Chapter 15: The Heart of Herkja
Chapter 15: The Heart of Herkja
Chapter 15: The Heart of Herkja

13th Nov 2012, 12:57 AM

by inhonoredglory

The little blue dragon was cold, felt a spark of chill run down his thin wisp of a body. He sniffed, stuck his nose into the cold night air, felt something foreign in the atmosphere. His nerves sparked, and he twitched.

Those foreign beings, those humans.

They were on the island.

He clucked, and his skin suddenly turned a deep red, feelings of something threatening in the wind. His little eyes blinked and he jolted his head towards the sea, the rocky beach and the fading greenery. Little figures, dark and -- what was it in their movements? Instinct told him distinctly that it was fear, caution. He touched his snout up, sniffed the air, slunk down the rock he was perched on, slithered through the undergrowth and leaves. Sounds, those foreign sounds, came drifting towards him, the scent of brisk salt water and that distinct human scent. He slunk under the leaf of a fern, the plant's sharp edges brushing his scales delicately. The crumbled dirt under his toes, bits of gravel between his scales. He scampered forward and he reached the edge of the forest, to the line at the edge of the shadow of the canopy above. He nudged the air again, felt his body go warm just slightly, saw the two-legged figures coming onshore, in groups of twos, the lead figure with a hesitancy in its step.

His scales hummed dark blue, rippled with a throb of hues. He backed out quickly, the ferns shaking in his wake, retraced the path up into the heart of the forest, towards the base of the jutting mountain peak inland a ways from the shore, towards the yawning face of the cave that sunk deep and dark into that mountain in the center of the island.

:: ::

Hiccup inhaled carefully, tried not to let the sharp pain in his breath show. They had reached the outskirts of the island now, almost night, after a couple hours from the first sighting. They had to scout the area, do things Hiccup was finally thankful he had training for. He swallowed, caught his breath suddenly. So it was all coming down to this now? What was he hoping to do? He looked back at the kids, couldn't really read the expression on their faces, maybe the moonlight wasn't strong enough. Still he could read a mix of anticipation, irritation, excitement -- and maybe even fear. Scratch the maybe. He'd brought them into something suicidal, and it hit him suddenly. He came out here full of conviction, but saying you'll do something is only half the battle. Whatever happened, he didn't want them getting involved, not if it meant risking their lives in this enemy country. Whatever happened, he'd have to do it alone, if at all possible.

Reconnaissance was slow, tedious. If only we had dragons. Dragons would make it so much easier. But it was the best they could do, and when the sun finally sunk under the horizon, Hiccup gave the word to move in.

"You sure it will work?" Astrid asked him suddenly, prodding him. Hiccup whirled up from leaning forward on the tiller.

"What are you thinking of?" she eyed him critically. Hiccup went back to looking at the island in front of them. "This is serious stuff, Astrid."

"Don't I know it. . . ."

Hiccup pulled the tiller sharply, got wind in the sails again, eased towards the island. "I'm just thinking of what we have to do," he hummed.

"Yeah, some plan you've got."

"Why did that come out so negative?" Hiccup glared at her.

She raised a brow. "Did it?" She sniffed.

Hiccup mulled, said nothing. Astrid turned away and joined the other kids, rustled them to their feet. "I think it's time, people, follow the leader." She swung her hand out towards Hiccup. He could taste the irony in her crisp words.

"You don't have to dig it in," Hiccup snapped.

She strode up to him, the ship suddenly heaving gently to one side as the sails picked up a stray gust, leaned in towards the shore. "I don't want any messing around. We're here to get our dragons, and nothing more. You're not playing any hero."

"What do you think I'm going to try to do?"

"I don't know, something dumb, thinking you might be able to help your Dad from way out here."

"Oh, him?" Hiccup bit his lip. The war. He'd thought about that. In fact, when the rush of panic over Toothless ebbed somewhat, he actually thought about doing something about the war while he was here. They'd done terrible things to Berk -- his people, he suddenly verbalized in his mind, and Astrid had said his father was still going after them, that he was sure Rune wasn't done with Berk yet. And since he was here and his father wasn't . . . well, the least he could do was take inventory of the enemy. He looked over at Astrid, her face firm and clouded with thoughts. She never liked taking chances -- not the ones that involved risking your life. She was cautious, careful, she did things only when she was sure she'd come out on top, when she'd succeed. And he -- he was everything that wasn't. Especially when it came to Toothless. He looked away from her, brought the ship in to the shoreline, the hull digging into the sandbar.

