The epilogue to this story is now posted! It's a separate story titled Leið: Epilogue
"I do not!" Astrid snapped, adjusting the waist of her trousers.
She did. She knew she did. Her brother often told her. So had Ruffnut the one time she found Astrid napping under the shaded awning of a side-shed.
Hiccup sat against the half-turned belly of a slumbering dragon, brushing his fingers through the tangle of his hair, which wasn't much shorter than Astrid's.
"Fine," he said, disbelieving.
He looked better than he did the night before, though not by much. He maintained a sickly pallor, with lips whitening even when they weren't pursed in discomfort. He moved very little, as though his body were burdened and locked with an exhaustion a full night's sleep couldn't shake.
Rather than say anything, Astrid sniffed and moved around on her own aching legs. She'd awoken stiff and pressed against Hiccup, with her knees locked up and her neck bent at a weird angle, and Hiccup's bony limbs digging into her thigh and side. The body heat had balanced out the discomfort, in the end, and they hadn't frozen through the night.
The chill, however, remained—sewn into the surface of her skin, leadening her joints, leaving her sluggish. She needed a shock of energy. She needed to moisten her dry throat and quiet the spasming complaint beneath her ribs. If they were to pull it off one more time—another flight through the night—and be ready by sundown, they needed to rejuvenate.
The rising sun hung over the edge of the forest, its warmth dulled by clouds but still bright enough to cast the mountains behind her in hues of bright green. Still bright enough for Astrid to shield her eyes as she faced the sea and tried not to think about their upcoming tour across it.
She knew water wasn't far, only thirty feet below after a stiff drop from the cliff, salted and green. She knew most of the available food was down there as well—Bashem's infamous Oyster Beds, for one. She knew they didn't have the strength or resources to make the descent to those beds, nor the trek back through the mountains, down to the northern beach and around to the Beds as most Vikings reached them.
She knew if she stepped to the edge of that drop, out from the safety of the woodlands, she'd likely see several Vikings collecting on those Beds. And ships not far into the sea. She couldn't imagine the Beds were ever truly empty of human life save for the night.
Which they could always wait for…
Her stomach protested at the thought. Astrid pressed the heel of her palm against the grumbling organ and felt the vibrations.
The forest was more tree than anything else, with few bushes or vines to pluck berries from. Small game was their best shot at a meal, and it might have to be a half-crunched squirrel caught by Toothless...
Astrid glanced at the dragon, who snoozed away on his side, stretched out with his chin flat against the forest floor and his tail reaching opposite. He didn't seem aware, or to mind, that he had Hiccup loosely tucked against his chest, a paw unwittingly curled over the boy's lap, as though Hiccup were a human slumber-doll.
In spite of everything, Astrid smiled.
Toothless deserved the rest. He might help them find food later, but until then Astrid supposed she could set up a couple traps and hope for the best. Or she could venture towards the mountain paths and see if there were any berries.
Traps and berries.
"Okay," she huffed, not liking the ghost of breath she could see in the morning air. "I'll go try to find something."
She didn't need to say, "stay with Toothless". Hiccup seemed past the act of pushing his body.
"Got the knife with you?" he asked.
"Yeah—," she lifted her tunic and pulled it from the waist of her trousers, "here—"
Hiccup waved it away. "No, no, you take it." He jerked a thumb over his right shoulder, "I got this guy."
It made sense, of course, but Astrid still hesitated in leaving Hiccup alone with a sleeping dragon and hollow pile of ash that still smoked.
He read her hesitance appropriately and some of that old, nasally deadpan returned. "No one is coming here. There's nothing but wood between the cliff and the mountains. We're fine."
'We're fine' is a phrase that should never be spoken aloud amidst an arduous journey. Still, Astrid pushed aside her unease and withdrew the offer.
She could use the knife to dig some holes, set some ground traps. Or throw, should she spot something. The weight was well off anything she used to train with, but her aim wasn't half bad...
Her feet slowed before her task began. A long, low growl strung together, quieting any movement of wildlife. Her empty stomach seemed to ball up higher, the unease she swallowed back breaking forth in a flood, and Astrid whipped her attention back to Toothless. The dragon had awoken. His head was high, eyes wide and pupils slit, his earfins flat against his head.
Hiccup remained at his side but upright and sitting forward, just as alarmed as Astrid.
"Toothless," he stammered, "—what—?"
For one wild moment Astrid thought Toothless growled at her. For daring to leave them undefended.
Then Toothless got to his feet, pushing Hiccup off with uncharacteristic discare, and whatever expletive Hiccup might have uttered died in his throat as he caught sight of something over Astrid's shoulder. Something Toothless prowled towards, his ceaseless growl growing longer, louder.
Astrid's tightened stomach plummeted before she finished whirling on the spot. She stumbled back, eyes jumping from tree to tree before she spotted it:
Yards back, between the dull viridian of tall evergreens, flicked a tail. Thin and finned. Orange.
It emerged from its place of lurking, side-stepping on bipedal legs, its shorter forearms curling. It had a long neck, and its hide—not orange, as she first thought, but red, and mottled with grey—stretched into thin webbing around the horns around its crown.
A fence of uneven, yellowed teeth protruded from a heavy underbite. It hissed, the fan around its head rattling.
Toothless passed by her side, his growl never ending, and Astrid felt her heart calm some, even as the hair on her arms rose with the charge of impending conflict. She wondered if they could afford something like this—the sort of calamity that would wash over the well-fished Oyster Beds should the dragons fight. It could draw unwanted attention, even if they won.
They would win. Toothless was a Night Fury. He didn't need flight to take on this…this...
