Nightfall

Chapter Fourteen

Nightfall, Part Fourteen

When Astrid returns to the shore late the next morning, she does so with trepidation.

The moment she walks out into the open, she could die. She is almost expecting to, and somewhat believes that she will not get even that far, that the windblown sea pines will not hide her from those eyes and the smell of their rain-dampened needles will not keep Toothless from tracking her, and they will become the funeral pyre in which she will burn alive. Because of this, to her disgust, she is still standing in the forest just before the last slight bend in the increasingly worn path that will take her out of the trees and into view of the ocean and the rocky coastline that harbors her own personal nightmare: a challenge she cannot overcome and cannot understand and cannot leave alone.

And she wants to be done with this – at least, she does not want to be here this morning. She wishes that her honor and her sense of responsibility would let her stay away for one day, just one. A good part of her does not ever want to see those cold green eyes again, and she is not sure whether it is the dragon’s eyes or the not-quite-human’s she wants to see less.

But she knows she can’t stay away. Yesterday had been awful.

The first dozen times someone had asked about the gash on her cheek, Astrid had answered simply, “I let down my guard around a dragon, and it got to me.” She has outgrown the belief that every lesson should leave a scar, but this one will and she will not forget.

She had not even been going to ask Gothi to look at it, but she had stopped by the partly-demolished and never really repaired storehouse where the Elder had set up to care for some of the more severely wounded Vikings and the small woman had caught her in an unexpectedly firm hand, sat her down, and daubed something on it that stung worse than the original wound, gesturing and scowling the entire time. Astrid had been unable to stop herself thinking that it had been no different from the way the dragon-boy who had given the wound to her might behave if he was ever inclined to help her.

Besides, she has always suspected that Gothi makes that stuff for stupid people who have made stupid mistakes so that they will not make the same mistake again, and she was annoyed to have it put on her.

So to the next dozen curious people, she had gritted out, “I made a mistake.” Surely that was not so unbelievable. She makes mistakes. She then fixes them, which some of the people she is responsible for have not yet learned to do. Every time she said it, she could not shake the feeling that she had just made a big one, and that she might not be able to fix it.

The last time someone had asked, she had yelled, “Go away and stop asking me that!”

To her relief, they had.

But it had gotten worse from there. It had gotten worse through the funerals for the dead when it started raining just to make the atmosphere of it worse, and every piece of debris she picked up, every wound she saw on her people, everyone who looked at her because they were looking for answers and she didn’t have any to give them.

That night Astrid had brooded over her simple meal in the Great Hall along with everyone else, listening to the rain and already noticing that there was less food for the village than there was the day before. Certainly what they had was nowhere near the party they had thrown to celebrate the initial return of the fishing fleet, where she’d been forced to break up several fights mostly brought on by too much ale and because the chief was nowhere to be seen. Ultimately, she’d recruited some Vikings to just toss the brawlers out onto the steps up to the hall, deciding that if they were too drunk to fight on steps then they deserved to fall down them, which put a stop to most of the fighting quite quickly and gave the rest of the revelers some extra entertainment as they watched.

Seeing an armed cluster of Vikings setting out despite the rain to patrol the island, hunting for something fairly large that has been leaving tracks as it runs around hunting game but has not yet come near the village, had been a relief. But when she offered to go with them – an afternoon of obsessively sharpening and repairing her axe had given her a desire to test it out on something, and since it was probably some kind of dragon lurking out there, it was probably only a matter of time before it decided to come after the village as well – she found that they didn’t want her help because they had too many people for an effective hunting party already. So she was left with nothing to do that was active enough to distract her from chewing over that confrontation with Hiccup and Toothless.

It grated on her all night as she tried to sleep and failed miserably, knowing that she owes her life to the whim of something not quite human. She could not stop thinking about the fight she had had with the dragon-boy. Damn you! she had cursed, unable to rest. You can feel sympathy! You let me live, you spared my life! Why did you do that? If you can do that, why won’t you help us?

