Author's Note: There are some terrible people out there who make puns in Greek in a story about Vikings. …Fortunately, I don't know anyone like that.
Continuity: Set in Part Nine, "Valka's Story", of Nightfall, about three years after the short story "Fledglings". If you've never read Nightfall, this story can stand alone.
Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.
Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.
The dragon prowls through the rocks, hunting.
It sets its paws down gently, silently, careful of the scattering stones, and crouches low into the shadows. The very tip of its tail twitches, just once, before falling still, but tension hums through every muscle beneath its ash-smeared scales. Shoulders draw tight and hindquarters drop, poised to pounce as its eyes fix on the last place its quarry was seen. The dragon's jaw parts, trembling with the chattering hunting sound it longs to make, but it holds itself mute.
The smallest of stifled sounds startles it from its crouch, and its head comes up eagerly, scenting at the air. The dragon unfolds its wings, and in a surge of motion, it springs into the air, diving down into the hollow where its target hides.
Valka twitches the edge of her rough cloak out of the way as little dragon and little boy tumble across the sand-covered stone of the cave floor, shrieking and giggling and yowling. Hiccup comes up again at once, rolling to his feet only to leap back upon his best friend and constant shadow in a full-body pounce of his own.
"Gentle, Toothless," Valka murmurs absently as the black dragonet rears up, pawing at the air with all the grace and precision of a flailing oar.
She needn't have said anything, she knows, and it isn't as if either of them is listening to her. Why should they listen to their mother when there's so much running and playing to do, with the boundless energy of children coursing through them?
A few years ago, she would have screamed with horror to see a child run with a dragon in close pursuit, would have snatched up the nearest weapon and chased after them to drive the beast away. Now she doesn't think anything of it. She thought the war between dragons and Vikings was stupid, a needless waste that benefited no one, but even she had never imagined that things could be like this.
Resting curled up against her back, Cloudjumper rumbles, idly watching over her with one half-lidded eye. The human son she bore and the dragon she's sort of adopted chase each other laughing through shafts of sunlight lancing into the spacious, open cave filled with dragons at peace. The dragons doze and chatter to each other and preen and play, undisturbed by the five-year-old and the fledgling clambering over their noses and hiding behind their tails, indistinguishable childish voices blending together joyfully.
Hiccup takes the Nest and its dragon flock for granted. He's lived here almost all his life, since he was only a few months old, since Valka snatched him out of his cradle and away from the claws of a dragon, since the dragon she would later name Cloudjumper stole both of them away from the Viking tribe that should have been Hiccup's birthright and the island that should have been his home and the father who should have loved him. This world of dragons is all he's ever known.
But to Valka every bit of it is magic.
Her breath catches in her throat, and Cloudjumper nudges at her back, a touch that's become as familiar as a dear friend's hand on her shoulder. Valka leans against him, freeing up a hand to scratch beneath his jaw. He closes his eyes all the way in what she's sure is a smile.
"It's okay," she assures him. "I'm happy." And it's true. Gods help her, but it's true.
She sets aside the blanket she was trying to fix after someone with sharp little teeth, whose favorite game is tug-of-war, got hold of it. She rises to her feet just in time for her son to run full-speed into her legs, wrapping his arms around them and babbling "Mamamama mamamama!" as Toothless bounds after him.
"Up, up!" he demands, reaching up to her and beaming.
Valka sweeps him up into her arms and feels her heart overflow as he presses his face to hers and makes that peculiar purring sound he picked up by imitating dragons. She loves her son. She loves him so much, more than she could ever say, more than she ever imagined was possible.
She'd do anything for this wild little boy.
Back on Berk he'd have a helmet already, and a knife sharper than that absurd little axe of a naming gift, Valka thinks as she balances her giggling son on her hip. He'd be getting into fights and singing along with one of any number of brash songs, and imitating the warriors as eagerly as he mimics the dragons that are his tribe here.
Toothless stands up on his hind legs, bracing himself against Valka's thigh with one paw, and bats at Hiccup, both of them chirruping.
She can't quite imagine it. Not her son.
Sometimes she envies him his innocence.
Hiccup croons happily, and insists, "Up!" again, so loud that Valka flinches.
"I heard you," she scolds faintly, scrubbing at her ear with her free hand.
Behind her, Cloudjumper twitches at the familiar word. That first flight held in his claws like a dead sheep had been more than enough, and Valka has been teaching him to carry her on his shoulders, and learning to love to fly.
Up had been easy to teach. She'd carried Hiccup around – and Toothless too when he demanded a turn at this great new game – and invited Cloudjumper to play, first with the babies, and then with her.
Riding a dragon is possibly the single greatest experience Valka has had in the past four, almost five, years.
"Up!" Hiccup insists, struggling in her arms and bouncing. "We go up flying now! Catch a bird, like tha'!" He claps his hands together.
"Well, I don't fly, baby," she tells him, and he eyes her suspiciously.
"Toothless flying," he says, as if this was a winning argument.
"Yes, he is," Valka agrees with him as Toothless races up Cloudjumper's flank – Cloudjumper eyes him resignedly – and takes off into a buzzing hover, slewing through the air and barely missing a melted-looking pillar of stone.
"Hiccup flying," her son concludes. Clearly the matter is closed, and at once he wriggles furiously, squalling and complaining in dragonish sounds until she's forced to release him.
Shrieking like a dragon in an attack dive, Hiccup dashes off, yelling "'ammatons!" as Valka's fingers miss the back of his tunic by a breath. Across the cavern, the two heads of the loud-voiced Zippleback Valka calls Hammer and Tongs come up in response.
Toothless darts around her, half-running and half-flying, before she can catch him instead - catching one of them is as good as catching both. They cry when they're separated, something Valka, overtired and exasperated and at the end of her patience with their antics, had only tried to do once.
Valka growls. She's seen what her son thinks of as flying – especially when Hammer and Tongs are involved – and it terrifies her more than all the fangs and fire on display throughout the hidden sanctuary nest.
Honestly, the next dragon she catches carting him around like a rag doll will find out that a Viking mother – if she can still call herself a Viking – can roar as loud as any dragon.
"Oh, no," she says, setting her hands on her hips. "Not again. Not this time. Cloudjumper?"
Her dragon friend huffs back to her and takes off, soaring as if he was outside in the meadows with nothing but air all around. In a moment he folds all his wings again and stoops to pounce.
He returns with one of her boys held carefully in each claw despite their giggling, shrieking protests, and sets them down delicately. As he fences the errant pair in with his body, Hiccup crawls the few steps over to Toothless and wraps his arms around the dragon's neck so that they can scold Cloudjumper together.
"Thank you, dear," Valka tells Cloudjumper, and refuses to feel guilty about it whatsoever as he turns his eyes to meet hers.
She holds his gaze, and wonders at that shock of recognition – and more than recognition, Cloudjumper loves her – still.
From the beginning Valka has spoken to him as if she expected him to understand her and to answer, and she knows he listens. She's fallen into the habit of talking to him as she would to someone back on Berk who just didn't talk much, someone who responded to every overture with grunts, and otherwise holds his tongue.
But what Cloudjumper can't say in words, she can see in his eyes and his actions, and Valka has had enough of heartbreak, of fighting what she feels and hurting them both by it.
"Some days I can't believe that this is my life now," she says to the devotion in his eyes, as her – as their – children play at his feet, distracted by pebbles to be stolen from each other. Toothless scrapes them together and crouches over them, and Hiccup prowls around him shifting easily from standing to all fours, little hands darting out to grab at the pebbles whenever he thinks Toothless isn't looking.
Eggs, Valka recognizes with a corner of her awareness. They're playing at guarding a nest full of eggs.
"But it is. I can't do this alone, and I shouldn't have to. And I don't have to. I have you."
She reaches out a hand, and he ducks his head to nose at it, and Valka follows as if her hand were a lodestone. Cloudjumper nuzzles her, breathing over her like a kiss, and she hugs him.
"Thank you," she tells him.
A while ago, a quarrel had broken out on the shores of the king's lake. There had been at least a dozen dragons snarling and roaring at each other, puffing out their chests and flaming at nothing at all, and Valka had been baffled until she'd seen the smug-looking splotched dragon sitting neatly in the midst of them. They'd pranced and fought and preened to impress her until at last she'd taken off flying with her suitors close on her tail, and later the ones she'd rejected had returned sulking and raging, rattling through the caves and picking fights.
Cloudjumper had herded Valka into a corner and stood guard over her, protecting her and hissing at anyone that had come near them.
Mine, she'd imagined him saying at the time, and it had burned in her heart like a coal, to be wanted. She is mine, he'd growled, and in that moment she had been, and unashamed. She had needed that warmth and that affection, to be safe and protected, to feel like she belongs and is welcome in this strange world she's found herself in, more than she ever knew.
When she'd chosen to declare herself one of them, taking the side of dragons against the humans who set traps for them, something had broken free inside her, set loose from a snare of her own.
At first it had felt like betrayal of the husband she still hopes to return to. But it doesn't count, surely. Surely. It's not the same. Stoick would understand, she tells herself, and knows she's lying.
She's betrayed no one, harmed no one. It would hurt Cloudjumper if she did not love him in return, and she would hurt for him.
So she hugs Cloudjumper as best she can, and hopes he understands, and that one day, Stoick will too.
A tug at her mantling skirt draws her away, and she looks down to see Hiccup holding up a handful of pebbles – and the iridescent carapace of a beetle – towards her.
