Chapter 49: Things Fall Apart


Chapter Trigger Warnings: Mention of Non-Con, Mention of Attempted Murder


During the Viking Period of AD 793-1040, the Norse explored, traded and settled extensively, using both the seas and rivers as their means of transportation. The Norse longships and skilled seamanship allowed them to travel to locations as far-flung as Mongolia, the African coast of the Mediterranean, and Vinland in the Vestrilands. Skilled and daring sailors would even attempt winter voyages, trusting in their ability to read the weather and the seaworthiness of their ships to avoid and mitigate the hazards of the season.

This tradition of seamanship continued, albeit in an altered form, during the subsequent Dragon Period (AD 1040-~1400), where the old skills in navigation and ship construction continued to evolve…

The Dragon Millennium, Manna-hata University Press, Ltd.

February, AD 1042

Mead Hall, Isle of Berk, Alban Hebrides

Heather could still feel the Eirish guardsman's hand on her skin as she looked down at him. His hot breath still seemed to warm her ear.

I've been looking forward to this since she said—

Astrid was standing there, her ax in hand, clearly daring the man to make a move.

Then Eochaid and Fishlegs pushed their way through the door, one after another, along with several other onlookers.

Eochaid glared and demanded, "What have you done to my man, you uppity wench!?"

"He didn't take no for an answer," she said determinedly, as Fishlegs came up and handed her his shirt to cover herself. Pulling her boyfriend's shirt over her own torn one, she looked at the Eirish prince angrily. "Not when he propositioned me before, or tried to fondle me right in front of you."

At her feet, the Eirishman spat out, "The bitch assaulted me," between his moans of agony. Her leg was sore from how hard she'd slammed it up between his legs, she noted with satisfaction, but that was cut short by Stoick shoving his way in.

As his eyes looked over the scene, she felt a sudden blast of fear, not knowing how he'd react. His eyes didn't linger on her; instead, he turned and ordered, "All right, everyone not directly involved, out!" People were slow to move, and Stoick bellowed, "OUT!"

In a few moments, the only ones left in the room were her, the guardsman, Eochaid, Hiccup, Fishlegs, his arms wrapped around her protectively, and Astrid. She could see a few people standing by the door, attempting to peer in.

Stoick turned and looked at them for a brief moment, and his face soured. "All right. Let's move this out to the hall. Looks like we're having a trial instead of a feast."

Eochaid grunted in agreement. "She assaulted my—"

Stoick held up his hand in a halting motion. "Hold it. We'll get to that, but don't start making accusations!"

Eochaid gave Stoick a poisonous glare, but pointed at one of his men standing by the doorway and gestured for him to enter. Together, they helped up the guardsman as she and the Hooligans in the room left.

Stoick ordered that the tables be pushed back, and the Lawspeakers assembled. Heather found that she was panting in fear against Fishlegs' chest. Few of the faces in the crowd were friendly—especially Bladewit, as she and the other jurists assembled. She knew that the elder did not approve of her relationship with Fishlegs, and knew that it would be an uphill fight for the clanhead to remember her duties as an impartial keeper of law.

Horsefeathers came over and handed Fishlegs a coat, which he shrugged on over his bare chest. And then…

"Heather. It's time to begin," Stoick said, almost gently. "Now, what happened?"

"It's fairly clear what happened!" Eochaid said angrily. "Your serving wench here assaulted my sworn warrior in ambush! In violation of hospitality!"

"Now why would she do that?" Stoick countered, and looked to Heather. "Lass? What happened?"

She looked at Eochaid—and at his guardsman, whose name she didn't even remember. He and the other guard were practically furniture, a matched set, even. And all three of them had been watching her constantly throughout the last month and a half, stripping her with their eyes every time she went to Eochaid's hut with supplies.

She choked for a moment, and then pushed out the words, almost spitting them, "After I turned him down before, he ambushed me in the supply room! I was getting onions when he put a hand down my shirt, held a knife to my throat, and said he'd been looking forward to doing it since he arrived! I just protected myself! And I still got cut when I pushed the knife away!" She lifted up Fishleg's shirt to display her torn one under it, the edges of the tear damp with her blood seeping from the wound that stretched from her collarbone to between her breasts. Thankfully it was just a long shallow gash, but it was still oozing blood.

The crowd rumbled in anger, which both surprised and heartened her.

Eochaid also noticed, but his reaction was more dismissive. She wasn't surprised by that, though—to his kind of mind, what had just almost happened to her was what wenches were for.

But the Eirish king didn't have much of a chance to think on that. She pulled Fishlegs' shirt back down and started to wad up her torn garment to use as a pad, as Stoick turned to the wounded man and said in a voice like iron, "Did you put a hand on the lass?"

"What does that matter?" Eochaid asked dismissively. "She's a serving wench, nothing more. She attacked my man, under your roof!"

Stoick scowled at Eochaid as the crowd murmured. "She is a member of my tribe, not a toy for you to play with." He turned back to her attacker. "Did you touch her?"

Eochaid snorted behind Stoick's back. "This is absurd! My man is being entrapped!"

"What did you just say?" Stoick said dangerously, slowly turning to look at Eochaid.

"Aye, you heard me! You sent her to serve us ale and beer, and to service us if we had a mind to!"

Stoick stared at Eochaid, appalled, as the crowd hissed. Heather could see Hiccup, Astrid, Wulfhild and Cami standing nearby, and all four of them were looking murderous—which was expected from Cami, Wulf and Astrid, but Hiccup looked like he was thinking about taking his belt knife and sticking in Eochaid someplace painful, and that was new coming from him. Heather had never seen him this angry before.

Stoick rumbled, "Your man breached hospitality. He assaulted a member of my tribe. And you are mistaken if you believe she was sent to service you in that manner."

Eochaid snorted. "Oh, please. Of course you sent her, just like you sent your son's concubine to drop a word in my ear at dinner. It's all part of the dance. So you gave us a pretty wench and one that's already known as a whore? So that you could get something out of their pillow talk?" He shook his head dismissively. "I told my men to avoid the trap of bedding her until we got what what we needed, and now that we have—urk!"

Stoick reached out an arm and grabbed Eochaid by the collar, lifting him up off of the ground at arm's length.

Heather was impressed to note that Stoick's arm didn't quiver in the slightest, despite the desperately twitching Eirish king hanging from the fist at the end.

Around them, the hall erupted.

Eochaid's cadre of Eirish warriors gave shouts of alarm, and went to draw their blades—only to be surrounded by Hooligans and Bog Burglars with drawn weapons and dragons with glowing mouths.

"Stand DOWN!" Stoick bellowed, and Eochaid seemed to wave off his men after a moment. Or, at least, Heather thought that he did. It might have been random spasming as he tried to support himself by grasping Stoick's wrist. The weapons were at least lowered… but not put away.

