell back a bit, turned to Toothless and stroked the dragon's head thoughtfully. Toothless was still tense, eyeing the passing Skirra Vélites with a low, heavy growl. Hiccup followed his eyes, saw them resting on the jewelry of teeth and dragon spikes, and on the few heads which wore horned helmets dabbed with round and jagged scales. "Shhh, Toothless," Hiccup whispered gently, stroking his neck. "They're not going to be killing anyone here, you're okay." Toothless stopped growling a moment, looked up at Hiccup and blinked. He growled tighter and sharper at him, gave his head a sharp back-and-forth.

For once, Hiccup didn't quite know what Toothless was trying to say.
_______

By the time Gobber rounded him up to the table by his father, Stoick was making a speech about the grand future he was envisioning for the tribe. Hiccup slipped into the seat on the right side of his father, saw that Heather was sitting on Stoick's left, and the kids, well, they were somewhere in the far corner, away from the rest of the adults. He cringed slightly, beginning to hear things like "Hiccup's orders" and "Hiccup's role" in this or that. What was his father doing? I've never given an order beyond what I had to in Gobber's class. And it certainly didn't impress Dad that much. Sure he encouraged him, but almost half-heartedly, because when they were alone in the house at night, and there wasn't anybody to pretend to, he could sense that his father was still disappointed.

So then was he trying to impress these people to such an extent he'd actually border on lying? He was tempted to reach out and touch his father's big arm, ask him what in the world was he doing. His father seemed to sense that, turned down and looked at Hiccup for a moment, before he went again to extolling the wonders of his tribe and his future heir, looking at the Skirra Vélite girl, a pleased sigh breathing out of him.

It hit Hiccup inexplicably. Dad admired Heather. He looked at the girl again, saw her composed countenance, gazing out over the Hall, eyes wary and observant of everything, flicking from her Council to the dragons that hummed and wandered through the crowds. He looked at the Council members, the way they looked up to her, took cues from her subtle gestures, respected her with a formality he never saw on Berk.

But he could never be that kind of Chief. Didn't Dad see that?

Hiccup leaned forward, suddenly realized the people were looking at him, because Dad kept talking about him and for some reason the praise, though not really as exaggerated as he feared, was unwarranted nonetheless and he couldn't stand it. "Dad," he hissed, trying not to get his father embarrassed.

Stoick leaned down closer to Hiccup, maybe got the message and had mercy. He stood up, the chair behind him squeaking as it gritted on the stone. The sound repeated itself throughout the Hall, as a hundred and more slid out of their seats to mirror the Chief's motions, raising their mugs. Hiccup looked at his father, saw the great mead mug raised high in his right hand, and the sound of a booming toast coming forth clear through the air. "To these two tribes!" he said, and Hiccup picked up the mug of mead somebody put by his plate. He father looked down at his son, then to Heather. "May the past be forgotten and a new leaf be built around the peace and equality of our descendants… and our brotherhood." He lifted his mug. Mugs went up around the Hall, held up high. Stoick let out a deep cheer and the tribe joined in.

"Bottoms up!" someone screamed from somewhere in the Hall. Hiccup rolled his eyes. Gobber…

Hiccup sat down, put the mug aside and took the smaller clay cup filled with water, drank it. Mead did strange things to people, and he wasn't going to take his first taste now, when he needed to pay attention. He looked over at Heather, found her already looking at him. In a horridly deep and piercing way. He blinked away. He somehow got the feeling like he was something interesting to her.

I hope all that stuff Dad's been saying about me is not going to make her think I'm something. He shrunk back in his chair, took a deep breath.
_______

Astrid could barely see Hiccup from across the Hall. She knew the day would come when Stoick would start taking up even more of Hiccup's time, making him a Council member and all that. Her dragon tried to nudge her and get some attention. "Not now, Stormfly," she said, trying to push her head out of her line of sight, leaning up from her table with the rest of the teens. Stormfly continued to prod, and she sighed exasperatedly. "Okay, fine." She flung the smoked fish on her plate into the air and Stormfly flapped her wings slightly, caught it and hummed pleasantly, gulping it down.

"Now will you stop bothering me?" Astrid leaned out of her seat and stared at her. "I've got a boyfriend to look after." Stormfly finally got the message and hopped away into a dark corner. She leaned to the side, tried again to see Hiccup through the crowd.

