The next week went unsettlingly well.
Hiccup was taking everything in with hardly a flinch. He'd been broken the day he'd come ashore, weak and teary. But within a matter of days, it was as if a switch had been flipped, and he was fine. Fine. They weren't sure what 'fine' meant, but it was stable and didn't change. Hiccup didn't smile much, and spoke even less. But he could look you in the eye, he would eat and sleep like a normal person should (more or less). He never left the Haddock house, but people came to visit and he seemed to understand what they said, even if he didn't always answer.
But it 'fine' was odd. It was too fine. It was too consistent. It was wooden, fake. Not everyone caught the nuances, but Stoick did. Every once in a while, the boy would slip, and all at once, he would look absolutely terrified of everything. He never said anything during these episodes, never explained why he was afraid or even made a sound. Instead, his hand would shoot up to his neck and finger at his collar, rub the old scars from the metal band he'd worn there for years. He would finger something at his chest, some token that hung about his neck on a bit of twine. He'd turn it and rub it and turn it again, sometimes clutching it. Eventually, his terror would fade, and that emotionless, unchanging 'fine' mask would materialize again.
Stoick wondered if one was real, and the other was not. He wondered if the terror was waiting to come back in force, if that was the real Hiccup waiting to escape from the 'fine' Hiccup. It made his gut twist thinking about it. Was reality, in this case, actually more important than 'fine'?
Did Stoick want real? Did he want to have to deal with his own son's horror? Or was it better to lie to himself and pretend that Hiccup was fine, if it meant no one had to deal with the terrified man beneath? Hiccup asserted the 'fine'ness on himself, anyway. If Hiccup had a reason to do it, well… surely that was… fine. But something about that idea wormed into his gut and sat so wrongly against his heart that, despite how terrible and awkward he felt about it, Stoick had to prod the bear.
He didn't know how to be subtle. "So… what happened?" He asked one quiet afternoon. It was so stupid and blunt that he flinched at his own words. Stoick the Vast was a man of action, not a man of tact. He wished he were otherwise, for Hiccup's sake.
Hiccup had been fiddling restlessly with pencil and paper, and now his hands froze where they worked. He did not look at Stoick. He did not turn or gasp, or say anything. He only froze in what he was doing, and did not move. Stoick coughed awkwardly.
"I-I'm sorry, Hiccup," Stoick rebounded, voice cracking from the effort of trying to be soft. "I just… we've… we've missed you," because he couldn't explain that they'd mourned him for eight years, "And I wondered… what happened. After you got that, ehrm," Stoick gestured vaguely at his forehead, looking at Hiccup's slavemark.
Hiccup was shaking his head softly. He did not look up, choosing instead to look intently at the pencil he was holding. Stoick's pride fell a bit and he faltered even more.
"Of course, I know you've, um… that is… not really… gotten used to being back, after…" Hiccup was shaking his head even harder now, and when Stoick drew breath to speak again, Hiccup's hand shot up frantically to the thing around his neck, fingers shaking clumsily, shoulders and neck growing tense. Stoick couldn't see his eyes, but he knew the terrified Hiccup had come out again, blind to whatever Stoick did next.
Stoick let out his breath as a sigh. He watched his son for a moment, feeling like the worst father in the world. He told himself so over and over, turning away and leaving Hiccup alone.
Hiccup remained frozen where he was, frantically squeezing the hard, dirty pendent that hung around his neck, trying to make it cut into his fingers, imprint its texture onto his skin, anything to make the dream-memory stay out of his sight. It was no use. He was right next to the fire, but his skin took hold of the memory first. Before everything else, the memories of his first master began with the feeling of cold.
It hadn't been cold at the market where they'd sold him. It was a port city, cool and muggy and damp so that when it wasn't raining it felt like it should, and when it was raining it felt like it would never end. After a week isolated in a box on the bumpy road, he thought he'd been alone. When they opened his cell at the port and dragged his dirty, bruised body out of the cart, he found that he wasn't alone. Not alone at all. As they shoved his stump into his prosthetic – which had definitely seen better days – he took in his surroundings.
Dozens of slaves shuffled about, the whites of their eyes stark against dirty skin. They peered at him, eyes saying nothing. Their handlers held them by leashes attached to their shackles, tugging them this way and that with varying degrees of care. Hiccup only had time to think about how cruel it was until a clink and a weight on his wrists told him that his captors had outfitted him with similar chains. He glared at them when they tugged.
