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Nightfall

By Leletha

Drama / Fantasy

Chapter One

Nightfall, Part One:

Predawn dragon raids on Berk are so common these days that it is not at all unusual for the island’s people to wake up with a start or a scream or an axe already in their hands on mornings when – and because – there are no dragons in the sky.

This is not one of those mornings. It’s a full-scale raid and a big one. They’re hungry, the damn beasts, and the efforts to keep them out of the underground cavern carved out of the rock face to shelter the herds and their stocks are going badly.

Stoick the Vast, chief of Berk’s Vikings, smashes aside a burning wall as it falls around him, using the weight of the giant hammer to clobber the nearest Zippleback head, which screams at him and pulls back, taking off and away. It/they don’t go far, though, and he curses in the two-headed creature’s direction.

All around him is chaos. The Vikings have been fighting dragons all their lives, and they are giving a good account of themselves. They have to. They win; they hold; they leave; they die. They’re always trying to win; they’re holding; Vikings do not ever back down from a fight, not even one that’s been going on for hundreds of years, and especially not one of those. The last is unthinkable.

Even if all his people upped and left tomorrow, Stoick would stay. His tribe has paid in blood all that time, in limbs and treasures and lives and families. Dragons killed his own wife and baby son, and he has completely never gotten over that, nourishing his hatred on dragon blood and skulls. He holds their faces before him in every fight, the woman he can never forget and the baby whose face has blurred over time into all the hundreds of babies who have been and grown up to become the people he fights for.

“Wishin’ ye’d let me put tha’ edge on it, then?” Gobber calls to him now, having seen the short-lived victory. He’s been trying to get Stoick to let him add all sorts of spikes and jagged edges and gods know what to the warhammer for years now, off and on.

Stoick’s seen what his friend does to metal when he’s let loose on it, though. The ill-assorted collection of blades strapped to the stump of his left arm is example enough. There are at least three knives pointed in every direction but directly at the man it’s attached to, and as for the contraption in the middle of the town being fought around and run into – !

“She’s no’ supposed to be like tha’,” the blacksmith retorts defensively, following the chief’s pointed glance at what was basically a catapult, but one with a serious design flaw. “Worked like a dream, ‘til those twin ‘orrors got to ‘er. Can’t even begin to figure out what they did to ‘er. Brawlin’ in my shop! Ought to fire them out of it.”

“You can’t aim it, Gobber,” Stoick growls. Otherwise he’d let the sarcastic old smith follow through on his threat. But the way it is now, those two would probably fly into the Great Hall and blow up the roof. “And it fires very large rocks with spikes on them, when someone breathes at it wrong. Do not load it.”

He knows it was a mistake to say that the moment he does.

Battle din or not, there’s a sheepish awkward silence radiating from beside him.

Stoick glowers. “You already did, didn’t you.” It’s not a question.

“Ah…no?”

Down in the square, two warrior women are holding off a beleaguered Nadder, battering the bright blue-purple animal from both sides. Every time it moves away from one, the other herds it back towards her friend. It’s losing, and desperate, so of course the mad thing goes on the attack. Its lunge knocks over one woman and swings around to smash the other away when she moves in, but the Viking still on her feet stays up by stabbing a dagger into its snout and supporting herself on the blade. It screams and jumps at the same time, and the battling pair goes flying.

They hit Gobber’s malfunctioning, loaded, and primed catapult. Something snaps audibly, and its payload goes flying, vanishing into the dark in a broadly upward direction.

The blacksmith shrugs. “Or mebbe aye.”

High above the village, something screams in pain and fear, an alien, echoing, discordant sound, high-pitched and complex. It’s like no dragon he’s ever heard before, and he stares up into the night in surprise, trying to spot it.

There – a shadow, falling all but straight down, thrashing, still making that oscillating shriek.

