Chapter 21: The Escape
Chapter 21: The Escape
Chapter 21: The Escape

25th Jan 2013, 5:10 PM

by inhonoredglory

The night was clear, the ocean still and stretching limitless in the darkness. The full moon washed the waters in the brilliance of day, the cold light sharp and beautiful. Only the jagged shards broke the sea's clean surface, the slivers of wood black and scattered over the void of the deep. Stoick paced faster on the deck, faced starboard on the Drakkar.

The wreckage of one third of his fleet, destroyed by the cursed sea monster, lay sprawled across the ocean.

There had been no warning. Before he could call his men to order, walls of water rose above the sails and collided onto the deck. And in the madness, he was smashed against the mast, the wood splitting, ships overturning, and the eerie cries of dragons muffled in the crashing water. Fleeing, but not escaping. His men flattened on the deck, bracing for whatever fate this Great Dragon intended to inflict on the helpless army. A living, fire-breathing mountain shivering shards of water above him, its roar splitting his mind and its eye bloodshot with wrath. The green barnacled mass of head rising so close out of the waves, almost underneath the ships.

Yet the monster shuddered and groaned, the very deck vibrating with its roar, sucking the waters into its teeth-laced mouth. In a wild moment the mountain sunk under the sea, screaming at a wicked pitch that slammed his ears deaf. He thought the sound alone would suck the ships into its depths. His back held rigid against the mast, his eyes wide open searching for Valhalla, but the darkness didn't come.

The dragon never returned to finish them off. He watched for hours afterwards, the sun slipping below the horizon as his men regained their senses and rescued those thrown overboard. His ears were dead for hours, the deafening roar was that loud. He was deaf to the calls of returning dragons and even the cry of Thornado landing back on the ship, the dragon watching, waiting, like him. But the Great Dragon never came back. He thanked Odin for this mercy, yet . . .

The gods were displeased. He knew that much. They spared him this time, but the warning could not be more mortally clear.

He stopped pacing. The deck boards creaked as he paused, a certain mush in the sound, the ship gasping for air. The boards were waterlogged, and the night had fallen so fast and so cold, they never dried. A soft dripping sound to his left, muffled in the moist boards and almost covered in blackness. The sail dripped over the spot, its edges thick with water streaming down to the deck below. Its fabric was so white in the moonlight, so white and wet and sleek that it blinded him. He waved his hand over his face, tried to swat the light away.

If Hiccup was still alive, Fate had hidden the boy from him. Three days of empty sea, three days of sleeplessness, three days of beseeching the favor of Deity. So often he spoke without words, just mouthed the phrases because his lips tired of reliving the burning pain in his heart. Was it too much to ask, to bring back his only son?

Now, after that encounter, he knew the gods were saying no.

He didn't need to ask why.

He turned his face to portside, the sharp wind smacking his cheeks cold and threading through the braids of his beard. Sharp salt in that wind, a bite he usually relished, but not tonight. Stark silhouettes dotted the sea on the other side, ships clustered together, others alone, all their sails rolled up. He squinted, saw hurried shapes of men, his men, pumping oars in the water, the splashing strangely loud. The ships formed a broken circle, a formation he ordered just for the occasion. He suddenly felt his own ship moving under him, heard the clap of oars on either side, clapping and smacking the sea towards the circle's center. His warriors stood in the water of that center, balancing on broken shipboards and angling those boards with oars from the boats. They were creating a structure out of the wreckage, a formless mound floating among the pieces of Thor's wrath. Already, its center was rising up to deck level, the clusters of debris hammered in layers atop each other to form a craggy plateau of driftwood. The structure was almost solid now, firm enough to land on and carry out the ceremony.

He told himself it was necessary. The fathers had practiced this rite for hundreds of years, maybe thousands. Berk had few during his lifetime, but then Berk had been one of the lucky islands. It was only done for the bad times, times of extreme famine and war. Back in the ancient days, they sometimes used humans, but this age was different now, and he was an enlightened chief. The very thought repulsed him.

Maybe the gods would be pleased with a dragon instead.

The ship lurched, the hull thudding against the edge of the floating structure. Stoick caught his breath, suddenly realized the loud lapping of the water along the frame, that it was about the only sound he heard. Of course it was. He'd sent almost all the dragons away by now. He scanned the ships within the circle, the masts and decks bare of any wings or scaled heads. Even Thornado's wide flat body was strangely absent from occupying his Drakkar's floor. The decks contained only half the men, too. He'd sent half with the dragons, told them to fly not too far to sea and not too long. Just long enough for the moon to dip one-third its way back to the horizon. It couldn't take much time, not very much time at all, and it was wise to keep the dragons ignorant of . . . such human rituals.

