Chapter 16: Closing In
Chapter 16: Closing In
Chapter 16: Closing In

20th Nov 2012, 1:05 PM

by inhonoredglory

Toothless heaved a breath, clenched his teeth as the pain pulsed through his chest again, only one image flashing through his mind and giving him any amount of relief from the unrelenting misery. That voice he longed to hear, that happy gentle one different from all the others.

He locked the whine in his throat, quieted himself, hated to look weak right now. He could feel the slash from the axe was more serious than he had thought. The burning sensation cut through the right side of his chest, slanted upward below his neck, ended near the base of his right wing. He lay still on the floor, angled his left side to carry the brunt of his weight, let his right side lie limp on the cold stone surface. He nosed the floor, settled his body farther into a corner of the arena. The cold stone soothed his snout and his undersides, cooled the sting of the bruises covering his body. The hammers had pummeled hard on him, hard and long until his seething rage burnt out, until the torture in his side screamed at him to lie down. He was glad when the men left him, gave him time to gauge just how bad off he was.

He glanced down towards his right side, sniffed at the warm sensation trickling down him. Wet streams glistened darker black against his scales, spurted down his chest, over his leg, staining down into the hard rock under him, the black pools melding into the stains already soaked into the arena floor. He turned his head down towards the sparkling blackness streaming down his side, tried to crane his snout towards the wound, but the motion wrenched his chest, throbbed through his side and right wing. He whipped his head forward, narrowed his eyes as the pain seared through him, sharp and biting. He let out a ragged breath, figured it wasn't much use trying -- the horrid mouth strap wouldn't allow him the decency to lick his wounds anyway.

He glanced across the floor in the center of the ring. The same splattered stains glistened fresh on the rocks, the imprints of boots and his own claws marring the red swaths. Fire burned inside him at the sight of the blood, his blood, soaking into the rock just like all the others who had gone before him.

He snorted, wrinkled his nose. To be so incapacitated, so vulnerable. The idea of moving, let alone escaping, felt painful, and he didn't even want to imagine his chances on the hunt now. After he attacked that girl, mercy would be the last thing on their minds.

He peered upward, past the lattice of chains crisscrossing the ceiling towards the rim encircling the enclosure. Growing clusters of people stood along the ledge, shoving past each other, peering past the chains, their voices thick with excitement as they gawked at him. Children clambered towards the edge, crawling on their knees, their little shouts echoing delight across the chamber above. Girls and boys craned their heads over the ledge above him, eyes full of pleasure, as if spectators of an amusing game down below. The shouts sickened him, churned his guts and twisted his pain into shards deeper than the wound itself.

This was what he hated about humanity.

Hiccup, where are you?

The rowdy boys, from the burly teens down to the crawling small ones, had that strange thrill in their yelling chants, the way they leaned over the edge with eager hunger in their eyes. He lashed his head at them, snarled viciously despite the sting in his shoulder, but their whoops roared even higher. He cocked his head at them, suddenly figured they must have watched similar things before. They were waiting for him to lash back, wanted him to lash back. He eyed the kids' heads dangling high above him, the ceiling chains crossing their faces. He wanted to scale the wall and scratch their smiles off. But of course he couldn't, and they'd just love for him to try, wouldn't they? The loathing curled inside him, curled in deep rumblings around his chest. He lay his head on the stone and swept his tailfin across his face, blocking out the revolting humans from his sight. Go away. I'm not entertaining any of you.

The black flat panel of his tailfin shielding his eye sparked an image in his mind, a small hand reaching out and a little freckled face eager and curious, looking at him. That face. He suddenly yearned to see it behind his tail, looking at him, reaching for him, stroking him. That face wouldn't let them enjoy his misery, he'd fix his pain somehow. Like when he was sick and he stayed close to him, lay his head on him until he felt better. But that was the past. He flicked his tail up, spied underneath it in vain, the tarnished stone emanating emptily across the floor. Hiccup could be hurt himself for all he knew, amidst that dreadful destruction of Berk. The last he saw of him, he fell into the sea. If he hadn't known the kid could swim, he'd have lost his mind by now. All through the voyage he had reviewed that last image in his mind, trying to figure out what happened. He could plainly see Hiccup was trying to land on the ship and save him just like two summers ago, except this time he failed.