Astrid squinted. She wanted to say Threadtail but she knew that wasn't right. It was a dragon less common to Hooligans but one that she was sure she had studied years past. Perhaps in the Book of Dragons or scribbled about in a traded scroll...
She could tell by her proximate observation that it wasn't the toughest dragon, reaching maybe nine feet on its hind legs, but slender. Something told her it had a hot flame, like a Nadder or a Nightmare's, and Astrid's knees loosened, ready to dive.
Hurried, uneven steps kicked up leaves. The soft grunts of breathing through pain.
Astrid had the words "Hiccup, stay" out of her mouth without ever risking taking her eyes from the dragon.
He ignored her, of-Frigga-course, stumbling into her vision to throw his hands against Toothless's back, and working his way forward with Toothless as a crutch until he stood at his head.
"Toothless, stop," Hiccup commanded, panting from his scramble. "Stop!"
He held a hand on Toothless's nose and the other, almost with threat, under the Night Fury's chin, as though to hold his jaws shut, and forced Toothless to look at him.
That low, perpetual growl tapered.
The new dragon, however, would not be so easily quieted.
"Hiccup get back here," Astrid said, taking slow steps forward herself. She'd rather Toothless be in the front. She'd rather Toothless scare the dragon off back to where it came from.
Unless they were in its territory, which might pose a problem.
Or maybe it was hungry.
They were hungry! Maybe they could…
Hiccup held his hand out to Astrid next. He took his eyes from the dragon—like an idiot—and looked at her.
"Astrid, lower the knife."
She hadn't been aware that she had it lifted, angled, gripped and ready.
The dragon's tail whipped side to side. It stepped closer, jaws opening.
"No." Would it fire? She didn't know the signs for this breed.
"Hiccup, you need to get out of here."
She didn't know if she'd be able to pull him out of the way in time if it fired.
"You need to stop being aggressive and trust me."
Gods, he was infuriating.
"I'm not being aggressive," she gestured violently at the dragon with the knife and it stopped moving forward to hiss again. Once more, its headfan appeared to rattle with the action. "That is! If you'd turn around then you'd see—!"
"Then I'm not going back."
Incredibly, Astrid took her eyes from the wild dragon.
He was bluffing. She wanted to feel enraged that he would pull this shit now, but something far too cold stopped the bloom of angry heat. Hiccup's jaw clenched and Astrid didn't know if it was out of resentment or pain. He breathed through his teeth in audible, slow draws, and he took another step closer to the dragon. Away from the safety of Toothless and what little protection she could provide, with his back still to the hostile dragon.
"I'm not going back to—to," he waved wildly at her, "this!"
"To me?" Astrid gaped.
This wasn't the time. This wasn't the time for this.
"No!" he shouted, somehow mustering a volume that contradicted his appearance. Birds took flight overhead. "No!" he repeated in a hiss that might have matched the dragon behind him. "To this! To the-the attacking a-and-and not even trying! You're not even giving her a chance!"
The dragon hissed again. It's large underjaw snapped shut with an audible click.
"You're just aggravating her!" Hiccup went on, explosively.
The fan around the dragon's head flared with its next hiss.
"No one wants this! Not dragons or humans—no one wants to be distrusted at first! Or-or treated aggressively! You think you might have learned that by now—"
"Him," Astrid blurted. An utterance that came unconsciously. The fans retracted. The dragon stood in the shade of a tree so that its once angry-red coat appeared a softer purple. Astrid found that the knife had lowered almost in conjunction with her spoken word.
Hiccup had fully turned his back to the dragon, so he would never know the bizarreness of watching his posture relax exactly in sync with the dragon's.
"Look," he said, and to Astrid's immeasurable relief came closer to her, "I can't promise you it will always work out, but I do believe it's always worth it."
"This is how people get hurt, Hiccup—"
"People have never really tried."
"I'm sure they—"
"This," Hiccup motioned between himself and Toothless so violently he nearly smacked the dragon on the nose, "didn't happen by accident!"
The imposing dragon hadn't moved from the shade of the tree, still a good several faðmr away, and Astrid risked a glance at Toothless. He remained steadfast on watching the other dragon and doing nothing else, like he believed the situation could be handled by Hiccup.
Their communication had always awed Astrid, but its origin was a mystery in and of itself.
"Do you trust me," Hiccup began slowly at her silence, "when I say that its more likely we can reason with this dragon than afford a fight with it?"
"Fine. Yeah." Her answer pulled from her mouth without much deliberation.
"Then give me the knife," Hiccup said, reaching towards her as though she were the feral dragon, "and go make a new friend."
Astrid snatched her arm back. "I'm not getting near it!"
Not without a weapon of some sort. Any number of things could go wrong, and she'd done so much, made it so far…
"You have to," he said. "For me." And once again his voice didn't match his body—it maintained a calm assurance. A grave, strong reality.
It felt like hands on her back, pushing her towards a precipice. "What if I'm not ready? Why don't you do it?"
If it were so simple, Hiccup could just take care of the dragon now—send it on its way and ease her into this not-immediately-necessary-survival-skill when they were safe at home.
Hiccup shook his head. "Anyone can approach a dragon, Astrid. I'm not special." She could argue over that with him later. "But if you want me to return home—to expose Toothless to Berk—then you need to help me with his. I won't go back to how things used to be."
He had been going to leave. She remembered that day in the cove. The day that started it all.
Hiccup dipped his neck and looked at her with sunken eyes. "If you can't, then I can't."