So despite her fears, despite the bruises on her stomach where Hiccup had pounced on her, she cannot face another night like that. It had been filled with anger and the sting of the wound on her cheek and the remembered fear of being pinned to the ground with a legendary monster and something even the storytellers couldn’t have imagined threatening her together.

Astrid has never been one to turn her back on fear, and she faces failure like an enemy. She refuses to accept defeat and the worse it is the more she fights it. So she has come back.

It has occurred to her plenty of times on the way here that she is walking to her own death; she knows that Hiccup will not want to see her or speak to her, possibly ever again. He had told her to go. If she comes back – as she has done – she may not get a second chance.

But she has also realized that what she had considered a wake-up call had been, to him, a nightmare.

She almost feels guilty. She doesn’t want to feel bad about telling him the truth, but she does. She’s hurt him – she knew it would hurt him and she had told him anyway. She doesn’t regret it – he needs to know – but she does not need to save her people by tormenting a child.

Yes, she knows he’s as old as she is, but while Astrid thinks of herself as a woman she has trouble seeing the dragonish boy as a man. She has earned the right to call herself an adult, and as far as she’s concerned he has yet to. He acts like a trapped animal, a child afraid of her; she cannot see him as an equal.

Hiccup infuriates and annoys her; he is incredibly disconcerting. But she doesn’t hate him. Fear him, yes. He scares her. He’s aggressive and dangerous when he needs to be and she knows it, she has the cuts and bruises to remind her. And he’s an impossible mixture of two things that she had never imagined could or would coexist.

But on days when he’s in a good mood and she’s not pushing him too hard she also has to admit that there are good things about him too. He’s very intelligent in a way he probably can’t quite describe, but that he can certainly use. He doesn’t talk very well by her standards, but he’s observant. He has a sense of humor that she couldn’t believe she was seeing when she figured out that he was doing things because they annoyed her and he was watching her react out of the corner of his eye. He draws better with a stick and some sand than anyone she knows can do with paper and ink. He’s obviously a survivor – he does what he has to in order to keep himself and Toothless alive – and she has to respect that. He adores Toothless and the Night Fury adores him and Astrid is almost jealous of that. She wonders what it’s like to have a dragon – to have anyone – love you so completely.

Astrid still can’t believe that he spared her life, and oddly enough that is what has brought her back here most of all. She still thinks he could help her tribe; she insists on it and she’s not going to leave him alone until he does.

And anyway, everyone knows that if you can find a crack in a dragon’s armor that’s where you should strike, and she had seen the look in his eyes before they had frozen over with hate – she had definitely gotten through to him. That he’s capable of mercy! There is something human in there, and that human must be desperately confused right now. He must have so many questions.

Astrid needs to be the one with the answers. She has swung at him once and made contact, and now she needs to follow through with her strike. It’s no different from fighting with an axe.

So she has to go back. She won’t let him beat her. Her people need his help too badly for her to let him get away just because she’d forced him to face reality and he hadn’t liked it.

When she rounds that last corner and leaves her knife in the woods, she closes her eyes for a brief second and takes a deep breath. In the next few moments she may be blasted to ashes or attacked by a furious dragon-boy, or ignored completely.

Accepting those possibilities, she steps out onto the shore. She knows he sees more of what she feels than hears what she says; Astrid hopes he can see that she’s sorry and doesn’t want to fight right now, that she still wants to be friends.

It’s quiet, is the first thing she notices. It’s late in the morning and the sun is well up; the local seagulls have learned to avoid this area because she’s seen Toothless eat them and while seagulls are very stupid they’re not that stupid. The waves are rolling in and out as steadily as ever, but there is no black dragon splashing about in them fishing or half-hunched part-human figure drawing on the rain-wet beach with a stick or stalking something.

Of the various options, she’s glad they’re ignoring her.

Somewhat encouraged, Astrid goes to her usual flat rock and sits down to wait for one of them to emerge. She’s brought food as an apology even though they can’t spare it after yesterday morning’s raid, and had gotten up early from a restless doze to get the people who like to cook to make something sweet from their limited reserves of honey as a bribe. It had taken some doing, but it’ll be worth it. If he acts like a child, she’s going to treat him as one, and start simply until he gets used to the idea and she can ask him to do more complicated things like send dragons away.

