Chapter 7: If He Touches You, I'll Kill Him
Chapter 7: If He Touches You, I'll Kill Him
Chapter 7: If He Touches You, I'll Kill Him

10th Sep 2012, 6:44 PM

by inhonoredglory

"But it was a long time ago, wasn't it? I don't know… does anybody know? Hiccup wouldn't be killed, would he?" A guilty laugh, then a heavy pause. "I guess you made sure of that. And now, well, now I'm grateful. But… would Rune forgive him?"

The Chief's voice was soft, quiet, and she could barely hear him in the early morning air. She exhaled, let the bushes hide her again, turned, and ran down towards the town, hoping he hadn't heard or seen her, left the big man alone on the cliffside, facing the sea.

A jolt woke him up suddenly. "Aah!" Hiccup's eyes popped open and he rolled over in his bed, feeling something terribly close to him.

"Ha!" shouted Snotlout, standing over him hugely. "It's time to get up, Future Chief Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third!!"

"What--?" he stammered, squinting at the sudden influx of light from the window that-- he looked over. The shades were being tied up by Ruffnut and Tuffnut. Ruffnut's crazy braid started flipping about near his drying ink sketches of Toothless. "Careful!" he shrieked, suddenly saw Toothless stepping onto the side of his bed, trying to nuzzle him. He leaned forward, looked past him, saw Ruffnut whipping her head back to see him. "Just mind the drawing, won't you?" he said, smiling something lopsided at her, turned back to Snotlout. "Okay, what's the deal? Who let you guys in?" Toothless finally got his snout into Hiccup's cheek and Hiccup laughed irritatedly.

"Gobber," Snotlout answered, grinning and crossing his big arms.

Hiccup put a hand on Toothless head, tried to get the dragon out of his face. "Dad let him?"

"Your Dad hasn't been here most of the night."

Hiccup paused, and Toothless licked him suddenly. "Buddy--!" Hiccup wiped the side of his face.

"At least, Gobber said he wasn't in for all that time," chimed in Fishlegs, laughing as Toothless once again slobbered their future chief. Hiccup finally got his hand on Toothless' snout, pushed and eyed the dragon critically. Toothless blinked and smirked. "Ugh, Toothless," Hiccup laughed, "A guy could bathe in your affection." He pushed the blanket off him, felt Toothless crawling over the bed and hovering over his head. Hiccup swung his legs over the edge of the bed. Hey-- "Dad was out all night?"

"And mom blames us for nightowling," Tuffnut slurred, nodding at Ruffnut.

"But why?"

"Gobber doesn't tell us that much," Tuffnut spat, getting that insulted look on his long face.

Hiccup smirked, let Toothless nudge his head again. "You know where he went?"

"Like I said…" Tuffnut glared at him.

Hiccup shook his head, stood up next to Snotlout. He needed to get some real information somewhere else. Toothless slipped off the bed and wandered by the doorway. Hiccup gently pressed up and down on the springs of his left leg, to get it going for the day, slowly slipped on his fur vest. Snotlout watched him bob his leg, then reached over and grabbed Hiccup's tunic, jolting him forward. "Come on!" Snotlout screeched suddenly, "let's get moving, gang! There's another battle and we're all gonna be a part of it!" He slapped an arm around Hiccup and dragged him forward to the door. "And we also all can't wait to see you in Stoick's old outfit." Toothless got wind of the excitement and started jumping up and down by the doorway, throating at Hiccup and grinning. Toothless, Hiccup thought, you're no help. He tried to escape the huge grasp of his cousin, but now the rest of them were pulling him down the narrow flight of stairs, out the door, much more excited than he was.

Gobber had the old Induction Day coat of armor all laid out on the cold forge of his blacksmith shop. The kids plopped Hiccup down in front of it and he lurched forward, caught the edge of the fire pit to steady himself.

"Well, here it is," Gobber said serenely.

Toothless was at his side suddenly, looked at the armor and throated a grin, looked up at Hiccup for approval. Hiccup pursed his lips, shrugged, turned down and looked at the armor. The hundreds of little shingles of metal running down its skirt, rusting at the edges, the heavy leather belt, worn and dirty… in a heroic sort of way. The stone buckle, etched with something that was rubbed into nothingness a long time ago. The fur cape laying beside it, a miniature of the one his father wore, black with age and tattered in its bundles of hair, the oval stone epaulets on its corners, etched with-- He looked closer, could see the faint remains of a dragon's head screaming out at the world, half of its shape obliterated by time and use and wear. Toothless got his head there, sniffed the old armor curiously, running his snout over the shingles and fur.