It was night now, and with the last forward motion of the ship, the moon had been hidden and they lay in the dark black shadow of Herkja, the black shapes of trees and boulders thick and melding in front of him. There was a pinnacle of sorts in the interior of the island, a bare mountain peak sticking up through the groves of pines and trees near the shore. The sandbar that spanned out on either side of them ebbed with the lilt of blue highlight, as the waves washed over the gravel and reflected gently off the pricks of glow from the moon. A murky fog fanned out from the island, touching them gently, sponging a damper of moistness on his cheek.

"Timberjacks," Fishlegs hummed and Hiccup turned, saw him pointing to a far edge of the island. Hiccup stepped away from the tiller, walked up to him, followed his hand. It wasn't the dragons, but their wake -- the tops of trees sliced cut, sharp and sure, and somewhere in the black shadows, shapes moving, black and mysterious, in the undergrowth. Hiccup held his breath suddenly, listened, heard the throb of a thousand humming creatures there in the forest, the breath of something deep and large, and darting in the black, pinpricks of light, along the forest bottom, under the shadows of the ferns and rocks. . . . tiny dragons, perhaps, scampering to their nests in the undergrowth.

The ship lolled suddenly, settled down into the sand, the water slapping in sharp little waves against her hull. Hiccup took a deep breath. I'm coming for you, bud, he hummed, focusing. He swung his legs over the edge of the ship, felt Astrid touch his arm suddenly, his left arm. He looked up at her.

"Spread out right?" she whispered.

"That's right."

"I'm coming with you."

Hiccup crossed his brows. "You're supposed to go with Ruff."

"Ruff can take care of herself just fine alongside Tuff. I'm coming with you." Her voice was quiet, soft almost, but firm. She turned away, snuck into what remained of his little tent in the ship, came out with his knapsack full of bandages and equipment. "I hope you brought the herbs, too."

Hiccup shrugged. "I guess I didn't . . ."

"No matter, we'll find them on the island." She swung her leg over, looked at him as they both straddled the rim of the ship. She eyed his body suddenly and hummed. "So your harness is already on, isn't it . . . you think it's going to be so easy."

Hiccup smirked. "Can't be too prepared." He fingered the special harness that he'd slipped on before leaving the house that day.

"Well, let's go." She swung the bag over her shoulder, jumped down, her boots squishing on the sand.

Hiccup inhaled, leapt off. The kids followed, one by one, onto the black sand of Herkja.

:: ::

"You think your father is anywhere near here?"

"With the armada he's got? No way. With these sails, The Night Fury travels at three times the speed of one of our old ships, so I doubt he can catch up."

Astrid hummed, adjusted the knapsack on her arm.

"Let me carry that." Hiccup reached out, the chirping insects suddenly halting as he paused.

"Nope, you're injured enough." She pulled back.

Hiccup smirked. "You don't have to keep pushing it." He turned, started forward. It had been almost an hour now, almost time for them to head back to the meeting point and see if anyone reported back anything of the town or people. He hated to come back empty handed. The island couldn't be that big, and he at least wanted a sighting of the town, if not of Toothless or the ships. He looked up at the forest, the monotone forest void of anything distinctive. He'd given the pointing device to Snotlout and Fishlegs, hoped it would help them. He put a hand on a tree trunk, felt the mossy moistness on one side. He looked up. The tree was tall enough, and there was a beautiful set of lower branches that he could use . . .

He looked back, saw Astrid inspecting the ground, the tracks in the dirt. It was animals, all the time, never human. Hiccup sighed, got his right arm up and hoisted himself to the first branch, winced as his side stretched. He got his knees over the branch, and he knelt on it a minute, breathing. Even at this height, things started to look differently.

He reached up, grabbed the next branch.


He ignored her, hoisted himself up the third branch.

"I guess I should stop arguing with you," she shouted, heavy on the sarcasm.

"A wise decision," he yelled back, getting higher up the tree now, his right arm stressing to the hard work he put on it. He got his footing on a thick, almost flat branch, heaved a sigh. The bark was dark, almost black and shredded, the crawling moss a deep green wavered with hints of yellow. He looked down, saw her staring up at him, hands on her hips, a critical scowl he could read even from up here, at least twenty-some feet off the ground. He wasn't dizzy, too many hours on Toothless ensured that he would never be afraid of heights. He steadied himself, grabbed the trunk, put out his left hand carefully to a branch leaning across him.

He looked out. The moonglow was bright, almost like daylight on the tops of the trees, and the scene before glinted with blue, white, and depths of black. To his right sprung up that massive mountain, a peak of barren soil and a thin cover of grass. Even in the black night, he could make out the great recess within the mountain, a cave of sorts, faint glints of light ebbing within, a massive congregation of creatures, hidden away in its depths. Out to the left spanned a valley, the trees descending down into it, growing shorter and segments, cropped by the sharp edges of Timberjack wings. In the space between the trees, he could see a flock of something, a herd of living things. He squinted, made out antlers in the dark, four-legged shapes. Something swooshed by his vision and he looked up, saw a bat wing its way past him to the right, followed by a tiny, flitting dragon, its body ebbing with a demure glow as he settled down on the branch above him, on a tiny scruff of a nest nestled in the branches. Hiccup squinted past the nest, beyond it towards the rolling hills and valley to the right of the mountain. Glowing lights, firelights of many houses burning, smoke rising from the lights.

