Prodigal Son 35
Flames crackled in the central hearth of the Great Hall. Faces young and old glimmered in the yellow light. About thirty Vikings had gathered there in the early morning. Conversation had turned, gradually as it does, to recent events on the island. Two subjects ruled the table: the Dragon Rider and Astrid's recent insanity were deeper subjects than most of the warriors had talked about in five years. These were exciting times.
"I've known her since she was a little lass. I've always known she wouldn't betray us." Bjorn Barrason proclaimed confidently. He had reason to side with Astrid; his son had died during Snotlout's brief time as teacher.
"I think the lass is making a horrid mistake, but at least she's trying to do what's best for Berk. It just astounds me she's being so stupid about it," added a gruff looking, bearded Viking named Sirnir. He was an enormous, axe-wielding Saemingrson, nearly as large as Stoick. He slammed his mug down on the table. "We can't trust any man who would ride a dragon."
Beside him, his wife Bekkhild Barrason clicked her tongue irritably. "We don't have to trust him. Just so long as he tells us his secrets."
Kolfinn Karson and his brother Kolbeinn were seated together nearby. The two of them kept themselves bald, and added a new tattoo with every dragon they killed. Kolfinn leaned forward. "Dragonfire does hurt the Jotun at the nest. We all saw it. I'm not saying we should ride the beasts… but maybe we should hear this Prometheus guy out. Astrid is a smart lass. She might be onto something."
"She's onto mushrooms is what she's onto." A Jorgenson warrior named Jerrick decided between mouthfuls of mutton, "First thing she shoulda done was kill the bastard. Planted her axe in his skull, take the night fury's head as a trophy, and mount it right there on the wall behind the throne, in honour of our chieftain." He gestured with a mutton bone. Many warriors around the fire nodded in agreement. "She's spending her days out with this Rider instead of our clan. Makes one wonder…"
"Mind how you speak about her." Bard Barrason warned carefully.
"She'd hardly go about breaking her vows to Snotlout…" said a meek voice. People shifted to see who had spoken, and the crowd parted to reveal Fishlegs Ingerman, village poet and resident flaky dunderhead.
Silence fell across the tables. Astrid Hofferson making vows of any kind to Snotlout Jorgenson? Had she vowed to kill him? That was the only vow anyone could imagine her making. Astrid hated Snotlout. That was a universal truth. Birds flew, fish swam, and Astrid Hofferson was always one wrong move away from murdering Snotlout Jorgenson. Yet Fishlegs seemed to be implying some sort of… relationship.
"What vows?" Hundolfr Hrolfson, whose home and family had burned in the last raid, leaned forward, armour creaking in the deathly stillness. He looked furious; Astrid had taught his youngest son, and avenged the death of his family, entering single-combat with a Monstrous Nightmare. He owed her his loyalty. If she were in a relationship with Snotlout, it' wasn't one of her choosing. "…What vows?"
"Umm…" Upon finding himself the centre of attention, Fishlegs shivered, his second chin rippling along with his gut. He looked from face to rugged, scarred face. "Umm… hehe… you don't… you don't know?"
"Speak, boy." Brenna ordered. The Barrason Matron had been listening in silence up until that moment.
"I'm a- I'm a man, thank you very much!" Fishlegs squeaked, sticking out his pudgy stomach. A few of the warriors began to laugh.
Yet Brenna looked furious. "That girl's been as a second daughter to me! If Snotlout's forced her into some unholy arrangement I want to know. Speak! Or I'll have Gothi curse you!"
Looking utterly cowed, Fishlegs shifted in his seat. "The last thing I want to do is get involved in Tribe politics," he meekly assured them, shivering at the very thought. "Actually could you all forget I brought it up? Please? I'll just go sit in the corner and write my poem-Owww!"
Grabbing Fishlegs by the ear and twisting hard, Bard Barrason son of Brenna and Bjorn, pulled him from his seat and planted him in the midst of the listening crowd. "Say your piece, Fishlegs!"
"Ow ow ow!" Fishlegs' fingers scrabbled against the wooden table as Bard held him down "Alright alright! Snotlout and Spitelout cornered Astrid after she made Chief. Forced a marriage on her. That's all I know I swear! I swear! I thought everyone knew..."
Bard watched him a moment, then grunted and tossed him away. He vanished into the dark. Everyone else turned back to the fire to mull over this new information.
"Forced marriage…" Brenna hissed, glowering into the fire.
"Snakes…" Bard agreed. Hundolfr grunted in agreement. A few warriors, Jorgenson allies, were suddenly scowling.
"Watch your tongues." Jerrick warned. "That's a future king you're talking about."
"No king of mine!" Bard shot back. "NO king of mine would force marriage on a woman who hated him. On a Warrior like Astrid? He's a fool! A snake and a fool and even Hel wouldn't take him in!"