"Well, what do ya think?" Gobber said, in a nostalgic way that made Hiccup lean upward a bit. He looked at the armor, remembered that his father wore this a long time ago, that Gobber probably was there, when they were both much younger. Toothless retreated somewhat, started getting bored with the human activities, curled around himself in the corner of the blacksmith shop.

Snotlout and the rest of them crowded around him, gaping at the clothing. "Wow," Fishlegs said. Snotlout picked up the cape and swooped it around himself grandly. "It's a perfect fit!" he squealed, jabbing Tuffnut and muttering something. Probably an inside joke.

Gobber glared at them. "If ya want to play with yer chief's clothes, go put it on Hiccup."

Snotlout looked suddenly sheepish and swooshed the cape one more time around himself, held it out and sized up Hiccup. Something sneaky got into his eye and he nudged his head knowingly to Ruff and Tuff.

Uh oh, what are they up to now? Hiccup thought desperately. The twins suddenly grabbed his upper arms and started pulling off his fur vest. "Hey!" he shrieked, but they smiled mischievously and pulled up the shoulders of his tunic, Ruffnut slinging the fur vest on her arm. Astrid would never stand for this, he thought, gritting his teeth. Where was she anyway? Snotlout suddenly swept around him and clapped onto Hiccup's tunic the latch of the stone epaulets embedded in the fur. Toothless was suddenly in the middle of the mess, hissing in an unsure way, glaring at Snotlout. "It's okay," Hiccup whispered quickly, "they're not hurting me." The kids whirled him so his back faced the smelter, then released him briskly.

"Wow!" Fishlegs gaped, staring at him. "You look amazing!"

Hiccup slumped down under the epaulets, which suddenly seemed to weigh a million pounds. Toothless eyed him sympathetically, put his head to one side, clearly unsure how to amend his boy's distress. Snotlout reached out and grabbed Hiccup quickly, holding him straight for a moment. "Hey, you're gonna have to get more umph in you to hold up your inheritance!" He laughed hysterically. Tuffnut jabbed Snotlout in the arm, snickering.

Hiccup flinched, tried to give a kind eye to Fishlegs, who was still all happy and delighted, holding his hands together, smiling. Looking very proud in general. Toothless walked up to Hiccup, slipped his head under the boy's arm, let Hiccup lean on him. "Thanks, bud," he hummed, steadying himself, trying to get used to something hard and heavy on his shoulders.

Gobber came around suddenly and did the helmet-over-eyes maneuver on all of the kids, except Fishlegs -- who stepped out of the way just to be sure. Hiccup looked back at the rest of the mail on the fire pit. "Now." Gobber grabbed the armor, held it up in front of him, eyeing it and Hiccup. "It's definitely too big. We'll have to measure it. Here, Hiccup." He gestured Hiccup forward and patted Toothless gently out of the way. The dragon moaned briefly, backed away.

Gobber let Hiccup step into the armor, brought the leather belt up around Hiccup's thin waist and pulled it taut, folding the ends on each other. He took out some metal clasps that Hiccup suddenly noticed were between Gobber's teeth and jabbed them into the belt to keep it in place. Gobber straightened up suddenly, let go of holding the armor.

Hiccup tried his best not to collapse totally on the ground. He clenched his teeth and willed the rebellious metal to just please! stay on him right now. Gobber continued to squint at him, making calculations that this time Hiccup didn't care to compute. "That's a whole lot to trim…" Gobber mused, clutch hand scratching his chin.

Hiccup exhaled sharply. Whoever started this stupid tradition certainly didn't plan on non-burly Vikings like himself. Couldn't he just go without it? "Maybe you'd better not change it up," he mumbled, "or it won't fit anybody else…"

"You mean at next Induction?" Ruffnut suddenly gaped. "Your son?" She started smiling absurdly, giggling. "You're gonna get married and you're gonna have a son! Hiccup is gonna get married and have a kid! Hiccup, our little Hiccup, is gonna be a dad!" She prattled on, making faces at Tuffnut, who nodded wryly. Snotlout snickered, knew this was making Hiccup just a little uncomfortable. Hiccup slumped his shoulders, tried to ignore it, felt the epaulets shrink down farther. "Gobber, you're done now, right?"

Gobber was still peering at the mail, making thoughtful noises. Hiccup looked somewhere else, the swords hanging on the walls, the hammer and the shards of metal left over from his shipbuilding project. Something long strung suddenly across his shoulders and he realized Gobber had gotten the measure out.

