The Dragonwing Effect

Chapter 7

"If you surrender to the wind, you can ride it" (Toni Morrison)

Sam made it back to the house, went in, and started cleaning up his camping gear. Both Night Furies were conspicuously absent, so he asked Hiccup where they'd gone. "Hot spring" came the prompt reply. "Does wonders for sore muscles, and it's going to take Skye a day or two to get back in shape. That's one reason I was really surprised when she offered you a ride."

Sam winced at the unmistakable edge in Hiccup's tone, and a hot burst of annoyance surged through him. He forced himself to finish bundling his equipment, and putting it out of the way, before he replied.

"Are you ready to go?" His tone was flat and calm.

Hiccup nodded, gulped down the last of the mug of water he'd been sipping, put the mug down on the table and headed for the door.

"We need to fly northwest" he said, as they climbed up the aircar's boarding ladders. Sam was mildly surprised to see the cabin empty of draconic visitors, front and back. Hiccup eyed the scorch mark on the pilot's seat, and stifled a chuckle. "Well, at least it wasn't your face" he said, nodding at the half-melted spot.

The tension between them eased. "Nearly was" Sam replied, as they strapped in.

Once they were in the air, he detailed the whole incident. By the time he finished, they were both laughing hard enough to hurt. "I wish I'd seen it!" Hiccup gasped, as he got control of himself. "If nothing else, the look on the blue one's face...!"

"I would call it 'priceless'" Sam said, with a grin. "How far northwest?"

"About fifteen minutes" Hiccup replied, after looking around. "Sam... can I ask you something? About this morning?"

The vet's grip tightened on the controls, and he felt the beginnings of another flush. He turned to look at Hiccup, who returned his gaze without flinching.

Finally, he took a deep breath and made himself relax. "You may find this hard to believe" he said, "and I ask that you not tell anyone else. You see, I have this little problem with unprotected heights..."

Hiccup listened, his eyes getting steadily wider, as Sam spun out the whole story. "And that's why I couldn't take Skye up on her offer" he finished. "I wanted to... Damn, I really did! It's just... at that moment..." He stared out the canopy into empty sky, unable to say anything more.

Hiccup's first response was short and simple: "Wow..."After a couple of minutes of silence, broken only by the craft's drive and instrument noise, he spoke again. "How long have you had this... condition?"

"Fourteen years or so" Sam replied, grimly. "I've tried everything I can to get rid of it... hypnosis, mental therapy, meditation, even hang-gliding."

"Not everything" Hiccup replied, ignoring the unfamiliar words.

Sam turned to gaze at him in surprise. "What else is there?"

The teen rolled his eyes. "For a smart guy, Sam, you can be as dense as my father! Dragons! You've seen how well Toothless handles himself in the air, and that's with me helping him. Skye's got all her fins! All you have to do is say 'Yes' and hang on!"

His gaze took on a faraway look, and he smiled. "It's... like nothing you've ever experienced before. Once you do it, you're changed. Forever. For the better."

Sam let out a long sigh. The memory of the hurt look on Skye's face suddenly surfaced, all too clearly. "I really messed up this morning, didn't I?"

Hiccup nodded. "There's still a lot we don't know about dragons, but we do know they take trust and friendship at least as seriously as we do. The best possible way to earn Skye's trust, once she gets over being mad at you, is to give her your trust. She won't betray you! It's just not how they think."

Sam thought about this for a long moment. Ahead, and slightly to the right of their course, he could see a tall volcanic cone poking up out of a huge fog bank. "Is that where we're going?" he asked, as he flipped a series of switches.

Hiccup looked up and nodded. "Dragon Island. The fishing boats got blown just inside the fog line." He looked over at the vet again. "So, what are you going to do?"

"Water samples, definitely" Sam replied, as he cut their forward speed and dropped lower. "Given the presence of that volcano, I'm thinking my original theory–"

Hiccup snorted. "I meant about Skye."

Sam chewed his lower lip before replying, in a near-whisper, "I don't know if I have your kind of courage..."

"Courage!" Hiccup shot back. "Sam, if that's all you're worried about, let me tell you what happened the first time I tried attaching a replacement fin to Toothless's tail!"

He listened as the aircar, now configured for water landing, settled onto the ocean's surface, the fog closing in around them. His jaw dropped as Hiccup described the chaotic and near-fatal first flight.