"Mama play too?" he offers. "Pretty. See?"
"Thank you, baby," she tells him, smiling even as she scrubs at her eyes with her sleeve. "But let's play a different game."
His gaze goes past her to the discarded torn-apart blanket, and he edges away guiltily. Valka chuckles. "No, I'll fix that later," she assures him. "Come on. Enough running for you."
Eventually, Hiccup agrees to sit in her lap on a lump of stone and draw with her on a piece of driftwood she'd sanded flat over the course of the last long winter. Toothless rests his jaw on the board and goes almost cross-eyed trying to look down at Hiccup's pictures. Her son chirps at him and draws a careful line across the black dragon's skull, and Toothless endures this indignity with great patience.
The little boy sketches deliberately, determinedly, broad patterns and formless shapes that eventually resolve into a two-headed dragon as he whistles and chatters to Toothless with the occasional bit of Norse thrown in. Valka catches more than one mention of "'ammatons!" while she makes small marks around the edges, resting her cheek on her son's mop of auburn hair and breathing in his familiar mixed-together scent of dragon nest and human boy.
But then, other days Valka doesn't remember there's a world outside this hidden realm, that there are people who might think that her family is strange.
Valka is just trying to repair a stick figure that has somehow gone horribly wrong when she realizes that Hiccup has frozen, tense and interested, listening intently to a cluster of dragons that have alighted on a high ledge. They're treading all over each other in their excitement, crowing triumphantly, and even Cloudjumper has turned to look at them as they strut and preen. He, too, twitches with interest, glancing back at Valka and tipping his head slightly in what looks like thought.
"What are they talking about?" Valka asks her son.
"Bad things all gone," he answers promptly, chuckling in dragon sounds as she smiles and musses his hair. She can guess at what dragons mean, what they want, why they're unhappy – Hiccup knows.
Suddenly, a lot of eyes seem to be turned on mother and child and fledgling at her feet, and Valka shifts uncomfortably, confused.
Hiccup pats her wrist. "No scared," he tells her cheerfully.
She's blinking at him, taken aback, when Cloudjumper crouches on his forewings to nip delicately at her sleeve, catching a single fang in the fabric and tugging at her hand.
"What –" Valka stutters, recognizing the invitation. "Where are we going?"
"Go flying!" Hiccup translates without having to be asked. "Cl'jump'r say! Finding!"
There's nothing for it but to kilt up her heavy dragon-proof skirt around her warm leggings, and try to wrangle Hiccup into the rough flight gear she'd made for him, and refuse to play tug-of-war with Toothless when her fostered fledgling runs off to fetch Cloudjumper's simple and straightforward harness but then refuses to give it up to her without a fight, and bite back curses as she untangles the mess Toothless has made of the straps by running through the caves with all of it trailing, and in the record time of less than the rest of the day they're ready to go.
There's no question of leaving her boys behind. She could leave them here. They'd be safe. She can't watch them every moment anymore, and they're up and about while she sleeps as often as not.
It's not that the dragons would harm Hiccup – Toothless is, of course, right at home. Hiccup can pounce at them, and get underfoot, and snatch things back from them, and they let him. Valka has seen him take a scrap of hide right out of jaws that could have devoured him in a single bite without stopping to chew. (She'd then had to step in to take the wretched, slobbery thing away from him before he could put it in his own mouth.) At most, some of the more irritable will pick him up and move him elsewhere.
Hiccup is like one of their own hatchlings, treated with the same patient resignation and what Valka often thinks is overly permissive tolerance. They'd even probably stop him from hurting himself by accident, although teaching dragons what human kids can and cannot do is a catch-as-catch-can sort of problem. In the end Hiccup is more of a danger to himself than any dragons are to him.
Knowing all that as she does, Valka can't fight the compulsion to keep him as close as she can. Some part of her will always be hovering over that cradle as her too-small newborn fights for breath.
"I wish you could tell me what this is all about," she says to Cloudjumper as he turns cooperatively to let her pull a link of his harness tight. Behind her, Hiccup successfully escapes from his own flying gear and drapes it over Toothless, clucking in imitation of her as the dragonet's tongue lolls with laughter.
Cloudjumper shifts from paw to paw, and blinks at her slowly, amused. It's not quite a smile, but she understands it.
"And all I'd get from you is 'It's a surprise', wouldn't I?" Valka asks him rhetorically, patting his shoulder before sighing and moving the flight gear from Toothless back to Hiccup again.
Valka is never, never, never going to tire of the first bright shock of flight on dragonback, of going from shrouded caverns to blazing sun and open air, of the wind whipping across her face and ripping at her clothes, of the way her knuckles turn white as she grips Cloudjumper's harness, of the indescribable feeling of leaving the ground where she'd walked all her life, blind to the wonder above.
The earth loses its grip on her, and she soars.
The first time she'd flown, really flown, of her own choice and her own free will, when everything had gone right and Cloudjumper had finally believed that she wasn't going to scream and fall, a memory she hadn't thought of in years had crawled out of some dark place and breathed in new life.
She'd been small – she'd been so small. Small enough to be picked up in her father's hands, and young enough to trust him absolutely to catch her when he'd laughed and thrown her into the air, and innocent enough to believe for a single perfect moment that she'd never have to come down again.
She'd almost forgotten that sense of wonder, until she and Cloudjumper had flown together as a team.
Now she whoops with laughter as her dragon-companion soars, spiraling over the meadows, and close beside her, Hiccup purrs with pure delight.
Toothless catches up with them quickly, following in Cloudjumper's wake as they dart through the busy skies, dipping around a great lazy hovering thing Valka thinks of as one of the Floaters and veering away from a blazing orange Singetail and something small and quick and purple. The color clash alone is enough to make her flinch, and she's half tempted to cover Hiccup's ears as they scream what sounds like insults at each other.
In a blink the spires of ice are left behind, and she knows when Cloudjumper is going to settle into a steadier flight a moment before he actually does, the strong current of the relentless wind familiar.
They're in the air for some time, but Valka can't bring herself to care about the cold of the far north on her face or the twisted-askew strap that's cutting into her ankle.
With Cloudjumper, she's as free as she's ever been.
She's almost sorry when he slows and backwings, shifting into a hover, and only then does she think to look down.
High cliffs stand defiant of the sea, and the unfamiliar island stretches out to the horizon even as they fly, but below… For a moment the shapes on the headland, facing the ocean, don't make sense. They're all wrong. They're regular and deliberate and out of place, and –
Valka cries out, and the wind whips her voice away as she realizes that Cloudjumper is taking her to a place with the once-familiar blocky shapes of buildings, and the elegant curves of a half-built boat. As they descend she can make out the sharp lines of fences, and the shadows of alleys, and the open flat spaces of paths, and to her surprise she finds one of her own hands locked over her mouth, holding in the whimpers of shock and confusion.
Oh gods, she wants to cry, people! Human people!
Part of her wants to scream to him no, no, take me back, I don't want to!
Part of her is wailing yes, yes, finally, I've been so lonely!
Valka hasn't seen a human face since Cloudjumper took her from Berk almost five years ago, except for her son's, and every so often she's caught herself thinking of him as a dragon. Sometimes he doesn't seem quite human, as he sleeps entwined with hatchlings almost his own size, and babbles back to dragons in their own language, and growls with his delicate features wrinkled into a squeaking snarl that bares only baby teeth.
She's been able to tell herself that he's a baby – admittedly he's five, but he's a weird five – and children are all little animals at that age anyway, but she's horrified every time she catches herself at it.
In all that time Cloudjumper has never once taken her anywhere near a human settlement. She'd spotted a sail above the horizon once, as he carried her, and he had turned and fled. He'd kept her half a prisoner in the Nest until she'd resigned herself to making it her home and grown to love it, and for a while she'd wondered what she'd do if she could escape. Is it my duty to run? she'd asked herself, and eventually that nagging question had become do I want to run?
She doesn't ask anymore. She's learned to think of dragons as her people, setting aside as a wistful memory the company of people she could have a real, rational, adult conversation with. She's learned to fly with Cloudjumper. She's seen the wounds human hunters and trappers have inflicted on the dragons who have been her neighbors and her friends, who come to her when their friends have been snared, or when they're wounded, or when they're baffled by something.
The memory of the Scuttleclaw that tried to bring her an oar, and succeeded only in knocking the pole and the blade of it into a score of dragons as he searched for her, and wailed so terribly when his prize was burnt from his jaws by an aggrieved Timberjack, never fails to evoke a smile.
She'd thought she had chosen.
Cloudjumper settles to the ground, kicking up dust, and Valka hides her face against his side. The hand over her mouth doesn't seem enough, and she sets her teeth into her wrist to muffle a sound halfway between a scream of longing and a shriek of terror.
For a moment, more than anything, she wants to run home, back to her caves.
But the roar of outrage she expects fails to greet them; no protest is raised against the huge, exotic-looking dragon landing among the buildings of a human village. Grateful for the reprieve, Valka fumbles with her own flight gear and can't suppress a shudder as her feet touch down.
When she manages to focus, the sight strikes the breath from her lungs.
Timbers slump against each other, jutting out from caved-in roofs, broken near in two and splintered away from the pegs that once held them in place. Deep slashes mar wooden walls. Pieces of fencing have been dragged away from their posts and discarded across the trodden-flat earth of a small road.
A sullen fire smolders beneath an overturned wagon, fed by the matted straw spilling from a second wagon knocked atop it by some great blow. Broken pieces of mortar like jagged fangs stab at the air from less than half of a stone wall.