"Gobber?" he asked, as the measure now moved around his waist.

"Mm?" Gobber's mind was clearly somewhere else.

"Where did Dad go last night?"

Gobber looked up. "Oh…" He got a morose look on his face. "Hm." He slipped the measure from Hiccup's waist, looked behind him. "Hey, kids, shoo for a while, huh?"

The kids suddenly stopped gabbing among themselves, snapped back to look at Gobber. "Go," Gobber motioned.

Snotlout crossed his arms suddenly and the twins squinted their eyes. "You didn't tell us where his dad went, and we helped you wake Hiccup up."

"Just don't question me," Gobber said, rising.

"Stoick's our chief, too! Aren't we entitled to know?"

"But he's not yer dad," Gobber snapped. "And this is a personal story of Hiccup's father and it's Hiccup's right to hear it without a heap of insulting interruptions."

"Insulting!" Tuffnut squeaked. "He called us insulting!"

Gobber swooshed his hooked hand sharply. "Just shoo!" His head bobbed to one side and he saw a sword sitting on one of the tables, grabbed it suddenly and waved the weapon randomly. "Don't make me use this on ya." He slapped it down.

"Ah," Hiccup stepped forward. "What's the big deal? Do we have to get mad?"

Snotlout was not paying attention, rolled his eyes, and Tuffnut gave him a brothers-in-misery sort of look. "I think it's fair," Fishlegs piped, beginning to move off towards the opening of the smithy. Snotlout stepped behind Fishlegs and grumbled. "The chief's son gets all the benefits. What if his granddad met my grandmother first, right?" Snotlout disappeared behind Fishleg's round shape, and Hiccup wondered if he should say something, couldn't tell if Snotlout was joking or if he was really serious. Ruffnut shrugged her shoulders and looked at her twin, her eyes getting sneaky. She whacked a playful punch on her brother's back and they tumbled forward towards the outside, now totally consumed in jabbering at each other and tangling themselves in wild arm movements. Hiccup stepped forward and tried to catch up with them, to say sorry or something. They had almost all stepped out.

Ruffnut pushed her brother, turned before she left. "I'll just get it out of you later, Hiccup," she said, winking at him, "when the nutcase here is napping." Gobber leapt forward, waving his hand, his bum leg suddenly agile in the face of defending his honor. She popped out quickly, running out and screeching victory noises at her escape. She tumbled into her brother and she sent them both tripping out over the plaza.

Gobber shook his head. "Youth," he said, slapping a hand to his clutch arm. "They'll never understand."

Hiccup leaned on the smelter, the heaviness of the armor getting a bit much for him. He didn't like this arrangement at all, throwing them out like that. He slipped down and slid onto the ground. "Gobber, was that really necessary?"

Gobber sighed, hobbled over to the edge of the fire pit, set his weight down on it and sniffed. "Welllllll… maybe I got carried away there. Ya know how it is…"

"No, actually, I don't."

Gobber rolled his eyes. "You want to hear the story, Hiccup, or don't ya?"

He hung his arms over his knees. "Sure, Gobber," he sighed. Toothless walked up to him now and rested his snout in Hiccup's side. Hiccup patted him thoughtfully.

Gobber cleared his throat. "Well, Hiccup, I'm just gonna keep this short, because yer father did want you to get yerself set up in that Induction mail this mornin'." Gobber looked at his fingernails, picked at one of them. "So… back at the beginning. You have your father's brother Rune, and you have your father's father who had these two sons before your grandmother died, after which he wed again, as we all know, to have--"

"Gobber-- I know all that. I wanna maybe talk to my Dad after this, so could we speed it up a--"

"That's the whole point of my talkin' to ya, Hiccup." Gobber shifted his weight, thumping his leg against Hiccup's shoulder. "Yer Dad's set off already."

"What?" Hiccup jerked his head up, looked Gobber in the eye.

"He set sail a half hour ago, to meet the ships and get a party over here."

Hiccup leaned down, a little taken aback. "Okay…" Does this mean he was going to meet his uncle for, like, the first time in his life? And Dad didn't even tell him about any of it before they'd meet?

What, some secret?

Couldn't be. It couldn't be that simple.

Toothless suddenly nudged him, prodding with his eyes. Hiccup creased his brows, wished fiercely that he knew what was going on. It's not like a Chief owed anybody an explanation, but he was his son. Didn't that mean anything?

"There's more to the story, Hiccup," Gobber prodded.