Hiccup felt a dim realization light within him, and his mind sighed with the grateful knowledge that he was finally getting somewhere in this quest. It wasn't too far away, the town lights of Herkja. The docks wouldn't be far from there, and with it, Toothless no doubt.

:: ::

It wasn't a very long walk to the slave pen. He'd made the trip countless times in his life on Herkja, to greet the new people -- people, he repeated in his mind, despite what they said. Hervi sighed, adjusted Noor's basket in his hand. She always wanted them to feel welcome, at least to their world, which was the one they'd be trapped in for now.

It was dark and there were dragon screams penetrating his ears everywhere. It pained him, not the fact that dragons were being chained, but the fact that Heather might succeed in taming them as the murdered heir had done out there on Berk -- and then Rune and the Skirra Vél would be invincible, and he in his small ways may never be able to change their minds.

The heaviness in his heart weighed him down and his pace slowed. He could hear the clank of metal out afar, cages being soldered together last minute, to hold the new influx of wild warriors in their midst. He looked up, squinted in the sharp moonlight to see the slave's area, cordoned off by the familiar wooden fence, the blue-white light of the night's sun casting a dreamy aura over the space. He blinked, knew it was a strange vision to get, adjusted the basket in his hands again. He got near the place finally, the ground under his feet changing from grass to hard, packed earth, hardened by the passage in and out of many, many feet. He sighed, and his eye suddenly caught the image of a little boy along the edge of the fence near him. He looked closer at his figure in the moonlight.

He was a small thing, spry, alive, his little smile bright and happy in the center of that morbid darkness. Hervi stepped up to the posts of the pen, his eyes on the little fellow.

"Hey, kid."

The child did not look up, was still a couple yards from him, running his fingers on the fence, running while he scampered parallel to it, humming some native tune from someplace foreign, his little eyes darting along the ground as he ran.

"Child?" Hervi hummed again, kneeling down near the fence. The little kid finally looked up. His face was small, round, with eyes large and curious. He cocked his head once, looked at Hervi, a moment of uncertainty in his features. "Hey!!!" he suddenly shouted and ran up to the edge of the fence, sliding down on his knees towards the old man. The dust puffed from his knees and he coughed, smiled a big grin, his one front tooth missing. "My name's Iggy!" he said, perking, "and you must be a friend." He leaned back, holding on to the fence, staring at Hervi, waiting for an answer.

Hervi paused a minute, a tad unnerved by this youth's spryness. "Iggy? Where, uh, do you come from exactly, Iggy?"

"No need to small talk me, friend." The kid jumped up to squat by the fence, rolled on his heels. "I'm from no place."

Hervi raised his brows.

"Meaning I don't have a home." Iggy whistled, toned down suddenly. "My parents died . . ." He looked up at Hervi, his smile bright again. "But knowing where they came from ain't no help, neither, seeing how my dad was a knight and my mom was a Viking." His mouth pulled into a smug smile. "Doesn't that fascinate you?"

Hervi blinked, patted his hand out in an unconscious effort to settle the situation.

"It fascinated everyone else I told." Iggy rolled on his heels again, pouted his lips.

Hervi cleared his throat. "Of course it's fascinating," he said, and Iggy perked. "Really? You want to ask me about it?" His smile was infectious.

Hervi burrowed into his basket, paused as his fingers brushed the piece of bread. "You sure that won't be hard on you, to talk about it?" He peered at the kid.

Iggy slumped, sliding on the ground. "Aaaw, well, it was a long time ago, and--"

"How old are you?"

"I'm seven!!" Iggy's grin widened.

"Then how long ago is a long time?" Hervi was having trouble believing that something like that wouldn't . . . traumatize a kid.

"I didn't count." Iggy curled his knees up to his chin, plucked a snippet of grass and inspected it from behind his knees. He peeled off a corner of the blade, stuck it in his mouth. "But I'm okay . . ."

Hervi rolled out the crust of bread, handed it through the bars. "Your Norse is very good, for a foreigner."

Iggy grabbed the piece of bread, shoved it down his mouth, crumbs spilling out over his knees and the thready wool clothing he wore. "I pay attention to the stuff that goes around, I ain't that dumb." He grinned. "See? I can speak two things." Iggy rattled off something foreign to Hervi, and Iggy pulled his knees closer. "That's Latin," he explained. "My father's speech. He used to gab in that a lot."