Jerrick rose to his feet, standing nose to nose with Bard. "You'd speak like that? Here? In his Hall?"
"It's Stoick's Hall. And Astrid's." Bard snarled, hands curling into fists. "Berk belongs to the Haddock Clan. Through and through."
Jerrick shook his head. "It's already ours. You're the just the fool who can't see it-"
Bard landed a mighty hit on Jerrick's temple, knocking the older warrior onto his knees. "Call me a fool?" he spat.
"Easy, lad." Hundolfr warned, but Bard was too angry. He and Jerrick leapt at eachother, and the two of them began to grapple. Jerrick was older, and had more experience, but Bard was the larger, and more determined. They leaned against eachother, grunting and growling, pausing and breaking holds only to land a hit in one another, yet neither had much leverage.
The crowd watched in amusement for a few minutes as the two warriors slowly bludgeoned each other into submission, though some on both sides looked ready to join in.
"Oh, this is ridiculous." Brenna declared. "Bard, Stop this instant!"
Styr Sigurdson rose silently from his seat and made his way over, hands raised to signal the watching Vikings that he had no intention of fighting; the Hall was a powder keg, and he wanted his intentions understood. When he reached the duo, he simply pulled them apart, being larger and stronger than both. Bard had a bloody nose, and Jerrick's eye was swelling up. It nicely complimented the bleeding wound which Bard had opened up on the side of his opponent's head.
"That pig fucker is not my king!" Bard spat, his teeth red with blood. His fists were still raised, yet he couldn't reach Jerrick at all. He could barely reach Styr's shoulder. "He killed my Brother! I'd take him to Hel!"
"Tell that to him!" Jerrick challenged gleefully. "Tell it to his face! You're going to have to fight every Jorgenson, and every Karson, and every Finnason, and every Thorston! This entire island'll come down on you and your pisshead fishermen family!"
"Enough!" Styr bellowed, "Or I'll throw you both out." In the kitchen at the far end of the Hall, Styr's wife Iona smiled at him. Being head cook, she privately regarded the entire space as hers, and she hated it when Berkians fought each other there. Styr couldn't care less about their whole argument, but he loved his wife enough to step in. He planted Jerrick on one side of the crowd, next to a group of Jorgensons, and set Bard down on the other side, then took a seat directly in the middle, making a statement of his own.
"Do you think she's told her parents about the marriage?" Brenna Barrason asked, shooting her son an annoyed look.
Hundolfr chuckled. "I don't know. I wouldn't ask her about it. She'd probably skin any of us for probing. You know how she feels about Snotlout…"
Everyone nodded. The feud between Astrid Hofferson and Snotlout Jorgenson was a thing of gossipy legend. It had been going on for years, and getting more virulent as those years passed.
Brenna shook her head. "We've been thinking about this all wrong. This is Astrid Hofferson we're talking about. That girl is Viking to the bone! If she's around this Prometheus guy she's doing it to get away from the Jorgensons and their foul play. Not because she wants to betray Berk! You saw how Snotlout treated her when she asked him to teach."
Many heads nodded in agreement, many faces glared at her.
"And we all stood and watched and did nothing." Someone said. The voice sounded like it came from the back of the room, where Fishlegs had scuttled after Bard's rough treatment. Yet the poet was nose-deep in his writing. He was a coward, everyone knew. There was no way he'd come out and make a bold statement like that. It must have been someone else.
It didn't matter who said it in the end, many in the crowd found themselves agreeing.
"And if she's learning his strange ways, it's because she's trying to help," Hundolfr said, "I'll hate the beasts till I die, but that Prometheus has a way with them."
"Listen to yourselves!" Jerrick exclaimed. "She's learning to ride dragons. Who would really sacrifice their seat at Odin's table like that?"
"For Berk? Her and maybe Stoick. That's why she's Chief material. It's why he picked her." Sirnir said confidently. No one glared at him; he was too large for anyone to threaten.
"Do you actually forfeit your place at Valhalla if you ride a dragon?" There was that mysterious voice again. Confident and assertive. Everyone glanced backwards, but there was only Fishlegs, staring dreamily into space, chewing the end off of a twig. He started murmuring in a dainty whisper which nevertheless carried around the room: "An ode to the butterflies who swoop alone through empty fields; forever seeking, never finding; like them my love is lost…"
What an utter waste of space, they thought, leaving the strange little poet to his work. A waste. Harmless, though.
"That's a good question," Bard said, "Would Odin allow a dragon-riding Viking at his table?"
Protests broke out across the Hall "No!" "Of course not!" "How can you even think that?" "Are you drunk?"