Astrid allowed her arm to fall. She spent a moment where her cheek jumped and her teeth ached and annoyance rolled through her, mostly because she couldn't fully fault him.
She relinquished the knife.
"Thank you," he said, gently taking the knife from her grip with cold fingers. Astrid wanted to snatch it back as soon as it left her palm. She clenched her hand instead.
"What... what do I do?"
"Approach," Hiccup answered. "Try not to make eye contact. Move slowly."
Astrid stared at the dragon, who remained under the tree, watching her with equal wary.
"You'll save me, right?" she whispered down at Toothless.
"You won't need saving," Hiccup assured her, but Astrid took more comfort from the quiet rumble Toothless answered with.
"Here we go," Astrid whispered to herself, the gods, and maybe even the dragon, with its swishing tail and protruding teeth. She resumed the walk she'd started forever ago, her hunger forgotten.
Hiccup's voice followed her.
"Always let them fill the space. Or… let them decide when to come to you."
Astrid might have nodded. She couldn't feel her head. She hoped no Bashem Vikings decided to go on a hike that morning, because her peripheral had darkened and all her attention was tunneled on the shifting reptile.
Step after step took her closer. She could see the details of its horns, the cock of its head, the spines down its tail. Thin forearms and small wings. It wouldn't be a fast flier.
Most of its strength must have come from its jaws. Jaws that remained, blissfully, closed.
It reared up as she approached, taller than Stoick the Vast, like a silent imposition of their size difference, and stared down at her.
"So… am I close enough?" she uttered weakly, afraid to spark it into any act of aggression. "Far enough?"
Toothless would shoot it in the face if it tried anything … she was okay …
"You could get closer…" came the suggestion.
Astrid wanted to do anything else, but she took a couple more steps.
"Not so fast!" Hiccup hissed.
"There's a pace to this?" Astrid hissed back.
"What? No. You just… you just feel it!"
"Feel it?" She was going to hit him again. She was going to walk away from that dragon and just shove Hiccup on the ground. He put her in danger—pushed her towards an unknown, angry dragon that was probably just hungry and wanted to eat them.
"You can feel it, can't you?"
Astrid let out a bizarre, nervous laugh. "Feel what? Annoyed?"
She felt anything but calm.
"Hiccup, this is stupid—"
"He felt calm because you felt calm. They… they can sense our emotions, I think. When you attack them, they want to attack. But if you're kind…"
Astrid rolled her eyes. He sounded like a Peaceable.
But the tension of earlier had abated. She found the dragon mirroring her every emotion—from its hesitant, forward steps to the cagey, dilated, darting eyes. She imagined it sustained the same high tension in its throat and the cooling tingle of excitement on its skin.
"I'm not the one unarmed here…" she said, feebly.
"Go on, Toothless is right here. He won't let anything happen to you."
For some reason—even though she was in reach of an unfamiliar dragon, lost from home, and hungry—Astrid couldn't help but think, again, of how Hiccup ever came to find this out in the first place.
Hiccup, who didn't have the promise of protection behind him.
The sort of faith he must have had. The sort of reckless courage and hope.
The thudding in her throat slowed. The shaking in her arm no long took her attention. She's could breath easier.
"Just, turn your head away—eye contact is aggress—"
"Quiet, Hiccup," she snapped.
She would do this her way.
She never turned her head. Wouldn't. She merely lowered her eyes. Her arm extended in a loose fist.
Something skittered across a high bow, scratching at the bark. Passing clouds shifted light patterns across her feet and leaves.
Hot air brushed her knuckles. She fought to keep her arm from moving, clenched down her impulse to run, as it huffed at her offering.
Toothless roared, quick and speaking, and then a different, higher roar followed right at her face—moist, reeking breath dislodging the hair she had tucked behind her ear and wiped away the cold nip that had since settled into her skin.
Astrid quenched the shudder the threatened to overtake her posture, the overwhelming desire to lift her eyes.
Then warm scales touched her skin.
With her eyes still closed, Astrid's fingers shifted, reaching for the nose that had connected them with a gentle scrape, feeling the rise of a small horn, the slick scales.
A short croon responded. Encouraged, Astrid lifted her eyes.
She didn't see orange, or red, but a rich purple head, freckled in large, blue spots, the skin of its crown frill spread thin enough to appear almost yellow. Its eyes were bulbous, the color of pale yolk, and far set. It resembled more an animal of prey than a predator, though Astrid knew better.
The dragon blinked as she lowered her hand, its pupils constricting. It looked her up and down before it stepped back.
Astrid felt something warm fill her. A sort of warmth she would have killed for the night before. Warm like the sun.
It took another step back. And another. Then, tail swishing—a calmer, slower movement than earlier, a flick at the end—it turned and jaunted back towards the mountains.
Astrid felt her breath leave her. She didn't move, fingers tingling with the memory of a new touch. She didn't move until the dragon had fully vanished from sight, folded wings of mottled yellow blending as well as it could with the leaves under an overcast sky.
She gasped. Chilled air swelled in her lungs, sparking a laugh.
"You did it!" Hiccup cried behind her.
Astrid turned, laughing louder, feeling lighter, running back to the boys. "I did!"
She jumped forward and hugged Hiccup, lifting him without any real effort.
"Hey!" he protested.
"Sorry!" She couldn't stop grinning as she released him. Hiccup stumbled back into the flat of Toothless's awaiting head. "Sorry," Astrid said again, fanning her face. The warmth remained—though not from overstimulation. The cold air couldn't compare to the content from within. A sense of accomplishment—a sensation she had chased again and again in the past weeks—returned in satisfaction. She did it.
