The Affairs of Dragons
Author's Note: In case you were wondering what "Race to the Edge" looks like in a parallel world…
Continuity: post-Stormfall; set shortly after the threeshot "Flashfreeze"
"Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger." – J.R.R. Tolkien, wise man
"Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and good with ketchup." – Anonymous, wise guy
She and Stormfly dive, veering around tree trunks and cutting beneath wildly flailing branches as the sun flashes between the trees in irregular flickers, faster than she can really see. Her world narrows to her dragon's back as she holds on tight, and Astrid can't help but flinch as a cluster of pine needles scythes over Stormfly's head and nearly swats her rider from her back. Fortunately, the sheer racket they've all been making has chased off all the squirrels, or she might have gotten a mouthful of fur.
Still, Astrid yells in exhilaration; it tears the sound from her, chasing after the breath ripped from her lungs by their flight, weighed down and clumsier as dragon and rider are. A branch clips against Stormfly's side, and Astrid frees up a hand to pat the dragon, keeping her on course. The Nadder sprints past just as the shaking tree swings back and threatens to dislodge her rider.
A howl from somewhere in their wake makes her glance over her shoulder, and it's all Astrid can do to not fall off her dragon entirely as she laughs at the sight of Fearsome abandoning the run entirely to pick a fight with the tree.
"Sorry!" Astrid calls back gleefully.
"No you're not!" Snotlout roars as he struggles to both keep his grip on his own saddle and turn the surly, aggressive Nightmare away from something to wrestle with and possibly eat.
"There, Stormfly!" she shouts, pointing to a gap in the tree line just ahead. "Find the target!"
Rattling agreeably, her blue Nadder friend beats her wings harder, taking them up despite the rock clutched in her claws, and makes for the much-bombarded clearing.
A scream from up ahead – make that two screams – is her only warning, and the flapping, unbalanced shape of the twins' Zippleback breaks from the tree cover, heading straight for them. Or approximately for them – Barf and Belch's two heads are knocking together like rocks in a tangled bola as Ruffnut and Tuffnut try to punch each other out in midair.
"The other way, you idiots!" Astrid shouts at them, even though she knows it won't make a speck of difference. At the same time, she pulls on Stormfly's straps to slow them. The Nadder is none too happy at being brought up short, but obeys.
If those two keep that up, someone is going to get hurt. While Astrid is pretty much fine with that, she has better things to do with her week than listen to one of her crew moaning – or trying to get back at the twins for dropping a boulder on them. And that never works, as the twins don't understand mysterious things like consequences.
"Closer," Astrid says, even though Stormfly growls reluctantly. To those lunatics? she imagines Stormfly saying. Why?
Wrapping her hands around her mouth, Astrid roars, "Heads up down below!" just in case Fishlegs is still on the ground somewhere, and then, "Drop that!"
Drop that had been one of the commands she'd taught Barf and Belch herself, since the twins' idea of dragon training had run more to the instructions sit on Snotlout, dance, and take the blame.
Mind, the take the blame trick is pretty funny.
The rock in Barf and Belch's forepaws falls spinning, punching a hole through the forest, and Zippleback and twins are past them in a very loud blink, where hopefully they'll run into Snotlout, and Fearsome will eat them all.
"Right," she tells Stormfly when the sky ahead of them is clear. "Let's try that again. Charge!"
Stormfly knows charge, and she carries Astrid on her back and the rock in her claws straight as an arrow's flight, soaring over the opening in the tree cover and releasing the rock right on target.
It smashes into pieces with an audible crack like thunder, kicking up shards from the rest of the rubble they've dropped on the pretend fort. Astrid whoops triumphantly.
This had so not been the point of the exercise.
But damn, is it fun.
As Stormfly shifts into a hover, Astrid surveys the damage. It's not like it had been much of a fort – they'd thrown it together with plenty of arguing and no few smashed fingers this morning. Some of those smashed fingers had even belonged to the people who had accidentally smashed them. And anyway, the point hadn't been to have the fort resist an attack. The point had been to practice carrying supplies to it.