"This entire conversation is ridiculous." Hundolfr said. "I like the lass, but Sirnir is right. She's not going to get anywhere trying to tame the demons. It'll lead you straight to Hel's gate."
"But what if you were like… in every other way a Viking? Sacrificed to the gods and all…" Bard argued. "Even the Gods compromise sometimes. Thor dressed as a woman once."
"Odin. Does. Not. Drink. With. Dragon-lovers." Jerrick shot back.
"I dunno if anyone's tested." Sirnir said fairly in his low, deep voice, "I mean… who rides dragons?"
"Prometheus does." There was that voice again. They all could have sworn it had come from Fishlegs' empty table. Well… empty except for Fishlegs, but he didn't count. As if he could feel their gaze, the Viking Poet glanced up nervously and tittered in his recognizable shrill tone. "Umm… hi again guys." He waved at them with his sausage fingers. "Do any of you by chance know how to spell Chrysanthemum?"
Silence fell. They group rolled their eyes collectively and turned back to the firepit. Pensive Viking faces glowing in the flickering light as they pondered the wishes and rules of their gods.
"Right," Bard said, suddenly rising to his feet. "I think it's time I had a talk with this Prometheus fella."
"It's your funeral." Jerrick warned him. "If the gods don't get you, the Jorgensons will!"
"Don't make idle threats, boy." Hundolfr warned.
Jerrick opened his mouth again, but then saw that several other Vikings, including Sirnir were following Bard out towards the door. He shut his mouth and glowered.
In the corner of the hall, still wounded, but very much awake and listening, lay Fridleif Finnason, Captain of Astrid's young Viking class. Only a few tables away from him was Tuffnut Thorston, exchanging a wicked grin with his sister.
Astrid had spent the night at her parents' home. She had avoided her family over the past few days, afraid to go near them for fear of carrying her unpopularity and her baggage into their home and their lives. Now that she was apparently back in the villages' good graces, she felt less apprehensive about stepping once again into Hofferson Hall.
Brunhilda had embraced her immediately, and sat her down by the fire, dishing out a platter of hot mutton, and happily sharing pieces of village gossip which Astrid had missed during her time as a social pariah. Her father Haldor, was considerably more reserved. Oh, he treated her with politeness, but he did not sit with them at the fire. Instead, he lingered in the corners of the Hall, sharpening weapons and checking tools, or simply whittling away on a piece of driftwood. He was carving a small token of Thor's Hammer.
Her cousins had drifted in and out, some sharing warm looks and conversations, other regarding her with terseness and silence. Not all of that had to do with recent events; for the sake of keeping her warrior's oath, Astrid had distanced herself from her family. She was used to it and it bothered her very little.
What bothered her more was her father's sullen silence. He lingered there, on the edges of the room all night long, and when she went to bed he did not wish her goodnight. She lasted until dawn before she could no longer stand the tension.
He was already seated at the firepit.
"What is it, dad?"
Haldor sighed. "Nothing, daughter. I'm hungry and I'm waiting for your mother to wake up."
"You were avoiding me all night long, dad. What's this about?"
Still he stayed silent, whittling away at his token.
"You're wondering why I brought him here?" Astrid asked. Her father's expression told her all she needed to know. She scowled and ran a frustrated hand through her own bangs.
"He rides them, Astrid."
"Does he?" Astrid asked acidly, "I hadn't noticed!"
"I could understand if he used their fire. If he made weapons of them. Like picking up an enemy's sword during battle, but he rides them. He befriends them. He might as well be one himself."
"I've half a mind to tell you to stop," he said bitterly, "but I know you'll do what you want anyway. You've always had your mind made up. Like you're mother in that respect."
"I'm glad you recognize that. It'll save us a lot of time." Astrid replied coldly. "I have reasons for what I do."
"What reason could possibly be good enough to justify losing any chance at entering Valhalla?"
Astrid sat back in her seat. Her father looked stricken. He said, "I watched you take an oath, Astrid. You pledged to die by the sword."
"I pledged to protect Berk."
"By bringing the Gods' wrath down upon us?" He asked.
"What more can they do to us, Father? They've already cursed us with the beasts in the first place. A death by slow decay is still a death. As things are now, Berk is dying. And we keep doing the same thing over and over and over again and expecting things it change, but you all think I'm mad?"
"I am frightened for you, and for the fulfillment of your oath."
"You tried to marry me off to the Barrasons back when I was fifteen." She reminded him, "Since when have you cared about my oath?"
"I was scared of… losing you."
Astrid scoffed. Every Viking felt fear. Those that didn't were idiots. Yet the knowledge that they'd die and ascend to Valhalla, the knowledge that there was honor in a battle well fought, kept the fear at bay. Fear was useful, but it was a thing to be beaten. To be tamed.
