The Dragonwing Effect

Chapter 6

"There is no illusion greater than fear" (Lao Tzu)

Thin wisps of cloud whipped past the aircar's canopy, almost too fast to see. Sam checked his instruments a final time before engaging the autopilot. The muffled humming of the TQ drive rose slighty in pitch, as did the whistle of the turbines, before the craft settled 'in the groove.' A countdown display flickered on above Sam's right eye, backed up by the computer's voice: "One minute, ten seconds, to interface."

He could just make out the rugged coastline of the Shetlands, growing closer by the second. Speed he mused, still surprised by the simplicity of the answer. Speed and timing. Who knew?

Relays closed, and the weapons display for his EMP cannon flashed a reassuring green. "Forty seconds to interface" the computer said.

Sam closed his eyes a moment and took a shaky breath. Everything I needed to do, I've done he thought. Brevetoxin, cleared up. Flight recorder and holovid records, pulled and sealed in shielding containers. I'm really going to miss Skye and the others, but Saint Eligius Above, UNEC Command is going to have kittens when they see the recordings!

Something tugged at the back of his mind, a tugging which became a buzzing, like a hyperactive housefly. The buzzing sharpened, and became a voice whispering urgently about something. Sam shook his head sharply and the whispering receded as the computer spoke again. "Ten seconds, EMP fired."

He watched the bright blue-white sphere of roiling energy streak away. It struck the now-visible Arch squarely on one leg. A multicolored vortex appeared in the center, whirling with dizzying speed. "Six seconds" the computer announced. "Five... Four... COLLISION WARNING!"

His field of view went abruptly black. Panic surged through him as he instinctively disengaged the autopilot and pulled back hard on the joystick. Engine and structural alarms blared–

As suddenly, he was floating free in open air. Far below, he watched his aircar flip end over end and crash into the Archway, turning both itself and his only way home into so much burning scrap metal, rock, and Essence only knew what else. Oh, frell...

Then he started falling. And he couldn't find his parachute. He tried to scream, but no sound broke the silence. Panic surged through him again, and he started thrashing madly–

Suddenly, he landed on something broad, dark, and firm, turning the horribly fast descent into a smooth glide. The buzzing was back, only this time it resolved itself into four simple words.

"...not let you fall..."

He twitched violently as he came awake and sat up. Cold sweat blanketed his head and torso, causing him to shiver as the top half of his sleeping bag dropped away. His heart was racing like a triphammer, the blood roaring through his ears. His lungs weren't far behind; he had to force himself not to hyperventilate.

His hands trembled as he brought them up to cradle his face and rub at his sleep-crusted eyes. Scattered memories flickered through his mind. Falling from a great height, landing on something, and something else, tremendously important, he knew he had to remember...

Too late. It was gone like mist in the wind. He sighed, looked around and realized it was near dawn. The portion of sky he could see through the kitchen window had gone from ebony to deep blue, the stars slowly fading away. The only sounds were soft snores from the dragons, and a pair of considerably louder ones from upstairs.

Something firm and leathery suddenly nudged him in the back, nearly causing another panic attack. He whipped around to see Skye gazing at him, the dim light bringing a catlike reflection of emerald green from her eyes. She tilted her head slightly, and the softest of queries rumbled from her throat.

Relieved, Sam reached out a hand to scratch gently under her jaw. This drew a more contented sound. "I'm all right" he whispered. "Just a nasty dream..."

Nature called. Sam winced, carefully extracted himself from his sleeping bag and Skye's wing (much to the dragon's obvious disgust), pulled on his pants and boots, and staggered for the door.

The chilly air drew a gasp from him at the same time the sheer freshness of it brought him fully awake, scented with a mix of wood smoke, evergreen, and ocean. Waves rushed and rumbled against the shore, lending a background to the chirps of early-rising birds.

He made it to the outhouse with a minimum of questionable language and was deeply grateful for his supply of sanitizing gel. On the way back, he couldn't help but stop and stare at his ship.

