The Monster of the Amber Slavelands
I have been a slave as long as I can remember.
The Slavemark is burned into my forehead, a permanent, ever-present reminder of who I am. I try to cover it with my hood most of the time. The hood is attached to a bear-skin suit that I stole from another Wanderer who, like all the others, came and was Lost. The bear-suit is a bit big for me, but I don’t mind. I need it, because I’m a Wanderer and Wanderers are wild.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be a real Wanderer, traversing the Icy Wastes in our dog-sleds and sailing the seven seas in our magnificent fleet of ships. I often imagine I have a little brother, and a scary grandmother and a Bear-Mama, and the four of us play in the endless snow of the North, singing together as a family. And I mean snow, real snow, not the grayish sludge that trickles down into the Slavelands from the mountains every few winters or so. It creeps over the sands the color of blood and it’s always streaked with crimson when it gets to Prison Darkheart, so the snow looks like it’s fought a hard-won war just to make it to Prison Darkheart. I’ve never seen snow that’s not bleeding like that, but I can imagine.
It’s white, the purest, most perfect white in the world, so white that if the red sands tried to attack it with their bloody armies they would be blinded and fall down dead at the snow’s feet. It sparkles in the sunlight brighter than the most valued piece of amber, and when it falls to the ground in little powdery flakes it looks like the sky is sparkling with a million diamonds. It makes the brilliance of all of Alvin the Treacherous’s finery look like a lump of coal, burned to ashes and discarded. It makes the Jewel that the witch seeks so badly look like a bit of common rock, pockmarked and bruised from the ravages of time. Because the snow is new, and it is perfect. It clings onto bushes and trees, the flakes protecting the precious life from the sun or rain or hail or whatever might come their way. It is as silent as a dragon’s grave.
I remember the dragons’ grave because that one day the Dragon Rebellion was beating down on Prison Darkheart with a force the likes of which had never been seen before, and I watched through the barred window as the slave-ship zigged and zagged through the red sands, dodging the Rebellion’s blows as it desperately tried to dock. Eventually a lightning strike landed on one end of it and fire bloomed on the deck. I remember the people, the hundred or so people, all with new Slavemarks shining white-hot on their foreheads, being herded off the ship and sludging the last few hundred yards to Prison Darkheart. I remember a boy at the back of the crowd, a boy with smashed glasses and a face like a haddock who hung behind as if he still had not come to terms with the fact that he was now a slave, whether he liked it or not. He looked up at the dark heart of the prison, and I could have sworn he saw me at the window, just a little Wanderer girl in a bear-suit with a Slavemark just like his. For just a moment, we looked into each other’s eyes, reflections of our own. Lost tribes, lost lives, lost everything . . . then at the sting of the slave-master’s whip the boy stumbled forward, and disappeared into the crowd again.
I remember the dragons’ grave because that was the day Fishlegs came.
He stumbled into the main hall, unsure of where he was or why he was here. I couldn’t sympathize with him, for I have lived in Prison Darkheart for as long as I can remember, but I have seen many a slave enter the prison with the same bewildered expression. He was battered and bruised, his clothes no more than rags and showing the bare skin of his ankles and wrists, as if he had grown too fast for his clothes to catch up. He walked around with a nervous tic, constantly putting his hand up to his forehead to feel his newly-burned Slavemark as if he didn’t quite believe it was actually there. He pushed his smashed glasses up his nose and he saw me again, and I glimpsed the recognition in his eyes. I was the little Wanderer girl in a bear-suit with a Slavemark just like his.
Someone else recognized him too.
“Fish-eggs!” I yelped as a booming voice echoed across the hall. Stoick the Vast, unofficial chief of the Amber-Hunters, came galumphing past me, beard the color of the bleeding sands flying crazily everywhere. “Fish-eggs! Why are you here, boy?” He put his huge hairy paws on the runner-bean of a boy’s shoulders. “I asked that Snotlout to pardon you!” he bellowed, because Stoick never spoke in anything below a bellow. “I told him you’d be no use in the Slavelands, with those skinny arms and your asthma and —”
“Well obviously he didn’t,” the boy Fishlegs interrupted, “or else I wouldn’t be here now. And thank you for pointing out my asthma. That makes me feel so much better.”
That was the first time I ever saw Stoick the Vast, Terror of the Seas, O Hear His Name and Tremble, Ugh, Ugh look sheepish. He shrugged his shoulders a little.
“Just telling it like it is, Fish-eggs, just like it is.” He grabbed the boy Fishlegs’s shoulders a little tighter, and spoke with a sudden urgency. “Have you seen Hiccup, Fish-eggs? Please tell me you have. Is he alright? Whenever new slaves come in I’m always afraid I’ll see his face in the crowd. Please, do you know if he’s alright? Tell me he’s doing alright!”