"Let me get this straight" Sam said, as he keyed commands into the ship's computer to prep and launch a sampling drone. "You were hanging off his tail? And flying like that?!" He found himself torn between utter disbelief and laughing out loud at the image.

Hiccup held up a hand. "I swear by Odin, it's true. And I was never more scared in my entire life! But in that one instant before we would have crashed, there was no time to think. I just... did what felt right."

Sam shuddered. "Still sounds crazy. I think I–"

"No!" Hiccup snapped. "That's your whole problem. You think too much! Haven't you ever just done something? Something which seemed crazy at the time, but worked out well?"

He considered this. "There's a time to think" Hiccup continued. "And a time to act. The trick is knowing the difference."

An insistent beep drew their attention. Sam's eyebrows shot up at the sight of a massive outline coming into focus on the underwater imaging display. "What in blazes–"

Only their safety harnesses kept them from being tossed around like dice in a cup as the aircar bucked violently. PROXIMITY ALERT flashed on the display in bright red, coupled with the blare of audible warnings. A heartbeat later, the craft was literally thrown several meters into the air, only to crash back down on the surface in a storm of water and steam.

Steam?!

"Scauldron!" Hiccup yelled, pointing. Sam followed the point, and caught a brief glimpse of a huge snake-like back, scaled in brilliant green, sliding smoothly under the surface. His jaw dropped. "Saints preserve us!" he gasped. "Isn't that the one you said could–"

"–take on a pack of sea wolves, and win? Yes!" He shook his head, his eyes nearly bugging out of their sockets. "I don't understand why it's attacking, though. For all their size, they're not usually aggressive! I mean, they hate loud noise, but we're not making a sound!"

A double-chime sounded in the cabin, followed by the computer's voice. "Warning: Thruster tubes flooded. Automatic purge in progress. Engines disabled until purging is complete."

Hiccup blinked. "Sam? What was that?"

The vet had gone pale. "That was the ship. Part of its machinery lets it speak."

He swallowed, eyeing the turbine status indicators. Pale blue highlighting surrounded the graphics representing both thruster tubes, changing slowly to black as the purge pumps made progress against the unexpected deluge. He tapped the display. "That first attack flooded the engines. We can't move until they drain!"

"Oh, great" Hiccup muttered, trying to look everywhere at once.

He didn't have to look far. Directly in front of them, less than twenty meters away, an enormous head lifted clear of the water. Sleek and streamlined, just as Sam would have expected in a water-dweller, with a tapered muzzle half as long as an adult orca. A pelican-like pouch hung below the lower jaw. Brilliant yellow eyes fixed the craft and its occupants with a baleful glare.

For all its size, and obvious irritation, Sam couldn't help but admire the powerful form. Far from being ugly, the creature carried itself with a grace and dignity he'd seen only in the larger cetaceans. He suddenly remembered an ancient black-and-white flat photograph, taken over a century ago, near the still-infamous Loch Ness, and wondered if it might not have been more truth than legend.

Suddenly, the muzzle dipped into the waves, one eye remaining fixed on the aircar. "Oh, Hel" Hiccup said. "Sam, can we move yet?!"

He glanced at the engine panel. "Not for another minute."

"Then I guess we're going to find out how your ship reacts to being boiled!"

Up came the muzzle, pointing straight at them, the jaw pouch distended. A jet of steaming seawater hit them like an oversize fire hose, sending the craft skimming across the surface.

Although the jet couldn't penetrate the hull or canopy, the heat from the blast overwhelmed the air conditioning, turning the cabin into a sauna. Sam cursed as blue highlighting flowed rapidly back over the turbine indicators, and the computer repeated its earlier warning.

"One more like that" Hiccup gasped, "and–"

"I know!" Sam shot back, one hand flying over the weapons panel. "I hate to do this, but I don't have anything which can knock out something that big without killing it. As it is, I'm not sure if a laser's going to be enough–"

"Sam, no!" Hiccup reached across and grabbed the vet's arm. Hard. "Scauldrons are rare! This one probably has a family! Remember, we entered its territory, not the other way around!"

"Have you a better idea, then?" Sam yelled, waving towards the front of the craft. The Scauldron was coming towards them again, its head and neck clear of the water like a huge scaly submarine, kicking up a respectable wake. "I thought you said there was a time to think and a time to act. Seems to me this is a good time to act!"