They milled about the markets aimlessly for a while, dragging him behind them. Passers-by looked at his leg in confusion, repressing laughter at how small he was. Some mothers cringed when they saw how fresh his slavemark was and hugged their children closer. Eventually, the slaveholders began to congregate at a stage set up in the center of the bay. Hiccup watched as slaves of all ages, genders, and sizes passed him by. There were women shorter than he was, and men as tall as his father. There were people with dark skin and faces like he'd never seen before, and not everyone spoke in Norse.
When they got him on the stage, one of his captors took out a knife and cut off his tunic. He couldn't help it when he yelped, half because the knife went so close to his skin and half because he'd liked that tunic. They painted big woad-blue runes on his bare chest just as the other slaveholders did with their wares, and hooked his chain leash to a loop drilled into the wood at his feet. There, they left him for the crowd to stare at.
He glanced at the others similarly bound on either side of him. Shackled, bound, painted and priced, slavemarks shining in the overcast sunlight. He wasn't a person anymore. He was a thing, Hiccup realized. It made him angrier than he could say.
He shifted on his wobbly prosthetic foot, and the man next to him glanced at him, first at his leg and then at his tattooed forehead. He was a tall, muscled man with dark skin (Hiccup had heard others call him Africkan, whatever that meant) and although he could not speak to Hiccup in a language he would understand, his eyes communicated sympathy. Hiccup ignored it and glared at the crowd below.
The bidding started. It was a long, boring time up there on the stage. They started on the opposite end of the stage and worked toward him. After a short time of auction, each slave would be unhooked form his place and handed over to the highest bidder, who would pay the sellers and either leave with his prize or wait to buy more. Even through the grey cloudcover, Hiccup could feel his shoulders burning in the sun. He'd have even more freckles tomorrow, he thought.
The boredom gave way to a niggling sort of fear. As each slave was purchased and ushered away, the auction grew closer to Hiccup where he could watch the action. Some masters looked rich, calm and civilized as they examined their new slaves' health and passed them on to some insubordinate, who dealt with the newcomers mechanically, but decently. Then, there were… others. Men who didn't look like they should possess enough money for a slave, but waved it in the air anyway, bidding and buying. Those masters grabbed their slaves roughly, and shoved them into line with their convoys. They bought many women, and some young boys. Their new slaves looked either terrified, or furious. Hiccup felt both. He wondered how well he could fight, if he had to. The Africkan man beside him was bought by a man who Hiccup guessed was a merchant. The buyer seemed decent enough, but chains were still chains.
Now it was on to him.
The crowd shifted a bit when the auctioneer came up to him and grabbed his shoulder, pushing him forward for them to see. His leg was a point of attention, apparently. He could barely understand the auctioneer's Norse because he spoke quickly and with an accent, but he caught snippets:
"New…. Barbarian child…. Northman…. Small, but spirited… good house slave…. Used to the cold, [laughter]…. Hear three denara?... five, five, hear six?" and so on.
He watched the hands flash in the air and his stomach clenched. Good gods, there they were, the scum-feeders, the men who'd already bought so many women and boys that Hiccup thought they would have run out of money by now. Some were looking at him, and some were bidding. He could see his own blue-painted chest heaving in nervousness, but he couldn't stop it or hide his fear. He could fight them, couldn't he? He'd used his own leg as a weapon before, he could do it again. Astrid hadn't been able to turn him into a warrior, but he'd never ignored her lessons. He could put up a fight if he needed to, he could make them regret it. Couldn't he? Surely…
Another hand went up, this one didn't look like a lowlife. Not really. Not a king, or a merchant… Hiccup wasn't sure what to make of him. But he put up a bidding hand, looking a bit bored as he did so, and Hiccup couldn't believe himself when he actually began rooting for this man. Gods, how quickly you could fall, one day flying your dragon careless across the sky, the next praying to every gods that this particular man would buy you at the slave market?
The man won, thank Odin. Hiccup had been right when he thought that the lowlifes were running out of money. No one wanted to pay that much for a one-legged spindle, except for whoever this idiot man was. They unchained Hiccup from the stage and pulled him over to his buyer. Up close, Hiccup saw that he might've been a Viking, too. He had the bones for it. But something about him was different, more foreign. More easternly than Hiccup could call familiar.