Fishlegs slowly shook his head. “I don’t know where he is, Chief. I was put into prison the moment Alvin took over Flashburn School. The last time I saw Hiccup I was giving him my lucky lobster-claw necklace.” He raised a hand to his heart, grasping for something that wasn’t there. I was reminded of all the times I had reached out into the winter sky, hoping for snow to fall into my open palms.
Stoick seemed to crumple. “That’s alright, Fish-eggs. I didn’t expect you to know anyway. I was just hoping . . .” Dejectedly, he headed back toward the dinner table and put his head in his hands.
Wanting to console the poor Chief, I laid a small white paw on his arm. He looked up, surprised.
“I know where your son Hiccup is,” I lied. “He’s safe in hiding, planning to rescue you and Gobber and all the Hooligans here in Darkheart. He has his hunting-dragon with him, the little green toothless one, and he knows he will win this war because his dragon is the last Lost Thing, and the Best One. And Alvin won’t be able to be crowned King without all the Lost Things.” I repeated the words I had recited to myself night after night, trying to convince myself that Alvin would not become King. Because Alvin must not become King, ever.
“How do you know?” asked Stoick.
“I can feel it in my bones,” I answered cryptically. “Wanderers can tell these things, you know. We’re scary too,” I added, “the scariest Vikings in the Archipelago. AAAAAARRRGGGHHHH!” I shouted, making claws with my fingers and leaping at Stoick.
“Whoa, Eggingarde!” Stoick said in mock horror, flinging his arms back. “You almost made me choke up my haddock!”
I smiled, not just because I knew I was scary but because I had taken Stoick’s mind off his lost son. When you’re in the Slavelands, you’ve got to stop worrying about what’s outside the prison walls if you ever want to be — well, happy isn’t quite the right word for it. You have to stop worrying if you ever want this place to be tolerable.
“Can I . . . sit here?” a hesitant voice asked, and I looked up to see the boy Fishlegs looking nervously at the empty spot beside me. I made to respond, but Stoick beat me to it.
“Of COURSE you can, my boy!” he said, thumping Fishlegs so hard on the back that he would have choked up his haddock if he had eaten any. “We’ve all got to stick together now! Hooligan hearts forever, am I right?”
We would stick together. Like the glue that binds a hopeful ship together. Like a redheaded boy and the dragons he loved. Like the blood that weeps from the red sands, coming in with the tide and receding, bubbling up like a monster from the sticky ground.
There are diamonds in the earth and the sands paint them red so we mistake them for amber. Sometimes they are the warm yellow of honey or the deep scarlet of spilled blood. They could be the orange of a sunset sky or pink as snow on a battlefield littered with corpses. Once I found a piece of amber with two dragonflies trapped inside. They were entwined together, as if they were in love or in the middle of a fight. When something is frozen in time like that, it’s hard to tell.
That’s how we’ll know when we find the real Jewel, the Dragon Jewel that the witch is searching so desperately for. It will be the only diamond so bright it will shine through the suffocating stench of death. Because when the tide comes in the sands are flooded with the blood of the Battles of Every Night, the dragon and human blood spilt out of hate and mixing together in one cistern, creating a lasting Mark upon the sands borne out of beautiful pain.
“You can sleep here, Fish-eggs.” I gestured to the bed next to mine. “Make yourself comfortable.”
“It’s Fishlegs,” he corrected. “And it looks like it’s already taken,” he said, eyeing the rumpled blankets skeptically.
“It used to belong to Loudbelly of the Lost,” I said. “He used to snore a lot. Do you snore?”
“What happened to Loudbelly?” Fishegs asked.
I paused. “I can’t tell you that. The witch says it’s bad for morale.”
Fishlegs let out a mirthless laugh, a cross between a bark and a gasp. “The witch locks us up here, and forces us to go amber-hunting every day, and she’s worried about low morale?”
“Ye-e-es.” I pulled down my hood and settled into my own bed. “It’s to make us think that we feel anything here but pain. It’s to make us feel something but pain, because we feel like we must. It’s so we’ll find more amber, and maybe we’ll find the precious Jewel that the witch is seeking. But I have been out on the sands every day for as long as I can remember, and I can tell you that the Jewel is not there.” I shook my head solemnly.
Fishlegs scratched his head. “How old are you, Eggingarde?” he asked.
“I’m almost ten,” I replied, “but I’m small for my age. It doesn’t matter how small I am, though, because I’m a Wanderer and all Wanderers are scary!” I bared my teeth and growled. Fishlegs obviously hadn’t caught on that he was supposed to look frightened, though, because he just kept staring at me like I was some unknown species of dragon or something. I growled again, and again. The third time Fishlegs got it. He leaped back in horror, crashed into the bed and pretended to fall down in a dead faint. I giggled as he sat up and rubbed his head.