He tried to pull his hand away. Hiccup wouldn't let go. "Scauldrons hate loud noises" he snapped. "In fact, it's about the only thing, other than trying to take their food away or threatening them directly, which would make one attack! Are you sure nothing we're doing is making loud noises?"

Sam shook his head violently. "No! Even the drone I launched depends on millimeter waves for navigation, not SONAR–"

Sudden realization hit. With a burst of strength, he tore his arm loose from Hiccup's grip, reached for a seldom-used switch and flipped it to OFF.

The underwater view on the computer's display went black.

Outside, the Scauldron suddenly slowed. A near-comical look of confusion came over its long face as it drifted to a stop, barely five meters from the nose of the craft. For nearly a minute, the huge serpentine shape just stared at them, its head bobbing slightly as it treaded water to stay in place.

A heartbeat later, the dragon executed a graceful backward flip, dove beneath the surface and vanished.

Despite the stifling air in the cabin, Sam waited another minute before releasing the canopy. Cool sea-scented wind quickly blew away the remaining steam. He found himself shivering, not entirely from the drop in temperature. He leaned his head back against the headrest, eyes closed, breathing deeply and waited for the tremors to subside.

Hiccup wasn't doing much better. "Wow" he muttered. "I feel just like I did after Toothless pinned me for the first time, roared in my face, then let go."

The vet nodded. "And I think I finally understand what that must have been like for you" he said, still gasping slightly. He glanced at the turbine status display.

The blue highlighting was nearly gone and, with the canopy open, he could clearly hear the whirring of the purge pumps and the gurgling of water being dumped overboard. "I think we're done here" he said, as he sat back up and checked the sampling drone's status.

The results were not a cause for celebration. "Bloody hell! It must have gotten knocked around by our scaly visitor... diving plane's jammed!"

"Translation, please?" Hiccup asked, eyeing the display curiously.

"It means" Sam growled, tapping repeatedly on a pair of keys, "the drone can't pull out of a dive. It's just going to keep going deeper until it hits bottom. I'm not equipped for diving, and even if I were I don't think I want to know how deep the water is out here."

He sagged back in his seat. "We're just going to have to collect the samples ourselves and hope that scaly steamer doesn't object."

"As long as we can do it quietly, he'll probably ignore us" Hiccup said, with just a little too much confidence for Sam's taste. "What was it you changed that made him stop?"

Sam pointed at the switch he'd thrown. "It's called SONAR. Sonic Navigation And Range. It sends out a series of loud clicks, and uses the returned echos to create an image of what's in the water."

He looked over at Hiccup. "Switching the SONAR on is a reflex for me whenever I land on water, not even something I'm aware of doing, and I had no idea the beasties would even react to it. If you hadn't been here, I wouldn't have turned it off, and... well..."

Hiccup grinned. "You're welcome. So how do we collect these samples?"

Sam didn't get the chance to reply. The aircar was bucking again, though nowhere near as violently as before. Off to their left, the ocean's surface was shifting and rippling as if something was pushing water up from below.

In the same moment, the computer emitted a ping and said "Drone return in ten seconds."

Sam's jaw dropped as he checked and re-checked the ROV's status. "I don't believe this! The dive plane still shows jammed full-down, but the thing's getting closer by the second!"

"Maybe your machine is wrong?" Hiccup suggested. This earned him a dirty look. "Hey, I'm just saying..."

Spray washed over them as a familiar form broke the surface. A moment later, before either of them could so much as blink, the Scauldron brought its sleek head in so close, Sam could have reached out and touched its muzzle without stretching. The dragon simply floated, calmly, eyeing them both with a gaze which held more curiosity than hostility.

After a minute or so, the dragon seemed to reach a decision. It snorted, then pulled its head back under the surface again. When it popped back up, the bulky yellow body of the sampling ROV was clamped firmly in its jaws, its propellers whining madly and its rudder clicking back and forth like a demented castanet.

"Don't just sit there staring" Hiccup hissed, giving the vet a shove. "Take it!"

Too dazed to do more than respond automatically, Sam unsnapped his safety harness, stood up, and cautiously stretched out his arms. The Scauldron dipped its head and opened its jaws, dropping the ROV neatly into the vet's grip. Sam just looked at it for a moment, then maneuvered it into the back seat and shut it down.