Sam had never been particularly superstitious, but neither did he ignore gut feelings, or what some called their 'inner voice.' Moving quickly, but quietly, he slipped back into the house, finished dressing, and came back out to give the aircar a thorough going-over from nose to turbine exhausts.

Although the craft's externals were in perfect order, the cockpit check yielded a surprise. His front passenger seat now sported a pair of Terrible Terrors; the green female who had befriended him yesterday, and another slightly larger one, colored turquoise blue with a pattern of darker blue scales down the spine. The two were curled up side-by-side, their tail-tips entwined. Sam didn't need his veterinary degree to guess the newcomer was male.

The edge of the sun poked up over the horizon, turning the ocean into a sheet of white-hot silver. As the light crept over the aircar's canopy, the green Terror twitched and blinked, eyes adjusting to the new day. She sat up and yawned hugely, giving Sam a sobering look at an array of dental cutlery Norman Bates would have envied. Note to self he thought. Do not annoy the small lady with the big fangs!

Fortunately, the lady in question was more concerned with stretching hard enough to make her spine pop. She blinked at Sam, chirped pleasantly, then eyed her still-snoring companion with somewhat less favor. Untangling her tail, she nudged him in the side with it. This produced a brief interruption in the blue's snoring, but nothing more. Another nudge, harder, with her head, got him to turn on his side – and continue snoring.

Despite the apparent physical impracticality, Sam swore he saw the female's eyes roll for a moment before she made her next attempt. She extended her neck, took the tip of her companion's tail very carefully into her mouth, and nipped. Hard.

The blue Terror's eyes flew open, and he cut loose with an aggrieved squawk which made Sam's ears ring. The blue whipped around to strike back at his assailant, spitting a small jet of fire which narrowly missed Sam's ear. The female was already in the air, chittering derisively.

Once again, Sam found himself turned into an impromptu launching platform as the blue one bounded across the center console, charged up the vet's front, and pushed off into flight from his shoulder. The pair zoomed into the morning air, swooping and diving at and around each other like demented hummingbirds, before straightening out and heading for the beach.

"Welcome to my world" a familiar voice said. Sam looked down to find Hiccup, fully dressed and shadowed by the two Night Furies, grinning up at him. "You're up awfully early" he continued. "Is everything all right?"

Sam nodded. "Right as rain. I... just felt like getting an early start." He suppressed a shiver. "Are they always like that?" he asked, nodding in the direction the Terrors had gone.

Hiccup shrugged. "Couldn't say for sure. The green one's been hanging around since last winter, but this is the first time she's shown any real interest in human company. As for the blue, I've never seen him before. Terrors are, by nature, kind of touchy, though. One minute, sound asleep. The next, looking for a handout or wrestling with each other. Did they do any damage?"

Sam looked around the cockpit again. His eyebrows went up as he spotted a scorch-mark on the back of his seat. Fortunately, the tough fabric was self-extinguishing.

"Nothing a bit of new seat cover won't cure" he said. "Though I'm going to have the devil's own time explaining how that part of the seat got burned." He climbed down and brushed his hands together. "Where are you off to?" he asked, as he noticed Hiccup's flight harness and Toothless's saddle.

"Just a flight before things get busy" Hiccup replied. "I owe it to Toothless, since he's been cooped up so much, and this is the first real chance Skye's had to get back into the air since she got sick."

He reached out and scratched along Toothless's neck, then hauled himself up onto the Night Fury's back. Sam admired the way the teen's prosthetic leg fitted neatly into its clip on the left pedal, and said as much. Hiccup nodded. "Gobber's work" he said. "I was unconscious at the time–Great Odin's Ghost!"

Hiccup's jaw dropped. At the same moment, Sam heard a familiar chuff. He turned to see Skye standing next to him, one front leg bent at the knee and wings folded back, watching him with invitation and expectant interest sparkling in her eyes. Confused, he looked to Hiccup for guidance. "All right, I'll bite" he said. "What's that position mean?"