And everywhere, the traces of dragons. Deep footprints trodden into the verges have been fixed into mud scorched dry by fire. The low platform she'd seen from above has a dark hole broken through the middle of it, as if something heavy had folded its wings and plunged from a great height, and an area on the edge of town has been scorched black. Even the dust beneath Cloudjumper's feet is the ashes of a field.
This place has been attacked, and burned, and destroyed, and there are dragons prowling through it now, smoke wafting in eddies around their spikes and horns.
Valka reels with horror, snatching her hand back from Cloudjumper's flank where she'd placed it reflexively, as if his scales had suddenly grown hot enough to burn. Darkness creeps across her vision, the memories of nights upon nights of fear and battle and despair, of hopelessness and helplessness.
For a moment the destroyed village is the one she'd grown up in and the streets she'd run through, the shadows of the buildings the familiar houses and small shops and gathering places.
She has wandered off and fallen asleep beneath an elf-hill, and a lifetime has passed as she dreamed a pretty fantasy, and returned to find everyone she knew and loved dead and her abandoned life long since dust.
"No," she breathes, as the sharp stink of dragon-fire chokes her, as she staggers away from the dragon she'd been tricked into trusting, the safe refuge that was a cruel lie. "No – oh, gods, no. No." For a moment, it's all she can say, and then her battered heart swells with fury.
"I thought you were different!" Valka wails. "I thought you were better!"
She gulps in a breath, and screams, "How could you?"
At the familiar rustle of Cloudjumper's wings, she tears her eyes away from the devastation and turns on him. "How could you bring me here?" she shouts, near to weeping for the first time in years. "How could you do this to me? I trusted you!"
She barely registers the puzzlement in Cloudjumper's eyes, or the way he crouches submissively beneath the rage in her voice. She can't see her mismatched boys staring at her from the shelter of his broad-frilled ruff.
"Why did you –" she manages. "How –" Some part of her knows that Cloudjumper has been with her all day, that the fires still burning are recent, that this is not his fault specifically, but she feels the betrayal as if he had set this whole town alight himself.
Cloudjumper whines anxiously, taking small shuffling steps towards her, nudging the air, seeking her touch.
She recoils, and he whimpers, looking from her to the destroyed village, back to her, clearly baffled.
"I'm no traitor!" Valka screams at him, the word an old wound broken open as she realizes that he thought she wouldn't care. Even she had thought she'd changed sides well and good and regretted nothing – until now.
With a baffled cry, Cloudjumper sidles away. Through the tempest roaring through her skull, Valka can hear Hiccup and Toothless wail in bafflement of their own, and see him turn his head all the way around like an owl to comfort them despite his own misery.
And it hurts, it hurts for the first time in a long time that a dragon should be the one to quiet them.
She stumbles across ground she's never touched before, that feels like a home she thought she'd set aside, that looks like nightmares, and fights for control, commanding herself not to cry.
How long she stands there trembling, arms wrapped around her chest to keep her heart from bleeding out into the dust, she doesn't know. But small things creep into her awareness, scratching at the slammed door of her anger and betrayal, pleading for her attention.
The air smells of fire, but not of death, and not at all of humans. There's no smell of baking bread, no stink of steel or sweat, no whiff of shipwright's tar or a tanner's pit. The buildings are flimsy and old, overgrown by crawling vines and collapsing even before a Shovelhelm walks into one and startles away at the sound of its fall. That small ship is lying in disarray; half-rotted, not half-built. The wood of the platform moans and cracks like first ice as the silly little dragon she calls Scatterbrain scuttles across it, and Scatterbrain can weigh no more than Valka does herself.
There's too much damage, even for scavenging dragons investigating clumsily. There are a lot of broken-down carts, and strange shapes finally register as collapsed crates.
Scraping together her courage as her heart cries with doubt, Valka looks again.
Dragons may have destroyed this place, but long ago, long enough for the land to reclaim it and blunt its edges. The fires are fresh – part of it has been recently burned to a wasteland – but no human foot has walked here for a generation at least.
The rush of relief that sweeps over Valka is indescribable. These are the bones of a human settlement, but they are old and long-abandoned ones.
And this isn't a village. It can't be. It's not sturdy enough. No one could live here, not for long. There are no stocky, resilient houses, and any fields have gone feral beneath the encroaching wild scrub grass. Before they gave way beneath neglect and the unforgiving winter, these might have been market stalls, and trading booths, and impromptu gathering places, but now there is no trace of humans to be seen.
It's the remains of a market, something seasonal and fleeting, that her children are playing in, glancing over at her with wide-eyed concern while they pull leaves from the ivy to present to each other and clamber across the wreckage in play. Cloudjumper lurks on the edges of her vision, watching over Hiccup and Toothless in her stead as they explore.
They're something familiar in the whirlpool Valka finds herself caught in, so she watches them as Toothless drags a mostly intact bucket around by its handle, letting go only so Hiccup can pick it up and immediately put it on his head, chuckling at the way his dragonish whistles echo within it.
They scramble through the remains of a market stall to greet a dragon scraping its jaw against the sun-bleached skeleton of an upturned, oversized coracle. Several Shockjaws harass a wagon as if it were a rival standing against them, shoving it with their shoulders until they push it off what remains of its snapped-through axles, and startle and flee at the resulting crash.
At one edge of the market, a devastated area is black with fresh soot, the source of most of the smoke wafting over them all. Dragons snarl towards it and turn away and stalk off with their heads high and eyes flashing spitefully.
Hiccup pads back to Cloudjumper, little hands full, and holds up a still-bright handful of amber beads that flash in the sun. He whistles imperiously before glancing over at Valka, anticipating a rebuke and hurriedly demanding instead, "Look a', Cl'jump'r!"
Cloudjumper dutifully looks at the little boy's prize, and the bronze ladle that Toothless finds and Valka finds herself coveting, pitted and ancient as it is. He patiently inspects the bucket, and the fistful of brightly dyed fabric scraps even as they crumble to dust in her little son's hands, but the single shining arrowhead brings an immediate warning cry and a precisely delicate swat of a wing-claw.
Hiccup cringes repentantly as Cloudjumper scrapes at the ground, burying it like something disgusting. But almost at once he and Toothless are off on their delighted treasure hunt once more, unflustered.
With every new discovery, Cloudjumper glances over the heads of five-year-old and fledgling, trying to catch Valka's glazed-over eyes.
Her heart is no longer thrashing in agony and her stomach no longer threatens to revolt at the smell of smoke, but still her hands tremble and she's having to remember to blink.
Something nudges her shoulder as she stares at the smashed remains of a cast-aside footstool, and Valka startles like a dragon herself. Cloudjumper flinches, the lines of his wings going tight, as he holds the discarded ladle carefully in his jaws.
Her voice is thin and hollow, when she finds it. "Is that for me?"
Here, here, here, he urges her.
When she takes it from him, his eyes brighten. He waves his wings slightly as his ruff spreads out, and he rises from his distressed cower.
Some dragons think it's such a good game, to bring things to her.
"You brought me to things?" she asks in a very small voice, remembering Hiccup chirping "Finding!" a hundred years ago.
Cloudjumper whines apology, eyes cutting sideways at the ancient, abandoned market, body begging forgiveness.
This isn't the end of a war.
This was lost long ago, and she prays that it was taken with no more damage done than Valka does herself, snapping snares. All she's done is keep captured dragons in the fight to hold their own territory against the men who hunt them.
"Oh, gods," she says, barely more than a breath. "I'm so sorry, Cloudjumper – I thought…I thought…"
Gods, she'd thought him a monster, thought her friends and her adopted people monsters. She's been trying so hard, wanting so much to belong, and still that suspicion she'd been taught all her life lingers.
It's easier, after that. Easier to pick through the overgrown, ancient wreckage with the little ones as they wonder at the strange human things, and easier for her to enjoy the sight of a horizon with her feet on the ground, without the high cliffs of the sanctuary nest in the way.
Cloudjumper stands guard, visibly cheered by the eventual success of his surprise, as she piles up still-intact fabric and slightly chewed pelts and unbroken bowls, odds and ends she knows she'll use until they wear to nothing. More arrows lie scattered about, here and there, but both Hiccup and Toothless echo Cloudjumper's warning when she reaches for one.
What she can't work out is where the dragons are finding the food. She sees a small blue dragon shoving a crate across the ground until a bigger one looms over him and smashes it with a single paw. The two hiss and snap at each other even as they devour the contents. Uncertainty creeps through her again even as she chuckles at the sight of a Nightmare shaking what turns out to be a sack of apples – the sack breaks and they roll everywhere.
Hiccup discovers that he likes the taste of apples much more than that of amber, and shares one with Toothless while Valka confiscates the easily-swallowed beads. Toothless makes doubtful faces as he chews.
"Apple," she names the next one for Hiccup.
Her son wrinkles his snub nose at her – something like don't be silly in dragon signals – and makes a crunching sound that sounds exactly like biting into an apple. Try as she might, she can't convince him otherwise.
But the remains of the market haunt her, with dragons padding among the ruins, smashing things in play and marking this place as theirs with scent and claws as they hiss at each other and yowl and argue.
Hiccup and Toothless play fearlessly among them, darting away from Valka on small expeditions and racing back to her side. More than once, and not for the first time, she sees Hiccup perched on his little friend's shoulders, as happy to ride as he is to run.