The Scauldron was still there as he stood back up. Sam was no expert at draconic facial expressions, but he thought the dragon looked... relieved? Even a little grateful?

Once again, something deep inside Sam took over. Averting his gaze, he stretched out one hand, palm up, in the same position he'd used to greet every other dragon he'd met. He heard a sharp intake of breath from behind him as Hiccup tensed, but the teen said nothing. The moment stretched on as Time itself seemed to take a breather.

A smooth, wet muzzle pushed gently against his hand. He looked up into bright yellow eyes nearly half his height tall. "Thank you" he whispered, running his hand along skin which felt amazingly dolphin-like.

The Scauldron blinked lazily, and a familiar rumble issued from its throat. Sam chuckled as the powerful vibrations ran up his arm.

A sudden bark sounded from the island side, deeply resonant. The Scauldron pulled back, opened its jaws, and responded in kind. It turned back to Sam for a moment, gave him a nudge which, though relatively gentle, knocked him back into his seat, then vanished smoothly beneath the surface.

The computer, as if on cue, bonged and said "Thruster tubes clear. Propulsion nominal."

All Sam could do, for the next couple of minutes, was sit there, replaying the scene in his mind and marveling at the obvious intelligence displayed by their aquatic visitor. "He could have smashed us to rubble" he muttered, shaking his head. "Instead, he brings back the sampler. Sweet Saint Blaise's bloomers, he drops it into my arms!"

He looked over at Hiccup, his gaze one huge question. The teen shrugged. "I'm just as surprised" he said, softly. "No one I know of has ever gotten that close to a Scauldron, and lived to tell about it. You, Sam, are the first."

He eyed the vet with respect, and more than a hint of challenge. "You realize you've got no excuse now" he said.

"For what?" Sam asked, as he slipped his safety harness back on, closed the canopy, and started the engines.

"For not going flying with Skye. For Thor's sake, Sam, wake up! You just demonstrated the same kind of raw courage which kept my dad and most of the village's population alive during the battle with the Red Death. No one with guts like that would ever be afraid of simple heights!"

Sam didn't reply right away. The euphoria which had come from making peace with the Scauldron suddenly vanished, leaving a storm of self-doubt in its wake. He was so preoccupied, he advanced the throttles too quickly, sending the craft roaring into the sky at an angle far steeper than normal.

The near-vertical acceleration, coupled with a rapid transition from fog to sunlit blue sky, snapped him back to the moment and he cursed as he backed off on both lift and thrust.

"Can we go back for my stomach?" Hiccup asked, weakly, as the ship leveled out. "I promise not to say anything more about fear of heights!"

"Sorry about that" Sam muttered, as he set a course for Berk and engaged the autopilot. "Hiccup, I don't know if it's that simple. It took a lot of work before I could even stand to fly this old crate."

"So it'll take a little more to fly on a dragon" Hiccup replied, insistently. "Sam, trust me on this. Trust Skye! It's worth it! If you don't want to do this for yourself, that's fine, but do it for her!"

Sam took a deep breath, let it go and looked over at his passenger. Green eyes holding nothing but sincerity met his. For a moment, he had a vision of another set of eyes, all storm-gray and slit-pupils, with flecks of rainbow trapped in them like giant opals. They hovered in his line of sight, reminding him all too vividly of the last moments of his dream.

He blinked, and the image faded. Finally, he managed a weak smile. "For Skye" he said, in a near-whisper, as his stomach gave an anticipatory lurch.

After the morning's excitement, the rest of the day was so near routine that Sam actually forgot, once again, how far from his own time and place he was.

Upon their return, he wasted no time in setting up a bewildering array of analytical equipment on Hiccup's kitchen table, and putting it to swift use with tests on the drone's samples. "Can I help at all?" the teen asked, warily eyeing what looked like purposeful chaos.

Sam nodded and opened a sealed container about the size of a large stew pot. The briny stench of saltwater decay it released was memorable. "Messy job, but important" he said, grabbing a handful of kelp fronds and hoisting them out of the reddish-brown water. "Set these to boiling, please?"

Hiccup eyed the mass dubiously, making no move to take it. "Will boiling make the smell go away?"

Sam considered this. "Probably not" he finally said, with a sigh. "In fact, it's liable to get worse. But, if I'm right, it means a cure for the rest of the sick dragons."

