The first chapter, and conflicts have only increased.


Berkian Eddur - 2

Winter in Líf's Holt


Part 1 - Changing Tides

Chapter 1 - Flung Together

The true equaliser is the mountain cold

And stacks of cold flung together

Maybe then we'd listen to what each other is saying

Steven Herrick

Hiccup was having the time of his life. Gobber whistled merrily, keeping his singing down only because Hiccup was there with Fishlegs' little tot, screaming her little lungs off with laughter as Hiccup tickled her feet. He didn't mind having his work interrupted so much; not when he was given such a cute little girl to care for.

"I have your feet now, they're mine!" he said, pretending to eat them, causing even more high-pitched giggles. Toothless had his head lying beside the child on Hiccup's knee, looking at her rapturously, and every time a tiny hand waved in his vicinity, the reptile gave it a nudge or a lick.

It warmed the heart, Gobber said, really it did, even of a crusty old battle-brother like him, to see Hiccup drop everything the moment Ruffnut had stopped by; looking utterly frazzled, half her hair smoking and the other half covered in drool. She told him he was on 'godparent duty before I strangle her with my own hands'. The Thorston clan had a family meeting this afternoon, and even though Ruffnut had married into the Ingermann clan, the Thorstons had … rules of their own.

The blonde three month old gave a yawn, tiny mouth opening to show pink gums, and then she snuggled into Hiccup's chest. Gobber nearly dropped a hammer on his good foot at the look Hiccup was giving her and then the teasing started, but Hiccup couldn't help it. Woodnut's small face snuggling into his tunic was doing all sorts of things to his chest, and her hands were so tiny. Toothless's pupils couldn't get any wider if he tried. Woodnut babbled and blew bubbles, then seized Hiccup's finger and tried to stick it in her mouth.

"Ah no you don't," he told her gently, trying to shake her grip off. "My hands are all covered in soot and wood shavings. Wouldn't want to get you sick; your dad will flay me alive and your mum will finish me off."

"Wouldn't know about that," Gobber finally interjected. "I mean, Ruffnut would probably get to you first."

"That's reassuring," Hiccup replied smartly, dipping his fingers into a cup of ale nearby - which should have been kept for medicating his leg - and only then surrendering his appendages to the child. "Let's hope Goethi's right when she says the ale cleans the ills, or it's my head."

"Eh, Astrid'll protect you," Gobber replied cheekily, earning himself a glare and an eyeroll which only made the blacksmith grin back. "Though thinking about it, she's rather fond of that girl herself; you might want to start running. Or start giving her one of her own." Gobber's eyebrows were doing that thing again.

Hiccup dearly wished he could reach over and rip them off, sometimes, especially when they invoked that image.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Hiccup replied, nonplussed. "I'm sure she's just raring to go, waiting to be a mum on tenterhooks."

"Why wouldn't she?" replied Gobber, resuming his tinkering with the chain links. Ever since Hiccup had shown him the special knife he used to slice the individual links, he hadn't stopped playing with it for a moment,

"Gobber, it's Astrid we're talking about. You know, fierce, no-yakshit Astrid who will open your gut and make you wear it as a crown?"

"Oh aye, that she is lad," Gobber said, and Hiccup was momentarily distracted with Woodnut kicked him in the chin. "Ah, mean left kick, that 'un! Just like her mum! But really, Astrid's a woman, just like any other. If Ruffnut can have kids, so can Astrid." He made a … surprisingly valid point. "In fact, I'll be much mistaken if I say that Astrid hasn't brought up that kid at least one quarter of the way. I think you're going to take up another quarter yourself, so when the times comes to give Astrid those babies…"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Hiccup cut him off, standing up almost too fast and making the baby gurgle. "Who's to say … you know, that I'm going to be the one doing it."

"Are ye nuts, Hiccup?" Gobber asked him with incredulity seeping out of his mustache. "I mean, you know about the contract, right? Asgard, why does Stoick have to leave all of these things to me! I mean, I get that he was too busy to talk to you about girls, and why your everything stands on-end when you get up in the morn-"

"Gobber!" Hiccup yelled, making Woodnut whimper and having to shush the little girl. He looked up at his teacher with a rather impressive glare. "We're changing the subject."

"Lad-"

"Nope!"

"Boy-"

"Not happening!"