"What are they doing now?" Ruffnut poked her, tried to look through the same hole between two bobbing Viking helmets. Fishlegs peeked over, a little quiet in all the revelry that evening, without Hiccup to talk dragons with.

"The girl, what's-her-name--" Astrid snapped her fingers.

"Heather," Snotlout piped.

"You'd notice." Astrid looked slyly at him.

"No, it's just that Dad told me. She means nothing to me."

"Oh, sure." She loved to tease him.

"Okay, maybe a little. Come on, she's a beauty, you got to admit." He nudged Tuffnut.

"Oh!" Tuffnut got his nose out of the mug of mead he'd been nursing since the whole celebration began. "Yeah, she looks okay."

"Is that all you have to say for the fairer sex?"

Tuffnut snorted, went back to his mug.

Ruffnut flayed her arms about. "Forget about those guys! Tell me what you see." She butted up against Astrid.

Astrid was still smiling, went back and looked through the clearing in the Vikings. "Okay, Heather is talking. And Hiccup--" She leaned to the left. "Okay, Hiccup is poking around his food again."

Ruffnut laughed. "The kid can't get enough energy. No wonder he can't even hold his sword."

Astrid turned around, gave her a dirty look.

"Oh, all right." Ruffnut leaned back, put her palms up. "Hands off your man, I know."

Astrid continued to glare at her.

She slumped. "Aaaaaand I'm sorry. There?"

Astrid smiled smugly.

"Now what else is happening?" Ruffnut poked her again.

Astrid peered between the heads, pursed her lips. What was with Heather, looking at Hiccup like that?

"Well?" came Ruffnut.

"Heather's been staring at Hiccup. All evening, really."

"Ha! How interesting." It was Snotlout.

"What's so interesting?" Astrid shot him another sharp look.

"This triangle thing going on," Snotlout said through an irrepressible grin, tracing his finger through Astrid and the two people way up far away there with Stoick. He crossed his arms, laughed. "Got you, Astrid."

"She doesn't mean anything to him," Astrid huffed, raising her nose at him sharply. She looked back through the heads, found Hiccup peering at Heather from under his bangs. Heather swung the black hair that was way too vivacious, and stood up. Hiccup's eyes followed her. Stoick was getting up now, mug in hand again.

"Oh no, it's another toast," Astrid said, grabbed the nearest mug. "Get up, Tuffnut," she shot at the bleary shape lolling at the corner of the table. They all stood.

Stoick's booming voice came clear across the Hall. Everyone hushed. Even the fabric banners seemed to pause in the drifting air above the smoking fires.

"In gratitude to my brother," he said, a slight crack in his large voice, "who for these many years has been banished for deeds long since forgotten, and whom I will soon meet, I declare now, as Chief of this tribe and representative of its people, that I pardon his actions and clear his--" His words were suddenly drowned in a sea of applause. Astrid could hear gasps of wonder around her, and even her mother was patting her father with a look of pleasant surprise. Stoick closed his mouth, held his mug with a pride and an almost tearful joy. He bobbed his head down, up again, put his hand out to calm the crowd. "And for him and for his beautiful daughter," he said, louder again, "I give a gift of ten fine dragons, to ride and enjoy for all their lives."

A cheer went up from the crowd again.

"And more than that," Stoick boomed, "I give them my son--"

Her head jolted back. Hiccup was staring at Stoick, eyes popped open.

"--as personal trainer throughout their visit here, so they can know the pleasure of flying on their new dragons." Stoick raised his big mug and the crowd followed suit. A rolling cheer went up, and even Hookfang, Belchbarf, and the other dragons around the hall got caught up in the excitement. Even little baby dragons from the last nesting season were throating happy noises.

Astrid sipped a bit of the mead, sat back down.

"Well, that was nothing much," Tuffnut slurred, flopping back down. He raised his mug, about to--

Astrid grabbed it suddenly from across the table, held it as Tuffnut's hand was still on the handle. "Stop it with the mead, all right. Didn't you see what just happened?"

"What? That the Rune dude tried to kill him once? And now Stoick is being extra nice to him?" He pulled on the cup. Astrid didn't let go.