A couple of those crates are still visible. Well, pieces of them, at least.
What can she say? Her crew had gotten bored.
Her crew has the attention span of three-year-olds.
"Ready to come down?" Fishlegs calls up to her, emerging from the trees unscathed. He scoops up a fragment of stone and tosses it to the shambling Gronkle following close enough to tread on his heels; the stocky dragon chomps it down heedless of the sharp edges.
"No way! Ready to try it again?" she shouts back.
He shrugs. "Maybe if I feed Minnow some more she'll be happier about dropping them? I dunno. I'll bring Horrorcow next time, I guess."
His Gronkle had absolutely refused to let go of the rock, except to put it in her mouth, which had been even less useful than dropping it on their pretend fort. "Right. I'm going to go rescue Snotlout from a tree. Or, you know, point and laugh."
By the time she's extracted Snotlout from the pine tree, and woken up Fearsome from his smug nap at the base of that tree despite Snotlout throwing pine cones and abuse at him in equal amounts, Astrid has gotten her breath back a little.
"We can do so much better than this," she announces to her dragon-rider crew where they're sprawled inelegantly across the new rock pile and generally not listening to her. Ruffnut and Tuffnut have finally managed to get their shared dragon turned around and are hanging upside down by their knees from the last remaining crossbeam of the fort, throwing pebbles for Minnow to snap from the air.
"If you hit her, you will meet a terrible fate," Fishlegs threatens them.
"Ooh," says Ruffnut appreciatively. "What'll it be?"
"Bugs in our tunics!" Tuffnut suggests.
"Salt in all our drinks!" Ruffnut counters.
"Ew. Having to jump on our beds until we fall over every morning!"
"That'd be weird. I like it."
"You're both weird," Snotlout chips in. "Cut it out, or I'll dunk you in fish oil and feed you to your dragon."
"Cool!" both twins shout, and start throwing pebbles at him instead.
"I think we did a pretty good job," Fishlegs says while Snotlout acts out an elaborate pantomime of wringing the twins' necks. The dragons watch him and the silly faces Ruffnut and Tuffnut are making in return, fascinated, tails flicking with interest. "I mean, the dragons have really gotten the idea of picking things up and moving them somewhere else. I think we've managed to find an element of hunting behavior that they might have understood naturally. Dragons bring food back to their hatchlings, right? And they share."
"Sort of," Astrid points out, as one of the pebbles hits home and Snotlout yelps.
"Well, true, they don't like to share when they're really hungry, but they will. And as long as they know to be gentle, it doesn't work out so badly."
She shrugs. "I don't mean the drill. I mean the teamwork. Come on, people. Your dragons know what to do. They know how to fly together without hitting each other. It's us that's the problem. Stop fighting them! We're not going to get anywhere if we've got them too confused to know what we want."
"Hey, I didn't volunteer to be part of this," Snotlout complains. He manages to catch one of the pebbles and flick it back at Ruffnut, who jerks away and crashes to the ground. Tuffnut laughs at her until she grabs a handful of his hair and yanks. "You just turned up this morning and said, 'hey Snotlout, it's not even light yet! Time to get up and build a fort! Because I'm a scary morning person who chews on her fingernails worrying about people we beat the tar out of.' Boring!"
"I did not say that, and I do not bite my fingernails. And sure you did." Astrid glares at him. "You volunteered to go looking for Drago's fleet with me, and we all took down those ships together, so now you guys are the most experienced dragon riders I have."
There's certainly someone better, but he doesn't count.
And most people on Berk would rather swim to the fog banks and back rather than actually ride on a dragon for more than a quick hop. The beasts that harassed them for centuries have become their friends, dozing on the roofs of their houses and cadging treats from Vikings who would have tried to kill them not long ago. Some dragons have been taught to help move things. Most of them seem happy to be petted and talked to. And they can get so interested in the everyday things Vikings do that they're in the way as often as not.