He thumped his tail hard against the stone, jerked slightly as the motion sent a splinter of pain through his shoulder. Hiccup never fails. A sudden realization hit him, swept through his back and took hold of his chest. How could he not have seen it. Of course Hiccup wouldn't stand for it, wouldn't just let them take him away. He'd try again.

Toothless suddenly rose to his feet, the searing sharpness cutting into his right front leg and piercing his shoulder, his wing, his chest, but his head pointing up towards the rows of people above him, searching the faces. No, he was delirious, dreaming, that face wouldn't be here. He couldn't be here.

His glance suddenly landed on a familiar face, a round face of dark eyes and furrowed brows framed by long, dark, disheveled hair. Heather. He snarled, winced as he stepped on his right foot. The last thing she was going to do was fly him, the last thing. To think she'd even try renaming him. His snarl leveled out into a low grumble, his wings flexing on impulse. Hiccup wouldn't stand for that, if he ever knew, he wouldn't. He must be coming.

I'll wait for you. He settled back down on the floor, curled his tail around himself, smarted at the renewed throbbing hitting him, but it didn't feel so bad now. At least, it would keep him awake, just in case tonight was the night. The pain must have been playing with his mind, but he couldn't shake the feeling, the hope welling inside him. Something else crept in as he laid his head down on the stone, the glistening moisture of his own blood sticking to the underside of his chin. They didn't attack Berk for nothing. Whatever was going to happen, he'd have to protect that boy, whisk him as far away from this wretched place as possible. Because Hiccup would really need him then.

:: ::

"If only you people listened to me. . . we wouldn't be in this mess, and that dragon would be dead and gone right now." Brandr's voice was hot and angry.

Heather grimaced, her mind smacking. Her council can be so stupid.

She bent down, clutched her stinging ankles through the thickness of her boots, the Night Fury's claw marks still fresh on the fur and leather. They'd dragged her out from under that beast just in time -- just before the gas and fire came spilling out of those jaws, just as that hate in the dragon's eyes came to full climax. It was like that time in the Hall of Berk, when he snarled at her and they faced off and the kid had to separate them. But she thought things had changed, that the dragon had learned to like her, certainly enough to fly her to the ship and trust her with that.

But taking him away from his home would not be easy on him; small wonder he snarled at her throughout the voyage. There would be brief relapses into his wild state, of course. He was a dragon after all and he wouldn't take kindly to this treatment, even if it was a temporary and necessary discipline. But this, this might be more than that. That eye had murder in it.

Her council saved her, had carried her up to the Hall, the flat ring above the arena. It was amazing how deep those Night Fury claws could go. She shifted her weight on the wooden boards of the bench, her back scratching uncomfortably against the wooden table behind her. Her head was dizzy as she bent down to her knees. She smirked, couldn't stand that feeling.

She glanced sideways, spied Brandr still pacing near her, his hand still welded around his axe handle, the shining metal blade dripping red along the Hall floor. The man worked from his emotions too much. She listened, tried to hear the sound of a screaming dragon down below, but she only caught the hum of dragons outside, far away and sharp. The Night Fury was quiet, down below, in the arena, his growls had subsided, dangerously subsided.

"You didn't kill him." She snapped around to look at Brandr, her voice intentionally sharp and critical. She flung her hair away from her eyes, but the black strands slipped back across her line of vision.

Brandr glanced at her, and turned away, went back to his pacing, a scowl on his irked face. Gamal rose from some seated position nearby, strode into the thick crowds of people surrounding the arena a couple yards away. He pushed through until they fell away in recognition of his authority, allowed him to peer along with the rest of them down into the deep depression below in the center of the vast domed Hall. A moment, then he turned back, walked back out, started for her.

She rose up, firmed her frame.

"He's alive," he said simply, and stroked his graying whiskered beard. He moved off to her left, and sat down on the bench next to her. The bench creaked and pained under the weight. "This creates complications, Heather," he hummed.