"You speak Norse, I'm assuming?" the man asked with a heavy accent. Yup, eastern.
Hiccup had to swallow around a dry tongue before he said, "Yes,"
"Is that the only language you speak?"
"Hmm," the man hummed, a touch disappointed, "just as well your masters sold you cheap. Come on, then." He took up Hiccup's leash and pulled gently. Hiccup scurried along, occasionally tripping on a cobbled stone with his leg, but he never fell. The man cast a not-quite-impressed look his way. "What is your name?" He asked.
"Hiccup," Hiccup told him, and felt like he was saying too much. The man looked back at him, and he would have laughed if he wasn't taken so off guard.
"Hiccup? No," He said, smiling in a good-natured but not friendly way, "No, your name will be Oska."
Hiccup thinned his lips, unable to reply. It was a different dialect, but he understood. Twig. His name would be Twig. Oska. Life just got better and better, didn't it?
He was silent as his new master dragged him along, not sure if he could be angry when he'd escaped a worse fate. He was angry anyway. They'd taken everything else away from him, why not his name, too?
For weeks, Hiccup only knew his new master as 'master' or at times, 'my lord'. They travelled for quite a while across country – Hiccup wasn't exactly sure how many days it took – to reach the man's home. Well, 'home' was a bit of an understatement. It was a fortress, a small city in and of itself, and this man was the ruler. Most of his insubordinates were slaves or serfs, although a select few of them were about the same status as he was.
It was cold here. It was already summer, or at least, Hiccup remembered it being midsummer when he was still on Berk. But snow was all around him now, white and gleaming and wet where it flecked against his legs. Happily, whether for kindness or necessity, his new master had bought him new, thick clothes, saying that even northmen couldn't survive without them. Hiccup hadn't read into that explanation at the time, too happy to have soft, new clothes on his back. But he learned quickly.
He was a houseslave for the first several months. He fetched water, he made food, he brought food in for dinner and cleaned up afterward. He carried messages to and fro, made beds and generally did chores all day until he had blisters covering his hands and dust all in his hair. He hurt, but it could be worse, he tried to tell himself. It could always be worse.
And he hoped. He knew he'd never last a day on his own if he tried to escape – this place was isolated at best – but he made a nightly ritual of going up on the roof when he knew even the guards would be asleep, and he would call for help.
He couldn't scream loudly, but he would mimick a night fury's call as loud as he dared. It would echo across the sky, and he would hope. It had never failed before. Tail or no, Toothless would find him. His father would find him. Astrid would find him. He would go home. He always had before. He would find his way back again. Toothless would always come for him.
Time passed. He learned his master's real name – Alvar. Most of the slaves simply called him 'the master' or, in private, 'the beard'. He did have a formidable beard – all black and smoothly groomed, darker than tar and big enough to keep him warm in addition to all those furs. Hiccup never called him that, not at first.
Hiccup's chest clenched the day he realized that he'd begun speaking in an accent. He deliberately called to mind his father's voice, and began mimicking it. He continued to call for Toothless every night, but he no longer felt the same rush of hope. He knew the guards saw him, sometimes. They never asked why he did it.
The other slaves were amiable to him at first, but over time, things grew worse. Alvar was losing money, or so the rumor went. Some slaves were sold, some were hurt on the job and couldn't work. One died. He'd been the oldest. Alvar couldn't afford to buy any more, so their workloads increased. Hiccup became a resentment among the staff, because of his leg, because he was small, because the Beard favored him because he was young.
The first time the other slaves beat him, Hiccup hid the bruises. They told him he'd keep hiding them if he knew what was good for him. They were angry. Not always with him, but he was convenient and weak, an outlet. He kept to himself as much as he could.
He kept calling for Toothless, even as the air grew colder. He did not feel hope, now, but he kept calling anyway.
Winter was coming in full when Alvar moved him to the outdoor team. He had to, he needed more help out there, and he couldn't bring himself to move women outside in the cold. Hiccup didn't dare say anything about the women who were strong and mean enough to beat him on a biweekly basis.