But dragon riding is still for crazy people, especially the way she and her friends are learning to fly, wild and swooping, fast and striking, spinning and diving – trick flying, combat flying. There's really nothing else like it, to see Berk from above, and the ocean racing past beneath her dragon's wings, and the secret tops of clouds that humans never get to see.
Astrid wonders sometimes what's wrong with her, that she's so happy these days to be thought of as crazy.
Somewhere in her memory, a boy with a dragon's voice and a dragon's heart, dozing in the sun on the back of a Night Fury, opens one eye and looks at her expectantly.
But they're good, her Vikings. They're really, really good. She doesn't wake up with her axe in her hand anymore – much. Her people aren't being raided in the middle of the night every few weeks, and they've won a reprieve from the fleet and the army that could have swept right over them and crushed her home like a pebble in Minnow's jaws. She's got a village full of people who still look to her to solve every dumb problem they can think of, but who at least appreciate it when she takes the time to fix stuff for them. Compared to what her world was not long ago, things are amazing.
Oh, it's not perfect. Every so often one of their fishing boats gets pirated by one of their neighbors, and then they have to load up a longboat with warriors and sail around until they either run into the culprits and steal all their fish back – or someone's fish back, anyway – or pick the most likely culprits and put in just offshore and yell insults until everyone loses their voice.
A couple of tentative attempts at setting up outposts on other islands had ended badly but with no one seriously hurt. Territorial Typhoomerangs had chased the ship's crew off the first one, and after careful questioning, Stoick and Astrid had managed to figure out that rather than heroically fighting their way back to the ship in the face of an endless horde of conquering Outcasts, that crew had actually lost first dibs on the island in a fiercely-fought (and fiercely-drunk) pebble game.
There was the unfortunate fire brigade incident, which had seemed like such a good idea at the time. They have dragons everywhere now that don't try to burn things down anymore, but they flame at each other, and every so often something gets caught in the crossfire… On second thought, Astrid's mistake had been encouraging them to drill as a team. She probably should have expected that they'd put their thick Viking heads together – some of Snotlout's gang had gotten involved when Astrid hadn't been watching – and decide that the best way to practice putting out fires was to start fires on purpose. Without warning anyone.
Astrid has plenty of experience kicking dumb Viking butts for being dumb, but Stoick's blistering dressing-down of the sheepishly ash-covered culprits had been a performance Astrid had watched with awe and the feeling that she should be taking notes – or charging admission. She still has so much to learn from the chief before she's ready to take over, but at least she's reasonably sure that there's going to be an island left for her to lead one day.
Unless the fire brigade ever crawls out of the holes they're still hiding in.
Or unless whatever remains of Drago Bludvist's war fleet shows up. The mad warlord might be dead, and his ships scattered to the winds, but unlike some people she could name, Astrid knows that a force like that won't just melt into the sea and disappear. They have to have gone somewhere to lick their wounds.
It's sure as winter not going to be here. Astrid swears it. When they come, she will be ready for them. All of Berk will be ready, if she has her way.
Oh, Astrid has not forgotten, and she worries. Sometimes she finds herself watching the horizon again.
But she has Stormfly now, who's so much more than a pet. She has friends.
And at least they're crazier than her.
"All right, that's enough for now," Astrid calls a halt to both the drill she'd planned and the game it had turned into. "Who brought lunch? Snotlout, untie Tuffnut right now."
By the time lunch is over, which is to say that they're out of food, she's well into inventing a new training drill that has to be mostly a game – or her crew won't play – and she's tempted to tie Tuffnut to something herself.
"What are you doing?" she demands, the fifth time the twins race past with their hands raised like claws or flapping their arms like they intend to turn into birds mid-step, lurching erratically and shouting to each other – something about "eating all those silly mice before they turn into people" – in between making noises like "Grr! Argh!"