Hervi nudged his head up, still a little taken by the little kid. To think . . . that he might be fated for child slavery. A chill ran up his spine, and he looked away, at the other new slaves behind the fence. So many figures, small short ones in the midst of large, burly, threatening ones. Some he could quickly make out as criminals, their arrogance strong in the way they held their frame and paced their step. Others, quite innocent, quiet in their movements in the dark, settling down to sleep on the barren soil, or under the eaves of a small merciful shelter. A few he could see were cowering in fear in the corners of the area, others in quiet meditation, a few with their palms pressed close together, their lips muttering something in silent, earnest prayers. He'd seen it all before, this lot of cultures and peoples, all united in this unchanging fate.

All in all, it was a good lot, he could tell. It would bring in a good sum from the sale that was happening soon. Surely the war wouldn't halt the auction? He hummed, not really sure what would happen. Rune would hate to disappoint all those merchants that came from so far to do their bidding. He looked back at the little kid still staring up at him from behind the wooden bars of the fence. Hopefully Brokk wasn't here this time, the man was cruel, and he looked specifically for such young slaves like Iggy. Said they were easier to work in the mines, easier to deal with, less chance of rebellion. A hot itching irritation scratched up his heart. Maybe his way was too slow, too careful?

"Hey, whatcha thinking?" Iggy rolled on his heels again, stared at Hervi. "You never did tell me your name, and I'd hate to keep calling you 'friend' because I got lots of them and it'd make it hard to make out who I'm talking to." He wiped his mouth suddenly, smiled and revealed a cute set of broken, yellowing teeth.

"It's Hervi." He swallowed, stood up. He needed to go visit the rest of the slaves, deliver the food and head home soon. Heather didn't like it when he stayed out too long with the slaves. "I used to be the chief of this place, before, well . . . you don't want to talk about that, do you?"

Iggy shrugged. "Sure, why not? I need to know about this spot, anyways. It's my new home, ain't it?"

Hervi looked around. She wasn't anywhere near, was she? He squatted down, Iggy perking, scooting closer to the edge of the fence.

"It was before this people invaded, I was chief of the people who lived here, see?"

"Yeah, that makes sense. And then they got rid of you when they took over, right?"


Iggy pulled up his knees again. "Yeah, I heard that story before. Sad." He leaned his chin on his knees, rocked slightly. "So you can't be chief anymore, I guess. They do things to folks so that don't happen, right?" He peered at Hervi.

The old man nodded gravely, tapped the side of his head, the slavemark burned into his skin. "Everyone understands and respects the rules. A true chief can't be defeated, and I was . . . well, now I'm working on getting us all free, the peaceful way, and I--" But he was rambling now, wasn't he? What did this little kid know, appreciate, about the dealings he was at work in, the double-sided life he was leading, that odd affection he had for the leader of their captivity, the lack of faith he had in the repeated violent efforts at freedom?

"Whatcha thinking?"

Hervi shot a look at the kid. "Iggy. . ."

"I don't like it when people don't think out loud. Makes for awfully boring conversations." He rolled again, his knees still pulled up.

"Nothing important, Iggy," Hervi hummed.

Iggy smirked. "They always say that."

"What's your full name anyway? Surely it isn't just Iggy."

"Ignazio, thanks for asking!" Iggy scrambled out of his cramped position and stood, ran his fingers over the wooden panels of the fence. Hervi squinted, saw the faint dark mark of the slavemark on the side of the little boy's face. "Ouch," Iggy whispered suddenly and Hervi jumped. "Aw, it's nothing, just a splinter." Iggy fingered his left pinkie and sucked on it. "Pain don't faze me none." He popped his finger out to grin at him.

Hervi blinked.

"People say I smile too much, is that true?" Iggy rolled on his heels suddenly, anchoring himself with his hands on the fence.

Hervi let out a sigh, shifted the basket in his hands. The Skirra Véllites were thickening around him and Heather may very well be among them. He'd come back that night and talk to this child, this sparkling beacon of hope in this place. "No one smiles too much, Iggy," he said gently and patted the little kid's hand. Iggy's eyes popped wider and he smiled, his teeth not showing this time. "That's good, because I wasn't going to stop anyways." He pulled back, scampered off to the rest of the slaves, his tiny figure black in the night, vanishing into the masses assembled there, awaiting their fate.

:: ::

It was a busy night, warriors everywhere dragging dragons to cages, the night filled with dark shapes jolly or worried or stern, each one doing a job assigned to him. She had a lot on her mind, standing out in the middle of the madness, trying in some semblance to organize it all. Her eye drifted over to the slave pen, where she saw Hervi kneeling down tending to one of the smaller of the prisoners. She squinted. They were dark figures in the moonlight, silhouetted black against the deep blue of the landscape. She squinted her eyes at the old man, her and her father's own slave -- those old concerns tickling up her.

