Chapter 18: War in the Air
Chapter 18: War in the Air
Chapter 18: War in the Air

15th Dec 2012, 1:46 AM

by inhonoredglory

What was this -- grass? Peat and ugh, man this was awful. Honestly, Ruffnut's slobber was better than this.

Tuffnut grimaced, contained any gagging as the horse jolted him to the side. It was a bumpy ride, and it was fun at times, but to be honest, really, getting hauled around in a wooden basket, lying on your back and staring out of thin slits of wood and breathing in bits of grass and mucky mist was not his idea of a good time. His idea required a bit more freedom on his part -- minus the wooden basket and everything would be cool.

But it'd been this boring for a couple hours now, and even under a bunch of peat, he could tell that the day was winding down now and night was in the air.

He shifted awkwardly in the basket, blew out a sigh. He swore he heard Ruff somewhere on the other side, making some random noise, the kind she usually did when she wanted to get his attention.

He wished there wasn't this horse between him and her. He was looking forward to a nice slap in the face. He could use the shock in his nerves, this constriction was really getting old.

She'd have to make up for that later . . .

Voices suddenly. He blinked, tried to push his face into the mush of vegetation. The slaves were talking. They talked so awfully low, like it was always some secret they were talking about. Which worked fine anyway -- it made listening much more interesting, instead of simple eavesdropping. At least it gave him something to do.

Tuffnut squinted his eyes and listened.


"… again?"


Won't you people speak in complete sentences? One-word conversations were not going to provide him with anything. Tuffnut bent upward, trying not to upset the dumb grass. The conversations before were boring to the extreme, but this time -- even though he only caught a few bits of nothing, the tone sounded fascinating, and he knew there was something in it. Come on, speak up, he hummed in his head.

"I hate it when that happens . . ."

"You realize every time we go out, we could have revolted." This new voice was slick and sharp.

"And risk all those deaths -- again?" came a far away voice, thinner and fainter.

"I'm tired of waiting," the sharp voice came again, and Tuff could read a hint of something foreign in it.

"But Hervi--"

"Is it always about Hervi?"

"He's our chief, he still is . . ."

"You really believe that?" The sharp voice was hot.

"Listen, Vott, so long as Hervi is alive, my loyalty is not changing."

There was a sudden break in the conversation. Tuffnut blinked, scuffed out a bit of yucky moldy grass from his face. It was just getting interesting, too. But now a new sound was coming in. He knew it the moment he heard it. He'd heard it a thousand times before in his eighteen years.

Dragon raid.

The sound was unmistakable, loud and ugly, scary even -- even for him. Tuffnut bit his lip. The scream of warriors, of weapons being prepared. He was literally itching to get out and throw a couple catapults at the wild reptiles, but he punched the peat above him instead, muttering something indistinguishable into the mucky grass. The ruckus was getting closer, louder, and his hands just wanted to get out there and do something.

Curse this stupid grass.

He leaned backwards a little, bent his neck, tried to peek out through the holes in the box he was in. The landscape was changing now, getting sparser and dull. All the lush vegetation was ebbing. They were going up, it was some kind of hillside they were on, with rocks, a lot of rocks underneath them. He could feel the clap of the horses' hoofs on them, the irritated hum of the slave riding the pack animal.

Someone gasped suddenly. "This is bigger--" he gasped and suddenly stopped.

Tuffnut huffed. Bigger than what?

"Double time!" someone shouted suddenly and the horse lurched forward. Tuff held back a yelp at the sudden motion, cursed the stupid change of motion.

"And Rune is ill now, of all the--"

"Can we get the spring water to him on time?" It was a strange harried voice, a foreign woman's voice, with a formality that was -- odd.

"On time before what?" The shrill sharp one.

The woman came back. "I'm afraid. Can't you see those flames? This is -- so much bigger. Someone needs to be in charge--"

"You don't need a ruler to fight dragons," came another shrill foreign voice. "Besides we have Heather--"

"Oh Heather," came that sharp dissenting voice again. Tuffnut got the vibes that this dude was like a bad apple in the group. "She's not the most capable when her father is having one of those episodes."

"Vott, this isn't a time for gossip." This sounded like an older man, someone everybody no doubt thought was wise or something. "Even if I do hate her, I don't like the sound of your voice. Now let's all get moving! Dragons are attacking our homes, or what small part of them that we call ours. Let's man the catapults!"

"You'll see, you might want to side with Hervi, but while you're languishing in negotiations, I'll be spilling Skirra Véllite blood without you."


"Get moving, I know . . ."

And with that the horse chugged forward again, a sudden lurch. Tuffnut held back a belch that would have been messy were it not for the fact that he hadn't eaten for a good four hours.

He had to sit and think about this strange conversation. Sounded like some slave revolt was in the air.

It was going to be exciting. Or at least it better be.

:: ::

Panting, too much panting . . .

Maybe this was what drowning felt like? It could be what drowning felt like. He was wet enough with sweat for that, and boy was he out of breath right now. Maybe he needed to calm down. That's right, Fishlegs, Mama always said to soothe yourself and sing songs when you are nervous.