Only one dragon remained. A Monstrous Nightmare, injured in the encounter when a ship overturned. It probably wouldn't make it. At least, that's what he told himself.

He noticed Gobber hobbling towards him, those bushy eyebrows covering his eyes more than usual. And the sarcastic mouth, a little less sarcastic, a little too quiet. The plank was already let down onto the island wreck, and the old veteran was pausing over the board, as if afraid the arrangement posed too rickety a risk for his bum leg. But he knew that wasn't his concern. Stoick turned away for a moment, bent down to a sea chest. The lock opened easily, and the weapons inside were clean and sharp enough. A hammer, a sword, and an axe. Obviously, not the hammer this time. He mused only a moment, deftly reached for the axe handle, and eased upright. He walked forward, could sense the remainder of his men at the oars rise behind him and follow. He passed by Gobber, almost not looking, and began to walk down the plank.

"Yer know Stoick, you might want to give this sacrifice a bit more thought."

Stoick paused on the plank, his breath sharp in his throat. He didn't look at Gobber, only far out ahead beyond the ships, towards a certain horizon. That horizon he coveted to reach, the one Hiccup ran off for. He grasped tight the axe handle, tapped the wood end against his belt.

"Gobber, I've already thought this through." He held his breath, could feel his friend stepping the plank behind him.

"I know, the gods are a driving bunch. They require much. It's just--"

"It's not like we haven't done this before."

"Yes, yes."

"I've never done it rashly, always, only, during the most drastic circumstances."

"True, very true."

"And my boy is such a circumstance."

A silence behind him, a brooding silence unknown to Gobber's temperament. Stoick almost turned around, wanted to look his friend in the eye if it hadn't been for his precarious balance on this plank and thus the impracticality of such a move.

Gobber's voice lilted behind him again, somberly thoughtful. "I know this whole thing today, everything these days, looks hopeless. I'd shiver in my skivvies too if we really riled Thor in his heavens. . . ."

"But . . ." Stoick paused, waited for Gobber to finish his thought.

"Yer don't even know why the gods are angry."

"Do I need to know?" He squared his shoulders, waited for his friend's next words, words he knew were coming.

"You want to please Thor, but did ye think of Hiccup?"

"He's the reason Gobber -- for all this--"

"And yer choice of offering . . .?" Gobber eyed him sarcastically, quietly.

"I'm not doing this to please him--"

"But yer doing it for him."

"Big difference."

Stoick heaved a breath, took a step down the plank. Gobber fell silent behind him, only the scraping of his peg leg on the wood as they walked down. As much as he hated to admit it, Gobber was right. The moment this idea came to him, he couldn't stop thinking about Hiccup. No matter what angle he took it, Hiccup wouldn't understand. How could he? He wasn't sure himself. If this had happened two years ago, things would be different. No one would question it. It was tradition, it was the Viking way. It still was.

Tonight won't change anything.

His boot bottomed into water on the first step on the platform. The broken boards were only loosely fastened together, not really meant for walking over, since they wouldn't last the night anyway. He had to jump a couple steps, almost tiptoeing to the next pile of boards before his weight sunk his ankles in seawater. He grunted, hurried his step until his feet planted on the more solid portion of the structure. He felt the squish and grunts of his men behind him, encountering the same obstacle course.

He looked up, suddenly lurching, a bit unsteady, probably from the unstable footing. The small ritual fires were already lit along the edges of the jagged driftwood island, and in the center, at the very peak of the plateau, was the dragon. The blood-red Monstrous Nightmare, lying on its side, its body so long half its tail dipped into the water and its head curled back to prevent it from submerging in the sea on the other side. It lay perfectly still, breathing visibly, its side rising and falling in rhythm. He could tell it was asleep, must be sleeping soundly after they fed it a couple barrels of mead to ease its pain from the broken wings. After they saved it from underneath that shipwreck, he knew from one look it couldn't fly again. And what kind of life could a dragon have anyway, if it couldn't fly?

The last thought suddenly spiked his heart. The bitter irony. He firmed his mouth, refused to think about it. He lifted himself over the broken, jutting pieces before him, climbing upward. The crackle of the torches near him, drowning even the sound of lapping water. Not even the hum of conversation behind him, though he knew from the sucking footsteps that his men were close behind. Many of them had their own dragons. He had his own dragon. The breathless feeling in the air, so thick as he laid his foot down, like he was stepping backwards.