Stoick runs to intercept it, making a guess and then correcting his path when something dark hits a market stall, demolishing it entirely. Dragons he and his Vikings can deal with – when they know the creatures’ weaknesses. Every dragon has one. If you don’t know it going in to a fight with a dragon, you’re unlikely to come out. Until he knows more about this particular dragon, it’s his responsibility as the chief to be the first to be in danger, and the last one out.

Its spectacular crash landing has already drawn the attention of the nearby fighters, Viking and dragon alike. The humans stare. The dragons – Stoick doesn’t fully register this until later – retreat.

Stoick’s reputation as a dragon fighter is well deserved. His people let him take the lead as he advances on the heap of wood and stone and metal and darkness, the last of which is moving, crawling out of the mess.

Alive and kicking, then.

Even in the torchlight and the flames of burning buildings and smoldering fields, the beast is black as night and madder than...oh, Hel...

“Get back!” the chief roars. “All of you, back away! And get me an axe!” His heavy warhammer is his favorite weapon and he knows how to use it against the regular fare of monsters that invade his island and threaten his people, but this is a jet-black dragon, a shadow demon, a Night Fury, an impossible mythical thing, here and now and angry and hurting. Gobber will be delighted: he wants something with an edge.

He’s immediately offered a dozen and he snatches the largest from the growing semicircle of the morbidly curious and those more bloodthirsty and glory-hungry than frightened of a creature no one has ever really seen or knows how to kill.

Hefting the axe in one hand and sizing up his enemy, Stoick is going to find out.

It’s smaller than some dragons but more compact, black scales in the half-darkness of predawn and fire making it difficult to spot any cracks in its armor or old wounds. There’s something tangled around it, leather or rope, and it’s crouching defensively to shield its left wing, which is trailing in the dust at an odd angle and shaking slightly. The creature shrieks at them, but it does not take off, and, as every child knows, if a dragon is grounded in battle, it’s dead.

Still, it rears up partway, tail thrashing, and fires a blast that makes spots go off in the chief’s eyes at a cluster of his Vikings that have gotten too close. Someone screams.

“I said get back! NOW!”

The crowd backs away a few steps. Somewhere behind him, he can hear Astrid chewing the spectators out and sending them off to defend against the still-ongoing raid. Gods bless her; he couldn’t have had a better heir to lead these warriors someday if she were his own blood. She’s good with people, strikes just the right balance between letting people challenge her and staying in the lead; she has the gift for it. She’s indispensable to him and someday she’ll be one of the best leaders Berk has ever seen, a proper Valkyrie.

He finds the balance of the axe and advances. The black dragon, paws braced on the ground again, glares at him hatefully.

The challenging roar his approach evokes, he realizes only after the fact, does not come from the beast.

Something appears on the Fury’s back and leaps down to the ground between dragon and Viking chief, howling a dragon-screech all but indistinguishable from the Fury’s. It’s like nothing he’s ever seen before – anyone has ever seen before – and the silhouette is jumbled and confused in the semi-dark.

Compared to the bulk of the Viking it’s facing down defiantly, it’s small, scrawny, lightweight. It might be a dragon with a mostly human shape, or a human in a dragon skin. The flash of scales on its body and the fin on its back with the way it hunches as if equally accustomed to standing on four legs as two suggests it is a dragon, although one he’s never seen before. As does the roar.

But when it opens its mouth and bares its teeth in a snarl, it’s a human mouth in a human face, and no dragon has ever had a mop of auburn hair. To describe it as having been hacked at with a blunt and rusty knife would be to miss the opportunity to suggest that it has been trimmed back by being chewed on by accident. It has human hands, currently raised before it as if to scratch and claw. It has human eyes, although they are dragon-wild.

Human, Stoick decides, realizing that the scales it wears are armor and there are straps and buckles and pockets and ties and things attached to it that he cannot make out or hope to understand in a brief glance. But unlike any human he’s ever seen or heard of.