"We're being dragons," Ruffnut says. "Can't you see the wings?" She waves her arms. "Rawr! Dragons used to rule the world, you know."
"Why –" Astrid starts to ask, and thinks better of it. "Never mind. Just shut up for a minute so I can think!"
Tuffnut "flies" in, flapping with great pomp, and squints at her. "But dragons talk. You said so," he says past the grubby finger held to his lips meditatively.
Astrid would like whatever god put the twins here – and she has very strong suspicions – to take them back. Preferably now. A year and more of trying to get people to understand that dragons communicate in gesture and posture and emotion, not in words. That you have to look carefully, and be aware of what you're saying back even when you don't mean to. And this is the progress she's made. "Dragons don't talk like that!" There's maybe an opportunity here. "They talk quietly," she says, trying to sound completely sure.
Almost immediately, Fearsome lowers his head to the ground and bugles I'm hungry! so loud that if there were any birds left to be scared away, they would have erupted from the trees like a hailstorm in reverse. Stormfly shrieks a protest, flapping her wings and shaking her heavy head.
Rather than look at the twins' triumphant expressions, Astrid closes her eyes and carefully imagines hammering a nail into one of the walls of her house, which she does whenever she gets too angry to think straight. Rather than getting into stupid arguments she just can't win, she goes home and hammers nails.
She's on her second wall.
"Just shut up," she says instead, and does her best to ignore them as they run across the shattered rock pile and start small avalanches with every pretend growl. But at least they stop talking nonsense about mice.
"All right. New game," she says at last.
"Don't you mean new boring 'training'?" Snotlout demands.
She glares at him. "No. It's a game." It's training. But it looks like a game. "Two teams. Two dragons on each team. One team gets these flags –" She holds up two scraps of vaguely reddish cloth from the bottom of one of her saddlebags. "– and the other team gets these ones." They're also red. It doesn't matter. "First team to get all four flags wins. And no, tearing your flags in half doesn't count. The other team has to have no flags."
"I call not the twins," says Snotlout immediately. He puts his nose in the air, risking having a pebble thrown up it. "I've been scorned."
Ruffnut sighs mistily, somehow managing to grin fiendishly at the same time at Snotlout's irritation. Astrid is pretty sure the reason Eret and his crew haven't settled down on Berk for good is because Ruffnut terrifies their captain.
And Astrid once tried to borrow their ship for an earlier vaguely sort of attack-like dragon-rider training practice thing.
But it's probably Ruffnut.
Damn. And if Astrid ends up on Snotlout's team he'll inevitably suggest they ditch everyone else and go do unspecified things in the bushes together, and Astrid will have to hurt him again. Which means…
"Oh, no," Fishlegs objects. Fishlegs is maybe even better than she is at understanding dragons by the way they move, which is to say that Fishlegs is good at reading body language and has followed Astrid's line of thought from her face. "You can't stick me and Minnow with them! Fearsome tried to eat her!"
"Just once," Snotlout says defensively. "And he wasn't really trying to eat her. She just got in the way. And would you really notice? You've got, like, seven of them."
"Of course I'd notice! Barbarian."
Her crew argues teams among themselves for a few minutes. Astrid waits patiently for them to work their way back around to her original plan. Then she hands out flags and points Fishlegs, Minnow, Snotlout, and a yawning Fearsome in one direction, and seriously considers hauling the twins onto Barf and Belch by the scruffs of their necks and pushing the Zippleback to face the other direction.
Vaulting onto Stormfly's back, she calls out, "Remember, first team to get all four flags wins! Flags have to stay with you – no hiding them!" Although that would be a good game too. Maybe later. "We'll start from the shore. You start from the biggest pine tree. Ready? Go!"
"I think we should sneak," Ruffnut calls over to her as the dragons fly for the shore. Beside her, Tuffnut waves the flag happily, catching it in the slipstream from Belch's horn. "You know? We could set up a decoy, and then when Snotlout and Fishlegs attack it, we jump out and snatch their flags!"