Stoick roared at Eochaid, his voice echoing off of the stones walls, "Have you no honor!? You are a guest, and this is how you treat my hospitality!? By assaulting one of my own!? By plotting rape!? You held back because you wanted something, NOT BECAUSE YOU HAVE A LICK OF HONOR!?"

He practically threw Eochaid to the floor; the Eirish king landed on his hands and knees, gasping.

"If that is your 'honor,' then this treaty is a mistake. I am declaring it null and void," Stoick said, and strode over to the table where the parchment was lying.

He picked it up as Eochaid was gasping out half-garbled protests from the floor, "You can't! You swore an oath!"

"I can and I will," Stoick said, and made as if he was going to tear it in half as the unwounded guard dropped his wounded friend and helped Eochaid stand.

Heather made a half-worded cry of protest at the sight as well. It might have been, All that for nothing!? if she'd been more able to voice it.

Stoick paused, the top of the parchment just beginning to tear. "You said something, lass?"

The crowd, as one, all turned to look at her.

And she saw Toiréasa standing in the crowd, her heart in her eyes, her hands clasped over her mouth.

Heather shrank back for a moment, and then nodded. "Chief, I… I… you swore that treaty in good faith. For the sake of those who will have their lives changed for the better—" she briefly glanced at Toiréasa, "—keep it. Please. Don't stain your honor by going back on your word." Not for my sake.

Stoick stared at her for a moment, and then nodded. "All right." He set the parchment down once more, and some of the tension in the room seemed to lessen. Stoick turned and looked down at Eochaid. "As for you, your man still assaulted a member of my tribe! You can keep the treaty, but that will be the last treaty you ever make with the Hooligans of Berk!"

From the floor, Heather's attacker stammered out, "But… but… we were told—"

"What were you told!?" Stoick demanded, and his arm twitched forward towards the three Eirishmen.

Eochaid stumbled back, tripped, and barely caught himself from falling again. He stared up at Stoick, looking abruptly pale and sickly—and wheeled to glare down at his man, in a show of rage that failed to cover up his own fear. "Well? Answer him, you babbling fool, what were you told?"

The wounded man gaped for a moment, looking trapped. "We were told that, that she was a pleasure thrall, and a troublemaker, and we could do anything we wanted because she wouldn't say nothing…"

Stoick yelled, "And who told you that!?"

The man gulped and looked to Eochaid, apparently saw no help there, and then looked through the crowd. "She did." He pointed, and Heather looked… to see the man pointing directly at Vigdis clan Hofferson.

The older woman blinked—and then saw everyone looking at her. "He's lying! He's trying to cast the blame on me!"

Hiccup interjected from where he was standing near the wide-eyed Lawspeakers, "But I saw you visiting Eochaid's hut!"

"I was born in Ulaid, Hiccup!" she shot back. "Of course I was talking with them about home!"

"Vigdis, you deny this accusation?" Stoick asked flatly.

"Of course I do! It's a transparent attempt to deflect blame!" she said.

Eochaid glared at her. "You bitch! You were there the night that the necklace was stolen!"

"I was there a lot of nights, and anyway, you had other visitors that night, including young Haddock there!" she parried.

Then Stoick said quietly, "Vigdis… how did you know which night the necklace was stolen?" He stepped away from Eochaid and towards her, looming. "Heather came straight to me when she discovered it in her room, and we went straight to Eochaid to return it to his man." He looked around the suddenly silent mead hall. "Who here knew that a gold necklace had been stolen from Mildew's hut and planted in Heather's room?"

People were looking around and shaking their heads, and pieces started falling into place in Heather's mind… starting with Vigdis' seemingly prepared deflection to Eochaid's accusation.

Stoick looked down at Vigdis. "So how did you know about it?"

A trapped expression crossed her face, her eyes darting from side to side.

Others around her were having dawning looks of understanding.

"I… I saw you, meeting with the King," she said.

"Oh?" Stoick said, crossing his arms, although Heather couldn't see his expression. "Then where did I meet with him?"

"In his hut, of course," she said guilelessly.

Stoick leaned down to look her in the face. "That's a lie. Why did you steal the necklace and plant it in Heather's room, Vigdis?" he asked, still in that furiously calm voice.

Vigdis stared Stoick in the eye for a long moment, as the whole hall seemed to be holding its collective breath.

And then she screamed and pulled a knife from her belt—but as she rose from her seat to throw it at Heather, Stoick moved.

He grabbed her hand and hauled her out of her seat, and manhandled her away; reaching the edge of the crowd, he all-but-threw her into the cleared space at the center of the hall. She staggered in, barely keeping herself standing as the crowd murmured and whispered.

Instantly, Astrid was standing in front of Heather, guarding her, ax drawn. Hiccup had his sword out and ignited in front of the Lawspeakers.

Heather swallowed as she looked at her tormentor—whose hate-filled glare made the pit of her stomach sink away.

"Why, Vigdis? Why'd you breach hospitality to frame Heather?" Stoick demanded. He loomed over her. "Why did you tell Eochaid here that she was acceptable to assault?!"

Vigdis hissed and drew herself up to her full height—which would have been more intimidating if she had come up higher than Stoick's breastbone.

"I am a good and loyal Hooligan!" she declared—not just to him, but to the room at large. "Fifteen years ago, I was rescued from a brothel by Thicknut and Chestnut, along with half a dozen other women, most of whom are still in this room here tonight!"

"And what does that have to do with you turning traitor on us now!?" Stoick demanded.

"I am no traitor!" she barked back.

"You broke hospitality, Vigdis! That is treachery! You stole from a guest!" Stoick bellowed.

"And the only one who would have been harmed was the traitorous spy-bitch!" Vigdis screamed. The room fell silent again, and Vigdis' chest heaved in fury. "Oh, yes. King Eochaid, my Chief here didn't tell you that she was a spy, did he? Always out for herself." She turned and glared at Heather, and made a single stalking step towards her before Stoick's hand fell on her shoulder and restrained her. "She was sent here to spy and steal dragons. And then assaulted one of us, having been caught in the act. Then she betrayed her master. And yet—" she wheeled her arms towards Heather incredulously, "look at her! She walks around with long hair like a freewoman and cozies up to the very man she beat, flaunting the law day in and day out without a care! She spread her legs and her victim forgot everything that she'd done to him!" She looked back at Stoick. "So, yes, I tried to get her banished for something that would do the tribe no harm! Yes, I tried to get that stupid boy to stop thinking with his dick and realize that she's an untrustworthy snake! Yes, I tried to chop that undeserved braid off her head! Yes, I told the king that she's a slut and a manipulative whore, so that maybe, just maybe, that stupid boy would see what she really is!"

Heather felt like a maelstrom was swirling around inside her at the chain of denouncements and admissions of guilt.