It paces back and forth between the dragon and the Vikings threatening it, shrieking a complex jumble of unintelligible, animalistic sounds. Its – his – anger and fear are obvious as it makes aborted lunges at Vikings obviously holding weapons, which is essentially all of them, trying to drive them back.

The unprecedented sight in addition to the no-longer-mythical monster has the battling warriors frozen with confusion and surprise, though, and no one moves back very far. Since the odd creature is reluctant to go much out of arm’s reach of the dragon, it is the strangest stalemate the chief has ever witnessed.

It’s a balance that can’t last. Any second now someone is going to do something stupid.

Someone does. Snotlout, toting a sword already bloody from tonight and nicked from nights before, laughs and brags, “It’s no match for me!” He charges, swinging the sword in wide and showy arcs once there’s room.

The boy-dragon creature screams outright. Its hands drop from level with its hunched shoulders down to its waist, and then back up, leaping to intercept Snotlout and slashing at him. The glint of firelight on its hands is not enough warning.

Claws scythe, and the close-quarters engagement works against the armed Viking youth. The dragon-boy is simply in too close. His battle cry turns into a shout of shock and pain, and Snotlout reels back, dropping the sword to belatedly defend his face, only to discover that the smaller boy has jammed a foot behind his ankles and slammed scaled shoulder into armored chest, shoving him critically off balance and sending him flying.

In the time it takes for Snotlout to hit the ground, yelling and with blood dripping from between the fingers clutched against his face, the dragon’s defender has retreated back to his previous post, jaw gaping and teeth bared, snarling. But the hands raised threateningly are now wearing thick leather gauntlets tipped with bloody dragon claws, pulled from his belt as fast as thought.

The boy wears them, wields them, as if they had grown there. The clear creativity and workmanship prompt Stoick to take another look at the leather tangled around the black dragon.

It’s not tangled, he realizes; it’s not even accidental. It’s a harness, connected to a thick pad that could even be a saddle. A riding harness. He’d been riding the beast! How could anyone – what kind of monster could – or would – ?

Snotlout is alive – he’s trying to get back up, and he’s shouting too loud to be dead anyway – but that the stranger had won the brief fight enrages the staring crowd, and they begin to advance threateningly.

The dragon rider bristles, shoulders shifting, and roars. More convincingly, the Night Fury shrieks in a breath and sends it out again as a blast of power, scorching over the heads of the Vikings and reminding them why this particular dragon is so feared.

Suddenly, in the midst of the screaming, Stoick hears a garbled sound he almost understands, something like “nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh!”

No, no, no, the boy, if it is a boy, is saying.

For an instant, the Viking chief looks away and back at the dragon, sheltering behind its peculiar protector and nursing its wounds, trying to fold a wing clearly broken in at least two places. His attention does not go unnoticed – the dragon cries out and whips its tail around, wrapping the boy in its fins and pulling him back against its chest.

He doesn’t fight the movement, pushing his shoulders against the dragon’s hide. The boy raises a still-clawed hand to the Fury’s face and pets it with the back of the glove, caressing even as he watches their enemies with fear and hate in his eyes.

Softly, under everything else, Stoick thinks he can hear the dragon making noises at the boy, and the boy making noises back, indistinguishable from one another. They are talking to each other, he realizes.

Despite the fact that no one has been listening to him at all tonight, Stoick tries one more time. “Stop! All of you! While you stare at one dragon, four dozen more raid our herds and burn our homes! Get after them!”

Something in his voice must have suggested that he really means it this time, because some of the crowd scatters. It won’t last for very long – Stoick knows how the local dragons attack, and this raid is already dying down. Sometimes it’s because the Vikings have driven them off; sometimes it’s because they’ve run out of food to steal. In this case it may just be because the sun is going to start coming up any minute now.

The result is marginally quieter. He also finds two pairs of malevolent eyes fixed on him, unnaturally unified and focused. He’s just identified himself as the leader; they know he’s the biggest threat.