He was after all, Old Chief. What if they wanted him chief again?

She felt a presence near her suddenly, didn't turn to look. "Dad?" She knew it was him. He put his hand on her small shoulder suddenly. "It's just a child, a child isn't going to inspire anything, and Hervi's not the one to revolt."

"Was I worried?" she snapped back, raising a brow.

"I know . . ." he hummed. "You don't want to have to send another slave to the execution dragons . . ."

She pursed her lips, said nothing. The Blood Dagger dragons were horrible creatures and she took no pleasure in sending any of the slave lot to their deaths, and no matter how guilty they were, even of treason, she still felt a pang in her heart whenever Hervi came back in the mornings with the report that the deed had been accomplished. It was odd, it didn't make sense to mourn the death of mere property. She clicked her tongue, a mental reproach. "Hervi will do nothing of the sort."

She looked up at Rune, noticed that his mind had by now drifted from the conversation at hand. It was one of the smaller things of his illness, a sort of flitting from topic to topic. He didn't really notice it, and it was quite subtle, but still, it was there, still there. The remnants of the injury this heartbreak had caused him.

She watched him, looking at the new constructions of cages and chains besides the town center. They stood by the base of the great mountain, Hallion Tower, where the Ring and Great Hall were hidden within its great mass. He was . . . uncomfortable, she could tell.

"Dad?" she asked, dropping her hands to her sides. A couple of Skirra Véllites were coming towards her, messages probably. But she ignored them -- for now.

Rune didn't turn to look at her, kept his stare on the flow of warriors around them, their dark shapes indistinguishable in the shadows of the night, the hiss and scream of dragons as they dragged them forward and down, down into the caverns, tunnels, and dungeons inside the mountain. They had long since overflowed, in the rampant capturing of wild dragons she had assigned to every able-bodied Viking and slave on the island. She wanted this thing to be successful, needed this thing to be successful. Her father hated to turn back and leave Berk unconquered, but the dragons were a new factor, one that couldn't just be ignored.

She prodded him. "It's about training dragons, isn't it?"

He looked down at her suddenly, eyes melding into something a mix of warm and wary.

"About doing what your brother is doing . . ." She put a hand out to the warriors, staying their impatience for a moment.

Her father hummed, pursed his lips and turned to look at the new dragons. They'd never caught so many dragons of their island before. "I trust you, Heather," he said simply, the words full of doubt and yet sincerity. She blinked, knew he was trying to believe her. He hated the idea of this foreign dragon in their midst, this so-called Toothless, from that hated victim of their justice. "Why keep such a thing? Why not feed him to the dogs of the Hunt?"

She wasn't sure he understood what the black dragon meant to her -- she saw something in him, that same confusion of love she felt when Rune himself found her so long ago. He'd have to understand.

Her father turned away, his frame black in the night and pacing slowly towards the mass of warriors nearer the valleyed area of the town.

Words wouldn't change his mind so much as actions. She'd prove to him that Toothless was something to be kept, that training dragons was not putting themselves lower than their enemies, but taking from them their own game and using it against them. She faced the first warrior. "Yes?" she asked.

"Two dragons we found, on the upper cliffsides, they had something . . . different on them. . . ." The warrior trailed.

She raised a brow.

"Saddles," he said, quite matter-of-factly.

Her brows crossed and she suddenly put two-and-two together. "The Hooligans are here, aren't they? Have you contacted the ship watches?"

"Yes, nothing."

"The scouts?"

"Again, no ships."

She pursed her lips, thought it odd that Hooligan dragons would have landed on Herkja without an armada of some sort. "Were there any riders?" She looked up at the warrior, the confused concern on his face lightened now by the shaft of moonlight over his features.

"No, none. It seemed very odd. . . ."

"Look into it. You do have the dragons, though?"

"Oh, yes, of course. We captured them, quiet tame already they were."


She turned aside, waved him off to listen to the next warrior's say. So the Hooligans were here, they weren't just waiting for Rune to attack? She hummed, wondered if this changed some things. There were at the very least spies in their midst, spies without transport at least now.

She added that to the dense list of items she had to consider in this war.