But before she could say anything, Wulfhild interjected, her tone furious. "It was you! The day of the avalanche! And you cut her saddle!"

Vigdis turned on her with a sneer. "I did! Because nobody was willing to treat a spy in our midst as they should have! But I wasn't going to slit her throat that day of the avalanche!" She glared at Heather briefly. "Too messy. But cutting off that undeserved braid from her head!? Yes, that I was about to do, before another meddling outsider came in and interrupted!" She wheeled at Stoick. "But you call me traitor!?" She reached over and thumped him in the chest as he looked down at her like he'd just found something squirming in his soup. "You! Who betrayed generations of your ancestors to bring dragons into your home!? You, who kept a scrawny Hiccup as an heir!? You want to talk about treachery!? You stabbed every single one of us who was loyal to you in the back when you took in the dragons after we fought at the nest! That wasn't your idiot heir's decision, that was yours! You had a chance to slaughter them all, starting with that Night Fury, but you were a coward!" She stepped back. "So banish me, for all I care. This isn't the home I came to love and cherish any longer."

"As you wish," a hard voice came from the edge of the crowd. Every head swiveled in unison to see Rikard clanhead Hofferson standing there, his arms crossed and his eyes narrowed. "Vigdis, you are banished from the clan for your admitted crimes. We will stand with you no longer."

There was a murmur among the shocked tribesfolk, but it was interrupted by a shout.

"Wait!" called out Steinn clan Hofferson… Vigdis' husband. Everyone turned to look at him as he moved forward through the crowd. He emerged from the front row and walked over to his wife. "You can't banish her. She's still married to me, and unless you're going to banish me from the clan as well, nothing changes!"

Stoick rumbled, "She's not just banished from the clan."

"What?"

The chief looked to Bladewit and the other Lawspeakers. "I count among those admissions three or four attempts at interfering with a courtship, an attempted murder, and a breach of hospitality with the intent of getting someone banished." His lip curled. "I believe that someone should be. How does the law read?"

Bladewit looked among among the other Speakers, and they all nodded. Bladewit turned back and said flatly, "Banishment. For at least ten years, to as high as permanent exile."

Stoick nodded and turned back to her. "Vigdis, of no clan—"

She spat in his face and then spat at Rikard before returning to staring Stoick in the face. "I gave up my old name when I married Steinn. I'll take it back now. My name is Aoibhín."

Stoick slowly and deliberately cleaned off the spittle with his thumb and flung it to the floor. "Aoibhín, of no clan, you have said that you no longer feel at home among the Hooligans of Berk. For your crimes, you are hereby exiled from the tribe… in perpetuity."

Steinn took his wife's hand. "Then I leave here with her." He looked around, and cast his eyes specifically on the dragons. "It's not like the place hasn't gotten worse over the last year or so," he spat.

"Then be gone, both of you," Stoick said flatly. Without further ceremony, he turned back to Eochaid, who had been watching the proceedings, wide-eyed and increasingly furious.

"As for you! You were led astray by the lies of one of my own. But what your man tried to do was still a crime that no man of decency or honor would dare contemplate, no less while under the bounds of hospitality. Therefore, you can keep the treaty, but for the assault upon a woman of my tribe, prevented only by her skill and not your man's own restraint, you have breached the decorum of a guest before the gods. As such, I am revoking host's hospitality for you and your men. Get out. We'll take your ships back in the morning."

"But… but… but… she—" Eochaid stammered. It was unlike him, but Heather oddly sympathized at the moment. All that, for nothing?

"She what!? Told your man that Heather was an acceptable victim to rape!?" Stoick asked angrily. "That makes me certain that this treaty was a mistake. But I will keep my word." He hauled up the prince to a standing position. "Your men may eat what they have already been served, but may take no more, and they may sleep in the billets that they've been assigned tonight, but be ready to leave come morning." He loomed over Eochaid. "I will not steal food that has been honestly given, nor turn out guests, no matter how ungrateful, into a cold winter night. But you are no longer welcome here, and I will send you home at first light." He turned to Vigdis… to Aoibhín and Steinn. "As for you two, you're leaving with them. Take whatever of your personal possessions you can carry. The rest will be sold to compensate your victim."

Aoibhín snorted and started to laugh bitterly.

"What?"

"We have nothing left!" She turned and looked at Heather with a sick smile. "Hear that? Nothing! Two years ago, Steinn was one of the best dragon slayers in the whole of the village, and now, we have nothing!" She glared at Hiccup and practically spat her next words. "You! You ruined our lives, and I wish that I could have cut that fancy saddle of yours—!"

The room erupted in protest. More than a few of the Hooligans—and a number of the Bog Burglars—were brandishing weapons at Vig… Aoibhín.

It took Stoick some time to restore order. As he did so, Heather felt someone touch her arm lightly, and she flinched—and turned to see Fishlegs standing there. He pulled her into a hug, and for a brief moment, Heather let herself go to pieces in his comforting arms.

He spoke into her ear, "Heather… do you love me? And do you trust me?"

She nodded. "You know that I do. How can you even ask that?"

"Because I had an idea… that might make a bunch of people angry. About us." He held her tighter and said, "But I don't want anyone else saying that about you, ever again. But I also had to be sure it's what you want."

"Fish… I don't have the dowry…" she started to protest.

"Leave that to me," he said, and let her go, keeping one arm behind her back. Turning, he called, "Chief!"

The room fell silent, and all eyes turned to Fishlegs, including Stoick's.

"Yes, lad?" Stoick asked.

Fishlegs scowled at Aoibhín and said, "Apparently, because I made friends with a freedwoman, one who was under impossible burdens, I 'think with my dick'." He sucked in his lips and gave the older woman a sour look. "Yes, I'm young. And people think I'm weird. I am weird! But Heather is not a traitor, and I'm not blinded by desire." He looked to Stoick. "But since the two of us are together," and the emphasis in his voice made it impossible to mistake his meaning, "people are calling her names. Despite how that story was your idea in the first place! You even said it 'might not be a false scandal'!"

Stoick winced and nodded. "Aye, lad. I share some of the blame for… this. Not that it excuses certain… actions." He glanced at Aoibhín and Steinn with a scowl.

Fishlegs, his arm still around her waist, said, "And I know you gave me a month for us to get a mundr. Well, I can afford it. She can't. Not in the next week." He released the arm around her back, went to one knee, and said, in an incredibly formal tone, "Chief Stoick Hamishsson, head of the Haddock clan, leader of the Hooligan tribe… I petition you for the right to take this woman, Heather nic Oswald, as my bound and recognized concubine for the next year."

The room erupted again.

As Stoick worked on quieting them, there was suddenly a shout from right nearby. "You can't do that!" Bladewit called out, looking upset.

Fishlegs stood and looked at her, his face set and implacable. "Yes I can, Auntie. And I will."

"I won't give you the funds for the dowry!" she barked.

