It's been awhile, huh? Let's see if I can get this wrapped up.
The docks were eerily silent as every ship in Berk's arsenal was loaded down with supplies, weapons, and men.
Usually when the Vikings set out on their hunts for the nest, there was a clatter in the air. Raucous laughter and shouted orders tangled overhead, while barrels of mead and instruments were tucked into spare spaces. Money crossed hands, bets were placed- they'd find it for sure this time, or Bucket would owe Hoark a silver piece. Excitement glimmered off of the ocean waves like the reflection of the sun.
There was no laughter now. Nothing unessential was allowed on board. Every face seemed etched in stone, solemn and grave. The only motivating energy was the undercurrent of fierce determination. It was the battle that would decide the future of Berk, the fight that would end the war. For better or for worse.
"I don't think he's coming," Astrid told Stoick, lips pressed into a thin line as she watched her chief scan the docks for a particular face.
He nodded, sniffing as if in disinterest. "Aye, well. Just as well. Not as if we'll never see each other again." He fixed a bag over his shoulder. While he wet his lips and squinted at the horizon, she tried to decide whether or not the burly Viking was being sarcastic.
"He's not good with words," she tried to explain for her mate. "I doubt he knows what to say." With unsure sympathy, she reached out and brushed her fingertips over the fur of his arm braces. "He's watching, though. I can promise you that. He always watches."
That seemed to smooth at least a little of the dejection from the chief's brow. He glanced toward her and then beyond, to the cliffs behind them. "Yeh think?"
Astrid attempted to smile reassuringly but only managed to twist one corner of her mouth upwards. She thought of the dozens of times she'd felt his eyes on her in the past months, watching from rooftops and trees. "He's there. He wouldn't miss his father leaving."
Despite himself, Stoick lightened. Clearly he fell easily into his reclaimed role. She could only imagine how strange and wonderful it must have felt to be able to call himself a father again. All of the enthusiasm, but none of the experience.
"Stoick!" Gobber called from the main vessel, peg leg propped up on the bridge of the ship. The two turned to look, and Astrid took an awkward step backwards. "Where's Snotlout? He's supposed ta be helpin' me over here!"
"I imagine the same place as that Thor-damned brother of mine!" the chief shouted back, hand cupped around his mouth. Turning his attention back to Astrid, he sighed, "I should go. I'm needed."
She nodded. It was important that they set sail as soon as possible. Every second from the moment the sun rose was scheduled, and even a minor delay could have disastrous effects on the events to come. The dragon riders would catch up with the ships during the night, day after next. They'd reach the nest and attack come the next dawn.
It felt a little strange to be included as one of them.
She extended her arm, and the chief reciprocated her clasp on his forearm. His large hand felt hot and strong. Then he pulled her in a little closer.
"Don't be like Hiccup," he told her lowly, almost conspiratorially. One bushy brow lifted just slightly. "Make all of your goodbyes before you leave."
Her throat thickened, and she nodded jerkily. Releasing his arm before he released hers, she shifted back. Her gaze cut aside. "Gods go with you," she murmured, glad her eyes didn't sting with tears. She'd been worried that seeing the ships off would be difficult and emotional, but the business-like way men shuffled around them helped keep things oddly impersonal.
The chief gave her shoulder a heavy pat before smiling grimly and leaving.
She stayed on the docks for a few moments longer, watching the men and women around her with a knot of anxiety in her stomach. Then, pressed on by her own tight schedule, she folded her arms over her chest and began the climb back up the pier.
Condensation puffed from Astrid's lips, accenting the sharp command. Her hands tightened on Stormfly's reins, and she grit her teeth as they descended sharply through the frigid air. The twins and Fishlegs followed suit, repeating the same set of field maneuvers that they'd been working on since before the sun set. Hiccup followed, observing and advising.
The cold nipped at her nose and had left her fingers all but numb, but she stretched out her creaking knuckles and guided her dragon into a twisting turn. An ache had settled between her shoulder blades, burning hot and tight. Her hips cramped, and her patience was thin.
Behind her, she could hear the twins snapping at each other. Arguing, like always, over who should lead and who should fall in line. It was less frequent than it was when they first tried flying, after the Nightmare refused to let either of them near. But Astrid was sick of having to hear it. Hiccup had taken up the task of telling them to work together after she lost her temper on them.