"Perhaps," she said, out of the corner of her mouth. She kept her eyes away from him, and bent down again, scrutinized her boots and the distinct claw marks still imprinted on the leather, surprisingly deep for such a short moment the Night Fury pinned her down. He had taken her by surprise, it was true, and though she wouldn't admit it, her plans were now shivering, uncertain. Would the dragon take to her?

Gamal stood up and joined the rest of the council.

It was too soon to judge that. Despite what the council would have her believe. They never wanted dragons, anyway, and if it was something she learned from her uncle's son, it was how bull-headed some people can be. They needed to trust her, and she needed to trust herself -- that this plan can still work out.

She glanced upward, realized her warriors had been arguing all this time, the circle of ten clustering around with two men in the center.

"Your insults are enough to make sane men go crazy." Ragnar's hand was flung in mid-motion, the firelight glinting off his helmet and mail as he leaned forward in earnest. Brandr gestured wildly back at him with his axe-free hand.

"And I suppose you'd just let that dragon kill our one and only heir."

She smirked. Arguments never got anyone anywhere.

Ragnar's voice was hot. "You wanted to kill him since the beginning, despite Heather's orders."

"You can't say I'm wrong -- dragons are killers, bloodlust waiting to happen. I don't know where you've been, but in my tribe, we've killed these beasts. What of this training garbage I don't know."

"You watch your mouth--" Heather snapped.

"Heather's ideas are not garbage."

She whirled to the right, saw her father moving into the mass of warriors. The tight circle of men broke suddenly, their faces taken aback somewhat, as if they realized they had stepped into something they shouldn't have.

Which certainly served them right.

They let in the darkness from the far reaches of the Great Hall, from across the vast oval curving around the arena depression in the middle of the Hall. An ornate grand chair stood besides tall patterned banners screening over the expanse of the black dome above them. Her father was a beautiful tower, looking down towards her, the strands of white creasing his beard brightly in the warm must and color of the firelights and his white fur cape smacking reflections of orange and yellow from the burning fires. The cape slouched sadly with his shoulders, his body heaving with every labored step.

Everyone looked to Rune, awaiting his next words. But he merely nodded at them, his eyes full of meaning and the simple statement that the conversation was closed. She smiled at him, knew she had an admirable father.

"Shouldn't you lie down?" she whispered, seeing him wince with a step.

He looked at her, eyed her answer. Of course it was a no. "You're not risking your life like that anymore," he said slowly, quietly, his real thoughts on the matter.

She looked past him, at the council, beginning to break up awkwardly.

"It takes time, Dad, to train a dragon."

"I realize that, I just. . . I hope this dragon is the right one for you, that's all. You did say it was loyal. What if it doesn't transfer that loyalty to you?"

She smirked, didn't plan on that sort of moral dilemma in a dragon. "Don't worry, Dad," she whispered. "It's just a dragon."

He looked at her, quizzical and doubtful. He never liked the idea, and certainly the thought that she would take for herself the dragon of the cursed heir. "The hunt is always open, just remember that," he said.

"I know," she hummed, smiling gently, but she wasn't planning on that anytime soon.

:: ::

The meeting area was a damp old spot, and Ruffnut hated it. Tuffnut was humming some stupid tune, getting on her nerves.

Seriously, what was new?

"Shut it, Tuff," she snapped, lolled her head onto her palm again, as she sat crookedly on the log, her one arm jutting into her knee. Really, why'd he have to go doing that, now of all times? Normally, she'd just let it go, the irritation was exciting and put some spunk in her life, but now… really Tuff? They had returned from their fruitless reconnaissance hours ago to the meeting place, finding nothing except more decapitated trees, more gaping holes in the ground, more foreign clawprints in the dirt, but no town. And no Hiccup and Astrid. She had some bad feelings about this whole thing, and for once she was actually concerned. Amazing, she thought, but it was the truth.

"There's really no need for us to get mad, is there?" Fishlegs said suddenly, twiddling his thumbs nervously, looking up at the trees and the morning light drifting through them.

"When's a good time?" Ruffnut lolled out of the side of her mouth. In some ways, she was looking forward to some action, instead of this stupid sitting around waiting. She wanted to do something, wash out that irked sort of . . . was it fear?