It took Hiccup a moment to recover. "What does it–Sam, have you gone completely dense?! She's offering you a ride!" He shook his head again. "First she makes Toothless introduce you, then she offers to take you flying with us... this is amazing!" He looked at the vet with new respect. "And I thought I was the one with the talent for getting along with dragons!"

Now it was Sam's turn to be stunned. Conflict tore through him as he went down on one knee, offering a hand to Skye. She stood back up and laid her muzzle against it, her gaze full of questions. "Lady Skye" Sam said, softly. "I'm flattered... Honored, in fact. But... I can't..."

He turned away. The buzzing in his head was back again, stronger this time, even going so far as starting a headache. Again, it sounded like someone was whispering urgently to him, barely on the threshold of hearing, but one word suddenly popped out of the noise with the force of a thunderclap: Look!

Startled, he met Skye's gaze again. The hurt in her eyes stood out like a solar flare, tearing at his heart in a way he'd never experienced before.

Toothless grunted something. Skye abruptly pulled away, took a running start, and launched herself into the air with a thunderous whoosh. The whispering vanished in the same instant. Hiccup looked like wanted to say more, but Toothless didn't give him the chance as he powered into the air, following closely in his mate's wake.

Sam stood up, watching them go, his innards a tight knot of shame and sadness. Gritting his teeth in frustration, he clenched his eyes shut and knocked his forehead repeatedly against the rear hull. I can bring an animal back from the brink of death. I can handle the idea of time travel and real dragons. But I can't shake a stupid childhood fear!

"You will only injure yourself that way" said a pleasant female tenor. "Why did you not go with them?"

The burst of anger fled, leaving only sadness in its wake. Sam took a deep breath and composed his expression before eyeing the new arrival.

As tall and slender as the Elder had been short and stocky, she was clad in a combination of green-dyed and brown leather, complimented with a hooded forest-green cloak. Her vest held numerous pouches and pockets of various size. Flame-red hair cascaded in a wave over her shoulders, and gray-green eyes studied him closely out of a face which he could only term 'ageless.'

She extended her hand. "Ingrid Eriksson. I'm the village Healer. Elder Gothi said you needed to speak with me?"

He smiled as he shook her hand. "Sam Shay, Healer for... well, more than I care to think about, sometimes" he said. "Please, call me Sam."

She returned the smile, showing a set of amazingly white teeth. "If you will call me Ingrid." She nodded towards Mead Hall. "Come. We can talk over breakfast."

Talk they did. Extensively. Sam found his Viking counterpart far from what he had expected. Intelligent, observant, witty, and knowledgeable enough about medicinal herbs and plant extracts to make him feel like a rank amateur. He said as much as they topped off a hearty breakfast with mint tea. "Ingrid, I have to confess, I feel like I'm in school all over again. How do you remember it all? And you work with both animals and people?"

"What makes you think any of us ever leave 'school' behind?" she replied, with a chuckle. "I've been practicing since I was eight years old. My parents were both healers; my mother worked with animals, my father with people. Many of the treatments are similar, as you already know. What puzzles me is why you work only with animals."

"The laws of my place and time don't permit me to work with people at all" Sam said. "There's a whole separate class of doct... uhh, 'Healers,' dedicated exclusively to people. It works both ways, though. Healers who work with people, in my time, are not usually permitted to work with animals."

She thought about this for a moment, then said "Strange. Is the art of preserving Life not the same, no matter what form it takes?"

Sam blinked. "You know, I never really thought about it that way. I think the main reason we're split is because there's so much to know. In my time, it takes seven years of schooling to become a vet, and nine to become a human doctor. And new discoveries are made all the time in both fields. Seems to me you'd have to be superhuman – uh, 'God-touched'– to work in both fields and still come out ahead."

She shrugged. "Perhaps. I would imagine much will be learned over the next millennium." She smiled at his startled look. "Elder Gothi told me of your... unique status. It does not seem so very impossible to me, though I have not the slightest idea how such travel could be accomplished."

Sam sighed, and drained the last of his tea. "That, Ingrid, makes two of us. For now, though, what can you tell me about any spices or herbs your people would add to fish?"