:: ::

"Why don't you . . . move it . . . rabid devil, you--"

Toothless yanked harder against the pull of the insulting warrior, nearly making him lose his grip on the cord. Toothless reared as high as his back legs would take him, almost falling over backward as the ropes momentarily eased their pull on his collar. But the yanking on his neck pitched him forward again in a wicked tug of war as the leather collar strangled his throat. He tried to growl, but could only whine hotly. His feet slapped down on the cold stone floor, started moving forward again under the duress. He snorted and gave his shoulders a shake, the mustiness of the subterranean air filming over his scales and griming into the corners of the leather cords crisscrossing his body. He adjusted his eyes to the darkness within, a darkness only occasionally punctuated by the fire of torches lining the walls on either side. He narrowed his eyes at the enclosing walls, strange patterns faintly etched and painted over the chipped stone surface, patterns of men and dragons entangled in each other from the floor to the ceiling. The ropes suddenly brushed by his snout and passed by his eyes, splintering his field of vision into jagged pieces of black shadows and low ceilings and shouting men ahead of him. Eight or ten men pulling him, dragging him relentlessly forward through some tunnel underneath the mountain in the center of the island.

Ever since they unloaded him from the ship and hooked the cords into his collar, they had been hauling him towards these volcanic peaks, pulling and chafing at him even after the sun set. He faintly remembered the place on the outside -- memories from so many summers ago. He could still feel the burning ache in his wings that night when he and his father landed on these peaks. Scores of days and nights of constant flying were hard for a fledgling Night Fury, especially over a sea so vast it never ended. Not many Night Furies made it across that sea, it wasn't supposed to be crossed, but his father was desperate. He almost wished they hadn't left the Cold Lands, but the slow realignment of the stars across endless nights told him they had gone too far to turn back. This land they sighted, the caves warm with molten heat, beckoned them to rest, to stay. His father insisted to go on, said he felt bad instincts about this place. But he argued to stay. In all his summers and winters since, he couldn't believe he'd ever relive that mistake.

He flicked his ear flap in a slight shiver, wondered just which cavern he had stayed in that long time ago. These people couldn't be taking him anywhere near there. Winding caverns riddled the insides of these peaks, labyrinths that could get a dragon lost if he wasn't a native species of the place. No, they had something else in mind for him, maybe something just as terrible as that night sixty summers ago.

He lowered his head, sniffed the ground, his feet pitter-pattering on the uneven rock floor, the endless etchings of dragons and men locked in combat passing by underneath him. A feeling crept into him, an unease. Just where were they leading him? The hunt happened in the forest, right?

Doors suddenly opened ahead, a yawning blackness beyond, innumerable distant voices wafting in from the opening. He widened his eyes, caught slim shafts of moonlight and firelight filtering into the rocky space ahead and a penetrating scent tickling his nose, the unmistakable scent of dragon blood.

Alarm shot up inside him; he yanked sharper at the cords, felt panic as the ropes pulled even harder and his feet skidded on the slippery sloping surface of the stone floor. He latched his claws into a crack in the stone, lashed his tail against the stone walls for leverage, shoved his body in the opposite direction from the tug of ropes. A hail of shouting reverberated in the small dark tunnel; the collar gagged him as the ropes strung out even tauter. He buckled down against the floor, smarted as the collar shoved into the back of his skull and lodged behind his ear flaps.

"Damn you dragon. You're moving if I have to pull your head off."

I dare you. Toothless lashed his narrowest eyes at the warrior in front of him. Brandr, he recognized him -- his glinting metal shingles and gold bracelets jangling as he whipped his stout arm around the bulking mass of cords in his fist. He twined the rope around his fist several times, taking a step closer to Toothless with each winding until he stood within arm's reach of his snout. Toothless tried growling but the sound pinched out in the tightness of his throat. He suddenly glanced at the axe inserted in the man's thick jeweled belt. A crescent of teeth marks, his own teeth marks, still blighted the metal blade. The man seemed to sense his gaze, followed it, eyed him again.

"You're going to pay for that." He turned to his comrades around him, motioned them with his rope tangled fist. "Ragnar," he motioned to his blond-stubbled warrior besides him. Toothless could feel the warrior moving past him, could sense activity behind him that he couldn't see. Brandr glanced away from him casually, the rope becoming limp as he sauntered close to Toothless. Suddenly he pumped his fist to the left, wrenched Toothless's head to the side. He yelped as he tipped forward and hands suddenly shoved up his flanks. The ropes tugged all at once, the hands pushed him from behind through the tunnel, letting go once he passed the doors. He slipped on the polished stone surface, suddenly became aware of the confining tunnel walls giving way to a vast enclosure walled by rock. Sheer stone walls all around, rising in a dome blocking out the sky. Broken windows scattered over the face of the dome, letting in fragments of stars, the faint scent of fresh air mocking him as it wafted down from so far up, so far away, out of his reach. The smell beneath his feet was stronger -- he looked down, saw dark stains smeared deeply in the rock floor, splatters of blackened red fresh and unmistakable.