Fishlegs snorted. "I can afford it. And I checked the concubinage laws. There's nothing in there about the concubine being held by the clanhead for adopting them into the clan! We just did it that way because the clanhead was usually the one with the money for it! Well, I have my own money, and in a year, we'll separate and get betrothed and then married!" He glanced at Heather, suddenly blushing. "Uh, that is… if you want to."

Heather felt her heart melt into a puddle somewhere around her boots. Reaching up, she pulled him into a kiss. And it turned into a long one, passionate enough that people started clapping, hooting and whistling.

Eventually breaking the kiss, she said, "I accept your terms," hoping that those were the right words for this.

Then, nearby, Stoick said, his voice cheerful, "Fishlegs Hensteethson clan Ingerman… your petition is granted."

As Aoibhín and her husband were escorted out, and the Eirish sullenly finished their meals and left in dribs and drabs, Heather couldn't keep the smile off of her face. If her grin was any wider, the top of her head might come off, she felt.

Even when Nanna looked over her wound, deemed it too shallow for stitches, and cleaned it with some vinegar and honey, the smile continued, despite the stinging.

###

The Kontoskalion, Constantinople, Roman Empire

The decking of the ship was rocking gently under his feet in the morning sunlight as Sigurd watched the caged dragons being offloaded. But he didn't notice, not with the feeling of bile in his throat.

While he didn't recognize their breeds, the basics were the same. Boulder-class. Sharp-class. Stoker-class. Tidal-class. Mystery-class.

No Strike-class, though.

He understood enough Greek by now to understand their names. Hydra, a long-bodied three-headed Mystery-class. Python, a snakelike Boulder-class with wicked jaws. Colchia, a wide-eyed Sharp-class with fangs as long as Sigurd's forearm. Ismenia, a Tidal-class, with scales the size of shields and fangs like swords. Chimera, a two-headed Stoker-class which, Sigurd had to grant, certainly did look like it had been made from a bunch of other animals at first glance; the two heads definitely looked like a lion and a goat if you squinted and ignored the scales. Campe, a Sharp-class, with enough fangs, talons and spikes to make a Nadder jealous. Scylla, a long-necked Boulder-class, and Charybdis, a wide-mouthed Tidal-class.

And every single one of them was scared beyond belief. Cowering, terrified, in their cages and muzzles, certain that they would be killed and tortured by the men with loud clanging weapons. They were being aggressive and agitated, trying to make themselves look big and dangerous.

He sighed, pushing back the anger and sadness he was feeling as he started issuing orders on the walk to the new training pit—orders which he didn't even notice were being followed without question.

"Okay. First, get them out of those cages and into the holding pens, they'll feel safer and have some room." They'd been optimistic about the number of pens they'd need—the Emperor had commissioned a hundred pens, and while not all of them were finished, there were enough to house the dragons. "Next, they need fish, lots of it." He saw the terrified glances from the men around him, and resolved that he'd handle the feeding at first. "Have they been fed? At all?"

"N-no, sir."

"All right. Then that's my first priority. We need nets full of fish. And soon!"

"Yes sir!" one of the surrounding Army men said and ran off.

"Also, we need to get some of that minty grass that I told you about—oh, good, you found some, put that aside, we'll need it. And finally, I want every person in here disarmed. No bows, no spears, no swords, not even your dinky little belt knives. You don't like it, leave. Anyone who hits them or makes loud noises around them until we've got them settled, you answer to me and Harald if the dragon doesn't eat you first. I want the crowd out of here as soon as possible; if they see too many of us around here, we're going to make them stressed—"

One of the nearby Roman officers scoffed. "I've seen you ride your own beast. He's docile like any horse broken to the saddle. Why are we coddling them when we should be showing them who is the master and who—"

He didn't finish the sentence as Sigurd decked him with a single blow to the face, laying him out flat on the ground with a vicious thud.

Shaking out his stinging fingers, he stood over the stunned officer and said down to him, "If you want to take that approach, go ahead. I'll sit back, watch you scream, and then tame the dragon after he's done eating. These are. NOT. HORSES. They are smart, and they view us as dangerous threats! If you want to convince one to work with you, you have to make it a partnership based on trust."

One of the others in the group of officers asked plaintively, "Trust? A dragon?"

"Yes! They need to trust you not to hurt them!"

"But…" the man gestured to the dragons being pulled into the dark and quiet holding pens, where Sigurd hoped that, surrounded by thick walls and silence, they'd feel safer and more secure, "they're dragons."

"Yes, and we're people. With swords. And knives. And arrows. Dragon versus human who knows how to fight one, dragon loses. I promise you that."

"Then why are we bothering with this?"

"Because human working with dragon is the sort of thing that lets dragon beat human that wants to kill it. Promise that too." Sigurd had an involuntary memory of those moments in the burning burh of Brycgstow, his ax sinking deep into a man's chest while a flaming Hookfang batted at a squad of soldiers.

"There is also the tactical and strategic consideration of using them as mounts for scouts and aerial commanders," Harald said to the man as Sigurd clawed his way back to the present. "Even if they didn't breathe fire and come with claws capable of shredding a man, they'd be valuable for that alone. But that's not the point. The Emperor ordered this to be done. Therefore, it is done."

There were nods of assent and several salutes to that, and the questioner backed down. He didn't do or say anything else other than track the cages with his eyes as they were carried down the ramp into the pit, brought up against the holding pens, and cautiously opened to allow the dragons inside.

After the first few dragons had been let into their new homes, Sigurd motioned the various officers to follow him. Leaving behind the commotion by the training pit and holding pens, he walked a short distance to where Hookfang was sunning himself on a big rock. "You okay there, Hookie?"

Hookfang just rolled over lazily and gave Sigurd a big draconic smile, his tongue hanging out in a relaxed fashion. Sigurd laughed and gave him a good horn wrestle.

The officers, having followed him out, watched them in awe. Even Harald, who had flown with him on Hookfang multiple times, still seemed impressed.

Watching them, Sigurd whispered to Hookfang in Norse, "Help me play this up, okay?"

Hookfang laughed and flopped over, basically purring as Sigurd gave him a chin-scratch, right where the little tuft of soft horn was sprouting like a beard, showing him to be a proper Viking's dragon.

He whispered, "Okay, don't hurt him, but we want to sell it, okay?"

Hookfang just rolled his eyes and then closed them in enjoyment.

Sigurd grinned, shrugged, and said in Greek to one of the soldiers standing nearby, "I want you to try to attack me."

"Sir?" the soldier said, looking questioningly at his officer, who nodded after a moment.

The soldier shrugged and pulled out his sword and started marching towards the pair.

Instantly, Hookfang was on his feet and wings, interposed in front of Sigurd, snarling at the man, who cowered.

Someone whimpered nearby.

