Chapter 10: A Score Settled, Part 1
Chapter 10: A Score Settled, Part 1
Chapter 10: A Score Settled, Part 1

8th Oct 2012, 10:00 PM

by inhonoredglory

"Aah!"

Astrid snapped up out of bed, hot and sweaty. "Thunders!" she spat, slapped a palm on her forehead. "Thunders…" she said, quieter, tried to calm herself. Her heart was sparking horridly, and all because of a stupid dream? She looked at her hand, found it shaking slightly.

Of course Hiccup wasn't going to die.

She stared at the window determinedly. It seemed so real. She could almost smell the blood, feel the dark, dank air, hear some voice, someone screaming. But she couldn't see him.

She heaved a breath again, cursing her head for imagining such morbid things, flopping on her pillow, eyes wide open.

She had to get to him. Last night was weird. Heather wanted to fly with Toothless, that was not something to be excited about. And not to forget Stoick, the mystery with his brother and all. Hiccup had to have asked him about some of that last night.

She slid out of the bed, looked at her face in the chipped reflective surface of the glazed pot on her bedstand. She didn't look so bad, even early in the morning. She smiled, latched on her shoulder epaulets and smoothed out the wrinkles in her braid. Her hand paused as she adjusted her headband.

She didn't believe in dreams anyway…
_______

"What if you took me flying now?"

Hiccup whirled. His hands were busy on the tiller of his little ship, The Night Fury. That was the thing about multi-sailed ships. There were one too many ropes and pulleys to deal with, although he was proud he discovered a way to deal with it all. "What, Heather?" he asked, going back to the tiller, hoping he'd heard wrong. But Toothless' concerned whimper made him think differently.

"Flying on Toothless," she repeated.

"Oh." Hiccup furrowed his brows. He didn't like this vibe he was getting from her, guess he never did. He pulled the ship in swiftly towards the shore, the white sails filling with morning air, creating a swoosh of noise above him. He wasn't heading for the docks this time, but for a little alcove in the shoreline butted up against a thick portion of forest and a gentle slope of island. It was the perfect docking point for avoiding the eyes of the village. He didn't need to use it often, but-- He looked back at Heather, her hair still moist from swimming and her frame thin inside her wet clothing-- with Astrid probably on the lookout for him from the fiasco of last night, this was the last sight she needed to see. Who knows if she knew about the whole sleepover mess. That could be taken in a million different wrong ways. Toothless perked suddenly, noticing the change in direction, and stationed himself next to Hiccup, throating a question and putting his big eyes at him.

Hiccup winked at him. "Evasive maneuvers, buddy," he whispered, and Toothless purred. Hiccup scratched his forehead playfully and heaved the tiller leftward, sailing the ship in smoothly against the sandbank. The ship thudded onto the shore.

"Well?"

Hiccup turned back to her, not really too keen on this line of questioning.

"I do want to get to know him, and this is such a lovely morning."

Hiccup cleared his throat. "Uh, sure you don't want breakfast first?"

She waved off his words briskly and slinked up towards him, setting a big smile at Toothless, who smarted back in response. She took a deep breath and looked at him. "It will be most enjoyable. I need to get to know him, to know…" She tapped a finger on his chest. "…you."

He swallowed, backed away quickly. "Ah, yeah…" Toothless slipped under his arm quickly, throating a concern. Hiccup thought fast. This Heather wasn't letting up, was she? Maybe Astrid was right, that she was making eyes at him. The thought filled him with an icky horror. The last thing he needed was to have Astrid see him playing over their first special time together with another girl. "Toothless, you won't tell on me, right, buddy?" he whispered.

Toothless cocked his head, hummed, eyes big.

Hiccup gulped again. Better to get the thing over with before the formal training; right now, Astrid was hopefully still at home, maybe in the Hall eating breakfast or taking care of Stormfly. Better to get it done while Astrid wasn't around, instead of later. Heather seemed like a person who wasn't going to give up on this matter.

"We'll just make it a quick flight, okay?"
_______

Toothless kept back the tempting notion to lash out at the girl and scare the silly smile off her face. "Toothless, don't you want to like her? Why don't you like her?" Hiccup patted his head gently and Toothless hummed, ending it with a sharper snort.

She just gave him bad vibes, that's all. Don't ask a dragon why. It just is.

Toothless slinked over to the edge of the ship, against the cold metal sides, and slipped down, flapping his tail over the panels, his body in a gentle curve over the deck. The morning light was brighter now, and his head was in the shadows, the darker cast spreading out over the ship, from the sides of the boat. He peeked up, looked at Heather sitting on the rowing bench, watching him, the light gold on her. He snorted. Too pretty for her.

Hiccup sat on the deck besides him suddenly and whispered to him, a concerned lilt in his voice. "Just humor me, okay, bud?" The boy ran a hand through his shock of red hair, and Toothless knew this was something he really wanted right now. He hummed. "Heather just wants to fly on you a little bit," Hiccup said, in a barely audible voice. "I don't think she's going to let up, and I hate to have Astrid see us together. Right now it's perfect. Can you see that?"

Those sad eyes were sure to get him. Toothless hummed, shook his head into Hiccup lovingly. Cheer up, okay? Of course I understand. He didn't like it, but it was one of those human conflicts, and he was beginning to get the picture. He opened his mouth and continued to nudge him, getting in the groove of it and sweeping the boy into the curve of his body, nuzzling him until the kid laughed. He squeezed his head against him warmly, couldn't help but gum a smile. Hiccup did this thing he called a "hug" sometimes to him, and hopefully his version was understandable.

Hiccup's smile told him he was successful at least in his main goal. The boy stroked the side of Toothless' head. "Thanks, bud."

Toothless throated a grin. Let's get this stuff over with.

He never really enjoyed people on his back other than Hiccup. Meaning, I only do it for Hiccup. He withheld a growl as Heather jumped onto his back and shifted her weight on the saddle. She grinned at him and patted his side. Toothless hummed something irritated, somehow everything she did seemed fake. His throaty complaints stopped as Hiccup swung his leg over the saddle and he saw that weary look on him. Hey, don't worry, bud, it's not gonna be that bad. Hiccup clicked the prosthetic in place, and Toothless could feel his other tail go into motion. He hummed something pleasant up at him and closed his eyes as Hiccup leaned down and patted him.

He spread his wings out suddenly and faced the wide open sea. He rose high up into the sky, facing the sun, the wind and crisp air swelling around them, rose up high and hovered there in the sky a moment. Evasive maneuvers, Hiccup had said? He skimmed down dramatically, skirting the waves, barely touching the gold-tinted waters, pleased, oh so very pleased, to have the girl shout with surprise.