Hiccup muttered something which Sam didn't catch, then grabbed a large pot and motioned for the vet to drop the mass into it. The tangle of vegetation landed with a noisome splat. "If you're wrong" he said, wrinkling his nose and filling the pot with clean water from a nearby bucket, "you get to clean it all up!"

He set the pot over the fire pit and stoked up the flames as Sam went to work on the rest of the samples. Over an hour later, he stood up and stretched. A gruff baritone suddenly exclaimed "Odin help us, what manner of deviltry is all this? And what in Helheim's Gate is that smell?!"

Sam spun around, surprised to see his audience had grown from one to five: Hiccup, Stoick, Gobber, Ingrid and Toothless were all watching him with expressions ranging from fascination to uncertainty. Ingrid spoke first, a note of ironic amusement in her tone. "Isn't 'deviltry' what you accused me of, Stoick, after I pulled that bad tooth of yours without you feeling a thing?"

The chief spluttered indignantly. Hiccup grinned, and Gobber chuckled. "Different Healers work in different ways" Ingrid continued. "I may not understand Healer Shay's tools, any more than he would understand mine. It doesn't mean his methods are less effective."

This last was delivered with an unspoken query a dead man couldn't miss. "I would very much like to think that's true" Sam replied, a little uncertainly. "In this case, I've found what caused the sickness and I think I've come up with a cure." He nodded towards the pot, which was boiling merrily away. "Sorry about the stink."

He held up two vials, both containing liquid. One was clear, the other a dark, dingy reddish-brown. "These are samples of ocean water. The clear one was taken just outside your harbor, and the dark one from the area around Dragon Island where Hiccup says your fishing fleet got blown into.

"The sample from near the island is dark because of..." He trailed off, struggling for words which would translate well into Old Norse. "...Because of a type of sea plant, called algae, which is so small you can't see it until it grows together in a huge mass.

"Normally, this particular type of algae can't grow in these waters because they're too cold. My tests, though, showed the waters around Dragon Island were much warmer than normal, and full of the minerals which this type of plant thrives on.

"As near as I can tell, the whole thing was set off when hot gas from the island's volcano escaped into the ocean, warming the water and providing more than enough minerals to trigger the growth. The algae releases a poison called 'Brevetoxin,' fish eat the algae, accumulate the poison in their bodies, and the dragons get the poison when they eat the fish."

"So why didn't it affect more of us?" Gobber asked, jabbing a thumb at himself.

"Two reasons" Sam said, putting down the vials and picking up the box Ingrid had given him earlier. "First, the poison only accumulates in the liver and kidneys of the fish, parts which, apparently, not many people eat.

"Second is this spice, which Ingrid says some of the villagers use. It contains a natural antidote to the poison. I've got more of the same plants the spice comes from boiling, in order to help extract the antidote. In fact, I think it can come off the fire now."

This announcement was greeted by ill-concealed relief from everyone, Toothless included. Sam, who had been exposed to far worse odors in his career, barely noticed. He was too busy, after letting the mixture cool, straining off the thick layer of pale gold fluid which floated like oil on the surface of the remaining water.

After testing it for potency, he mixed it with a neutral carrier, then loaded the result into a series of injector vials. "One batch, Brevenol-D, ready to go" he said, as he snapped one of the vials into an injector and slung the rest in a bag over his shoulder. "Shall we?" he said, gesturing to the door.

Less than an hour later, it was done. Even Hookfang responded quickly enough to the homebrew medication to give Sam an appreciative nudge which sent him staggering.

"If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it" Stoick rumbled, as he walked with Sam and the others back towards the house. He clapped a meaty hand onto Sam's shoulder, paying no attention to the wince it produced. "Well done, Healer! Thanks to you, we've got our dragons back and we know where not to fish!"

"Thank your son" he said, nodding towards Hiccup. "And, come to think of it, thank an anonymous Scauldron who recovered my samples."

The entire procession stopped dead in their tracks, and the chief's eyebrows climbed nearly to his scalp. "A Scauldron?" he bellowed, incredulously. "You crossed paths with a Scauldron? And you're still here?!"

"It's true, dad" Hiccup said. "Not only did it recover his samples, it gave him a dragon's greeting."