At a gentle touch from her heels and a quick request, Stormfly has veered over to Ruffnut's side of the Zippleback, and Astrid tries to watch both Ruffnut and the thinning forest ahead. "Actually, that's a pretty good idea," she admits. "I kind of like it. What kind of decoy did you have in mind?"
"Scarecrows! Scarecrows are great! Tuffnut used to be scared of 'em, you know."
"I was not!" Tuffnut defends himself.
"Yeah, I'd believe that."
"It's not true! And I had a good reason! Ruffnut hid herself in one and woke me up by going ooooooh with a candle under her face and then ran away!"
"Okay, but how are we going to build scarecrows big enough to look like dragons?" Astrid ducks a branch. "We'd better be quick. Fearsome's going to track us down pretty fast, and Minnow's not as slow as she looks."
"Nah, we've just got to pretend that we're all hiding behind some rocks or something. Pull some branches around," Tuffnut jumps in, distracted.
"I was kind of imagining more chasing," Astrid shouts as the dragons soar out of the last trees and bank into a long curve around the edge of the island, "but okay. Look for some rocks, then!"
She leaves finding a good place to set up an ambush to the twins, who after all are great at pranks like this, and appoints herself and Stormfly their team's sentries. After an entire Gripe Day of complaints about her "crazy dragon riders club", Stoick had kindly but firmly told her to take her "crew of brats" off to the far side of the island where they're out of earshot of the town and unlikely to crash into anyone. She would have moved them up to the old arena, but dragons just flat-out won't go there.
So they're about as far away from the village as they can get and still be on Berk, and there's no one in sight except for one of the ships they stole off the Berserkers and turned into fishing boats, its sails furled, some distance off shore. Every so often, Snotlout and his gang try to steal one so they can go be pirates.
Personally, Astrid is in favor of this plan, if only so she can disown them the minute they leave harbor and refuse to let them back on the island. He can take Fearsome, too.
There's no sign of the other dragon riders yet. Maybe they actually got all the way to that towering pine tree before turning around and coming after Astrid's team, although Astrid would be surprised, or maybe they're setting up an ambush of their own. Shallow waves lap against the rocks of the ragged shore, and a forlorn patch of early snow is being worn away by the steady breeze blowing over the island and out to sea, carrying with it bits of pine needles and just a trace of the smell of ash from the village. Stormfly leans into it, gliding; Astrid says, "Hold steady, Stormfly," and leans over to tie her red flag to a strap of Stormfly's harness, where it flaps in the air daring anyone to dive close enough to take it.
Bright colors darting across the cliffs prove to be Terrible Terrors sunning themselves, arguing and playing and eating any small moving creatures slow and stupid enough to come within striking distance. Astrid finds this out firsthand when one dive-bombs her and Stormfly to attach itself to her shoulder and present her with a badly mashed dragonfly.
"There's something terribly wrong about that," she tells it, and it burps bug breath at her.
And then the rest of the flock swarms her, which would have been bad enough without Barf and Belch hovering overhead so the twins can watch and laugh.
"Stop that!" Astrid shouts, trying to brush the silly little creatures away without actually hurting them. "Shoo!" Everywhere she looks is bright scales and flapping wings and lashing tails and careless claws. "Not again!"
She's the Terrors' second-favorite person, and the first isn't here and, again, doesn't count. Out of all the houses in Berk, only hers has had to be Terror-proofed. Luckily for the miniature dragons, their third-favorite person is Gothi, who likes them back until they knock over all her bottles and jars.
That's Gothi's limit. Astrid's is when Stormfly whistles I'm not happy at all the tiny pests fluttering around her and clinging to her harness and staring into her eyes upside-down from a fingernail's width away. The Terrors can harass her, but not her dragon. "Get lost!" she demands. "I really mean it now!"
And because she does, they squawk outrage and stalk off with their heads held high, which is actually pretty funny-looking when done mid-air.