“How old are you, Fishlegs?” I asked, to start a conversation.
“I’m almost fifteen,” he said, “but I feel much older than that. This War . . . it does things to people. Makes them grow up too fast.”
“I understand,” I said, nodding. “I feel much older than almost ten too. I feel older than Stoick and Gobber and Baggybum all combined.” I looked around, then leaned in as if to tell Fishlegs a secret. “Sometimes,” I whispered, “I feel like I’m the oldest person in the world.”
Fishlegs nodded. “Don’t you miss those days,” he said longingly, “when we were just children, without a care in the world except whether we could train a dragon? And I used to think that was the biggest problem of my life. I was so silly back then . . .”
“I’ve never lived a life like that,” I said in response. “I’ve been here at Prison Darkheart for as long as I can remember.”
A look of sympathy flashed through Fishlegs’s face, and he glanced around the dormitory, no doubt wondering how someone could live like this for so long. I knew the answer — you don’t. You survive here. You don’t live.
“Tell me,” I said slowly, “about training a dragon. What was it like? I’ve never seen a dragon. Did you stick together through sunshine and rain, through hail and snow? I’ve never seen snow, either. What does it look like? Does it sparkle in the sunlight like I always imagined? Tell me, Fishlegs. Tell me everything.”
Fishlegs looked surprised for a moment, then began to talk. “My dragon . . . was named Horrorcow,” he said, the words sticking in his throat at first. “She’s a Basic Brown — just plain brown all over, with the basic spines, claws, and fire, but she had the sweetest eyes I’ve seen on any dragon. I couldn’t help but fall in love with her at first sight.” His eyes misted over as he was lost in the past.
“She was meant to be Hiccup’s dragon, but she ended up mine instead. How did she end up in my dragon-basket, you may ask? Well, that’s a long story. But we’ve got tons of time to tell it, so . . .”
Snow was soft and crunched under your boots when you stepped in it. Sometimes it was over a foot deep, and then you would have to wear snowshoes to keep yourself from sinking into the snow. Sometimes snow came in storms or blizzards, beating hard against your face and piling up snowdrifts as tall as a house. Other times it fell lightly, tickling your cheeks like the smallest butterfly.
I imagined the snow whipping around my face as Fishlegs spun the tale of the Quest to Find the Frozen Potato. I pulled my bear-suit tighter around me, shivering from the wintry setting of the story and the exhilaration of a Heroic Quest.
“You see, Hiccup was the one who had Vorpentitis, not me. So when that speck of potato on the arrow was shot into his foot, he was cured. The next day, Hiccup found a tiny potato seed tangled in the feathers of the arrow. We planted it, and it sprouted, and now potatoes grow all over Berk, and no one will suffer a slow death from Vorpentitis ever again!” Fishlegs finished, his face quite red from all that storytelling. He wiped the sweat off his forehead with his shirt.
“You’re a very good storyteller,” I remarked. “Have you ever thought of becoming a bard?”
Fishlegs’s whole face lit up when I said that. It lit up brighter than the Dragon Jewel on the sunniest day in history.
I wanted to be a bard, too. For a moment I envisioned it: him and me, him writing the songs and histories and me singing them for all the world to hear. The stories of Hiccup the Dragonwhisperer, and Humongously Hotshot the Hero, and of course the Tale of Stoick the Vast and the Impossible Task.
But then I remembered the grim reality of our situation. I am a slave, and Fishlegs is a slave, and we are bound to this prison by the Marks adorning our foreheads. I can never be a bard. I grew up here, and I will someday die here. It is the sad life of many a slave.
Unless we did something about it.
“Fishlegs,” I said, the idea taking form in my mind, “we have to run away.”
“What do you mean, run away?” Fishlegs asked incredulously. “Are you off your rocker?”
“I will be if I’m stuck here much longer,” I replied, a smile spreading across my face. “Come on! You want to be a bard, don’t you?”
“Well, now that I think about it, hunting for amber for the rest of my life doesn’t sound so bad . . .” Fishlegs was always a terrible liar.
“Well, I want to be a bard, so I’m running away and if you want to come along too you might as well.” I rested my chin on a bear-paw and began to think. “I’ve got it!” I shouted, jumping up into the air. “Fishlegs, give me your jacket.”
He looked skeptical, but shrugged off his jacket all the same and handed it to me. With a hoot of glee, I raced into the now-deserted dining hall.