"Okay, dodge left!" he called from the tail of the formation.
In unison, the four dragon riders nudged their respective creatures towards the right for a few moments. After Astrid straightened, Barf, Belch, and the newly named Meatlug followed suit.
Hiccup shouted, "Dodge right!" And the group mirrored the previous drill.
After a few rounds around the village, Hiccup attempted to keep them alert by warning, "From below!"
Astrid and Stormfly responded with almost reflexive speed, rearing up and backwards into a nimble loop-de-loop. The rest of the group panicked. Tuff tried to go left, Ruff tried to go right, and Fishlets sputtered, weaving haphazardly. They collided with a crash. Saddles tangled, sending them into a sloppy tailspin.
Astrid just barely caught sight of Hiccup pulling up short to avoid the disaster. Toothless managed to twirl away, protecting his rider. The Night Fury's tail was caught in the fray, though, and Astrid heard the snap of metal. Rider and dragon both shrieked as the prosthetic went limp, and they began to careen to the side.
"Hiccup!" Astrid gasped. She was hardly aware of the other dragons attempting to regain their equilibrium. Her heart climbed into her throat as she watched her boyfriend leap from his saddle and scamper across Toothless' tail.
"Hold on, Bud!" It took him a couple of hard yanks, but Hiccup was able to hug the dragon with his legs and pull the tailfin taut with his hands. A piece of the pulley structure clattered as it broke off and fell to the ground. The Night Fury and his rider glided too quickly towards the training ring, nearly clipping the dome. Their landing was rough but thankfully not painful looking.
When everyone untangled and made it safely to level ground, Astrid lost it.
"Son of Odin, are you all idiots?!" Her blood felt hot despite the season. "How hard is it for you to fly up? It's the first direction you learn!"
"It just took us by surprise," Fishlegs said quietly. There was clearly frustration in his expression too, but he kept his gaze downwards.
"Well the queen is going to be pretty surprising tomorrow!" she snapped. "And with flying like that, you're going to get us all killed!"
"Astrid," Hiccup murmured. He was knelt by Toothless' tail, inspecting the broken fin. "They're trying."
"Thank you," Ruffnut muttered, and at the same time, Astrid hissed, "Not hard enough!"
"Everyone's tired," he continued, voice a little firmer. "The dragons need their rest and so do we." Before she could protest that their was no time for rest, that they had to be ready, he added, "Besides, I need Fishlegs to show me how to fix this. There's no way we can fly tomorrow like this."
Astrid wanted to argue, but couldn't. She clenched her jaw and glanced around the group. The dragons were panting, and Barf leaned his head against Belch's neck. She folded her arms across her chest, wishing they could run just a few more drills. Her hands balled into fists. But Hiccup was right. They'd run out of daylight, and there was only a little while left for them to fix the prosthesis. Familiar panic crept up her spine.
"Fine," she bit out. Reaching over, she patted her Nadder's face. "Stormfly and I are going to practice a little more. You guys can go."
"Thank Thor," Tuff groaned. "My ass is going to fall off."
"I think my thighs are bleeding," his twin answered, tugging at her leggings as they limped towards the exit of the battle arena. They wished their dragon a good night and turned to leave.
Hiccup stood, rubbing his cheek against the top of her head. She sighed with frustration and watched Fishlegs tuck Meatlug in like a baby. "Hey. They're doing great."
"I'm not trying to be a harpy," she grumbled. Stormfly squawked at Toothless as the Night Fury chased his tail and nibbled at his bad fin. Her Nadder hopped away to help him inspect. "If they can't do it right, they're going to get hurt. I'm just trying to keep the casualties down."
He started to say something, and then hesitated. Glancing down at the broken tailfin in his hands, he drew his shoulders towards his ears. "I don't think there's anything more we can teach them." Hiccup turned the gadget over. They listened to Fishlegs' cooing. "Maybe now we just appreciate the calm before the storm."
Astrid wanted to wrap her arms around herself and curl into a ball. That feeling of helplessness was more frightening than the impending battle. "I can't do that." She kicked at a crack in the stone floor of the arena. "Ever since I was old enough to know I was a Viking, I knew this day would come. I just didn't think I'd dread it so much."