I guess I wiped the silly smile off her face. Mission accomplished.
_______

"Whoa!" Hiccup shouted as Toothless dived. Heather shrieked in a scared way he thought wasn't possible and her arms went round him suddenly, the fingers lacing tight around his chest, her elbows at his hips. His nerves sparked, but it's only because she's afraid right now. He gulped, thankful Astrid wasn't around. She was leaning into him heavily and he turned back to look at her. She was honestly afraid.

But then her face changed and she calmed, snapped her head to lock eyes with him, in a tense way as if trying to get a grip on the situation. "So, uh, how did you make this dragon like you?"

Hiccup maneuvered the stirrup as Toothless made a move to rise and his wings pounded up and down on either side of him. Hiccup squinted in the wind. "Well," he called back to her, "like I said last night, it's about trust. I didn't kill him, and he didn't kill me."

Toothless hummed something up at him, and Hiccup patted his head. "We understand each other." Toothless throated a grin, swept forward swiftly and sailed through the air, towards the sun that was now breaking out clear from the pink clouds on the horizon. The wind whipped Hiccup's hair away from his face and for a moment, he forgot about Heather there against his back. It was just him and the wind, and Toothless' firm neck under him, the black scales shimmering in the morning, the dragon's wings wide and long and beautiful and breathing with the gasp of wind sailing through them. Wisps of filaments brushed white across the sky, wider near the horizon and filming out to thin strands at the ends, reaching out across the dome of the sky like delicate spider webs. He inhaled the salty air, fresh and pure, ran his hand over Toothless' neck, grateful for the beauty, for his friend, whispering almost to himself, "Thanks, Toothless."

Something got close to the left side of his face suddenly, and he noticed she was whispering there beside him, her lips touching his ear briefly. "He's a wonderful dragon. So… powerful."

He leaned away, to the right, quickly. "Yeah, he is amazing."

"I'd love to fly him."

Hiccup raised his brows, not sure exactly what was meant by those words. He glanced back, saw her face downturned, gazing at his foot in the stirrup. Watching, studying, how he moved it. An eerie feeling crept up his back. He looked away.

Toothless suddenly throated something sharp and concerned. Hiccup glanced up to where he was looking, saw a blue dragon flying up towards them. He was sharply conscious of Heather's position next to him, arms all over him, her legs butted up against his.

"Oh no…"
_______

Astrid hadn't bargained on this when she went out looking for him. "Hiccup!" she called to the flying black shape silhouetted against the sky. The dragon wavered back slightly and she leaned down on Stormfly, urging her forward.

She'd spent almost two hours of the early morning looking for him, and she'd asked everyone, even Bucket, for signs of the kid. Hiccup wasn't at home, the first place she checked, and Stoick hadn't any idea where he was. He mentioned something about also not knowing where Heather was, either, a strange comment which made her ask what it meant.

"Heather is our guest," he had explained. "She asked to sleep over at our house."

"Guest?" She glanced around, looking for a second bed somewhere on the first floor.

"I was hoping they'd get along."

In the same room, I guess, you mean, Astrid huffed in her mind, feeling inside her a certain thing commonly called jealousy. But Stoick was blissfully ignorant of relationship protocols, and she figured it'd be a losing battle to try to enlighten him. She hopped on Stormfly and went searching the whole town. Sven had told her that Hiccup's Night Fury wasn't in the docks.

She flapped up to Hiccup, shocked to find Heather sitting on Toothless next to him. Fire welled up inside her, and a few good insults that she'd always wanted to use came drifting into mind.
_______

"What are you talking about?"

"Just some new girl isn't going to go taking over my Hiccup, that's all--"

Hiccup winced. "Astrid?" He was feeling very uncomfortable right now as Stormfly's fretting wings nearly collided with Toothless' for the third time. "Isn't this something private?" His voice got small all of a sudden.

Heather's voice was livid behind him. "Who are you anyway, to speak to me like that?"

"Ah--" he started, feeling horrendously red right now, cut off suddenly by a low murmur from-- He glanced down. "Toothless?"

Astrid shouted suddenly and Stormfly's wings pounded close to him. "I don't care if she's a chief or chieftess or whatever you are."

Heather lashed her arm apart from Hiccup suddenly and leaned her elbow on his back. She smarted, Toothless made another mutter, and Hiccup felt a cringe shiver through him. This was getting way out of hand now. "Guys--" he shouted, stumbling on his words. "I mean-- girls--"

Astrid flapped up closer suddenly, irritation all over her face.

"Could you just quit it? This is getting ridiculous."

Astrid let out a hissed whisper and Heather jabbed her elbow on his back, as if using him for an armrest, a hot gasp escaping her lips. Toothless grunted up at him again, and Hiccup glanced down at him, the concern in his eyes taking his attention finally. The girls were shouting some more and Hiccup willfully ignored it, leaned down to his dragon. "What is it, Toothless?"

Toothless hummed, shot his head forward across the ocean, swept lower and sailed his wings out flat. Hiccup looked forward--

"Hiccup, I need to talk to you when we get down."

--saw the blank expanse of water, waves highlighted by the sun--

"I don't like your attitude, whatever your name is!"

--the thin mist of morning fog coating the sea, growing thicker and heavier moving off into the distance, and then the spires of rocks building on each other--

"It's Astrid and don't you forget it."

--increasing in density, climaxing at the jagged point of Dragon Island.

Smoke.

He jerked his head up to see filaments of dark, almost black smoke waft out from the volcano on the horizon. He hadn't seen that before. Hopefully it didn't mean… "Toothless, take us in, all right, buddy?"

The dragon lolled approval, swept forward. Like he said before, Vikings were stubborn and mining on a volcano didn't faze them. But he'd seen certain signs, over the course of their mining, the blasting of the mountain on Toothless, and he didn't like it. The thing was an explosion waiting to happen -- literally. Now the smoke. He needed to see what was going on down there. Plus, it was a good excuse to get these girls pried apart.

Something sharp and biting came hurling out of Astrid's mouth and he noticed them again all of a sudden. "Hey!" he shouted, ignorant of the latest development in the argument. "I'm heading for Dragon Island, there's something going on there." He snapped the prosthetic sharply, sent Toothless up. The dragon roared in pleasure, folded in his wings and then dived, sailing out towards the landmass in the distance.

"Hiccup--" Astrid shouted back, her voice vanishing as Toothless sped forward, a strange urgency in him. Heather slapped her arms around him again, and Hiccup smarted. "Slow it down a bit, eh?" he told Toothless. "We don't need to get there that fast, and we don't want…" He looked back, saw Astrid heaving Stormfly into a dive, twirling down at them for maximum speed. Yup, we don't need her thinking I'm trying to get away. "Toothless--" He turned back to the dragon, the wings suddenly banking as they flew past towering rocks appearing through the fog at the last moment. Heather's arms tightened around him.