“What . . . are . . . you . . . doing?” Fishlegs hissed, trying to drag me back towards the dormitory by pulling on his jacket. I was not to be stopped, though. I kept running, but Fishlegs was stronger than his weedy arms suggested and SNAP! the scraggly jacket tore in two. I stumbled forward a few steps before regaining my balance and looked down at the ruined jacket dejectedly.
“Well, there goes my plan.”
“What exactly was your plan, anyway?” Fishlegs asked, jogging to catch up to me.
“It doesn’t matter now anyway.”
“Maybe it does.” Fishlegs looked into my eyes in the same sympathetic-but-encouraging way I had looked at Stoick. “Come on, tell me.”
“I was going to attach a leftover haddock from dinner to the end of your jacket,” I explained sadly, “and attach the other end to the bars on the cell window. I was hoping one of the Dragon Rebellion dragons might get hungry and snatch up the haddock, and pull the bars out along with it. Then we could escape.”
Fishlegs didn’t respond immediately. He just looked at me curiously, an amused smile playing on his lips. Finally, he just said, “You remind me of another girl I used to know.”
That was not the answer I was expecting. “You’re not mad at me?” I asked. “Aren’t you angry that I destroyed your jacket?”
He chuckled. “That jacket was half-ruined already. Really, it was no loss.” I sighed in relief. “But seriously,” Fishlegs continued, “let’s stop with all the crazy escape plans and get a good night’s rest. I have a plan.” He started back towards the dormitory.
"You have a plan?” I stomped after him, the sound of my bear-paws echoing in the cavernous hall. “What is it, sing Alvin and the witch to sleep with your magical golden harp? Throw your pillow at them and hope it’ll smother them to death? Somehow, I find it hard to believe that you, of all people, actually has a plan.”
“First of all, my pillow actually did almost smother Alvin once,” Fishlegs defended. “Second of all, just trust me that I have a plan. And that plan involves a full night of sleep.”
“And what exactly is this plan, O Boy-With-A-Face-Like-A-Haddock-That-Somebody-Trod-On?”
Fishlegs sighed and stopped in his tracks. “I intend to find the Dragon Jewel.”
“I’m telling you, I have gone out on the sands every day for as long as I can remember, and I am one hundred per cent certain that the Dragon Jewel is not there!”
Fishlegs and I were sludging through the shallows, our rickety yacht scraping against the sand beneath and making an odd sort of squelching noise that’s hard to explain in words. It sounded like some Sea Monster burping up bubbles of sand after its last meal, spewing up the bones and blood for our little yacht to scrape against and grind into dust. But at the same time it seemed to be pulling the yacht in, as if the sands were still hungry and we could be sucked into its bottomless maw with a loud squelch at any moment.
Needless to say, it was a bit creepy.
“Well, do you know of anywhere better to look?” Fishlegs responded quietly as he paddled through the red sands. “I thought so. I think it really is here, Eggingarde, it’s just hidden somewhere no one would ever find without knowing where to search. It’s exactly the kind of thing Grimbeard the Ghastly would do.”
I shook my head. “Trust me, Fishlegs, it is not here. I have searched to the furthest accessible reaches of the sands, many times over. The only place on this land I haven’t been is the hollow caves underneath the sand, and no one must ever go there.”
“Perhaps the Dragon Jewel is hidden there,” Fishlegs mused, “underneath the sand. That’s why no one has been able to find it.”
“Grimbeard the Ghastly wouldn’t hide it down there. You can go in, down under the sands into the caves, but you can never get back up to the surface again. And when the tide comes in, the waves roll with Thor’s thunder right up to the ceilings of those caves, and you will drown and die, if the lack of air doesn’t get you first.” I lowered my voice to a whisper. “Or if you haven’t been eaten already by the Monster.”
“Eggingarde, you’re freaking me out,” Fishlegs whispered with trepidation. “What are you talking about? What Monster?”
“The Monster of the Amber Slavelands,” I replied, weaving out of the murky air the tale that had been passed down from generation to generation, all the way back to the first Lost in the time of Tomorrow and Grimbeard the Ghastly. “They say underneath the sands, near a rock shaped like a witch’s finger, a Monster awaits its prey. No one knows what it looks like. Some say it’s huge, bigger than the Dragon Furious, bigger than the sky itself, and if it spread out its wings it could blot out the very sun, and fire drips from its flame-red eyes onto the sands, scorching it red. Others say it’s a gigantic snake, long enough to wrap around the whole wide world if it stretched itself out. It lies coiled underneath the Slavelands, hissing and waiting for some poor slave to fall into a sinkhole, down, down, down straight into its open jaws boiling with venom. And even others say that there is no one Monster at all, that it’s thousands of tiny nanodragons, with venom so poisonous and fangs so sharp that one can kill a man in eight seconds with one bite. They attack a man’s ankles and he falls down dead, and the dragons swarm in the thousands to share in the feast.” I smiled. “I like that one the best. It is the small things, you see, that often change the course of Fate.”