"Not battle fear…" Haldor explained quietly, "a father's fear. A parent's fear. You'd have been much safer locked in the Great Hall during the raids, nursing a young child… more than that, I feared growing old without seeing our line continue."
"My sisters and brothers have that covered." She pointed out. Seemed like every year there were more small children running around the Hofferson homestead.
Haldor smiled at her. "None are as strong as you, Astrid, but Wife and Mother weren't who you wanted to be. I've dealt with it. And now…" he sighed, "Astrid all I want is for the gods to look upon you and feel as much pride as I do. I am frightened that they look at you and the choices you make, and mistake your intentions."
The anger which had been slowly building up inside her melted away, and she felt a sudden burst of fondness for her father. She leaned over and gave him a tight hug. "They know me, dad. I just wish you could show a little more faith in me."
He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close, like he had when she was little. "I have faith in you, Astrid. It's everything and everyone else in the world that worries me."
After a short breakfast with her parents, Astrid gathered her things and set out for the great hall, unsure of what to do next, or how to proceed. She had Stoick's permission to openly train with Hiccup, but had sacrificed her relationship with Hiccup to attain it. Then there was the most difficult hurdle of all: the simple matter of convincing the rest of the village to follow along with Prometheus' insane plan. She would be lucky to find one villager willing to actually train with them.
"Astrid!" a voice called out and she turned to face the speaker. Bard Barrason was jogging up the trail behind her, followed by a half dozen others including the battle brothers Kolfinn and Kolbeinn Karson, grieving father Hundolfr Hrolfson, and Sirnir Saemingrson, an ox of a man, and one of Stoick's mightiest warriors. Twins Ruffnut and Tuffnut Thorston were at his flanks, each of them wearing a clownish grin. Ruffnut was holding her child close to her chest, gently bouncing him up and down. Tuffnut was subjecting a chicken to the same comforting motions.
Brenna Barrason stepped forward, and she came up beside her eldest son. "Astrid, we know. We know everything!"
Astrid felt as if she had been suddenly doused in glacier water. "You... you do?"
"Yeah!" Bard proclaimed proudly, "We got that weasel Fishlegs to squeal! He told it all."
Astrid's shock turned to red-hot rage, and her axe was suddenly in her hand.
Everything Hiccup had worked for, all the secrets she had kept. Everything was undone! Ohh, she was going to kill him. Before Stoick had a chance to flay the skin off of their backs she was going to rip Fishlegs gods-damned throat out. She was going to drag him up the mountainside and cut off his feet, just to watch him drag himself back down across a mile of sharp, jagged rocks!
"He told us all about your marriage to Snotlout, dear." Brenna said, her soft tone cutting through the haze.
"My… marriage…" Astrid stared in confusion. Then it dawned on her. "Right! The marriage…"
"My poor dear…" Brenna said sympathetically, wrapping her in a tight hug. Astrid stood there numbly, arms trapped limp at her sides as she tried to figure out just what in Hel's name was going on.
"We're all feeling pretty badly about it." Hundolfr Hrolfson said.
"I want to go knock some sense into Snotlout and his gang!" Bard declared. Sirnir cuffed him from behind. "Ow! What was that for?"
"Oh, just hoping it would knock some sense into you." The giant replied airily. He turned to Astrid. "We do feel for you. You've done a lot for this island, Astrid. Do you honestly think this 'Prometheus' can help us? Is his way the way forward?" the twins leaned in from either side.
Astrid watched their curious faces in astonishment. "Well… yeah. Obviously. You think I'd be talking to him otherwise?"
"If otherwise means marriage to Snotlout." Brenna replied.
Astrid laughed, and the warriors around her smiled with her. Taking a page but of her argument with Stoick, she said, "Here's the honest truth, guys: This man knows things about dragons. He know how they think. We have been at war with these creatures for centuries, but between what we saw at the nest, and the fact that he rides them, there's clearly more to them.
"So you're just using him…" Hundolfr Hrolfson said.
"I… using his knowledge, at least. Understanding the demons can get us farther." Astrid explained, regretting how much she sounded like Fishlegs. Gods… she hated these half-truths.
"Like how you led us to the nest." Bard added.
"Exactly! Exactly like that!"
"I see why Stoick chose you." Sirnir intoned, in his deep, gravelly voice. He crossed his arms and gave her a respectful nod.
"I want to meet him." Bard said, and the others nodded in agreement. "Just to talk, mind you. Just to talk."
"You… you do?" Astrid gaped.
"Yeah. Maybe we were thinking about this wrong. I mean… you're Astrid Hofferson," Tuffnut said.
"Haddock." Ruffnut added.
"Astrid Haddock," Tuffnut agreed, "And you're crazy."
"The good kind of crazy." Ruffnut supplied.