Hiccup beamed at her as he steadied himself. "Think you can do that again?"
"Is there another dragon?" she asked, turning.
"No, I mean, at home. Berk."
"Oh. Yeah," she placed her hands on her hips, nodding, "yeah I think I can."
If that's all there was to it… sure. Yeah. She could. She absolutely could. Hel, she'd become the best.
"Because half the battle will be talking people down before things escalate," Hiccup cautioned. "And you're... you're a lot more reasonable than most Vikings."
"You think?" she asked, pleased.
Hiccup only met her smile halfway.
Astrid tucked her hair back behind her ears against a particularly strong breeze that rifled through the trees. The sound of the sea scraping over Oyster Beds rolled with it. A faint smell of fish and salt piqued her senses: a jerk of her stomach—hunger—and a vivid, startling recollection of the Reefer docks.
Pruned fingers. Fish oils. Cold, wet toes. Fisk.
"Well," she coughed, throwing the taste from her tongue, "okay. You sit down and I'll go see what I can find."
"I'm gong to stand a bit," Hiccup responded. He had a hand braced against a tree and all his weight on his good leg. "I can't sit all the time, Astrid," he said as soon as she opened her mouth. "I'm going crazy."
"Okay, okay," she conceded. "I get it. Just don't over excite yourself."
Hiccup rolled his eyes. "I won't."
"And keep by Toothless."
The high from calming a dragon rebounded stronger than ever and Astrid couldn't shuck her grin. She'd be seeing her mother within a day if nothing else went wrong.
"Oh, he's not that bad of company," she teased.
Hiccup looked like he wanted to make a rude gesture but Toothless began butting him away from his crutch. Hiccup latched onto Toothless's neck, stumbling backwards in an effort to keep from getting mowed down by the dragon.
"Toothless! What're you—h-hey, calm down!"
It took Astrid a moment to register Toothless' agitation and she stood frozen, watching Hiccup battle.
"I—something's wrong," she muttered. Again.
It was like the gods were monitoring her thoughts. She had to take a leaf out of Hiccup's book and keep from being positive until nothing left could possibly go wrong.
"Another dragon, bud?" Hiccup asked. Toothless made a noise of distress, snorting, paws pricking at the ground and throwing up leaves. He kept looking back at the mountains.
"Oi!" The sound of another human—deep and male—shot a knot into Astrid's throat so quickly she couldn't breathe for a moment. "I know you're out there!"
Hiccup swore, pushing at Toothless's head.
"Hide!" Astrid hissed at the Night Fury. "Just hide!"
"Toothless go," Hiccup followed. "We're fine, you aren't. Just go, bud, it'll be fine. You need to hide."
The disembodied voice shouted again and the wisps of that high Astrid had been riding—the thought of home and peace—dropped faster than anything she could have been prepared for. She scrambled on weakened legs to the closest, thickest tree, unwilling to risk being seen if she hadn't already been. She caught Hiccup's eye, who had done the same several trunks away. He crouched at its roots, fingers gripping the bark for steadiness. She remained on her feet, prepared to weave around the base if she had to.
Toothless was nowhere to be seen.
" I heard you! I know I heard you! "
Blood pounded in her ears. Astrid inhaled through her nose and exhaled through a parted mouth, deep and gentle, keeping her breath as steady and silent as she could to calm her heart.
The voice was still far. The man had only heard them. Just heard them. Not seen.
Astrid didn't dare risk a peek. If she strained her ears she could hear the movement of a body, as heavy and angry as its voice. She could hear the careless crunching of boots kicking up leaves. They stepped closer.
Her hand went to her hip and she patted the flat area.
Hiccup had the knife.
She caught his eye again. He still huddled at the base of the tree, shoulder dug into its side, both hands wrapped around the hilt of their one, meager weapon.
He nodded at her, knowing what she knew: that weapon would be more effective in her hands.
He made a slight gesture of tossing it to her and mouthed, 'Want me to throw it?'
Astrid sharply shook her head.
'Don't risk it!' she mouthed back with voiceless exaggeration.
Hiccup frowned at her and leaned forward. He, at least, seemed willing to risk getting spotted, with recklessness borne from a lifetime of survival by the gods' grace.
She couldn't stop him. She had to watch, with some internal thudding dulling her senses, as he peered around the tree. A wince took her as leaves rustled under his twisting boot, as his head moved into a patch of sun so that red flashed across his hair. His face was unreadable, and it wasn't until he settled back that Astrid felt the knot in her chest ease.
He shrugged. 'I don't see anyone.'
Then he made the tossing gesture again.
Astrid shook her head more violently. Hiccup pursed his lips and gave her a wide-eyed, intense stare. His weight shifted to the ball of his foot. He was going to try it anyway.
Astrid held up a finger before he could do anything and glanced to the side.
The noise had stopped. All of it. The stomping approach. The cracking twigs. The shouting.
They waited, keeping each other's gaze.
" Grout! "
Astrid hadn't meant to huff loudly through her nose, but the immediate relief forced the reflex. The man wasn't near. The echo of rock and tree made his precise direction indiscernible, but he wasn't close to them. And he wasn't moving closer.
"Grout!" He called again. Angrier. "Don't make keep chasing after you!"
Astrid watched Hiccup lower the knife and settle back against the tree.
" You get your ass back home, yeh hear me? YEH HEAR ME? Before noon! "
Hiccup's eyebrows rose. He grinned widely at Astrid.
" I will whip your hide raw, boy! ' Teach you to steal from me! "
'Someone's in trouble,' Hiccup mouthed, shaking with silent laughter.