Hiccup snapped out of his thoughts. "Oh, sure…"

"So then!" Gobber was back in his groove, trying to hurry through the story. "You have these two brothers. And then you have this Induction Day on Stoick's eighteenth birthday. Rune was seventeen at the time. Rune and Stoick were not so good together, at least later. A childish feud, which blew up in its face in your father's father's challenge for Induction Day. So Rune tried to kill Stoick and Stoick--"

"Hey, wait!!" Hiccup slapped his arms down, hitting Toothless unintentionally, stared up at Gobber. "Kill? You mean, like, murder? My dad?"

Gobber blinked at him, pulled his head back. "I guess that was one of the things you didn't know…"

Toothless wrinkled his nose, grunted.

"Dad was…" almost killed?

Gobber's voice got soft suddenly. "That's right, Hiccup," he said.

Hiccup tried to imagine it a moment. If he had a brother… or if Tuffnut went after his sister. He shook his head. No way. "Gobber, that's his brother. How could--"

"Hiccup," he interrupted suddenly, as if expecting the response, "there's a lot of things a family can do to one another. You're gonna hafta learn."

"But I just can't believe--"

"Believe it, Hiccup. It's a part of yer past, and yer father's."

Hiccup sighed, tried to let the truth sink down into him. He wavered suddenly feeling a little, quite unsteady. His father, his dear strong, driving Dad… "Why?" he asked, a great hush in his voice.

"That's where your mother comes in."

My mother? Hiccup searched, didn't even have a memory of her, never knew what she looked like because he'd never seen her. Something about going on Quests in her youth, Dad once said? The bundle of soft blonde hair his father kept under the pillow of his bed, the plates of metal armor hidden in a cubby near the back of the house, metal that never seemed to rust or get dusty. Hiccup inhaled. He really didn't know very much about his mother.

"Valhallarama," Gobber sighed. "Everyone called her Val, but not Stoick. Noooo, she was 'heather blossom' and 'sweet pea' and 'beautiful darling Valla.' Ah, but she was all that to Rune, too. You see the problem?"

Hiccup sniffed, was in no mood to see a problem. He leaned over his knees, trying to figure out how all this had been true all his life and he didn't know a thing about it. Because Dad never told me.

"Well!" Gobber sighed suddenly. "They both wanted her and they both couldn't have her, of course, so they came up with some competition of sorts and battled it out on Induction Day of all days and Rune lost, got mad, went too far, and got himself kicked out of Berk. And that--" Gobber stood up and sighed. "--that is the Story."

Hiccup didn't say anything for a minute, felt his mind blank, stared at Toothless resting there in front of him, the gentle heaving of his breath, the black scales glinting in the morning light. The bare facts started settling, and Hiccup peered up at Gobber, feeling somehow so much older. "And last night?"

"We had a talk in the mornin', yer father and I… about Rune and the ships, them comin' here. Then he decided to meet him. He didn't say where he went in the night, only that he had been thinkin'… a lot."

Hiccup cleared his throat, nodded slowly. Gobber bobbed his head once in confirmation, fell silent.

Hiccup looked over the hard, crusty fur of the mantle sloping down from his shoulders and the shiny, rusted metal over his legs, realized horribly that all that had happened when his father wore these very clothes so long ago. He stood up suddenly, unlatched the metal clasps from the belt, let the armor slip to the floor, heard its sharp clear clang upon the blacksmith floor, rattling, shimmering, metal plates on metal panels. He unhooked the mantle from his shoulders, lay the fur on the smelter's edge, saw the moth-gnawed holes in the mantle, the pale white tatters of spiderwebs in the crevices, old and dusty and dirty.

The trek to Firebrand Peaks was a long one. The morning had grown into a fairly warm day, and the pine trees waved shakily in the occasional brisk wind that pumped through Berk. Gobber finally found the mouth of the cave midway up the mountain, and guided the teens up to the little plateau that led up to the opening, ferns and tangled bushes lining the well-worn path to the opening and the complex tunnels within the Peaks.