Almost an hour goes by before she admits to herself that they’re really determinedly ignoring her today. Maybe they’re still asleep. She wishes she could sleep in all day.

For a while she tries counting the waves as a way of timing how long it takes before they notice her, but that only puts her to sleep. When she jerks awake after her head slips sideways and collides painfully with a small rock outcropping, the sun has noticeably moved and her shadow tells her it’s past noon.

No Toothless. No Hiccup. No tracks across the sand or scuffed-aside rocks to indicate that they have snuck past her while she slept. Now she hopes that they’re ignoring her – falling asleep on watch! She’s ashamed of herself.

This embarrassment drives her to do something that she has to admit is incredibly stupid even as she resolves to do it, because as she looks around for dragon and rider she focuses on the tumble of rocks that they use to get up and down from that inaccessible cave that they have been hiding in. Watching them do that does not get boring: it’s a difficult climb and while she can understand why Toothless can do it – he’s so much bigger and with a longer reach – she’s constantly amazed at Hiccup’s ability to do the same thing even without riding on the dragon’s back. She couldn’t climb that…

…could she?

Astrid must be mad. When she gets back to the village the chief is going to tie her to something and sail her away over the horizon like he threatens to do to the twins every so often. (Once, inspired by such a comment, the twins had tried to tie themselves to longboats, but no one actually wanted the twins for a figurehead. The ship’s captain had left them there to untangle themselves, though, and there had been a few hours of relative peace in the village.)

Here and now, though, the more she looks at that slope the more she imagines that they have started to wear it away, that their repeated ascents and descents have moved stones enough to make it almost climbable by someone really determined.

She can’t believe she’s considering deliberately climbing into a dragon’s den, especially one she knows is full of dragon that is probably very upset with her. Better to admit that Hiccup doesn’t want anything to do with her today and go home until he’s in a better mood. It’s a ridiculous risk.

But her tribe specializes in crazy, although it’s probably a good thing that there isn’t a contest for craziest clan in the Archipelago. And leaving now would mean admitting defeat, suggesting that she’s going to let him keep on ignoring the people here who need his help, and she refuses to back down. She is now convinced that her fate is to die by Night Fury. It will happen. It may as well happen today, and she would rather face it than wait for it to chase her down.

Crossing the beach cautiously, Astrid calls out, “Hiccup? Toothless? It’s me! It’s Astrid! It’s all right! Are you there? I’m coming up!”

Nothing but waves, so Astrid eyes the route she thinks she can see and sheds her armor despite strongly wanting to keep it on. It won’t actually protect her from that blast of flame Toothless fires anyway, but she feels a lot more vulnerable without it. Still, it won’t do her any good if she can’t get up there to begin with. Astrid spits on her hands, says a rueful prayer, and climbs.

It’s hard work, and before she’s halfway up Astrid has realized two things.

One, Hiccup is stronger than he looks. She knew that already from fighting with him, but it’s brought home to her all over again as she struggles. He’s bigger than her and his reach is correspondingly wider but he must also be heavier and she has to use all her hard-earned warrior strength to pull herself from rock to rock.

Two, this cliff is really bloody high.

After her first thoughtless glance down, Astrid resolves to never do that again. She was born on this cliff-edged island and has never been afraid of heights – some of the ramps built into Berk’s cliffs overlook fatal falls – but then those were built deliberately and checked often and they are not improvised out of rocks that must have been unstable to fall in the first place and then shift. She does not want to think about how she’s going to get down again, assuming she doesn’t do so as a blazing cinder.

Oh, and three, she amends her own mental tally: this was a really bad idea. At a truly inconvenient point where she thinks a single breath of wind might force her to lose her grip and a sneeze would definitely kill her – there is rock dust in her nose and throat and it is a genuine possibility – she remembers that this was a climb the twins thought was crazy.

When the twins think something is crazy, and Snotlout backs them up, it’s probably unspeakably crazy.