“You,” Stoick booms, pointing at the dragon-like boy, who flinches back from the protruding finger as if it were a knife. “Do you understand me?”

The stranger tips his head to the side, pulling away even further and turning his head slightly to look at Stoick out of the corner of his eye. There’s something familiar about his face and manner, but Stoick can’t place it. It’s probably that the movement makes him look even more like a dragon, keeping an enemy out of his blind spot. He knows he’s looking at a human, but all the patterns keep trying to tell him that it’s a dragon.

Dragon or boy or both are making a constant low growling noise. And the dragon, he notices, is looking for weaknesses in the armed circle keeping it confined to its crash site.

“Do you talk?”

The focus of the boy’s attention is still the finger, not the words. The chief lowers it, and is rewarded for this act of perception by hostile eyes – also green, he notices as the sky gets progressively lighter and the dragons cut through the smoke from the village and take it with them off into the sky as they retreat – shifting back to his face.

The reply, if it is a reply and not just a string of animal noises, is meaningless.

“You don’t have any idea what I’m saying, do you? Good.” Without looking around, he adds, steadily and without changing his tone, “Astrid, get everyone we can spare out of sight.” He knows she’s there. “Issue crossbows, javelins, and bola to anyone who knows which way is up and won’t forget what they’re doing and attack their neighbor instead.”

(That rules out…babies, Bucket, and the twins. One day, Stoick is going to nail those two into a barrel and drop it in a riptide.)

“On my signal.”

She takes off without a word, and Stoick decides to stall. While the dragon’s biggest advantage – its wings – are disabled, that blast of fire unlike any he’d ever seen come from a dragon would be deadly. If the Fury decides to burn its way out the way any dragon would, Stoick is going to lose a lot of good people, and he has no idea if the creature has a shot limit. They know nothing useful about the beast; before right now they didn’t even know if it was real or just a legend.

The chief points at the dragon and the boy, still pressed together, to get their attention. He does not want them looking around as the trap closes.

“Listen here,” he says, knowing they don’t understand. He presses a big hand against his breastplate. “Stoick,” he says, then repeats his name slowly. “Sto-ick.” Then he points back at the boy. “You?”

The pantomime is holding the boy’s attention, at least, although he can just barely hear the dragon making little noises as it watches everything else. If they’re really talking, this is not going to be a very successful distraction –

“Stoick,” the chief gestures to himself and says again, then reverses the hand and stays silent.

There’s a long, long pause. Stoick can hear his people gathering as he studies the boy’s face. Where in Hel’s name had he come from? He searches for any of the recognizable traits of the more distant tribes of the Archipelago. Something is still familiar there, but he can’t quite put his finger on what.

And he’s sure he would have heard by now if someone had managed to control a dragon – people had tried in the past, and mostly they had ended up as flaming and half-eaten testimonies to why dragons were uncontrollable monsters. He had lost Valka because she had thought she had time to get to the baby and get away without provoking that gigantic creature.

But the way he acts, sounds, looks – the boy is almost a dragon himself.

Then –

The boy’s unidentifiable face works awkwardly, and he makes a hissing, ticking sound something like “St-t-t-t-t-t-kk”. He raises one claw-gloved hand and points at the chief. Then, to Stoick’s surprise, he adds “Pfikingr” and a snarl, snapping the hand to one side in a slicing motion. The chief thinks he can hear ‘Viking’ in there, and the aggression doesn’t need translation.

Regardless, it’s almost communication. “Yes,” he rumbles, “Stoick. And you?

He seems to understand now, and puts a hand against his chest in imitation. But Stoick instantly knows that he hasn’t a chance of being able to repeat the sound the dragonish boy makes.

It’s not even a word, just a pair of sounds: a click and something like a phuh­.

Trying to decode it, he misses completely that the boy immediately puts the same hand on the dragon’s nose and makes a hissing noise that sounds a bit like “Tt-th-ss”.