Winter in this snowy place was cold. Before now, Hiccup would've thought that it would have gone without saying, but now he couldn't say it enough, or in the right way to convey the idea. It was cold. It was freezing. It was so cold that you forgot about being cold, but still felt cold anyway. It was cold enough to give you blisters from breathing. There were ways to survive, to keep yourself from getting frostbite and worse, but it was cold. He hadn't felt his toes in months. Berk had been an island, rugged and cold but buffered by the seas. He was inland, now, and the frost giants had ruled here for centuries.
Out in the yard, he tended the thick-furred horses and shoveled stables. He stirred the water reservoirs for hours to make sure they didn't freeze. He shoveled snow and chopped wood and hauled cargo when he was strong enough. Then, he went back inside every night and curled up in a drafty bed loft with half a dozen other men, hoping they wouldn't attack him. His leg cramped. His prosthetic was warped from the cold and pinched him. He'd grown a massive blister on his stump but he was so numb he hardly ever felt it. It begun to turn into a sore, and Hiccup prayed to every god he knew that it wouldn't grow worse. He convinced the house nurse to give him bandages and salve and not speak of it to the master. He tried to repair his leg and keep it from making it worse, and it worked, sometimes. He no long climbed to the roof. He stood by an abandoned window and called very quietly into the night to make himself feel better, until his face was too cold or until someone cursed at him to close the shutters.
He was so much skinnier than he'd been. His eyes were darker, his hair longer. When they told him winter was beginning to fade (was it really?) he realized he'd been here for half a year. His clothes were worn and no longer offered the warmth they once had. If he hadn't been growing skinnier as he grew taller, he would've noticed that they were getting too small, too.
In the spring (whatever that meant, here, it was still colder than ice) Alvar decided that he wanted to go on a hunt. There were massive elk in this country, apparently, and they were running low on food after the winter. Hiccup was drafted into the hunting party along with all the other outdoor slaves, and he only prayed he and his leg would survive until they got back.
"Oksa, you're small," Alvar whispered, beckoning Hiccup up beside his horse, "go through that bush and see if there is anything in this field. My ears tell me there is game here."
Hiccup nodded stiffly and obeyed, going on mittened hands and knees to creep through the bushes. There was game there – two massive elk, one a buck with antlers so big Hiccup's eyes bulged. He scurried backwards out of his hiding place and nodded at his master.
"Two," he said quietly, brushing off his hands, "one of them must be their chief, he's so big."
Alvar laughed at the idea, and motioned quietly to his hunting companions, who held cocked crossbows at their shoulders. They dismounted and shuffled through the snow around their bushy cover. Alvar dismounted last, holding a massive bow in his left hand. "Wait here," he told Hiccup and the other slaves. He did take one with him, the biggest one who carried extra weapons. Hiccup and the others watched through gaps in the foliage.
"Oh, look at him, he'll feed us for months," one said.
"Don't dare scare him away, Oska," one said, kidding. It still hurt a bit.
"That fur looks warm,"
"Nothing is warm," the other grumbled.
Hiccup said nothing. His heart was racing in anticipation, mouth drooling at the thought of fresh meat, or rather, meat scraps that he would get in whatever stew the cooks made for them. He never shivered in the cold now, but shivered instead of anticipation.
And then he stopped.
Something wasn't right. There was something else. The elk had frozen in their spots, ears twitching. Alvar and his men ducked, assuming it was for them, but Hiccup could see their heads cocked in a different direction. The forest was already quiet in the cold, but now it seemed even more so. If Hiccup listened very, very carefully, he could almost hear something trying not to break that quiet.
Just as Alvar drew back his bow, the south side of the field exploded. In a shower of snow, a massive dragon erupted into the clearing and grabbed the smaller of the elk in his mouth and swallowed it in two huge, bloody bites. The bigger elk screamed and ran away. Around him, the other slaves scattered, screaming. Alvar and his men ducked behind a snowbank, but Alvar had already drawn his bow, and now the arrow careened into the dragon's hide. It's snowy white head, stained with red elk blood, snapped toward where the men hid, and Hiccup's heart stopped for a split second.
Alvar was a distant master. He didn't notice that Hiccup was underfed, or beaten, and he didn't even ask if he needed anything for the cold. But Hiccup knew that if he died, his world would come crashing down and he would die. So what he did next was both selfless and completely selfish. He didn't remember getting up and running, but there was, in the middle of the field, in front of the dragon.