"So much for sneaking," Astrid shouts over to the giggling twins. "Let's just charge Snotlout and Fishlegs instead when they find us."
"No, no!" Ruffnut waves her hands. "There's some really good hiding rocks back that way! C'mon!"
Tuffnut has tied the flag to one of the horns of his helmet so that he looks like a yak that's charged through someone's line of washing. "See there?" he points at a handful of rocks. "Those ones!"
Astrid recognizes them as a sharp-edged labyrinth of debris that shattered away from the nearby cliffs too long ago for anyone to remember, or at least not recently enough for anyone to bother mentioning to her. There hasn't been a really fierce storm here in a while, so they're all tangled up in the driftwood and mats of leaves and dregs of seaweed that clutter the shoreline, being knocked around by the wind and the waves before eventually making it all the way to the shelter of the tree line or the ever-hungry ocean. After the rain washes them clean, the rocks make a pretty good lookout post. Or a hiding place for when one is, for example, being chased by wild boars.
She'd only seen the first one, but there had been more in the bushes, and they'd all gotten mad when she'd tried to stick the first one with a spear and slightly missed. Astrid had been eleven at the time, and every one of them had outweighed her, and she'd turned and run.
The time she'd spent cornered as close as she could get to the top of the tallest rock, jabbing ineffectively at the angry pigs charging blindly into things, had not been one of Astrid's best days. She'd made her way back to the village in the dark, trudging along the shoreline worn out with frustration and the stress of jumping at every rustle in the undergrowth.
Fortunately, no one else knows about this.
"Yeah, that'll work," she admits. "Let's make it look good!"
Barf and Belch skid to a landing in the gravel that passes for a beach on Berk, and Stormfly alights next to the two-headed dragon slightly more neatly. "I need sticks!" Ruffnut announces, jumping to the ground and pulling an axe Astrid could have sworn wasn't there a minute ago from the Zippleback's belly rigging. Yelling cheerfully, she charges off to threaten the spindly trees while Tuffnut starts hopping about in the sand, treading out fake dragon footprints leading towards the rocks.
"Wouldn't it be faster to get the dragons to make footprints?" Astrid makes the mistake of asking.
"Aha, and that, Astrid, is why we are the masters of pranks, and you are not! Dragons have no concept of proper staging, you see." He squints at the ground, and makes an enormous leap. "The next one should go – here!"
There's nothing she can say to that. She knows better than to try. "Whatever. I'll go find us a real hiding place so we can ambush Fishlegs and Snotlout when they get here. Keep an eye out for them, okay?"
"You betcha! We can do that!" Ruffnut agrees, staggering past under a heap of pine branches. "Hey, Tuffnut, what is it we can do?"
Rolling her eyes, Astrid taps her heels against Stormfly's sides and they take off into a shallow glide again, to the accompaniment of Ruffnut's scream of outrage at discovering – again – that pine sap is sticky.
From above, she picks out the thickest clump of forest and guides Stormfly down towards it, and before very long she's found a tangled bank of trees that have grown so close together they've formed a canopy of intertwined branches as thick as any roof. It's got a good view of the rocks, and if Astrid has her directions right, it's just along the line that the other team should be approaching by, assuming that Snotlout will turn around and charge right after them. Direct attacks are pretty much Snotlout's favorite thing.
"Once the decoy's set," she tells Stormfly, who tips her head on one side and clicks curiously at her rider's voice, "we'll get up in the air again and see if we can't lead them here. Then, as soon as they're chasing us, we duck into the forest and let them fly right over us. They go for the decoy, and we jump out on them. What do you think?"
She knows Stormfly doesn't understand her words, but it still feels like agreement when the Nadder ruffles her wings and noses at her. Astrid scratches Stormfly's muzzle obligingly. "Careful now," she warns. "Let's not get anyone hurt today, all right? Even if they're very, very annoying. Let's show them all how it's done."