After a moment, he tries, “Ick-puh?”

The exasperated grimace is the most human expression Stoick’s seen on that face so far. The nagging at the corner of his memory gets louder.

He repeats both noises, the sound the chief has identified as the boy’s name and the sound for the dragon.

“Ickk-puh,” he gets out, putting the emphasis on the first sound this time and watching the boy react. Something about the sound clicks a realization into place.

Valka; he looks like Valka, Stoick thinks, but he’s colored…like…me…

“Oh my gods,” he says.

“Nuh,” the boy corrects, “nuh ummmmmu-“ A slightly different click. “-ttss.” And repeats his name again, and the dragon’s.

Stoick is not listening. He’s fast for a man his size, which has surprised many a foe, and he whips around and shouts as loudly as he can, “HOLD FIRE!”

The sound echoes off the remaining buildings and the sea cliffs, startling up a seagull chorus of surprised Vikings who had been looking forward to a surprise mob attack on a single example of a variety of hereditary enemy which had previously only existed in nightmare stories. It was very similar to a reaction that, in another time and place, the announcement of the cancellation of a much-anticipated treat might have on a crowd of six-year-olds.

The chief will placate them later, as long as they don’t shoot.

He stares at the wild, green-eyed boy, incredulous and disbelieving and hoping.

“Hiccup?” he says.

If he was hoping for a flash of recognition, he is disappointed. The dragonish boy has taken advantage of his momentary lapse of attention to leap to the saddle on the Night Fury’s shoulders, and the dragon has, over the course of Stoick’s diversion, folded both broken and unbroken wings in tight.

Stoick realizes he wasn’t the only one who was stalling for time.

It shrieks in a breath, twists around, and fires a blast into a building that had escaped undue fire damage, until now. It all but explodes, and as chaos and confusion, shouting and running, erupt all over again, the black dragon takes off running, scorching through town and off into the mountain forest, vanishing into the trees with its impossible companion on its back.

Part of Stoick wants to stand there and stare after them, gaping. Another part of him wants to grab Gobber by his shirt and shake him and yell did you see that too? Still another wants to deny what he thought he just saw. A very small part wants to go back to bed.

The largest part of him is a war chief whose people have just weathered another attack with a very strange coda, whose village is still smashed and smoking, and who, from the sound of it, are already spreading rumors. That’s the part that takes over.

“Fire squad, form up with Fishlegs,” he orders, because there’s still smoke rising and that means a live fire. “Someone get that sheep away from the cliff before it walks off the edge and we lose another one. Get the wounded to Gothi. If we have anyone dead, I want to know. Did they break into the cave storage? Check it. Spitelout, form up a team and get those creatures in the traps to the pit.”

Astrid emerges from the regrouping crowd and meets his eyes, requesting either a task to carry out or permission to give her own orders as she sees fit. On any other day, he would set her loose on the repairs and the battered tribe with pride.

Today, he beckons her to his side with a single finger, discreetly.

“And if anyone tries to go after that dragon,” he roars, “whatever it does to you will be nothing compared to what you’ll catch from me! The village comes first!”

He sees obedience in his people, by and large. They understand where their priorities need to be.

Mostly. “Gobber,” he says, expressionless.

“Aye?”

“Find the twins something heavy, awkward, and useless to move some great distance. And make sure they do it.”

The blacksmith grins from ear to ear, which is terrifying. “With pleasure.”

“And me?” Astrid asks when he’s gone, off on a well-trodden warpath.

“You,” he tells her solemnly, “are the exception. You’re one of the best trackers on Berk, and you’re smart enough not to try engaging that Fury on your own. It can’t fly, so it’s somewhere on the island. Find it.”

She’s pleased by the compliment and the challenge. “Got it, Chief. Um, Chief?” she adds as he walks away to lead his tribe. She sounds unusually unsure.

“Yes?”

“Didn’t you once have a son named Hiccup?”

“Go find them.”


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