Astrid still hadn't recovered from the wholly unpleasant startle, yet she found herself mirroring his shit-eating grin. Astrid lifted a hand to her mouth to keep from giggling too soon.
" I heard yeh out here! "
The crunching resumed. The sounds bounced between tall trees so well that, for one frightening moment, Astrid feared he had continued on his way. But it grew fainter, and fainter.
Hiccup peeked first.
"We're good," he whispered. He picked himself up more by the strength of his arms than anything else, hooking his fingers in bark.
Astrid stepped around her hiding spot and scanned the area. At best she could see the hazy outlines of overlapping trees, all merging into a green-grey background. Small claws skittered aloft. A pair of feathered wings flapped from a tree. The forest resumed.
She crossed her arms and muttered, "I'll feel safer when Toothless is back."
"Yeah," Hiccup agreed, frowning and looking around him as he searched for his dragon.
Astrid stuck close to her own tree, finding more truth in her words than she was comfortable admitting.
"Still," Hiccup said as he scanned the area. "That was pretty funny."
"It was scary at first." Astrid wasn't embarrassed to admit. They both panicked. They both had come to expect the worst of a situation.
Astrid snorted. "Sounds like Grout had it coming."
"Do you think..." Hiccup's voice had gone low, traces of scraped up humor drowning, and Astrid watched him slink back against the tree, tension bunching in his shoulders. "Do you think Grout is out here? He was chased out here, wasn't he?"
It took Astrid a moment, a couple blinks of her eyes.
"You mean," she started, stepping quickly to stand by Hiccup, "if Toothless is still gone then—"
"Then there's another human in these woods," Hiccup finished.
Before Astrid could work up another round of apprehension she felt the dry hilt of the dagger shoved in her hand.
"Take it," he said. "In case."
"Yeah," the word came faint. She drank in her surroundings hoping for a black tail rather than—
Hiccup's voice bellowed in her ear and Astrid's first instinct was to slap a hand over his mouth.
"Are you inss-ugh, Hiccup, we were just hiding from humans!"
Hiccup ripped her palm off like a dried bandage.
"Sorry," he breathed, smiling like he never even comprehended the word.
A familiar woof at her back confirmed what she already knew, and she turned to see a pair of glassy, green eyes, large as her fists, reflecting a black web of branches and leaves.
Astrid would never admit to the absolute joy she felt in seeing a dragon right behind her.
Hiccup pushed past her, hobbling right to Toothless' head and taking the heavy chin in hands.
"No one's here, Toothless?" Astrid asked. She didn't know what she expected, but took the dragon's snort and head toss as confirmation enough.
"Yeah, Grout's probably somewhere in Bashem," Hiccup said, giving Toothless a good scratch along the neck. "Toothless would sense him, wouldn't you bud?"
Toothless's tail flourished, dragging through frond. He gave a dull roar and nudged Hiccup so gently he might have been made of glass.
Hiccup smiled. "Okay, now that we had our fun, I'm going to take that seat." With a grunt of discomfort, Hiccup plopped right down where he had been standing. Toothless followed, padding his paws out in front of him until he lay side-by-side with his Viking.
Astrid stared at the two, hands on her hips.
"And I'm going to find some food," she announced.
"Astrid, wait!" Hiccup said before Astrid could get a move on and Astrid knew any hope of a breakfast slip away.
Hiccup twisted his prosthetic off with a whispered hiss and a sigh.
"I was thinking…" He hesitated, rubbing the skin of his calf through the loose pant leg. "Want to leave earlier?"
He nodded. "We don't need to wait until dark. We just need to land in dark. I figured that—"
"Do you want to get shot out of the sky?" Astrid asked. She couldn't have it end like that. Not after everything.
And Hiccup, with his half a leg, sunken skin, and red-rimmed eyes... he didn't look like he was ready for another journey. Maybe paranoia had taken hold; maybe it was the triggered excitement that had her always waiting for the other boot to drop.
Hiccup gave a slow shake of his head. "Who's going to shoot us? We're on a cliff—we have one way to go. If we time it … well, it'll take hours still, right? If we leave in the late afternoon we should get there just after sundown."
"And any passing ships—"
"Astrid, if we go high enough, they'll never be able to hit us. They won't hunt us down. Toothless can fly faster than any ship."
"True…" She chewed on a nail. So long as it was dark when they neared Berk, they would—should—be fine. There were no villages in between Bashem and Berk, not on their route. And ships shouldn't be a problem… it was overcast so they wouldn't stand out quite so much...
But being spotted had never been her biggest fear when it came to their travels.
Hiccup cocked his head. "I thought you want to get home as soon as possible?"
"I do!" Astrid said hurriedly, pulling her thumbnail out of her mouth, "I just…"
Don't look at his leg. Don't look at him.
She did both.
Hiccup pulled that grimacy pouty face he often did and Astrid winced, rushing once more to speak. "How are you feeling? I mean, really?"
"I'm fine," he deadpanned.
"I know you're fine," she resisted rolling her eyes as she said it, "but this next fly is going to be our longest."
"Actually, it's not."
"Well, longer than the last one."
He opened his mouth and Astrid cut him off. "There's not going to be a place to land. It's rough conditions, Hiccup. A storm's coming, it's cold, and windy, and if your body gives out mid-flight then we'll, I, I—I won't be able to build another raft. And Toothless..."
The dragon flipped between them during their conversation, ears perked and attentive.
"Waiting until night isn't going to make it any easier, Astrid," he said softly. The fingers kneading his calf had slowed to a stop at some point. They now rested on his leg, sharp-knuckled and long, a slight tremble to their ends.