But ironically enough, she’s really gone too far to stop now, which seems to be her lot in life every time she steps out onto this beach. Astrid is going to stop praying before she does dangerous things: it seems to attract the attention of trickster gods who think they’re funnier than they are.

She sticks to it, though. She refuses to give up. Astrid never gives up, and she almost never backs down. Not with her people’s lives and her own honor at stake.

Getting to the top is one of the greatest reliefs of her life. She drags herself over the edge onto that lip of rock outside it and for a moment doesn’t care enough to get up off the ground, even if Toothless is standing over her with his fangs bared ready to roast her and then eat her.

No lightning scream greets her, no howl of nearly-human rage challenges her. So Astrid sits up, shakes out her arms, and looks around.

It had not looked this high from the ground, but some of the drop that she hadn’t dared to look at is over the ocean and that means the end of a potential fall is not only far away but moving. It’s disorienting.

But she can see clearly into the cave – it’s really only a depression in the rock like someone had pushed their hand into the stone and scooped out a handful. It’s not very large and there are no passageways leading deeper into the cliff.

And it’s empty.

No dragon. No dragon-boy.

Tentatively, Astrid thinks better of getting to her feet and instead crawls over to the cave. This turns out to be a good decision as she feels less like she’s going to fall and she would have had to crouch down anyway just a bit to get through the cave mouth. Though it’s higher inside she stands up gingerly, and it still barely clears her head in most places. She can smell dragon, that unique lizard-like scent combined with fire and the smell of something exploding and salty sea air. Most of the sand has been swept around the stone floor in strange whorls and tracks, across stone that is fairly regular and even, although there are scratches from dragon-claws across some of them, especially around the cave mouth.

Her eyes are drawn to a space where the rock has worn away unevenly to create a low, flat alcove between a ridge of stone and the back wall. There is no sand there; no fish scales or bones, no bits of thread or half-burnt sticks, and no scattered scraps of paper so thickly covered in charcoal drawings that they are almost burnt-black and wholly indecipherable, all of which can be found elsewhere in the cave.

The light from the afternoon sun highlights those rock walls, which are covered with deliberate marks in chalk and charcoal.

“You draw on the walls,” Astrid says to the absent Hiccup. “This is Toothless.” She’s familiar with the way he draws the dragon, which he does frequently, and it is usually accompanied by his own dragon-like figure, which is – aha! “And here you are. I don’t know what this means, but it’s scary. Or scared. This is…” she squints at it, and guesses, “a wing? Toothless’ wing?”

One finger traces the design without touching it, and then moves on to some similar drawings beneath it. “As it heals…” The rest make no sense to her whatsoever, and some of them are smeared or half-washed away.

It all adds up to one thing, and Astrid cannot help but admit it.

“You’re gone.” Her voice sounds like she’s announcing a death – she may as well be – as it echoes in the abandoned cave.

They can’t be gone! She still needs Hiccup’s help, there are still dragons trying to starve her people out and it’s getting worse! They can’t be gone, Toothless shouldn’t be able to fly yet!

Except she knows nothing about how quickly dragons can heal, and a memory has been nagging at the back of her mind ever since she woke up from her unexpected nap and seen that the beach was still deserted.

After a moment, it occurs to her – she’d been focused on Hiccup, jammed against the rock and trying to get away from her, as they fought, but she had seen Toothless threaten her – wings spread wide.

They had not looked broken, and she had not consciously noticed at the time.

“No…” says Astrid to no one at all, furious and disoriented and impressed somewhat against her will. “You sneaky little…”

She has failed utterly.

They have gotten away, and she cannot imagine that they will ever come back.


She doesn’t remember getting back down. She only knows she’s accomplished it when her feet don’t hit more rocks and she has to look down to realize that there is wet sand on her boots.

Astrid is numb to the fact that she has not fallen and that she never has to do that again. If she had fallen she would not have to think about being tricked by dragons and she would not have to go back and confess to the chief that she has failed in the responsibility that he has given her. The boy who was once the chief’s son has vanished and they have almost no chance of ever finding him again.

Then, just briefly, something occurs to her. Those tracks. The ones that the oversized hunting party was trying to follow last night.

