Summary: [A "Nightfall" prequel] Cut off from everything she has ever known, Valka wonders if survival is enough, and to what lengths she is willing to go.
Continuity Note: Set in Part 9 of "Nightfall", the flashback chapter dedicated to Valka's story.
ON WITH THE SHOW!
Valka had never imagined she might miss Berk. Three years ago she might have volunteered to be carried off by a dragon, even if she thought it was going to try to eat her. (Cloudjumper had done nothing of the sort, of course.) The place was home, then, yes, as familiar as a pair of well-trodden boots. It had its good points, like absolutely incredible sunrises, and she misses food she didn't have to cook herself to the best of her meager abilities. These days she would give a lot for food with herbs, and the flavors of distant lands and long trades.
Gods, she misses bread. She never thought she'd miss something as simple as bread. What kind of hell must this be, to deprive her even of bread?
Of course, three years ago Berk had also been full of men who thought she was crazy or a coward, just because she thought there might be a better way to deal with dragons than running at them with an axe. Not to mention a disturbing number of women who were full of endless unwanted advice on the baby she prayed every day not to lose this time. Trapped as she is in a dragon nest, far from home, with no other human in sight except her toddling son, even now she doesn't miss them.
She misses not having to do everything by herself. She misses talking to people.
And Stoick. She misses Stoick so badly that her chest hurts, her heart keens; loneliness pulls her jaw tight.
She also misses human babysitters.
"Where's that kid?" Valka demands of the nest as a whole. It's raining for once (not snowing, not sleeting, not hailing – actual proper rain) and while the rain is beautiful, most of it seems to have moved into the sleeping area she shares with her now two-year-old son and his closest friend, who happens to be a dragon. All his friends are dragons, and for now her only concern about that is that human babysitters wouldn't have blown through here tracking mud and rainwater and gods know what absolutely everywhere.
Once again the ever-present pang of fear bites at her, afraid for her child. He is the most precious thing in her life, hard-won and fiercely kept. No more, she'd prayed for months, not again – I cannot lose another one, let me keep this one and I will protect it with my life.
Some god had answered that prayer, and she intends to keep her half of the bargain.
She would not have chosen to raise Hiccup in a cave of sharp edges and hard stones, deep falls and dark corners. When he started walking she spent all her waking hours trying to make the enclosed cave she has designated their sleeping area safer for him. The nest's dragons still bring her gifts and trinkets, just to watch her play with or use them, and she had filled an apron she'd made from one such gift with sand, over and over. She'd carried it back to their cave and spread it across the hard stone floor, and still flinched every time he tumbled over his unsteady toddler feet.
Valka would cover the whole nest with sand if she could. She would fill in the crevices and smooth over the edges; she'd tear down the ledges and outcroppings lest her son climb to them and fall. Failing that, she would prefer if she could at least keep him in sight, or at least limit him to a single cave in which to wander. But instead he toddled around holding on to his beloved little friend Toothless for balance, and crawled about the cave even in near-darkness, following the glints of light off dragon eyes in perfect confidence, and the moment she looked away he would disappear.
A thousand times she has known that she can't do this. She's too young, too alone, too lost. She cannot raise this child all alone.
And then she gets up again, and carries on.
Some days she wants to chase away the dragons who carry her son around in their jaws like one of their own hatchlings, screaming he's not yours, he's not one of you – he's my baby, keep away from him. She'd wrap him up tight in her arms and never let him go, if she could.
If it would not break his heart. What other family does he have, except for her? Who else does he have to play with, to talk to and clamber over, if not dragons? He is a gregarious and cheerful toddler, always trotting out of the paws of one dragon to sit under the jaw of another and chatter to it, warbling back to them in noises like their own more fluently than he speaks to her. As she learned to interpret the behavior of dragons over the past year, she was shocked to realize that they not only tolerated the presence of a human child but greeted him with affection and a sort of amused patience.
Even before her son truly found his feet he was impossible to keep her eyes on, and now that he is steady on them he's unstoppable, agile enough to get everywhere, dragon enough to assume everywhere in the nest is his. Valka has spent hours in the most terrible state of fear, searching for him, because he'll wander off and settle down and go to sleep and she won't know where he is. She has nightmares about cliffs.
She's seriously considering training him to respond to a whistle. It wouldn't be hard; he whistles back to dragons more than he speaks words to her. She's already started to use whistle-calls to signal dragons, mimicking the noises they make. Her imitations are good enough to get their attention or to warn an over-inquisitive paw away from something fragile or edible that she doesn't want broken or eaten.
"Hiccup?" she calls, venturing out into the network of caves. It's even dimmer than usual, with the rain pouring down outside, and she stops to collect an improvised lantern, reeking of laboriously extracted fish oil, and light it from one of the coals she keeps burning. It's a tiny sign of her independence to be able to light her own fires. In many other things she depends on the charity of dragons, but she is determined to keep some things for herself.
"Where are you, baby?"