Hiccup was more nervous than normal on this last practice battle. When Gobber was giving the mission briefing, Hiccup only noticed the sweat on his palms and the spark of nerves in the back of his neck whenever Gobber said "in two days." He couldn't lose this one, not this last time. He looked at his sword, held in both hands because the thing was just too heavy, the carefully etched handle with a Night Fury carving swirling on the end of the hilt, the thin long blade covered now with a casing of wood, so nothing really serious happened in practice. Dad gave it to him last month. "Make me proud, son," he'd said, nonchalantly back then, not even looking at him, maybe trying to inspire an easy confidence. He fumbled with the sword, tried to remember all the rules Gobber taught him and the ones his father started showing him…

Gosh, what kind of a son was he? Couldn't even get something right that every other Viking kid could probably pass with flying colors. He looked over at the other kids, eating up every word coming out of Gobber's mouth, sheer excitement in their voices as Gobber yapped on at a mile a minute. He caught wind that Astrid wasn't here yet, but was on her way, something about getting tied up at her parents' house for something she'd done. "She'll be here very soon, so Team Hiccup can just go on ahead and begin, I think."

Hiccup looked up from his sword, at Gobber motioning him forward. So now he was cheating for him, too? "Gobber… I can't do that." The kids paused around him.

Gobber did not look fazed, hobbled up to Hiccup and stopped at his side, whispered, "Hiccup, this is yer last battle. It's not like I'm given' you that much of an advantage."

Hiccup shook his head. Gobber leaned down, looked at him. "You're goin' in that cave, Hiccup, and yer startin' that mission."


Gobber flapped his hands up. "You want to make yer father proud, don't you?"

"Of course I do, but it's got to be from my own doing." He kept his gaze on Gobber, tried to make him understand. Gobber sighed and looked out towards the forest, down the path they came.

"Hey, guys!" shouted Ruffnut suddenly. "Here comes Astrid."

Hiccup turned, saw her huffing up the path. Gobber put his hand on Hiccup's shoulder, pushed him towards the cave opening. "You start, Hiccup, with yer team, I'll brief her." Hiccup stumbled forward, dust puffing over his boot as he heeled it into the dirt. He looked back and thought he saw something tired in her movements.

Tuffnut and Fishlegs got behind him suddenly, blocking his view. "Come on, Hiccup, let's go."

"Wait." He pushed through the both of them, looked at Astrid and the other two teens gather around her. He could hear Gobber telling her the mission. The Find-and-Defend-a-Viking-Helmet Challenge, where, as Gobber so proudly shouted earlier, the two belligerents would search for Gobber's helmet hidden in the cave and battle it out for that most glorious treasure… or simply burgle it from the other side.

Astrid moved forward, Snotlout and Ruffnut following her.

"Astrid, are you okay?" Hiccup asked as she passed.

"Later, Hiccup, we need to get this over with." She didn't even look at him, but there was an irritation in her voice he couldn't quite place. "Astrid?" But she was already moving off towards the cave, a flickering torch in her hand.

Gobber tapped his shoulder again. "Now, Hiccup, you can start." He handed him a torch.

Hiccup waved the light slowly around the stone tunnel, watched its yellow sparkle play off the black, jagged edges of the concave ceiling, at the speckle of black dots in the limestone. Every once in a while they came upon the glowing cave creatures, the trickle of lights that hung from the miniature cliffs and clefts that textured the walls. They hissed ever so gently, like something far away, and ebbed their glow as the torchlight passed. Hiccup turned back to watch the team Gobber assigned him, saw some of the deep cave creatures vanish into the blackness, their glow voluntarily fading.

Hiccup waved his sword, trying to make some sort of 'forward!' gesture, but the heaviness of the wood-plated sword sort of stunting the motion. He could feel footfalls somewhere near, squinted and saw up ahead the glow of torchlight glinting off the cave walls, reflecting into a large cavern ahead from a tunnel somewhere perpendicular to his own tunnel. The footfalls advanced, increased, and he could hear the pattern of Astrid's walk, started finally to see the glow of her torchlight advancing down the tunnel. Hiccup breathed in, nearly coughed suddenly in the dust that suddenly swirled with the incoming footfalls.

"Fishlegs," he whispered, "take the torch." He bent his arm backward and the torch left his hand. He brought both his hands to hold his own sword and crept forward through the cavern. "Tuffnut, get ready to leap out, okay?" he said through the side of his mouth, his back against the cave wall. He took a deep breath, remembered the promise he made to himself last night with Dad on the ship. He'd lost so many battles before.

He whirled into the cavern, suddenly saw Gobber's helmet glinting there on the ground. He held his sword out in front of him, found Astrid standing there, light from a torch behind her, silhouetting her into a stark black shape and the long sword in her right hand.

He stopped a moment.

The orange glow behind her left suddenly and he felt his team gather round into the cavern, scrambling forward. Her team started yelling, Ruffnut smacking into her brother and sending wild insults into the air.