Hiccup gave her braid a smooth pet. Touching his forehead to hers, he found her hand and gave it a squeeze. "Go see your mom. Or your dad. I'll come over when Fishlegs and I are done."
She shook her head. "I'm going to practice a little more," she repeated. Pulling away, she started towards the collection of weapons she'd brought out early that morning. Astrid didn't want to admit that the minute she stopped moving, the anxiety would eat her alive. Besides, the more accurate she could be with her throwing knives, the better.
"Okay." There was doubt in his voice. He took one step towards Fishlegs, and then another, and then finally turned away and sighed as he walked away.
Stormfly tucked herself into her cage after the two left, settling into the nest she'd made of branches and scraps of worn down clothes from the Hoffersons' house. The dragon faithfully watched as her rider positioned herself at the target board and began to throw.
It only got darker and colder as she practiced. Between clumsy throws, Astrid would press her frozen fingers to her mouth and breathe hot air into her palms. After a while, she was working with a scant amount of moonlight, and still she squinted at the sloppily painted target.
The elements only helped, she figured. The less her fingers worked, the less she could see- it only meant that she'd be better on the battlefield. That she could handle the worst of conditions. It would make the chaotic blur of flying a dragon and attacking the queen seem like nothing.
She could take the cold for a little while. It was nothing like a jail cell.
The minute the thought passed through her head, her throw went wide. The knife she'd been holding scraped against the wall and clattered to the ground. She hadn't even landed near the board.
Oddly out of breath, she bent over and gripped her knees. Whisps of hair tickled her frozen cheeks.
Almost every man on Berk had left on the boats that morning, and many of the women too. There were mostly elderly and young mothers left to tend the children. Everyone had parted, maybe for the last time, and said goodbye to home. Bid their families farewell. Astrid's mother had become increasingly quiet and emotional over the past several days, and maybe that was why she found it so hard to go home. She was too afraid to say what needed to be said.
Her mother would probably cry, probably hold her tight. It would be hard, but doable. But her father- seeing the disappointment and disapproval in his gaze might tear her to pieces.
Stoick warned her against not making her goodbyes, though. Tomorrow, they flew for Helheim's Gate, and she might not make it to learn of her father's fate. She tried to imagine what it might feel like to die knowing she'd had the chance to see his face one last time and hadn't gone. The ache in her chest was nearly unbearable.
Straightening, she kicked the small pile of knives at her feet. One last time, she'd have to bear his glare of betrayal and disdain. It was a painful price, but one she'd have to pay if she wanted to leave tomorrow with no regrets.
For some reason, though, she couldn't help but remember the shouting her uncle left behind him the day he disappeared forever.
"Come on," Astrid whispered, teeth chattering as she led the Monstrous Nightmare with half of a near frozen bass. He had a bored expression, as if the fish was merely an excuse for his compliance, but he still followed her and sniffed the air when she waved it towards him. A cloud of moist air clung to him, the dry heat of his skin causing a mist of condensation to surround him.
Her heart pounded, and her hands shook despite the tremble of the cold. Berk's tiny jail was barely lit, the open doorway lit by one pathetic and low-burning torch. She knew it was unmanned, leaving the single prisoner to suffer in the cold and silence. Guilt bubbled nauseously in her stomach.
It was hard to not stop and turn on her heel. She wanted to run, to find Hiccup, to do anything other than see the terrible conditions she'd left her father to waste in. It should've been her, freezing in the bone chilling dark. It was her actions that brought him here, her selfishness that was killing him. If it weren't for the warm steadiness of the Nightmare at her side, she might have given in to the urge. She relinquished the fish and quietly beckoned him in.
It was as cold inside as it was outside, and even blacker with no moonlight to see by. The faint glow of the torch outside barely illuminated three small cells, with a thin scratchy blanket and a bucket in each. The table and chairs where the keeps played cards was empty. The stench of human odor clung to the wooden walls, sharp and sickening.
Astrid pushed her hood back and squinted into each cell, searching for the shape of her burly father. After her eyes adjusted, though, she just barely made out a lump in the corner of the last tight cage. A small bowl sat on the floor, licked clean. There was just a little movement from the blanket, a rising and falling that matched a thin wheeze.