It frustrates her to realize, some days, that for all she was taken away by force and kept here against her will, she's started to make this a home. The marks of their living here are all over, when she chooses to see them. There's the fence she made out of driftwood to keep Hiccup from stumbling into a ravine between two rocks, and the flat stone she tipped onto its side to make an airing rack for their clothes. Nearby is the hearth she made out of smaller rocks, with the ashes of old cooking fires cooling in the natural hollow, and the small stack of very crude pottery she made while the entire cave was snowed in for so long she lost track of days and nights.
Either the clay she'd dug up from the meadow in the heart of the nest wasn't suited for shaping, or she isn't any better at pottery than she is at cooking. Valka isn't sure.
She will need to go and gather more bracken and leaves to replace the ones she and her son are using as bedding fairly soon, and feed the crushed ones to the flames. The small fish bones she saved from any one of many indistinguishable meals need to be whittled into needles, the worn patch on her leggings repaired. It's all so infuriatingly normal, and sometimes she can't stand it.
Gods, she wants to go home.
She wants to go home and she doesn't want to go. Most of the time she's too busy surviving to worry about it, but when no emergency beckons or on the edge of sleep her conflicting desires tear each other apart.
After all, she wonders in the darkest hours of the night, did she belong on war-torn Berk any more than she does here? She's so tired of the fighting, so sick of the hatred and the willful, stubborn blindness.
Valka doesn't hate it here. She feels strangely justified, having seen more than enough proof that dragons are not the monsters her people think they are, and that humans and dragons could live in peace if only everyone would try. None of the dragons here has ever offered her harm – rather, she suspects that she and Hiccup are interesting pets.
Well, she is, maybe. Hiccup…she's not sure about her little son. He doesn't know any other life, and he doesn't seem to find any of it strange.
She's constantly amazed by how protective the dragons are of him. They're not like any other animals she's ever encountered. Although, the other major form of life on Berk is the sheep, so she has to admit that it's maybe not a great point of comparison, if only to herself.
It's so easy to think of them as people. There's love in them, and intelligence, and loyalty. She's seen mothers looking after their little ones no different from any woman back home. They argue, and they comfort each other. They boast, and they tease. They grieve for their dead. She's watched them steal from each other, and she's seen them bring each other gifts. They bring her gifts, too, and she catches herself saying "Thank you," as if they understand. Little Toothless, Hiccup's best friend – she may as well have a second son. When she sits down to sew or whittle he crawls into her lap like a child.
She's not sure how she feels about Cloudjumper. Yesterday she'd shouted at him, angry. He lowered his head and retreated, shuffling away, and she felt like she'd slapped a friend.
That they are connected on a soul-deep level, Valka doesn't question. She'd looked into his eyes and he'd looked into hers and she'd known that he meant her no harm, that there was something inside her that resonated with this strange dragon. Something that sang like a taut bowstring, that shuddered through her like the ringing of a bell.
In that moment, she had known that he loved her, instantly and absolutely, because inside they were the same, and she had loved him too.
But for that one moment, did she really deserve to lose everything?
When she looks into Cloudjumper's eyes now, she feels like she's cheating. Like she's betrayed Stoick by running away with a lover – it wasn't my choice, she wants to cry out to both of them, I didn't ask for this. Her son plays with him, crawling over his claws and babbling in dragon sounds, pounding solemnly on his nose with tiny fists, and she chokes on outrage that her abductor should stand in the place of her son's father, blood and bile hot in her throat.
It would be so easy to blame him, to hate him, were it not for that bond humming between them.
This isn't where she belongs. She is Valka of Berk – she has always been Valka of Berk. However ill-fitting that role has been, it is the only role she's ever known. She wants to go home to her husband and her life.
She'd never thought she'd miss Stoick snoring, but she misses the simple comfort of sleeping next to him and the warmth of shared blankets on a snow-still morning.
As she calls again for her son, she sees dragons turn to look at her, eyes lighting up as they follow her movements and heads rearing up on long necks. She started naming them not long after Cloudjumper brought her here, just as a way to keep her sanity in a strange world, which is why they have names like Long Nose and Bellwether and Spirals, and flippant names like Too Big and Fat Boy and Scaryface. There are even three identical small ones she wanted to call Silly, Sillier, and Silliest, but even a year later she's never sure which one is which, so now all three of them are Triplet.
"Hiccup?" she calls a third time. "Hiccup!" She turns to the nearest dragon – Hammer Feet, she thinks – and demands, "Where's my son?"
Hammer Feet rustles his wings and clicks at her, and does not answer.
Conversation. Valka misses conversation.
Finally she tracks Hiccup down, finding him playing in an ash-pit. Still sopping wet from being in the rain while her back was turned, he's surrounded by miniature mountains with finger-shaped holes poked in them like ashy sandcastles, grey all over and doing his very best to turn little Toothless from iridescent black to dull grey as well. As she catches sight of them, lifting her lantern to see into the alcove where they've been hiding, the little dragon pounces into one of the ash heaps, sending up a puff of grey smoke and chirruping in delight. Hiccup mimics the sound Toothless makes, and smashes his latest pile flat with the enthusiasm of any child given something to destroy.