Of course not.

A Thornston relishes fear.

Tuffnut moaned, rolled over on his back, his helmet pulled down over his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest, leaning on the log under her. "We've been waiting for over four hours," he slurred.

Snotlout, sitting besides her, shook his head. "Those kids should be back by now, I mean come on, how long does it take an injured boy and a girl to find nothing?"

Ruffnut peered at him, raised a brow. It was a little cruel way to put things, even for Snotlout.

"Hey, Hiccup was stabbed." Fishlegs had his innocent voice on. "Maybe it wasn't a good idea to let just him and Astrid go by themselves. Maybe they need help or something . . ."

"Astrid can take care of herself," hummed Ruffnut. She was a tough girl, the best, and she was nuts about Hiccup, so she wouldn't just let him get hurt or anything. Ruffnut leaned her head on her hand again. If they were gone this long, she was almost sure they found something. She was tempted to go out and look for them, but Snotlout had the amazingly smart idea of waiting -- it fit with his cowardice, but honestly, it made sense anyway. They wouldn't find them in this forest, and Hiccup did say for them to wait here at the meeting spot.

So here they sat.

She wondered what happened to Toothless anyway . . . the poor thing. And Belch and Barf -- why'd they go flying off like that? Oh, right, the gigantic monster thing. They should be better than that. She puffed a sigh, looked down at her brother.

There was a rustle in the bushes suddenly and Ruffnut perked, lay a hand on the log, leaned up.

"Hiccup? Astrid?" Fishlegs was shimmying over towards the sound, pushing branches of bushes aside.

"Wait--" Ruffnut got up. It didn't feel like it was . . . human. "Fishlegs!"

The growl came now, that fierce threatening roar. She got to her feet and, her brother running ahead of her, stopped behind Fishlegs. She gasped.

The dragon was ugly -- nothing like the beauty that was a Zippleback. Those teeth, why was his mouth so thin and huge like that? The white enamel poking out in an unruly mess, the snout a dark, uneven black, spots of red like maybe he had a messy lunch or something. And the horn at the end of his snout -- white and charred, like it'd been through a fire. He hissed at them again, his body half-covered in the vines and greenery, like the thing was afraid to come out, despite its ugliness. The eyes were big and golden, blinking at them a little too much.

"You got a twitch or something?" Tuffnut spat, stepping in front of Fishlegs and trying to shoo it.

"I think that's a really bad idea, Tuffnut, if you don't mind my saying . . ." Fishlegs pulled Tuff's shoulders back, started backing away. The dragon clawed the moist earth with a curled toe. Fishlegs bubbled, "Maybe we should, you know, leave it alone--" He let go of Tuff suddenly and scampered backwards. "Run!!!!" he shouted. The creature hissed again, his eyes bigger as he watched the Viking teen flee. Ruffnut rolled her eyes and grabbed her brother, turning back through the brambles. The dragon got a bigger roar going, and she could feel it step out of the bushes, its heavy step making her realize the thing was much bigger than she bargained for. "Where's Snotlout?" she asked suddenly.

Tuffnut stumbled, slapped her hand away and righted himself, faced the escaping direction. "You think he hung around?"

Ruff smiled, despite herself. "Naw, he wouldn't would he?" She looked back, saw the dragon gaining on them. Maybe it was time to be afraid? She let out a yell, dashed past her brother, slid down a bramble-covered slope, branches sticking up her sides and sliding past her. She grabbed her braids, held them for a moment, and leapt over a random stack of bushes and junk. She looked back, her loosed braids whirling around her head. "Tuff?!"

He slapped into her suddenly. "You think I'd let you get ahead?" He pounded on forward and she jumped. "Hey!" she shouted and ran to catch him. The forest ran by her in a mad race of red and brown. It was like a challenge, dodge the rocks and logs as fast as you can and don't trip. It was crazy, and she was sure they were out of danger by now. Up ahead she spotted Fishlegs and Snotlout suddenly, paused and looking at them nervously. Snotlout had a plaster of leaves on him and Fishlegs was poking his head from behind a tree trunk.