"I will answer that" she said, slyly, "if you will finish answering a question I asked you earlier."

"Which is?"

She took a moment to compose her thoughts, then continued. "It is unusual enough for a dragon to openly invite a human, especially one not well known to them, for a ride. For Skye to do so is unheard of. Yet, she extended you such an honor this morning. Why would you refuse?"

Though her gaze was openly curious, her tone was brittle. Sam gulped, only now getting an idea of how serious a faux pas he'd committed. He ran a hand along his collar, wondering why the room had suddenly gotten hotter in the last few minutes. "You... must have been standing there for a while" he muttered, staring into his mug.

"Long enough" she said, rising from the table. "I also sense the answer to my question is not for just any set of ears. Walk with me."

Her tone held a note of command Lieutenant Dashiell would have envied. Sam followed, quickly, feeling like every eye in the hall could see right through him. He was grateful to step outside again, into the cool sea-scented breeze and bright sunlight, amazed to see a sky without a trace of cloud.

The village itself was as busy as the proverbial beehive, the residents taking full advantage of the good weather. Hammer blows against wood and nails sounded, as repairs or remodeling projects were carried out, underscored by bellowed orders or good-natured cursing. Dragons were everywhere, helping to lift or hold things in place. Sam glanced out to sea, and could just make out the colorful sails of the fishing boats in the distance. Clanking and metal-hammering sounds issued from what he assumed was Gobber's smithy, accompanied, periodically, by a peculiar hissing roar.

"Gobber is quick to take advantage of anything which eases his work" Ingrid said, as if she'd read the thought. "He has a Gronckle who helps him keep his forge going." She put a firm hand around his upper arm, and pointed with the other. "Come. I can barely hear myself think in this spot."

She led him in the general direction of the ramps to the harbor, and his first thought was they were heading for the beach. That notion was wiped out when Ingrid turned right before the ramps, onto a pathway leading to a bridge which spanned a wide gap between two stone plateaus. He could just make out a broad circular area on the other side, topped with what looked like smaller concentric circles of suspended chains.

Timbers creaked underfoot as they started to cross, the surface bobbing slightly with their combined weight. Sam tensed, but Ingrid was quick to reassure him. "I am in no great hurry to reach Valhalla" she said, with a smile. "It will hold."

"Wh... where are we going?" Sam asked, unable to keep a tremor out of his voice. Those sidewalls are getting damned low!

She pointed ahead. "There is something you need to see." She eyed him critically. "Are you ill? You look pale."

Sam gulped. He was finding it increasingly hard to keep his attention focused ahead – especially since both side-rails of the bridge had abruptly dropped away. The gap looked ragged, as though the tough timbers and supporting ropes had been stretched to their breaking point and beyond by something far bigger and stronger.

"A log got loose from the last pile brought across, and caused some minor damage" Ingrid said, all too casually for Sam's taste. "It will likely be repaired before the next full moon."

'Minor' it might have been in her eyes. To Sam, it felt as if the world itself were dropping away from under his feet! Vertigo surged up in him at the sight of the impressive chasm, normally obstructed by the side-rails, and his knees took on the consistency of water. He sagged, grabbing frantically for the nearest upright support and clinging to it as though it were surgically attached.

Somewhere, far away, someone was yelling something. He couldn't tell what, because his ears were too full of the rush of blood and the hammering of his heart. He certainly couldn't see anything, with his eyes squeezed so tightly shut it started a light show inside his head.

A sharp, cool, sweetish scent suddenly cut through the panic, washing it away like dust under a waterfall. He gasped, as every muscle he had suddenly went limp. Ingrid's voice echoed in his head as warm darkness rushed up to surround him. "Relax, Sam! I will not let you fall!"

It seemed only seconds before the darkness fled. He found himself sitting on rough ground, his back against a cool rocky surface. Ingrid's worried gaze nearly filled his field of view and he felt as limp as overcooked pasta. "What–?"

This drew a relieved smile from the healer. "Welcome back. Are you all right?."