He didn't like the feel of her arms around him. Dragon Island was coming up now. He directed Toothless lower and they skirted the water, the dive making her arms stiffer, her fingers lacing around each other, pressing closer into him. "I'm just going to check out the smoke. You can see the mines while we're at it," he said, over the rush of the sudden wind that swirled around Helheim's Gate. "And the metal -- you can see that, too." She didn't respond, only hugged him closer and brought her legs nearer his, near the stirrup, the one boot of hers nudging his right foot and the other shifting up and down gently by his prosthetic. He turned his head and saw her eyes consumed with thinking, looking at his feet and at the stirrups, mumbling something to herself that he could not hear. Her body shifted closer to his and her arms released him suddenly, moved down to where his hands were, on the handles of metal near the top of the saddle. She got a satisfied look on her face which frightened Hiccup and he leaned forward, pushing her arms out from the stirrup holds. He didn't like this feeling he was getting. "Toothless?" he whispered, and the dragon eyed him with concern. "Faster, buddy."

The dragon swept swiftly over the rocky shore, jolted to a landing. Stormfly plopped down next to them, and Hiccup could sense that the Nadder was breathless. "Astrid, did you fly her too fast?"

"Only enough to catch up with you." She jumped off the dragon and flicked her hand. "Get off, I need to talk to you. And you--" She pointed to Heather. "You stay here."

Hiccup sensed the girl behind him stiffen, spat out an insulted huff. "Sure, Astrid," he said, trying to be cheerful. Up ahead, he saw the fingers of smoke oozing out of that cave created by the monstrous dragon he'd killed two years before. The thing looked dangerous. He slipped out of Heather's grasp, noting how Astrid was watching his waistline closely, and how the girl's arms slipped off from around him.

Hiccup landed on the gravel, a sudden warmth shooting through his boot. His eyebrows shot up. A hotness like this wasn't a good sign; it was never this hot before, and everything he knew about volcanoes told him this was just the beginning. It could be earthquakes, rockslides, and of course the obvious eruption. Mining would have to go on a hiatus. He had to get Dad to pull the stuff out of here. Astrid had started walking away slowly, motioning him to follow.

"Can we make this quick?" Hiccup called out, catching up with her. "I need to tell Dad--"

"Quick?" Astrid's voice popped in. "You aren't going to just brush this off that easily, Hiccup."

The tone in her voice made him realize he had to clear the books with her. She was taking this seriously. "There's nothing to brush off, Astrid, because nothing happened."

"Yeah, I heard." She crossed her arms. He sighed. Here comes the irony. "Just sleeping in the same room all night, all that alone time--"

"Hey--" Hiccup tried to stop her.

"Spending a lovely morning alone on the most beautiful boat on Berk." She put a finger up quickly. "Don't bother objecting to that. Sven told me."

"I wasn't--"

"And to top it all, a flight on Toothless. Alone. I, me, your one-and-only, doesn't even get that too often. Who do you think you're fooling?"

"Listen, Astrid, what you say may be true--"

"Oh! So you admit to liking Heather. I thought you'd never…"

"No, Astrid, that's not what I said." She squinted at him, weight on one hip. He imagined it might be playful irony, but he doubted it now. She was really mad at him.

"Listen, Astrid, it's circumstantial evidence." He dug his metal foot into the gravel, made a pointed metal-on-stone noise.

"Getting technical, eh?"

"No, getting factual." He shot a finger in her face. "You have to believe me. I had no part in getting her into my room, and she came up to my ship on her own, and she, well, she just sort of forced me to fly her on Toothless. You know how much she wanted to fly him from last night."

Astrid sighed, and Hiccup tried on a look of conviction to dispel any other doubts. "Now, Astrid, I'm going to have to let you believe me, because I did come here to check on this smoke I see coming out of here and I--"

"Hiccup!" she shouted suddenly, her arm jabbing towards the cavern. She hissed a shout and sprinted forward, and Hiccup realized the plume of smoke puffing out in waves from the mouth of the cave. Stormfly was squawking somewhere near the entrance, distress in her voice. "Toothless!" Hiccup shrieked suddenly. He wasn't in sight -- and Heather. She wasn't in sight, either.

"Stormfly, don't tell me they're both in there," he screamed, running past the dragon, who hummed desperately.

Astrid was shouting at him, telling him to squint his eyes, the dust was murder. "Do you think they're okay?" she called and he clapped his prosthetic against the rocks, ran and dodged the uneven ground, tried to stop himself from falling.
_______

Toothless kept leaping over the jagged rocky floor, driving farther and farther into the heart of the mountain. Hiccup was having some sort of spat with the sun-haired girl, and he wanted to get back in here, his old home. His claws slipped on loose dragon scales scattered along the cavern bottom, the scales gathering into thick piles like myriads of fallen leaves. He could sense delicate, crackling dragon skins rustling under his toes on the floor, remnants from molting season among the dragons still living on the island. Irregular knobs jutted into his feet; columns of rising volcanic rock rose above him on either side. The whole expanse of the inner mountain base lay hard and jagged, a warmth emanating from its rugged surface. Terribly, wonderfully hot. Hotter than ever since the molten fire had cooled into rock.

He snorted, widened his nostrils at the distinct, familiar scent of smoke heavy in the air, smoke he could feel swirling past him, around him, above him, from the heated cavern floor. He halted, found the somewhat smoothed depression he was seeking besides the base of a column. He curled into it, tucked his feet under him, nudged his nose atop his front legs. His wings folded close against his sides, his tail swept around him, his eyes closed, his body relaxed as the seething warmth radiated from under the rocks into his legs, his body, his wings, his head, his heart. It overwhelmed his senses, threw a pleasant stupor over him. The warmth. If there was one thing he missed since coming to live on Berk, it was the warmth. Yearlong smothering warmth, hotness from molten rock. Now, there only remained remnants from the living, liquid fire that long ago hardened into stone. The cold air, the storms, had entered from the shattered mountain opening, enveloping the volcanic heart, hardening cold. The huge dragon that used to writhe in the mountain's depths, somehow the absence of his motions stilled the molten liquid fire until it no longer flowed.

His eyes suddenly shot wide open. A tremor, under him. Was it just the crazy heat seeping through the rocks? Or was it-- He threw his mind into focus. A few moments later, clearer this time. Swarming trembles vibrating beneath him, sending faint shivers up his claws and legs and belly. The very bedrock beneath him pulsed small yet distinct rumbles from deep within the very foundation of the mountain. Faster, closer, tighter tremors. Tremors he hadn't felt for dozens of summers, but could never forget.

No, it can't be. He bolted up from the depression, clawed the craggy rocks and leapt away from the cavern's center towards the blinding light of the opening. A slim dark figure stood starkly silhouetted the streaming daylight. That girl, Heather, she was in the cave. She must have followed him in here. Didn't she know caves like this are dangerous places? He screamed at the figure, bounding and accelerating towards her, hopefully getting her to notice and get out of there.