He stood on top of the edifice now, the warm glow of firelight flickering its way over the boards and bathing bright the breathing body before him. It was beautiful really, the hot firelight against the backdrop of cold, dark sea. The light shimmered on the orange webbing of its wings, the glint reflecting off its scales and closed eyes. The small grunts it made, he thought it might be waking, but no, its chest still rose and fell deeply and its eyes never opened, still locked in sleep. It couldn't feel anything.

He edged closer, stood over its neck, suddenly pinched tight the axe in his hand. A shiver rushed through him, cold and uncomfortable, as he stood there. The image of the dragon lying there, just lying still, only breathing, not even aware of him in its dreamless state of sleep. Suddenly what Hiccup said rushed over him, the story his boy told two years ago after all secrets were revealed. The beginning of the story, the part about the downed dragon in the woods. He heard his boy say it, but now, tonight he knew what he meant.

Stoick shut his eyes, felt his fists tighten and his chest heave with something deep inside.

It had been two years after all. They weren't nameless anymore. They lived with them, protected them, shared their lives with them. He couldn't pretend this was his enemy.

Hiccup.

The name hovered like a curse in his mind, a reprimand against this very act dedicated to his son's life. Everything Hiccup fought for, everything the boy tried proving a hundred times to him, he knew he was breaking it.

He glanced up to heaven, the darkness there despite the moon. The cold stare of the stars, that brittle stare of the host of heaven. The whole dome held its breath, a cold breath touching him, watching him. Waiting for him.

He watched back into the endless sky. They'd been waiting a long time for this. He thought Deity had forgotten, that the years had washed this under the sea of time. That time twenty years ago, his Induction Day, his deception to win Valla's hand, and his brother's rage and banishment. But even more than that, it was the year after Induction. The love of both their lives, dying. Dying for a runt of a baby, a baby he should have left in the cold and rain, if he wanted her to live.

He could see that face, his own flesh and blood, when Rune came back, returned to Berk despite the sentence of exile. Returned for her. His brother was broken -- he was broken. Almost broken enough. But when he heard about Valla, about the child responsible for it all, his mind went mad. The wrath, the choking pain, in that face as he stormed out of the house. Stoick almost summoned the Council to contain his brother, but Rune was already at the docks, setting sail, resuming his own exile. He screamed hatred over the water, hurled black oaths against the child born of deceit. He swore the curse on all the gods in the heavens and earth. Witnesses to that day, witnesses to a vengeance sure to come to pass.

He never thought the gods would honor that curse. But maybe, he was wrong. Maybe, this wasn't as simple as winning a war, or finding a missing boy at sea. If they honored his brother's wild outburst twenty years ago, maybe they'd heed this action now, and reverse Fate.

He was sure of one thing. He'd sacrifice anything to free his son from the penalty of his past.

:: ::

When you're trapped in a cage under the watchful eyes of your enemy, with suspicion running fast in their minds, and one chance to get away . . . time is a commodity you must use very wisely.

"Toothless--" Hiccup gasped. The dragon growled, eyes darting from him to the audience above.

"Let's get out of here, okay bud?" His voice was muddled and lost in the growing confusion, the cacophony of voices echoing into the chamber in which they'd trapped Toothless. There must have been something forbidden about touching the prize dragon, or the Night Fury -- either way, he felt a sense of shock in the crowd from him being where he was. Any minute now, he and Toothless would lose their precious moments to escape. Astrid's distraction was a help, but how long would an alcohol fire last? How many barrels of mead did she find up there?

Hiccup ignored the people above, breathed in and coughed in the smoke that was filling the air. The fire was growing, sure, but so was the fact of his presence. He could hear the popping spark of catching fire, smell the waft of burning liquor and now fabric. Toothless nudged his head at him, limped forward once, a waver in his expression, a shake in the formidable gaze of his green eyes. It was the injury, Hiccup knew, that was making Toothless smart. He lay a reassuring hand on the dragon, ran alongside him as they raced to the edge of the wall. If anyone knew what it felt like to be stabbed, he could certainly qualify. It must have been recent, too, or Toothless would not have minded so much. But Toothless was stronger, stronger than he was, and this thing done upon him by evil, evil hands would be no match for his will.