"Hic-"

"Argh, that's enough!" With a huff, he deposited the kicking baby into Gobber's meaty arms. The elder smith dropped everything with a wondrous racket in order to receive the bundle of wiggly blankets, and then looked helplessly up at Hiccup, who gave him a rather impressive smirk. "Now you watch her, and I can actually get on with the work I was planning to do today."

"But what about my-"

"Nope," Hiccup cut him off, in no mood to be trifled with anymore. "I have work to do. You were just fooling around with my cutter. " Gobber gave a yelp as Woodnut yanked on his mustache like a doorbell. "Looks like you've got the entertainment all sorted out, too."

Within minutes, the smithy was filled with clanging again, and Hiccup drowned out most other noises (except, he couldn't really unhear Gobber using baby talk while Toothless rattled his now-colourful tail around). He knew he had little time, because this morning's woodwork had taken longer than he had anticipated, and they had only been able to do without him and Toothless at the construction sight about an hour after lunch. The light was already waning, meaning that it was around three hours past noon, and the sunset would be upon them sharply. Shorter days meant a sooner evening meal, and that would just mean less time to get things done.

Still, he was an old hand at this, and even though this was only his fourth one, there just wasn't much difference when the process of smelting the metal and folding it was the same. The repair was quick and easy - he'd just slip the original iron rod into the new wooden handle he'd made the previous day. The new new handle was done days ago, but he'd been called away so often that it had just languished in his old work-room (because he didn't trust Gobber not to fiddle with it and show it to someone accidentally), and already decorated in as many scales and stones as he could find in his travel hoard.

Within two hours, the head was complete, polished and ready to be decorated. It was really dark outside by now, and Ruffnut hadn't come to collect Woodnut yet, meaning that the meeting had dragged on and on. At least he hoped so; he was almost mad at Ruff for interrupting him again, but Woodnut was too adorable to mind, with all her chubby, rosy-cheeked happiness as she cackled evilly while literally hanging off Gobber's mustache. Mama's girl, without a doubt.

Hiccup dipped the axe-head into pot of melted wax on the stove, twisting his tweezers to manage both of the blades. Carefully, he began to dig the design out with a paring needle once it was dry, inscribing the intricate knotted lines he'd once seen on wondering folk who called themselves druids, and then more carefully, and much more subtly, writing the runes of the messages he wished with enough care to conceal them. The Dróttkvætt came out quickly enough, but he dallied on the last, extra verse, unsure whether to add the three, telling lines on to the other six, but ultimately bit his lip and did it anyway, making sure to hide those lines extra-carefully within the knotted design.

He regretted it as soon as he'd done it, and almost scraped all the wax off, but when he looked outside at the now-dark village, he realised that there was no way he could get away with it. Sure, her axe had been repaired, but the thing wasn't adequate for her anymore, not with her new height and wider hips (not that he was noticing!) dropping her center of gravity a few inches. The longer handle and wider blade would compensate, and … and he'd wanted to give her an axe - give her anything, really - that he knew she would carry and that would keep her safe where he … really couldn't do much, not unless he was astride Toothless. When he remembered the battles he'd actually faced ... he didn't want to be in that place again. Killing simply was not for him.

He huffed, feeling less than happy with himself at the thoughts. He was better than this, really; the five years he'd been away had taught him many things and he was better for it. Hell, he would openly admit that he would be a different man without them filling his coffers of experience. He should have come back with at least a mildly better outlook of himself, and he had, only, when it came to her

He sighed, ignoring his own thoughts as he simply let his hands do the task they knew by heart; clicking in the handle, pouring the acid very, very carefully next to the vent and then letting it settle through the wax and bubble at the metal, creating a metal smell that left the mouth tasting like blood.

"Oi, a little warning next time," Gobber said, and Hiccup turned abruptly, remembering that Gobber, Toothless and - oh Frigga's mercy, little Woodnut was still there, now fussing as the rather distasteful smell filled the forge, despite the open window. The open side had been blocked up with board as it usually was in the colder months of Winter, and Hiccup quickly rushed to open two other windows, but it was too late. Big, fat tears began leaking out of her eyes, and Hiccup instantly flung the sealing powder on the axe to stop the acid before crossing the room in three strides. Gobber was holding the baby at arm's length, as if she was a bottle filled with zippleback gas about to explode.