"The kind of crazy that can get us to the nest."
"The kind of crazy that could beat the Jotun living under the mountain."
Sirnir grabbed each twins' shoulders, which immediately shut them up. He leaned forward. "You get Results, Skoldmo."
"Aye, victory follows you." Said Kolbeinn. His brother Kolfinn nodded.
"Awk!" added Tuffnut's chicken.
"Survival, at least." Astrid supplied weakly, feeling heat creep up her cheeks.
"In this war, that's the same thing." Bard said.
She looked at them all. "You… you actually want to meet him?"
"And you, Ruff and Tuff?"
Tuffnut shrugged, "To be honest, I've been spending all this time trying to figure out why anyone wouldn't want to ride a dragon."
"Imagine the possibilities." Ruffnut said dreamily.
"Uh… we aren't here to ride." Kolfinn added, "Just to hear him out."
"Alright…" Astrid's heart swelled with relief. Finally they were getting somewhere. How in Hel's name had this happened? "You guys just… meet me in the training arena midday tomorrow, alright?"
"We'll be there." Bard told her confidently.
Behind them, at the edge of the crowd, Astrid saw another figure watching them. Hunched over with wizened hands, hawk-like brows, and an angry glare. She recalled an unpaid debt: The Gothi was growing impatient.
The Cove had changed quite a lot since Astrid's last visit. Hiccup had been very busy. A lean-to had been constructed against the overhanging wall, lined with pine branches to keep out the rain. The fireplace had been reconstructed, made far larger, with a set of branches set up as a spit, over which a small animal was roasting, filling the cove with a delicious smell. A pot hung down as well, the water within just beginning to bubble. Toothless was dozing nearby, curled up next to Stormfly, who was fast asleep.
"Hiccup?" She called out, a little more quietly than necessary. She felt somewhat ashamed after their last argument. "Hiccup?"
The lanky young man stepped out from under the makeshift hut, wiping his blackened hands on a cloth. His hair was frazzled, and his shirt was dark with sweat, and she caught herself –just for a moment- enjoying the way his skin shone in the afternoon sun. Then she remembered their argument, and those funny feelings in the pit of her stomach vanished.
"Astrid. Hey. Hi."
"Hey…" she shifted awkwardly. "So… um…"
"Um…" he agreed.
His face hardened a little. "You cleaned the blood off."
"It didn't suit me." Astrid took a deep breath. "Hiccup, ,it's what I know. It's what I understand. But it won't save us. I need your help."
He softened. "I'm sorry I got angry. I should have known things wouldn't be this easy."
"And I have some good news. I think-" She started.
"One thing first," he said quickly, "I really do want to say sorry. About yesterday."
"Now's not really the time." She said briskly, feeling a little heat creep up her cheeks as she stared into his sharp green eyes.
"Well I am. "You and Fishlegs both entered into this for reasons of your own. You've been living lives of your own all this time. I should've realized that meant we wouldn't always be on the same page. I shouldn't have gotten angry at you for protecting your students. And you're right: Dad -Stoick… he would have done it if you hadn't."
"It shocked me, but… I just wanted you to know that I'm still in. I'm not running. Not this time. I know you put a lot on the line, and I was thinking of a way to repay you. I've been doodling some designs-" he pointed backwards at the lean-to.
But his eyes had come alive with excitement. "Come on!" his hand darted out for a moment, as if to grasp hers, but then darted back equally as quickly, leaving them both feeling more awkward than ever. Even so he beckoned her to follow, which she did, stooping under the lean-to's low entrance.
Hiccup was growing more excited every minute, his hands waved back and forth, the movements speeding up with his speech. "I've been working with Charcoal mostly. It's a little old fashioned, I know. I would have used ink but paper is getting hard to come by and I didn't want to use them until I had something solid."
On the rock wall, drawn in charcoal were two large sketches of a deadly nadder. One from the side, one from the top. They both depicted a rather sleek-looking saddle design.
"I included a sheath to store your axe for long trips, and a place to fix your shield." Hiccup said, pointing to the corresponding parts in the diagrams. "I also included room behind your… um… behind… for a survival kit. Like a hatchet, a striker, a blanket, and maybe some firewood. You know. For long hunting trips or scouting missions or whatever it is you like do." His eyes shone.
"Wow… thanks…" Astrid stepped forward to look more closely at the diagrams. He had attached the saddle behind the wings, as she was sitting when they first flew together.
"You can shorten the stirrups a little and clip them up to lean forward. It gives you more leverage and maneuverability in the air. Especially on dives and tight turns."
"Is there a safety line?" She asked, remembering multiple times she had nearly slipped off of Stormfly's back.
Hiccup shot her a look of faux annoyance. "Of course."