There were too many doors in this place, those large stone gates with levers and pulleys on them, and across from him, at the center of the rows, a grated metal panel. It was just like Berk, with the hinges on top, and the poles that would kept the thing open and the notches in the ground where the poles could be levered against. If he could just get the door open--

Toothless was there already, clawing at the grate, hissing, growling at it. Hiccup waved him off, got his fingers under the lower rows of metal, shouted for Toothless to get his teeth under the base of the panel, once he got it up-- up finally. Man, the thing was heavy, and his stabbed arm was hurting now with the pressure and Toothless -- he could see the fire in his eyes, that despite the fresh stain of blood on the dragon's side and shoulder, he was too mad to complain.

And then the voices above . . .

"The madman-- hey!!"

"Get that boy!"

:: ::

It was strange, to see that face in her mind. Not much, just a flash. A horrid, horrifying flash of his scared, desperate face. She closed her eyes outside the door of Rune's room, focused on the idea that she was going to check up on Toothless. That's what she was going to do, of course. Check on that dragon which almost killed her, which she saved from the tradition of the hunt, that was probably still the only hope and proof that training dragons wasn't just an outlandish, traitorous idea.

But Hiccup's face--

Was her father's illness getting now to her? The delusions. Was that how this worked?

Heather exhaled, squinted in the moonlight, let the faint glow of the town drift into her eyes. Orange fires, blue-white light from above, blackness and dark shadows, and a hum she had missed, the hum of a town alive and with a purpose. She'd been away from this all for months staking out the Hooligans at sea, those months, those years she and her father had dedicated to revenge. It was a just thing they'd done, a just thing she'd done. She murdered for her father. The word in her mouth suddenly tasted awful, as if it were something she should regret. Something in her gut. But-- No.

She had a purpose in it, no matter how hard it was, she'd done it for Rune . . . and for herself. She wanted her father back, that's the only thing she wanted. Surely anyone would understand.

"Heather?"

Anyone would understand . . .

"Heather, master?"

She whirled at the voice, blinked in the darkness. Why was she making excuses suddenly? "The boy's dead and gone, Hervi," she said mechanically.

The slave stepped closer to her, put a hand out. She could make it out vaguely in the black. "Heather?" He clearly didn't understand what was going on right now.

"I'm sorry. What is it you want?" She focused on him, heard a scream somewhere. Dragon screams. It made her wince suddenly.

"The saddle, master, for the dragon." He held up the battered leather saddle she'd seen on the Night Fury before, the one with the strings and straps on it, a million complicated pieces so thoughtfully put together. She stared at the saddle suddenly, ran a timid hand on it. No one in her village was like that, could make that. She ruled over an army of brutes, mindless except for the concept of war and killing and slavery. Humph. A small smile played on her lips. All except her father. Her father could do that. He was an artist, a craftsman, and the delicate etchings and smithing he'd done could fill a home with the warm coziness of creation. And yet-- he never had a home. Not the one he'd wanted. Not even with her. Fate had taken his mind, given it to the runt of a boy that destroyed him. The leather was cold on her fingertips, and she drew her hand from it suddenly, looked up at Hervi.

"You are all right?" Hervi's voice was tactfully quiet and submissive.

"Of course I am." Lying was easy for her.

She turned, avoided his searching, caring eyes and gestured for him to follow. The crunch of gravel and dirt on her shoes was loud in her ears, tangible and distinct from the buzz of the townsfolk and the clap of metal on metal from warriors somewhere, everywhere.

"The spies were captured." Hervi's voice came clear and quiet behind her. She pressed on, listened, readied her mind for the information.

"They're just kids. The three of them. They're questioning them now, in the Hall."

Kids . . . ? That didn't sound right. "And the ship? They're the ones who took it here?" It was only one small ship, hardly proper for a massive army, and this espionage trick -- it didn't feel official. This only proved it. Children weren't sent to spy on the enemy. Or was Stoick that desperate? Of course not; he didn't strike her as such. Though using that ship she caught Hiccup on that morning eons ago. . . . It gave a strange sense of deja vu, and a feeling that irritated her inside. They'd confiscated the little metal boat by now, was picking it apart in the great blacksmithing shop her father had created when he was first banished, many years before. Maybe they could find another secret in it. It did appear that this Hiccup was useful in creating mechanical wonders. She turned around, eyed the saddle again. For to create something like that, he surely must have invested some time in weaponry, shipbuilding, and other crafts of war. Those blueprints in his room weren't there for doodling. Like in dragon training, he had a skill.

And yet to see that ship again, and the fact that she had been on its deck once, in the early morning, with a kid whose life she took with her own hand -- maybe that's why the visions were hitting her now, those momentary glances, momentary screaming in her mind.