The roar strangled itself in his throat as he reared and yanked backwards, tried turning back, but the door shut closed, the ropes tightening on all sides and pulling him down. He lashed his tail, but the men avoided it, moved in front of him, towing him forward across the flat stone floor. He slid to the center of the ring. His head hurt, his mouth frothed with the struggle in his throat. Hands were suddenly on him, grabbing the straps over his wings and body, unfastening them.

He shot his wings out, bunched his legs and jumped airborne across the enclosure. The sudden motion knocked the revolting warriors to their feet as he flapped ahead, pulling the ropes behind him. Shouts behind, sudden loosening of the ropes as he roared at the freedom. He lost altitude, met a wall, clawed the sheer stone surface but slipped and fell down again. He jumped again, higher, leapt vertical, his front claws latching onto a flat surface high above him, the lip of the enclosure's wall. He dug his claws in, looked up but his snout met chains latticed over the ceiling, the matrix of chains separating the enclosure from the high dome farther above and beyond. He snorted blackly, flicked his head to kick a chain away from his face.

"Toothless. It's okay now."

A firm gentle voice, the voice of a girl below him. Heather. He winced, suddenly remembering the rockslide, him shielding her, protecting her, saving her. What a fool he was. He should have listened to his instincts. He knew she was bad, knew all along even when Hiccup told him to be nice. And now look at him.

"Come down, Toothless."

He growled, his back legs slipping and clawing back to regain their tentative grip on the vertical stone wall he had scaled. But he had no place to go; he was suspended between the floor and the chain-latticed ceiling. His front feet could barely hold his slim traction on the ledge above him, a ledge that seemed to open up to an even vaster room above him. He peered over, saw a warm glow of firelight flickering beyond the latticework of chains barring his path, pillars and banners half shadowed in the darkness, tables and people on the other side, their feet eye level to his snout, the boots shuffling around the rims of the ring, their voices excited as more feet gathered around the ledge near him. It was a hall like Berk's, except for this great depression in the middle, this spectacle arena he was entrapped in underneath the ceiling of chains. That's what it was. A spectacle.

And something else. He narrowed his eyes at the Hall walls far beyond the ledge he clawed, sharp shapes lining the cavern rock at regular intervals. He flinched. Twenty, thirty of them, just the heads and a stubby portion of the necks. The gaping mouth of a Whispering Death, the curling horns of a Timberjack, the flaming red of a Monstrous Nightmare. Jaws open, poised in attack, yet paralyzed in mid-motion. He almost started at the sight of the snapping jaws of a Skrill's head mounted to the far left, the first head in the line, half-hidden in the darkness. No, it couldn't be who he hoped it was. Though preserved so lifelike, defying decay, the color had faded, the purple sheen gone from the long snout and the scales caked and dusty and discolored from summers and winters exposed to the firelight and the cavern's mustiness. The eyes were black instead of yellow, a dull, hollow, unliving blackness that stared over the Hall, stared and pointed at the arena.

He suddenly turned his eyes to the far right, to the walls engulfed in darkness there. The row of heads ended in a space of openness on the wall, a yawning black void lacking banners or sculptures or any adornment. Skari's words shot through him, ran a chill down his back.

You'll be the first of your species.

The ropes suddenly yanked him back and he lost his hold on the ledge, dropped down and landed on the hard floor. He whipped his head to the ring's center, spied the girl standing there among the warriors, their swords and axes and hammers glinting at their sides. A snarl shot from his chest as he faced the chain-mailed, fur-caped men arrayed in a semi-circle around him, their hands heaving the ropes tighter around his collar. He slapped his wings up, a bottled energy screaming inside him, a spark of hot gas spitting up from his chest. It lodged within his strangled throat. He gagged and lowered his head, clawed the splattered stains of the floor, the smell of those stains thick and crazy and sickening in his nostrils. He willed himself to calm, to stop the trapped energy inside him from exploding. He stood still, angled himself towards the circle of men ahead of him, let the ropes lighten their hold on his throat, let the gas seep into his mouth to let up some of the pressure. He felt hot froth drip from his jaws onto the stained stone.

Suddenly a warrior neared his right side, touching his harness. He lashed his head at him, sending the man bolting back and whipping out his sword.

"That won't be necessary."

He turned to the left, saw the girl standing out from the circle of men. He concentrated on the feel of the voice, snatches of words, the meaning of the human language he'd spent two years figuring out.

"He'd bite our heads off if he had the chance." The gold-banded warrior twisted the ropes around his fist, yanked them, jerked Toothless's head forward. He jerked back, almost got the warrior to stumble, his eyes burning livid.