Ashes fly everywhere.
"Oh, gods, baby," Valka says involuntarily.
Toddler and dragon look up at her, surprised. Their eyes – the whites of the human boy's, the green of the dragon's – are practically the only parts of them not a dirty grey.
"Mama!" Hiccup cries, visibly veering between alarm, guilt, and enjoyment. He waves a grubby hand at her, batting at the mess he and Toothless have made, and says, "'ook a!"
She knows what he's saying – look at this. Still struggling with human words, young as he is, her little boy tends to babble in a mixture of small words and dragon noises, punctuated by gestures that everyone seems to understand.
"Yes, I see," she answers, fighting the temptation to cross her arms and tap her foot like the fading memories she has of her own mother. She'd hated it then, and doesn't expect Hiccup to like it any better now. "Having fun?"
"Uh huh!" Her tone is amused, so he decides on enjoyment and beams at her, showing the hard-earned baby teeth that kept them both awake and unhappy for days.
"You are an absolute mess," she tells him, resigned and amused. Gods, she loves this kid. There are no words for how much she loves this happy little boy. It's like a bubble in her chest, keeping her warm; she could float on the love inside her, sometimes. Her son is the light of her world and everything, everything she's surviving for. The hope of going home someday is a dream she's fighting towards, but Hiccup is who she's fighting for here and now and always.
Even if he is so covered in ashes that he's all but indistinguishable from the dragon-charred rock. "Toothless, are you helping Hiccup make a mess?"
Toothless, who knows by the sound of his name that she's talking to him, thinks it over, chirping back and forth with Hiccup.
Five seconds later, she can't believe she didn't anticipate that the next great game would be running away and hiding.
By the time she catches up to both of them by herding Hiccup back to their sleeping area and trusting Toothless will follow, which he does, most of the ashes have fallen away. Unfortunately, they were only the latest layer on top of the rest of what he's gotten up to since he and Toothless wandered away this morning.
She picks him up bodily, resigning herself to the mud and lichen and blood and general grime that immediately attaches itself to her. "Come on, baby, you need to wash. Time for a bath."
"No!" he screams immediately. "No NO no no no!" It's his second-favorite word, right after "Too-thess!", and Valka is entirely sick of it.
Everything needs to wash, from the look of it, and she loses hold of the slippery, squirming, shrieking toddler as she tries to gather up the begrimed sheepskin which, wrapped up, makes her a serviceable pillow. She's almost tempted to admire the perfectly outlined miniature dragon footprints right in the middle of it, but overcomes the brief urge and settles right back into irritation.
"No," she agrees, using the sheepskin as a net and bundling him into it before settling him on her hip. So captured, he amuses himself by pulling on her braid and picking strands of hair out of it. At some point while she isn't looking, Toothless disappears, leaving only a fading set of sooty footprints in his wake. Off to bedevil someone else, she suspects.
Valka gathers up a handful of other things that she'd like to have cleaner – a spare cloak that doubles as a blanket or a carry-sling, an oversized tunic she's made for Hiccup, the shapeless clumps of wool that were her best attempt at tiny mittens. Hiccup loves them anyway, not for their shape but for the way they protect his hands. He spends as much time crawling and scrambling around as he does walking, and wears them all around the cave.
She's never been a very good seamstress, and she's no better working with the odds and ends that dragons bring to her on their incomprehensible whims. She adds people who can sew to her list of things she misses, and resolves to stop making this list.
They've probably been here for about a year and a half, Valka believes. She's tried to keep track, marking days with charcoal lines on the rock wall above her sleeping space, hash marks counting off time. There have been times when she can't see the sun for days on end, kept inside by the cold or the tasks she needs to do to keep herself and her son alive, with no way to know whether it is day or night. Instead she counts by her sleeps and by her own body, and by the varying moon.
A year and a half. It feels like an eternity.
Does Stoick believe her dead? He must do, after so long, and she hurts for him, a cold vein of ice running through her heart day after day like a glacier slicing inexorably through the land. Does he grieve for their son?
What she wouldn't give, to get a message to him. What she wouldn't give, to get them both home.
In that time she has tried to explore the deep caves as much as possible, and the path she treads is a familiar one, down to a small underground lake. Some of the deeper caves are flooded; some with seawater, and some with warmer water. She has few enough pleasures in this exile, but she was surprised to find that a warm bath could be one, without having to heat water or carry any of it.
A year and a half may feel like forever, but she knows she hasn't even come close to finding all the secrets this place holds. She's ventured into the deeper caves – searching for threats to her son, or lost treasure, or what, she doesn't clearly know. Possibly just to learn her way around.
She may be trapped here, but she'll learn every handsbreadth of this cage if she has to.
Once, though, she got lost.
She'd been marking her passage with a piece of chalky stone, leaving arrows indicating the way she'd already gone and dragging it along the wall in a skipping, erratic line until finally it skipped off a rough patch of stone and flew from her hand.
In her haste to retrieve it, following the echoes as it fell and skipped away, she had found herself in a chamber where none of the exits looked familiar.