"Hervi, would you go on ahead into the Hall?" She paused in her fast pace, took the saddle from him. "I'll take it." She nodded to him and he nudged his head back, gently, a slight confusion in his face, but still a detached respect. Thoughts behind those knowing eyes that she didn't want to ask about at the moment. "Go on ahead," she repeated and watched him pass her, disappear into the thick river of her tribesmen, torches in hand and a flicker of red and yellow light on their faces. They nodded in respect to her, but she didn't respond, carried the leather bundle under her arm and put her right hand out to let them know to let her pass. She had to get through to this dragon. She wanted to. Not for the mere fact that it would help with the training program, though that it would. But for the fact that she might find that same connection she'd felt with him that moment in the rockslide at Dragon Island. That spark of familiarity she had felt with no one but the man who was losing his mind. It was stupid to think that a dragon might make her feel that way, but maybe Hiccup wasn't all that wrong when it came to connections with those beasts? She'd started this training idea on the foundations of that boy's idea . . . so why not test the heart of it?

She reached the enclosure at last, the towering rock structure of their central Hall. Warriors around glanced at her, let her through, hummed warnings and data about the spies. She waved them off. If no one had anything definite to say, she wasn't going to hear it. She had her mind on Toothless now, and she wanted to try once more to get the dragon to make his peace with her. "Tell me when you have something more than rumors," she snapped and flicked her cape to her right, curled the fur around her wrist, lowered her eyes and snapped them forward. "Is the dragon still there?" she asked to no one in particular.

"Yes he is," said one.

And the expected concerned tone, from another. "Are you--"

"Yes I am," she cut it off quickly, flicked her eyes at the warrior who voiced the doubt. "The dragon will not kill me . . . because I learned from the best."

The flash of his face again, and was that scream real? She looked up. There were too many dragons in the vicinity, too many torches and people. It could have been anyone. "I learned how, how to deal with dragons, and this one is . . ." No, it wasn't him, she was not going to go crazy. Not like her father, she wasn't. She turned towards the cave entrance to the long, black tunnel that winded inside the ring that held their dragon games. "This one is different. Now if you will excuse me." She flicked away again, stepped into the entrance of the tunnel.

Glowing cave creatures hummed as she stepped past, lit up their yellow bodies and pulsed with her movement. She kicked one with her foot, watched it flicker and die in the path before her. There was a hum inside, a faint and timid scent of smoke, and an echo that made her sense that something was . . . wrong. The sound hissed louder and she could hear the crack and grate of the door to the arena being lifted from inside. There was a shuffle of silhouette behind the grating, indistinguishable, but the movements, she could tell were guilty. Who was there, and what did he think of doing with her dragon? A fire lit up inside her, and she pursed her lips, set her foot forward. Light slashed out from the opening, still many yards away from her distance. Something squeaked, yelped and an itching throb of insects and tiny reptiles slithered past her. She turned her head, caught a glance of a bright glowing thing rub up against her boot, drift past, its smooth scaled body sleek on the smooth rock shined by the traffic of a tribe.

And then she heard it -- a dragon scream, a dragon's hateful roar.

:: ::

The smoke was getting thicker, the voices humming loud and angry now. They'd drawn their conclusions. He shouted again, got some power in his arm, ignored the screaming injury, lifted the gate up and over, felt Toothless nose it upward, throw it up and throat at Hiccup, nudging his head over his shoulder.

"I can't ride you, bud, you're hurt."

Toothless hissed, shook his head, lisped and showed his teeth.

"Bud, you can't carry me right now, I just--"

Toothless roared, lunged up to Hiccup, nosed him thickly and jawed the back of his collar. "Hey--" But Toothless was adamant and threw Hiccup up over his back. The boy jolted, grabbed for something to hold him in. With the saddle gone, there wasn't much except Toothless, and the ear flaps he slid his hands over. His shoulder was offended by the move and he locked his jaw, kept in the gasp of pain. So much for the numbing effect of excitement. Where was adrenaline when you needed it?

He got an ample shot of it soon enough. There was a shout behind him, an army of voices, mad and much too familiar. He'd heard it at dragon raids before at Berk, with Dad. As far back as when he was a baby. There was no mistaking the sound of war. They were jumping into the area, he could feel it. He whirled, scared suddenly. There were five screaming men gaining on them, a battlefield packed into their heavy, shouting voices. Hiccup leaned down. "Toothless, I think it's a good time to, uh, go."