And boy! Was he nervous.

Panicking was a better word. Hiccup, Astrid, where are you? Fishlegs stepped over yet another fallen branch in the middle of his path. There were too many of those things, out to interrupt his broken running to the first sign of his friends. Stupid twins and stupid Snotlout. He tried to hum something. "Hush, baby, don't you cry, wait for nighty-night to fly . . . dreams--" He caught his breath again. Singing was not going to happen when he was this out of breath. He tried whistling, squinted in the slanting evening light. Whistling. He needed to breathe. He stopped abruptly and gulped in the cold air. Maybe that's what his mother meant it to be -- something to do that it takes so much effort you forgot whatever you were panicking about. He stopped running, heard himself gasp for air. Oh this was just not going to work, was it?


Fishlegs popped his head up. They were familiar. They were familiar!! He perked, stepped forward, didn't know which way to go, oh too many trees. Trees, get out of my way right now. Hiccup and Astrid-- "Hiccup!! Astrid!" he shouted. "Hiccup!" He stepped around a tree, found the blonde head and the struggling shape behind it. They looked ridiculously wet right now, but of course that didn't matter. He found them. "Astrid!!" he shouted.

She whirled her head up, surprised. Her hands shoved forward in some shadow motion, like her axe was still in her grasp. "Hey it's me--" He jumped forward, still exhilarated at locating them.

"Fishlegs." Hiccup's voice was tired. Fishlegs frowned. "I-- I hate to make you any sadder, Hiccup, but . . . the kids -- they left and started for the town, the Skirra Vellite town. The big bad place. In baskets--"

Hiccup raised a brow. Fishlegs paused. He was talking too fast, and Astrid was looking at him like he'd just lost his rocker. "Snotlout and the twins, they found these Skirra Vellites on horses collecting, uh, like water and they just went down the hill and . . . hid in the baskets." He gave a lopsided smile.

Hiccup looked at Astrid and she shrugged. "Fishlegs, you better explain yourself. We know the kids are going after the town. Right?" Her last word was almost critical, and a shaft of evening light cut across her face in a threatening angle. Fishlegs cleared his throat. "Well, sure Astrid . . . when you said the direction--" He gestured with his hands, pointing towards the town. "--they took off and brought me with them."

Hiccup stepped up to him suddenly. "Did they reach the town?" His voice was strangely serious and Fishlegs got a feeling he wasn't feeling all too well. "You all right, Hiccup?"

Hiccup brushed him off, made a motion with his hand for Fishlegs to continue. He jumped a little, felt a bit like there was some kind of subtle panic going on here. Though I guess that sort of made sense considering the situation. Though of course-- "Uh!" He snapped out of himself ". . . no, I mean I don't know, I wasn't with them." Fishlegs popped his lips. "For all I know they could be, like, captured or something horrible."

Hiccup started backwards, threw an irritated hand into his hair and scratched his head, his eyes full of thoughts. He'd never seen Hiccup so flustered, and it honestly worried him. Fishlegs put his hands out to him. "But we can catch up, right? We can try."

"Of course we have to try, that's the only thing we can do right now." Astrid's voice was dry, almost sarcastic, and it surprised Fishlegs. There was something up in the air, he could tell. He wanted to make a remark about it, but suddenly Astrid was heading off in the direction of the town, Hiccup, his head low, following her, silently, almost sadly and yet with a touch of anger that made Fishlegs pause.

:: ::

Toothless knew that the screams meant attack, meant fury, but they only sounded like loneliness to him. They were on the outside, he on the inside.

It was the longest dragon raid he'd seen. Or rather, heard. The narrow openings in the dome above afforded a few glimpses of the battle outside. It wasn't like he needed to see much anyway, the sounds told him all he needed to know.

The screams of dragons reverberated into him even through the thickness of the rock dome, the sound ebbing away and surging as the shafts of sunlight shifted on the arena floor, the small windows of light now dark across the dome, only the light of stars and the fire of dragons punctuating through the narrow openings to the outside world. The passion hitting his ears fired something inside him, something guttural and hot, something he hadn't felt in a long time. It was itching, anxious, exciting, awful -- exhilarating.

If only he could see what was happening. If only he could lead the raid himself.

They were putting up a valiant fight, but still something was terribly wrong. Dragon after dragon was being dragged through the arena, dragged in just like him, led through the ring doors past him into one of the many doors lining the ring, into some still darker tunnels deeper inside the mountain. He'd seen humans capture dragons before, on the old raids on Berk, but never in this large of a number. Something was in the air, something haunting . . . the same fate multiplied a hundred times over, an unknown, fearful destiny awaiting them all.

A dragon raid always had a leader. He was used to that role in Berk. Something swept through him, simmered up his chest, the same guttural feeling he'd felt two summers ago. The delight of each blast, the euphoria of each high-speed escape. Diving unseen, striking unseen, destroying unseen. He always suggested the blackest of nights for the flight to Berk. Those nights, when he led the raids. . . .