It won't be long before they're in the air together – it's all too easy to imagine. They're going to be unstoppable. And then however will she watch over them?
Cloudjumper shuffles through the kicked-up dust, pacing some boundary between being close to her and staying away in case she's still upset, and she winces.
"It's okay," she assures him, reaching out a hand. "Come on. Come here."
It's like remembering how to breathe again when he sidles against her and nudges her affectionately, all forgiven.
"What happened over there?" she asks after a while, taking a break from petting him to point at the burnt-out area not far away.
He shows his teeth and hisses at it even as he pushes her in the other direction, hustling her away. All his spines and fins bristle, making him bigger and more threatening – or more defensive.
"No," Valka argues with him, setting her feet, "I want to see. I want to know things, Cloudjumper. I only like mysteries if I get at least a chance to solve them."
Sheer stubbornness gives her the victory, and she dodges around him and picks her way towards the field of ashes, part of her noticing yet another arrow sunk deep into the side of a broken cart, and another, spent in the earth, that she steps over warily. The dragons who know her click at her in concern as she passes them. The blackened earth beneath her boots is still warm in places, and she recognizes the blast patterns of some of the dragon species that live in the Alpha's hidden nest.
"No no!" a familiar high, clear voice wails, and Valka turns around to see Hiccup standing in Cloudjumper's shadow, fists clenched, eyes narrowed. He stamps one small foot. "No! Bad there bad things biting."
Between his own dark scales and the dirt muddying the shine of them, Toothless is barely visible hunkered beneath Cloudjumper's belly, but he creeps out to nip at the trailing hem of Hiccup's tunic, trying to pull him away. Even muffled, Valka can hear him whining.
Hiccup turns on him and whistles, and they argue quickly and unintelligibly in dragon sounds. Valka understands the gist of it just from watching Hiccup's hands wave and gesture – Hiccup wants to run after her, but neither he nor Toothless want to go anywhere near the ashes.
"I don't understand, baby," she calls back as gently as she can. "Why is it bad? There's nothing hiding here." There's nothing to hide behind. Nothing else about the market has been treated this way – time and the earth have taken everything that hasn't been stepped on, or scorched by accident, or used as a scratching post, or simply investigated to destruction.
Her son grimaces, at once disgusted and afraid and angry. "Bad bad bad!" he shrieks, his words dissolving into a dragon's scream. Valka spots several reptilian heads that turn to look for him, concerned. He collapses to the ground and hides his face against Toothless' shoulder, and when he falls silent, Toothless yowls for him, sharing his childish temper.
Valka chews on her lip uneasily, but her curiosity proves stronger, and she goes on, advancing tentatively through the wasteland. What happened here? What makes this place different? It looks like a battle has been waged here, the earth blasted and scorched unforgivingly beneath dragons' fires.
And here, at last, are the marks of a recent human presence.
Recently she's dug up all her remembered forest lore, learning anew how to follow someone through the woods, how to see tracks. Her prey is not the humans in whose footsteps she follows, but the traps they leave for unwary dragons.
Still, she can see boot prints when someone heavy has run through dust. She counts fourteen forgotten arrows, scattered about in their falls back to earth, their fledging burnt but points still bright. She nearly trips over a tent peg, the ropes and canvas of the rest of it only ashes. Clay fragments might be from broken bottles, their scorched pieces scattered. And if the ring of stones and fallen timbers isn't the random scattering of time, but deliberate –
Humans came here, and then dragons – probably the same ones that came back to the caves crowing smugly – chased them away again, away from an island that dragons have taken over for their own.
They're subtle signs, but Valka can read them.
And then she finds an obvious one.
Sifting through the ashes, she turns over debris, searching for anything that will tell her what brought the human travelers here. It doesn't tell her much, and then she flips over a board that flashes as brightly as dragon scales.
Voiceless with disbelief, Valka stares the story drawn across this one, of small yellow dragons in cages, and held in great hands, their fangs dripping venom into a bottle. Grinning Vikings dip bright-tipped arrows into that bottle, and archers bring down dragons in a single shot. Drawn dragons fall convulsing from the sky, and the Vikings' fellows offer silver to the people with dragons in their fists.
The sound that tears from her throat is a snarl of revulsion at the story it tells and the trade it's offering, and a cry of fear.
Not just travelers, chased away from here, but poisoners.
She and her son can break traps that catch and hold dragons, but they and their friends will be helpless against poison that kills.
Closing her eyes tightly, Valka whispers something half a curse and half a blessing, remembering Cloudjumper knocking that arrow away from her child's unguarded hands.
Biting at her lip to draw herself back from the terrible pictures that paint themselves across her imagination, she stalks to the edge of the burnt-out campsite, following the tracks in earnest. The story of the camp ends with the lines of wheels cutting through the grass and into the earth, fleeing into the rugged hills and sharp valleys of the island beyond.
The hunters have gotten away, their carts heavily laden. She remembers the cages on the poisoners' sign, and wonders if there might be something – someone – she can still save.
The thought of poison makes her want to turn and fly home, and hide herself and her little boys and everyone she loves in the darkest cave she can find.
But nightmares are strongest in the darkness, and it would eat away at her, knowing that there were people out there who can strike down dragons so easily. If she's ever going to sleep again, she can't run.
She marches back to the solemnly watching dragons, seething to break into those missing cages. Struggling to unlock her jaw from its clench, she grits out, "Good work, everyone. I'm sorry I shouted. I didn't know."
"Bad things," Hiccup says, at her feet.
Dropping to her knees, she hugs her son to her. "Yes," she agrees with him, cold trickling through her veins as it occurs to her that he's been talking about bad things ever since those dragons came home triumphant. "Very bad things. But not while I'm around. I promise." Toothless pushes against her side, and she folds him into the embrace too. He tucks his head under hers and blinks against her throat.
It hurts to let go of them, but she does, rising to meet the eyes of every dragon she can. "You did good," she tells them again. She hesitates, and says the words anyway.
"My hunt now."
She has to send Hiccup and Toothless home.
This, in itself, presents a problem.
They trail after her, simply happy to be away from the bad things of cages and human digs through her pile of scavenged treasures and comes up with a dirk that fits her hand. Most swords are simply too big for her. It's not much of a weapon anymore, but she saws the worst of the burned bits off a long pole, making a crude but workable quarterstaff to replace the one left at home.
She ties together makeshift carry-sacks and hides them away to come back for later. As she does, her boys flit around, helping in their own unhelpful way by bringing her things she's forgotten – like small rocks, and big leaves, and an interesting chunk of wood, and half of a badly bruised apple.
While she works, Valka looks over the assembled dragons for someone she knows she can trust with her dragonish son and his foster-brother. Normally they go everywhere with her, even venturing out into the world beyond the ice. Hiccup considers breaking into dragon traps and taking them apart a fantastic game.
But not this time, Valka resolves. Not this one.
She won't take them into danger on purpose. She won't risk them so carelessly. They aren't ready to face a foe that will almost certainly fight back, or to outfly poison arrows.
And besides, one day – one day, she swears – she's going to take Hiccup back to Berk, and he's going to be able to talk to the dragons there, and she's going to have faith in Stoick to forgive her enough to listen to, and together they're all going to stop a war.
Until that day, she's not going to teach Hiccup to start one.
In the end, she has to ambush them, sweeping up Toothless and struggling to lift him. The little dragon stares at her in frozen disbelief as she hands him off to Sunny Girl. He only starts to howl when the sweet-natured golden dragon wraps her three deceptively fearsome-looking claws around him and clasps him to her chest, sitting back on her hindquarters. The maneuver puts Sunny Girl's head far above Valka's, but she lowers it again to stare patiently at Hiccup, who hides in the wind-whipped grass, mewling, and looks around as if not understanding where Toothless has gone.
"Go on," Valka urges him, rubbing his back. "Go with Sunny Girl. It's okay."
His eyes go wide, and Valka's heart wrenches. Gods, he's adorable. "Go wi' mama," he insists.
"Not right now," she refuses. "Mama and Cloudjumper are going to go break cages and chase bad things away. We'll come back."
"Hiccup an' Toothless chase bad thin's!" and he snarls.
"Next time," she has to promise him before he slinks off to Sunny Girl's placidly outstretched claws, sulking with every step.
It's hard to watch Sunny Girl carry them away, but Valka tucks herself into Cloudjumper's shoulder and grounds herself against her partner and the righteous fury boiling in her gut.
Valka would like words with hunters who put small dragons in cages and then use them to kill bigger ones. Having tasted flight and freedom for herself, how could she not hate the thought of cages? How could she turn away?
Not with Cloudjumper backing her up. Not when those hunters might threaten their family someday.
Cloudjumper keeps glancing at her as if checking that she really and truly wants to go towards hunters. Valka refuses to look back.
She keeps her eyes fixed on the earth beneath his wings as her friend flies in pursuit, watching for the carts that left those tracks, and every time he seems to sigh and look away. But he holds to the trail as she resettles her tied-together, scavenged armor, the plates of it rattling in the wind even when she pulls her layers of moth-eaten cloak tight around herself to mute them. At least one of them is an actual plate. She'd punched rough holes in it and threaded the leather cord that never leaves her pockets through them even as Cloudjumper circled and ranged out over the shores of the island.
He'd found her a battered ship, beached and with the marks of recent repairs, fresh stitches tracking their way through the sun-bleached sail. But driftwood and brush had been stacked up to hide its wide-bellied shape, and nothing moved nearby except an inquisitive seagull that vanished into the brush as soon as Cloudjumper's long shadow fell over it.