The dragon roared, leaped out past the gate, the lever shaking and the smoke swirling around the door as it heaved down. Hiccup winced as he inhaled, wrapped his arm around the dragon's thick neck, the pulse of his gait heavy under him. It felt good to be riding again, to be with Toothless again. It'd been so long, much too long, that he'd felt the beautiful pang of familiarity. They were in the tunnel now, the outside wasn't too far away. In the rush of motion, he could see spots of creatures in the concaved black, cave creatures glowing yellow. He looked up, saw a figure cloaked in the dark shadows of the tunnel. It was--

Something sparked inside him, a-- a shock. She was here, she . . . His nerves sparked, a flashing pulse of emotion in him. His shoulder throbbed, maybe it was his heart beating faster now, or was that hot feeling anger? The last time they met it was dark like this, with faint light like this, and she -- how could she do that? A weight fell into his heart, a sadness like the ocean, mixed with the white of fear and the red of anger. He couldn't comprehend it, the hum inside of him, but the sight of her, made him only want to get away.

"Heather--" he gasped.

Toothless almost paused, sensed the distraction in him. No, don't stop. "Toothless, step on it!!" Hiccup shouted, his eyes locked on the thin figure whizzing past him, the white cape, the black tight clothing, the long black hair, and the eyes -- those eyes that still bore into him but this time filled with a pure and honest surprise, and maybe -- He turned around on Toothless' back -- maybe even fear.

:: ::

She looked up, saw the gate swing up, opening, the light suddenly flooding the tunnel, orange and yellow -- and smoke, the gasping puff of itching gray. She rushed forward, hit a pool of smoke. She coughed, kept her eyes squinted and looking forward at the sudden silhouette that blocked the light, the shape that was the dragon, the Night Fury. She could tell and she shouted, ran forward. "Toothless--" she called, and to the slumped figure on him, "What are you doing?"

She squinted, tried to catch sight of the man riding the rearing beast. Who would dare try to do things with Toothless without her call?

"Heather--" the rider gasped suddenly and she looked up. That voice-- Her heart stopped.

"Toothless, step on it!!" the boy shouted, the boy.

She couldn't even gasp the name -- or, or articulate the idea.

The whir passed her, the blackness and the smooth scales rushed by without a second's glance or care. She felt them, felt the leathery wings against her. She looked again, swore it was the boy's small frame riding the Night Fury. "Can't be." She ran towards the fleeing Fury.

Was it ghosts now? Spirits? The spirit of someone who wasn't, who couldn't be alive?

I'm not crazy.

But then why? Why was this happening?

:: ::

The darkness closed the girl in suddenly, as they raced out of the tunnel that jabbed into the wall of the Great Hall. They were outside now, the moonlight glittering on the torchlights that suddenly flickered in his eyes. There were people everywhere, warriors and women, even children in the crowd, the glimpses Hiccup caught of them. He could smell the strong thick ash in the air, burning fire and the massed scent of dragons, their screams sharp and clear in the air. It struck him again, those poor trapped creatures. But there wasn't time. Something was in front of him suddenly, a shield and a black shape behind it, flashing a hand. Hiccup yelled. Toothless growled and jolted to the left. Hiccup let out a yelp, grabbed Toothless's right ear flap, dug his metal foot into Toothless' good left shoulder. For support. I hope I'm not hurting you.

It was a madhouse outside, and who should blame them? It wasn't everyday a fugitive went racing through the town. Not to mention two fugitives, a dragon being one of them. Hiccup squinted, tried to get his eyes adjusted to the flickering kaleidoscope of light. "We're good, buddy, just keep running, we're going to make it." The village was coming alive. War probably came easy to this kind of crowd, so he was sure they'd be wanted dead or alive. Mostly dead, probably. If one fugitive was slated for it and the other was dead to them anyway. Hiccup looked on ahead, the lightless valley of the forest marking the outskirts of the town, and the focus of their escape. He prayed Astrid would make it, that he'd find her there at the meeting spot, that bend in the river. He looked back at their pursuers. So long as they didn't have arrows or nets, they were good. He and Toothless had a nice head start and--

A black jab of an arrow came throbbing next to him suddenly, hit the ground and sputtered down the road.

Well so much for that.

:: ::

Out in the light of the torches and the darkness of the night, there he was again. The small frame, the connection with that dragon even she could feel from this distance and from this brief moment.

It was real. That was him, the heir, Hiccup. Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third, son of Stoick, child of Valhallarama, murderer of minds and of dreams, holder of her father's sanity. He was alive. She didn't understand it, but he was still alive.