At first she was confident, trusting that she couldn't have gotten far from her careful markings.
Then she was angry, tired of caves and convinced that soon enough she'd have seen all of them, that she was bound to return to somewhere she recognized in time.
Then her torch had dimmed until everything was shadows, and she realized that it had burned through all its fuel and was about to go out.
Not even when Cloudjumper snatched her from her home with her baby in her arms had Valka been so afraid, so sure she was going to die. Then she had seen awareness in his eyes, had imagined a connection between them, but here there was no light, no kindred spirit to reach out to. Trapped and alone, she had husbanded the last embers of her torch in scraps from her tunic and leggings, terrified of the darkness.
Her imagination had painted the still-unexplored depths with monsters, dragons less friendly than the ones swarming through the caves up above. Dark, hungry beasts with great teeth, at first, and then subtle sucking things that would latch on to her body and melt away her flesh, slurping away her skin as it dissolved into rot, or hissing poisonous creatures, burning her away from inside. Every creature from the Book of Dragons, every horrible way to die so vividly imagined – all, she realized as the last lights flickered, lived here, waiting for foolish young mothers to leave their sons behind in the custody of carnivores and come venturing into their claws.
She'd felt the scream bubbling up inside her, beating at her throat and choking her, and she'd swallowed it down again and again as she did the first time she was caught at sea in a terrible storm, swearing I will not throw up until it felt like a prayer. Aboard that ship she'd pounded a fist against the bulkhead to distract herself from the turmoil inside, breaking open her knuckles and seeing the rain whisk the blood away as soon as it broke the skin. In the depths of the cave, too, she'd struck out at the stone, but only once. To her horror, the torch had guttered under the breeze her movement made.
Instead her prayer became I will not scream.
She very nearly did when something brushed against her foot as she sat huddled in on herself, back pressed to the cold stone, the glowing coals of her torch the last light between her and the endless darkness.
Fortunately the heavy-set dragon who had stumbled over her – not a Gronkle, but something related, she thinks still – did not object to being jabbed at with a near-dead torch.
In a moment of weakness, she had embraced it like a friend rescued from a shipwreck, gasping shattered laughter into its hide.
The thing she still doesn't understand is that, as it led her back to the shallower caves, she had been embarrassed, as if she had been caught doing something foolish. As if they would gossip about her, in their clicks and snarls and chattering, or as if their opinion of her mattered to her.
Was it silly, to be ashamed before her captors? She still doesn't know.
She had been more careful in her explorations after that.
However black her mood, she can't stay grim in the face of playing with her son.
"What did you do to get so messy, baby?" Valka scolds, half-seriously, as she picks up a handful of water and pours it over his hair. She must remember to cut it at some point, if only because it'll be easier to keep clean. Underwater clouds of grey ash and worse spread out around them, diffusing away into the water and vanishing into the depths.
Held safely in her lap, Hiccup laughs and says "Blub!" or something similar, batting at the falling water. He shakes his head, doglike, and tries to grab a handful of water to throw back at her.
It won't stay in his hands, even when he claps them together in the water as if, if he's only fast enough, it won't get away.
The water only comes up to Valka's waist, even seated as she is in a tailor's seat, and she knows from previous explorations that this shallow ledge reaches a fair distance, although not beyond the reach of her lantern-light. Both mother and toddler son are stripped down to their smallclothes, a shift for her and a simple breechclout for him. She despairs of salvaging her little son's tunic, stained and worn as it is.
No matter; most of his clothes are patched together from scraps of fabric and fur, and once more Valka blesses her own childhood poking her nose into everything, including the village tannery. She'd regretted getting her nose involved in that particular adventure. (But she'd won the bet. So there.) Years later, she remembers enough to turn pieces of sealskin and rabbit fur into tiny warm clothes.
She doesn't know what she'd do if a dragon presented her with a set of child-sized clothes, just as they bring her coils of rope and half-empty jars of salted fish. A dragon carefully laid a shovel at her feet once, eying her curiously for her opinion of his gift; she thanked him solemnly without cracking so much as a twitch of a smile. She has been presented with a chunk of salt, wrapped up in rough fabric; entire dead sheep; approximatelyhalf of an elk; a cracked bucket; a string of onions; a single, perfect feather.
But she imagines with horror being brought a child's tunic with blood still on it.
It hasn't happened yet, though, so for now she laughs along with Hiccup as he figures out how to scoop up lukewarm water in his tiny hands and send it flying into the air. "It's raining!" she cheers to him. "Raining underground!"
"Ray-nin!" he chirps back, and mimics her gentle applause.
"Ready to go swimming?" she asks when he tires of that game.
"Uh huh!" her son asserts confidently, so she sets him down in the shallow water and takes a few steps away, minding her footing and moving slowly. She knows this lake as well as can be expected, but it's not just her life she's responsible for, not with her son splashing about fearlessly, absorbed in the way the water flies as he stomps about on all fours.
When she's standing up to her waist in slightly deeper water, she gestures. "Come on," she urges her son. "You can do it."