"Stoick is pardoning him, guys." She addressed all of them, tried to make them see the gravity of that.

Ruffnut sighed. "Well, I guess Stoick is really going all out for his brother."

Fishlegs tapped a leg bone on his empty plate. "Well, if I was Stoick and I had a brother that came back to his tribe after a terrible fall out, I might be a little magnanimous."

Snotlout and Tuffnut and Ruffnut gave him weird looks.

"Magnanimous," Fishlegs repeated.

Astrid tuned out, stood up to talk to Hiccup, despite the whole separation idea. She needed to talk to him, get this thing in perspective. Hiccup would know what to make of it, maybe tell her what Stoick was thinking. The whole development struck a wrong chord with her, and she didn't quite know why.

I mean, forgiveness is a good thing, right?

Maybe it felt like Stoick was moving too fast.

Where's Hiccup? People were standing up now, and she couldn't see. She tiptoed, looked between the helmets. It must be the end of the party. Stoick and Heather weren't in their places. Hiccup was nowhere to be found. She pushed through the crowd. "Hiccup!" she called, but everyone was talking now and a general blur of voices was falling over the Hall. She looked between the arm muscles and big fur capes for the little bobbing head of auburn hair. But it was getting harder to move now, because people were crowding into a corner of the Hall, excited chatting rising up through the air and the purring sound of ten fine dragons generating from somewhere in the deepest part of the mass.
_______

Heather could tell the boy was uncomfortable, all through the evening at dinner. At least the feeling was mutual. A couple times she had to eye reminders to her people, to tell them she was still in control, that it wouldn't be long now. She'd have to kill him before his Induction, that much was planned by her father and her.

She'd discussed with her father whether he wanted to see his brother Stoick and join in the deception, but he'd said, no, it wasn't necessary. It was too much on his nerves already, anyway, and she wasn't going to risk his dying from the pressure. So she'd told the Hooligan chief that Rune would be meeting him at Induction Day itself. That made the idea sound like a special celebration or reunion, which was sure to fill Stoick with happy thoughts and let his guard down. But the boy… She looked at Hiccup again, as they left their seats and meandered to where the gift dragons were being assembled in the far space of the Hall, the chairs and tables all moved aside and space made for the her and her Council to admire their new charges.

The boy was an unknown factor.

She watched him wander quietly from the group, try to make himself vanish into the crowds. She heard Stoick's voice say something up ahead of her and she jolted to focus again. She had an idea on how to get close to the boy, and maybe even finish the job tonight. She'd have to discuss something with Stoick.

The little kid had disappeared totally into the crowds by now. Something crept up her spine and she suddenly realized she shouldn't call him a kid or a boy or a child anymore. He was almost her age now, and… Her hand moved to her sword inadvertently and she swallowed.

Calling him that would make it so much harder.
________

Hiccup was in a hurry to get to Toothless after the dinner ended and people were finally spreading throughout the Hall. It was just too much pressure to sit there and wonder about all the ways things could go wrong. He slipped away as his father and Heather marched onwards towards the gift dragon assembly. A nice subtle move, he thought happily and searched the edge of the Hall for his dragon. "Toothless!" he called softly, more to himself than for any real purpose. He wandered through the mass of people, their cheerful hums a background blur, and snippets of their conversations floating through his head.

"…but of course they're new here what did you expect…"

"You mean the dragons? Now that…"

"…a tamed beast. It's still going to scare you."

Hiccup finally found the black dragon in the far corner of the Hall. He smiled suddenly, just to see him, rushed over to where the dragon was lying on the stone floor, eyes closed gently and head resting on his little feet. "Hey, Toothless," he whispered, touching the black scales on his head. Toothless opened his big green eyes, blinked them and, seeing Hiccup, jerked his head up and hummed, nudged his face into Hiccup's chest. "Yeah, buddy," Hiccup coached, scratching and letting the dragon nuzzle him.

Suddenly Hiccup got a strange feeling inside of him. Like they were being watched. He whirled, saw a man standing over him, an old man, wrinkled skin, balding head, hands that had been used and used well. A strange little mark adorned the left side of his head, near his ear, and Hiccup couldn't quite make it out. This man was one from the other tribe, but he hadn't seen him up the walk from Firebrand Peaks, nor at the dinner. He did not wear the adornment of the other members of the tribe, nor did he wear a cape or lavish belt. He only wore a plain fur coat and a simple, practical gray tunic. Hiccup looked up at his face, saw a silent look of awe, as the stranger stared down at Toothless.