She turned back, huffed a breath, realized she was dead tired. The forest was quiet behind them, pretty still. "We're okay now, right?" her brother sputtered, his own voice uneven from too much breathing.

"I've been watching, and I think, I think so . . ." Fishlegs' voice was shaky.

Ruffnut peered back. "Of course it's okay." She inhaled, stepped forward, and leaned on the tree trunk behind which Fishlegs was hiding. Her brother stood out in the open, crossed his arms. "Well, what are you waiting for -- I'm heading back."

"Back?!" It was Snotlout.

"Sure, they're waiting for us. You afraid?"

"No, why should I be afraid?"

"Then . . ." Tuff leaned over to the side, peered behind the tree. "Where are you?"

Ruffnut snickered, ran the end of her shoe around in the dirt in front of her. There were tracks here -- of some small creature. Maybe Terrors? Did Herkja have those, too? Earlier that day, when they were all out looking for any signs of that sordid life known as Skirra Véllites, they came across huge holes in the ground which Fishlegs promptly pointed out as the sign of Whispering Deaths, those huge burrowing snakes of a dragon. That was enough to give them pause, and now this mystery creature?

Pride got Snotlout to come along, back with them to the meeting spot. Fishlegs was still cautious, ever careful. An odd orange glow of light dappled the area, coming through the leaves and coloring the fern faces and boulders.

"What happened to you?" came a voice, Astrid's. Ruffnut looked up, saw her coming through the greenery, Hiccup leaning on her, Astrid's arms around his waist.

"What's happened to him?" Tuffnut asked suddenly, getting in front of her and stepping ahead quickly.

"I'm okay, really--" Hiccup's faint voice perked suddenly and she got herself around Tuffnut to see, winced at the stain of red on the battered bandage on Hiccup's shoulder. Hiccup coughed into his fist. "I'm just a little tired, that's all."

"Tired nothing," Astrid snapped, grabbing his waist tighter to hold him up.

"Ach," Hiccup groaned.

"Where were you?" Snotlout pouted. "Some wild dragon just almost killed us." Ruffnut shook her head.

Hiccup looked up at him, made an odd tired and irritated expression before trying to hop out of Astrid's grip. "In a new forest -- I wouldn't be surprised. This place has dragons I don't think Berk has even seen." Hiccup went back to wincing at his shoulder. "You're okay now, I take it."

Snotlout shut up quickly, sulked.

Ruffnut jabbed her brother and he smiled goofily at her.

"You're not going anywhere, Hiccup," Astrid cut in, blissfully ignorant -- purposefully, Ruffnut thought -- on the spat about the dragon.

"Just let me sit down," Hiccup gasped.

"Well, fine, I need you to relax."

Ruff watched Hiccup wince and sit down on the log she had been moping on for the morning. "Yeah, how is he, anyway?" She motioned a hand towards Hiccup.

Astrid gave her a look, something serious and almost critical. "He pushes himself too much--"

"I don't."

"Hiccup, you do. You didn't need to go up there on that tree, I could have done it just fine."

Hiccup sighed sharply and Astrid put her knee on the log, leaned over him and ripped off the bandage from Hiccup's shoulder. Hiccup got a pained look on his face, and looked up to her. "It's due for a change," she hummed and looked over at the rest of them, a convicted nod in her head. "We found the town, that way." She jolted her head to one side.

Ruffnut and the rest of them followed her eyes towards the sunrise's direction. "Finally, progress!" Snotlout gasped.

"Let's do some damage, pronto." Tuff punched his hands together, looked at Fishlegs, who jumped and waved his hand randomly. "We came up empty." His voice was apologetic.

Hiccup shook his head. "That's okay," he hissed, as Astrid took out a fresh cloth from the bag she'd brought along. The boy looked down at his shoulder, the chapped red stains on it, and Ruff pursed her lips to see him hold back a gasp of pain. The guy really had it hard. First his leg two years ago, and now getting stabbed. Who singled him out for all the physical impairments?

Fate was odd like that. She'd stuck her and her brother together, the two most unlikely pair, so go figure with her decisions.