"Okay, okay, that's enough," Sigurd said, walking around. "We're good." Hookfang calmed down in a way that would have clued the watchers into how much of it was an act, if they had been at all familiar with dragons. But they weren't.

The officer that had been questioning the usefulness of dragons muttered in awe. To Sigurd's ear, it sounded like a prayer.

"Alright. So, now, we have a bunch of dragons in the holding pens. I'm going to give them a few days to finish calming down; for now, I want guards around the area, just in case anyone decides to prove how badass they are by killing a helpless dragon. If we treat them right, they'll be our friends and will help us and let us ride them."

One of the officers spoke up in thickly accented Greek, but was at least polite enough to speak slowly so Sigurd could understand him. "The Emperor gets the first dragon, correct?"

"Yes, but it's going to take a few days—weeks maybe—before they're ready for riding. You saw them—they're all terrified right now. I'm not going to end up being an inadvertent oathbreaker by shoving an anxious and scared dragon in front of the Emperor. I'd be really embarrassed if he ended up getting eaten by mistake."

The men laughed, relaxing.

"So… a week?"

"Call it two, at least," Sigurd said after consideration. "I'll be going in and getting them used to people first."

There were nods and Sigurd kept issuing instructions. As he was midway through describing how to best cook the fish in the way that dragons seemed to like, one of the men spoke up. "Does not the Emperor need a dragonskin jacket of his own to be able to tame the dragon?"

Sigurd, taken aback, stammered, "I, uh, well, you see—"

A different officer shrugged. "It's not a problem. One of the Ismenia is injured and smaller than the others. We could harvest the hide for the Emperor without a problem—"

"No!" Sigurd interrupted, half-panicked. "The jacket… the jacket is just needed for the initial taming. You know, when they're first getting to know you. You don't need to kill any of them! And, and, and…" a sudden memory sparked and he blurted out, "and in another two or three months, if they're like the dragons up north, they'll be shedding all of their scales and hide then, and you can harvest that without hurting them. In fact, they'd appreciate having hands to help clean off the old scales!"

All of the assembled officers blinked at him, and Snotlout was suddenly vividly reminded that he was the youngest man present.

The officer who had suggested that the wounded dragon be killed nodded slowly. "I see."

"And I'll handle the taming stage. That'll be my job. I can do it," Sigurd said, feeling much more calm. He forced a smile. "Besides, killing one? When they were so hard to get? Seems kinda wasteful."

"That is true," the officer said and nodded.

"And, like I said, in a few months, they'll be shedding their scales," I hope, "and then you can make a jacket for the Emperor. Or I'll make it, myself, like how I made this one."

They returned to talking logistics and supplies and training programs, as Sigurd kept flashing back to hearing the offhanded suggestion that they simply kill one of the dragons just for a jacket for the Emperor.

The depths he was treading in suddenly seemed much deeper than they had before. What have I done, what have I done!?

Before, it was just him and Hookfang. And while he'd sworn an oath, there was always the possibility of just flying away… even if it meant forfeiting his honor and his pride.

But that wasn't an option any longer.

Not when forty innocent dragons had their lives on the line now, because of him, and had only him to protect them.

###

Chief's Hut Cliff, Isle of Berk, Alban Hebrides

"There they go," Hiccup said quietly, one arm around Astrid and the other around Wulfhild. The three of them were standing by the cliff by their home, watching Eochaid's two ships skip across the waves, hauled by teams of Nadders flying in close formation. They'd be back in Ulaid before the sun set, even on this short winter day.

And then, from there, they'd be taking Aoibhín, Steinn, and their two children, Gytha and Finn, into exile.

There were heavy footsteps on the grass behind them on the cliffside.

"Hey Dad," Hiccup said tiredly.

Stoick came up and stood next to them. They watched as a group as the pair of ships vanished into the winter sea mists.

Once they were out of sight, Stoick said softly, "Remember this when you're chief, son. Even justice of the purest kind can do harm where it touches other lives."

"That's great, Dad. Really inspiring," Hiccup said bitterly. "What happened to 'A Chief Protects His Own'?"

Stoick sighed and rubbed at his face. "I did my best. But I couldn't override the rights of the parents to take their children with them. Not without being a tyrant."

Hiccup sighed. "When you put it this way, you make it sound so inviting, Dad."

Stoick snorted. "It isn't. But you do it. You do it when your heart is torn in two, you do it when you're just wanting to smack some sense into everyone, you just do it."

"Why?" Hiccup asked, his tone even more bitter.

Stoick paused and took a deep, deep sigh of a breath. "Because… because you live in fear of not doing well enough, and someone suffering from it. Because that is protecting your own, son. Because if not you, then someone else… who might not do as good a job."

Wulfhild twitched under Hiccup's arm and then snuggled in closer.

Hiccup groaned and sighed. "I… okay."

They stood in silence in the cold and snow, the sun's warmth in the cloudless blue sky being welcome on their faces, until finally Hiccup said, "We should go to the grove."

The others murmured in agreement, and they left the cliffside on their dragons a few moments later.

Landing at the grove, they found that Gothi, Fishlegs and Heather were already present, as were their parents and siblings, plus Cami.

Bladewit, in contrast, was not there.

Hiccup winced when he noticed her absence. While her presence wasn't required, it was definitely a snub, as Fishlegs' clanhead.

They entered the grove, and, confirming that Bladewit wasn't going to show, began the short rite. Gothi bound Heather's and Fishlegs' hands together with a length of cloth, and they spoke their oaths. For the next year and a day, the two of them were legally recognized as a couple, and Heather was now a part of the Ingerman clan.

And in a year, they would separate, Fishlegs would give her the dowry she needed for the mundr, he would propose immediately, they'd be betrothed, and then they would wed as soon as the mead was brewed the following summer. If they had any children before that, the child would be recognized as their legitimate firstborn after the wedding, able to inherit and everything.

It was a nice and tidy plan… and Hiccup hoped nothing would go wrong with it.

###

Lixbuna, Taifa of Badjoz, Al-Andalus

Trader Johann looked across the table at the other merchant. His associate had excellent control over his expression, but the two of them had been trading for a very long time, and he was Johann's contact here in al-Lixbuna, the major harbor of Badajoz. They'd been associates, even friends, for twenty years. That hadn't changed, even with the current mess further inland from the collapse of the Caliphate of Córdoba ten years ago and all of the political problems and relocations that had resulted.

Putting on a wry smile, he shrugged. "I can tell you that their word is good, and the potential for riches is staggering."

The other man looked at him blankly and then shook his head. "This is insane. Are you seriously proposing that we support and hire Vikings to carry mail?"

Johann grinned. They were in the bargaining stage now. The hook was set. His friend would act all affronted and attempt to dismiss the value of the goods.