"Aw, come on little one, shhh, shhh," Hiccup tried to soothe as he picked her up, and Toothless tottered up, but gave her one sniff and backed off with a disgruntled vocalisation. "Huh, I think she needs more than an air-chance."

"Aha, good luck with that," Gobber replied. Hiccup glared at him. "What, do you think I keep diapers just laying around the forge, just in case?"

Hiccup groaned in annoyance, casting about aimlessly as he tried to find anything that would take the place of a swaddling cloth at least until Ruffnut came back, and coming up with nothing but char and dirty rags he wasn't going to bring anywhere near the child. Woodnut began to cry harder, her newborn-thin cries long ago turned into the wail of an infant, which she was belting at full force. Upset at being unable to appease her, Hiccup could do nothing but rock her, as the usual bottom-petting he gave her was out of the question at the moment.

"Leave you on your own for five minutes," came an amused voice from the door, and he turned to see Astrid leaning on the door jamb, furs tucked tightly around her and a torch in hand. She fixed it on a bracket at the door, putting the basket she was carrying down on the window bench. Hiccup gave her the baby with some relief, though he stood over her as anxiously as Toothless inched closer. "What did the silly manfolk do to you, hm?"

"Hey," he protested, slightly offended. "She was fine until she needed a change. What was I supposed to put her in, Gobber's spare undies?"

"Oi!"

Astrid chuckled, cradling the child and kissing the crop of soft downy hair before looking around and giving Woodnut back to Hiccup. "Hold her for a moment," she muttered, taking the cover off her basket and spreading it on the bench. She put the child on her back, and she stopped fussing right away as she realised she was going to be relieved soon. Expertly, Astrid unpinned the dirty swaddle, folded and knotted it shut, before she dug a hand into the basket she had brought with her and looked at him apologetically.

"The napkin's warm from the bread, but the bread will go cold now," she said sheepishly, and Hiccup couldn't help laughing as he brought his basin of ale over, mixing a small measure of it into another clean bowl, which he filtered with water. With a nod of his head, Toothless blew a small, measured firebolt into the bowl, making it smoke. Astrid stuck her hand in it, frowning slightly before adding half a cup more water. Woodnut, meanwhile, began cackling at Toothless, clearly having appreciated the fire shot.

"Three months, and she already loves things blowing up," Hiccup said with a smirk, leaning against the bench beside Astrid as she wiped the tiny girl's bottom clean with her handkerchief before wrapping the child in the napkin.

"Wouldn't you know," Astrid sighed, shaking her head at the now-happy girl, still cackling waving her tiny arms and legs. "We don't have any moss. Where's Ruff anyway?" Astrid went on good-naturedly. "She really needs to stop saddling you with her daughter."

"Everyone keeps saying it's just good practice," he replied gamely before biting his tongue. He cleared his voice and looked away. "Anyway, Ruff had some family thing, and she left her with me for the last … four hours, I think." He valiantly tried to ignore his earlier comment, which wasn't too easy with Gobber snickering in the background and Astrid's badly flushed face.

"I'll go sharpen your project for ya," Gobber said with a grin on his face that nearly reached his ears. "Over there, where I can't hear things. A ways away."

Thank you, Gobber. Subtle, as always.

In order to do something with himself, Hiccup took Woodnut up again, and the child buried her face in his tunic and curled up against him, butt sticking out, rubbing her nose back and forth and warbling. Hiccup soothed her back and then began petting her bottom when she started making murmuring noises that sounded vaguely uncomfortable, causing Toothless to come up beside her and croon.

A moment of silence stretched between them as they both looked at each other and quickly looking away, Hiccup feeling like a fourteen-year-old again trying to string two words to tell her in the Great Hall, and Astrid folding her arms, leaning on the bench and looking around as noises of Gobber's blades against the whetting stone and his obnoxiously on-key whistling filled the room.

"So … four hours, huh," Astrid said at last."That must have been one clan meeting. Why do they make her go to those anyway? She's not even part of that clan anymore, and the last time they forced her to go to one she blew up her old hall's back wall in retaliation. Maybe they're hoping she calmed down a little now that she's married and has Woodnut?" Astrid finally mused. Hiccup gave her a look that caused her to snort. "Right. Well, their loss; though she should have taken Woodnut with her. I'm sure she's up for a feed very soon, and we won't be able to quiet her down once that happens."