"But you might find it easier if we leave later," Astrid countered, just as gently. "Last night was hard on you Hiccup. Yes," she said strongly to what had begun as a negative gesture. "And it's only been a few hours, really. If we," she swallowed, "if we have to wait another day we can. We will."
"No. We're not waiting." He lifted his head and put on a mostly genuine smile. "I'll rest now. That's all I'll do until we fly. Rest. Toothless can vouch for me."
Astrid stared at him, feeling as though she couldn't get a read on her own emotions. She so desperately wanted to get home. She didn't know how risky their position was, when snow would come, what humans might wander over. What dragons...
And Hiccup... He needed medical treatment as soon as possible but pushing him might bring about their end.
Hiccup held her gaze with equality even though he sat on the ground, crippled and sick.
"Astrid, I can do it. I promise you."
He promised with sallow cheeks and shoulder bones that reached like claws under a tunic, but with the gentle sort of strength in his voice that came with his brand of confidence.
"Okay," she heard herself respond. She got no immediate intuition in saying the word—no sense of assurance or doom. "We'll leave earlier."
Hiccup grinned, easing against Toothless. "I'll start resting."
"I'll start finding food."
"Won't find me," she said, even as her stomach knotted at the thought. "Promise."
The brightest blue scraped the horizon. An unearthly orange coated the underbelly of clouded sky. The air smelled strongly of sea and the gulls sounded louder than ever, circling the Oyster Beds in the remaining light as the danger of humans receded back to their homes.
Hiccup sat at Toothless's hindquarters, long tail in his lap as he re-knotted the leather binds. He had his bad leg curled under him, prosthetic untouched since his last jaunt having spent the rest of the day alternating between napping and picking at whatever foraging Astrid managed to bring by.
He claimed not to have much of an appetite, which did nothing to ease Astrid's snowballing stress over their impending journey. Astrid watched him now, noting how slowly his fingers moved with the leather, as though his joints ached.
He repeatedly shook long, lanky hair from his eyes only to have it curtain back.
"I'm sure Astrid."
She leaned down to sweep a hand under his bangs and feel his forehead. Hiccup slouched, an exaggerated sigh brushing her elbow, but otherwise allowed the invasion.
"You're warm," she noted.
"I'll make it. I can do it."
Astrid kept her palm pressed to his skin, hoping to soak up some of that fever onto herself. Her hand slid sideways so that her heel padded his cheek.
"You're warm everywhere."
And pale. And thin.
Dread gorged her. It clogged her chest and throat and tinged the aftertaste of berries into something mordant. She recalled the night before: the horrible flight, the anxiety, and the debilitating cold.
This would be worse. Longer. Hiccup, despite his skeletal smiles and assurances, was weaker and growing more so. The air would be colder. Winds harsher.
A cold grip wrapped around her wrist and gently removed her hand from his face.
"We have to cross a sea," she was startled into saying.
"And we will," Hiccup said. He allowed her to take her hand back. "Astrid, you need to trust me."
Astrid rubbed the memory of touch from her wrist.
"Over confidence doesn't always work," she cautioned, feeling the anxiety both spread and tighten across her lungs.
"And you need to trust Toothless. We're going to make it.
He lifted the prosthetic from its bed of brown, crisped leaves and held it out to her.
So light out. Too soon. They needed time. More food. More rest.
"I won't be any stronger tomorrow."
Astrid stared down at him and was alarmed to find such grim acceptance tightening his mouth.
"It's only downhill for me."
"You don't know that."
"I do," he clipped and held up a hand before she could argue further. "You started us home. I'm going to finish it. Let's go."
Astrid's found her fingers closing around the cup end of the prosthetic.
The winds stung tears into her eyes. She could almost taste snow; a solid and lowery weight of condensed air that rested on her tongue. Clouds consumed in whatever light. They flew through utter darkness: the nebulous waters below disturbed—peaked and crashing and utterly invisible—the squalls howling a warning.
Faster. Faster. Faster.
Astrid found herself more afraid to stare ahead and plot their course than to take her eyes off of Hiccup. Every pitch through the winds, every dip in altitude, had Astrid bracing for a plunge. More than once she thought of loosening the hold her frozen legs had on Toothless's neck, crawling down the dragon's spine, and grabbing Hiccup's ankle. Just for an added measure of security.
Just to make sure he hadn't frozen to death.
She hadn't the agility. Her teeth had clenched some time ago, jaw spasming in an incessant shiver. Her shoulders were drawn up to her ears with her neck seized. Even curled, she hoped her body provided some blockage for Hiccup.
All her mental preparation for the worst flight of her life and somehow experiencing it managed to trump every one of her exaggerations. The fear that they would never make it held strong. To have their home within sights only to fall from the sky—Hiccup dead, she and Toothless killed, either by impact or drowning...
Astrid nearly cried when—after an eternity—a black and craggy mass to her far right flashed white against the raging sea. Her body hadn't the energy to elicit such a response; instead she remained a block, wrapped and bowed in her own petrification, and allowed her heart to sink into the pit of her stomach.
The Isles of the Skullions.
It had been hours. Hours. It had to have been. The sun had vanished. The moon had hardly lifted from the horizon—a large, yellowed orb at their backs, consumed by the clouds with the pace a snake consumed a rat.
Even so, she was tempted to stop there. She was tempted to risk death by Skullions to recuperate.
More than halfway there, she self-placated.
Astrid closed her eyes and pictured the map Hiccup had confiscated. The marker for Skullions was closer to Berk than Bashem, right? Surely Berk would be visible, soon?