Stormfly follows her back out into the open, which is suspiciously devoid of twins or Zippleback, although Tuffnut's pretend dragon tracks end in scuffed-up sand that looks exactly like a dragon has crash-landed there.
"Wow, not bad," she calls out, managing not to trip over a discarded stick on her way towards the rocks. She picks it up and waves it in their general direction instead, noting that they're being impressively quiet. Usually the twins are easy to find. All you have to do is stand out in the open and say in a loud voice, "Gosh, where could they be? I just don't know," and listen for the giggling.
"Okay, I found us an ambush place. You going to make those scarecrows now?"
At her back, Stormfly hesitates, whining softly. "What's wrong?" Astrid starts to ask, just as movement catches her eye, flying towards her.
Even as Astrid flinches, she lashes out with her stick, a lifetime of training and combat taking over as she moves without thinking. Heavy netting falls around her, mostly tangling against the stick rather than her. But out of the corner of her eye she can see Stormfly leaping away too late, the links of the net catching on the Nadder's spines and claws and frills. The huge net hisses through the air and falls to the ground again with a thud, weighting rocks burying themselves in the rough sand.
"Oh, great," Astrid mutters, and then a second net flies out and envelops them both, and then a third, thickly-woven enough that she can barely see past them all. A sharp tug on the first one, which has snared around a piece of her light armor, makes her stumble, and she catches herself against Stormfly, who is whistling a high and piercing sound of alarm.
"It's okay, it's okay," she tries to reassure the Nadder, even as she tries to struggle free of the cords. "Dammit, Snotlout!" Astrid shouts at the sound of heavy boots treading towards her. "I mean, okay, good move, but that's got to be cheating –"
"What was that?" the red-haired man with the scary grin and the bugged-out eyes says, nearly hopping up and down with excitement as he grabs the edge of the net and pulls on it, just to rub it in. "Cheating? I don't cheat! I make the rules!"
"Oh," Astrid cuts herself off. "You."
Dagur laughs and claps his hands, applauding himself. "Me!" he announces, posing.
Great, Astrid thinks but does not say. Just great.
She and Dagur have a long history of hating each other's guts. He'd tried to break her arm when she was a little girl. She'd stuck a knife in him instead. He'd put together a handful of yak-dung stink bombs and shot them at her out of a slingshot. She'd started filling a bucket with crickets, but before she got a chance to dump them onto Dagur's stupid head, his father and Stoick had finally worked out whatever they were negotiating, and to Astrid's great relief Oswald took his son with him when he left. She'd have understood if the Berserker chief had decided to ditch his bullying brat of a son on Berk, but she would have been reallyupset.
Things have only gotten worse since then.
Now Dagur is chief of the Berserkers in his own right, and even crazier than ever, and not long ago he'd tried to invade Berk for no apparent reason but that he'd felt like it. Their dragons had chased him off, and he still hadn't learned his lesson, and the second time he'd been forced to retreat, he'd sworn he'd be back with something they'd never see coming.
They hadn't seen it coming so much that they hadn't even seen it, and Astrid had been fine with that.
Dagur makes everything just that crucial little bit worse. He makes even less sense than the twins, and he's so much more malicious.
"Dagur, you overgrown nutter!" she shouts at him. "What in the names of all gods are you playing at! Get off my island! Or come a little closer so I can –"
Astrid works her fist through the net and does her level best to punch him. She knows perfectly well he's out of range, and worse still, so does he, and he doesn't even flinch.
"Ha ha!" Dagur laughs triumphantly, which always makes her want to nail an anvil to his head. "I win your silly game! I caught you! And your dragon, too!"
Stormfly growls at him, and at the leather-armored Berserkers spreading out across the sand to gather up the ends of the net and wrap her into it more tightly. Spikes snap out along her tail, and she draws it back laboriously, fighting the weight of the metal-cored ropes.
"Drop that!" Astrid snaps at the men, but they look past her to their leader, and otherwise ignore her.