He sat up and drew a shaky breath. "Better, thanks. I–" He broke off as she offered him a waterskin. He took a couple of gulps, then continued. "Did you give me something? There was a scent, like... well, like nothing I've ever smelled before. Sweet, like wildflowers, but cold as well, like really strong mint."

She nodded, reached into one of her belt pouches, and pulled out a pinch of gray-green dust. "We call it logn root. I usually use it to soothe frightened animals, but it works just as well on people. It may make you feel dizzy for a while, but it breaks through panic like nothing else I've tried."

A quick breath sent the pinch into the wind. "Now" she continued. "Since I ended up having to carry you across – and you're heavier than you look – the least you can do is tell me what happened."

Sam leaned back again, and sighed heavily. "What just happened" he said, slowly, "is the reason I couldn't go with Skye."

Her eyebrows knitted themselves into an expression of utter confusion. "How is it you can fly higher, farther and faster than the strongest of dragons, in your wondrous ship, yet crossing a simple bridge brings you to your knees?"

He flushed hot with shame. "What you tell me of this" Ingrid said, gripping his shoulder, "will be as one Healer to another. No others will know unless you tell them."

He looked into those eyes, filled with nothing but a sincere desire to help, for what felt like an eternity. Finally, he nodded. She let go, and settled on the ground, legs crossed in a half-lotus posture.

"Before I became a Healer" he began, "I was a technician – Blacksmith's apprentice" he amended, as she puzzled over the unfamiliar word. "One day, I was given the job of repairing some machinery which was located on the upper floor of a large building.

"The equipment was on a shelf above a narrow ledge which looked pretty flimsy, but I was told it was more than solid enough to take my weight. Built on top of a steel beam, the other workers said. And, at first, when I tried putting my weight on it, it really did feel that way."

"I'm going to make a guess" Ingrid said, one hand squeezing his reassuringly. "The 'other workers' who told you this were mistaken?"

Sam's eyes clenched shut for a moment at the memory. He regained control and nodded. "There was a short dividing wall between me and the equipment I was to work on" he explained. "I reached over to bring the equipment closer, and dropped one of my tools. Climbing over the wall to retrieve it wasn't a problem, but when I climbed back over to the open side, I came down on the ledge harder than I thought.

"The next thing I know, I'm falling into the dark, no idea how far down I'm going, no idea what's in the way." He shuddered. "My first thought... well, feeling... was surprise. Second was 'Damn, I'm dead.' My last thought, before I crashed through the ceiling of a work space on the lower floor, was 'I'm not done yet!'

Ingrid looked confused again. "Not done with what?"

Sam grinned, ruefully. "With living! Lots of people, myself included, believe we're on this world, in this life, for a definite purpose even if we don't know what it is. But we do know if we have unfinished business. And that's the way I felt!"

She smiled. "Your people and mine may be more alike than you think. Please, continue."

He nodded. "I ended up landing on top of someone who was sitting at their desk, eating lunch at the time, then onto the floor. I found out later the impact had... well... brought his face and his meal a lot closer than he expected!

"Thankfully, neither one of us was badly hurt. He suffered a strained neck, and I got out of it with nothing more than bruises and a hairline break in my left shoulder." He looked away, and said in a whisper, "It could have been a lot worse."

Ingrid remained silent, sensing something more in the works. She was right. Sam looked back up, resignation in his gaze.

"At first, I thought the damage was purely physical. But ever since that day, I've been afraid of unprotected heights. Put me in a room, or in the open with a solid barrier between me and the height, and I don't even break out in a sweat."

He nodded at the bridge, now safely behind them. "I wouldn't even have had trouble with your bridge if its sidewalls were intact. But open-air high places?" He shook his head. "Hell, Ingrid, I can't even climb most ladders without getting dizzy! The boarding ladder on my ship isn't a problem, because I have a solid surface in front of me, but anything else..."

"Like riding a dragon?" she said, perfectly serious.

Sam nodded again, sadly. "Please don't think I didn't want to! I felt horrible having to say no! It's just... at the time, I couldn't do anything else, and they all took off before I could explain..."