"Tuffnut, fight with your sword!" Hiccup screamed, his voice echoing, but the twins were having quite a time lashing out with their lips. Snotlout was making a threat to Fishlegs, the latter quibbling with his stumpy sword held out in front of him.

Hiccup turned to Astrid, firmed the long sword in his hand. She beat him in these official lessons the last twelve times out of twelve. But probabilities don't multiply on each other, right?

He swung his weapon at her, trying to cull up something that might look like violence. Man, how he hated sword practice. Why did he still have to do this sort of thing? She deflected his blow swiftly, tipping his sword to the ground. "Fight it, Hiccup," she screeched, slicing her sword expertly in the air, the flips of her sword confusing him as much as the echo in her voice. "Get some power in your blow."

"I'm trying." He swiped, breathless, managed to slip her sword, before she snapped a defensive maneuver on him, pushed his sword up vertical. He locked eyes with her, just-- tried, forced it, out of that position, jabbed it up towards her. She snapped, lunged down, hand on the floor, spearing him from below. The wooden tip dug into his side. "Ah!" he shrieked, jumping backward. His own sword fell out of his hand, clacked on the rock below. Astrid shook her head and leaped up, picked up his sword and pushed it towards him. "You're not losing this battle, Hiccup."

He took the sword, looked up at her, expected a firm and fiery conviction, but saw instead two weary eyes red and strained -- that tiredness he saw before they started. Not another insomnia attack. She only got those when she was really worried. She readied her sword again, posed her body.

"Astrid, are you okay?"

She stopped suddenly, whirled her blonde hair and faced him. "What?" she asked, breathless, clearly not intent on pausing for small talk.

"Did you sleep at all?" He stepped towards her, his left hand and sword swinging behind him. He knew this sort of move 'in the midst of battle' would rank down in Gobber's book, in his father's book, but he couldn't just let this go. He put a hand on her arm.

She sighed, lowered her sword. "No, I haven't slept. I was watching your Dad."

"You saw him?"

Astrid pushed his hand off her arm, suddenly remembered what she was doing. "I have to tell you later, Hiccup. This is not the time or place." She got that fire again. "This is your final battle." She looked out suddenly to the left, gasped. She grabbed Hiccup's arm and jolted him towards her gaze. Hiccup looked, saw Snotlout with his wood-encased sword at Fishlegs' stubby neck. "I submit!!" Fishlegs squeaked and Snotlout made a move for the helmet. The twins broke their fighting a moment to watch Snotlout make the winning motion.

Astrid screeched suddenly. "Get it, Hiccup-- quick." The whole cave voiced the last word, filling his ears with the command. She gave him a shove and he stumbled forward, almost tripping into Snotlout, who whirled with the helmet in his hand.

Hiccup jabbed his weapon, tried to knock the prize out. Snotlout whipped his own sword out, the wood casings clashing with each other, sharp and echoing in the cavern. The swords heaved down. Snotlout's eyes were wide open, alert and tense. He lunged his sword forward, catching Hiccup in the arm. He yelped. Snotlout jabbed again and Hiccup tried to deflect it, failed, found himself on his back on the floor of the cave, against the hard rock. Another blow, and Hiccup smacked it back with his own sword, the wood clashing, creaking, cracking. The casing-- Snotlout's sword was suddenly gleaming bright and clear, shimmering unprotected in the torch light. "Snotlout--" Hiccup gasped. But he was already in motion with another blow.

Hiccup screeched, rolled to his left, and the sword came down behind him with a sharp, metal smack, reverberating around him and speeding down the tunnels, fading, fading, somewhere far away. He let out his breath.

"Snotlout!" Astrid's voice was barely steady.

Hiccup turned around, saw his cousin, face white and shocked, staring at his own unsheathed sword.

"Are you okay?" Astrid knelt down and grabbed Hiccup's shoulders suddenly, her eyes darting over his body.

He found himself inhaling a couple times, gazing at the spot where the sword came down. "Yeah, Astrid, I-- I'm fine. Snotlout?" He looked up, met his eye. "It was an accident, okay?"

Snotlout opened his mouth, looked at his exposed sword, and mumbled, "I-- I didn't know…"

"That's okay." Hiccup tried to get to his feet, took Astrid's arms to steady himself. Fishlegs came up besides him and helped him up, his eyes comforting. Ruffnut and Tuffnut were suddenly quiet and docile.

Snotlout rolled the helmet in his hands, looking suddenly, unnaturally, unnerved. He held it out suddenly, looked at Hiccup. "I guess it's only fair." He bobbed the helmet towards him.