Fishlegs was now trembling next to me, looking around the bubbling sands anxiously as if he expected some horrible Monster to arise from beneath the ground at any moment.
“So you see why the Dragon Jewel would not be down there?” I finished.
Fishlegs remained still as a statue, knuckles frozen white around his oar. I imagined frost spreading out from his fingers, climbing up his arm and spreading across his face and body until he was a boy made of ice.
His fingers twitched. He began to row again, and the ice shattered, pieces burrowing into the sands like tiny spies for whatever Monster lurked down there in the depths of the earth. Smelling his fear and hungering for it.
“I was going to use it to buy our freedom,” Fishlegs said quietly. “I was going to find the Dragon Jewel, and refuse to hand it over until the witch freed all of us. You, and me, and Stoick and Gobber and Baggybum and everyone.” He hung his head. “I’m so stupid.”
“You’re not stupid.”
Fishlegs raised his head just a tiny bit. “Yes, I am.”
“You’re talking to a girl who was planning to escape using a rotting haddock and your jacket.”
“That just makes you crazy, not stupid.” He looked back down again. “I said that you reminded me of a girl I once knew. She was crazy, I won’t deny that, but she was anything but stupid. I’m stupid.”
“You’re not stupid, you’re brave.”
Fishlegs chuckled a little bit, a sound that should have come from a veteran warrior like Stoick the Vast, not a fifteen-year-old boy with arms like matchsticks who wanted to be a bard. “You know in Dragonese, the words ‘brave’ and ‘stupid’ are the same thing.”
“Well, courage makes you do some stupid things.” I put a comforting paw on Fishlegs’s arm. “You know who the witch is. You know the evil she’s capable of. Yet you still set out to find her Jewel, not because you were afraid of her but because you wanted to defy her. You’re not stupid, you’re a Hero.”
“I’m not a Hero.” He shook his head vehemently. “Humongously Hotshot is a Hero. Flashburn is a Hero. Great Thor, even Hiccup is a Hero, in his own way. I’m just a nobody who washed up on Berk in a lobster pot. I want to be a bard, for Thor’s sake! I’m no Hero.”
“Heroes come in many different shapes and sizes, faces and names. Heroes are —”
“Stop talking.” Fishlegs held up a hand. There was something in his voice that made me reluctantly stop.
We were further out than I had realized, further out than I had planned to go. No birds sang in the sunset sky. The whole place was completely deserted. We were far into the Evil Reaches of the Amber Slavelands, the most dangerous part of all the sands. The place was ridded with sinkholes, and tiny dragons that bit your ankles with their sharp fangs.
And not twenty paces from our yacht, a peculiar object protruded from the sands. A rock shaped like a witch’s finger. It was bony and knobbly and bloodied from the sands, and it pointed to the sky with a long, claw-like nail.
I shivered. This was one part of the Slavelands I had never been to before.
“We have to leave,” I said, trying to hide how afraid I was. “We’re too far out. We have to get back to the prison, before the tide comes in and washes us all away!”
“Washes us all away . . .” Fishlegs’s eyes widened. “That’s it!” he cried. “Eggingarde, you’re a genius!”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, confused.
“Do you know what’s beyond the red sands, Eggingarde?” he asked.
“N-no,” I stammered. “I’ve never been beyond the sands. They seem to stretch out forever.”
“We can’t be sure of that. Forever is a long word,” said Fishlegs excitedly.
“That’s the way the witch talks,” I muttered under my breath, too quiet for Fishlegs to hear.
“If the tide comes in this way, it must go out to the Open Ocean! Eggingarde, if we let the tide carry us out we’ll be able to escape!”
“All tides lead to the ocean,” I whispered, a smile slowly spreading across my face. “Of course! Fishlegs, you’re a genius!”
“The sea will carry us to the Eastern Isles,” he said. “That’s the land of the Uglithugs and Visithugs — we don’t want to go there — and the Peaceable Country. The Peaceables are one of the more reasonable Tribes, as far as Vikings go. We could probably get them to lend us a boat and we could get back to Berk!” He pumped a fist in the air.
“And the North,” I reminded him, “to find my grandmother and Bear-Mama.”
“Yeah, yeah, of course. Now let’s get going! I want to catch the tide as fast as possible.”
“I don’t think you’ll need to do that.” I pointed out beyond the Evil Reaches. “The tide is nearly here.”