The people had pushed him away from the new captives, fastened a rope to his collar and tightened it to a hook in the wall, leashing him to one side of the ring as the captured dragons passed opposite him. A hundred warriors and dragons must have passed by in one day. It pained him to see Nadders and Changewings and even Nightmares and Timberjacks bound and muzzled, cords enfolding their wings and eyes livid with fear. They whiplashed against the ropes in vain. He hummed something warm to these dragons sharing his fate. But they returned only with contempt in their eyes and taunts on their tongues.

Domestic dragon.

Human lover.


He could take those, he could live with someone telling lies about him. But traitor. Traitor . . . that was the worst.

He snarled at the insults, snarls faint in a throat parched shut with thirst. With every new captive who passed his way, he looked for a friendly eye, but the same scorn polluted each one.

The arena lay quiet now, a rare moment with no man or dragon in sight. Now was the time for him to work.

He lunged his head away from the wall. The wound tore into him and the collar pinched into his neck. He snarled at the rope. It tautened into the stone wall around a hook as unbreakable as dragon teeth. He lunged again; the rope held. Spasms shot through his shoulder. He shifted his weight on his three feet, kept his front right leg carefully lifted above the stone floor, only the tips of his claws brushing against the stone. His side felt raw and open. Flies bit into the flesh. He flicked his head at the intolerable insects, a tick running through his right shoulder as another spasm cut into him.

The skin broke. A new surge coursed down his side. It streamed down his scales into the cracks in the stone. It pooled under his feet and reflected back his own weary eyes.

He clenched his jaws. That's all he needed right now.

No matter how much it crusted dry over his chest and leg and filtered into the corners of his toes, the wound always broke again. With every renewed flow, his senses seemed to dull. The pool of blood deepened below him. His claws struck the reflections, echoed ripples across the surface. Beautiful, gentle ripples like the sea. To fall into that sea, rest his body and slip into its softness. Just fall asleep. Lovely, intoxicating sleep.

The feeling hazed over his senses and weakened his legs. The pain receded. Sounds faded and his vision darkened.

He jerked his head back. He shook it tightly and opened his eyes wide. Somehow, he didn't feel comfortable giving in to this. Ordinary sleep wouldn't dull his senses like that. He barely exerted himself all day, yet a profound exhaustion had settled into his core.

He needed the rest. He didn't have much left to run on. Apart from small fishes thrown his way, he hadn't eaten or drunk water in days. Hunger and thirst throbbed in tandem with his pain. Yet now both rhythms faded before a stronger urge, a drive harder to resist than all the hunger and pain and thirst combined.

Could it be . . . the wound draining life out of him?

He glanced down at the red pool underneath his feet, held still to quell the ripples and his racing heart. A black face and glowing eyes gazed back at him, dried froth lining its mouth. The image shifted its chapped lips under the strap, stared back at him, beckoned. What better way to revive himself?

He lowered his head and touched the snout of the image, breaking it. Inviting moisture lapped his nose, yet the smell sent a quiver through him. His head jerked back, his throat knotted. How could he drink his own blood?

Something sparked inside him. He flicked his tail harsh against the stone, grumbled long and low. Of course he could. He had to live. This wasn't Berk. No one will feed or shelter him anymore. This was the wild, and there were no rules.

He thrust his snout into the pool, edged open his mouth as far as possible. Moisture stung the cracks in his lips, but the liquid spiced warm and pungent in his throat. Didn't taste too bad, either. He lapped faster, slapped his snout into the pool with all his might.

A dragon scream halted his motions. The shriek splintered the night outside. A Skrill's scream.


He raised his head, perked his ear flaps up, wetness dripping down his neck. That scream was unmistakable. And familiar. He'd used it on dragon raids himself. A herald to the comrades, a calling to strike now with all fires blasting. Strike the stronghold.

He tensed. On instinct, he crouched low.

The walls vibrated near him. He jolted his head up, eyed the slants of windows in the dome.

A curtain of fire flashed by. Embers sparked through the small windows, fell down the vast vertical space of the dome like shooting stars in the blackest of nights. He sniffed at the sparks touching his nose. Timberjacks.

A flash of embers tickled over his wings, landed on his forehead. He jerked instinctively from the fire's touch, pulled away from the wall, but the leash pulled taut.

Suddenly fire pulsed into the dome above, waved through the narrow slitted openings of the dome. As bright as day, like that night sixty summers ago. Blue lightning fire. That horrid fire.

He jerked on the leash; the edifice shuddered. Lightning streaked through the windows and shot across the dome. The yawning space above him lit up like a night storm. Sparks slashed across the stone surface, down the walls, and over the arena rim. The lightning raced towards him.

He bunched his legs and leapt in the air. A cry seared through his teeth. The crackling fire swept under him and the energy blasted cold, numbing fire by his right side nearest the wall. The numbing coldness flashed through his mind. His feet landed smack on the stone; the impact cut into his shoulder.

The lightning flashed beyond him.

He cringed his neck in a tight curl. He panted hard and fast, blinked several times, held still until the biting pain subsided. He'd escaped the worst. He glanced over to the center of the ring, where the blue fire died. A tremor shivered through his back, but no more lightning shuddered the structure over him. The dome stood, unfazed.

What was he afraid of? Only a Night Fury's fire could crack this thing open.