"So… yeah…" he shrugged awkwardly. "That's what I've been doing on my spare time. If you like it I could take some measurements, and-"
"That would be great, actually." Astrid told him honestly. "I was planning on making some kind of saddle for her sometime."
"Yeah?" he grinned. "What was your design? Maybe I could incorporate it!"
"I was actually just going to take a horse saddle or a blanket or something and um… tie it on."
"Oh." His face fell a little, and more than ever before she saw that awkwardly little fishbone, determined to please everybody, tripping himself up again. She looked away, feeling a little embarrassed at the effort he had put in on her behalf.
Hiccup cleared his throat and shook his head. "Well… sometimes less is more. I could do away with the sheaths. You could store the weapons on your back. And I'm sure that you're resourceful enough to survive without a kit-"
"Hiccup, Hiccup stop. This is great. Really. Its- its great. This would be perfect. Thanks." He beamed. "I'll get started on proper blueprints right away. I will need to take some measurements of Stormfly, of course."
"It can wait." Astrid said firmly.
"Okay." He frowned. "What is it?"
"Some of the villagers want to meet Prometheus."
He lit up even faster than before. "I'll get a lesson prepared right away!"
"There's something else you have to do first." Astrid said heavily.
He turned towards her, brow furrowed in concern.
"We have a debt to pay, Hiccup. You have to visit the Gothi."
Astrid had planted herself against the wall of Gothi's hut. She took a deep, careful breath, trying to keep her anxiety to a minimum. The morning was bright and sunny, yet she couldn't help but feel a sense of deep foreboding. Gothi had saved Hiccup's life in return for this favor. She had talked Stoick out of killing him.
Astrid's real fear was that the Sage, the Seer, would disagree with the wisdom of their new course. That the Gods would side with Stoick and the Old Ways. Astrid would find herself torn once again, between what she believed was best for her village, and her duty to the Gods. What would become of Hiccup? He would have to go once again into exile. And she would be stuck picking up Berk's charred, war-torn pieces. Perhaps he would take Stormfly with him. That would be a small mercy at least. Then Astrid would be free to maneuver around Snotlout and try to take power back from the Jorgensons, but she didn't want that. To be more accurate, she wanted more than that.
All through the years her imagination, in its most daring moments, had seen a version of Berk free of dragons. Without fear of raids. An end to the death and pain, and it was a good future! But it still ended with either one or the other. Humans or dragons, one of them had to die. Astrid had believed that her entire life. Just over a month before, she had taken Stoick and Berk's strongest fighters on a warrior's raid, not a peaceful negotiation. She had set foot on Dragon Island with every intention of swinging her axe until the beasts were all dead, or she was.
Never in her wildest imaginings had she glimpsed the future Hiccup saw: one where Vikings and Dragons went hand in hand, working for each-other to everyone's benefit. And what a powerful union it would be, promising safety, prosperity and adventure beyond anything their forefathers could ever have predicted.
Even after Stormfly's presence in her life, like the rest of Berk, Astrid had been blind to the truth, tied to the lesser of two terrible options when the true solution was to not play the game at all, but rather rewrite the rules.
She couldn't lose that. She needed Hiccup and his vision. Berk needed him. But what of the gods? Odin and Loki respected Warriors more than peacemakers, and the Gothi spoke for them. What would she do if the Gothi chose to side against him. But how could she? Surely the Gods were on Hiccup's side. Surely they had brought him back.
A black speck was approaching rapidly, dropping out of the deep blue sky. All at once, Hiccup had arrived. Toothless spread his wings with a barely audible whumph, slowing to a near halt before coming to rest on Gothi's rickety balcony. Hiccup was perched atop the dragon, dressed in his full riding gear. With the layers of form-hugging armour and leather straps, he cut a far more imposing figure than the angry young man who she had argued with in the cove that very morning.
He had removed his helmet and instead added his deep brown hood, with a black mask covering the lower half of his face, stretching from the bridge of his nose down and tucked into his leather armour, leaving only his sharp green eyes visible. It was useful of course, for hiding his identity as he intended. Yet it gave him an air of menace which only made Astrid more anxious. He looked foreign, and she had to remind herself that underneath all that riding gear was a dark red mane, and a goofy grin. Yet right now, he was Prometheus, his alter-ego.
"Are you ready?" she asked.
"Did you pray to Odin?"
"No, I sat and read."
"You sacrificed for Thor?"
"I actually ahh… I took a nap."
"Hiccup, you be respectful in there," Astrid warned quietly, "the first thing every Viking is taught is not to disrespect our priests."
"That's funny," Hiccup replied, dismounting his dragon and sliding onto the deck, "because the first thing every good ruler should know how to do is control them. And why are you talking to me like I'm not a Viking?"