He looks over at her, surprised that she has moved when he wasn't looking, and she can see doubt cross his face as he realizes that she's so far away.
Even if they were still back on Berk, she'd be teaching him to swim. How could she not? One day he'll be aboard a ship, riding amidst waves that can turn treacherous at the whims of the wind. Their people are bound to the sea – their ships are their freedom to explore and to trade, to raid and to hunt. The ocean keeps them fed. Its waves and tides beat in the heart of their songs and stories and sagas. It warns them of the weather, for good or ill, and the change of seasons. To live on Berk – to be a Viking – is to be intimately aware of the ocean, locking them in on land and setting them free to travel across it.
There's no other way to get anywhere, after all.
She has so little of their people to give him, so little of the world she took for granted as a child and expected to pass on to a child of her own. She can't show him the carvings and tapestries on the walls of the Great Hall, or the intricate artistry on the hilt of a sword, or the work and the care and the detail that goes into the making of a longship and gives it a spirit and a soul. She can't sing to him the days-long sagas with their pulsing, pounding rhythm, their tales of honor and adventure, great risk and great sacrifice and greater reward, of death and danger and the warmth of the hearth left behind or regained. She can't give him friends and playmates even the same species as him; she can't place him in his father's arms.
She has even struggled to teach Hiccup to talk, not only because he has taken to the wordless cries and whistles of dragons and their teeth-baring, wing-spreading body language, but also because sometimes she is at a loss for things to say. What is there to talk about? she wonders sometimes. There is nowhere to go. Dragons can fly away, hunting and playing in the sky, but she and her son cannot. There are no people to chatter and gossip about, and nothing to do but survive.
She fears sometimes she is becoming a wordless animal, feeling without thinking, diminished only to raw sounds that come from the heart and the gut, and it pains her to think of her bright, creative son so dulled. What stories can she tell him, when to Hiccup there is no world beyond the caves and the bright and beautiful meadow?
But she can damn well teach her son to swim.
On the shore, Hiccup's eyes go huge with the beginnings of tears, and Valka feels guilt bite into her at his distress. "It's okay, baby, I'm right here."
A soft whistle cuts into her reassurances, and Hiccup turns around, tears forgotten, as Toothless pads into the light, glossy black again after – the drips that follow him betray him – a dash into the rain. Little boy and little dragon follow each other around like the weights in a bolas, inseparable and nearly indistinguishable, and prone to flying off in random directions to break things and get into trouble.
Valka can't help but smile as the black dragonet splashes into the water, nearly bowling over his friend like a clumsy puppy, all paws and panting tongue and chirping. She can only hope that Toothless will grow into his proportions like any child, because she's seen more than a few bruises erupt on delicate toddler skin from wayward paws.
Hiccup chirrups back to him, laughing, and the two splash each other in delight. Even a few minutes' separation is cause for celebration at their reunion, and they end up sprawled in the shallows all over each other, babbling quietly. She wonders what they're talking about.
It might be the swimming lesson, because a moment later Toothless looks over at her, makes a snorting sound she recognizes as laughter, and launches himself into the water in a clumsy dog-paddle. She barely has time to laugh in her turn before he's trying to climb up to her shoulder, digging his claws into her shift and not finding purchase.
One of those claws snags the skin underneath, and she peels the little dragon away carefully, untangling him from the fabric and picking him up before letting him leap from her forearm to her shoulder, where he perches. His tail wraps around her arm for balance, but it feels like a child's hug.
Safely out of the water, Toothless nuzzles against her cheek, clicking and thrumming as if looking for praise.
"Yes, you're very clever. Good swimming, Toothless," she tells him, smiling. "Hey!" she says when he catches those claws into her hair instead. "Don't do that."
Scolded, he spreads out his wings for balance and paws at the air, and she would bet that the next set of trills are addressed to her son, daring him to do better.
Not to be outdone, Hiccup shrieks a reply and follows his dragon friend, flailing through the water and into his mother's waiting hands.
Just for a moment, with a little dragon on her shoulder and her son in her arms, all is well with Valka's world.
They play in the underground lake for a little while longer, Hiccup and Toothless chasing each other around in the water and staring with fascination at the tiny fish that flit away at the slightest movement. Bigger fish, with great blind eyes and corpse-white scales, lurk in some of the lakes down here, Valka knows – she's caught a few herself.
Valka splashes both children indiscriminately as they dart around her, playing a rudimentary game of peekaboo that involves much delighted screaming. The lamp flickers as her children race past it, and she looks over to check that the fish oil isn't burning down.
The movement of the flame catches reflections in dragon eyes, and Valka catches her breath in surprise.
He'd made no sound, no announcement of his presence, no demand for attention as so many dragons do. They sidle up to her or corner her to examine her; if one sees his flock-mate being petted, he will insist on his share of her attention, until she wonders if she was brought here only to scratch noses and burnish scales. The dragons of the nest talk to her, in their whistles and cries and chirps, their hums and snarls and hisses, and seem disappointed when she does not reply in kind.