"Sir?" Hiccup asked.

The man did not move, continued gazing at Toothless. The people milling in the immediate vicinity suddenly grew extremely quiet and made vague gestures to the old man. A Skirra Véllite began to step towards them.

The man was still staring at Toothless and Hiccup could feel his dragon stiffen. He didn't want a repeat of the Heather incident. Hiccup slid off the ground and got to his feet. "Is something wrong?" He eyed the man, half of his attention on the odd behavior of the Skirra Véllites around.

"Shh," the old man said, wistfully, raising a hand. He closed his eyes, opened them again with a renewed amazement. "It's been so long since I saw a dragon like this." The old man looked at Hiccup suddenly and there was a sense of age and history in his dark gray eyes. "I had to come inside and see this. A Night Fury, a real life Fury, alive."

Toothless suddenly reacted, opened his eyes wide and growled questioningly at the old man, poked his nose up at him. The old man paused, tense to find the dragon so near him. "The last time I saw one of this kind, he was dead." Hiccup started slightly. "Dead, killed," the old man continued, "from the Death Spiral."

Toothless burst out with a growl, shook his head violently from side to side. Hiccup put his hands on Toothless' head, looked at the old man, confused. "The what?"

The old man's voice rose and his crinkled fingers made a swirling motion upward towards the dark ceiling. "It only happens between Night Furies and Skrills. They smack into each other at full speed--" He smacked his hands together, let the fingers grasp and twist and wrest each other. "They fight." The cracked, dirty nails dug into his skin. "They scream." He balled his fists tightly, vibrated them with a passion. "The Spiral creates its own weather, its own storm of swirling air and lightning, the Night Fury's wings and the Skrill's lightning." The old man's knuckles began to pale with the growing passion of his words. "A white funnel of light as they tumble to their deaths." He suddenly let his hands fall, opened them and let them fall to his sides.

Hiccup opened his eyes wide and inhaled slowly. He looked back at Toothless, found the green eyes hot and livid. Not at the old man, not even at something in the room. The anger was somewhere inside. "Why do they fight?" Hiccup asked.

"It's an old feud, been going on for generations on my island, before the volcano erupted, before the Skirra Vél came, before--"

"Shut up, Hervi."

Hiccup whirled at the stark, sharp voice. It was a Skirra Vélite council member. The giant warrior pushed himself between Hiccup and the old man, grinned and bordered on suffocating Hiccup with one big arm around his shoulders. "Pardon the slaves, they like making up stories."

Hiccup started. Slave. The word sparked inside him, and he looked up at the old man again, saw the mark on the side of his head and finally figured out what it was. A brand mark. He blinked.

The giant Skirra Vélite laughed hugely, swept Hiccup away from Hervi and sauntered forward through the Hall, bragging to the surrounding Hooligans about the slaves he owned and how the Skirra Vél had made such a name for themselves in the trading business. Hiccup cowered under the big man in horror. Spitelout, his Dad's own right-hand man, was bantering with the slavetrader. "We haven't been raiding much lately, as a matter of fact," Spitelout laughed, and Hiccup got the horrid notion that he was apologizing for something. Was he somehow afraid of this big man's behavior, tried to "fit in" with this slave business? Or did he really approve of this?

Suddenly he realized how little he knew of his own tribe. They just never needed to discuss slavery for themselves, because they never had to subjugate anyone, and apparently banishment was good enough a punishment, and none of them certainly needed any farm hands. They always worked together.

Slavery.

The word now gave him a vivid disgust, instead of a fear. He got himself out of the crowd, away from the trader and from Spitelout and the others. A woman from his tribe, a mother, accosted Hiccup suddenly, and he looked down at the woman's daughter, who was biting her nails and staring at Hervi. The mother murmured quietly. "Please tell Stoick to keep the slaves outside." The child, her eyes wide, nodded up at him. "Please," she said, very small.

Hiccup breathed heavily. "I-- I'll see what I can do." He stepped back and broke from her grasp. He didn't look back and set off through the people. Not looking for Dad.