"She seems to be fussing already," Hiccup said worriedly as the baby began pressing her face into his chest insistently, stuffing as much of her fist into her mouth as she could manage.

"Hmm, I don't think it's that …" Astrid reached over, touching the baby's feet and exposed cheek. "I think she's cold," Astrid said worriedly. "Her blankets are all soiled, though."

"Get my old vest, it's hanging from that knob behind the door," Hiccup told her, petting Woodnut's bottom again and murmuring nonsense in the hopes of keeping her calm. Astrid darted across the room, reaching around Gobber and snatching the worn vest, and Hiccup saw her stop for a moment to look at it, a strange expression on her face. He snorted. "That vest fits me now. I think dad was a bit hopeful when he had it made for me. I could literally sit on it for years."

The vest was dropped around the baby with a smile, and then Astrid took her back into her arms to tuck the swathes of fur around her better. Woodnut settled down to a sniffle, but wouldn't stop wiggling and batting her face with a tiny fist.

"Do you think you can continue doing the bottom-petting thing?" Astrid asked. "I can't really do it myself without her wiggling her way out of my hands."

"Sure," he replied, but the angle was awkward as his fingers bumped into Astrid's belly and furs. She gave him a considering look before nodding.

"Wait a minute, like this…" She turned and pressed her back into his chest. His heart gave a leap and started beating in his throat, clogging it all up. Astrid's ear and what he could see of her cheek were bright red, and when he took too long, she elbowed him gently. "You can probably do it more comfortably, like this."

"Right…" he said in a choked squeak, and he reached around, putting his hands on Woodnut's head and bottom, petting the baby comfortingly and quieting her down. Astrid, perhaps consciously, perhaps not, relaxed against him, and his heart gave a heave like a roaring Viking. Toothless came around them, putting his nose against the baby's feet, and the image burned itself into Hiccup's mind like it was scorched into his skin with living fire. For a second, it felt like he was holding his family in his arms; wife, child, battle-brother. He could feel Astrid's heart beating against the skin of his chest, and the temptation to tighten his hold into a hug and rest his cheek against her hair was almost overpowering.

A part of him wished he could close his eyes and just hold on. Another part of him felt a decided rush of panic at the thought of this - being locked down, boxed into a role he had given up on after he had left Sepha behind, and that now was suddenly thrust upon him with little choice and little alternative. Viking law was Viking law, and as his father had reminded him, contracts were to be respected at all costs.

And if he was feeling this way, with the wealth of emotion that he already had for Astrid, what must she feel? They barely ever spoke anymore before he'd left Berk five years ago, and when they had, the conversations had been stilted, one-sided and unwanted; at least on her end. A friendship had begun to re-form in the whirlwind days of the countdown towards the Red Death's attack, of that he was sure, but it had turned into something uncomfortable, with forced intimacy stretching the slowly-growing friendship beyond the comfort of it's own sedate pace into something often confusing and disquieting.

He sighed looking down at Woodnut, rubbing her bottom in circles as she gave a yawn with her tiny mouth. When Astrid had confronted him with his real name, she'd given him hope, but the sometimes awkward silence and the frequent moments of discomfort of the recent few weeks had put a dent in the elation he'd felt that day. Meanwhile time and perspective had made him realise that there was more possible outcomes to this relationship than realising his lifelong dream of being married to the woman he had loved for his entire life. To her, the arrangement was political; most Viking marriages were. But it was both a selfish and an unselfish urge that drove him to make sure that she was not going along with it out of simple duty. He couldn't bear the thought of her being unhappy; he couldn't also bear the thought of loving her, having her beside him every day, while she felt nothing other than obligation and respect. A better man would probably have taken what he had been given and thanked the gods for the chance, but Hiccup had never been one to let a broken bone set on its own, or a leave a project once he had begun it. He would see Astrid happy however way she wanted, even if he had to break his own heart for it.

Hiccup blinked, watching as the warmth and comfort put the child to sleep, her soft breaths puffing against her long lashes. He looked to the side and found Astrid gazing up at him, a look in her eyes that drew him in as she gave a small smile. Her head was resting in the curve of his shoulder and she was peering rather openly up at him in a way that made him feel courageous.