His eyes widened as he said this. "Oh, bugger! How do I explain? It'll be hard enough to tell Hiccup, but how in bloody blue blazes do I explain fear of heights to a dragon?!"

Ingrid got smoothly to her feet, then gave him a hand up. "That is something I cannot answer, Sam" she said, as he brushed himself off. "But, I can at least give you a place to start. Turn around and tell me what you see."

He did so and his eyebrows tried their best to climb into his scalp. He was looking down into a huge, rough-walled, circular pit, at least fifty meters across by six deep.

The dark stone of its walls bore a generous assortment of pock-marks, indentations, and odd asterisk-shaped black splotches ranging from the size of his fist to massive swaths going halfway around the rim and a quarter of the way down. He puzzled over them for a moment, then suddenly realized what they were. "Scorch marks" he whispered.

Both horrified and fascinated, he walked closer to the concentric circles of rough iron chain surrounding the pit and stretching over its top, bit back his fear, and looked over the edge.

The remains of massive wooden doors hung from the edges of a variety of caves, all different sizes. There were more scorch marks and, as he leaned over a little further, he could see the floor of the pit bore several large dark stains which, despite differences in color, looked disturbingly familiar.

Finally, he turned back to Ingrid. "Dragons died here" he said. It was not a question.

The Healer nodded, her own eyes reflecting an odd mix of pride and sadness. "And many of our people who made... mistakes... during the old style of 'dragon training.'" She sighed, and looked out over the ocean. "More death on either side than any Healer ever wants to see."

Sam thought about this for a moment, then shook his head. "Ingrid, I hate to break this to you, but... if this is supposed to make me feel better, it's a lousy job of it."

This drew a small smile from her, as she walked over and placed a hand on his upper arm. "There is more" she said, guiding him around the perimeter.

They soon came to a spot where several of the chain rings had been literally burned away. Sam whistled softly, as he fingered the inward-turned end of one of the chains. Whatever hit it had sheared the end as neatly as a laser, and fused the remaining links stiff. "Looks like the result of a plasma bolt" he muttered.

"It was the result of friendship" Ingrid said, firmly.

Sam looked at her in surprise. "Say that again?"

She explained. In detail. How Hiccup had gone against everything he'd ever known, everything he'd ever been taught, and offered comfort to what his people had always considered a sworn enemy. How he'd tried to show the rest of the village the error of their ways – and nearly lost his life to the very dragons he cared so much about in the process.

"Toothless saved him that day" she said, softly, "without a single thought for his own safety, or what might happen to him.

She fixed his gaze with hers, and started walking again. He kept pace. "Listen well, Sam Shay. There is no shame in feeling fear. Any warrior who claims to be free of it is either lying or gone mad. Fear is nothing more than a natural reaction to that which we cannot understand, or what we think we cannot control. What matters is what you choose to do in the face of your fear.

"You understand flight, after a fashion, and you understand heights. You are not afraid to fly to great heights in your ship, because you understand and control it. What, then, is the difference between controlling your ship and commanding your legs to take you over a bridge which will clearly support your weight?"

Sam shook his head. "The reasoning part of my mind knows it's no different, Ingrid. It's the deeper, unreasoning part which doesn't."

She shrugged. "So? It is your mind. Take responsibility for the power it gives you. Which part do you choose to place in control?"

"I'm not a warrior!" he said, more sharply than he'd intended. His innards were clenching up again.

"Truly?" she shot back, with some heat of her own. "What do you do for your tribe, each and every day? Do you not fight to protect and preserve that which you are given responsibility for?" She nodded at his gunbelt. "Do you not carry weapons, as well as healing? Are you not prepared to use either, as needed?"

Sam was startled. "I didn't... I mean, I never really thought..."

"Then you need to start thinking!" she snapped. "Not all battles are fought with axes and catapults. No two warriors fight in exactly the same way. The only thing warriors have in common is what they fight for."