"Yes, Chayim, that is exactly what I am proposing. And I'm offering you and your people here the opportunity to manage the local office." He sipped at his drink, a fine wine that his host had poured for him. "I've seen their flocks, and witnessed their strength, and can attest to their peaceful intent."

"Vikings? Peaceful?"

"Aye," Johann said with a smirk. "It feels a tad unnatural, I'll grant, but I can say this much: when you have a group of Vikings that can literally smash an entire English fleet sent to slaughter them, and they not only let half of it flee for their lives, but send the rest home unmolested, and have also gone out of their way to avoid getting dragged into more fights… then yes, you can call them peaceful. So long as nobody picks fights with them, at least. In which case, your God should help them, because mine would sit back and laugh."

The other man rolled his eyes at Johann's joke. "I see. But a single harbor or port is useless if there is no other port to sail to. Where else have you sold this bill of goods?"

"Well, that's the thing. I'm currently on my way through the Straits and plan on talking with the rest of our associates soon enough. But I have talked with Eric Karlsson up in London…"

"Him I am familiar with," Chayim allowed with a nod.

"And I also visited a few people in Rouen and Paris when I stopped in Francia, and I visited Nantes to talk with your cousin Reuven on my way here. For the moment, I'm just working my way down the coast and around."

"And how is my cousin doing?"

"Could be better. From what he said, the community of your people there aren't doing too well; the bishop of Brittany is tormenting them for refusing to convert."

Chayim scowled. "I warned him."

"Aye, that you did. But he had no way of knowing that things would work out so well for your people with the collapse of the Caliphate. He saw chaos coming and fled, and found a place to settle."

Chayim's lips twitched for a moment in a frown, and he nodded. "That's true enough. And it isn't as if things have not grown… tense of late. But I still think he was a fool who was jumping at shadows."

Johann sighed and picked up his glass. "Was he? We've been friends for a long time, Chayim. I've seen things grow more 'tense' since the Caliphate collapsed. And your people are only tolerated here—however kind that tolerance might be in comparison to the Christian lands." Johann scowled. "Half of the reason you trade with me, old friend, is that I am a Norseman that keeps with the old ways, and we both know what it means to suffer at the hands of a Christian lord."

Chayim lifted his glass in a mocking salute and clinked it against Johann's. "Indeed. And I've yet to catch you cheating me, either, which makes up the other half."

They both laughed, the tension broken.

"So, what guarantee would we have against the possibility of these dragons eating their crazed riders and the mail as well?"

"Well, the fact that, when I checked in with them in the autumn, they had been living alongside the beasts for a year without a nibble is something that I feel to be a good indication," Johann allowed with a smile.

"I see. This is still insane."

"Perhaps, but look at the advantages, Chayim," Johann said, leaning in conspiratorially. "I've seen the beasts. They're intelligent and downright friendly once you get past the teeth and firebreathing. For Odin's sake, you won't even have a hard time feeding them—they eat fish. Not pork."

"Well, it's good to know that the dragons are wise enough to avoid such things," Chayim said with a mock-stern tone.

"I believe I know what that means, so, yes. They can fly in a day what takes me a week to sail. Even if all they carry is letters, imagine what that will do for your family… and your people."

Chayim nodded after a moment. "I see your point. We are scattered. Even now…" he sighed. "Yerushalayim is a bone fought between the Romans and the Arabs, and we are far from home."

"Well, I'll put it this way, my friend. It's near enough to two and a half thousand sea miles from here to your homeland. For me, it would take upwards of two months of sailing to reach, and then another two to return. And, in fact, that is essentially exactly what I am going to be doing over the course of the summer." He drummed his fingers on the table. "For a dragon… a week. Perhaps less."

Chayim said something in that ancient tongue of his people, the one that Johann didn't understand, neither Arabic nor Andalusi. It was either a loving curse or a sad blessing, and Johann nodded and toasted with his cup.

"And I am offering to bring you and your family in on it, my friend. You have never tried to cheat me either, and that is why I approached you first."

Chayim took a deep breath and nodded. "I see. Then what is required of us?"

Johann grinned. "Well…"

###

Saint Olaf's Hospital, Nidaros, Norway

Tuffnut woke to pain.

He hurt. He very much hurt.

He groaned, and then turned as he saw Barf and Belch sitting nearby, the two heads of his dragon looking happy to see him.

Suddenly remembering his last few moments of consciousness, he jerked at the blanket to see two feet and sagged in relief. They were splinted and bandaged to the point where he could barely see them, but there were definitely two sets of toes sticking out of the ends of the wrappings.

"Ah, good, you're awake," Yngvarr's sardonic tones sounded.

Tuffnut looked up to see the herald sitting in a chair nearby; he'd apparently been reading a book while he'd been sitting there, and was putting the bookmark ribbon in to mark his place.

"You'll be fine, but you've been out for a day or so. And you can apparently forget walking for the next month or two." He closed the book with a solid thump.

Tuffnut stared at him and blurted the question that immediately came to mind. "Is Marte okay?"

Yngvarr grinned. "Ask her yourself," he said, and pulled back a curtain; Tuffnut suddenly noticed that he was in the hospital, in the room with all of the beds for long-term patients.

In the next bed was Marte, with linen bandages around her head and looking a bit worn, but otherwise alright. She was talking with another woman, probably her mother, and noticed him looking at her, and smiled at him.

One of the healer assistants came in a moment later with a bowl of porridge and a cup of watered ale on a tray, and put them in front of Tuffnut, who found that he was ravenous.

As he ate, Yngvarr spoke. "So, I must thank you for saving the lady's life. I've already thanked your sister for doing my job for me."

Tuffnut choked and looked at Yngvarr. "She did kill him?"

"Slit his throat all the way back to the spine. That scalpel is sharp."

"Is he dead?"

"Indisputably. And you got to miss all of the shouting, and the messy cleaning up, and your sister being terrified for your leg, and Magnus has been bouncing back and forth between rage and protectiveness. Ruffnut is standing up to him wonderfully, though."

"Standing up how?"

"Well, after a fair bit of arguing back and forth between your sister and the king, she convinced him that putting a dozen thanes standing shoulder-to-shoulder around your bed would be counterproductive, and that the dragon made for an acceptable alternative bodyguard, for example."

Tuffnut blinked.

"But he is very angry about members of his household or under his protection getting injured like this. It's only been half a year or so since Hiccup and Astrid got attacked by those rogue thanes, and it is very much on his mind." Yngvarr shrugged. "However, you're supposed to make a full recovery. Even though I shudder to think of how bored you're going to be for the next two months while your leg and ankle heal up."

Tuffnut groaned.

"However, we found you a nurse." Yngvarr waved over Marte's mother, who came over and smiled at him. "Karin, Tuffnut. Tuffnut, Karin. I imagine that you'll get to know each other a fair bit over the next two months. And, ma'am, I must remind you that he is a sworn thane and trained warrior, and babying him excessively will likely result in extreme levels of embarrassment unbecoming someone of his status," Yngvarr said with an evil grin, and, with that, he bowed and walked off.