"Stop!" He yelled at it, voice cracking. It looked at him, but didn't stop. "Stop!" he yelled again, this time growling like he remembered doing with Toothless. The dragon froze. Hiccup's brain reeled. He'd learned to mimick Toothless and the other dragons over the years, until they'd developed a rudimentary communication style. It'd been fun, a game. Now, he hoped it had actually meant something. "Stop! Do not!" he hesitated. He had a limited vocabulary, if you could call growls and gravelly shouts a vocabulary. "Um… L-leave it!"
The dragon was looking at him, fixated. It very deliberately licked the blood off its maw and peered at him, growling an inquistory noise at him. He didn't understand exactly what the dragon asked, but he knew it was about him.
"F-friend," Hiccup said, jerkily, "Not… not harm. Just… leave it." He said. He did not break eye contact with the dragon, but he could hear the other men behind him, cursing and asking what he was doing, yelling at him to run. "You… eat. We… we leave. Not hurt. Not eat. Leave it," He repeated, slowly backing away, hands open and to his sides. The dragon watched him, transfixed in fascination. He growled another question, tilting his predatory eyes at the small human beneath him. Hiccup swallowed, unable to decipher the dragon completely. "You… not… not eat me," he said calmly, voice shaking. "Not… eat. Friend. I… we leave." He hadn't ever actually thought these growls meant anything to anyone besides him and the Berk dragons, but it gave this dragon pause and Hiccup was willing to take the chance.
"Oksa, get away from it!" Alvar yelled in panic. The dragon's head shot up. Hiccup waved at it.
"Friend! Friend!" he yelled, "Leave it – we leave now. Now!" He jogged backwards as the dragon growled a low, bewildered warning at him. Hiccup scrabbled and grabbed Alvar's cloak.
"Run," He told his master, "he'll leave us, but we have to go now."
"Oska, how the hell,"
"Run, please!" Hiccup pleaded.
They ran. They had only taken down small game that day, but when they returned to the house, there was a celebration that they'd escaped with their lives. Hiccup, or rather, Oska was hailed as a hero. Alvar asked him how he spoke with dragons. Hiccup wasn't sure he would call it speaking because he barely knew what he said and could not understand dragons' speech well, but he did not say so.
"We had to deal with dragons back home," Hiccup said vaguely. Alvar scoffed and looked at him with unusual respect.
Life returned to normal. The ice slowly thawed. But despite the spring and despite Hiccup's new reputation, things did not improve all that much. Hiccup still slept in the cold. He still worked outside in the snow, now slushy and wet. The beatings decreased, but Hiccup's leg still waxed and waned between callus, blisters, and sores, surrounded by prayers against infection – he still refused to mention it to anyone. Alvar was still losing money, and slaves. Hiccup remained. Alvar began looking at him occasionally, hungrily. Hiccup wasn't sure why. He couldn't ask.
Sometimes, Alvar would take Hiccup out on hunting parties under the pretense of needing help and see if he could get him to interact with dragons. It was usually just small forest dragons (thank Thor) and they were almost too startled to stick around to talk. He did talk with them, and slowly began to understand them more, like he had Toothless. He was able to tell Alvar what they were hunting, where they'd seen game. Alvar would bellow in glee. He'd never seen such a talent. Hiccup didn't have the heart to tell him he barely knew what he was doing.
He started calling to Toothless again, at night. As ever, nothing came of it. But they would come, he told himself in a mantra, they always came. They had to come.
He'd been there, growing numb and sore and blistered for nearly two full years. Tall and gangly, with bones for muscles but not enough food to grow them, he lived up to the name of Oska very well. He was only kept for his stubborn ability to survive and his way with dragons, who helped him sniff out prey in the sparse woods.
But then, the second summer came. Game was everywhere. Alvar was poor. Hiccup was not as strong as the other slaves. He tripped. His leg, which was growing too short for him, was his weakness. Dragons retreated deeper into the woods and Hiccup had no use for his talent here. The hungry look in Alvar's eyes returned.