Silence reigned for a long moment, then Stoick altered the group's course towards Mead Hall. "This sounds like quite a tale" he rumbled. "Let's hear about it over a tankard or three."

It took a few more than three, especially after word of the day's adventure started spreading. Sam and Hiccup found themselves repeating the tale, with a little creative embellishment each time around, to an audience which grew steadily in size and enthusiasm.

Somewhere along the line, the impromptu yarn-spinning morphed into a full-blown party. Sam assumed, at first, it was powered mainly by the fact all the sick dragons had recovered. That was certainly one reason.

He quickly discovered, though, as his own blood alcohol level rose, the people of Berk simply loved a good party and would welcome nearly any excuse to throw one. At the time, given the ample food and drink being passed around, he was not inclined to argue.

His memory of the festivities grew a little hazy after a while, though he did recall demonstrating an Irish jig on top of one of the trestle tables. Not a bad effort, he thought, considering he hadn't done one since his teen years, he was still wearing his gunbelt, and the village's musicians knew only Nordic ballads.

Suddenly, the room quieted in response to a bellow from Stoick. "All right, everyone!" he yelled, his voice echoing in the cavernous hall. "Before we all fall flat on our faces, I'd like to propose a toast."

The bulky chief turned to look straight at the startled vet. "Your ways are strange to us, Sam, but we're not about to argue with the results! No matter where you came from, you've shown yourself to be one of us at heart. You'll always have a home here." He raised his tankard high. "Healer Sam Shay, you are of BERK!"

"SAM SHAY!" the others bellowed, as mugs and tankards went up all over the room. The vet raised his own in acknowledgment, but his guts suddenly tightened.

Just as suddenly, the room turned stifling. Air he thought, as he dodged and twisted through the crowd towards the big double doors, forcing himself to nod and smile at those who stopped to shake his hand or give him a hearty backslap along the way.

He made it outside to find the sun nearly down. Bands of deep orange and electric blue dappled the western horizon, and the air was turning nippy. He started towards the cliffs at a fast walk, a walk which became a jog moments later.

What in blazes am I doing?! he mused, not caring where he was going. I've got duties, people and animals depending on me, family... I need to be thinking about how to get home, not taking up residence over a millennia in the past!

Another part of his mind, one he didn't really want to accept the existence of, piped up with And how do you know you can get back? You don't have a clue how you got here in the first place! You've been accepted here, and at least one very impressive dragon thinks you're worthy of her friendship. Do you want to just throw it all away on a theory?!

"Arrrghh!" he groaned out loud, sinking to his knees and pressing clenched fists against his forehead. The buzzing was back, though thankfully without the headache. "And what in bloody blue blazes is happening in my head?!" he yelled.

The only answer was the rush of surf and cackles from a couple of seagulls. Slowly, he dropped his hands and opened his eyes. Somehow, he'd found his way to the top of a grassy bluff overlooking the ocean and the sunset.

Behind him, torches were flaring up as Berk's residents prepared for the night. As his heartbeat and breathing slowed to normal, he could make out faint sounds of laughter and cheering from Mead Hall. Apparently, the party was still in full swing.

He turned back towards the sunset, resettled himself into a cross-legged position, then concentrated on breathing deep and slow. In through the nose, out through the mouth he thought, as his composure slowly returned. Watch the clouds, watch the colors. Relax. Expect nothing. Just be!

The tension slowly slipped away, and he felt a small smile cross his face. The buzzing was fading along with the tension. Soon, both were gone, replaced by a gentle, yet powerful, voice which said, in clear feminine overtones: It is beautiful, isn't it?

"That it is" Sam sighed. He blinked, surprised by a sudden thought. "I can't remember the last time I just took a moment to appreciate a scene like this" he said.

You are appreciating it now the voice said. That is what matters.

He nodded, then turned his head trying to see who was there. "Ingrid?" he called. "Is that you?"

Amusement tinged the reply. She is still at the celebration. It is just the two of us.

"Two of who?" he muttered, unfolding his legs and swinging himself around on his knees.

As he did, he came face-to-face with a familiar dark shape, opaline eyes gleaming in the last of the daylight. "Lady Skye!" he said, startled, then looked behind her and all around. His confusion grew as he found the rest of the bluff completely deserted. "I could have sworn someone was just talking to me" he muttered.