But Skullions themselves never approached Berk; even for their lack of flight, they weren't half-bad swimmers and Berk was too far for them. That's part of what made Berk so safe.
They still had a ways... a ways to go...
The gnawing cold almost felt warm against her arms. The gales could be a hymn. A black lullaby. Ice crawled along her scalp with all the itch of lice. Or the prick of massaging fingers… something in between. It could be nice. A nice distraction...
It lifted—the sensation of all touch faded, peeling away, leaving a blissful numbness—
Sharp pain stabbed the back of Astrid's neck. She shot up, seeing nothing, feeling agony, spending a moment caught between horror and confusion before she realized...
She had fallen asleep.
She had fallen asleep.
"Hiccup!" It hurt to speak. It hurt to move. Her fingers wouldn't lift from prosthetic she cradled against her stomach and her legs were locked. Locked.
Astrid twisted, her spine screaming, the back of her head now bearing the brunt of icy knives.
"Hiccup!" she called again.
The barely visible lump at Toothless's tail didn't move but Astrid swore she heard a 'what'.
Or she wished for it.
"Hiccup!" she cried again. Working her throat livened her. Panic warmed from hibernation and vibrated through her chest, adding to the wracking shivers.
Hiccup turned his face so that his cheek rested atop Toothless's tail. Astrid caught his eye-barely
"You're alive!" she howled.
Astrid shook her head and managed to wave her arm to indicate that he needn't mind her. She faced forward once more, throat stung with every tight mouthful of air. They were okay. They were okay.
She strained her eyes, pleading with the gods that she hadn't accidentally led them off course. She had only rested for a beat... it couldn't have been more than a blink or two...
Her next breath came through her nose in a steadying inhale. She had one job—the boys relied on her—she couldn't have failed them. Not like this—
A daub of orange sparked at the edge of her vision. Then, before the extrinsic color floating through the night registered, another joined to imitate it.
Astrid screamed it. She screamed it before the shadow beyond the far lights took any familiar form, sounding younger than she could remember ever sounding.
Her own joy warmed her. The urge to cry re-emerged and this time she felt capable of it.
Astrid sat forward, taking the relentless slaps of the storm as an impression emerged from the darkness. She drank in everything her eyes could take: the water crashing white against the carved pillars—visible by the lambent lights in the mouths of giant, stone gargoyles. The outreach of Gothi's hut—a mere silhouette but exactly where Astrid's mind knew it should be. Just as she knew the rocking ships of Hooligan Harbor. The flickering beads of patrolmen. The quiet bays of settling sheep in pastures.
"Direct me towards Raven's Point!" Hiccup called in response, and his voice, nearly drowned out by the wind that had picked up steadily in the past hour, spurred a sob from Astrid's throat. Such a painful relief that she choked on her next intake of frigid air.
Though loathe to take her eyes from the sleepy little village, Astrid turned in her seat.
"Ease a little left!"
They banked wide, with Astrid's attention fixated on their home. She could see people—people she knew. Vikings patrolling the banks and closing barn doors and chasing teenagers back inside. If she strained her ears she swore she could hear the bleating sheep she desperately imagined moments before.
The heavy clouds and Toothless's hide against the starless night saved them from being spotted, but Astrid could feast on the vision of her home as they passed it.
And then it was behind her, forest rushing beneath them in a strong current. The wind eased as they started a slow spiral downward toward an area Toothless seemed to know without her instruction. Astrid could hear the plunk of a waterfall pouring into the cove's pond, the heavy beating of Toothless's wings as he gathered pillows of air for a soft landing. Her stomach climbed into her throat as they came closer and closer to ground with the choppy drop into the forest. The heady spoor of damp soil rose to meet her. She smelt pine and rotted wood and the faint tang of salt air.
Toothless touched down. His wings folded neatly behind him.
Something rattled in Astrid's chest. Feeling returned to her legs—utter weakness, as though a jötunn's fingers had strummed her muscles for the duration of their flight.
She spent a moment panting into the night, ghostly white plumes expelling from her lips like smoke, before moving. She kept a tight grip on Toothless's neck as she slid off his shoulders and touched her feet to Hooligan territory. She held him a while longer, breathing in the warm, oiled scales, her head bowed, until she could trust in her steadiness.
"Hiccup?" she croaked. Even her tongue felt weak.
She was in shock.
Hiccup, as he had the night before, had rolled off the tail and lie on the ground, panting as hard as she.
Astrid could hear him swallow, saw him lift a white hand and stretch his fingers.
"Leg," he coughed.
Toothless pulled away to nose at Hiccup's back, helping the boy sit up, and Astrid found herself left with her own strength. She stumbled forward the short pace and handed over the leg, unable to find the appropriate words for the moment.
For the time Hiccup packed his pant fabric and stump into the prosthetic cup, Astrid looked around hoping the shakes would finish with her body. She caught sight of the rock-hewn barrier enclosing the cove, its entrance as dark as Toothless's hide. The trees were exactly as she last left them months ago, sneaking from base to base, following Hiccup with such anger spurring her heels.
She found the memory hard to grasp, her fury bemusing, impossible to draw forth. Standing in the same forest, feet pressed into the same earth, Astrid felt nothing but awe and hope, her mind filling with self-promises that she would walk these forests every day if she had to. She would scour every inch of this blustery, verdant piece of rock she called home. She would never lose her appreciation, no matter how cold, or trying, or frustrated she became with its people.
Hiccup held out a hand and Astrid, equally wordless, pulled him to his feet...
...and directly into her arms.