From behind the rocks, though, and under Dagur's increasingly erratic laughter, she hears a swish-thunk-swish-thunk that sounds remarkably like two Zippleback tails wagging in response to a familiar command.
Dammit. Apparently it's a great hiding place for an ambush. Astrid kicks herself for not thinking of that.
"Last warning, Dagur," Astrid threatens. "Get off my island right now and Stormfly and I won't come after you and set your hair on fire. Well, more than someone already did."
He is looking a little scorched, even for Dagur, who mostly looks like something blew up in his face anyway.
"Oh, you'd know about that, wouldn't you?" he shoots back, actually wagging a finger at her scoldingly. Astrid entertains cheerful fantasies of Terrible Terrors biting it off his hand. "Someone's been telling tales, hmm? Oh, I bet you laughed!"
"It sounds hilarious," she deadpans, except for the enraged tic pulsing in one eye. Someone tugs at the nets again and she shouts, "Hey! Cut that out!" before setting her feet more steadily. "What do you think you're doing on Berk, Dagur? Can't even win battles that you start, so now you've got to sneak around like a coward? Real honorable, this is."
"It's a clever plan! See? It worked! You came right to me!"
Astrid picks at the nets while she rolls her eyes. "Uh huh. What do you even want?"
Dagur puts a hand to his heart – or where he thinks his heart is, presumably. Astrid will be happy to show him the actual location with a nice sharp knife. "What do I want?" he repeats, pretending to be baffled. "Hmm… Let me think. Let's see… I want my ships back. I want to hang you upside down from a tree and leave you there and see how long your dragons play nice with you then. I want everyone on Berk to say sorry for laughing at me for that stupid trick with your pet dragons. And I want my Skrill!"
Blinking, Astrid focuses on the only parts of that she actually understood. "You want the ships, you come and take them. And what are you talking about? A Skrill? What Skrill?"
"What Skrill? My Skrill! The one your freaky secret spies followed me and stole!" Dagur grabs at the remains of his hair and misses, clawing at his scalp instead. "And I want them, too!"
"Okay," declares Astrid, "now you've lost me. I mean, you lost me pretty much from the beginning of what you would probably call a conversation, and what I'd call you ranting nonsense, but let me put this very clearly so that even you can understand it."
It's hard to be authoritative with nets draped over her head and tangled around her hands, and with Stormfly only making things worse by lashing her tail and snapping her jaws at everyone in sight, but Astrid does her best, standing tall and folding her arms even if that does drag part of the net with her.
"I have no idea what you are talking about."
"Don't play innocent!" Dagur yells. Which is to say, Dagur is almost always yelling, but he's really worked up, spittle flying from his mouth. Ew, Astrid thinks. "I know they're here! They have to be here! They've got to be here! They ruined my awesome plan to find my Skrill and then they blew up a lot of stuff and then they ran away! And no one but you lot go around riding dragons."
True, Astrid thinks.
Never mind about the Skrill. Astrid will worry about the possibility of there being a real Skrill out there later, when she has time to panic and people to watch the horizon for any sign of a thunderstorm. But Dagur is looking for a dragon rider that is most definitely not one of hers?
Astrid is getting a very bad feeling about this.
"And I want them! Never mind the Skrill. I'm not even mad."
"They are way too awesome to be working for you wimps. Whatever you offered them, I'll double it. Triple it! You have to introduce me! Bring them to me! We are going to be such good friends!" Dagur actually jumps up and down a little way on the last three words, like he's stomping them into the ground to hold them still and make sure they stay put.
"Um," Astrid manages to put in, just so she's sureabout this. "Let me get this clear. Who are you looking for again?"
He grabs the net and pulls on it so that he's sneering at her close up, and she seriously considers head-butting him, since his nose is in convenient range. Breaking it once more won't make that much difference. "Duh! Your secret spy. The one with the Night Fury."
Of course he is.
Astrid can't help it. She laughs in his face.
To be continued.