Hiccup and Astrid were mumbling to each other now, Hiccup saying things about his injury. The name "Heather" came out sometimes, from Astrid's lips in heated, not-so-muted anger, and from Hiccup, a calm, a strange sharp calm.

Ruffnut pursed her lips, nudged her brother. This was seriously a time they needed to kick some butt. They could just check out that town right now.

"Huh?" Tuffnut turned to her.

"We're not doing any good here. . ." she whispered, got a glint in her eye.

"Oh, oh, yeah. . ." Tuff caught her drift instantly, poked Snotlout in the ribs and started angling away with her towards the thick of the forest.

That was the one nice thing about a twin.

:: ::

Hiccup sensed the kids leaving, didn't quite know why. . . .

"Hiccup, look at me." Astrid pulled his face to face hers.


She gasped, exasperatedly. "You're thinking too much." She went back to the bandage, mulled her hand around with the herb concoction she made a few hours earlier. She pulled the fresh cloth taut, putting pressure on the injury. Hiccup winced. He looked out, saw that he couldn't locate the other teens anymore. They mentioned something about a new dragon. It's not that he was afraid of that, dragons he could handle, but . . . he didn't have time for those things now. Sure the place was full of interesting things and he was irked that he had to ignore the doubtless abundance of creatures on the island. "You saw those tunnels?" he asked, absent-mindedly.

"You mean the Whispering Deaths?"

"Fishlegs can get quite carried away, can't he?" He hissed through clenched teeth as she pulled one more time. He tried to be casual.

"Yeah, took almost two grown men to pull him away from exploring that thing." Astrid patted his shoulder, paused. "Well, maybe not grown men."

Dad. Hiccup smirked. "Or men at all. . ."

Astrid looked at him, a seriousness in those beautiful blue eyes. It'd been forever since he was calm enough just to look at her, sane enough to just appreciate the loveliness that was his companion in the shenanigans of life. What happened to all the simplicity? By this time, in a beautiful morning like this, post-Induction -- the thought made him shiver -- they might have been going on a date on Toothless or something. Toothless. Why did all the words bring back hard memories?

What became of Induction now? His father . . . what became of him? The war was tough, he'd come out here to look for him, and the kids found him first and now he was here, on enemy ground, and the chief didn't even have a clue. Which really wasn't new, the man never really did pay attention to him, wanted him much . . . since the beginning, apparently.

But what of the two years past? They meant something, and Stoick was trying. Of course he was trying, but he still doubted him. Because it was true to some extent. Why was life so messed up?

And the way he trusted the Skirra Vél, his old brother and his tribe. . . . It had always been Hiccup's philosophy to see the other side of things, that life and people were not who they seemed to be.

Apparently it worked both ways -- someone can be evil without you knowing it. His father was wrong to trust that belief this time. Hiccup looked down at his shoulder, the clean white bandage on it, rubbed in green from the herb mixture she had slapped on.

She had been in his room, and his father had trusted her. He bit his lip, something hot and angry suddenly piquing in the back of his mind. It was something foreign to him, and he was suddenly confused.

"You're thinking about Heather?" Astrid's voice was quiet, and Hiccup glanced up at her.

"I've never been stabbed before," he hummed, trying to make light of it.

Something dark clouded her eyes, and he sensed that she might also be thinking what he was thinking, whatever confusion it was. But with her, the way she was so defensive of him, she didn't usually stand for people kidding him anymore, how much more almost killing him?

"You won't be stabbed again, be sure of that," she hummed, conviction in her voice, edging on hate. His nerves played inside of him; he didn't like these emotions.

"Well, I'm not planning on it," he said quietly. She avoided his eyes, sniffed, gathered up the random supplies she had spilled out on the grass next to the log. He looked out at the forest, tried not to think about it, watched the falling light spilling from the leaves above, the dark green pine needles and the light green ferns and the crumbles of earth covered in moss and vines. The kids were gone. He knew they had left, but now he got the feeling they had really left, and were doing something . . . unplanned.

"Where's everybody?" he asked suddenly.

"Hm?" Astrid paused, looked at him, whirled around suddenly. "Fishlegs?" she called.