"Say …" Astrid began tentatively, and Hiccup smiled almost unconsciously, his heart picking up in anticipation of some promise he wasn't sure was really there, but that he could somehow sense behind her eyes.

"Aw, ain't that cute," Ruffnut said, and both of them started. She was leaning against the door jamb, looking frightfully exhausted.

"Damnit, Ruffnut," Gobber said, hopping up. "It was just getting good!"

Hiccup felt a flush rise up his chest like a burn, and he quickly stepped away, turning to the bench to gather all the soiled baby things.

"Woodnut left us some souvenirs," he said with a smirk that was perhaps a little too forced.

"Joy," Ruff replied with a sour face. She took the near-sleeping baby from Astrid, who had roused herself somewhat at the sound of her mother's voice. Ruffnut tucked her into her chest sling and took the soiled clothing, holding them at arm's length with a grimace.

Rapid steps approached the smithy and Hiccup leaned out beside Ruffnut to see her brother walking up swiftly. He raised his arm in salute, but Tuffnut kept walking, a storm cloud on his brow, head ducked against his chest and looking like he was about to murder something.

"Leave him be," Ruffnut said, and there was a note of tiredness in her voice that was so completely genuine, and so completely adult that it made Hiccup look at her sharply. There was trouble here, he could smell it, and these two were old friends.

"What is it?" he asked. Ruffnut sighed, looking down at her baby.

"Would you believe," she said in a mocking tone she usually reserved to making fun of Snotlout, "that the Thorston Clan are all about honour? There is just so much crap going on that I wouldn't even know where to start even if I could say something, but they made me swear on my little girl's head that I wouldn't."

He felt his back straighten and eyes sharpen on her face as he took her in with one sweep. He could feel Toothless and Astrid come up behind him, but he looked at Ruffnut as menacingly as he dared instead.

"Ruff, do I need to know as son of the chief?" he asked cautiously, and Astrid stopped to inhale sharply. Ruffnut cackled.

"Oh no, nothing of that sort," she cackled, but it was a ghost of her usual devious laugh. "Wish it was, though. You're a deviant one. Learned that while you were hopscotching the islands, or does it come natural?"

"May have been an acquired taste from knowing Cami for so long. And you guys," he replied, his smile only partially honest as he watched her carefully to make sure she wasn't lying. "Knowing Viking laws to the letter has its advantages."

"I wouldn't mention her in front of Tuff if I were you," Ruffnut said, almost sadly. "It'd be cruel."

"What?" Hiccup asked, taken aback.

"I got lucky," she went on in the same wry voice he'd never heard before from her. "I didn't mind Fishlegs too much, and he turned out to be a decent man. And I really didn't care for anyone else. Tuffnut's going to get a shorter stick. The honour of the Thorstons… indeed." She sighed, waving a listless goodbye before heading off towards her hall. Astrid came up beside him, and slipped her hand into his.

He glanced at her looking out sadly after Ruffnut and a coldness passed over his chest.

"Poor Tuffnut," she said, sounding just as sad as she looked. "Just a few days ago we were making fun of him because he was polishing his armour before Cami came, and now…"

Bile rose to his throat and he swallowed it quickly. Why was she holding his hand while telling him this? Looking so sad that it was unbearable? Was she … was she in the same situation?

She looked up at him, and as soon as she found him watching her she froze, as if realising what she was saying and who she was saying it to. It was hard to swallow as she looked at him with wide eyes, like she was waiting for him to say something terrible. What was she expecting him to do, yell at her? Remind her of the contract and tell her to stay in her place, that it was Viking law? He'd rather die.

"Yeah," he said instead, his voice breaking, so he looked away. His hand felt clammy, but Astrid hadn't made a move to take hers away, and he honestly couldn't understand it. If she felt that much empathy for Tuff, didn't that sort of indicate she knew what it was like? And the only marriage arrangement she'd ever had was the one with him, so …

"Well Hiccup, it's all sharpened and polished!"

"Thor!"

Hiccup and Astrid jumped apart, Hiccup even yelping like a girl as he turned quickly to find the elder blacksmith looking at him nonplussed.