He had no warning when Alvar's men woke him up before dawn and brought him outside to the horses. They threw a pack at his feet and told him to carry it. They rode on the roads this time, not in the woods. Alvar refused to look at Oksa. It was two days into their trek before they put the shackles on Hiccup. He panicked, and looked at Alvar for some sort of answer. The short tufts of hair that grew above his right brow ticked his face. Alvar did not react. He did not turn around.
A day later, they met a group on the road. It was an arranged meeting, Hiccup had to guess. The leader shook hands with Alvar, and haded him a massive bag that jingled when Alvar took it and weighed it. He nodded, and gestured to his men. One of them unhitched Hiccup's chain leash from where it'd been tethered to a horse, and handed it to the man who'd paid. The man smiled dirtily, and Hiccup's body froze in sudden panick. No. No, this couldn't be happening. He shot his head around to look at his master.
"Master?" He asked, hesitantly. Alvar turned and walked away. "A-Alvar!" He demanded, but the lord did not answer. He had his head ducked in shame, brow angry. He grabbed his horse roughly, kneading the sack of silver in his hand. He had no choice, he told himself. "Alvar!" Hiccup shouted this time, angry. Alvar disappeared without looking back. Hiccup would never see him again.
"Oska," the rough man holding the chains grated, and Hiccup turned to glare at him. "They breed strange creatures up north," He said in poor Norse, and spat on the ground. He glanced Hiccup up and down. "Let us see your talents, then," he hissed, and grabbed Hiccup's face in one hand. The other men around them laughed as he dragged Hiccup by the jaw toward one of the carts they took with them. He let go and Hiccup staggered in front of a cart with a metal crate in the back.
A baby Monstrous Nightmare cowered behind the bars. It's neck sported a stitched up scar, and when it opened its mouth, Hiccup understood why. They'd cut out its flame ducts. It couldn't spit fire. He was so shocked, his anger didn't have time to mature.
"So speak to it!" the man laughed, and elbowed Hiccup in the spine. He hissed in pain and looked back at the dragon. "Make it scream!"
Hiccup looked at the small dragon with tears welling up, from the pain in his back and from looking at the helpless creature. "I… I sorry," he hissed quietly. The dragon roared back at him, voice squeaking from its injury." The men around him cheered, and two hands fell on Hiccup's shoulders to drag him away and into the convoy, which began moving again. They couldn't understand what the dragonling said, but Hiccup had begun to learn enough of this new language to pick it up through the raucous laughter of the mob.
"Me… die. Just….. me… let me die," it squeaked. Hiccup didn't break eye contact with the youth dragon until the men crowded in and blocked it from his sight. His hip ached as his leg limped, and his heart raced in fear. He missed the cold, the hard floor, the salve the nurse snuck to him, he missed his hopeless crying on the roof. It felt almost like home, now. The ground beneath him was rocky, and around him, the men began speaking in a sharp, unknown tongue that Hiccup had never heard before. He stared ahead into nothing, frozen in empty fear.
Good gods, where was he going?
His hand was not quite bleeding when he finally wrestled his mind into submission. When he looked around, he realized that he was in the middle of the room, his father's house, on Berk. An open notebook and a pencil lie in front of him. He was rocking back and forth. He stopped, and looked down. He heard rather than saw Stoick turn to look at him, and he wondered how long he'd been there rocking himself on the floor. He blushed red in embarrassment, and stood, still looking at the ground. He needed cold. He needed air. He needed something hard and real and not, not anything that came after the cold.
He went outside and sat, and crooned to himself the night fury call that no one ever answered. Berk watched him quietly from their windows and their walking paths. Gobber growled at those he caught staring, and tried to hide the fact that he was watching, too. From a doorway slightlyt down the hill, a blond-braided woman stared, transfixed in something like horror. Her husband opened the door behind her, and she jumped.
"Astrid, do you think you could-" he froze when he saw her, and followed her gaze up to the Haddock's porch.
"Yes, um, what?" she turned away, breathing in deeply to make herself forget, "I'll just… yeah," she hurried away, disturbed. Her husband still watched the man up on the porch as he rocked, and looked down, and rubbed his hands over wood and stone, his too-long prosthetic knocking against the flagstones.
It wasn't right. But what could he do? He clenched his jaw, not sure what to feel.
He turned away and went to help his wife with the cleaning, helping her ignore the past that had come back to haunt them.