"I think they went someplace. . ." He got to his feet, and Astrid grabbed him suddenly. "I can walk, Astrid."

She glared at him. "Fine." She let him go and stepped forward. She exhaled irritatedly. "Now we have to find them."

Hiccup crossed his brows. He had a funny feeling he knew where they'd gone, didn't have any proof. But with Tuff and Ruff irking to get something done, and the way they ran into trouble head-on, and Snotlout wanting to be a hero, and Fishlegs coming along because everyone else was, he had a strange notion that . . . call it intuition.

:: ::

For a man gone missing an entire day in a storm, Stoick sure wasn't taking things easy. Frankly, Gobber was worried.

The roiling clouds of all day had been covered by the blanket of night, but the thick rain still pummeled in the gusts of wind slapping against the solid edifice of the Great Hall. The slick steps up the Hall choked with pressing throngs of Hooligans as Gobber muttered under his breath and shoved his peg leg faster. He glanced up at the swinging fur cape ahead of him, the figure racing up the stairs two steps at a time at speeds he hadn't thought that hulking body was capable of. He grunted and hit the wooden prosthetic harder against the stone steps. He doubted Stoick had even eaten anything the entire day, which hardly seemed possible.

"Yer'd think I was the fellow lost at sea."

"I wasn't lost."

"Spitelout would be mighty glad to hear that."

"Don't get me started on him." The matted fur cape whirled, the wet tangled strands of beard flying back to face him. "That brother of mine should still be out there looking for my son -- I should still be out there."

The fiery eyebrows shooting back at him didn't surprise him. Gobber tapped his helmet, took a step up, level with Stoick. "Spitelout's only using his head. No use losing a chief in the midst of war."

"What about a future chief Gobber? What are we, a bunch of yellowbellies afraid of a little lightning and wind? Even those kids are still out there." A frustrated sigh, the creased moist face turning away from him, continued onward up the steps. Gobber huffed his breath, remained silent, could see the fists balling up underneath the soaked arm bands. Stoick hadn't been in a peachy mood ever since he had been herded back to Berk against his will. He could hardly blame Spitelout and Phlegma and Halldorr for thinking he'd gone mad, refusing to return, driving the exhausted Thornado several times into the waves, screaming Hiccup's name at the top of his lungs through the wind and rain for hours on end. To be endangering the search parties and himself without stop and without shelter for so long in the storm, without a single sign of anything to go on. It wasn't like they were stopping the search, others were replacing the tired rescuers every couple hours.

"You can't fly forever Stoick."

"Says who."

"Your tribe says who. A chief's got that little thing called delegation at his fingertips."

"My son's not a delegating matter."

"He's a resourceful lad. I'm sure he's hunkering down in that ship of his, you know, the latest and greatest thing to come off the Hooligan shipyards. You raved that master war machine's praises like the sum of yer son's achievements."

"That flimsy deathtrap?" Stoick upped a brow at him incredulously, turned and spat over the edge of the stairs. Gobber upped his brows back at him.

"Yeah, flimsy's one of metal's better-known traits. Take it from a seasoned expert," Gobber thumbed his chest, but Stoick was not amused.

"I'm talking sails Gobber. In the plural."

"You're not still sore about that."

"He just plain ignored my objections, just had to keep tinkering and festooning the thing with sails. Drakkars have subdued the seas perfectly fine with one sail, perfectly fine, but no, he had to do it his way. I bet that thing's been flung by the wind and shoved under the sea by now."

"Ah, you're just a fretting parent dreaming up the worst case scenario."

"You're right I am. You wouldn't understand."

"Let's keep my childless life out of this, shall we? You know how I feel about the kid."

Stoick slumped his shoulders, the soggy fur cape drooping even lower and heavier, his boots plodding up the rain-slicked steps. Gobber felt bad for him, could see Stoick briefly looking away from him, knew his friend wanted to take back his untactful outburst. He was just upset, they all were upset. Gobber hobbled closer besides him.

"Let's imagine a brighter possibility for a change. Hiccup's ship didn't overturn, he's not lost, sick, bleeding, frostbitten, swallowed by sea monsters or whatever other calamity yer think has befallen him. Maybe he's even made it to Herkja -- it's a distinct possibility, you've got to admit sheer stubbornness is a mighty force."