"No need to get yer skivvies in a bunch. I'm not a drugr from helheim yet, and I ain't that ugly either." He dumped both axes into Hiccup's arms, the blade shining wickedly with it's brand new deadly edge. "Really now, the way you react, it's like you don't expect a man to be in his own smithy. I'll be off then, I know when I'm not wanted!" With a last glare he sauntered off with his uneven gait, grumbling about how he was so unappreciated, and they were forgetting him while he was alive, let alone when he was gone and out of their hair.

Hiccup blinked after him for a moment, arms full of weapons, before turning to Astrid. They both burst out laughing, and he was at least glad for the nervous chuckling. However, as soon as it died down, he instantly found the silence intolerable as Astrid's eyes began flitting to his and away again. Of course, he had the solution of a conversation topic right in his arms; the only problem was that he didn't really … after the whole speech about Tuffnut and short sticks…

"My axe!" Astrid said happily, spotting her repaired weapon among the two in his arms. Unfortunately, his brain caught on to that fact later than his mouth.

"Oh, yeah, here, they're both …" Astrid paused in the act of reaching for her older axe, looking at him in askance as she glanced at the newer one almost shyly.

Gods, trust Astrid to get shy and flirty with an axe.

"Both … you mean, mine?" she asked, still with that shy look on her face. Thor have mercy, she needed to stop that and … ooh no, there went her fingers, up and down the handle with feather-light touches. He was getting goosebumps. He gave a resolute nod and her eyes shone.

Note to self: make her weapons more often.

"Hiccup, wow, I …" she took her old axe off him, and then gave him a look. "You repaired this one too? But dad only paid enough to cover one axe repair, and barely at that!"

"Technically, I don't need to be paid to make anything for my-" Argh! What was he doing! "I mean, yeah, um … your old axe is too small for you, and I thought I might as well… I learned a few things while travelling, worked in a few foreign forges, left a few…"

"Hiccup …" She holstered her old axe, taking the new one up with rapturous eyes and holding it up to the firelight. "Hiccup, this is amazing…"

"Er, no, it's not anything special - I mean, no, wait-"

Astrid backed up a few steps, throwing the axe from one hand to the other, rotating her shoulder with a couple of swings and throwing it briefly up into the air. "Hiccup, I thought your other axe was a glove-fit, but now I'm holding this one, and it feels like … like it's part of my arm!"

She was beaming at him and the axe so hard that he couldn't help smiling.

"You like it?"

"Are you kidding?" Astrid said with a laugh, twirling the axe and then holding it to her chest like it was Woodnut. "This is… thank you, Hiccup!"

And she was hugging him. Sure, there was the axe in the way, but … He smiled at her when she moved away, and she beamed back, still holding her axe rather too tight.

"Hey, you might want to … let up on that, a little?" he said. "The axe," he continued when she looked slightly bewildered. "It's sharp."

"Oh! Oh, right. Um." She looked down at the axe again, and he believed that was the first time he'd ever heard her stutter. "Well, I came down to see if you'd seen my axe, so this answers that and … dinner?"

"Oh, sure! I'm starving!" he said in relief, waving her forward while he closed up the stall, and breathing a sigh of mixed relief as they escaped the awkwardness. Hopefully his dad would be chatty tonight, because he wasn't sure he could take much more of that.

"Come on, Toothless," he said to his dragon, who was giving him a sleazy eye and knowing look. "Give me a hand to shut this all off so we can go eat."

=0=

Astrid was singing a drinking song while beating Stoick's cloak outside the house on one of the only rain and snow free days they'd had that week, and the best thing was that she didn't even seem to notice. People passing by in the plaza looked up the hill at her giving the cloak a good thrashing, a grin on her face stretching from ear to ear and starting on the fifth stanza, and couldn't help grinning themselves. It had been a long time since Astrid had been seen in such a good mood, and passers-by were looking at each other knowingly.

Snotlout gave a smile, trudging up the hill with the stuff Hiccup had given him to deliver to her.

"Oi, nightingale!" he said teasingly. Astrid turned, and her smile faltered slightly. Their relationship had never mended, at least not completely, since he'd dragged her down this very hill by the hair. If he looked back now, he couldn't even believe that was him, doing it to someone he had known and thought he would marry for nearly all his life. And Hiccup had forgiven him, in part. At least Hiccup was giving him the chance to redeem himself. Astrid was not that generous.

Still, he knew that he didn't deserve it, so if she wouldn't let him atone with her, he'd atone with Hiccup twice over.