But it was too late. The cavern walls shook and screeched and the very floor shuddered beneath him. He yelped. Columns of rock high above the cavern entrance were shattering, cracking, splitting, falling. He could see the glinting masses of debris racing down towards the shaft of daylight. The girl was trying to run, towards the light, but the rocks raced faster.

One last crashing leap and he pounced atop the girl, knocking her flat hard into the jagged floor. Her scream pierced into his ears and suddenly clawing hands grabbed and clutched at his throat. He squealed, planted his foot squarely on her chest. In a moment he flattened his body over her, flattened his wings, crouched low, shut his eyes.

A moment later, the black blast of rocks snuffed out the light.
_______

It was black and hot under the dragon. She let out a pained breath, realized with a jolt that he hadn't been attacking her when he threw his wild body on top of her. It was protection. His black, heaving body lowered and closed in all around her -- the wings along her sides and the underside of his head stretching over her own. The black shroud of the dragon cut off the light -- then the deafening roar shot in her ears, the screaming thuds hitting into the dragon's body and reverberating into her own as the scaled skin pushed into hers with each jolt of the slamming rocks. She shut her eyes, choked as the suffocating dust enveloped the little air underneath the compressed space. Her fingers twisted into tight fists clutching the scaled neck, clutching, clasping, clenching as the thunder roared all around her.

Images snapped into her head suddenly, something she hadn't thought of for years. The cottage, home, Momma, Pappa, fleeing, running, the stream, her running, screaming. She tripped. Pappa!!! But he didn't come back. She knew he wouldn't come back. The raiders -- their thumping feet and shrill screams were almost upon her. The town, burning. She ran into the woods, screaming. The rocks cut her bare feet, her knees, her hands, crawling through the dirt. Suddenly she fell -- the water slapped her face, her hands flailed, her whole body shot through with cold. The stream was too deep, and she was too little. Hot tears stung her eyes.

Then a firm arm grabbed her. She gasped, felt cold. Deep green eyes gazing down at her, firm but gentle, holding her, lifting her, out of the water. Even at that young age, she knew what a raider, a Viking, looked like. He looked like the enemy. But he didn't act like one. He just looked at her, clutched her, carried her back to his ship, cooed her with soft gentle songs. Wrapped her in a blanket, put her on his knee. He said his name was Rune, said she looked like a heather blossom. "Where's your parents?" he asked.

It was then she realized she didn't have any, none besides him. Him who loved her.

A cough shot through Heather's throat; the dragon's throat was muttering. She opened her eyes. Thick blackness, except for a glint of a big green eye gazing down at her, firm but gentle, just looking at her, soothing, purring. A dragon's eye, but there was pain in it. She suddenly realized the rocks, the rocks blanketing over them, shutting them in on every side. The heaving black body between her and the rocks, heaving, breathing hard, staying still. A growl rose up from the dragon's throat, vibrating right above her, the snout snorting at the dust and the head moving and nudging stones around the black prison. She gasped as the claws released their foothold on her chest and slipped to the ground beside her.

"Toothless," she breathed, released the tight grip of her hands around the flesh of his neck, curled her fingers and stroked the black scales above her. She heard the dragon hum slightly, peer down at her. She gazed back into the green eye.

He only looked like an enemy.
______

"Heather!" Hiccup shouted, coughing in the dust, barely able to see. He blinked back the itchy air, shielded his eyes and stumbled forward. "Toothless," he called, sharp and loud. "Toothless, are you okay?"

"Hiccup--" Astrid was next to him suddenly, her hands touching him and holding on briefly. She coughed and Hiccup turned back, motioned for her to stand back. "It might fall again."

She shook her head and latched a hand on his arm, stumbling forward again, ahead of him, into the swirling dust and darkness of the cavern. He put his right foot over the rocks, clapped his prosthetic on the stones in front of them. He caught his breath as the metal slipped and his hand touched the ground for balance. Her hand latched onto him tighter and he grabbed her arm, rising. He waved a hand in front of his face and stepped forward again, smarting as a sharp stone jabbed into his boot. "Toothless," he called, dust blowing into his mouth, making it go dry. A low hum growled suddenly somewhere in front of him, under the rocks. "Toothless--" He jumped forward, kneeling on the rocks, crawling, hands in front of him, following the sound.

Toothless growled again.

"Buddy--"

It was right in front of him. "Toothless, are you okay? Is Heather okay?" The rocks started moving suddenly, nudging his knees, shaking ground under him. Astrid was at his side suddenly, scooping out rocks. The ground trembled thickly, but it wasn't another rock fall. Toothless was trying to escape, shake off the rocks from over him. "We got to get him out," Hiccup gasped, grabbing the stones in front of him. Toothless hummed loudly. Hiccup shoveled the rocks with his arms, setting his left knee farther from him, anchoring himself. He heaved in breath, the dust channeling down his throat and he withheld a cough, tried not to breathe. The rocks jostled up suddenly, crumbled away. Toothless roared, jolted up out of the cover of stones, the warm cloud of fresh dust puffing up into Hiccup's face. Toothless pushed out suddenly, shot out of the pile of rocks, and Hiccup heard a gasp, saw a pair of flailing arms grasping the air from under Toothless.

"Heather!" he shrieked and dived in under Toothless, taking her. She let her arms go limp as the dragon dragged her up, out of the cluster of rocks and lay her on the surface. He squinted, found her face all ash and tense, thought he read a panic in them. "Are you all right?" he gasped out quickly, coughing, and took her hand, tried to get the girl to her feet.

"I-- I'm…" she stammered, stumbling as he tried to motion her upwards. The mountain seemed to rumble again, shiver under his knees, white hot and fuming. The dust swirled again, coupled with a new heat pushing into his face. The sound of rocks falling met his ears again, sharp and crackling and low, increasing towards them.

"Let's get out of here," Astrid said suddenly, taking Heather forcibly from Hiccup, wrapping her arm around the girl's suddenly frail form. "Hiccup, you get on Toothless, that leg is not going to work in this ground."

"Can you two get on Toothless?" Hiccup coughed out, not arguing, stepping towards the dragon, his prosthetic chipping into a crack in the rocks again, caught. He winced, pulled it out with a sliver of noise. He felt them behind him, Astrid shouting something indistinct in the rising noise of rocks crumbling, the sound seemingly increasing with the darkness of the cave. Toothless snorted suddenly next to him, adjusted his body to align with the boy better, and Hiccup grabbed the saddle's metal rings, swung his legs over Toothless. The dragon jolted up towards the two figures coming near. Astrid pounded up quickly to the dragon, pushed Heather's form up besides Hiccup. "I can… take care…" Heather mumbled, then stopped, her eyes awake suddenly, aware. "Hang on, Astrid, and keep her secure," Hiccup shouted, looking back at the rumble within the mountain. Chips of rocks began to snap on them, tumbling from above. Something hit the back of Hiccup's head and he didn't look back to see if the rock slide was coming down on them already.