He tossed his head and hummed.

Skrills can be such show-offs.

I'd never waste fire on a rock like this if I were you. Go for the rock-launchers, Skari. Just my luck I'm stuck in one of your ill-chosen targets.

For all its bluster, Skari's lightning failed to shatter the rock. He almost wished the dome had cracked, but that would be wishing his own doom.

His humming subsided. He should be grateful to be trapped under this thing, considering what that fire could do to him. His father's death was not a laughing matter.

He flicked his head, glanced upward at the now quiet openings in the high dome. Fires crackled in the distance. Skari's shrieking echoed into the night, joined the elated cries of fellow dragons. The way they called and the Skrill answered, the way he directed their movements, he must be the raiding leader.

He felt it all along and it made sense -- that Skari would take over a place, find a way to be at the top of the pecking order in the area. He was the raid leader, and he was here, calling the shots. He knew Skari, knew enough of him to recognize that he'd be the type to pollute the minds of his subjects, as subjects they'd probably be. The way the Timberjacks acted around him made him out to be a king, and Toothless was sure Skari used that power to drive home his schemes, whatever they were -- and this traitorous hate for himself was probably a part of that. Skari would be one to mar his name. Toothless hissed. He didn't care what dragons thought of him, but the fact that Skari had to go out of his way to do such a thing . . . burned him inside.

:: ::

It wouldn't be long now before he reached the town and Toothless.

Hiccup grabbed the rocky outcrop above him, a mash of black shadows hard to see in the dimming twilight. Astrid and Fishlegs toiled somewhere down below him on the ridge. He'd run over in his mind -- countless times -- the various ways a dragon could be captured. Ropes, chains, behind bars or solid rock enclosures, like the kill ring at Berk.

Hopefully the knife he brought would be sufficient to get Toothless out. But it wasn't the physical bonds, really, that concerned him. He was afraid to think of what Toothless the dragon would do, how this kind of capture might affect him, or how much of his wild side might be triggered in the face of uncaring captors.

As much as he wished his worry was uncalled for, he knew it was better than the alternative: that he wouldn't have to worry about Toothless' welfare because the hunt might have happened already.

His jaw locked, and a tenseness flickered through him. He lifted his good foot onto a higher cleft in the rock. He didn't know the Skirra Vél, didn't know if they held the hunt in the middle of a war, or if it didn't matter -- or how they'd run such a thing at all, with a wild rearing dragon as the victim.

Toothless could beat them.

And yet . . . what if he was too late?

It wasn't a time to think of that. Panic did no one any good. He had a solid head on his shoulders, Toothless needed him to have a solid head on his shoulders.

He jumped to the gentler part of the slope, the top of the ridge now incredibly close. He had to concentrate. He leaned his head up, tried to look past the tiny summit of the ridge. Way out there, over the town -- the mad congregation of dragons, hot and angry and incredibly large. The many hours the three of them had trudged through the Herkja landscape, they'd watched the raid gather, watched it loom over the region over the hill, like a strange hub of attraction, mysterious and throbbing. The screams were sharp and yet mottled in the distance, haunting in the cluttered hum punctuated by cries of both pain and pure unadulterated fury.

And the fire -- from both the sky and the ground. It was different fire, some type of new fire, which meant new dragons, than the ones on Berk. And countering that, great masses of Skirra Véllite fire, great efficient clusters of boulders aflame, thrown out in synchronized order, in tight groups so the targeted dragon could barely stand a chance. But the organization and number of those catapults . . .

He had a bad feeling that weaponry here was far superior to that of his Dad's.

He inhaled, squinted and looked out at the dimming light. It was getting dark now. The night was already here. The town was lit with fire, and from the plumes of smoke, he could tell that the dragons were giving a good fight. It was odd -- like they had a purpose in the raid. This was different from the raids at Berk. This wasn't for food. No. There was something else.

He felt a hand suddenly at his side, turned and saw Astrid brushing by him, the grunt of Fishlegs close by. He looked down, frowned to see Fishlegs struggling about twelve armslengths from him. The poor guy had not been ready for a trip like this -- hauling in miles of walking towards the town, back and towards it again. He wasn't made for so much physical labor.

Of course, neither was he. But it was easier to sympathize with somebody else at the moment.

He looked at Astrid, her narrow eyes taking in the chaos in the distance. He watched a moment, the stillness strong between them. She dug her fingers into the dirt of the edge of the ledge, clamored over the summit and swung herself over past Hiccup. He heard a sharp sigh escape her and she whirled around, eyed him and urged him forward with a hand.

They hadn't really spoken much at all that day, not after what happened in the river. It hurt him, he wasn't going to pretend it didn't. But just because he lost something didn't mean he was going to give up. Toothless still came first in his mind, but she had a point, she had a terribly relevant point. His Dad, his tribe, needed him back home. Those dragons -- he didn't want to think about it, the massacre of so many on Berk.

If he could just get to Toothless, he could go back and do something. He just had to get Toothless . . . He closed his eyes a moment, imagined his friend, tried to focus, to put the screams of the dragon raid out of his mind.