Her eyes narrowed, and the cold of the night eased away with the fire that pulsed in her heart. Maybe that's why her father still couldn't let go. The deed never had been done, and the gods would never heal him until the truth had been restored.

She was outside now, watching the scampering figures traipse and flee and limp through the town, very worthy of their Hooligan status. They wouldn't make it very far. This was her island, and her one mission in life. "Get them!" she shouted, feeling the confusion suddenly around her. Warriors snapped to look at her, eyes alert and attentive. She nodded to them, cast a hand in the direction of the escaping dragon. "Don't hurt the dragon, whatever you do. And the rider--" She looked ahead, tried to find the figures in the growing darkness. "Bring him back alive."

:: ::

Hiccup shouted, "Right and left, buddy, shake it up. We're not making this easy for them." He yelled again, turned and looked back, kept his grip tighter on the dragon's neck as Toothless growled and veered to the right. Another arrow sped by him, landed ahead, and another, over his shoulder. One of these days they weren't going to miss. Hiccup leaned down on Toothless, his grip wavering as the dragon jumped back and forth. Someone on the street shouted. Hiccup could feel the breath of those people, like a pungent fog in his face, and the alarm that was going up around him. He bit his lip. Maybe he was pushing his luck this time?

But they were almost out. The sod house tops pooled in moonlight were getting sparse now, spaces of black between them, and the dragon cages, fewer. The arrows had stopped strangely. He peered back over his shoulder, winced as the movement woke up something in his shoulder again. Warriors were still careening at them, he could see their black mass coming at them like a wave of ocean at night. But they'd put down their bows. Why he didn't care to ask. Just get out of here and into those trees. He looked up ahead. So close. Toothless jolted again to the left, and Hiccup gripped the dragon's head closer, bounced and tightened his legs around Toothless' body. Talk about turbulence.

And then-- a hideous yell behind him, shocked him for some reason, and a sloping plane of grass all black and streaked with blue-white highlight before them. Toothless careened down the hillside, his balance wavering, his movement uneven and forced. Hiccup leaned down, tried to see Toothless' injury, knew it was getting to him now, whether he would admit it or not. They had to find a hiding place, and they had to find it now.

The forest was black now, and the blackest spot -- to the right, just across the glittering reflection of a stream, over by that rounded silver boulder. He leaned towards it on Toothless, mumbled into his dragon's ear, felt Toothless hum something, streak on faster, swifter, his injury seemingly nonexistent now. The sounds of their pursuers fading, throbbing with energy, but muffled by the speed and growing distance. Toothless was pushing it, Hiccup knew, but it wasn't for long. He looked back, his vision clear in the cold moonlight, the sharp silhouettes racing after them, down the slope, their shapes losing themselves in the tall soft grass. He turned back ahead, felt Toothless give one more burst of power, leaping over the stream, his tail splashing into the water, darkness and shadow covering them, drops of cool liquid smattering his back and legs. Deeper, deeper into the branches and brambles they ran, shafts of blue light creating white verticals to the black pillars of ragged trees and long spiked grass. Over fallen branches and soft, sucking earth, a tear of thorn bushes, making Toothless yelp. "You all right, bud?" The dragon didn't care, pushed on, a race to nowhere, anywhere, deeper into the darkness.

When they finally stopped . . .

Quiet, a profound stillness. There was an opening to the sky, a ring of trees around them, a cliff's edge leading down into a thin trail of the river humming a sparked monotony that was the only sound in the darkness. Hiccup slid off Toothless' back, squinted into the darkness behind them, the spaces of light blue between the trees barely visible in the mingle of ferns and branches. "I think we made it," he said, quietly. For now anyway. Who knows how long, or how easy it was for them to comb the forest and find them. Hiccup turned around and lay a comforting hand on Toothless. The moonlight made his scales reflect a scattered white, sharp and beautiful in the blackness. Hiccup smiled. The dragon hummed, a happy lilt in his eye, as he slumped down crookedly, his right foot raised gently, and set down carefully on the ground. Hiccup knelt down to the injured leg. Toothless was hurt, and he needed the rest before they struck off for the meeting place. "Let's see what we can do here . . ." He squinted, tried to see the stain of maroon over the scales. Toothless hummed something and Hiccup looked up into the dragon's eyes. "What is it, bud?" Toothless blinked, those bright eyes clear in the night. He nudged his head forward, slowly, carefully, and touched Hiccup's forehead, his warm breath moist on Hiccup's bangs. The dragon moved his snout softly over Hiccup's hair, yapping gently.