"Go!" Astrid shrieked and Toothless inhaled, flapped up and forward, screaming a thin shrill roar, as the boom of rocks shook behind them. Hiccup leaned down on Toothless, throbbing his prosthetic tensely as Toothless slid on his side and spat through the long wide crack in the mountain. They hit the fresh air, puffs of smoke oozing out behind them, the sharp clamor of rocks within that cavern. Something was slipping behind him, Hiccup turned back, grabbed Heather's arm with one hand. She was almost falling. Astrid latched a hand to his shoulder harness suddenly, grunting sharply as the flying motion wavered her precariously on Toothless' back. Hiccup lashed at the stirrup again. "Toothless, get down. Just hold on, Astrid." The dragon growled, swooped down towards the graveled shore, into the puffs of dust settling over the landscape. He landed, Hiccup lurched forward, Heather gasped behind him. Hiccup whirled. "Are you okay?" he breathed, squinting his eyes in the dust.

Heather leaned up, using Hiccup for support. He could read a shock in her eyes, an honest breathless surprise. She gasped, coughed in the dust, closed her eyes tight.

"We need to get out of here," Astrid said, sliding off Toothless, eyes darting at the mountain. It was still making rumbles, deep and heavy, Hiccup could feel it under him. Astrid ran off and shouted for Stormfly, and Hiccup turned around in his saddle, tried to get her upright, stop her from sliding. "You okay?"

She opened her eyes, put a hand over them. A gasped breath escaped her.

"That's okay," Hiccup patted her, "we're going home now. I got to tell Dad about this. Astrid!" he shouted, found the blue Nadder's near-silhouette in the murky air. "Get flying now."

"What about Heather?" her voice broke into a cough and an exasperated gasp.

"I got her." Hiccup looked back at her. "You got to hold on, okay?"

Heather nodded tightly.

"You sure you can?"

Astrid's voice came through vaguely. "I can carry her." The spark of jealousy was in it again.

"Astrid--" Hiccup whirled to look at her again and tried to give her a look of disapproval. He didn't want to say anything, not now, but Astrid needed to figure out he wasn't trying to do anything here, just get the girl home. She looked so shaken right now, and he didn't know if she was hurt or not. Probably just scars and scratches, but… She'd been moved enough.

He flicked Toothless' tail and the dragon hummed, rolled his head, telling the other dragon to follow. Stormfly squawked, opened her wings. The mountain hissed deeply again and Toothless pounced up, into the air, out of the clouds of dust under the ground, the reverberation from the island still smarting the atmosphere, Stormfly's wingbeats thick beside him. He inhaled, the clear air smarting in his lungs, tried to gulp away the dust. He felt Heather's legs realign around him, steady themselves on the moving dragon. He felt her shiver, lean her head tensely into the back of his shoulder, lay her right arm across his waist, resting lightly across his lap. He put his head down, didn't want to turn to look at her. She seemed… unnerved, somehow. Frail.

She cleared her throat suddenly, put her other hand, the fingers lightly fisted, on the top of his leg. "This Toothless," she said, leaning forward to his left, looking down at the dragon.

"Yeah…?" Hiccup asked, tense suddenly.

"What a dragon…" she breathed, letting out a breath, her mouth moving in words she apparently didn't want to voice. There was a certain awe in the words, yet almost a certain… what was it? He looked to the side, at her face, the eyebrows that were pressed together, the intensity in her eyes, the lips pursed with purpose. Her hand clenched suddenly, and the arm around his waist pressed in tightly, and he gulped, suddenly afraid of what this girl was thinking.

He looked on ahead, at the wide speck of land that was Berk. He didn't want to talk to her, looked up ahead and urged Toothless onward with a gentle pat from the stirrup. Toothless hummed, turned his head up and looked at him. Hiccup curved his brows at him. The dragon probably knew what he was thinking, maybe. He only wanted to get away from Heather now, get back to Astrid, talk to Dad. He needed to tell him about the rockslide.

He tensed again as he felt Heather looking at him closely. What was it about her that made him alarmed like this?
_______

He spotted his father on the cliffs of Berk, looking up at the sky. A slight gathering of villagers were gathered there around him, like pools of water after a storm, drifting in and out of each other, the shadows from the rising sun creating indistinct puddles of darkness slanting behind them. He looked out at Astrid, flying on Stormfly to his left, the blue wings flapping into a hover. Toothless responded with a hesitation of his own. Hiccup flapped closer to her, shouted, "You take care of Heather, okay?"

She grumbled, glared at him.

"I need to talk to Dad."

Heather, behind him, spoke sharply, suddenly. "I'm not hurt."

"Really?" Hiccup turned back. "Those scratches look pretty nasty."

She brought a hand up to where he was looking, a spot on the side of her cheek, took her hand away and looked down at the scuffed red on it.

Hiccup turned away, swept Toothless down, let his big wings take in the air and glide gently down into the edge of the village. They pounded to a halt, and Hiccup snapped loose his prosthetic from the stirrup, leapt off the saddle. He turned and put his hands out for Heather. She blinked, glanced at him, looked away and jumped off on the other side. Hiccup raised his brows, put his hands on Toothless' saddle. The dragon hissed gently at the girl and Hiccup patted him. He had to figure out what was this thing about her. Stormfly caught his eye suddenly, pounded down next to them. Hiccup felt a bit of tension in the air and the two girls met. Astrid was doing an admirable job, really, of keeping her conflict with the girl to an acceptable minimum, acceptable of course meaning quite different things to different people. He sighed as she shot a critical eye to Heather.

"I don't think those scratches are all that bad. I get far worse on practice," Astrid hummed.

Hiccup sighed. Yeah, he couldn't deny that. He patted Toothless once and made his way for the mass of people who he noticed were gaining on him anyway, his father in the lead.

"Dad!"

Hiccup suddenly noticed the curious look on his father's face, and Phlegma -- Astrid's mom beside him, shooting concerned eyes at Astrid. Hiccup looked down at himself and back at Toothless. "Oh, that…" The two of them were coated in a strange dust, filming white over Toothless' wings and body, scuffed out where he and Heather and Astrid had sat, thick in the corners of the dragon's legs and body. He looked down at himself, dusted over with the same coating, his harness and tunic turning a pale monochrome. "Man, I must look terrible." He chuckled, looked up at his Dad.

His father glared down at him. "What have you been up to?" His round eyes drifted over Hiccup's body. "You've been away for several hours, don't you remember about the training you had to do? I--"

"Okay, Dad, yeah, I get it." Hiccup put a hand out, jabbed his palm at him. "It's just things got a little tumbling out of hand, that's all." His father leaned back, waited for the answer. "You took Heather with you on your shenanigans, you think that was wise?"