"You coming?"

He looked up, saw Astrid, her face hidden in the shadow from the faint glow of sunlight behind her. There was a firm seriousness in her expression, something he was almost tired of looking at all day long. It's not like he wanted her to be happy so much as he wanted her to trust him again. To smile at least through this. Something of confidence. Right now . . . He looked away. Maybe it was too much to ask for, anyway. She was mostly right.

He nodded to her and put his hand out. She took it and hauled him up on the ledge. He exhaled sharply, the cold night air starting to nip at his extremities. He heard the dragon screams again, could feel wingbeats in the air, looked up and saw a great flock of dragons flying past them, silhouetted against the darkening sky, large looming figures, determined and almost slow in their passage towards the fiery town in the distance.

They were so much closer now to the town, close enough to make her nervous, he could tell. She was strumming her fingers now, the palm on her hip. He turned around and leaned over the edge, put his hand out for Fishlegs, who was coming up now. "Thanks," Fishlegs huffed, the boy clearly out of breath.

"Yeah, that's okay." Hiccup pulled him up, and the teen got himself on the ledge alongside Hiccup and Astrid. Astrid pointed to the town, ignored Fishlegs. "It's not far now," she said simply. She sighed, squinted up at the dragon flock again.

Hiccup cleared his throat, touched Fishlegs' arm. "Maybe you go on ahead. I want to talk to Astrid." He kept his voice hushed.

"Oh." Fishlegs looked at Astrid, back at Hiccup. "Something bad happened? Sorry to notice, but I did get a feeling like you two weren't on the best terms."

Hiccup nodded briefly, inhaled. "Yeah . . . a little thing about responsibility."

"Oh . . . ?"

Hiccup scratched the base of his neck. "That I should have stayed in Berk and took care of the dragons." He paused, brought his hand down and stared at it for a moment. He needed to explain things to Astrid. If he was going to be on this journey, on this dangerous mess he got them in -- he needed to talk to her. He looked up at Fishlegs, found the teen's face puckered in concern and cast in a yellow-pink glow of incoming night. He gestured Fishlegs towards the other end of the slope. "-- if you don't mind?"

"Oh-- oh!" Fishlegs waved his hands back and forth. "I'm sorry. I'll go." He stumbled over down the slope on this side of the hill, looking over his shoulder awkwardly and trying to make some sort of smile expression. He knew something was up. Hiccup took a deep breath. "Astrid?" He turned to her, found out she was already staring at him.

"I think we had that talk already, Hiccup," she said simply.

"You don't understand, Astrid, I need to be here -- for Toothless. I can't do anything without him. Remember Alvin? Before he died . . . way back, when we kept the dragons on Dragon Island, and Dad thought I was doing something stupid going after Alvin myself? Maybe this isn't so different. Maybe I need Toothless before I can do anything."

She eyed him critically. "Maybe . . ." The quiet word offered no confidence. She shrugged, looked back up at the sky. It was a closed deal, or Astrid was trying to make it that way. It wouldn't be wise to push it, would it?

He followed her gaze, as she started stepping down the slope towards the town. The treetops opened up along the slope below them, revealed a vast valley stretching out and rising into a range of smoking peaks on the opposite side. Spread out to the left was the interior of the island, a crescent-shaped natural harbor opening to the sea to the right. Ships clustered in the crescent's apex.

And framed in the center was the town -- a dark, burning mass of houses and grass-roofed huts, a sprawling expanse easily six times larger than Berk. Great rows of houses circled and centered upon a central uplift, a dome-like hill at the edge of the town that rose into the mountains far on the other side. Massive structures rose up above the houses with fires in their great bowls, rows of catapults surrounding the town on all sides firing hot and angry into the sky still thick with dragons.

Familiar dragons -- Timberjacks, their massive wings wide and threatening against the fading twilight, Snaptrappers, liquid in their movement, swimming through the sky bobbing their four heads, and tiny dragons like Terrors except he couldn't make out if they were in fact not a new variety he'd not known before. And then the Skrill, he could locate that one anywhere, flashing in and out of the dark cover of night-darkened clouds, shrieking among the dragons around him, the others responding, almost like they were following him. Bolts of lightning flashed out of the distinctive jaws, into the town. There were old dragons he knew at home, strange dragons that seemed familiar, and yet there was something new. . . .

In the light of the fires, dragons on the ground, unable to escape. He could see clusters of them, trapped it seemed. "Astrid--" He stepped forward, caught up with her, put a hand on her arm suddenly. "It's dragon cages, they're capturing the dragons. That's why the dragons are so angry. That's why--"

She peered at him. "Why?" Her eyes sparked with life, action.

Toothless. What if-- "Maybe Toothless is in one of those cages. They're not killing the dragons, they're still alive--" He leapt forward, his breath fast suddenly.


He didn't pause for her, kept running down the hill, through the thick tall grasses and praying his prosthetic wasn't going to slip.

"Hold it, Hiccup." Her voice was suddenly sharp.

He slowed, didn't stop, but slowed . . . Her breath came louder in his ears, and she was next to him, grabbing his arm, the night now a harsh black on her round face. "You think you're so close you can just traipse in there. I know how impetuous you are."