Just where did Hervi go?

He spied the old man finally on the outskirts of the crowd, kneeling beside Toothless in that corner of the Hall, the dragon eyeing him with a tentative curiosity. Hervi hovered his hand over the black beast's wings, the membranes stretching long and dark and lovely across his back and tail.

Hiccup stopped in front of them and Hervi looked up, rose his eyes and met Hiccup's.

Hiccup inhaled. "How did you become a… a…" The word had a hard time coming out.

"Slave?" Hervi smiled poignantly.

Hiccup slid down on the stone floor, knelt by Toothless, faced the man.

The old man hummed, finally setting his hand down and stroking Toothless. "I was once Herkja's chief, you know."

Hiccup turned to him sharply. His brain registered someone calling his name in the background somewhere, but Hiccup wasn't about to pay attention to that. "Chief?" he mouthed, deliberately.

"Herkja was my island before the Skirra Vél took advantage of the destruction of our people from the volcano."

"You mean Rune?" Hiccup looked at the mark on the left side of the man's face, the burned, brown flesh in a gentle snaking shape just in front of his ear. He swallowed. Dad had once told him about tribes that were subjugated, how some raiders had the chief branded to prevent him from ever taking over again. Once a slave, always a slave. And a slave could never be chief.

He swallowed again, this topic making him uneasy, and blankly watched Hervi's hand stroking Toothless, gently, reverently. "Take care of this dragon," he hummed suddenly. "The Skirra Vél have a tradition of hunting down the best dragon of an island."

"Hunting down?" Hiccup heard his name again, clearer this time, and he realized it was his father. "What do you mean?" he insisted. Hervi looked at him.

"A prize for subjugating the tribe, I guess."

"Hiccup!" The name came over hot and clear this time, accompanied by a sharp hum of voices and a dragon's screech. Hiccup got to his feet, still staring at Hervi, then at Toothless, still wanting to know what this meant, what Hervi meant. "I need to talk with you again," he said and stepped back, mumbling, "Coming, Dad." Stoick's form emerged from the crowd. Hervi suddenly set his eyes on Hiccup sharply, realization welling up over his face. "You're the Chief's son?"

Hiccup opened his eyes at him. "Well, yeah."

The old man withheld a gasp.

Hervi rose suddenly, got a look like he was searching, deciding, wondering if he should say something. "Are you all right?" Hiccup asked, the tumult increasing behind him, his father calling again.

Hervi wavered, looked away from Hiccup's eyes. "Just be… careful." He put a hand on Hiccup's shoulder suddenly, crossed his brows and then stepped away, shaking his head.

Hiccup looked after him, confused. Hervi disappeared into the sea of Hooligans, heading for the door, just as a pair of giant palms grabbed Hiccup's arm and yanked him backwards.

Hiccup whirled, faced his Dad staring down at him and dragging him across the stone floor. Breath seethed out from under his red beard. "Where have you been?" Hiccup tried opening his mouth, but before he could ask anything, his Dad threw him in front of a bunch of Skirra Vélites and Hooligans and a Nadder and an axe-wielding--

"Hey!" Hiccup screamed. A council member of the Skirra Vél was in the motion of swinging his axe right towards Stormfly's nose, and the dragon was promptly revealing a splay of teeth, her head and opened jaws heading straight for him. Hiccup jumped, skidded between them and flashed his hands out on either side. "Stop!" he screamed. He voiced the heaviest pitch he could muster. "What's going on here?" He looked to the right, jerked his head back a little, the crisp edge of the axehead just grazing his bangs. He stared straight into a grimy-faced, dragon-tooth-necklaced Skirra Vélite still fuming and clutching his weapon and hissing insults at him. "You soup-brained barnacled Hooli--"

"You're the scallop-head!" It was Astrid. Hiccup twisted to the left: Astrid was clutching Stormfly's neck, barely holding her dragon back as she spat her own attacks past Hiccup to the axe-wielder on his right. Her one unhidden eye was livid.

"Stormfly would never do that."

"That killer almost bit my hand off."