Hiccup shook his head. "I think this just proves you win. I mean, you really got me." Hiccup tried a nonchalant laugh. It didn't fly too well with Astrid. She stared hard and incredulously at him and he pursed his lips. "Let's get back to Gobber, all right?" He started off towards the one tunnel, hoped they'd follow him. The cave creatures buzzed gently at the presence of the firelight.

Astrid was at his side suddenly, a torch in her own hand. "That Snotlout…" she hissed, kicking one of the glowing slimy creatures that was lumbering on the edges of the cave walls. "If he touched you, I'd kill him." The torchlight wavered as she spoke and the cave vaguely repeated her words… kill him, kill him.

He didn't like that look in her eye. "Astrid, it was an accident."

She continued fuming, looked at another one of the lighted centipedes attached to the rocks. The creature stopped hissing suddenly.

He cleared his throat. "You said something about telling me later something?" He gazed at her carefully, hoping those eyes would change. He squinted in the torchlight, trying to read them in the shadows of her hair. But they only grew more tense and she inhaled carefully. "I don't know what your past is with your Dad," she said, heavily, "but definitely something's up that I don't think even you know about." She glanced at him.

Hiccup opened his eyes wide. "Dad and me?"

She sighed. "I was late for this lesson because I was up all night and then Mom kept me home for a few choice words. And I was up all night because I saw your father sneak out of the house. I ended up tailing him up Valkyrie Cliffs."


"Yes, the cemetery, Hiccup. Your mother's grave."

Hiccup paused, felt the kids gather closer around them, didn't really mind if he had to tell them the whole Story. Their torchlights together glowed upon them brighter, and Hiccup could see the streaks of concern on Astrid's face, drawn in shadows and orange light, the shiny walls of the cave around them glinting with inconstant facets of reflections. "But what does that have to do with me?" he asked.

She gathered her breath, wiped a bang from her face and pushed it behind her ear. "Brace yourself, Hiccup." She looked at him, lowered the torch. "Apparently someone wanted to kill you a long time ago."

"Huh?" came a chorus of voices, transformed into a humming crowd in the cavern. Hiccup just stared at her, blinked. "What was that?"

"Trust me, I hoped I was just dreaming, but I swear I wasn't. It was your Dad, and he said, 'Hiccup just wouldn't be killed, would he?' " She paused, flicked the torchlight, made a shivering pattern of shadow over her face. "It's wrecking the thunder out of me, what it means."

"Sure he didn't mean, like Rune maybe?" Hiccup quipped, thinking about the Story for an objective moment. For some reason, he wasn't really feeling her panic right now. It was just too unbelievable. Who'd want to kill him of all people? Hiccup cringed his upper lip, brought an arm up and rubbed the back of his neck. "Did you ask him what he meant?"

"Ask him?" Astrid's torchlight moved around erratically. "Ha!" The cave laughed, ha, ha. The hanging creatures on the walls glowed suddenly, as if afraid. "No way. You should have seen him there, musing by the cliff. I never saw him like that. It scared me."

Hiccup inhaled, knew that this strange behavior of his father's had to do with the Rune mess. Looks like the whole business with that brother was getting too much for Dad. Did what happened still affect them that much? Sure, he was shocked when he heard about it, still smarted to think of someone intentionally trying to murder his father, but for someone to whom it happened, what? Twenty years ago?

"What does it mean, Hiccup?" Astrid's voice came out again, honestly prodding, echoing gently now, like the murmur of a stream.

He put his arms out exasperatedly. "Ah, maybe it's related to what happened between Dad and his brother? The guy on the ships." The last sentence repeated itself in the air.

Snotlout suddenly blurted, "Wait, you're Dad's brother is on the ships we've been seeing?" been seeing, been seeing.

Hiccup turned, saw Snotlout crossing his arms, a mix of surprise and chiding in his voice. "That's the one I heard Dad say was banished, right?" Snotlout asked, looking up around the cave as it spat his words back at him. "Would this cave just shut up?" he shouted, making it do anything but.

Hiccup eyed the faceted ceiling, 'watching' the sound play around them. "That's the one," he said.

"Well, what about him?" Tuffnut stepped forward. "What's this got to do with Hiccup?" He jabbed a hand in Hiccup's direction, as his name reverberated in the air.

"I have no idea," Hiccup sighed. "All I know is, well…" He tried to put the whole Story together. "Seems like my mom and my dad's brother were close, way back when they were young, and there was, well, there was…" He looked up, at the kids who were listening closely, at Astrid, a confused anger in her eyes. "Rune tried to kill my father for her. Basically." He swallowed, grateful the cave decided to shut up for once.