A sharp nudge drew his attention back to the Night Fury. She locked gazes with him, and once again a calm, strong, dignified voice filled his head. Someone was it said, still sounding amused. One eye closed slowly in a draconic wink. You were not ready to 'listen' until a few moments ago.

It was a good thing Sam was already kneeling. He had only to drop his hands to the ground to stabilize himself as he felt the blood draining away from his face. "It's the mead" he muttered, shaking his head. "Gotta be the mead..."

He suddenly found himself flat on his back, one very large and well-clawed paw planted firmly on the middle of his chest. Storm-gray eyes flashed at him as Skye let loose a low growl.

Listen well, Sam Shay! This has nothing to do with what you drank, or ate. This is real. My speaking to you is real. I am real. If you are prepared to accept this experience as nothing more than the next step along a path you chose long ago, then accept it! The answers you seek will come easily enough, but YOU must be willing to LISTEN to them!

Sam gulped. Hard. Hot breath puffed into his face for emphasis, smelling like a cross between fish and the tang of hot metal. Human eyes held draconic for several long seconds.

The same calm confidence which had led him to reach out to the Scauldron suddenly flowed through him, and his muscles relaxed. Skye must have sensed it, for she removed her paw and stepped back. Good she said. That was not so hard as I thought it would be. You learn quickly.

"Uhh... thanks" Sam replied, as he sat up, still processing the idea of speaking so easily to what most people would take for nothing more than a reasonably smart animal. "Lady Skye–"

Her mouth twitched, and Sam felt more amusement in her thought-voice. Just 'Skye' will do she replied. It is not my true name, but I have come to like it. I do appreciate the honor the title 'Lady' has in your mind, though.

This drew a hesitant smile from Sam. He found the whole idea of half-silent conversation getting easier. In fact, he was actually starting to enjoy it. An irreverent thought of Anne McCaffrey, eat your heart out! Flashed through his mind.

Some part of him, he realized, had always wanted to experience an intelligent but non-human perspective. The closest he had come to date were his brief meetings with dolphins and orcas.

True, synthetic languages had been developed which allowed basic communication with them, based largely on the work of the now-famous Dr. Lou Herman and continued by the work of Dr. Kanja Jumbe, but they couldn't hold a candle to the clarity and rich emotional overtones carried on Skye's mental speech!

"Skye it is, then" he said. "How is this possible? I mean, how does it work that you can understand my speech and I can... well, hear your thoughts?"

All dragons, and many other creatures, can understand human speech to varying degrees she replied. And we have always been able to speak to each other in this manner. Few humans have the Gift any more. You are the first I have encountered, though the fledgling you know as 'Hiccup' is showing signs of developing it as well. It dates back to a time when all which lived knew a common language.

Sam nodded, but was still puzzled. "But how does it work?"

She gave a series of short, sharp chuffs, sounding like a hyperactive steam engine. Sam didn't need the amused touch in her mind-speech to recognize her laughter. Who can say? For me, it is enough that it works at all.

She backed up a few more steps, then made upward motions with her head. Stand, Sam Shay. We have unfinished business.

He gulped again, but did as she asked. He had a queasy feeling he knew what this 'unfinished business' might be.

Sure enough, as soon as he was on his feet, Skye bent one front leg and mantled her wings. There is just enough time to see the sunset as it should be seen she said. Seat yourself, as you have seen Hiccup do with Toothless.

Despite his earlier self-made promise, Sam hesitated. You fear Skye sent, as you did this morning. Yet your fear is not of me. Explain?

Sam winced as the memory flashed into his head, as clear as if it had happened yesterday. The horrible sensation of landing on what he expected to be a hard floor, only to have it disappear from under him, followed by sheer terror as he descended into utter blackness.

The pain of his shoulder striking something hard, plunging through ceiling tile back into bright light, a sickening thud as he bounced off someone under him and slid limply to the floor, barely conscious...

The stream of memories stopped, and he realized he was panting as if he'd run up ten flights of stairs. Finally, he looked back up at Skye. "I'm so sorry" he whispered. "I wanted to go with you this morning! I just... couldn't..."

He braced himself, fully expecting a rebuke for pointless fears. What he got was anything but. A wave of understanding caught him completely off guard. I was angry this morning, and hurt she said. I will not deceive you about that. I understand the problem, now, but I have a question.