The first wave broke before reaching us. A hundred years ago, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Second broke on the beaches of Tomorrow, collapsing onto the sand as his life force left him. Blood poured from the cavity in his chest where it is said we harbour our love and compassion, and the blood soaked the sands of the city of a hundred castles. When the tide came in, it was all washed away, leaving only a brown echo on a ghost of a Throne. The heart of a Hero broke apart into a million tiny particles, so small you could no longer see them, but it was still there, like Prison Darkheart looming over the perfect world of the Archipelago. Today, we drink Hiccup the Second’s blood and swim in his death. On the day of the dragon’s grave, we watched as his spirit and soul gently lapped at our yacht, not budging in the slightest.
The second wave pushed the yacht off its feet, and we lurched upward for one terrifying moment, hovering in the air for a second like some crazy balancing act, before splashing back into the water. I gasped, the freezing autumn seawater drenching my bear-suit from head to toe. I shut my eyes tight. We would not stand the buffeting waves. This yacht was not built to sail. We would sink to the bottom, and be carried away by the tide, and die of hypothermia or drown, whichever came first . . .
My thoughts were interrupted by a “Woohoo!” of joy from Fishlegs. It took me a minute to process this. “Woohoo” is usually not an indication of doom. “Woohoo” is actually an expression of great happiness. Therefore, “woohoo” must mean we were not sinking, and actually floating, which should have had a negative chance of actually happening . . . I slo-o-owly peeled open one eye with a furry finger, and saw blue all around. I opened the other and gazed at my new surroundings.
It was more water than I had seen as long as I could remember. I’ll never forget it. Just blue, all around, untainted by the red sands, little waves pulling and receding, pushing and pulling on us. It was far from the peace I envisioned the ocean to be — it was always in motion, always either helping us along or fighting against us. And the yacht had to struggle to keep up; it wasn’t borne easily across the infinite sea.
We had done it. After almost ten years of being trapped in this darkness I was finally free to see the light! I let out a bear-cry of joy. Fishlegs hugged me, picked me up and spun me around until the weight imbalance made the yacht tip forward and he quickly sat down again. For the first time in forever I didn’t mind being picked up. For the first time in forever I dared to hope. “We did it,” I whispered.
“Wait.” Fishlegs held his hand up. He brushed the other hand in the soft waves, frowning. “Is it just me, or are we going backwards?”
I gulped, looking behind me and realizing he was right. The tide was coming in, not going out. Meaning we would be swept right back to the beach of Prison Darkheart.
“Go go go go GO!” Fishlegs shouted, picking up his oar and beginning to row forward as fast as possible. I grabbed mine and did the same. We paddled and paddled, desperate to beat the tide. But it was more than that. We were desperate to beat the tide, desperate to show, in the small way that we could, that Alvin and the witch were not invincible. Like the city of Tomorrow, one act could crumble them to ashes. We were rowing away and rowing toward. Rowing away from the darkness and into the light.
We were rowing so hard that neither of us noticed the wave. It reared up up UP like one of the great sea-horses of Odin and crashed down down DOWN as Fenrir the wolf, jaws snapping shut to bite off the hand of Tyr.
Splintering wood splintered flesh and the blood of enemies mixed in the water and Fenrir the Man-of-War devoured the hand that fed it and let it fall, broken and torn, out of his bloody jaws onto the bloodier sand littered with the bones of a thousand souls.
And the Evil Reaches by the rock shaped like a witch’s finger, pointing cruelly at the sea in the sky, eyes on talons winking like a red herring in the sunlight.
I awoke to a rough boot poking me in the side. I tried to lift my head, but it felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. Exhausted by the small effort, I let it sink back into the sand.
“She’s awake!” the man who poked me exclaimed. I couldn’t see him, but based on the smell I could bet he was a Murderous. Meaning he was not who I wanted to find me.
I heard a groan and lifted my head again, to see where Fishlegs was. A stabbing pain shot through my head but I found it a bit easier this time to move it. A few yards away, Fishlegs was being hauled to his feet by Very-Vicious the Visithug. His glasses were shattered and his face was bleeding, but that blood paled in comparison to the dark red stain spreading rapidly across his tunic. A wooden shaft protruded out of his side — the mast of our yacht. I looked away. I had seen worse . . . but those people usually died.
Maybe it would be better if Fishlegs died, so he wouldn’t have to suffer the consequences.
Fishlegs looked my way and gave a halfhearted smile that looked more like a grimace.
I just shook my head. It was my fault, my fault that we had tried to escape, my fault that we had been caught, my fault that Fishlegs was probably dying, my fault, my fault, all my fault.