"No one here," Valka had said, unable to hide the relief in her voice. "Well, I wouldn't want to go to sea in that if I thought dragons were after me. You're much faster."
And she could have sworn that Cloudjumper looked smug.
Valka had rested her chin on her hand and thought, but not for very long. "Further inland. That's where I'd hide. Let's go, Cloudjumper!" she'd cried, and he'd taken off in a leap great enough to snap her teeth together.
He trusts her too, and that breaks her heart and patches it back together again with every pulse.
She doesn't want to take him into danger, either, but those imaginary dragons, twisted in agony as they fall, haunt her. That's what awaits the dragons who have become her tribe, who have treated her and her son with affection, who have been patient and made her welcome in their midst.
What is she, after all, next to a dragon? She can't fly. She can't hunt. She can't breathe fire, or spit venom, or blast their enemies with ice. They need nothing she can make with her hands. She can barely even speak to them.
But she can spot dangers for them, and act to protect them.
Her hands shake at the thought of it as she ties her hair back, making a normally difficult task impossible, and she spits a curse at poison and dragon trappers and her unraveling braid all.
Whatever trail Cloudjumper is carefully following, Valka can't see it from up here. She wishes briefly to be down on the ground herself, tracking boot prints and broken branches and bruised grass. She's had chance enough to practice, learning the telltale signs of hidden wire snares and traps that could eat a bear alive.
And then her dragon-companion clears a ridge of glacial stone that would have taken her the rest of the day to navigate through or around, with no more than a single beat of his wide-spread wings, and Valka rolls her eyes at herself and pats his shoulder affectionately as he sets down in the lee of the stones.
Sliding from his back and landing heavily – stupid armor – Valka crouches down at his side as Cloudjumper lowers his flat nose towards the earth and his nostrils flare. When he raises his head again, she understands that he's asking again if she wants to go on. Danger, he warns, shifting uneasily.
"Yes," she tells him, striking her staff against the earth. "Cages, Cloudjumper. Traps. And –"
She breaks off, trying to put her thoughts into words, and he waits patiently.
"Poison scares me," Valka says. "Do you remember a few months ago, when Ragamuffin and Evergreen and everyone got sick? Gods, that was awful. I felt helpless – I was helpless! I watched them sneeze and snuffle and lurch around miserable, and I wanted to do something, but what do I know about healing? What could I do if someone made you suffer like that? I'd have to watch –" and she can't go on.
He cocks his head at her.
"Nothing," she answers his unspoken question. "Nothing I could do at all."
Hiccup had thought the errant blasts of fire from sneezing dragons a great joke. Valka had had to pick him up and haul him away when she'd caught him crouched on an ailing dragon's muzzle, tickling at the unfortunate creature's nose with a grass stalk, and squealing with laughter when the resulting sneeze bounced him up and down.
Some days, that little boy of hers…
"And I can watch Hiccup, I can stop him from splashing about in the ocean and freezing himself blue, and hopefully that rascal Sneakypants won't ever try to feed him a dead mouse again –"
Cloudjumper squints his eyes closed in a smile at the exasperation in her voice, and Valka sticks out her tongue at him childishly. At least Cloudjumper doesn't interpret an open mouth as "I'm hungry, feed me!" But her silliness withers away at once.
"But I can't watch you and I can't watch everyone. I can't watch all of you all the time. So let me do this, Cloudjumper," she pleads. "Let me pour a kettle over this blaze before it burns the whole house down."
Her friend chuffs at her, as if he'd never had any doubt, and turns to bring the hand on his scales to the nearest harness strap.
"I don't deserve you," Valka tells him, and climbs.
For a while, they fly low across the island's hills, white with permafrost where the wind has chapped the thin soil away. Valka stares down into valleys and peers into the gaps between thin and twisted trees. She misses trees – real, big trees. There aren't any in the king's sanctuary.
There'd been a time in her life when she couldn't see a tree without trying to climb it, and more often than not she'd been happy to spend the day up there. There'd been a red-haired older boy twice her size who'd been fond of throwing acorns at her to try to get her down, on account of she was determined to be a squirrel anyway. He'd been so outraged when she'd started bringing a slingshot up there with her…
She really misses that boy.
No flicker of a campfire betrays the hunters' presence, and Cloudjumper's sudden veer away catches Valka by surprise, dragging her from her half-guilty reminiscence. In glances between his beating wings, she catches glimpses of shapes hidden among a small cluster of rocks, looking like nothing more than rocks themselves.
But rocks don't dig long firebreaks through the low scrub grass surrounding the outcropping. Rocks don't have wheels. Rocks don't post sentries, wrapped in dark fur cloaks and hidden in the shadows of stones. Rocks don't stand guard with bows held ready as the light of the slowly setting sun glints from arrowheads.
"That's them," Valka hisses, unnecessarily. "Careful, dear…"
Cloudjumper backwings long before his shadow can reach them, secondary wings breaking away to steady him as they sink towards the earth. As he lands, Valka closes her eyes tightly, seeing the glimpse of the hunters' camp over and over again, thinking frantically.
It would be so easy to ask Cloudjumper to attack without warning, to burn them out. She knows how terrifying he can be. She's cowered not inches from his flames with claws wrapped around her chest and the baby held tight against her. She saw him fight to defend her from other dragons, early on.
But the thought sickens her.
Unfaithful in spirit she may be, but that is a betrayal Valka is unwilling to commit.
So Valka dismounts and tugs at her improvised, rust-smirched armor once more, shifting pieces of it where they've rucked up against each other and trapped bits of clothing and hair. As she does, she realizes that she always meant to do this – what would she need with armor, for a single strike without warning, and from the sky?
Gods, she feels ridiculous. The whole array is almost – almost, mind – more ridiculous than the armor Gobber had made for her as a wedding gift, and as a joke that had gotten out of hand. Stoick's best friend – and her friend too, inevitably – had offered to make her a special set of ceremonial armor for her wedding, fit for a Viking chieftain's bride.
Between them, it had gotten silly in the planning, and silly had been what had been made, and after all was said and done, Stoick had laughed hard enough to hurt himself at the sight of her in it, and she'd laughed with him. Not a bit of it was actually wearable. She couldn't move in it. There was room for another one of her in it as well, and possibly a third.
But she'd looked more like a Viking warrior woman out of legend than she ever had before, or ever would again.
She's sure of this, now.
It's easier to grin to herself at the memory of that breastplate than to run whimpering from the thought of humans looking at her as the enemy, the thought that she is choosing to face them as an enemy. She hides the mismatched metal beneath her many-layered cloak, and straps the blunt and rusted dirk to her waist for the look of it. Her quarterstaff is at least a familiar weapon in her hand, although she wishes for her favorite driftwood staff. Even a small woman with a quarterstaff can hold off a warrior, if she keeps her wits and her footing and her hands steady.
Valka's hands are shaking. Curses.
What does she imagine she is, but a lone young mother in mismatched armor? It's not even a very big stick.
Cloudjumper growls as he stands over her, dropping a wing between her and the camp just over the rise they're sheltering behind. He snaps at her staff, trying to take it from her, but she holds on gamely.
"Give it back! I need it!" she hisses at him.
He narrows his eyes in censure, looking from her to the camp, clearly insisting that she get on his back again and stay with him.
"No," Valka tells him. Iron creeps into her voice like gods' lightning sprouting from the sand. "We're better than that. I don't want to fight them. That'll just make things worse. I don't even want to hurt them!" She gulps. "I just don't want them to hurt us. And I want them to let those tiny dragons go. Just because they're not big doesn't mean they don't matter."
He eyes her skeptically. Gods, she wishes she knew how much he understands.
"Wait for me here," she begs him. "please. Wait here." She signs wait to him, one hand held out flat, patting towards the ground, and she crouches a little bit, making herself small and pleading, the way Toothless will beg to be fed from her hand or to be petted when she's busy.
"I don't want them to hurt you either." It's a whisper, a prayer, and she holds his imperturbable gaze.
At last Cloudjumper sighs, visibly unhappy. But he steps aside.
She glances back once, wincing at the worry and fear in the lines of his body as he stares after her. But he gives her courage, too.
A young mother she might be, but not alone.
Even when she can no longer see him, she knows that Cloudjumper is there watching over her.
The sentries are watching the sky, so Valka manages to get quite close without any of them seeing her. Dropping to one knee on the edge of the firebreak, she holds herself very still and listens.
They speak in low voices, and their accents are strange, but she can understand them. Or maybe she just doesn't remember what people sound like. Gods.
"– and leave the blinders on," someone says, her voice harsh with age. "Silly beasts nearly ran me over back there."
A man's voice, younger, tries to placate her. "They're not used to dragons that big, Grandmother."
Someone else laughs humorlessly. "Dumb ponies," he says, to the accompaniment of a thud of hand against flesh. "The little monsters will kill you faster."
The peacemaker of the group chips in again. "Oh, leave them alone. If I saw fire-breathers that could eat me bearing down on me, I'd run too."
"Which you did," a new voice jeers at him, and the peacemaker loses his label as he starts loudly defending himself.
Ponies means horses, Valka thinks. She can't remember the last time she saw such an exotic beast, but she doesn't think it looked much like the small and stocky long-haired beasts with thin cloth wrapped over their eyes and bags over their noses. Half a dozen of them are tied before and behind three small carts, ropes wrapped loosely around their ankles to keep them from running away with the carts. One of those carts is badly battered and noticeably shorter than the others, the back of it hurriedly swaddled in canvas, and small pieces of what must be grain drip to the ground unnoticed by the humans.