Toothless?

If Astrid can follow a path and leave this shoreline, Toothless definitely can. Just because this is the only place she has ever seen them does not mean that this is the only place they have ever been. They might just have moved to somewhere else on Berk, somewhere she doesn’t know and where she might not follow them.

She hopes that’s the case. It will be difficult to find them again – they will probably be actively hiding from her – but she might be able to salvage something from this shipwreck.

But that memory of Toothless spreading his wings will not leave her alone, and somehow she doubts that they are still on Berk.

There is no one to see her, and her legs are still wobbling from that climb, so Astrid sits down alone on the shoreline and puts her head in her hands, cursing herself and clever dragons.

Now what?

And what is she going to tell Stoick?

Imagining this so consumes her attention that it is several minutes before she looks up again, and when she does it is to somewhat of a spectacle.

The beach is full of little dragons.

Terrible Terrors are fluttering about with their noses to the ground and sniffing the air, following each other around on rocks and across scrubby grass, making little flights over the water and back again. But it’s completely different from what she has observed is their normal mode of behavior – when they’re not attacking humans or small and edible creatures like fish or squirrels, they’re actually quite playful, which is something The Book of Dragons definitely doesn’t say. She must remember to tell Fishlegs before Stoick exiles her so he can write it down and she will have achieved something, however small, to help them deal with dragons.

They love playing with Hiccup and teasing Toothless even though the Night Fury is so much bigger than they are. They have interrupted just about all of the language lessons she has been trying to teach Hiccup over these last few weeks, and he never hesitates to abandon whatever she’s trying to do in favor of playing with them.

As she watches, something of a halfhearted scuffle erupts among the densest cluster of Terrors, and the loser – or maybe the winner, it’s hard to tell with Terrors – takes off into the air away from the group and up towards the sea cave that Astrid has just returned from. With the advantage of flight it makes the ascent much more quickly and easily and the Viking woman is briefly jealous. She can see it hovering there, circling and bobbing up and down in the air, a little speck of color against the rocks and the sky.

When it returns with somewhat of a crash it sits down and whimpers unhappily, head drooping. Within seconds the sentiment has spread throughout the flock and dejected little dragons are everywhere, wings hunched over backs or trailing on the ground, eyes big and sad, and tails tucked up under or close in to bodies.

“You miss your friends,” says Astrid – it’s fairly obvious. “Sorry, little guys. They’re really gone.”

Sad Terrors whimper and whine and complain that their friends are not here to play with, shuffling around as if they will find Hiccup or Toothless in a tide pool or under a rock. She knows how they feel, and completely overlooks the fact that she is now able to empathize with dragons.

Astrid doesn’t feel threatened by them, so she puts her chin in her hands and stares out to sea, not worried about being attacked by little dragons that look like they have been left out in the rain.

She sighs, no closer to knowing what she is going to do next despite the distraction of the Terrors arriving and discovering what she had already known – the Night Fury and his dragonish rider have disappeared. If they were still on the island the Terrors would probably have been able to track them, but they are making no effort to do so.

After a few minutes, she looks around and discovers that just as she’s not threatened by the Terrors, the Terrors must have gotten used to her, because there is one lying right by her left knee with its shoulders hunched, staring at the horizon longingly.

The Viking woman stares at it. It’s small and sad and not at all scary.

It stares back at her and they look at each other for a very long moment. She understands that it’s sad and, she thinks, it understands that she is sad. And they are sad for the same reason.

The Terror rolls its eyes up at her and shuffles its oversized head closer to her, making small unhappy noises to match its small unhappy look.

Very, very carefully, and very, very slowly, Astrid raises a hand and reaches out. She can’t believe she’s doing this.

She pets its head carefully, ready to snatch her hand away if this is a trap and it has decided to eat fingers rather than fish today.

She’d been right. Dragons are warm.

The Terror purrs with the faintest suggestion of a catch in its voice as if it feels a little bit better and less lonely, and crawls up to her to prop its head on her knee – she couldn’t move if she wanted to, this is too weird! – so she can pet it better.