Perhaps that is why they love Hiccup, who vocalizes back to them so readily, so much.
On the edge of the light, Cloudjumper watches her in silence.
Not her son, she knows; not the true dragon scampering at his heels and snapping at his hands with his little fangs withdrawn. Her.
He asks nothing of her. But she can see the sadness in those deep eyes, in the way his head droops and his wings are folded, and it hurts her to know that she is the cause.
Go away! she'd shouted at him. Too tired, too frustrated, so lonely for human company she wanted to cry – except that the eyes of dozens of dragons were on her: in this alien world she has only her wits, her son, and her pride, and she will not let her captors see her cry – she'd shouted, I don't belong here, I don't want to be here, I hate you!
Gods, she wishes she could say she didn't mean it.
She doesn't hate him; she's sorry she said that. She could never hate Cloudjumper; it would be like hating part of her own soul.
Except she can do that. She's hated herself before. Too many people have told her that there's something wrong with her – traitor, her memories spit, coward, crazy, madwoman – for her not to believe it, just a bit, and in this strange place, far from home, she knows it's all true.
How is she not a traitor, to know she loves a dragon, the enemy of her people? She looks at her only son talking, seriously and sincerely, to a dragon, sounding like a dragon himself, and is proud of him. She wants to go home, but how can she think that there's any place for her there anymore?
However much she misses Berk, part of her doesn't want to go back. Even if she could, going back would mean going back to a world where it seems every day is a battle in an endless, stupid war.
What's wrong with her, that she is the only person who cannot believe in the rightness of that war?
She wants so much more, for her son. For the baby she'd prayed for, the child she'd fought for, the bright little life she's watching flourish and grow and learn – she'll be a coward, for Hiccup. If she's a traitor, should she be the best traitor she can be?
That part of her that's mad is beginning to believe that this is a better place for him.
But instead she turns away from those sad eyes, waiting for her. She does not apologize, and feels her heart tear just a little bit more in two.
When the children tire of playing, Valka bundles Hiccup back into warmer clothes and Toothless scampers off, probably hungry after all the running around. Dragons eat like bottomless pits, even little ones. Cloudjumper has not moved so much as a wingtip, but Valka still can't face him. Instead she picks up her yawning son and retreats to another cavern in this seemingly endless network of caves, carrying her lantern with her.
There's nothing special about this cave, except that it's one of the ones that dragons don't seem to settle in. There's nothing wrong with it as far as she can tell, although the ceiling may be too low for some of the bigger dragons. There's certainly no deep lake in which Valka could swear she saw the glint of giant bones as she raised her light in hopes of finding the back wall of the cave. (The dragon she calls Nosey had found her there, as she moved her lantern back and forth, trying to catch another glimpse of the presumed bones, and insistently herded her back up into the more-trafficked areas of the nest. She still doesn't know why.)
She seems to be the only one that comes here, and it is this quality that has encouraged her to adopt it as a retreat. Valka comes here when she's tired of dragons, overwhelmed by their strangeness or their behavior. In the days just before winter broke, when hunger seemed to overrule the lethargy of cold and confinement, a couple of enormous fights had broken out, engulfing the entire nest – or enough of it for Valka to fear for her life and Hiccup's.
In all that winter, not once had any dragon looked at mother and child as if they might be prey. After twenty years of being told that dragons ate humans, Valka had expected to have to fight for their lives constantly. It's one of the reasons their sleeping area is so enclosed, with a single entrance she could defend if need be.
She wouldn't last long, but she'd make them pay for every bite. Or so she'd resolved, in those first frightened days, and the flashes of paranoia that reared their heads when she was overtired or had had a nightmare, and then towards winter's end.
But having a dragon flock fighting with each other – no sides and no obvious reason, just an entire season of staying inside with the thousand tiny slights and grudges that inevitably resulted – had been enough for Valka to take her child and hide. Never mind that Hiccup had been happy to roost in a dragon nest on a high ledge, where Broken Fang had deposited him with the rest of her hatchlings, and watch.
(She knows now that Broken Fang had been trying to help, but Valka could look after her son just fine, thanks.)
It is in this chamber that Valka has also hidden her secret project. It is her stubborn refusal to admit that she is trapped here, her insistence that there must be a way to escape; much like the coals she keeps burning even when any and every dragon in the nest could kindle a flame for her, it is a show of independence she is reluctant to give up.
Hiccup falls asleep in her lap uncomplainingly as she tries to work the worst of the tangles out of his hair, making only the occasional soft sound of affront as her fingers catch in one knot or another. But the contact soothes him, and to her amazement she hears him almost purring as his eyes drift closed. Rather than a cat's steady buzz, her son's purr is a rumbling, thrumming noise she knows she's heard from happy dragons as they groom each other or as she pets an inquisitive nose, and for a moment she's unsure whether it's a baby dragon or a toddler human nestled in her arms.