Sam met her gaze, unflinching. "The answer" he said, slowly, "is 'No.' I do not want to be ruled by that fear for the rest of my life!"

Suiting action to words, Sam unlocked his gunbelt, tucked it in a safe spot behind a boulder, then walked rapidly back over to Skye.

It took some doing, but he finally had himself settled on her back in a way which was comfortable for them both. A steady breeze had come up, blowing straight at them, and it was getting stronger. There may be a storm tomorrow Skye commented, sniffing at the air. Are you ready?

He took one more deep breath, his hands firmly gripping her dorsal ridge. "As much as I'll ever be" he said, closing his eyes.

The wind chose that moment to provide a sharp gust. He felt Skye extend her wings, followed by a slight upward lurch, but nothing else. The wind continued to stream past him, bringing a sharp reminder of how cool nights could get in the northern latitudes, and he began to regret the lack of his jacket. "I said I'm ready" he said. "You can take off any time."

Draconic laughter echoed on the breeze. Open your eyes she shot back. Dare to see what your fear does not want you to see, lest it lose its grip on you forever!

He snorted. "Nice speech" he said, as he opened his eyes. "How long did you practice – SWEET MOTHER MACHREE!"

They were flying.

The sun had set. Night had fallen. Stars dotted the sky, bright and hard as diamonds against the blackness. Sam gasped in wonder at the sheer volume of them. Now I really understand what someone means when they complain about light pollution he mused.

Skye was climbing so gently, Sam had never even known they'd left the ground. What was most amazing was how comfortable he felt! He couldn't understand why, when the mere sight of the ground from this high up should have sent him into hysterics–

That was it! He couldn't see the ground! All he could see was darkness, broken by stars, a half-disc of moon – and the brilliant shimmering curtains of green, blue, purple and red which drifted across the darkest part of the sky, waving and twitching like an ocean of rainbows.

His jaw dropped as he realized what, exactly, he was looking at for the first time in his life. The Northern Lights!

Welcome to my world Skye sent, her mind-voice like the gentlest of summer breezes on his newly-awakened senses. He could feel her simple joy in what she was, what she was doing, and what was all around them. It mingled with his own, redoubled, became strong enough to drive away the last of the dark fear which had plagued him for so very long.

He heard someone laughing out loud, and suddenly realized it was himself. He closed his eyes and stretched out his arms, marveling at the sensation of wind slipping easily past and not feeling the least bit cold. "This is phenomenal!" he yelled at the top of his lungs. Once again, he felt Skye's laughter pulse through her sides, her mindspeech flowing with wry humor. Great Spirit of the Winds, I think he likes it...

Sam tried to find words, failed miserably. He felt Skye tilt slightly beneath him, and the stars and aurora wheeled around to their opposite side. "Is something wrong?" he said, suddenly concerned.

Her mindspeech held nothing but confidence, but Sam's veterinarian's sense picked up a subtle tremor in her wing muscles. Nothing I cannot handle she sent. I was unable to fly for over seven sun-cycles because of the sickness. My muscles are still recovering... No! Do not dare to feel the slightest guilt, Sam Shay! I chose this path, just as you did. We both know what the result was. If anything, you should feel pride that you have conquered your fear.

He reached down a hand to stroke her neck. "Then at least allow me to treat your pain after we land" he said.

She chuffed eagerly in agreement, and started a gentle but swift descent. The bright flames of multiple torches came into view, and Sam could hear the crashing of surf against the cliffs.

Suddenly, a double row of torches, spaced like airport runway lights, sprang to life atop the same bluff they had lifted from earlier. Skye dropped smoothly towards them, lining up exactly in the middle. A ghost of Sam's fear tried to rear its head at the sight of the cliff top, failed miserably as Skye touched down with barely a bump.

"Enjoy your flight?" Hiccup said, as he came forward into the torchlight, Toothless right beside him. He and Skye exchanged a nudge, then loped away towards the house. I expect you to be right behind us, Healer! Skye sent, as they went.

Sam couldn't get the silly grin off his face, or the euphoria out of his system. He didn't much care. "Stars" he muttered, waving his arms in random directions as he went to collect his gunbelt. "So bright, all over... and the aurora! Rainbows at night, this way, that way, every which way..."

He kept up along those same lines all the way back to the house, Hiccup's non-stop laughter providing a happy counterpoint.


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