It chirps at her when she stops, just like Hiccup when he’s happy, so she keeps petting it, getting more comfortable with the action. Having faced down Toothless, it’s so small.

A warble from behind her makes Astrid look over her shoulder. Two more Terrors have dared to come up to her and are looking at her pitifully.

Choking back a hysterical laugh, Astrid reaches out her free hand and wiggles her fingers slightly, beckoning even though she is still half-sure they are going to get bitten off.

They manage to both rub against her hand at once.

A few minutes later Astrid has Terrors swarming around her peeping for attention and sympathy and she has not gotten bitten or flamed at even though she can’t pet them all at once and although they are fighting each other for access to her one minute and staring wistfully out to sea after Hiccup and Toothless the next. Neither has she jumped up and run away screaming or particularly wanted to hit them with the nearest thing she can find. There are two in her lap and one perched on her knee and she has successfully taught one particularly inquisitive one not to chew on her braid.

She can’t believe it. She has alienated and then lost both a human who can speak to and control dragons and the most dangerous dragon ever discovered or even rumored by all Vikings. She has failed to get Hiccup to send away the dragons that plague them before he can escape from her. But she seems to have acquired a flock of pet Terrors.

If she has to start over, maybe she’ll have to start small.

If Stoick doesn’t just cast her out of the tribe for losing his son.


Stoick the Vast is tired of waiting. All he ever does is wait, wait for the dragons to come back and for the fishing fleet to return, for winter to come and his people to die, for Astrid to befriend the boy who should have been his son if dragons hadn’t flayed all the humanity away from him and for her to teach him to talk just so he could tell Stoick things he never wanted to hear. He has waited twenty years and his reward for his patience and faith has been a snarling, hating creature that is all that is left of his only child and the knowledge that he would never see his beloved Valka again. He has held off and brooded and kept his rage locked up but this latest attack is too much. He has to do something, even if it’s a desperate attempt that has never worked in the past.

Still, Vikings are persistent and stubborn, and you can break rocks by beating your head against them. Even if it hurts, it works in the end. What else can he do but what he knows?

“We’re going after those dragons,” he booms as night closes in around the Great Hall again. It is probably too soon for another dragon raid but he has posted watches anyway – they’re coming faster and faster and maybe one day they will never stop. Most of the rest of the village is crowded in here and between all the people and the fires lit against the darkness and the tension in the room it’s as warm in the hall as it ever gets. “I want the ships seaworthy and loaded for war. It’s past time we started raiding them again rather than sitting around and waiting for them to raid us!”

As he’d expected, this announcement evokes a mixed chorus of cheers from angry people and groans from those who have been on these raids in the past and noncommittal mutters from people who think he’s wrong but are not sure enough about it to say so to his face.

“All the ships?” a longboat’s captain says, spreading his hands to indicate that he’s being reasonable, not arguing with the chief. “Some of us should go out fishing again.”

“Why?” Spitelout shouts at him across the table. “They’ll just come for it again! Why should we work to feed a bottomless pit of dragons?”

“Because even what we can keep is better than nothing!” the captain yells back, all indications of reasonableness going away as he squares off to fight. “We can’t eat dragons!”

This is true; in the depths of devastating winter Vikings have tried in the past and regretted it. Dragons, it is now generally agreed, are inedible.

“Fight first! Fish later!”

This is taken up as a ragged chorus by the people looking for a fight where they’re the attackers rather than the attacked. Any moment now punches will be thrown and they’ll be attacking each other.

Astrid, who is half-sitting on the table because she’s surrounded by huge Vikings, rolls her eyes. She’s been very quiet throughout the whole clan meeting, and in fact all day, pacing back and forth until called on by someone to do something or resolve some quarrel, staring at the ground as if it has done something to offend her. Stoick has said nothing to her, of course – whatever it is that’s worrying her, and she has plenty to worry over, she’ll solve it. If she wants his help, she’ll ask.

“Quiet!” Stoick roars. “Not all the ships. I’ll keep back a small fishing fleet, but I want the rest of them ready to sail. We’re going to find the nest this time! Astrid!”