"Lover boy asked me to get this to you," he said, holding a sack up. She took it from him and opened it, bringing out the notes he'd taken and the wood pieces that needed to be carved by her very precise hand. She looked disappointed for a moment, eyes moving on the note greedily as if looking for something, before folding it up and putting it in her pocket, hanging the sack against her belt and fingering the axe strapped to her back.

"Oi, that is some axe!" Snotlout remarked, leaning against the wall of the house as Astrid started beating at Stoick's cloak again. She gave him a sassy smirk that still set his blood running, but he reigned it in; he had far too much to make up for to let himself be sidetrack by things like that again. This hill was his witness, he'd make it up to her and his cousin.

"Made by the best blacksmith of the archipelago," she said, standing straighter with pride dripping from her voice as she kept at her task, looking like she was fighting a horde of enemies even while doing domestic chores.

"Well, don't kill anyone with it," he said, pushing off the wall with a salute and heading towards the arena. "Oh by the way, Hiccup said if you had the chance later, to come down with Stormfly to the academy. Gustav's been having massive trouble with his little one; he's got the sneezes, apparently."

"Oh no, I know what that is like with a naddar!" Astrid said, her laughter tinkling in the Winter air like ringing icicles on roof eaves. "I'll get some wormroot with me; tell him I'll be there." He left her with another salute, headed towards the arena. As usual, the dragon riders were being given tasks by their teacher there, who was supervising six or seven different activities at once as if he'd been born doing it, instead of being a clumsy oaf not half a decade before.

"Yo cuz!" he called out, entering the arena, then quickly ducking as another few spikes adorned the opposite wall. "Sheesh. I'm glad I'm such a great warrior, or I'd have turned into a Snot-spit right there."

"Just on time, Great Warrior," his cousin said in the usual no-nonse attitude he always had when in the arena. The younger ones were lined up on one side, all of them trying to train a number of eager, shiny-eyed terrors who seemed unable to take their eyes off their trainers. Gustav was sitting down next to his nadder in one of the holding pens, worriedly rubbing his scales with some sort of ointment, while a number of adult riders were on the other side, some practicing target-shot, others doing some sort of close-quarter maneuvers without flight. Tuffnut was resting against a wall, not looking at anyone, with his arms folded and a sulky expression on his face.

"What's up with Tuff?" he asked right away, loud enough to make the male twin growl in his direction. The zippleback napping at his feet opened its eyes to look at Snotlout beadily, and he winced. Hiccup looked between them two with a grim expression, then threw an arm around Snotlout and pulled him away.

"He's the reason I need you here," he said without preamble. "Something happened in the Thorston family meeting yesterday; we don't know what, Ruff can't say and I think Tuff can't either, but it's left him in a bad way. I need you to take Ruff's place for a morning on Fart and Flatulence with him."

"What?" he said, not looking forward to spending time with a surely Tuffnut, as well as dreading the prospect of getting to know another dragon. He hadn't quite gotten over his love and loss for Fireworm yet, who was now without question the chief's loyal ride and guardian. He'd been cruel to her, too, but she had betrayed him first, and he hated to admit that it had marked him to see her fly away without him. Thinking of bonding with another dragon now filled him with an impending trepidation that it would happen again.

"This one's already bonded," Hiccup said, as if reading his mind. With his knowing look, it was probably that he'd just been observing Snotlout and come to his own conclusions. Not a happy thought. "Tuffnut needs to take whatever it is off his head, and Dad's decided that what's left of Troll Valley needs to be cleared of the most dangerous rocks that could cause a slide. I need you and Tuff to fly out there and take a look, then come back and report to council. You think you can do that for me?"

Snotlout grimaced, and then he folded his arms and nodded reluctantly. Hiccup slapped his shoulder with an honest thanks, calling Tuffnut over to give him some instructions. The twin nodded and got on Fart, leaving Flat to look at Snotlout questioningly, as if wondering why he wasn't blonde and female.

"Think of it as Tuff giving you a lift," was Hiccup's parting shot as he went back to the class, slapping the dragon's side. Tuff tacitly took off, and Snotlout clung on for dear life. He realised that he hadn't given Hiccup Astrid's message when they were half-way there, flying over the ocean that used to lead into the crescent-moon beach which no longer existed.