"She only wanted some fi--"

"You think dragons can be tamed! I'll show--"

"STOP!!!" Hiccup screamed and the insults halted in midair. Hiccup's throat hurt hard; he wondered if that booming voice really belonged to him. People were panting and staring at him. His father was tense, and Heather was ready to pounce forward, her sword flashing in her right hand. "Everybody, just--" Hiccup started.

A sharp snarl startled Hiccup from behind.

"Brandr!" Heather called out suddenly, but the Skirra Vélite was already leaping backwards as his axe flew straight out of his grip, the jaws of a black dragon uprooting the entire weapon from the warrior's white-knuckled hands.

"Toothless!" Hiccup gasped, smiling, his arms still stretched out wide. His dragon was by his side, his mouth full of axe as his teeth clamped down on the pockmarked metal. His big green eyes were round and wide again as they gazed at Hiccup and hummed, the double-headed weapon crudely sticking out of either side of his mouth. He let out a snarl to the right for good measure, but his eyes were full of exhilaration as he jumped up and down, his sleek black body glinting back the firelights of the Great Hall.

Hiccup almost laughed but had to smother it inside himself. "Good job, buddy," he said, winking. Toothless was clearly exulting over the masterful disarmament. The Skirra Vélite warrior, Brandr, was glaring at the dragon as if he had stolen the shirt off his chest. He pounded up to Toothless, tried grabbing the handle, but Toothless jerked his head back deftly out of reach and swished the handle in the air until the warrior blushed at the inadvertent game of tag.

Some laughter arose from the younger-aged cross-section of the Hooligan side and Hiccup cringed suddenly. Brandr turned as bright purple as humanly possibly. Heather stepped up to Toothless, her curved sword to her side, but her eyes watchful on the dragon. Hiccup stepped in her direction, got between her and Toothless.

"You're sure you can control that beast?" she said smoothly.

"He's not hurting anyone," Hiccup snapped.

Toothless roared suddenly through his full mouth, held the axe up high and jabbed the handle towards Hiccup in a smug triumph. Hiccup could hear Heather smile behind him, and he looked back, saw an ironically amused look on her face. Hiccup looked desperately around as his dragon offered him the weapon of a Skirra Vélite council member in the middle of the Great Hall of the Hooligans. "Stop glorying in this, Toothless!" he hissed quietly, "You're making it worse, especially for me."

But Brandr was clearly already scandalized. "Look at this. The heir taking the side of a dragon, a dragon!"

Stoick started an objection, met by Skirra Vélite response, and a growingly accusatory buzz began in the Hall. Hiccup held out his hands towards the crowd and tried to wave them down to silence. "I'm not taking any sides, guys. Both of you should've kept your cool." He looked to Brandr, to Stormfly and Astrid.

He directed his gaze at Astrid, tried to look both gentle and firm. "I know Stormfly likes a fish thrown to her at dinnertime, but the Skirra Vélites wouldn't have known that. They only know dragons as killers. Just watch her more when there are strangers, okay? We all got to make a better effort to guard our dragons' behavior."

He winced a bit as Astrid's jaw dropped and her eyebrows shot up in a glare, then smoothed quietly. She remained silent. A critical murmur arose among the Hooligans, hasty whispers and craning heads eying him sharply. The murmur from the Skirra Vélites was more positive, which made the Hooligan murmurs only more biting.

But at least Astrid isn't biting my head off-- yet. Now for the other one.

He turned to Brandr. The fellow appeared to be almost savoring this now, to get some sort of win over the Hooligans and their indomitable dragons. Hiccup gave him the same look as he gave Astrid, except pointedly firmer, with some appropriate arm gestures for support. "I'm sorry this happened to you, sir. It's not easy to eat dinner with a bunch of fire-breathing reptiles, but when we say that dragons are at peace with us, you've got to take our word for it. You can't just lop off the heads of our friends as you please." His hand splayed out for emphasis and the big man bulged his offended eyes at him, as if horrified to receive this kind of verbal treatment from such a shrimp, no matter who he was in the tribe. The man looked at his own tribe and, armed with their support, he stared down Hiccup with a disdain that matched his size.

Hiccup stared into the hot big eyes, all the authoritativeness he'd built up winding out of him. Oh, great, I've always needed this. Two tribes hating me.