Her head jerks up as if she’s surprised to be consulted. “Yes, chief?”

“Find out from –” He can’t say it. He desperately wants to acknowledge the dragon-boy as his son and insist on bringing him back to the village and teaching him to be human again, but he is also repulsed by the monster he sees with his son’s face that screams with a dragon’s voice. It is so very far from what he dreamed his only son would be that he cannot accept it and can barely even think about it. “Can you find out if the dragon rider knows where the nest is? They always fly away in the same direction, so we’ll start there, but if he can lead us to the nest…”

She looks uncomfortable. “I don’t think I can do that, Chief. I’d try, but –”

“Do better than try. You’ve had almost a month. Make him understand,” Stoick snaps, cutting off whatever she was about to say next. She goes white with rage at the curt interruption, making that cut on her face stand out in sharp and angry contrast, but holds her tongue.

“What if we separate the rider from the dragon?” He knows he’d discouraged that very same suggestion weeks ago but now he’s desperate, grieving, and angry. He’s seen how attached the boy who was once his son is to that Night Fury, and if nothing but force will get Hiccup away from the creature and back to humanity then that’s what he’ll use. What right does a dragon have to him over the boy’s own father? “If we brought him with us, could he show us where the nest is?”

“Chief, I think we really need to talk…” she says almost uncertainly, lifting her chin in what Stoick recognizes as Astrid trying to maintain her dignity when she’s embarrassed. The woman has more pride than a longboat full of Vikings.

“Fine. Not now.”

“Chief,” someone else protests, “every time we’ve tried to go after them we either wander around in circles out on the open ocean or dragons wreck the ships. We’ve lost entire ships and everyone aboard, never to be seen again!”

“And this time we’ll have a guide,” he snaps back at her. “This time they won’t be expecting it, because they’ll think we’ve learned, that we’re just going to keep feeding them and lie down and die. I’m not going to do that! I’m going to fight! We have to strike back!”

The argument goes on in this vein for a while, part of the room wanting to load up and ship out immediately and some arguing for a more cautious approach like what they’ve been doing for years: stock up on food and weapons, use both, keep a close watch on the skies, and fend off anything that come raiding until the dragons get the message. Neither strategy has worked particularly well in the past, so Stoick is currently favoring the one that lets him go out there and do something and maybe stop thinking and remembering for a little while, and it’s not open to debate, although this never stops Vikings if there’s a chance to argue.

But his resolve must be obvious, even if it’s the cold determination of a man who has seen his own horrors and will see them again for the rest of his life no matter what he does, because there’s reluctance but no significant resistance, and the chief spends the rest of the evening sorting out who is going to stay here, who is going to go out fishing and hunting, and who’s coming to war with him. It’s quite possible that Berk will be attacked in his absence, so he plans to leave several of his best warriors with Astrid in command. One of the reasons they had stopped launching retaliatory raids like this, besides the fact that they had never found the nest the dragons were coming from, was that at one point the dragons had apparently figured out that if there were lots of ships full of Vikings floating around on the ocean, that meant that there weren’t as many Vikings defending the island.

Stoick often wishes that dragons were a lot stupider.

But when he’s fighting he doesn’t have to think; when he’s killing dragons he doesn’t have to feel anything, even physical pain, except triumph. He doesn’t have to feel the grief of Valka’s death, confirmed so late and so harshly; he doesn’t have to consider that every blow he strikes is a blow his son would hate him for because the creatures have made him into a monster like them. He can’t feel regret that the differences between them are so wide and irreconcilable. He can forget the dreams he’s been having of tearing the boy away from the dragon and those claws from his hands and just holding on to him as if he were a baby again until he remembers that he is a person, not an animal, that he is Stoick’s son and even though Hiccup is afraid of him the chief cannot stop loving him just for being his and Valka’s child.

He wants his son back and the dragons gone and the two wishes have become inextricably linked. If he can drive the dragons away the boy will come back to him; if he can show Hiccup that he was born a Viking and he is wanted here then he will send the dragons away. He will be human again and not a snarling creature no different – no better – than any dragon.