The ponies have noticed, and they strain to get at it uselessly, hindered by their tie-ropes and the nose-bags.
Another cart is stacked with tightly woven metal cages, strapped down, and thick leather gloves and an apron that would do any smith proud have been tossed on top of them. Flickers of yellow show between the bars as the captive dragons swarm silently. Maybe they're mute, or maybe their voices are too small to hear, or maybe their sounds are hidden between the hunters' muffled conversations.
"What's gotten into those creatures?" the man who thinks ponies are dumb snaps. He bangs something against the metal of the cages, and Valka grits her teeth. "You want I should get the bucket again?"
"Not any of our drinking water, you don't," a woman's voice rebukes him. "Someone said we could wait to refill the other barrels."
"Water is heavy," yet another voice complains.
"Water is important," the younger woman points out scathingly.
"If I'd been able to find that stream before those fire-breathers showed up out of nowhere and cut us off from the ship –"
"Then we wouldn't have gotten away at all," another woman's voice backs him up.
"Right! Because water's heavy!"
"Oh, shut up," the first woman cuts him off, but they continue to bicker.
Valka listens to what should be normal, ordinary conversation, and feels like a wild animal locked out in the cold, scavenging for scraps even as it hides from its enemies. It feels terrible.
Drawing her cloak tight, she rises to her feet and braces herself. For an instant, her head spins as if she were standing on a cliff-edge over the ocean, her childhood companions daring her to leap, knowing a single step will plunge her into deep cold water.
And didn't she jump anyway, and match that horrid Jorgenson boy plunge for plunge, and wasn't the broken collarbone worth it?
The sentries send up a shout as she strides into the camp, head held high, but she ignores them regally, pretending to be Cloudjumper.
It helps, too, that their startled, scrambling, staring reaction reminds her of nothing more or less than playing peek-a-boo with Hiccup and Toothless when they were much smaller.
"Hey! Stop! You there! Who're you?" a chorus of voices shout over each other, and Valka answers none of them.
She's jumped. She can only fall.
"Stop there!" a thickset man shouts at her, barging through the gawkers recoiling away from her and staring as if they've seen a ghost rise from the ground with the mist. Since he's aiming a bow at her, arrow drawn back and ready with that venomous point gleaming, Valka obeys.
Her shoulders itch beneath cloak and armor at the feeling of being surrounded, and her legs tense to run. Her free hand curls into a fist that she hides beneath a fold of the cloak, and although every instinct screams at her to turn and shift and set her back to something, she fights it, refusing to let them see her fear.
They stare at her, and she stares back, feasting on the differences of them all, on the infinite range of human features, on teeth that aren't fangs and eyes that don't glow, on expressions she recognizes without having to guess, on the shapes of ears and the intricate tangle of braids woven into a brawny woman's endless hair. They have skin like hers, weathered and scarred and chapped to involuntary blushes by the ever-present wind, rather than multicolored scales. Some of them are wearing helmets, mostly close-fitted and practical and a couple horned for show, but the designs are half-familiar, related to what Valka knew all her life.
Oh, to see faces that aren't dragons again.
And oh, how unsettling it feels. Their voices sound strange to her now, and they move all wrong.
Scales rustle against the cages in the silence, the dragons within writhing and thrashing, and Valka remembers that this is hostile territory. She longs to open those cages and set the captives free to fly.
"Who are you?" the man with the bow aimed at her heart asks. "What are you doing here? I didn't think anyone lived here."
For a second she forgets how to speak. She hesitates too long, and the big man flinches away just the slightest bit.
"Answer me!" he demands. "Or are you some voiceless spirit?"
The flicker of fear in wide eyes gives her the courage to answer. "I have a voice," she says. "I belong here. Who are you?"
Their chief doesn't look reassured. "No one lives here," he denies.
Valka imagines telling them that she doesn't live here either, that she was brought here by a dragon, who happens to be right over that ridge – No. "You need to leave," she warns them. "You need to leave, and not come back."
Evidently this is just what a ghost would say, because the dark-haired woman's hands gesture reflexively in what might be a prayer or a spell, and one of the sentries closing in behind her hisses on an indrawn breath.
The chief is more skeptical. "Can you command the winds to stop, then? Can you tell them to turn about and set us on our course again? Then do it. Dismiss the beasts prowling between us and our ship, while you're at it. The faster we get out of dragon territory with our wares, the better."
Not letting herself be afraid, Valka levels her quarterstaff at the cart and its cages. "Not with them. Release them. Or you will be hunted."
The entire camp falls silent.
The sound bites into her memory and strikes heat from a hundred other such laughs, mocking and dismissive, and Valka feels an enraged blush spring to her cheeks as the hunters' chief lowers his bow.
"Are you mad, girl?" he snorts at her. "Have you been stranded here alone long enough to lose your wits? Those are dragons. A single bite from one of them would kill you in a day."
Valka aims her best glare at him, the one that sends Hammer and Tongs running for cover. "I don't care. As long as you hold them, you won't leave this island."
The man's voice goes very low. "Are you threatening us? You, all by yourself, with –" Hands fall on Valka's shoulders, and she jumps, a yelp tearing itself from her throat as someone takes the dirk from her belt. "– that?" the chief goes on, looking incredulously at the rust-pitted blade while Valka snarls at the man who confiscates her quarterstaff as easily as she'd taken the amber beads away from Hiccup. "Enough."
"We worked hard enough and risked our lives to catch this many. Who do you think you are?" the brawny woman snarls at her, and Valka struggles not to flinch away.
"You don't understand," she tries to defend herself. "Dragons – they're not monsters. They're not dumb animals! Let them out!"
"What, those little monsters?" someone standing behind her says, voice dripping with disbelief. "Do you have any idea how hateful they are? Bite you as soon as look at you."
"And you'll never know it until it's too late, either," the youth who'd defended the ponies adds ruefully.
"Have you never once looked up from your trading," she pleads with them, "or put your weapons down for even a moment? Have you ever met a dragon's eyes before you condemned it?"
The hunters look at her like she's fallen writhing to the soil and begun raving in dragon sounds.
"How can you live in a world where flight is possible," Valka almost whispers, "and look so avidly down at your feet?"
"There, there, girl," the woman called Grandmother puts in, smirking slightly. "You were wrecked here, is that it? Poor thing. Alone too long, you can imagine all sorts of things. We've got room for you on board. No need to kick the cargo overboard to make space."
Valka nearly spits her reply, and she means every word. "I'd rather live among dragons all my life than go with you."
Their faces are too familiar, now – gods, are people everywhere all the same? Do only she and her son understand the truth of things? Why don't people ever listen?
"Hah!" someone in the crowd laughs at the thought. "How long would that be, all your life? A day? Five minutes? Better give her that stick back, little brother. She'll need it."
"I said enough," the chief replies, sighing. "Go back to your wilderness, or stay in peace –"
She hears him think madwoman as clearly as if he'd said it aloud.
"– but we have a new market to find as soon as the wind lets us, if the gods will have it. We nearly got ourselves killed, capturing these. We've more than earned the trade they'll bring us."
Her wilderness calls out to her, whispering come back.
Valka raises her head, and bares her teeth like a dragon at the slavers surrounding her, and calmly and clearly says, "No."
And to her wilderness, she says come here.
She raises her empty hands to the sky, and shouts, "Cloudjumper!"
Dark against the sunset, her friend plunges from the sky. Fire licks out above her, and the people holding her let go of her arms and stagger away, stumbling back and shading their eyes to stare upwards at the dragon hovering over her.
"Don't say I told you so," Valka tells her friend, in that single perfect moment before chaos snaps its bonds and rips the stitches from its mouth and runs laughing.
The first person to react usefully is their chieftain, although everyone starts shouting more or less at once. Valka leaps for him as he raises his bow and yells "Stormcutter!" Smaller and lighter she may be, but she gets her hands on the shaft of the arrow and fights him for it, kicking at his ankles and wrenching it askew so that it dips towards his own people and the empty sky and the bare ground, anywhere but at her Cloudjumper.
Huh, thinks Valka, absurdly, as he curses and tries to shake her away. It's better than seeing the revulsion and scorn in his eyes and the curl of his lip as if he's about to spit at her. Cloudjumper's species has a name. How about that.
Quickly, silently, Cloudjumper dodges away. His wings surge upwards even as his tail strikes down like a whip, knocking over the sentries fumbling with their own bows, and they're down long before any of them can get off a shot.
Someone charges at Valka as the arrow splinters between her and the chieftain, and she drops it and jumps back, the armor on her back weightless as her heart races. She doesn't see if the two hunters hit each other instead, and doesn't look back to check. Instead she puts her head down and runs as Cloudjumper's fire burns across one of the tall stones, bursting outward and blackening it. Everyone in range ducks.
She makes for the carts, abandoned unguarded when everyone clustered around to stare at her. The heat of a second blast nips at her heels as it strikes the earth in her wake, and Valka glances over her shoulder to see Cloudjumper stooping down on the panicking hunters like an owl on a nest of mice. His claws click shut a breath from their heads, the wind from his wings buffeting dried-out dust from the ground to blind them.
None of them know him like she does. Cloudjumper is pouncing to miss.