"Whoa, that's some mess we made, isn't it?" Snotlout said as they flew over it, the ground seeming to pass slowly beneath them for the speed they were going at.

"Yeah, all that lovely destruction," Tuff said with some of his usual upbeat love for devastation. "They're thinking of giving it another name now - should be up in the next meeting. I just hope it's something utterly awesome. Because by Thor I don't think I'll ever be in a battle like that again! Can you believe that we took on that thing, twice and we won!"

"Hell yeah! Of course we did! We're Berk Vikings, nothing can stand in our way!" Snotlout replied, letting go of the dragon's horns to punch the air, and diving to grab ahold of them again as soon as Flat's head started drifting to the right.

"It wasn't just Berk, that's the best part! The whole of the archipelago took that thing down, all together in a show of force that will keep the skalds busy forever. And all those dragons, reaping destruction and mayhem! The nadders, the zipplebacks, the changewings..."

And Snotlout immediately noticed that Tuffnut became glum again, and he huffed. Damnit all, Tuffnut was fun to be with on the best of days, but when he got like this it was a real drag. He'd been like this for days when his sister got married, until he realised Fishlegs had no problem sharing his new wife with her brother.

He looked out over the ocean, pouting at the horrible company Hiccup had saddled him with (man, he did want to atone, but it was like trying to stab something with a spoon!) when movement in the sea caught his eyes, almost making him pull his dragon head up short before he remembered it was attached to another one. "Whoa! What in Thor's name is that!"

"What, what!"

Snotlout pointed, and they both swerved, going down towards the ocean where shapes and colours and flashes were passing under the surface. Both of them stood in their stirrups, trying to peer into the water over their dragon head, when off to one side a large column of water erupted out of the sea, spray taking them by surprise. Tuffnut, the more experienced rider of the two, pulled on Fart's horns, Snotlout lagging behind just long enough to get completely drenched, his dragon head laughing at him between his legs.

"What the …"

Snotlout quickly wiped the ocean water out of his eyes, and turned to see a number of massive sea dragon heads emerging from the water around them.

"Up, up, quickly!"

Tuffnut lead the upwards charge, Snotlout simply following and trying to avoid being flattened against his dragon's head by the speed they had accumulate. They leveled out through a cloud bank, peaking below the cover with only their dragon heads.

"Thor," Tuffnut swore. "Those are the massivest dragons I've ever seen - apart from the Red Death of course. And there are so many of them!"

"You're right …" Snotlout replied, losing count how many dragons there were after sixty-three. They weren't always the same shape either - some were flat, blue and spotted. Others had long, long necks with wedge-shaped heads. There were an enormous amount, and they were all headed towards Berk. "We have GOT to tell Hiccup this," he yelled at Tuffnut over the wind.

"On it! There's nothing but a couple of caves at Troll's Peak now anyway!" Tuff answered, and they both pulled the dragon away, headed back towards Berk.

=0=

Chapter one, introducing another major theme within this story. Incidentally, the themes for all the epithets are The Forest, The Winter, Politics and Babies, or children in general – after all, Gift of the Night Fury was all about babies, which fit deliciously into my continuity here. The theme of Forest and Winter are in the title – Holt is a forest or a wood, and the over-arching theme of the Eddur is the Long Winter of the end of the world. The Babies? Well, apart from the inspiration of this - GOTNF – Woodnut is far from the only sweet little babe that are going to try to charm the sweets out of everyone in this story.

On the Feminist side: I would like to make one thing clear, here. Being a feminist to me does not mean bra burning and spitting at the feet of women who chose to quit jobs to have kids. Berk is an ideal feministic society to me – the woman can do whatever she darn wants (within the limits of Viking culture that I've sneaked in). You want to be a warrior? Sure. You want to be a wife and a mum? No problem. You want to be both? Be my guest! Feminism to me doesn't mean career over all of it, or any other thing like that. It means that one has the right to choose.

Also, I began writing this in January, and I gave Goethi a pack of terrors because they seemed the best adapted to her needs. Then, lo and behold, we get a glimpse of Goethi in one of the trailers while Jay says that people with no dragons are in the minority, and she's surrounded by a pack of terrors. I have powers, man. Now, if only my powers weren't telling me that Stoick is going to get the short end of the stick.