If I were any other almost-ten-year-old, I most likely would have begun crying right then and there. But I am a Wanderer, and Wanderers are wild. Wanderers do not cry. Wanderers do not show pain, or fear, or guilt, no matter what they are feeling inside. Wanderers stay strong for their parents, and children, and brothers and cousins and . . . friends.
I pushed myself to my feet before that Murderous brute could haul me up. I was dizzy from the pain but forced myself to stand. The world spun around me and I was the anchor, the mast, the pillar that stayed standing through sunshine and rain, hail and snow. The post that stayed strong as the ground wept blood around her and slowly took her only friend’s life.
Are you all right? Fishlegs mouthed.
I’m fine. I gestured to his wound. Better than you.
He glanced down at the shaft poking out of his torso as if it was the first time he noticed it, and gave that same smile-grimace as if to say, I’ve had worse.
“Come on.” I felt the point of a spear poke through my bear suit and, agonizing as it was, began to walk back to the prison. I had to force myself to put one foot in front of the other, to keep my head held high, to set my mouth in a straight, determined line as not to show how afraid and defeated I felt.
I am a Wanderer, and Wanderers are wild. We are not meant to be caged like animals, chained in the hold of a slave-ship, labeled by the Marks burned into our foreheads, searching for a fire-jewel every day in a place where it never snows.
Fishlegs was a Viking, and Vikings are brave. They should not have their beards hacked off at the roots, their armour and weapons taken from them, doing work too delicate for fighters’ hands.
Dragons are wild and brave and flying and free. Yet they have been turned into Slavedragons, struck blind to obey their master’s whip. They have been used as weapons, launching their boulders and arrows and fire and all things awful in a war they did not choose to fight in. And they die in their gilded cages, stabbed by a poisoned sword or sliced apart by the claws of a blood-brother, and few men take the time to lay their helmets on their dead dragons’ still chests.
We all die in war. To lose your home, to have the Slavemark burned into your skin, to gain a friend, to lose a friend, these are all deaths. And one by one these deaths bleach your skin and hair to a ghostly white and once-flowing blood and once-beating heart seeps into the red sands, feeding the Monster, always feeding the Monster.
It eats and it eats and we feed it willingly, for we do not know the full extent of what it truly takes.
A single tear rolled down my cheek and I did not wipe it away. It fell down onto the sands and burst, feeding the Monster who eats and eats and takes everything, everything.
“STOP!” I had been looking down the whole time and only saw a pair of polished boots blocking our path. But I knew who the voice belonged to.
“Where are you going with these two slaves?” Snotface Snotlout, Chief of the Hooligan Tribe, asked almost casually. “They should all be in the —” He stopped, noticing Fishlegs behind me. His eyes widened a little, taking on the look of a wolf when he finds his prey trapped.
“We found them washed up on the beach, Chief,” Very-Vicious explained, not noticing the change in Snotlout’s expression. “I assume they were caught by the tide —”
“Why would a slave be caught by the tide?” Snotlout asked, feigning bewilderment. “Especially you of all people, Eggingarde. It’s very suspicious, is it not, that you have been here for so many years and you didn’t know to paddle back to Prison Darkheart before the tide came in?”
Quick as a flash, he shoved Very-Vicious aside and grabbed the front of Fishlegs’s shirt, pulling him close. His eyes narrowed. Murderous.
“In fact, someone might even say you were trying to . . . escape.”
I dared to look at Fishlegs’s face, and I wish I hadn’t. His face was etched with the most terrifying kind of fear, a terror that I had never experienced in all my years in Prison Darkheart. It was the petrified look of someone who dared not to even breathe, for fear of their life. He didn’t even move his eyes. He was as still as the sky.
“I’ll take Fishlegs and Eggingarde from here,” Snotlout said, still holding Fishlegs’s terrified gaze. “You two go back to your regular duties. You don’t want the witch seeing you away from your posts.”
At the mention of the witch, Very-Vicious and his Murderous friend scrambled back down the hallway as fast as they could.
As soon as they had disappeared, Snotlout rammed a fist into Fishlegs’s stomach. He collapsed to the floor, clutching his gut. The blood began to soak his shirt faster.
“You and the little Wanderer brat tried to escape, didn’t you?” Snotlout shouted over Fishlegs’s body. “You tried to beat the tide in your yacht, but it beat you. Don’t deny it.”
Tears streaming down his face, Fishlegs nodded. But this new discovery didn’t put triumph on Snotlout’s face. Instead he reached over and tugged out the wooden shaft from Fishlegs’s side, making him scream and recoil in pain. I winced. He had no doubt left some splinters in there.