"Dad?" she whispered, already feeling a tightness gripping her throat. "Are you awake?"
At first there was no rustle or motion to indicate he'd heard. But after a moment, the lump coughed, and the blanket unfolded to reveal her father's haggard face.
"Astrid?" he rasped, slowly rising. He leaned back against the wall, his head seeming to weakly follow.
"Dad." She gripped the bars of his cell uncertainly. They felt like ice against her already chilly fingers. "I'm here."
"Is your mother with you?" He licked his cracked lips, eyes scanning the dark behind her.
"No." Her gaze fell to the floorboards. "It's just me."
"I heard- heard the ships left." It sounded like he was out of breath just speaking. Her father's usually deep and sonorous voice was gravelly.
"This morning," she replied. "The rest of us are flying out tomorrow."
"Unh." He made a noise of acknowledgement and a gave a little nod. For a long minute, she thought he'd say more, but he didn't. It seemed difficult anyways. The silence was heavy and uncomfortable.
After a moment of grasping for something to say, she glanced over her shoulder at the Nightmare. It just barely fit in the jailhouse, arms tucked in as it sat waiting for instruction. Astrid looked back at her father.
"I have something warm," she told him, unsure. "Can you come closer?"
"What's the beast got?" he coughed. So he could see.
"Well- nothing." She waved the Nightmare closer, and it knocked one of the chairs askew as it squeezed inside. The heat coming of his skin felt divine. "He'll warm your hands. Can you move?"
"Won't take 'em off?" His dark-ringed eyes narrowed. Her skin prickled at the first sign of his ire.
"No," she assured him. Reaching out, she pet the dragon's rough scales in an attempt to show how tame it had become. "He's good. He behaves well. He doesn't have a name yet, but I was thinking something to do with fire, like Smokebreath or-"
"Aye, aye," he interrupted, sounding irritated. Astrid's mouth snapped shut.
Slowly, trembling, her dad wobbled onto all fours and crept forward. Heat must have been too wonderful of a luxury to turn down, prejudice be damned. The closer he crawled, the better she could see how much weight he'd lost. How the tips of his fingers were nearly black. When he finally slumped against the bars, he had to take several minutes to catch his raspy breath. Tears pricked her eyes, making her blink and stare briefly at the ceiling.
"It is warm," he mumbled, eyeing the Nightmare with a little suspicion. The creature puffed a hot breath in response, sounding a little annoyed at the Viking's distaste.
Astrid hesitated, and then reached into the cell to take her father's dirty hand. He seemed too weak to resist, but when she pressed it to the dragon's hide, he and the Nightmare both jumped.
"Shh." Swallowing hard, she placed his hand against the orange-ish red scales one more time. She said a prayer of thanks that the poor Nightmare hadn't burst into flames at the strange and icy cold touch.
Her father's eyes closed, and he breathed a shaky moan of relief. His unhappy expression dropped as he soaked in the precious heat, and his too-thin chest worked hard for each inhale and exhale. They sat there for a few minutes, wordlessly warming his frigid fingers against the Nightmare's hide. Every now and then he'd She watched with a stone growing in her throat, feeling the wave of guilt beginning to crest.
"Dad, I'm sorry," she whispered, unable to raise her voice any louder lest it crack. Blinking rapidly, she glanced at the ceiling to try and contain the wetness at her lashes. "This is my fault. Everything's my fault."
"Astrid…" he sighed, eyes still closed A small notch appeared in his brow, a familiar tell she recognized as his pensiveness.
She sobbed at the sound of her name, said with the same kind of restrained patience her father used to put her to bed when she was little.
"I didn't mean for it all to happen like this." Sniffing, she tried to clench her jaw tight to restrain the unbridled emotion, but it was becoming more than she could resist. "I met Hiccup and Toothless and they just—I trusted them, I can't explain why. And then it all got out of control so fast! The dragons were tame, and he—he turned out to be Stoick's son. We went to the nest to see the queen, and the secrets just started piling up, one after the other— I was trying to do the right thing, to protect the village, but I got lost somewhere along the way. I started deciding what I wanted was more important than our family, and—and I didn't think of the consequences of my actions. I didn't think Spitelout would be so angry."