He can do this. He will do it. He will pound his head against the problem until it cracks in two, with the dragons on one side and his son on the other, never to be tangled up again.

So he spends most of the evening readying his people for war and it’s fairly late and long since dark before he has time to talk to Astrid beyond sending her off to help organize the preparations.

She finds him as he sits down for a moment on the top of one of the large watch platforms that the dragons haven’t managed to burn down just yet. There’s a fire lit but he’s not looking at it because it will ruin his night vision to do so: he’s staring out to sea and wishing that if he looked hard enough he could see his memories like a real place and see Valka while she was still alive and with him and Hiccup while he was still a boy and not whatever he is now.

“Chief?” says Astrid, climbing to the platform. “Can I talk to you?”

The chief waves her up with one big hand. “What’s going on, Astrid?” This had better be good; he needs her at top form right now.

The young woman whom he has chosen as his heir sits down on the floor of the platform and can’t meet his eyes when he looks at her. She takes a deep breath and clenches her fists and Stoick goes cold, knowing he will not like what she is about to say.

“I told Hiccup that he’s human,” Astrid says to the fire.

“Did he understand you?”

“Yes.”

“What did he do?”

She points wordlessly to the gash under her left eye.

“Ah. So you can’t get him to tell you where the nest is because he’s angry at you.”

“No, sir, I…I can’t ask him anything. He’s gone.” She says it with the teeth-clenching determination of someone who is walking off a cliff with her eyes shut, knowing she’s going to fall but unable to stop and unable to watch.

Stoick hears his voice go very cold. “Gone? What do you mean, gone?”

“The only thing keeping them here – sorry, chief, Hiccup really doesn’t like Vikings – was that Toothless’ wing was broken. But yesterday I saw him spread those wings and they didn’t look broken to me. I even climbed up to their cave this afternoon and looked for them. I don’t know where they’ve gone. They might still be on Berk, but I doubt it, I think they’ve flown away. The Terrible Terrors like playing with them and the Terrors were acting like they were gone. But I realized something,” she says quickly.

Stoick lets her talk. It gives him more time to build up to what he wants to say and figure out what he’s feeling.

“They got used to me, the Terrors; they’ll even let me pet them. Dragons can be trained, Chief, and I didn’t even have to learn how to talk like a dragon! I want to try working with the ones we’ve got in the fighting pit. Maybe we can use dragons against the dragons – they’re territorial, if I could train our captive ones to think that Berk is theirs maybe they’d fight the others for us! We could feed a couple of tame dragons rather than a whole nest full of wild ones!” She sounds more and more excited as she elaborates and he says nothing.

But Stoick is silent because he is too angry to speak, a condition previously only experienced a handful of times by the Viking chieftain whose skills include being louder and more authoritative than anyone else who tries to argue with him.

“You lost him?” he roars finally, cutting her off mid-sentence.

He had not even been hearing what she was saying at that point, all of it lost beneath rage like a storm beating around his ears and tearing into his head to dive down into his gut and pound against the inside of his ribs. His son is gone again, the son he had a chance of getting back, taken away right out of Stoick’s hands for the second time by a dragon. But the Night Fury was wounded; it can’t have gone far…

Only slightly more quietly, he asks coldly, “You chased him away?” It cannot be a coincidence that she had angered him and the dragon-boy had then vanished. It is her fault, she scared him off.

She tries to deny it or tries to apologize, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t know, doesn’t care. Stoick suffered the loss of a child once, but he will not let it happen again. This time, he is going to go after the one he’s lost and get him back, no matter how long it takes or what he has to do to accomplish that.

“Get out of my sight,” he tells Astrid curtly – she takes one step back, shocked and shamed, but then locks her heels and refuses to let it show on her face. “Keep the island from burning down to the waterline while I’m gone and I’ll consider that when I deal with you later.”

Right now he is going to march down to the ship he was going to command anyway and get it ready to launch by the turn of the next tide if he has to push it out of the dock himself.

Let the others go and find the nest. Stoick doesn’t care about that anymore. There have been other raids in the past and there will always be more dragons to fight.

Stoick is going to find his son.


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