Stoick shot a glare at him. "You call Herkja the bright side? My brother's bandits would just love to murder him again. That fool boy -- all for one single solitary dragon. I mean, there's hundreds of dragons here -- they all need his help if it's dragons he's worried about. And I was going to go after Toothless and the whole Skirra Véllite lot myself -- I just needed time."

Stoick grunted something hot and thudded past the towering twin doors of the Hall, plunged into the rippling and murmuring masses of warriors filling the Hall from one end to the other. Gobber limped after him, the warm cast of torchlights flickering hastily across the vast expanse and dancing along the carved curves of dragons and men etched in the walls as the wind ripped inside through the great exposed slit between the open doors that reached nearly to the ceiling. Stoick's squared, stone shoulders whipped around, his hands rising, motioning the last of the people inside, shutting the doors, cutting off the wind. The hands lingered on the door frames.

"If he ever lands on Herkja, I swear I'll just wring his neck with my bare hands. And then ground him for life."

"Yeah, well, that system of discipline worked beautifully before."

The weary green eyes momentarily met his before turning to the multitudes of warriors crowded around and beyond the firepit, the loud hum of their conversation hushing as the Hooligan chief marched up to the apex of the pit, spoke a gentle word to Phlegma and Bertha before taking his position in the midst of the Great Hall. Gobber strode up after him, melded into the line of warriors following Stoick up to the fire circle. The War Council circled around Stoick near the fire, each hovering around the chief on the ready if he required their input. Spitelout, second-in-command, drummed his fingers on the table to Stoick's left; Phlegma the Fierce, organizer of troops, flanked Stoick's right; Halldorr, the head strategist, to Phlegma's right; Gandalfr, munitions expert, on Spitelout's left; while Sven, supply overseer, and Hoark, enemy reconnaissance, arrayed themselves on either end of the circle.

Only one tentative member of the Council unaccounted for: Hiccup, head of dragon forces.

Gobber sighed, picked at his loose tooth. After nights of discussion, it was a modest, apt title they agreed upon. Nothing too beyond the boy's capabilities; in fact, just the perfect niche for him to grow into his role as warrior and future leader of the tribe. Just round him out in the basics of battle, Stoick had told him, and the rest would be dragons. Of course, if he told the kid that, he'd be liable to forget studying war and leadership at all, just bury himself in his dragon obsession. As it was, maybe the kid just didn't have it in him, even as head of the dragon forces. Stoick was right -- the boy had abandoned every injured dragon on Berk just to save one. A noble thing, but not the actions of a leader. Stoick, for all his bluster and resistance of Spitelout to come home, he knew that deep inside Stoick came back willingly, that he knew his tribe needed him, that he couldn't just think of his needs alone, however dire. The war preparations, the readying of his warriors, the overseeing of ship repair -- even the growing concern over the missing teens on search and rescue. The way Stoick looked at Spitelout drumming his fingers on the table, how he spoke a word to Phlegma and Bertha a moment before -- he could tell Stoick was thinking about their children too, now lost at sea in the search for his runaway son. As much as Stoick wanted to be out there, he had a responsibility to them all in this Hall tonight. His own love had to be put aside for the welfare of his people. It was a singular, hard duty, reserved for the chief.

A distinct rustling broke Gobber's musings, made his head jerk towards the circular table around the firepit. A cracked parchment, a map, unfurled across the table surface, Stoick's big hands smoothing the corners down as they tried to recurl. Berk cowered in the lower left corner, a big expanse of nothingness radiating from it, with only a scatter of craggy isles culminating in the biggest of them all in the top right corner, a jut of land labelled Herkja. He could feel Stoick staring keenly at that corner, burning a hole in that ancient parchment with the fire of his gaze.

His voice boomed across the Hall. "Warriors, you know why we're gathered here tonight. You know your objective. I've waited to get you ready, to find the missing, to repair the damage and to mend the injured -- but the wait's over. By morning light, we sail for Herkja. Prepare yourselves for war."


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