He was silent as he listened. If it weren't for the crease in his brow, she'd wonder if he'd fallen asleep. But he remained still and quiet, waiting for her to stumble through her apology. She wiped several tears on the shoulder of her coat.
"I went to Snotlout's house after they arrested you. I tried—tried to see if he'd reinstate the contract, if he'd tell his dad to have you released, y'know, if I married him. But he wouldn't." She wasn't even holding his hand to the Nightmare anymore, just holding his tight in hers. She was never one to cry in front of anyone, especially her father, and it felt so embarrassing and shameful, but she couldn't stop. The dam of remorse was cracking and spilling, crashing over everything like a wave of black ink. "I tried. And then I was so ashamed, and I couldn't face you. I couldn't come here. I feel—I felt like you'd hate me for everything I've done. But I'm sorry."
"Stop," he sighed. "Astrid, stop."
Shaking her head, she leaned over and sobbed, pressing their hands to her forehead. "I'm so sorry, Dad. I'm so, so sorry."
"It has never been your job to take care of this family." If it wasn't her imagination, his voice was growing steadier. "Listen to me. Ever since you were a little girl, you wanted to be the strongest, the best shield maiden and the fiercest Viking. You wanted to protect the village and honor the Hofferson name. But that wasn't your responsibility. It was mine."
His hand untangled from hers and petted her bowed head. When she glanced up through her tears, she could see that there was a wetness welling in his eyes too.
"You grew up so well. So brave and obedient. I… I got tired. You put my responsibilities on your shoulders, all by yourself, and I let you." His thumb wiped at her wet cheeks, which were wet and chafed and nearly numb from the cold. "I let you think that you had to do it all by yourself, that what Berk wanted or what I wanted was more important than your happiness." He swallowed hard. "I thought I was the one looking out for my family, making you marry the Jorgenson boy. But then I saw you stand in front of that council... I realized that you'd been taking care of us—that you were still that strong, protective girl- and that I was returning the favor by forcing you to do something you didn't want to do."
Astrid felt her heart breaking into tiny pieces. She broke into another shuddering sob. "I would do it," she cried. "I would do it in a heartbeat if I could take you away from here."
"I know. I know." When he paused to wet his dry lips, tears streaked down his dirty face. "But it's my turn now." Her father smoothed her bangs away from her eyes. "It's time for me to start taking care of you again."
They reached for each other through the bars, and she tried not to think of the thinness of his chest, the smell of sickness on his neck. He was holding her as tightly as he could, but she knew it wasn't strong enough. She had her father's love, his forgiveness, his understanding—and that only made the thought of him suffering here so much worse. All too soon she'd have to leave, flying away to an uncertain future. She didn't know if she'd make it back, but even more painful was the thought that she would—and that he'd be gone when she returned.
"Do you have to go?" he asked after her sobs had settled into weak sniffling. She kept her arms wrapped around his waist, even though the metal bar between them was like an icicle bruising her shoulder.
"No," she answered firmly. "I'll stay here. I'll stay all night."
"No," he echoed, and she pulled away to look at him with confusion. His weary face looked stony. "Do you have to go to the nest?"
Her gaze slowly dropped. Nodding once, she scraped at her tears with the base of her palm. It was time for her to be brave again, now that she'd let her father see how weak she could be. "Yes. I have a job to do. They need me."
He took her hand again, like they were before her confession. "Why couldn't you have been a coward?" he murmured, staring at her painfully. "Why couldn't you have loved to sew and clean house, where you'd be ordinary and safe?"
Her lips rebelliously twisted into a smile. "I'm a Hofferson," she reminded him. "We're fearless."
With a short, breathy laugh, he tilted his head and gave her a sad smile. "Not completely."
Saying goodbye was difficult. After the Nightmare curled close enough to warm them both, they sat in near silence, not saying much. It was only after she started drifting asleep that her father shook her awake and instructed her to go home. She would have refused, if she hadn't still needed to have her own teary parting with her mother. Stoick was right, though. She was able to leave now that she'd made peace with him. Her head wasn't as clouded and dark.