He sped up faster, getting a streak of something rebellious in him. "It's dark and from the looks of things, they got more stuff to worry about than a dead Hooligan kid."

He heard a heave of breath, knew she was trying to gain on him. "Don't you get it? That's just the point. Your resurrection is going to crack some helmets down there and our whole cover will be blown." She grabbed his arm abruptly, whirled him and stopped him. "Let me and the kids go in first, to scout where Toothless is."

It was his time to be tough. She wanted a leader? Well she was going to get one. "I'm not going to sit here and twiddle my thumbs, Astrid. They've seen all of us, so it wouldn't matter who they see now. As if I'm going to run in there without some kind of plan, anyway." He bent down, dug his fingers into the muddy earth below and smeared his face. He was angry now, he could feel it. A strange feeling. He locked eyes with her. "This thing we're doing here is dangerous. I'm not going to let you guys run in there alone. This is my fight. And if it's true I'm the one who messed up, I'm the one going to fix it."

Astrid raised a brow, didn't let go of the stare between them. "And this is a good idea?" She touched his cheek, swiped the mud from it. "You can't even protect yourself. It's never been one of your strong points." She moved her hand in the way she would as if her trusty axe was still in her grip. "This is war here, and what do you have -- a tiny knife to defend six people who don't know what they're stepping into. You need to be prepared to kill in a place like this. You need to be prepared to do things you've never done before. Yeah, it's serious. What you did was serious."

He bit his lip, kept the gaze. How did she always have a point? Something new to haunt him? He couldn't bring himself to sink a weapon into a captured dragon. . . so to wield it against an actual human being?

She broke the stare, passed him and slowly paced on down the hillside through the grass. He watched her, her silhouette against the sunset, her thin form against the beauty of the sky, against the scream of the dragons that still haunted the clouds, against the forest and the grass and the valley below.

:: ::

The last hints of sunset had completely disappeared by the time they reached the couple first houses of the town, and the rush of dragons seemed to have eased. The dark shape of a grass-roofed hut shadowed him from the light of the rising moon. Hiccup inhaled -- something he'd been doing in almost gasping spurts for a while now, ever since he and Astrid and Fishlegs finally got into the shadow of this place. A prick tingled along the skin of his hands, his chest rising and falling faster. It was almost an excitement, yet a strange frightened excitement running through him and making his body sting, like he was about to do something dangerous and he knew it. He glanced back and forth, cautious, breathed in the pungent, moist odor of the living grass growing along the backside of the hut. He stopped, almost afraid to move, stopped breathing for a moment, almost expecting a crunch in the grass on either side of him. For a second he expected the kids or Snotlout to jump out . . . wishful thinking.

No one was in sight, and only a hot crackling sound broke the silence. He neared the hut, peered around its back towards the right, where another house, a wooden half-ship structure, was crackling in flames undoubtedly set by a wild dragon. The gaseous hot air licked up into the starry night and the embers sparked past him. The heat fanned his face and parched the moist mud on his cheeks. He felt a body near him, Astrid's, right behind him, and then the jolt of Fishlegs' body shoved up against them both. He turned away from the crackling fire, saw Astrid's mud-smeared face suddenly tighten and her blue eyes widen, looking past him. He turned to look back but she grabbed his arm and pulled him away, and Fishlegs sputtered something panicked and high-pitched.

"Pouvez-vous m'aider?"

Some foreign voice, behind them. He whipped his head around, his heart shoving into his throat. She was just a few feet away, the small silhouette against the blinding light of the burning house.

They could take care of this, he could. Hiccup stepped forward from the other two. The woman focused on him, smiled, approached with several wooden buckets in her arms. She nudged the buckets towards them, hummed something like she was asking if they understood. Her eye flicked towards someone behind him and Hiccup turned, saw Fishlegs shake his head in a sort of trance, his eyes locked with fear.

"Need-- help," she hummed, motioning with her hands towards the burning houses behind her. Her Norse was broken, forced, her voice thick with an unknown accent. He glanced up at her face again, that strangely foreign face, and the stain on her right temple, that rounded, dragon-headed pattern. He'd seen it on that slave Hervi before, the brandmark.

She stepped closer and suddenly a flicker of light from one of the burning houses touched her. She was slightly-built, surely still in her thirties and yet she looked older. Her dark hair was tangled, her plain wool dress was stained and ripped, and her feet -- they were bare and even in the night he could tell they were hard and calloused.

She was a slave, another one like Hervi, and this was the place where slavery was alive, where slave selling still happened, where the things that piqued his conscience back at the Great Hall when these people were friendly -- where these things happened. A forceful sense of compassion filled him, and he stepped forward.

"Help?" she said, a suggestive lilt in her voice. She must have been European, from some tribe on the mainland. She clacked the buckets towards them, an almost desperation in her voice. The fires behind her were thick and growing, and there were still shouts of dragons and Vikings all over the landscape, thuds of explosions that marked yet more hubs of destruction.

"Excuse us, ma'am, but we're kind of . . . busy."