“You took everything from me, Fishlegs,” he snarled, “you and the little weirdo. This is why your kind have to be killed when they’re young, not just thrown out, because there’s a chance that a lobster pot might wash up on a beach and the baby inside might live to grow up and change everything.” He aimed a kick at Fishlegs’s side. “That was for my crown.” He stomped down hard on his face, sending blood spattering the walls. “That was for my childhood.” Snotlout raised the yacht-mast high above his head. “And this,” he panted, “is for my home.”
I leaped forward, knocking the mast from Snotlout’s hands. “STOP IT!”
For a second he stared at me with blazing fury, and I was almost afraid he would send a lightning bolt from his eyes and strike me dead. Then the edges of his mouth turned up. A disbelieving half-smirk.
“Why, Fish-eggs,” he drawled, “I didn’t know you had a girlfriend.”
The blow came out of nowhere, and I fell to the ground, my cheek stinging from Snotlout’s fist.
“She is a child, Snotlout!” Fishlegs rasped, the same fire burning in his eyes as did Snotlout’s. Fifteen years of rage and hatred and humiliation welled behind those eyes, but he was too weak to do anything about it.
“As are you, Fishlegs,” he responded calmly. “As am I.” He raised his boot and brought it down hard on my wrist. My blood met Fishlegs’s on the walls — he had put spikes on the bottom of his boots! He lifted his boot again, preparing to shatter the already broken bone, to make sure I would never use that hand again. I cringed, waiting for the final blow.
But it never came. When you wait for something all your life, for minutes or hours or days or years or whatever is your life, and it doesn’t come, you feel betrayed. A missed swipe at freedom. A potato snatched away by the Doomfang. An amber Jewel, falling in slow-motion from a god’ss hand into the jaws of a monster.
I was not relieved when Gobber shouted at Snotlout to leave. I watched with disinterest as he picked up his former student by his ankle and flung him from the hallway as if he were a bug. I didn’t care when Stoick ripped off a strip of his own shirt to bandage Fishlegs’s wound, or when Baggybum lifted me in his huge arms, cradling me like he must have done to Snotlout when he was a baby, muttering something about how “I am ashamed to call myself his father”.
It didn’t matter. None of it mattered.
Nothing ever matters.
Well, you know the rest of the story. There was no real damage done. I’m writing this with my hand, so obviously I’m fine. And my heart is so scarred already there’s nothing anyone can say or do to me that will break it now.
Fishlegs was Lost in the Seeking, dragged down underneath the sands by the Monster of the Amber Slavelands. It was a horrifying creature, with five eyes upon the ends of its five needle-like talons like periscopes, and with those claws it dragged Fishlegs down, deep deep down into the abyss, never to be seen again, leaving only those giant footprints in the sand to be washed away by the tide.
But I think we all know who the real Monster is.
It’s not Snotlout, although he was admittedly a bit of a monster. But don’t blame him for it. It wasn’t his fault. He couldn’t help being a monster just as much as I can’t help being a Wanderer, and Wanderers are wild.
It’s not Alvin, either. I hardly ever saw the man (if you could call him that) as he preferred to let the Chiefs handle the slaves. I wouldn’t know if he was a monster or not. He certainly doesn’t look like one, now. He looks like a Man-of-War, a Hero of Old clad in shining armour. Shining armour to hide the blackened heart inside.
I wish the witch was the Monster, but she’s not either. It’s too bad — if she was the most I had to be afraid of, I could sleep a bit more soundly at night. Nightmares of the witch and her clickety-clack fingernails would be paradise compared to what haunts my dreams now.
No, the real Monster of the Amber Slavelands is . . . this. This whole place, Prison Darkheart, the Slavelands and the sands and everything. It’s a monster that eats up a thousand people for dinner and still goes back for dessert. It’s a monster that takes people’s lives, and their families, and their everything and spits them up in the Dragon’s Graveyard as rotting skeletons. And unfortunately for us, it’s a monster that everyone has sadly forgotten. We are as alone as the loneliest Neverbird singing in the ruins of Tomorrow.
This is why I’m telling this story. I am going to roll up these papers and put them in a bottle, and send it out into the sands when the tide comes in. Maybe it will float out to the Open Seas, and it will wash up on the shore of some distant land and someone will find it and come to free all of us from the Monster’s belly and the amber’s clutches. Maybe it is too much to hope. It probably is.
But as Fishlegs often said, nothing is imPOSSIBLE, just imPROBABLE.
If you did find this and you’re reading it, I’m sorry that I had to tell this particular story. It’s ugly and awful and try as you might there’s nothing good you can take from it. But I had to tell this story, because it’s the only way you’ll be able to see the cruelty that goes on in Prison Darkheart, a cruelty more endless than the red sands stretching out to the sea for ever.
Again, I’m sorry you had to read this. But if I was living in a happier place, I might tell stories with happier endings.