"Well, looks like we got some big problems," Astrid sighed, leaning on her left leg. "Because that's the other thing I wanted to say. The ships are already in the harbor."

Hiccup stumbled out of the cave, impatient somehow while at the same time irritated, curious, worried. If only he could meet his Dad before the strangers. But where was Gobber?

The kids suddenly skidded to a halt. Hiccup glanced around, at the ferns and moss-covered rocks and the green lush conifers and the bright clouded sky above. Down the path of rock and tan dirt, the gray gravel scattered to the sides and the indentation in the middle where years of travel had taken place. Hiccup sighed, gave his sword to Fishlegs. The thing was too heavy to run with. "I need to find my Dad." He started off, flying down the path. It took him almost a whole month to learn how to run with his prosthetic, but now that he could, he managed to only smart as the metal hit stone.

"Hey, wait up!" Astrid shouted far behind him.

He hadn't gotten much more than a hundred yards before he saw them -- Dad, Gobber, Astrid's mother Phlegma, Snotlout's father Spitelout, the rest of the War Council, even some townsfolk who looked happy and curious and very much innocent. And then… strangers. Faces that looked hard and weary, dirty and almost emotionless. Several wore capes that swung behind them grandly, buckled with swords that hung long from their waists, decked with golden orbs of jewelry and colored ropes of every description, gold bands and bone necklaces, helmets covered with fabric, scales, and shards of metal. And the one girl in the lead. The white-caped girl he saw back on the ships. He caught his breath.

His father advanced suddenly, reached Hiccup before the others. "Son!" he panted heavily, and Hiccup noted wryly that his dad was no spring chicken anymore. Hiccup did what he could to steady his father's big form. "Slow down, Dad, just breathe. What is it?" He peeked over his father's big arm and looked at the girl again, somehow captivated.

In an awful way; he didn't like it.

His father finally caught his breath, stood up tall and steadied himself. "Son, I want you to meet your cousin. My brother's daughter." He caught Hiccup up in his big arm and swept him towards the crowd on the path. "Ahh--" Hiccup grunted, as his feet were virtually lifted off the ground. I wish Dad wouldn't do that anymore… It made him feel five years old.

Stoick dropped him in front of the gathering crowd. Hiccup eyed them warily, eyes darting to each member, trying to keep his feelings hidden. Because it did look like his father trusted these people.

Which one was Rune?

His father put a hand on Hiccup's shoulder and Hiccup looked up at him through his huge red beard. He was so happy it unnerved him. "Dad?" he asked, jabbing his arm lightly just to make sure he wasn't in some upside-down world. "Who are they?"

His father, still beaming, gestured to them largely. "The Skirra Vél, my brother's tribe." He put both hands on Hiccup's shoulders. "This is my son, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third." All eyes went down to him.

Hiccup hummed something random that probably nobody heard, then puckered up. "Hi," he said, and suddenly felt the rest of the kids behind him, settle down on the dirt path. Astrid moved up alongside him, and he looked at her, watched her gaze scan the new tribe with a thin, critical eye.

"And, Hiccup," his father said grandly, "this is Rune's daughter, future chieftess of the tribe. Her name is Heather."

Hiccup looked at the girl with the white cape. There was something deep and hidden in her eyes. Her black hair was strangely unbraided and her thin, spare outfit wrapped around her body like a black cat's skin. The sparkling white bear's cape hung down from her shoulders, the stone epaulets painted with a pattern beautifully ornate and obscure.

She didn't step forward, but just looked at him, her eyes traveling down him, the shock of red hair, the little brown fur coat, the edges of the green tunic that stuck out from underneath. Her eyes rested lightly on the foot, the left foot.

"You must be something special," she said, not taking her eyes off that left foot. She paused, looked up again and smiled at her Council. "We came all this way to meet you."

How long will the charade last? she thought briskly, watching the little boy with the red hair and the metal leg, as they walked towards the Great Hall for the lavish feast the Hooligan chief had decided to bestow upon his guests. She could tell Stoick was in a hurry to get the past over with, and to move on. A noble thought, of course, but it could never be. But she humored him, because that was the plan. Feign love and make the betrayal more real, for that was how it happened almost twenty years ago.

She dropped further behind the rest of the people advancing through the forest, came alongside the boy, tried to analyze him, look into his eyes, tried to discover, out of a sudden, real curiosity that she found hard to explain in herself…

What did Valla see in the boy?


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