She gripped his thin chest, smelling the musky, warm dew of fever below a coat of frosted zephyr. The bones of his back hit every comforting pressure point on her wrists. She held him tighter and, against the overwhelming fear that she may start crying, choked out, "We're home."
Then she felt him hug back. Even for his slight stature, for all the weight he had lost and the feebleness he carried, his embrace held every bit of the warmth and self-assurance she knew he possessed.
Astrid pulled away, sniffling despite her best efforts, and laughed.
Hiccup was grinning, she could see it through the starless night. Astrid could only imagine it dimmed the darkness around his eyes.
"Ready?" he asked. His breath rushed towards her in a white cloud. His shoulder shook beneath her palm, his whole body tormented in a clash of frenzy and ice.
Some of Astrid's elation ebbed. That tail of urgency reawakened.
"Yeah," she whispered.
Hiccup turned, giving Toothless a stiff rub to his crown. "Okay, bud, I'm going to come back for you as soon as I can."
"I'll probably be escaping sooner," Astrid cut in. She threw Hiccup a warning look despite knowing the night would absorb it. Sure enough, Hiccup kept his focus on the dragon.
"Just… be careful," he warned. "Stay away from the village until we come for you."
Toothless's nostril's flared and he gave Hiccup a strong nudge to the chin as though to say "you be careful."
"We need to get you better before you think about wandering out here," Astrid cautioned him again. "I'll take care of Toothless."
Hiccup sighed rather loudly. "Yeah, yeah."
He had the audacity to shake his head at Toothless afterwards.
"Are you done?" Astrid asked.
Hiccup gave Toothless one last pat on the head before limping back.
Astrid brushed past him.
"I'm right here," he said, defensively.
"I know that, dummy," she muttered over her shoulder.
She opened her arms and took the head of a rather perplexed dragon into her embrace.
"Thank you," she whispered. "For everything."
Toothless pushed his nose against her chest and purred. Heat reverberated through her lungs, moving her blood. That relentless grip of fear loosened and Astrid drew a deep, liberated breath.
Astrid pulled away first and laid a hand to the dragons face. She could see the smile at the corners of his mouth, the passing clouds reflected in his eyes. She could see he understood, just as he understood how important it was to be with her on the Reef Island.
Impulsion took over, something both shocking and right. Astrid leaned forward and laid a quick, meaningful kiss on the dragon's brow.
Toothless purred again and nosed her chin.
"Okay," she said, "let's go."
She offered her arm to Hiccup and Hiccup accepted with both hands wrapped from elbow to wrist. He was smiling at her—tight and pained, but sincere.
Together, they moved through the forest, leaning against one another for warmth, pressing away the shivers, breaking their silence to whisper about what food they craved, how many furs they'd burrow under, the proximity of a heated bath and how long they'd soak.
The topic of their families remained untouched, even as they broke through the thicket of trees and the path they walked became packed and wide and lined with pasture and fence. Home, food, and warm beds were easy and fast-coming dreams. Parents, Hooligans, and Dragon Wars... those were complications neither wanted to take on.
Maybe with a new sun and full bellies, when they could think straight and collaborate without the immediate and mind-consuming cold narrowing their reason, maybe then they would deliberate on what to say to their families. Where they had been, why they had been there, what they had gone through…
Toothless. Dragons. The War's end.
But right now they stood at the top of a hill, exposed and exhausted, looking down at the slow-moving village with a single-minded and desperate objective. Safety.
Few Hooligans remained outside their homes. Patrol migrated towards the harbor, peering across the southern sea. Barns quieted.
Astrid fixated on her family house. Smoke sputtered upward from a dying indoor fire.
Her parents were in there, settling into bed. Her mother's hair would be undone and brushed a dozen times over. Her father would have his cup of warm milk to settle his stomach.
Perhaps they went to sleep thinking of their only daughter, tormented by the unknown.
Perhaps they'd learned to quiet the ache.
Astrid's legs seized with the sudden need to run. The need to bring them peace, far stronger than any comfort desires. To immediately end their suffering.
They were so close. So close. Astrid could pick Hiccup up and sprint into the village.
And yet... they slowed.
In fact, they had stopped moving altogether, just beyond of Berk's northern barns, Hiccup's fraught clutch falling.
His hesitance was palpable. Astrid watched the faint outline of his profile. How he frowned. How his brow pinched. How the reflection of Hooligan torches gave his eyes a detached, glassy sort of radiance.
She waited. Snowdrifts danced around them, touching the bare skin of their arms and settling, unmelted, against the icen limbs.
Hiccup's lips parted.
"I don't know what to say to him," he whispered. "I never have."
Astrid was startled by how weird she found Hiccup's lack of confidence.
Her hand brushed his, knuckle-to-knuckle. Then she was holding it. Fingers laced. She didn't know whom she did it for—for him or for herself—but she was gripping Hiccup's hand with everything left in her. Her fire. Her conviction. Her sense of self.
"I'll do the talking, this time around," she promised.
She felt him squeeze back, and with it came three months worth of gratitude. Astrid felt something inside her knit back together.
This was what success felt like after a string of failures.
This was what it felt like to end a nightmare.
Warm in her hand.
A/N: The end.
It's finished. All done. That Nanowrimo whim of a project went from 50k words to almost double that.
The first and biggest thank you goes out to Jenna-sais-pas for being a patient and fantastic beta. My grammar has always been my biggest struggle and I can honestly say I've learned a lot from her gentle corrections. Thank you so much for hanging on with me through the year!
And, of course, thank you readers and reviewers. Thank you for joining me on this exploration of Astrid's character and my own uphill struggle through becoming a better story teller. *kisses*