Across the cave, the rough pile of driftwood and wreckage she likes to call a raft mocks her. The darkness between the pieces, moving in the flickering lantern-light, is like mouths laughing at her and her half-shod plan. In the light of her misery she sees her raft for what it is, a desperate, futile hope, useless and doomed. She might as well beat back the snowdrifts of devastating winter with a single candle, or drive away a dragon raid with a piece of string. She would have more luck howling at the stars like a wild thing, a lonely voice demanding that the gaping void reply.
This thing she's built, this crude approximation of a raft – not even a ship, barely more than a heap lashed together with seaweed, rope, and chance – will never float. They will not leave on this, she knows, not alive.
Part of her has always known this, but acknowledging it feels like giving up.
Even if she was screaming at the tempest, at least that rage was keeping her warm.
If she consigns herself and her little son to the sea and the ice on this, she will kill them both. Whatever it becomes in another month, another year, three years, five, it will never be more than the driftwood it began as.
The wreckage is cursed wood, damned wood, broken once and broken always. It set her teeth on edge to use it to begin with: a ship has a soul, and a wrecked one deserves a funeral pyre as much as any fallen warrior. She might as well build a raft out of the bones of the dishonored dead, or finger- and toenails. Why would it serve her any better than the craftsmen that shaped it, the sailors who put their blood and sweat and toil into it, the captain who guided it through storms into battle and towards home? It failed them.
The cracks in the timber, the scorch marks across the grain of the wood, the old stains she tries to believe are something other than blood – all these and more are the clues that tell her that her luck will be no better than theirs. Her fate will be no different, if she entrusts them to the sea with only driftwood and the bones of ships between them and death.
Valka is suddenly, desperately homesick. Failure is a pitiful heap of wood, the wreckage of all her hopes.
In all the time she's been here, Valka has cried only once. With the eyes of the great king of dragons, the ruler of the nest, on her, she had wept, knowing that he had seen into her soul and seen her for what she was without deception. The king of dragons had seen through all her masks to the quivering, desperate woman within, as if she had been naked not in body but in soul, all her secrets bared to his gaze.
She has been unable to meet his eyes since, on the occasions she ventures out into the light and finds the great king's attention turned to her. However much she feels like a stranger here, she knows that he has accepted her. She knew that from the beginning. And yet…something holds her back. She does not care that he does not judge her – she does not know how she knows this, but she does, just as she knew that Cloudjumper loved her, then. She judges herself, and is ashamed to have another know secrets she never told anyone, not even Stoick, barely even admitted to the dark caverns in her own heart.
The dragons of the nest may mean her no harm, but she is still a prisoner here, unable to escape. She used to beg them to take her and baby Hiccup home, pleading, cursing, but never weeping.
But she cries now.
Despairing, she bites back her sobs, unwilling to wake her still-sleeping child. Her teeth grind so fiercely she half-fears that they will break and leave her with jagged dragon fangs of her own, and she feels a howl of grief rise up in her throat like an animal burrowing towards the light, desperate to break free and scream. Instead she muffles it in shattered breaths and strangled gasps.
It hurts, but the pain in her chest is more than physical, her body rebelling against the constraints she forces on it. Part of it is heartbreak. It's homesickness. It's loneliness. It's resignation.
Valka does not know how long she cries before a small noise wriggles through the storm of tears and gasps and muffled wails, smothered as she hides behind her hands. It's a sound as distressed as her own weeping, high and liquid and keening, and for a moment she believes it part of her grief.
She could have made that sound, but the nudge at her waist is not her doing, nor the tentative lick at her wrist where her sleeve falls away.
Automatically, she lowers her hands, scrubbing one arm across her face as if to hide the evidence of her tears, and meets the wide eyes of the little black dragon staring at her in confusion. Toothless' front paws are resting on her leg not far from Hiccup's sleeping face, and he is stretched up as far as possible to reach her.
When he sees her look at him he raises one paw to reach out to her, patting at her cheek as if to dry her tears away.
"Oh," says Valka, unexpectedly touched. The smile that threatens to erupt through her weeping makes her face feel as if it might crack, so fixed had it been in the death-rictus of pain.
Toothless whimpers, ear-flaps going back and down as he shifts from foot to foot, clearly uncertain and unhappy – because she is unhappy, Valka realizes. Because he understood that, and because he cares about her. Not for the first time, she wonders if he feels alone too. There is no other dragon like him in the nest, not that she's seen. No jet-black mother to look after him, no obsidian father to haul him out of trouble, no troupe or flock of chattering lookalike cousins to play with.
She may be the closest thing to a mother Toothless has, too.
Did he take so to Hiccup because they were both different? Both accepted as part of the flock, but unlike anyone else in their home?
Is there a night-dark mother somewhere, cursing Valka for taking her place? A father, resenting her for standing in the place of his son's mother, just as Valka sometimes resents Cloudjumper playing with her child as if he were Hiccup's father?
In the moment, none of that matters. If so, they are far away, and right here, right now, Toothless is her child to comfort.
"Sorry," she tells him, scratching his head with one tear-damp hand. "I'm sorry. I'm okay."
She lies until she believes it, so that he will believe her too.