The glint of a blade catches her eye as she scrambles around one of the little carts. Perfect, Valka thinks triumphantly. And stored among the weapons are narrow-mouthed clay jars, packed tightly with straw to keep them from breaking, as if they contain something precious or dangerous or both…
"Cloudjumper!" she shouts as she catches up a small axe. She chops all of the ponies free from halters and hobbles – they run impressively fast when given their heads and a dragon above to spur them on – and puts a few steps' distance between herself and the cart. "Here!" And she throws her free hand out as if skipping a stone over water, or throwing a shield at a foe.
He understands that signal. It means burn it down.
Her friend twists away from surrounding the hunters all by himself, and dives to the attack in earnest. Fire blazes from all that straw as Valka swings her stolen axe determinedly.
It makes an absolutely lovely thunk as it bites through one of the leather straps keeping the cages in place, and the cart shudders with the impact, unbalanced without the pony in its traces. Valka jams one of her own boots between the nearest wheel and the ground, holding it in place. Between the tight-knit bars of the cage, the little dragons glare at her. Small webbed paws reach through the cage and slash at her with tiny claws, and at last she can hear their voices, high-pitched and infuriated, even their growls thready.
"It's all right," she pants, doubting they understand, but trying to put reassurance into her voice. "I'm a friend. He's a friend! I'm going to let you out!"
Cloudjumper is only one dragon, but the hunters are beginning to break and run. He keeps the setting sun to his back, and attacks with the wind when he can, and people who have already fled and hidden from dragons once today are half-beaten already. But still one of them manages to take his eyes off the dragon long enough to see Valka levering at the latch of a cage with her stolen hatchet.
"No!" he shouts. "Stop! They're dangerous! Don't –" He takes a couple of hurried steps towards Valka, and Cloudjumper snarls, dipping low enough to swat at the man. Her friend's wing-claw hisses over the hunter close enough to ruffle his hair, and he freezes with a small scream she's willing to bet he will never admit to making.
The two of them against a whole ship's crew, and suddenly Valka knows, as she breaks open one latch with a whoop and immediately gets to work on the next one, that they can do this.
She's got the knack of it now. From cage after cage, small bright yellow dragons streak away from the firelight of the blazing cart and into the gathering darkness, looking like ripples of molten gold as they leap from the cart and dart away over the stones.
One holds still enough for Valka to get a quick look at it. The little dragon stands on all fours with spikes bristling along its spine, and its lashing tail is tipped with an arrowhead not unlike the ones aimed at too many people Valka cares about. Sharp eyes glint in a dog's head that has been shrunk almost to nothing in a washtub, correspondingly little fangs protruding down over its jaw. Wings that don't look big enough to carry it fan like a bumblebee's. It's no bigger than her two hands together.
An arrow bites into her cloak, pinning it to the cart, and another skips off her makeshift armor. Valka yelps and scrambles into the bed of the cart, which rocks unsteadily. The threadbare cloth serves her well, and it's easier than it should be to pull the cloak free. But at once she sets to work on the last of the cages, knocking her chin into the sharp edge of it as the cart lurches under her shifting weight and one wheel manages to bump over a rock.
And it should feel like a nightmare, like terror dredged from her dreams and brought back to set her mewling and shaking. Fire roars too close and Vikings shout in anger and fear, and Cloudjumper swoops overhead with his claws held low.
But the scream that builds in her throat turns itself inside out on the way, and Valka finds herself laughing among the flames.
The nightmare is her stronghold and her weapon to wield; the monster has become a lover and a faithful friend.
This is her chaos, and she can use it.
Valka bubbles over with it like a cauldron left too long over the flames to simmer and burn. Viking eyes turn to her in wonder and fear and the sort of respect only shown to monsters, and she laughs, exultant at the feeling of such unexpected power she finds in her hands as they break open the last cage. Tiny dragons scatter as she vaults over the edge of the cart, cloak fluttering in the wind whipping up the fire and carrying Cloudjumper in his flight.
She has been an outsider all her adult life, half-accepted because of her place at Stoick's side but doubted every time she spoke her heart.
Vikings have never wanted her on their side.
So be it, then.
One of the former sentries lunges at Valka with her own quarterstaff, but he's mincing along the ground as if wishing he didn't have to tread across it, gaze turned down to watch for tiny dragons, and it's the work of a moment for Valka to dodge a wayward blow and wrench it back from him. Thus armed, she brandishes it in a rapid sweeping semicircle and drives the sentry back into the shelter of his friends.
They look at her as if she were a monster, and Valka somehow doesn't care.
She was a terrible Viking, but she's not a half bad monster. Maybe she needs one of those outsized ornate war helmets.
Cloudjumper soars overhead, circling like a hawk, and she turns her face up to him in a smile.
"This island belongs to dragons now," she announces, and she strikes her reclaimed staff against the earth, where it hits that inconvenient stone. Her voice, so tentative before, rings out like a herald's – this, she believes in. "Get lost. Don't come back here. Tell your friends."
And then she feels scales rasp against the skin of her face and throat, and a flickering tongue tickles against her ear where her hair has been braided back, and the tiniest possible hiss freezes her solid.
Every shouting voice falls silent. Every eye goes to the lethally poisonous, extremely angry little dragon on her shoulder – every eye, but Valka's.
Valka doesn't dare look. She can hear its claws clicking across her rusted armor even through the cloak, and feel another one coiling around her ankles, ready to bite if she moves. A third creeps up her back beneath the ragged cloak, climbing towards the nape of her neck. The claws of the dragon on her shoulder prickle at the skin of her throat, threatening in their harmlessness, a reminder of the bite that waits if she so much as moves, and the icy touch of absolute fear coils around her spine beneath its fellow.
She doesn't dare breathe. Poison that can strike down a full-grown dragon, bottled and stored, will doubtless stop her much smaller heart in an instant, fresh from their fangs.
She doesn't care about the Vikings as they whisper to each other and cry out. Some of them seem to be reaching towards her as if to help, and she sees one bow drawn with shaking hands before the wielder realizes she doesn't have a chance of sending the arrow true, and several voices pipe up in shock while at least two more seem to think it serves her right –
But Cloudjumper –
Cloudjumper backwings, and dives, and wails, roaring contradiction, fear, denial all in a single sound, but stops in midair when the dragonet on her shoulder screams maliciously back at him.
He howls no, no.
So small, the little creature released from its captivity.
So clever, to hold off Cloudjumper by threatening her.
So fearless, as it hisses a reply.
She doesn't understand the conversation between the giant dragon and the tiny one. She doesn't speak like they do. She can't argue her innocence, can't tell it she's no threat.
But she knows dragons understand the way she moves.
So Valka holds steady, and refuses to show even a flicker of fear. If she is afraid, then she is vulnerable, and then it will strike as sure as any predator that's had prey run under its paw.
A low wail of horrified disbelief rises from the clustered-together dragon hunters, and they stare in awe as she stands seemingly unafraid with one lethal dragon on her shoulder and another overhead that answered to her call.
And that's when they run, and Valka knows they won't stop until they hit the sea, and possibly not even then.
As the sounds of their footsteps fade away into the long evening shadows, Cloudjumper cries out a sound that must mean please!
Out of the corner of her eye, she sees the venomous little dragon sit back on its haunches and swipe at the air, hissing. Its wings flutter, kicking up a small breeze that tugs tendrils of hair from her braid, and in a movement so quick she never even sees it go, it vanishes from her shoulder.
At the same time, the one at her back releases her; the one at her ankle disappears as if it had never been.
By the time Cloudjumper hits the ground and nearly knocks her over in his haste to nudge and lick at her, there's not a little yellow dragon to be seen.
Valka wraps her arms around him as her legs give out, and he catches her in one wing before she can hit the ground. Whispering pieces of words and meaningless half-sentences, she shakes uncontrollably, and feels him tremble too.
"I thought – oh gods, Cloudjumper – my Cloudjumper – good, you're good, we're good – it's okay – we're okay – I – they – what was – don't be scared – why did they –"
Cloudjumper lowers himself to the ground and wraps himself around her, wings and tail and claws and deep chest, and growls over her head, adding a warning snap and snarl.
She babbles until she starts giggling instead, and only then does Cloudjumper peel one wing away to stare at her.
"Because we won," she tries to explain when she's caught her breath again. "Because if we're scary enough, we don't have to hurt anyone!"
Which is what the little dragon on her shoulder had done, now that she thinks of it, holding all the attention and buying its fellows time to get away.
"Because," Valka says triumphantly, voice still trembling, "look what we can do!"
Because no Vikings will be turning poisoned arrows against her adopted people anytime soon, not with their cargo burnt and their captives fled into the darkness and given a whole new island full of hiding places to lurk in.
Because the battle-rush she'd never thought was in her is still boiling through her veins, and with it the exhilaration of surviving, and of getting away with something she shouldn't have. The intoxication of breaking all the rules, and holding all the power, and changing someone's world forever.
Part of her wants to curl up and tremble.
Part of her wants to spread her own wings and roar at the moon when it dares to show its face.
Her son seems quite happy to think that he's a dragon. Valka's beginning to get that.
Some days she might prefer to be a dragon too.
His mate falls quiet as they fly, her voice chirping like the last birds. Cloudjumper who knows his sounds to mean Leaps-Over-Clouds in that most-beloved voice instead soars easy and gentle through the new darkness, small pawprints of his skin twitching at her touch. When her paws go tight and trembling, he knows that she whimpers at memories even as flight washes her small sounds away. When she pets at his shoulders with gestures saying happy-you-here and us-together and hunt-well-done that is triumph in absent touches, he knows that she has found her wings again where they were tangled around her.