"Hey, I didn't take her, Dad."

"She looks like a mess," his father hummed as Heather came walking smartly towards them, swishing her black, whitened hair over her shoulder and snapping some under-the-breath remarks at Astrid, who was standing, weight on one leg, next to Stormfly. She glanced at Hiccup and he leaned back instinctively, rolling on his heels, or heel in this case. He found himself almost tripping over backwards. Something held him up suddenly. Toothless. "Thanks, bud," he said, resting an arm on the dragon's head. Heather picked up her pace, passing by Stoick and making her way over into the village and town center.

Hiccup looked back at his father, stepped up and got in front of him. The thick red beard was scuffed up this morning, like he'd had a bad night, maybe, or forgot to comb it out this week. Hiccup took a breath, looked at the rest of villagers behind his father. "Uh, Dad, the mine isn't safe anymore."

His father's eyes looked over him again, a dawn of realization settling on his face. "A cave-in?"

Hiccup brushed off his shoulder quickly, the dust puffing out from his hand. "Toothless got caught in it -- and Heather, but he saved her, luckily."

"You were caught in it?"

"Mostly Heather and -- and Toothless," Hiccup corrected, suddenly feeling the stickiness of the dust on his scalp. "Astrid and me were outside the cave for the most part, when the slide happened." He scratched his head, grimaced to find more figments of rock spill down over him.

His father put a big hand on Hiccup, sending a cloud of dust into Hiccup's face. "You better get inside, wash up." Hiccup coughed suddenly. Volcanic rock had poor aromatic properties. He tried to nod an agreement, but his body only shivered in another cough. "Get Astrid cleaned up, too, we still have that training you need to do, and your last Induction formation." He guided Hiccup forward, towards the plaza and their house. "Is Heather hurt?"

"Oh, don't worry, Dad," he managed before another bout, "she-- she's okay. Told me so herself." Toothless was suddenly at his side, humming in great concern and nuzzling his right arm, which was hanging down purposelessly to his side. Hiccup tensed a smile, not wanting to start another series of coughs, patted the dragon. Astrid was close behind, her face and hair smudged with green, but most of the whiteness gone. He looked at her questioningly and she shrugged. "Grass worked pretty well."

"Well, you missed a spot," Hiccup smiled at her, pointing vaguely at her face.

"Hm!" She smiled to herself, then suddenly looked at him again, the playfulness hesitant. She glanced up at Stoick there besides them, the humming Toothless between him and her, a couple random villagers following them towards town. Hiccup knew there was something she didn't want to say out loud in front of everyone. It probably had something to do with Heather. "We'll talk later, okay?" he prodded, leaning towards her. She smirked, slowed her pace and let them pass her.

"Sure," she said, almost ironically, and Hiccup looked back, watched her drag her feet towards her house, her thin arms swinging from either side of her.
_______

"I'll have you know that dragon saved my life," Heather hotly whispered to Brandr. The hulking Skirra Véllite council member still stared across the plaza at the Night Fury, a powdery cake of dust still filming over the black dragon's skin. She saw the dragon flick his head, snort, shake the dust off his nose as he nudged into Hiccup's shoulder from behind. Brandr's own head shook, as if in response.

She turned and faced him, faced her whole War Council who she had called together for this newsflash she was about to give them. Ten warriors standing in a circle around her in the plaza, shielding her from the Hooligan houses rising above them all around. The wall of their bodies, covered in mail armor and thick flowing mantles, carved-handled axes and hatchets, gold bracelets and dragon-scaled helmets. She usually felt safe, trusted, within the circle, the circle her father had put under her only eight months before, on her Induction Day. But not today. Gamal, the trusty one, his graying whiskered beard ratted yet strong, was gazing dubiously at her, his silence telling; Ragnar, her father's brutal best, a scowl on his face, his mouth twitching in readiness for his turn to speak; Brandr, oh so impetuous, yet now his eyes clouded in deliberate thought. What was going through that mind? She pursed her lips, determined to douse any doubts before they took to the air.

"The plan has changed. The Night Fury -- we're not killing him. Find another prize dragon if you like, but I'm definite on this."

Brandr, towering a full foot above her, edged nearer, the dragon-toothed necklace jangling near her eyes. She glanced upward, saw the loathing set deep in his brows, the insult of his spat with the Night Fury still fresh. His lips moved to speak, but she preempted him. "Last night's fiasco is not going to be your conscience in the matter," she said, sharply.

His eyes suddenly bulged down at her, his voice sputtering in his attempt to fit it into a whisper. "Conscience! With all due respect, I don't care for your language. After the humiliation that Night Fury and this mackerel of an heir heaped on me last night, I have every right to deal with the both of them myself." He pointedly bobbed the shimmering axe up and down, the flat metal surface visibly indented by a crescent of Toothless's teeth where the dragon had disarmed the warrior the night before.

Heather shot a stern stare back at him, her feet planting themselves into the stones of the plaza. She could feel the other council members hushing as she and Brandr glared at one another. Dad had told her how to handle a rash, headstrong warrior like Brandr. Be firm, be fair, don't let his will override your own. She didn't have to do it many times before, he usually knew his place, but now--

She took a breath, replied. "The boy and the Night Fury -- they are mine, and mine alone, to deal with. Brandr, you will get your chance when the war starts. But for now, stay away from that dragon."

Brandr took a breath, had one more thing to say. "Well, that dragon happens to be the obstacle standing in front of our whole operation. Such as the fact that Stoick's son is still alive…"

Heather smarted. It felt like a rebellious statement, somehow. She started to say something--

"Shush," Gamal motioned suddenly, started moving out of the circle as the Hooligan chief and his son passed by with an entourage of Hooligans and dragons crowding alongside them.

"Right this way," Stoick boomed with jollity to a couple nearby Skirra Vél warriors. "Your gift dragons and flight tutors are waiting in the Dragon Academy." The Hooligan chief's booming voice erupted in pleasure, his big hand slapping the back of his slightly-built heir. Heather observed the sight, almost thought she had gotten used to the image of these two people. By tomorrow they'd be gone. Or at least one of them. A shiver rolled up her spine all of a sudden. Raids were never this deliberate or thought-out. Certainly not this premeditated. Her hand moved to her waist, her hips. She'd left her sword and mantle at the ship that morning chasing after the kid. She'd have to get Hervi to retrieve it for her.

She looked ahead, saw that her council had already begun filing into the line of people moving towards the Dragon Academy, stepping onto a narrow bridge over a chasm, towards a chain-ceilinged structure set into the rock ahead of them. She sprinted down, slapped a foot onto the hanging panels of the winding bridge, ran across it. She found Gamal in the midst of the tribesmen, silently summoned him near her. "Get Hervi here," she said quickly, and nudged her head towards her ships down below. The quiet warrior nodded his head briefly, turned back against the flow of Hooligans across the bridge. Her council began to surround her now and separate her from the Hooligans on the bridge. Ragnar moved alongside her, an anxious, unusual gait in his step. His big palm smoothed over the thick blond stubble, thoughtfully. "Well?" she prodded.