Hiccup turned around, suddenly remembered Fishlegs' voice and saw him quivering there, pointing out the understated fact with a chubby finger. Astrid was staring back at him, searching for his eyes, trying to say something committed and firm. Her eyes narrowed ever so slightly, but he could tell something hot and angry was behind them. He raised his brows. It wasn't hard to figure out her conviction on this matter.

This person is a slave, she needs help.

That help is going to get us killed.

Everything I do here is going to get us killed.

You're here just for Toothless, you're not here to be a hero.

I won't walk away from this, Astrid. Not like this.

Hiccup narrowed his eyes at her, broke the stare. She wanted to make him stop caring, she wanted to make him drop everything to get back to Berk. He left her, with her fists in tight balls hanging down her side, turned and went up to the slave woman, taking one of the buckets from her arms. The woman smiled down at him, like some soft vision. "Oui! C'est génial!" she said, a beautiful, honest sincerity in her voice. This close, he could see the wrinkles under her eyes, the strain in her face, the evidence of years of labor etched in her features. He couldn't imagine what it was like to live this kind of life, to live in service to strangers and enemies.

He fumbled the bucket in his hand, let the weight rest on his good arm, kept in step with her as she turned around and walked down into the smoke and buzz of the town behind her. She said something quick and commanding, in that foreign tongue, her arm flinging behind her in some forward motion. Hiccup looked back, saw Fishlegs a step ahead of Astrid, an uncertainty in his step, Astrid firmly still, her arms crossed and her eyes shifting down at her boots. Fishlegs said something and Astrid looked up, turned a narrow gaze to Hiccup.

He looked away, looked out at the town, the destruction in the darkness. He could feel the heat searing in the atmosphere, smell the strange thickness of ash in his lungs. A mix of dull blue light and sharp orange color played across his path, black shadows from the houses around jutting into the colors. The structures were parting, encircling something black and glinting. Burly men and lanky teens, hands lugging buckets, stood in a disorderly mass in front of ten huge barrels pumping out water through spigots. The slave woman stepped into the mass, glanced back and motioned her hand for him. She blurted out something in her native tongue, whipped a hand at the crowds, pushed through towards the source of water. There was a hum in the crowds, a grumble and laughter, as she found a path in the disorganization. He heard the splash of water, and suddenly saw her beckoning him, her arms heavy with buckets wet and spilling with water. The people around glanced at him, set their eyes and almost smiled at him, their faces dusky from smoke and toil. It was a strange mixture -- faces he knew belonged in other tribes and cultures. One crooked figure stepped up to him, almost threatening, hummed some words he couldn't understand. "Huh?" he whispered, leaning back, scuffing the dirt with his prosthetic. The stranger looked down at his metal leg, squinted, and Hiccup followed his gaze, realized -- hoped the fact of his disability was not something that might give him away. It was such a simple thing, hopefully lost in the fact that missing limbs were a way of life with Vikings in general. And maybe Heather hadn't gotten around to putting out descriptions of him to her people. After all, he was supposed to be dead.

He stared back at the inquiring face that was taking him in. Only the Skirra Véllite Council would recognize him, that and Heather. Here he was relatively safe, or so he tried to believe. The stranger hummed something, still in that foreign tongue, barely audible, and twitched a finger over Hiccup's cheek. A chip of caked mud flecked off, and Hiccup stepped back, around him, and tried to move forward. The stranger grumbled something, let him pass, and looked down before melding into the crowds again. Hiccup watched him, felt the weight in his movement, like age despite the fact that he looked just about as young as the woman who led him here. And the brandmark -- also there present on the left side of his face, closer to his cheek. Hiccup let his eyes wander, tried not to look like he was intruding, or watching . . . noticed that most of them had the mark, young ones and old ones, even children. And those who didn't have the mark seemed to carry themselves with a sort of authority over the others, that despite the shared role among them, held a distance from those with it.

A rush of some warm breeze tickled over his cheek and he blinked in the irritation of the ash that clouded near his eyes. He squinted, turned and went towards the water source, the slave woman still holding the spigot ready for him. He shoved his bucket under the flow of water, and she waved him off, her hands motioning towards one of the many flaming structures. He nodded briefly, backed out of the crowds and got lost in the hum of people that flowed around him suddenly. A short distance from him, outside the crowd, he could see Astrid and Fishlegs, looking expectantly at him, not quite sure what he was doing.

He turned from them, started for one of the burning houses. Maybe he didn't quite know himself. He just wanted to help, wanted to relieve some of the hardship that he read in that woman's face, and somehow do something that he believed was right. He moved to a house where irritated shouts of Vikings still stung the air. And maybe it was more about Astrid than anything. He turned back and watched her, her expression something like scorn now, yet tired.

It was hot now, the air around him, and he looked ahead, saw the house on fire in front of him, the flames flickering and almost beautiful. Heavy, tall Skirra Véllites passed him, shouts in the air, and the occasional swoosh of a woman's dress. He threw his bucketful of water into the flames, watched the small segment hiss into ash, black and crumbled, like a patch of shadow in the midst of orange.