"It's like you said the other day," Astrid explained, taken aback; that response had sounded so unlike him…
After a moment's careful thought she said, "you're something else… Prometheus."
She held the door open and he stepped inside.
Gothi's hut was in its usual state: messy to everyone but its owner, who knew exactly what and where everything was. Gourds hung from the ceiling, clinking together quietly. Her multiple tables were covered with cutting boards, grinding stones, and mortar and pestle sets. Ingredients of all sorts, ranging from local plant life samples to fish offal and beyond, were stowed in jars on shelves all around them. At the center of the room was the sandpit where she wrote her runes. Beyond that, an altar to Odin. This was the centre of Gothi's power. It was where she crafted her special healing salves and balms, where she brewed her herb teas to cure illness of all kinds, not to mention assisting the occasional unwed mother.
The Gothi herself was seated on a rough wooden stool next to her sand pit, waiting for Astrid and her guest. As Prometheus entered, she rose to her feet and shook her staff, giving the stranger a quick initial examination.
Astrid spoke first, stepping in front of the silent rider. "Wise Gothi, as per our arrangement, I have brought Prometheus to you."
Gothi tapped her staff on the floor and waved Astrid aside. The older woman stepped forward, staring up into Hiccup's cowl, trying to read his eyes, though standing to the side as she was, Astrid couldn't see them herself. He was just a tall, gaunt, immobile shadow cast against the flickering candlelight.
The Seer's gaze traveled downwards, taking in the rider's leather gear, with its plentiful straps and strange mechanisms.
Satisfied that she had gleaned all she needed from his outfit, she stepped back and began to scribble in the sand.
"Kneel!" Astrid hissed, trying to be as respectful as possible.
The rider sank to one knee, bringing him level with the Gothi. "I am Prometheus."
Why are you here?
"To help Berk."
You ride a Night Fury. How?
"I tamed it." Hiccup told her.
Where do you hail from?
"I am a traveler, Gothi. I have many homes and none at all."
As he spoke, Astrid studied him. Perhaps Hiccup had not prayed, nor sacrificed, yet he had not been idle. He had taken clear lessons from his disastrous introduction to the village, not to mention the arena incident. Now he had taken a different tone. Stronger, self-assured. Something far closer to the dragon master he was supposed to have been in the arena. This was a far different side of his personality which Astrid was witnessing.
What do you want?
Are you Viking?
He was playing a very shrewd game, using short answers, and taking shelter in vagaries.
It was clearly frustrating the Gothi, who was trying longer and more insistent questions. Most of them pertained to his past, and his intentions towards Berk.
As the old Sage grew more and more annoyed, Astrid felt her anxieties bubbling once again, and she wondered what Hiccup's game was. He had stepped into the shack with an agenda, but there had to be more to it than to aggravate and alienate the most powerful ally they could gain in their fight.
Finally the Gothi stamped her staff and let out a huff in frustration. She stretched her staff out and drew the triple triangle. The Valknut, that all-powerful rune. That beacon which beckoned the Gods themselves. Hiccup showed no reaction at all, remaining stoic and motionless. Astrid felt that same cold cosmic fear flood her senses as the gates of Valhalla swung open. How could Hiccup dodge this? The Gothi had asked several times already who he was, and where he came from. He had dodged then, but how could he lie to the Gods now?
The Gothi scratched several other runs into the sand. Astrid read them, and her heart turned to ice. "She says you need to take off your mask."
Prometheus spared her a glance, and within the darkness, Astrid saw the heir's sharp eyes twinkling with that worrying intensity. Gothi was standing upright, her posture regal and expectant. She had Odin's authority.
"Take off your mask." Astrid urged. To her utter horror, and astonishment, Hiccup shook his head.
"No. I don't think I will."
Gothi's jaw dropped. Her eyes widened in shock and her staff, which before had been planted in the sandpit straight, strong and true as a mighty oak, seemed to sag in her loose grip.
"Hi-Prometheus- what are you doing?" Astrid screeched, stepping back as if scorched. She turned to Gothi. "Oh, Wise One I am so, so sorry about this. I've brought a rude guest into your home. I did not realize that he didn't respect our sacred traditions."
"Oh, I respect them." Hiccup corrected modestly, making her blood boil over in panic. She glared at him with seething fury. He turned back to Gothi and continued, "but with all due respect to you, Gothi, I'm not sure you do…"
The Gothi raised a doubting brow.
"Your Valknut binds me to nothing because what you ask is not what the gods demand."
Astrid gaped at him a moment longer, and then turned away, praying for forgiveness in whispered pleas to the Aesir. She noted the dangerous way the Gothi's eyes narrowed, and she nearly burst with anxiety when the lanky rider said, "You drew this symbol for your own curiosity. That's it."
The Gothi scowled at him. Yet there was also a grudging respect in her gaze.