Toothless throated support, the axe now comically wobbling in his mouth as the dragon tickled his legs with the carved handle tip. Hiccup patted Toothless's snout, took the handle from the dragon's mouth. "Thanks bud, for being on my side."

He grunted as the heavy weapon tipped itself to the floor. He hobbled it upward towards the man, a low sound emanating from Toothless's throat as Hiccup handed the axe over. The man took the weapon and Hiccup soothed Toothless. "It's okay, bud, everything's under control." The humming growl sound subsided, yet remained latent.

"You're just lucky no blood spilled tonight." The big man whipped around, the dragon scales glinting on his helmet and his cape flapping into Hiccup's face. Hiccup turned, suddenly met the bristled beard of his father standing over him. He seemed to have risen to his full height and was glaring at him like the stone pillars of Hooligan ancestors flanking the Great Hall.

"Well, you wanted me to make a speech." Hiccup smiled something that probably came off quite cheesy.

"Not that one."

"Well, what did you want me to do?"

"Not insult everyone. Didn't you learn anything in diplomacy?"

"Hey, they were both at fault."

His father put his hands up in frustration, looked down at Hiccup to give another word of advice when suddenly the sound of a sword slicing sharply into its sheath clipped through the air. Hiccup turned, saw Heather standing to the side of them, her hand on the hilt of her sword. She was looking at Hiccup pointedly. "Nice work," she said and let go of the handle, let the sword swing down. She glanced at Brandr, who was still fuming on the side, and shook her head. She stood up tall suddenly, the bear's cape smoothing out behind her. "Skirra Vél," she called and her voice took on a ring of authority and maturity. She waited for the Hall to quiet, let the last clink of mugs still into the air. She then looked at Stoick. "We accept your generous gift," she said simply, and she looked at each of her council members, as if reading into them something of her thoughts, something of the tension in the air, and in her intent to relieve it. Slowly, the Skirra Vél began to cheer, and sprinkles of applause started rising from both sides of the Hall until the edifice hummed with the rush of clapping hands and strong shouting Viking voices.

"She's a real peacemaker, son." His Dad's voice surprised him. Hiccup glanced up to see if he had really mouthed the words.

"The Skirra Vél-- peacemakers?" he whispered hoarsely. "Yeah, enslaving other tribes and killing dragons for sport really nicely fits into that definition."

But his father was looking at something -- or, someone -- in the Hall someplace, wasn't listening. At least, not really getting what he was saying. "Son," he said, "they're making peace now. It's not always the outside that counts. You could learn something from her. You should…" he struggled to find the right word. "Be a little more, uh, open-minded!" His father put out his hand for emphasis.

Hiccup gasped. Dad didn't have to lecture me in that department.

His father started moving off, talking now. Probably to Heather. He stepped back, looked at the scene and just shook his head. Heather's voice came back, the voices of her tribespeople responding.

What did Dad really think of Heather and his brother's tribe?

They were saying something about choosing a dragon to befriend, to ride, Tuffnut and Snotlout offering their own dragons to the council members for practice. "Better to teach them on tame dragons already, from experts like us!" Snotlout was gleefully stating. Much more personal that way, someone was saying. Astrid's quieter voice was there, muffled, as well as Fishlegs and Ruffnut. Apparently every able-bodied Hooligan was volunteering his dragon for personal training practice to the Skirra Vélite council members. It wasn't enough to give ten gift dragons. Now everyone's dragon was getting in on the act of diplomacy. There was a spark of irritation in him for some reason, and he shook his head at himself. Him of all people should be happy about that. Was it so bad to show the Skirra Vélites such warmth and friendliness? That's what he was supposed to be good at. The peacemaker. Joining dragon and Viking. But maybe with people it was different. He looked up at his father, talking happily to Heather and pointing at the dragons pleasantly. Or maybe he was letting a conflict cloud his perspective on everything?

"Hiccup." It was a gentle voice. He lifted his head suddenly. "Astrid," he said. He tried to put on a smile, but quickly wiped it off when he saw her furrowed brows and pursed frown. Was it the accusing monologue? "Astrid, I'm really sorry, I--"

"Forget it," she said curtly. "That's not why I'm here. You've got something else on your plate tonight, and tomorrow, and who knows how long--" She flung her arms up.

"What are you talking about?"

"Heather's picked Toothless."