What could he do in this place? He came here for one reason, to help Toothless, to get out and do something for his Dad. The slave girl . . . he pitied her, wanted to help her, but really, what could he really hope to accomplish here for her? He sat the empty bucket down on the ground.

"Hey, are you Irish?"

He whirled, at the peppy voice behind him. She was a young girl, something like his age. "Where'd you get so dirty?" She stepped up to him suddenly, smacked a wet hand against his face.


She pulled her hand away, flapped the mud off of it.

He looked her down, clapped a hand to his own cheek and rubbed off the sting of her sudden contact.

"What's your problem, Pretty Face?" she hummed, smirking at him. "I asked a question, you Irish?"

"Don't be stupid, sis, he's got no slavemark, 'course he ain't Irish . . ."

Hiccup stepped back, suddenly saw a new face, a tall lanky teen with curly, messed-up hair. He looked back at the sister, and she leered back, giggled suddenly. He pulled back, a bit confused. She was an impetuous young girl, slim in a blue-gray furred coat and a belted tan tunic, her white face long and her hair even longer and whiter, a blond so white and cold it was like the the moon. Unbraided except for two little strands that ribboned around the side of her head and connected in the back.

"You lookin' at me, boy?" she lisped suddenly, the orange of the fires around playing off her sharp features.

Hiccup blinked, shook his head. "No -- no, I was just--"

"Well, that's all right by me, so don't fret." She twirled a finger around her hair. Her brother came up behind her, his expression like there was something wrong in the air. She continued to stare at Hiccup. "So where you from? I haven't seen you around, and I--"

Her brother suddenly pinched her in the arm. "Hey!" she shrieked, glared at him.

Hiccup winced. "Sure I better just, you know -- go. . ."

"Olaf, look watcha did, you scared him. Listen, Pretty, don't go yet, I don't even know your name." She grabbed Hiccup's arm, the force surprising him. He locked eyes with her, found the pupils dark and heavy. "I really need to go right now, if that's all right." He jerked his arm away. She eyed him, a playfulness suddenly teasing up her expression. "Name's Tilda. You?"

Hiccup stepped around her, noticed Astrid suddenly afar, Fishlegs holding her back. She was on the verge of bursting out of the hold, jumping out of Fishlegs' grasp. This Tilda person was just a little too pushy, something he didn't need right now. Dragon screams were still hot in the air, distant but hot. Ash was thick everywhere, and this little confrontation was getting some attention from the surrounding slaves and Skirra Véllites. It was making him cringe. He stepped away, turned, realized he couldn't head back to Astrid and Fishlegs. Not now. He couldn't bring attention to them.

"Wanna chill at the dragon cages?" Tilda's cool voice was suddenly near his ear. He bit his lip, wanted to get out of here . . .

But the dragon cages . . .

"There's some awesome new dragons they got there."

Hiccup paused suddenly, looked down. "What dragons?" Maybe . . .

Toothless . . . if he was there and the town was so big and this person seemed to know something about the dragons this people were caging.

"How would I know? I ain't no dragon expert. Sheesh." She stepped away, and he could feel her sigh. He turned his head up, looked at her. She had her arms crossed in some sort of irritation. He wanted to ask her what they were doing with the dragons, what they were capturing them for. It was in such a large number, in such a seeming hurry, and it fit with what happened back at Berk. There weren't too many options, really, when it came down to it . . .

"How fast can they train these guys now?" he said, slowly, looked at her, prodding her gray eyes.

Her brow raised. "The big shots are pretty new at this stuff. Week, maybe less? How should I know?"

Hiccup felt his heart flicker suddenly. So that was what they were up to at Berk, picking their brains and getting every Hooligan on Berk to trust them. That's what they were up to, that Heather snuggling up to Toothless, stealing Toothless. Killing so many dragons and now enslaving so many more. He closed his eyes, inhaled. They couldn't be as efficient as the Academy was at dragons. He might have shared his secrets, but he hadn't shared himself, and while he didn't intend to brag, but he could do things with dragons nobody else could. He wasn't a Dragon Whisperer for nothing. The Skirra Véllites couldn't dream of being such a thing, and no one who treated dragons in the way he figured they'd treat them -- like mercenaries. No dragon would take that. So Berk still had a chance, then?

Yeah if he was there . . .

He opened his eyes. He needed to know more about this training thing they had going, he needed to know how far along they were on it, how they hoped to train them, and what he could do to stop it. Because if they had dragons, if they could use them the way Berk could . . . . Berk was saved because of their dragon force. If the Skirra Vél was hoping to even the odds, a successful run at dragon training might just balance the scales.

She was still looking at him, a hint of something curious, honestly curious crossing her face. She drew her finger up, curled her hair around her ear. "But you, maybe you know something about dragons? Sounds like it . . ."

Hiccup narrowed his eyes. ". . . yeah?" he mumbled, glanced at Astrid, who was holding back now, eyeing him with a questioning look. He nodded ever so gently to her, hoped she'd understand. "I'm very interested in dragons," he hummed.

She leaned in and put a hand on his shoulder, got her face close to his and whispered, "Then you have a date."

"This is just great . . ." It was her brother.

"Shut up, Olaf."


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