"Remember to keep your shield in front of you," he told her, holding the back of her neck in his large hand. "Always stay in a blind spot, and don't get separated from your axe. If you don't have a weapon, look for something that'll work just as well. Don't be empty-handed."
"I won't," she assured him, holding his steady gaze. He seemed to have come alive after their conversation. Not well, but better. His eyes were filled with a fight that weren't there before.
Astrid nodded. "You too."
It felt like she might cry again, pulling away from him and walking away without looking back. She knew if she held onto him that she'd have to stay, so she left with one hand balled in a fist and one resting on the Nightmare's neck. There was no stealing a second glance.
It had to be extremely late when she left the jailhouse and inhaled the fresh night air again. It'd been dark for hours before she arrived, and she wasn't sure how long she'd spent with her father. Her body felt tired, but her brain was still wide awake, always thinking ahead of what was to come. She exhaled slowly and tried to convince herself to go home and get a couple hours of sleep.
She wasn't even ten yards from the jailhouse when she heard footsteps approaching and a voice called out from the dark.
"I have been all over this island looking for you!" Snotlout's bulky outline appeared, accented by his usual confident strut. He had a heavy coat on, his cheeks red from the cold, and had his axe casually leaning over his shoulder.
"Snot?" Astrid blinked, sudden nervousness making her heart skip a beat. "I've been here with my dad. Why are you here?" She took several steps forward. "You were supposed to be on the boats with the rest of them!" A hitch in their plan was the last thing they needed.
"I wasn't talking to you," he waved her off. She was stunned, but he wasn't even looking her way. His eyes followed the Nightmare at her side. He pointed his axe at it. "I was talking to you."
Astrid narrowed her gaze at him, moving in front of the dragon. "Snot. Leave him alone. He's not hurting anybody."
He scoffed, resting a hand on one hip. "I have eyes, Astrid. I'm not here to kill it."
Curiosity and confusion made her glare. "Then what do you want with it?"
Snotlout grinned, cocky and proud. "I'm going to ride it. And you're going to teach me."
It was Astrid's turn to scoff. She crossed her arms over her chest and closed the distance between them. Sneering, she shifted her weight to one foot and looked him up and down. "For one, what makes you think that he'll even let you on his back? And secondly—what makes you think I'd trust you anywhere near it?"
His expression didn't change. "Let's face it. Nightmares appreciate strength, and out of our group, everybody knows I'm the strongest. No contest." He spun his axe with a playful toss. "And you want to teach me, Astrid."
"I do?" she deadpanned, raising a brow. "Why's that?"
Raising one shoulder in a shrug, Snotlout held his hands out at his sides. His smirk shifted to something just slightly more sincere. "The more riders, the better. And I would make particularly good help."
His proposition was exceptionally suspicious. Astrid couldn't help but be leery of his sudden enthusiasm. "An inexperienced rider isn't much help," she countered, dubious. "Why should I listen to you?"
"An experienced rider wouldn't lose control of his dragon." Snotlout nodded behind her, and she glanced over her shoulder at the dark building she'd just left. "An experienced rider's dragon wouldn't accidentally set the jailhouse on fire."
She looked back at his smug expression. Now he was clearly trying to say something that she wasn't understanding. "What are you implying?" she accused slowly, trying to decipher what her father could have to do with this.
He tilted his head as if to say, who knows? She caught a glimpse of something in his smile, something she used to only see when he was trying to make her laugh. Something like the friend he used to be. "I'm just saying, that thing's aim can't be trusted. And we can't waste time rebuilding jail cells the night before a war. Especially when most of the carpenters are on a boat a thousand miles away."
Hope flared like the sparks of Stormfly's flames. Breathless, Astrid felt her mouth turning upwards at the edges. "I don't know, Snot. You're really unfamiliar with the dragons."
He nodded, lips disappearing into his mouth. "That's true. And short-tempered."
"You might upset the Nightmare," she breathed, nearly laughing.
Snotlout shrugged. "That's a risk we'll have to take, I guess. Should we move away from any flammable buildings?"
Astrid broke, throwing her arms around his shoulders. "No," she replied, realizing how dearly she'd missed his stupidly genius ideas. "No, this is perfect."