It'd been far too long. Hiccup closed his eyes, brought his hand up and lay it under Toothless' jaw. He sighed, a calm, settled joy humming quietly in his heart. How did they end up in this mess? He opened his eyes. Toothless snorted suddenly, and Hiccup laughed, rubbed his palm over Toothless' nose. They'd get out of this jam, they always did.

There's nothing to fear, bud, I'm right beside you.

:: ::

The rest was good, if for nothing else than to calm his nerves. A Night Fury is not used to fleeing. And Toothless, least of all. He'd have stayed and fought the monsters, whatever they decided to do to him, but with Hiccup, he didn't want to take that chance. Escape was a better option. Anything to keep Hiccup out of harm.

He nuzzled his head into his feet, closed his eyes, let the cool breath of the night wrap him in a comfortable chill. So long as it didn't fall too cold too quickly, a dragon could easily love a hint of coolness. Toothless hummed, pleased, happy to be out from the bonds and the enclosure of that human cave.

There was a hum in the air suddenly, a scent he could recognize instantly. He was a dragon, after all, and his sense of smell was still as keen as ever.

Timberjacks.

Somewhere, they were lingering. Somewhere in the darkness. Toothless rose his head a little, clawed the earth below him. Hiccup's hand touched him suddenly, and Toothless growled, shook it away. These were the same Timberjacks that he'd seen when he met Skari that time on the sea. They had the same ugly smell. He pulled himself forward, closer to the edge of the cliff, his eyes moving fast over the jagged rocks and the reflective river far below.

"What's the matter?"

Hiccup's voice was understandably concerned and quiet. Toothless growled, popped his snout over the landscape, hissing.

Then he saw it. The small cluster of long, folded wings, the reverberations in the water where the thin creatures were drinking. There were six of them, the moonlight picking out their shapes and the valley collecting their voices deftly. He listened to them humming, hissing, speaking among themselves of the night, of him, and of Skari. They never were going to give up, were they? What did they gain in the feud?

Ormarr.

Toothless jerked his head up suddenly. That name-- He got to his feet, ignored the small hands moving over him, the face trying to see his own. What was that about Ormarr? Toothless growled low and threateningly. The Timberjacks hummed again, far below, barely audible. Crazy . . . ships . . . Skari . . . The words hissed out in pieces hard to understand. Something was going on, Toothless knew, and it irritated him that he couldn't tell what. Toothless snapped his head, yapped thickly.

"Toothless, what's wrong?"

He gazed up at Hiccup, his boy. He wouldn't understand, would he? Or more that he couldn't. How can a dragon explain such things to someone, though of one mind, but another tongue? Toothless jerked his head away, back at the cluster of Timberjacks beginning to fade into the blackness of the night. Skari will end him, him and that human he is so fond of . . . And then a laugh, a shrill dragon's laugh, tickling up into the night sky. A cloud washed over the moon suddenly, paled gray the landscape, gray and black. The Timberjacks vanished, the water lapped still, and Toothless backed from the cliffside, a hot anger welling up inside of him. He looked back at Hiccup, found the glimmer in those big eyes, shadowed in concern. Toothless stuffed his snout into Hiccup's chest, closed his eyes. If what Skari said was true, and it was -- and if he was the cunning evil dragon Toothless knew he was, what would stop him from bringing Hiccup into his mad scheme? If the accusation was treason? And if what Ormarr said was true . . . Skari is smart. He'll use that boy against you. . . .

He hadn't taken the great dragon seriously, thought Ormarr was just being overly protective and a little too belittling of his human friend. But now, the idea became very real. The feeling came over him, something complex in his mind yet clear in his gut. If he were Skari, if revenge was his goal, then he wouldn't just kill the Night Fury. He'd corner him, trap him. And then hurt the one he loved most, let him watch and let him suffer.

That pure arrogance of Skari, that despicable species. Toothless snorted suddenly and flexed his jaws, felt some ancient instinct come over him, a hot blackness he hadn't felt in a long time. He almost hoped he'd meet Skari again, and blast that insulting face of his. Generations of Night Furies had fought and won against the Skrills, had killed Skrills. His father died fighting them, and he had raised him in his ways.

Toothless got his nose out of Hiccup's gentle hands, looked up forcefully at the boy. He turned, looked out at the landscape with a fury worthy of his species. He stood firm on his legs, both of them, and deftly wrapped his tail around, closer to Hiccup, enclosing the boy vaguely, the one tailfin resting lonely on the ferns falling gently into the rock and shoots of grass beneath them.

He was smarter than Skari, that much he knew.

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