She stopped, abruptly, and faced him, fists planted firmly on her hips. "You, Sam Shay, fight for the side of the Light. I knew this from the moment I first saw you, as did Gothi. It is a worthy battle, one which has been going on, in one form or another, since Time itself began.

"It is also a battle which you will lose, utterly, if you follow the path of fear without reason."

Sam blinked in surprise. He tried to reply, but his mind refused to provide any words. "Answer me this" Ingrid said, stepping closer. "Do you accept Skye as a friend?"

He gulped, then something deep inside took over. As if in a dream, he heard himself replying "Yes" with complete confidence.

Ingrid smiled. "Then trust her as one, as she has already trusted you! Part of being a good warrior is knowing when you need help – and not being afraid to ask!"

She stepped back a pace, and waved an arm at their surroundings. Her smile widened. "Look!"

Sam did so. His jaw dropped. Behind them, the bridge stretched away towards the former dragon arena. Ahead of them, less than a dozen meters away, were the ramps leading down to the boat docks. "You... we... how did you...?!" he stammered, his eyes wide with shock.

She laughed heartily. It was infectious. Sam found himself chuckling along with her. "Another important skill for any warrior" she said, "is knowing when to act before your mind can argue. I chose to walk. You chose to follow."

A pair of enormous winged shadows suddenly passed over them. At the same instant, a familiar voice yelled down "Sam! You missed a great flight! We found where you wanted to go... meet you back at the house!"

"Be right there!" he yelled back, waving, as the two Night Furies executed a neat turn, wingtip-to-wingtip, and sailed back towards the chief's house. He turned back to Ingrid, who was still grinning mischievously. "About those spices?"

She nodded. "Salt, reclaimed from seawater, mint leaves, and a few prefer this." She reached into her cloak and brought out a small wood box, about ten centimeters square.

Sam accepted it, lifted off the lid, and took a cautious sniff. A peppery brine-like odor met his nostrils, and he poked a curious finger at the shiny dark-green flakes filling the box's interior. "Kelp of some sort?"

Ingrid nodded again. "I think we both know neither salt nor mint leaves would be effective against whatever poison tainted our fish. This is the only other spice which might have been used."

Sam rubbed a few of the flakes between his thumb and forefinger, then carefully tasted it. Sharp, as he'd expected, but not at all unpleasant. In fact, the alkaline-peppery flavor stirred another memory. "Saint Blaise Above" he muttered, breaking out in a smile. "Ingrid, I think you just gave me a big hint...

The village healer grinned and held out her hand. Sam gripped it firmly. "Share what you learn with me" she said. "I will need to know how to treat such a condition if something should happen to you. Gods be with you, Sam!"

She turned and walked rapidly away, her cloak billowing behind her. "And you" Sam muttered, his mind still working on how he had allowed himself to be distracted enough to cross the bridge as easily as he could guide his ship into Alladale's main hangar. Finally, he put the thought aside for future study and started back towards Hiccup's home at a brisk trot.

He made it about halfway before he had to slow to a fast walk. His hearing had started buzzing again, and the headache was back. Enough already! he thought, fumbling in a pocket for an aspirin patch. He found one, stripped the backing and pasted it on the side of his neck. Cool relief flowed from it, pushing back the majority of the headache in less than a minute.

The buzzing, however, intensified. He noticed it seemed to get stronger whenever he passed close to a dragon, faded as he moved away. It grew particularly strong when a Zippleback flew overhead, each head taking its turn to gaze intently at him while the other watched where the body was flying.

Sam shook his head slightly, admiring the teamwork. Maybe two heads really are better than one he mused, chuckling softly at the thought.

* They are * said one voice.

* You should grow another * said a different one, with what sounded like soft laughter.

Sam blinked. The Zippleback was already well past, out over the cliffs, and the buzzing faded. He stood, frozen in place for a moment, his mind in a whirl.

Finally, he snorted to himself and climbed the last of the steps. Great he thought, disgustedly. Add a month or so of head-shrinking with Doc Weaver to the schedule when I get back. She'll probably get a Nobel Prize out of what's piling up in my skull on this trip!

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