"Stop Brandr. You've disciplined him enough." The man halted his sharp pull at the girl's curt order, her round face furrowing in displeasure. She looked at Toothless, a look of tight lips and creased, softened dark eyes. She inhaled, flipped back the long strand of dark hair over her shoulder, walked towards him. He began to edge away, then stood still. She had no weapon on her, didn't scream at him like the others. He watched her watching him, her steps slowing as she neared the left side of his head, just within arm's reach of him. Her eyes suddenly narrowed and her hand reached out towards the side of his mouth; he jerked away, but her hand followed him, touched his lower jaw briefly. She brought her hand back towards her, the fingers laced with sticky froth. "Brandr I told you."

"I did exactly your orders."

"You interpreted them."

"No dragon gives me flak."

"Just what are you trying to do -- kill him?" She slapped the froth off her fingers. Toothless widened his eyes, wavered his wings slightly, slapped his tail against the stone. So you're interested in my welfare, want to keep my head pristine for your walls. How flattering, he snorted as she stepped up to his left side. He shifted to his right, but the ropes radiated tight all around him, his neck meeting resistance in every direction. He felt pinned, like his head was affixed to a point in space. He flexed his jaw under the leather strap, shook his head and stood there, tolerated her as she strode back and forth on his left side, her hands touching the stirrup and the straps on him, unlatching them. The weight suddenly lifted from his back -- he whipped his head to the side as best he could, saw the saddle in her arms and the stirrups dangling down. He whined, lurched to the left, caught the edge of the saddle in the slim grasp of his lips, the wretched leather strap around his mouth stopping him from grabbing it with his teeth. Her palm firmly pushed his nose back.

"Toothless, you'll be more comfortable."

I don't want to be comfortable. He pushed his snout against her hand, angled it off his nose, but the fingers pressed on him again.

"I'll get you another one. Something more--" She glanced downwards. He followed her gaze, landing on the chipped metal stirrup, its uneven surface glinting in the warm glow from the firelights up above. "More perfect."

She motioned one warrior over, handed the saddle and rigging over to him. A sudden fear welled up in his chest as the man carried the saddle and tangled leather away, the familiar scent fading. No. He leapt forward, fought the ropes. He screeched snarls at the retreating man, screeched and pulled and scratched at the slippery stone floor.

"Settle down, Toothless." Slim fingers suddenly latched onto his head strap. He snapped his head away, suddenly looked at her, his mind flashing. Something more than a hunt was on her mind for him. Something worse.

Just why did you take me?

"Toothless, settle down." She cocked her head up at him, kept her grip firm on his mouth strap. He stared back, sniffed hotly in her face, fanning her hair and making her eyelids flutter. But only for a moment. She locked eyes with him again, determined, unyielding eyes.

"You're not going to keep calling him that, are you?"

Toothless angled his head towards the voice, a man with short yellow whiskers moving behind the girl, hard to see because she stood so close to his line of vision.

She twitched her head a moment, blinked, gazed over Toothless. "I've yet to decide."

The man with the dragon-toothed necklace and gold bracelets and clinking metal armor gestured carelessly towards him, the metal mail clinking against his axe as he looked pointedly at Heather.

"Face it, the name sucks. If, and I say if, you manage to tame him enough to fly him again, you better rename him. Because I'm not following any Toothless into battle. You're his master now -- let him know it."

Toothless froze, a sheer, maddening horror sparking in his chest. The prize dragon threats, the mounted heads, the hunt in the forest -- they, she, wanted him alive? She wanted to ride him.

She wanted to be Hiccup.

He suddenly lashed his head into her body, knocked her on the floor, caught her boots in his claws. She shrieked and held her arms against his chest. Warriors encircled him suddenly. Axes and swords and hammers shot up all around him and blocked his vision of her gasping on the stained stone, but he tightened his grip on the boots, his jaws fighting the strap and the cords. He screamed at her.

How dare you think of replacing him.

Her eyes were hard on him, unafraid somehow, a firmness in her expression, like she thought she knew something he didn't know.

A gaseous hot ball welled up his throat as he curled his neck and forced his jaws as wide as the strap would let him. But the choke on his neck stifled it, the collar crushed his windpipe and his jaws clamped shut in a sudden flurry as hands grabbed the strap on his jaws, grabbed his head. Her eyes were still steady and unnerved, a strange stolidity he could not explain.

The hot ball wedged in his mouth, sparked through his teeth. Something seething white hot suddenly struck below his neck -- an axe -- slashed into the hide of his chest. He yelped, reared against the clambering, suffocating ropes and hands and bodies and axes and hammers and swords. Smacks of hammers hitting him on all sides, thuds of bodies against him on all fronts, but they couldn't contain the pure rage detonating within him, the cracking, fiery, exploding fury.

Fury, black fury, blacker than night.


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