Karin just smiled at Tuffnut, who was suddenly having strong urges to run off and cause chaos someplace else at being the focus of such maternal attention.

Unfortunately, that wasn't an option, not like it had been when his step-mom had tried to replace his mother.

Crap.

Then his eyes widened at the thought of having to actually… crap. Like this.

Uh oh.

###

Lixbuna, Taifa of Badjoz, Al-Andalus

After his meeting with Chayim, Johann had other stops to make in Lixbuna. One of them in particular promised to be quite lucrative.

With Beorn and Miguel-Pedro following in his wake through the narrow streets and small squares of the cream-stone and red-bricked city, he sought out the the unassuming house to which he'd been directed. Finding it after a short search, he knocked politely.

The door opened after several moments, and a petite woman in a hijab peered out at him suspiciously. "Who are you?" she asked in Arabic.

Johann blinked in surprise. "Does Basir live here?" he replied in the same tongue.

She narrowed her eyes at him. "Maybe. Who are you?"

He bowed politely. "My name is Yuhanna in your tongue. I am a sailor and trader that he has met before. If he is home, tell him that I have the quills for him."

She nodded suspiciously and then closed the door.

Beorn whistled. "Did Basir finally get married?"

Johann chuckled. "His family has been leaning on him for years. Perhaps his rear-guard battle finally surrendered?"

Before either of the other two men could comment, the door was flung open, and there was a boisterous cry of "Yuhanna!"

"Ah, Basir!" Johann said, embracing the Moor, giving and receiving enthusiastic backslaps. "Ah, it is good to see you!"

"Welcome, welcome, my friend, please, please, come in!"

With a grin, Johann and his two men entered the house after the Moor. It was dim and pleasant inside, a contrast to the warm winter sun outside, and they were quickly ushered to a small room with a table. As they sat, the young woman came in, carrying a tray laden with fruit and a few small pitchers, which turned out to be filled with a sweet drink; it was the one they called sharab, if Johann recalled correctly, although it had been a while since he'd had any. There was none of the sekanjabin he preferred, to his disappointment, and he resolved to find some of the refreshing honey, vinegar and mint-flavored beverage before he left Al-Andalus.

As the woman left, Johann smiled at Basir. "Your wife?"

The smile on Basir's face grew. "Aye. Hiba. We are wed for six months now." He took a sip from his cup. "She is the light of my life, and I wish to protect her and cherish her. We had been courting for five years, and her father said that we had been waiting long enough."

"Well, I'll be sure to stop by with a gift for your firstborn on—"

The smile left Basir's face like the extinguishing of a candle. "No. You need not trouble yourself, my friend. We are taking… precautions."

Johann blinked and then recalled. "Oh. I am sorry that I touched a sore spot. And here I thought that you had worked past such troubles."

"My sisters' fates weigh heavily on me," Basir said softly, and then seemed to gather himself. "But enough of that. So, what exotics do your fellow northerners need from me this year? Perfumes? Medicines? Due to my relocation, I do not have access to the same ingredients as I did in the past, so the price for the refined oleander will increase, for example, but I have easier access to other things."

"My usual customer for the oleander decided to pull a disappearing act," Johann said sourly. "I ended up selling it at a loss to someone else. But I have good news for you!"

"Oh?"

"Yes! Beorn, show him."

Beorn unslung a satchel from his shoulder and passed it to the alchemist. Basir untied the latch and opened it, and his face grew delighted again. "Ah! My quills!" he said happily, pulling a Nadder quill from the bag and carrfully holding it aloft. Then he took a closer look. "But wait, it's not damaged, and the venom sacs are still intact! How…"

"As I told you last year, the Norsemen have succeeded in taming dragons and no longer slaughter them for parts, but instead treat them as sheep to be shorn. So while Hatim over in Barcelona was furious at the lack of livers, I now have an abundance of quills for you to play with, harvested straight from the tails of the beasts as they feasted on fish."

"Oh? Is this not all?"

Johann shared a look with Beorn and Miguel-Pedro and they all laughed. "Good friend, how many quills would you like?" Johann asked, chuckling.

"How many do you have?"

"Counting that," Beorn said, nodding to the satchel, "three thousand."

Basir stared, his jaw dangling open. "You… you are… you are jesting, are you not?"

"No. Oh, we might have lost a few to spoilage and accidents on the way, but they fill one of my ships," Johann said with a smile. "So, how many would you like? I know that you don't have much coin on hand, but I'd be willing to consider it an advance against goods in kind on my return trip."

Basir stared at them, and then at the quill he was holding loosely in his hand, and then back at them. Then, with a twitch that was as if he was slapping himself into acting, he said curtly, "All of them."

"All? That will cost much, friend," Johann said, surprised. He'd been expecting them to last as a trade good through to at least Italia. "Even at the reduced prices you can get from our oversupply, it is still a fortune."

"I will take every single one that you are willing to sell me," Basir said firmly. "Shall we haggle?"

Johann looked into the resolute eyes of his friend and nodded slowly. "I suppose we shall."

###

Chief's Hut, Isle of Berk, Alban Hebrides

Heather, smiling and humming cheerfully to herself, her arms filled with baskets of food, stepped lightly down the stairs to the mead hall and headed over to the chief's hut. The last week had been… wonderful.

Bizarrely so, really.

After Vigdis' rant against her and the exposure of the depth of her actions, many of the Hooligans who had treated her poorly had seemed to have second thoughts. Two days earlier, she'd even been given an earnest, if slightly sullen, apology by Twiglet for everything that she had put her through. It was clear that Twiglet still didn't like her, but she seemed to have enough integrity to be able to make an apology like that, which made Heather's own opinion of her increase significantly.

The harassment in the kitchen had ceased, even if she was still getting a cold shoulder from many. That being said, Heather was no longer the social outcast of choice in the kitchens, not after the uproar two days ago with Lopsides.

And, last but definitely not least, she and Fishlegs were spending every night together, as a legally recognized couple.

Of course, it wasn't all perfect.

Mhairi didn't recognize Toiréasa as her mother… and while Toiréasa was doing her best to be part of her daughter's life, it seemed to be slightly baffling to the little girl that she now had two mothers.

Thankfully she hadn't yet asked the question that Heather was half-dreading, half-anticipating. While the look on Murray's face would be hilarious, the thought of seeing Toiréasa's expression if Mhairi asked if Murray was her father was painful.

Reaching the chief's hut, she pushed open the door to the chief's hut with her foot, as her arms were full of the baskets of food. Stepping over the threshold, she continued to hum to herself, only to pause as her name was called.

"Heather. Ah, good."

She looked up to see that the room was filled with people; Hiccup, Stoick, Astrid, and Wulfhild, unsurprisingly, but also Spitelout and his friend Fritjof, and Gobber and Fishlegs.