He thrums at her where she rests on his shoulders, and her touch goes absent and loose with tired.
Carrying her, Cloudjumper darts beneath ice and through a wide cavern, landing lightly in the cave that she likes best even though there are no good stones to climb on and edges to hang from. There are only flat spaces where the claws of many dragons have scored the stone as they walk across it, and sand to itch beneath scales. It is wide enough for many dragons to spread their wings and not swat at each other, but she does not have wings to spread so, so that cannot be why.
But beyond this cave is where his Valka-mate has made her nest, so now it is a place that Cloudjumper likes best too.
She stumbles very much as she slides from his back. Slowly she pads to a hidden coal, and tries to strike fire from it.
No, no, she says when Cloudjumper opens his jaws to it with the tiniest of fires burning on the back of his tongue. This is a sound all dragons in the nest know. She holds it against her chest and says that it is her fire.
It is a strangeness of hers. Cloudjumper waits patiently as she strikes at it clumsily and even puffs at it some, and although she yelps when she strikes her paw instead in her exhaustion, she is happy when the coal burns bright enough to spread to what Cloudjumper thinks of as a fish light.
It smells of fish, and it makes light. But it is water when he knocked it over that time. She is very clever, his Valka-mate. He must be clever and loyal for her, and court her always.
But it warms inside when she reaches out to him and lets him guide her to her nest, pacing very slowly so that she can follow resting against his shoulder.
Her sounds say wait, and she stops, lifting her fish light and looking around. Her eyes flutter as she blinks very much.
Hiccup-mine? her voice says, stirring to wake again. Toothless-hatchling?
Cloudjumper rumbles and noses at her. Stay, he tells her, and grunts with satisfaction when she does. He sits back on his hindquarters and looks all around, and leaps.
He looks very hard in places where their scents are strong, but he does not find their hatchlings. Instead he climbs to find the dragon Valka-mate calls She Sun. Valka-mate closes her eyes at She Sun and smiles as if she is warm.
Where? Cloudjumper whistles to She Sun. He bats with one wing-claw at her paws, drawn close-in to her chest as she roosts. Small, he glances down at her sides where hatchlings would curl up to sleep, hunching his wings protectively.
She Sun sighs not-worried, twisting her neck to show that she is not afraid he will be angry and leap at it. Her eyes flick idly around her ledge and the cave falling away beneath her, and she shrugs. Don't know.
But she chuffs silly-affectionate and them silly small those-ones hatchlings here yes fine.
It is not terribly unusual to not be able to find Valka's hatchlings, and the nest is safe. No dragon would harm them. They are hatchlings.
He must be content with that, and he twists away and leaps from her ledge, diving back through the tunnels still watching carefully for the small ones.
Valka-mate is asleep when he returns. She lies very still, sprawled in her nest of furs with a trail of sharp-reeking metal tracing her pawsteps and her fish light burning beside her. It is a much easier trail to follow than human scents, and Cloudjumper's scales rattle as he shudders.
He loves her always always always, but sometimes he wishes that she would have a dragon's shape to match the rightness he can see in her eyes. Then she would nest with him and they would curl up together and guard each other.
It does not matter. She is herself.
He does not really want her to be different. He will follow her always wherever she wishes to go, as long as he can be with her.
For now he will guard her. It is a good thing, to guard his mate.
So Cloudjumper perches atop a stone and holds his head high, alert and watchful until the not-of-interest sounds of the nest soothe him and blunt the sharp edges of thoughts of human biting arrows and the faintest of scents on them that is death creeping and sneaky, that pounces from ambush when it is forgotten.
None of their flock-mates who come close scream challenge and threat and warning in voices almost too sharp to hear, and Cloudjumper relaxes like ice melting. His flock-mates fly over Valka-mate'snest or scramble around Cloudjumper's perching stone. They pad through the caves to splash their paws in summer snow or search for friends to chatter and purr to.
They scrape their scales against the stone and lick away itches and stretch to soothe old aches from forgotten battles. One runs past, surefooted in the darkness, with an old and rotting bone held tight in her jaws, shrieking no mine this mine excitement thief you this mine good excitement this mine no you no mine mine! as her clutch-mates try to pounce on her and snatch away her prize.
Many rocks shift and rattle as the clutch wrestles and dodges and snaps at each other, and Cloudjumper hisses go-away!
Only some of them listen, but the ones that do look up to see Cloudjumper glaring at them fiercely. He bares his teeth and spreads his wings, glancing over to show them the sleeping human woman.
The half-grown dragons know Valka. All the nest knows Valka. They like her very much. She is happy to them always. She scratches their scales when they are itchy with growing.
Look! the dragonet with the rotted bone whistles, the sound muffled in her jaws. I good I go see me look-at-me good, she signals, backing away.
The others follow her, and the echoes and shrieks of their game spill out into the meadows and fade.
In the silence, a very small rock strikes and rattles. Cloudjumper turns to glare at whatever dragonet has stayed.
A quick flutter of movement disappears into the darkness behind a stone.
Cloudjumper-Leaps-Over-Clouds looks at it very sharply, but there are no more sounds until he looks away. Then another rock flies where it should not, and the darkness makes a soft and angry sound of sulking.
Amused, Cloudjumper ignores them in return.
They are too small still to wait longer than him, and soon Toothless-hatchling edges out from their hiding place, the little one who is baby sometimes and Hiccup sometimes close behind, clinging to the end of his tail.
It is very itch-making, to have a tail grabbed, and Cloudjumper's own tail-tip flicks in sympathy. But Toothless does not seem to notice.
Caught, Hiccup turns away and ignores Cloudjumper more, scowling at his stones as he flicks them away across the cave. He chatters resentment and abandoned and jealous and unhappy to Toothless.
Here here here don't-want not-interested, Hiccup says, gesturing at the caves and vocalizing go far exciting yes good want-want-want!
Toothless grunts agreement, narrowing his eyes and growling past him at Cloudjumper.
Cloudjumper snorts at them. He raises his head in triumph at the thought of his Valka-mate tearing through traps and sending the hunters running like prey. But he bristles at the thought of their hatchlings close to humans and to small biting ones.
He has not seen small biting ones in a very long time. He saw them once hunt a prey-beast that had trotted across new ice to their island, nipping it like flies that irritate but do not hurt, and then they followed it and waited until it died hurting.
He would not fly that way again. He does not search anymore for something he did not know the scent or shape of, until he found a human hatchling that was a dragon inside and a human she whose eyes caught his own and saw him for real. It was right that he should protect them.
He is pleased that the small biting ones are not in cages. But he is pleased more that they are not here.
Toothless scampers to the base of his perching stone and rears up, spreading his wings and lashing his tail, squeaking his grudge at being left behind. No small! he challenges. Fierce!
Narrowing his eyes amusement and forgetting small biting ones, Cloudjumper coils to the ground and traps the little black dragon beneath a single wing. You small, he shows.
Growling, Toothless struggles to escape, squeaking and blind in the darkness of cave and covering wing.
You? Hiccup whistles, tugging at the edge of one of Cloudjumper's other wings. You worry sad why no-sad! He flinches sympathy as Cloudjumper looks at him, and affection deep and real eases the tension in the bigger dragon's shoulders and spine.
Hiccup's small paws pat against dragon scales as his mother's do, but his voice is more a dragon's than hers has ever been, tangled-together and complex and fluent. Happy you here subdued you no go-away us worry yes sorry me angry you here good us miss you!
Cloudjumper sighs as the dragon-boy nudges his face against scales, hiding himself against the bigger dragon's scent and marking Cloudjumper as his too. The many-winged dragon relaxes and lowers his face to nose Valka's child in return.
Toothless pounces at the distraction and wriggles free from beneath Cloudjumper's wing, and both dragon-children shriek and gurgle with triumph when Cloudjumper startles.
Before he can pull away, Hiccup catches at one of Cloudjumper's half-bared fangs fearlessly, wrapping both his front paws around it gentle and careful. Small as he is, helpless as he is, those paws hold Cloudjumper still.
The dragon-boy laughs as dragons do, jaw gaping and tongue flashing, into the bright golden eye that fills his world, and chirrups gotcha!
Cloudjumper houghs at him, amused despite himself, and coils his tail around to swat at Toothless where he prances crowing at their shared cleverness, the sound cutting off with an outraged yelp. With his tail, Cloudjumper herds Toothless towards Hiccup, and at once the little boy releases his fang to reach out to Toothless instead, embracing the black dragonet.
Both of them hum missed-you love-you as if they had been apart for days and days.
Silly, Cloudjumper sighs, and nudges them towards Valka's nest.
The hatchlings have a sleeping place of their own, but they scamper to their mother's side willingly. Cloudjumper watches over them as they paw at her, tentative and curious and trusting, chirping when she does not stir and nuzzling against the skin of her unbitten throat.
Dragonet and dragon-boy hide themselves against their mother's warmth and burrow into the furs and the cloth wrapped around her. Cloudjumper-Leaps-Over-Clouds listens to their purring and Valka's deep and contented breathing, happiest of all to watch over his family, and does not fear.
Toothless' heartbeat thrums against him, and his mama smells like saltwater and like fire, and the dragon-child Hiccup falls asleep sure that everything is right and sensible with his world.
Mothers should smell like fire…
thanks for reading – Le'letha