Hiccup may have slept through his mother's muffled tears – he himself is more likely to howl than weep, when thwarted at some game or hurt in the course of some mischief – but he stirs when Toothless tries to climb into Valka's lap with him. The little dragon nudges him aside insistently, and Hiccup wakes with a sleepy yelp. He pushes back briefly before catching hold of an ear-flap and pulling Toothless closer instead.
She's never bothered to make him a stuffed animal to cuddle with, a replacement for the one left behind on Berk. Her sewing skills may have improved through all the practice necessity has forced on her, but what would he need with a cloth dragon when he has a living one so willing to sleep at his side, warm and purring?
Valka can't restrain a strangled giggle; she clearly has no say in any of this, never mind that it is her lap they are fighting over, and her limbs being thoroughly pummeled by dragon claws and toddler feet. One day very soon they're going to be too big to do this – Toothless' tail and wings already sprawl awkwardly – but she needs the laughter. She needs it so much more than she needs unbruised legs and the air she can't get for a moment as new giggles and leftover tears fight for dominance.
No, she resolves again as they settle, even if her makeshift raft would have worked, she couldn't have taken her son away from this world. He's happy here.
She runs a hand down Hiccup's small back, petting him as if he truly were a dragon or some loyal pet like the hound that used to drift around her cousin's house, and ran after him even on board ship. Dogs were uncommon on Berk – there were a few, traded for or stolen from other tribes and even from beyond the Archipelago – but Valka had held a puppy in her lap when she was a child, and had marveled at the unconditional affection it offered her as it wriggled and barked and licked itself into exhaustion before collapsing into a puddle of patchy grey and brown fur.
Her son is no puppy, and she is determined he will not be a dragon, mute and savage and wild. And yet she wants so much more for him than the life he would have had – that he will have, she still tells herself – back on Berk, a life of war and violence, the cruelty that passes for entertainment during the long winters when the whole town is snowed in and gossip and scratching up old feuds and grudges is all there is to pass the time, the unthinking hatred of the beasts that Hiccup clearly considers family.
Berk was her tribe, but dragons are his. She can't take him away from that, even if she could get away from here. What would it do to him, she wonders, to have strangers tell him that the family he trusts must be his enemies now?
He's still barely more than a baby, and she could tell herself that he won't remember living here. But in her heart, she knows he will.
She will have to think of something else, if she ever wants to see her home and her husband again. If she ever wants to bring her son back to his father and have them be a family again, she will not do it by running away.
She is going to need a new plan.
Her thoughts drift back to Cloudjumper, and again she is sorry that she shouted at him. It is not his fault that he loves her. Love can be instant. She saw her soul reflected in a dragon's eyes, and she loved him too. Love can be selfish: he would do anything for her, she believes, except take her home and let her go. Love can be ruthless. For her son, she would have fought a thousand dragons. For her son, she has spent the past year and a half surviving, scraping out an existence in a strange land.
For her son, can she do more?
For her son, can she go beyond the Viking way? She has been choking on its confines all her life.
Could this, at last, be not a curse but the opportunity she has been looking for, disguised as exile to a world where all the rules are different, where everything is turned on its head? Where dragon and child sleep side by side, where hearts mean more than hereditary enmity?
She remembers that terrifying flight, held in Cloudjumper's claws; she remembers seeing the world from above through the eyes of a dragon. She'd seen further than ever, seen the world as a place where the sea met the sky.
The sea meets the sky, and they make a horizon, full of possibilities.
Can she be more than a prisoner? More than a stolen treasure? Can she do more than survive?
The raft is never going to work. She's not going to fight her way out. That's a Viking way of going at things, and the two of them, she and Hiccup, could be something new.
Cloudjumper loves her, she admits, and she him, and looks at that knowledge anew. She has been blaming that love between them for all the problems and pain that it has caused her, but what if she made that a strength? What could they do, together?
In the depths of the nest, alone with her children and her thoughts, Valka imagines a new home and a new way. She has always believed that dragons and humans can live together, and she realizes that this is her chance to prove it.
It's time to stop fighting.
So she makes her sleeping son a promise. When he wakes up, when he's old enough to understand, when she's made up so many new things to do that they will have endless things to talk about, she'll tell him again. And again. And again. Until they make that vow come true.
"We have two lives," she says aloud to the echoes of her refuge; to the raft that she'll make a bonfire of, sending that ill luck to the pyre it deserves; to the baby dragon she seems to have adopted; to the gods-given son she would do anything for; even to Cloudjumper, in his pain that she will soothe away and apologize for, who she hopes will be the partner she needs in this new way of hers, madness though it may be. "We live in two worlds. And I have to believe…I want to believe…we can have both."
And that will be her freedom. Not an escape, a betrayal of the community that has accepted her and protected her; not a rejection of the truth she saw in dragon eyes. That truth – that love – will be her armor and her sword.
Love will be her wings.
"We're going to bring our worlds together, baby," she tells him and Toothless as they dream, children together, full of possibilities. "You and me. One day. One day."
thanks for reading – Le'letha