He looked at her, his eyes then glancing at a sudden swish of wings overhead, a colorful green-and-gray Nadderhead ridden by a Hooligan warrior heading for the events of the Dragon Academy. Ragnar motioned his chin towards the sight. "That's just it. Brandr hit on just the tip of our problems. If killing Stoick's heir is complicated by his Night Fury, imagine what we're up against with each Hooligan having his own dragon defending him. Don't get me wrong--" he waved a finger at her, the swish of his motions clanging his sword against the metal mail. "I've fought and bested the best warriors in battle and I've cut off the heads of the best dragons in hunts, but putting the two together." His shook his head, regretfully. "While you were out this morning, I scouted the place. The village is pitifully small, but the number of dragons infesting it is epidemic. It's worse than even last night inside the Great Hall. They roost all over the roofs, by the sides of the houses, roving the streets of their own free will. There's absolutely no control -- no discipline! -- of these semi-wild beasts. Bad enough to live here, let alone invade the place."

She gazed up at the air, filling with dragons, from every corner of the island converging on the Academy. Flaming red and speckled Monstrous Nightmares, squawking blue Nadderheads, dirt-brown Gronckles, willowy-headed yellow Zipplebacks. Hooligan riders atop them all, flying expertly, beautifully. Not to mention the black dragon, the Night Fury, standing at the entrance of the Academy, the very symbol of the place bearing his proud figure.

"That's one reason we're going along with Stoick's wishes," she said, facing her council. "To learn how the enemy works." She stepped back, put her hand out gently. "This is your order, men." The hulking forms stiffened. "Find out everything these people know about dragons. Learn how they move, what makes them angry, why they are tame, how they are tame. Leave no stone unturned. Be interested, be very interested. Tomorrow's battle may depend on it."

"How about finding a way to eliminate them quickly?" Brandr asked, as if he had an idea in his head already.

She raised a brow, wasn't sure what he was thinking. "I'm not leaving out that possibility. If you can find a way to incapacitate Stoick's dragon force, we'll take it. It depends on what we learn about them."

Brandr grinned, keenly. She smirked, never too pleased to make him smile, but this was far more important. She turned away, headed for the bridge. Hervi was stepping off the end of it already, his gnarled figure clad in the rough gray tunic. Her smile lessened as the wrinkles under his eyes appeared more tired than cheery. He of all people was almost always happy, the pressure, the responsibility, the sadness of life never seemed to touch him. She motioned him aside from the streaming line towards a quiet area above the ring below, metal bars encircling the ring next to them. Hooligans all around were standing by, looking into the ring, watching her council and the training.

"What's the matter, Hervi?" she asked, quietly, watching him closely. She could see the aged face cautious, his lips carefully choosing his words silently, consciously. Finally he spoke. "I heard you no longer want to kill the Night Fury."

"Yes," she said simply. Gamal must have told him, she thought suddenly, smarting. It wasn't his place to be telling things to her slave, not official decisions like this. She looked up again, saw Hervi looking past her, into the ring. She glanced to her right, saw the black dragon entering the ring to join the other dragons assembling there. There was a tenseness in his lips, words about to be spoken. "And?" she prodded.

"But you still…" His eyes moved down past the dragon, to the little figure kneeling by his head, stroking him, and making happy gestures before guiding him towards the other dragons. Hervi cleared his throat, said quietly. "You still are going to kill… him?"

She turned to Hervi, knew he was never fond of the idea, but this look of disapproval on him, it was surprisingly sharp. Dangerously sharp. She raised a brow. "I don't do this for a whim. Killing Toothless -- you heard what he did for me. It would be meaningless, wrong. But with Hiccup--" She swallowed suddenly, to speak his name, it was far too personal. "--with this, this son of Stoick's, his death would set things right again. You understand." It wasn't a question.

Hervi did not answer, continued staring down at the boy and the dragon.

"Hervi, you look at me," she commanded.

He hesitated briefly, turned and looked at her.

"You don't do anything without my say, you understand?"

He sighed, nudged up his head in the smallest way.

"Now enough with that," she flipped her hair smartly to the side. "I called for you to pick up my sword and mantle, left on the ship I had you take for me this morning. It's anchored out that way." She pointed at the sea, a certain spot where a dot of a ship could be seen. "You will get it for me."

Hervi put his head down briefly. "Yes, Master, of course."

She watched him go, pursed her lips together. He usually called her that when he disapproved of something. Somehow the subtle censure from him struck her. She turned and looked down at the dragons -- the other dragons, put Hervi out of her head.
_______

Hiccup took a deep breath, inhaled the calm, cool evening air. He looked out, felt and closed his eyes, the wind against his skin, lifting the tufts of hair from his face, bristling his eyebrows and wafting past his ears. Fingers of air lifted his harness epaulets from his shoulders, tickled down the collar of his tunic, played along his sleeves. A waft of ash, still raining from the volcano's sudden activity, dusted down on him, like wisps of petals brushing his skin. He opened his eyes, watched the evening sky pink along the horizon, turning gently into gold and sun-rimmed clouds, and above him, a growing mass of dark gray clouds, thick and soft and… threatening. He stroked Toothless gently, and the dragon hummed, a warm throaty hum, as he still looked out at the sunset, at the golden orb descending slowly into the sea. The dragon's wings spread motionless and wide around him, the ocean far under him, the air all around, the wind carrying him softly, silently towards the unreachable edge of the world.

Hiccup let the wonder sink into him, a moment of innocence, purity. "This is it, Toothless," he whispered, leaning down to Toothless' ear. "Induction, tomorrow." The dragon graveled a sound.

"Are you worried for me?"

Toothless smarted, jabbed his head and hummed.

Hiccup smiled, rubbed the dragon's forehead. "Wish you can be there for me, but I guess the main part I'd have to go alone."

He looked out at the south corner of the island, a host of ships anchored near. The Skirra Véllite ships, for tomorrow. His father had invited them for his Induction. Those same ships he'd seen not so long ago. They looked threatening then, the wood of their hulls cracked and deteriorating. Now, in the pink of the sunset and the lilt of the happy sea, they looked different.

Hiccup turned around, felt the wings of the kids' dragons under and besides him. He looked back briefly, saw the small mass of his tribesmen assembled on the edge of the cliff, his father at the fore, watching. Quietly watching. This last practice run before the official test of maturity. He smirked at the thought.