"I can do magic too, Gothi. Shall I show you?" Hiccup offered. He lowered himself into a crouch before her, elbows on his knees and fingers laced together. Then he reached out into Gothi's sandpit and traced out a set of runes, writing them upside down and backwards so that the priest could read them. They said: Odin knows all. Odin sees all.
As he wrote, he spoke: "The Allfather knows who I am already, Gothi. As do all his kith and kin." He traced out three triangles in the sand. A valknut of his own, right beside the Gothi's. "They're watching us right now. You're Berk's Seer. You talk to the Gods. And if you talk to the gods, then you already know who I am. You wouldn't have to ask. But you're asking, therefore the gods haven't told you anything. They don't want you to know. So this rune you drew? This means nothing at all." He reached out and wiped her Valknut away, leaving only his behind, a spotlight shining from Valhalla itself into the Gothi's hut.
Astrid and Gothi were stock still, both unable to draw a breath for fear of the gods' swift and merciless reprisal; he had destroyed one of their sacred symbols. Prometheus glanced idly at the Gothi's roof, the way one would when pondering the weather.
Gothi's staff landed on the floorboards with a clunk. The old woman took a step back, and then another, staring at Prometheus in a state of stupefaction.
"The truth, Gothi, the gods' own truth-" Prometheus tapped his sacred rune. "-is that it doesn't matter what I look like underneath this mask. It doesn't matter who I am, or where I came from, and I'll be judged by none of that. What matters is what I have to offer Berk."
Priest and Dragon Rider, each took the other's measure.
"I know you, Gothi. You've spent your life treating burns. Healing severed limbs, and offering the hopeless a quick route to Valhalla. Your entire life- just like everyone else's on this island- has been spent in constant state of grief and anger and panic and fear. Above all else, fear. You want to know what I'm worth? What I plan to do? What I'll change? All I can say that if you don't support me, then when you leave Midgard, you'll die knowing that this island will go on exactly as it was when you lived. Only you can decide whether that's a good thing or not. But they've told you nothing about me for a reason. This conundrum… the gods want you to solve it on your own. Without their help."
He rose to his feet, pausing a moment as he towered over the old Viking Seer. Then he turned on his heel and walked out, closing the door quietly behind him.
Astrid breathed out, feeling her heart pounding against her ribs, and limbs tensed and stiff as if she had fought a long hard night's combat. Seconds ticked by before she dared look to Gothi. The older woman was staring at the closed door, a stricken look upon her face. She stumbled backwards blindly and collapsed onto a roughly-hewn wooden stool. Where before Astrid had seen a conduit to Valhalla, the Gods' will on Midgard, she now saw a simple old woman, casting a helpless gaze upon her sandy floor.
The entire shack shuddered. Dust and sand billowed around them, sudden, whooshing wind gusting through cracks in the old rotting walls as the rider mounted his dragon and took off. All at once it settled, and in the distance, muffled as the sound breached the walls of the Gothi's hut, they both heard the triumphant roar of the Night Fury.
The wizened woman tottered on her stool, caught in a lost daze. She slowly looked to Astrid, mouthing silent implorations with a pleading look in her eyes. But Astrid had no answers, no comfort to give. Hiccup – Awkward, excitable fishbone Hiccup- had somehow stolen the Gothi's gods-given powers. The Sight, which had run through the Gothi's family for generations, had vanished, leaving a quaking, wizened, aged healer in its wake. Nothing supernatural. Nothing all-powerful. Nothing Astrid couldn't have been, if she decided to apply herself.
How was Hiccup still breathing? How did the gods not reach into his chest and crush his heart? How did Thor not strike him from the sky? Unless…
Unless they had known all along. Unless they supported his actions in usurping her powers, and her place in society.
But was it truly a spiritual coup if the gods supported him all along?
Suddenly the Gothi looked very cold and alone in the world. Astrid felt a great burst of pity for the poor woman, followed by an even larger wave of guilt. She slowly clasped her hands in front of her. "I am so, soooo sorry."
Gothi swallowed, and stared down at the rider's Valknut, which seemed a permanent scar on the floor of her home as neither of them dared to touch it. To Astrid's awe and wonder, Gothi spoke. Her voice was raspy and thin; ill-used, and out of practice. She said, "It is my fault. I asked you to introduce us."
"You… you spoke…" Astrid breathed.
The Gothi nodded.
"I know this looks bad, but he's here to save us!" Astrid blurted out. "He can solve the dragon problem."
"Take care with Wanderers, Young one." The Gothi rasped, staring at visitor's Valknut. "Sometimes they are Odin, bringing good fortune and prosperity. Sometimes they are Loki, bringing deceit and decay. It can be very difficult for us mere mortals to tell one from the other."