"Ahhh, for what?" he refocused on the unexpected topic she threw at him. She stared sharply at him, and his mind and then mouth started saying, "Oh, wait a minute…"

She edged close to him, muttering low. "Somebody got the crazy idea to 'share' our dragons and expertise with these people until they get on their feet dealing with their own dragons -- and everybody's been offering their own dragon like there's some kind of game going on. The point is, Heather wants Toothless."

"But Toothless and Heather don't like each other." Hiccup couldn't understand it. "That scene already played out."

"Ugh! I know." She jerked her back backward before leaning forward and putting her arm out pointedly. "I even volunteered Stormfly for her, but she insisted Stormfly and her buddy axe-wielder should get together and 'learn to understand each other.'" She put the words in quotes with her fingers. "So now I'm stuck riding with an axe maniac who Stormfly hates and you…" She stopped abruptly, looked at Hiccup, and sighed. He read something odd and distinct in her eyes, but what exactly… She sensed his noticing something amiss and she turned away quickly, mumbling something under her breath. "Astrid?" Hiccup prodded, stepped up to her and put a hand on her arm.

She glanced at him, was about to say something then stopped. She looked away then back at him with a hard conviction this time. "Be honest. Do you like Heather?"

He jerked his head back suddenly. "What a question!"

"Come on, I've been watching you and that girl. I saw the way you looked at her."

"Astrid? How can you insinuate--"

"I'm not insinuating anything! I just know what I saw. And I know the way your Dad's been trying to get you two together."

"Huh? What Dad does has nothing to do with me. Astrid, I'm not looking at anyone. You're my girl, remember? The green-eyed, red-haired kids?" He grinned sheepishly at her and she smirked, raised her arm and was about to smack him when a black figure stepped in front of them suddenly. Hiccup turned, saw Heather there. "Well?" She eyed Hiccup with that look again. "Show me your dragon."

Hiccup felt Astrid tense suddenly and Hiccup stepped forward, squeezed her arm reassuringly and smiled at Heather. "Sure, let's just keep it short, okay?" He looked back at Astrid and winked, walked over to Heather and passed her. "I might want to hit the sack kind of early today."

Heather caught up with him and Hiccup looked over at her, the obsidian black hair, the soft round face and bright wide eyes. Those eyes that, while her lips were joyful, they reflected something almost sorrowful. They reached Toothless and the dragon hissed when he saw the girl in black. "Heather, are you sure you want to learn on Toothless? I mean, the two of you didn't exactly start on good terms."

Toothless grumbled a particularly loud affirmative, and Heather looked at him from the corner of her eye, took a deep breath. "I like a challenge," she said and looked at Hiccup, firming her gaze. Hiccup felt the color run to his cheeks again. There was something scary in the way she looked at him, with those dark brown eyes and the thin eyebrows that wavered down over the lids of her eyes. She stepped up to him softly all of a sudden, flipped her hair back over her shoulders and glanced away. "I also want to know more about you." She looked at him.

He started back suddenly, just knew this was gonna happen. Ever since she looked at him at dinner that night -- and then Astrid. Come on, this was too much. What would Astrid think now? Toothless hummed something up at him, and Hiccup knew the dragon probably was getting vibes of this mess he was trapped in. "Um." He cleared his throat. "You know, this is not going to work… unfortunately." He gave a reassuring smile that turned a little goofy and uneven. "Only I can fly Toothless." He held out his prosthetic and gestured to the left stirrup of Toothless' rigging.

"Well, I might learn more riding with you." She put a hand on his suddenly, making Hiccup jump. He eyed Toothless desperately, and the dragon throated one last protest.

His father suddenly came in the scene before Hiccup could come up with another excuse. "This is wonderful to see!" he boomed. "The two heirs training one another. You're going to have a fine time, Heather." He beamed and patted Hiccup on the back. Hiccup glanced up at his father, trying to communicate something like, do I have to? But of course he knew he was stuck.

"Do you have a plan, Hiccup, on the training?" his father asked.

Hiccup peered up at Heather. "I guess we'll discuss it in the morning."

"Or tonight," Heather said, a smile on her face. "Your father here has been so kind as to invite me to sleep at your house." She set those eyes, sharp and deep, on him again.

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