It was just a simple formation run, him at the lead of course. It was supposed to take place at the end of the ceremony, when he'd finally get into Dad's Council. It wasn't a big deal to practice, but Gobber left it as the last thing to do before Induction, to ease yer mind, he said. He glanced at the rest of the teens, drifting along on the evening breeze, a certain silence in them. The sight of the golden sunset, or was it because he wasn't going to be a part of them anymore?

"Keep in formation, guys," he called down at them, turning his head to the side and adjusting his stirrup. "Heading south." Toothless banked and Stormfly, under him, followed. Hookfang banked along from his right, BelchBarf from his left, and Meatlug from behind.

"Good job, guys," he called, checking on them. Good job. He looked down at Astrid, her face pensive and moody all of a sudden. "Astrid?" he shouted down. She looked up.

"What's wrong?" he asked, tried to be as quiet as he could, in case it was something about Heather, still, though he doubted it. They hadn't talked about it yet, in depth, mostly because they'd been carted from training straight to this last Induction Day dry run.

She whispered something to Stormfly and the dragon lifted up gently, rose closer to Toothless. She flapped Stormfly up, alongside Toothless, broke the formation. "The Skirra Vél," she said simply, angling the Nadder to the left to see him from below.

"Yeah?" Hiccup made a motion to the others, a special hand gesture that was supposed to indicate a change of pattern. Isa Pattern, after the straight-edged letter of the alphabet. Hopefully they remembered it.

"They seem to want to know everything about our dragons, yet did you catch the way they barely even wanted to fly one? It's like they didn't really care to bond with them."

"It's such a shame!" Fishlegs, on the far right, said.

"I thought it was flattering of them, personally," Snotlout, on Hiccup's right, retorted. He swept on slightly ahead with his Nightmare. "They recognized me for the dragon expert I am," he huffed and Hiccup turned a lip, urged Toothless on to keep up the pattern.

"Yeah, that was insane, wasn't it?"

Hiccup whirled, looked to the far left, at Tuffnut lolling in a relaxed pose on Belch's head.

"You shut your face," Snotlout snapped, grinning at him.

"Cool it, bro." Tuff gave him a lopsided salute.

Astrid clicked her tongue, made a noise to get their attention. Stormfly flapped, and Toothless backed away slightly to avoid the wings. "Listen, guys," she said, loud above the rushing air, "it's the way they picked our brains about our dragons, the way they still don't really want to know them, if you get my drift. It's not flattering, it's…"

"Suspicious?" Hiccup continued to watch the sunset, the clouds above him glinting in the pink that was glowing brighter now, the tufts of ash still floating in the air.

Snotlout was shrugging his shoulders. "You're reading way too much into this stuff."

"Maybe it's just that they started that way? Maybe they're afraid to bond," Fishlegs said gently.

"I doubt it," Astrid came at him. "I'm getting double feelings over here, the way the Skirra Vél do things."

"Or just Heather?" Ruffnut, from the far left. Tuffnut snickered and Snotlout made some girlish giggling noise.

"No, Ruff," Astrid snapped. "Now you guys shut up."

Hiccup shook his head. "Maybe you want to think about the significance of this?" he spoke out, clear. "I mean, I hate to bring this up, but I'm about to get creamed tomorrow, in front of two tribes, and then there's this thing with my Dad-- I mean, I still haven't talked to him about them. In depth, I mean. I just know there's something more. Remember that weird thing you heard, Astrid?"

"What, the one about someone wanting to bump you off?" Snotlout jabbed in suddenly.

"Yeah, Snotlout, and don't look so happy about it." Hiccup leaned back and peered at him.

"I wasn't happy, I just thought it was funny."

"Funny?"

Tuffnut cut in suddenly, "Maybe the idiot means it's ridiculous that anyone would want to eliminate such a harmless little guy."

Astrid smirked. "You have the oddest way of putting things."

Hiccup rolled his eyes. "Okay, let's get it together, all right, guys? The point is, there's still a mystery about everything right now, and I'm sure the Skirra Vél have almost everything to do with it. I get the feeling that if we get to the bottom of this, we'll find out what's making this tribe act the way it is, towards dragons, towards everyone." He turned, looked forward. "Somehow I think my Dad has the answers to all of this."

The kids stared at him. Astrid turned and looked at the sunset on Hiccup's right. She shook her head. "We'll have to get it out of him somehow, then." She jabbed a finger at the twins suddenly. Hiccup looked, saw Tuff in motion with a flat hand on his throat.

"And not like that," Astrid snapped.

Tuffnut sniffed, lolled his shoulders. "There just ain't enough chances to be a threatening assassin."

Hiccup tapped Toothless forward. You guys… just shut up. He smiled down at Toothless. "We're going on Ur now, positions ready." He looked behind him, watched the dragons fall into a gentle V-pattern. He sailed on in the lead, the sky beginning to mist with a gentle blur of rain. He squinted as the sun poked one final time through a cloud on the horizon. The air was sticky, warm. A rush of wind hit him suddenly, just one passing stream of air, cold and sharp against him, slicing past his cheek and into his ear, smarting over his hair. He flinched. The sky above had grown suddenly darker by this time, the roiled masses black almost in places, near Berk, and to the east. The clouds of ash swirled around him thicker, filled his hair and coated Toothless. "Storm's coming, eh, bud?" His hand rubbed Toothless and the dragon hummed, a curious, cautious hum, looking up into the sky.
_______

The metal was cold, tough and thick to the touch. She ran her hand over the panel, over the curve of leather around it, the delicate rigging and the triangular shaped footrest.

She hadn't really thought of a way to spare the prize dragon. All she knew was that she didn't want him dead at the end of this.

Heather stepped away from the little overhang at the side of the chief's house, took one long look again at the stirrup hanging gently there. The boy didn't have a left foot, only a metal replacement, and the dragon she wanted had a tail which needed moving, and the stirrup only matched his foot.

But not this one. She peered at it. The foot size was fairly large, but she'd fit in. It looked old, like it hadn't been used much. She touched it again, the leather a tad brittle, but… with her workmen at Herkja, they could make a second quite easily.

She'd observed his stirrup when he flew her out that day, and at training. She'd almost memorized the rigging by now, in her fascination with the ingenious contraption. It would work, she told herself, unhooking the stirrup from the latch, an ugly indentation of the metal peg formed on the leather hook from which it hung. She'd have to watch Hiccup take the rigging off Toothless, when he comes home from that Induction Day practice.

She hooked up the stirrup again, slid down on the grass and waited. There was something strange with the sky, the drifting flecks of dust and ash. She'd experienced this before on Herkja, seeing how the island was a volcano itself. She watched a speck of gray drift by her vision. She put out a hand, caught the fleck in her palm, grasped it and held it there. It felt warm in her hand, cozy and warm. She inhaled carefully. "Think about your father," she whispered to herself, "and don't be afraid."

(continued at Part 2 of Chapter 10: A Score Settled)

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