Stoick motioned her over. "Good timing. I was just about to send Hiccup to go look for you."

"What for, chief?" she asked, setting down her baskets and starting to unload.

Spitelout grunted. "After what happened to you last week… there's no question that Eochaid is going to try to blacken our reputations with all of the courts of Eire."

Stoick gave Spitelout an oblique look, but nodded in agreement. "Aye. And I realized that I made a mistake when I didn't rip up that treaty, even if it kept me from being an oathbreaker, even with cause." Heather winced and felt like her stomach had dropped to her shoes, but Stoick continued. "What I should have done is claimed his thralls as compensation for the attack on you, paid a nominal sum in dragon-hide for them, and ripped up the treaty."

"Oh," Heather said tonelessly. "I…"

Stoick waved a hand at her. "No! Don't apologize! You'd just been attacked! Of course you weren't thinking! But I should have been. I was too furious to think of it—and I then made it worse by telling him that he wouldn't ever get another treaty, which was my other mistake."

"Aye. He's going to milk this one for all he can, and then try to go back on it as soon as he can," Gobber said.

Stoick nodded. "But it's done with and now we have to deal with the fact that, thanks to the treaty, we'll have our people over in Ulaid on a regular basis. And that will put them at risk of attack, since Eochaid has little to lose."

She winced and gave a noise of acknowledgment that she followed as she unloaded the baskets. The only reason they still had the treaty was because she'd protested. That made it her fault, even if Stoick said otherwise. If that put their people at risk, she was all for helping fix that.

"Therefore," Stoick said, "it's been suggested that Hiccup, along with a small retinue, do a tour of those courts."

She blinked and then smiled. "Meet them, get to know them, do a bit of work as herald, and incidentally mention what happened with Eochaid? I like it. And it needs to be done, too."

Stoick nodded as Hiccup said, "So I'd like you, and Fishlegs, to come with me."

"Huh? Why?"

"Well, first, you know the most about Eire of any of us. Second, while it wouldn't be exactly the same," he shrugged and smiled at Astrid and Wulfhild, "our trip to Skye last month was nice… and I'd like to give you and Fishlegs a chance for the same sort of thing. And third, you've got eyes and a mind to use them, and I'd love to have the help."

She considered for a moment, her hands still automatically emptying the basket, and sharing a look with Fishlegs, who smiled at her. "So you want me there as your spy?" she asked.

"Aide," Hiccup said. "Like I said, you know a lot. I'd be an idiot to not take that kind of help."

Fritjof snorted. "He's already an idiot for not taking more guards with him."

Hiccup shot the old raider a sour look. "We've been over this. We're going out there to make friends! Showing up with a squad of raiders on dragonback—"

"Is the smart thing to do! Better to give a show of force that you're not easy prey, even if you don't do anything with it, than risk your whole party getting—"

"I'm not going to bring a small army with me!" Hiccup nearly shouted. "We're going for peace, not war!"

"Aye, and that's why you show up with a nice big fist in your off-hand so you can ask people which they prefer to shake," Fritjof said sourly.

"That's enough, Fritjof," Stoick said. "While I'd prefer that Hiccup bring along more fighters, you will have your dragons with you, and that should be enough."

Fishlegs smiled. "Besides, Heather also has her own talents there."

"Oh?" Stoick asked.

Hiccup and Fishlegs shared a brief, gleeful glance, and then looked to her with expressions of total innocence.

Heather rolled her eyes, and walked over to the table where they were all seated. Wulfhild and Astrid looked intrigued, while Fritjof looked dismissive. Spitelout seemed confused, while Gobber definitely knew what was coming and was trying to hide a smile.

She plucked the knife from her belt and set it on the table, which made them all shrug; such a weapon was also a tool, and just about everyone already carried such cutlery.

But the fact that Hiccup and Fishlegs were both working hard at schooling their expressions into impassiveness should have been a warning to the rest of them, though.

With a twist, she pulled the knife from her left shirt sleeve and casually tossed it with a thud into the nearby scarred roof-post. It stuck fast, and was joined a moment later by the one in her boot, then the one from the back of her belt…

As she produced a small blade from the finger-sized sheath braided into her hair, their expressions had shifted. Astrid and Wulfhild were looking awed, Gobber, Hiccup and Fishlegs weren't even bothering to hide their laughter, and Stoick looked approving, while Spitelout and Fritjof were visibly impressed—and grew more so as she threw the small blade into the roof-post, right next to the other six.

Then Fishlegs, smirking, reached out and took her hand as she put her leg up on one of the chairs. "I don't think they need to see that last one, love."

Stoick, Fritjof, Gobber and Spitelout all burst out laughing, and then Fritjof said, "While I'd prefer another thane or three, I think she'll do nicely."

She smiled and went over to the post to retrieve her weapons. They'd all hit the wood in a space smaller than the width of her spread hand.

As she returned them to their sheaths, Stoick said, "I'll talk with Magnhild. Officially, you'll be going as their cook and maid. Is that acceptable?"

She shrugged, using the motion to reseat the knife that went into the back-sheath. "Beats 'spy.'"

Stoick snorted. "I suppose it does."

Wulfhild asked, "Where did you get all of those?"

"Fishlegs had Hiccup and Gobber make them for me as a Yule gift," Heather said with a smile.

"Aye, and that tiny one on the hair was a right pain to balance," Gobber said.

Hiccup snorted. "So of course you gave me the job!"

"Aye, who else would I trust with that kind of work?" Gobber asked with a smirk.

Heather put her belt knife away. "So, when do we leave?"

"In a few days," Stoick said. "It looks like the weather is about to turn, so after that."

She nodded and got back to her work.

As she left the hut a few minutes later, Fishlegs at her side, she smiled at him. "Whose idea?"

"What?"

"Whose idea was it?" she asked.

He smiled. "Hiccup's. He wanted to do something nice for us. And a trip to Eire seemed like a good idea."

She gave a happy sigh and then glanced back at the hut they'd just left.

While Stoick held her personal allegiance and loyalty for all that he'd done for her, the mere fact that she could call Hiccup a personal friend was mindboggling.

Not for the last time of late, she offered a prayer of thanks to Odin for his wisdom, and gave apologies to the All-Father for having doubted him.

And, with a glance to her future husband as he walked along at her side, she offered another prayer of thanks to Frigga.

Her dream of peace looked like it might come true.

And she would help build it… and protect it.


A/N: And there we go! I know that a lot of people have been speculating on who was responsible for the attacks on Heather... and it seemed like nobody noticed Vigdis in the background. And here I thought that I was being too blatant with my foreshadowing and hints.

A couple of things. First, I want to wish Ramadan Mubarak to any and all of my Muslim readers; I know that it's early and your holy month doesn't start for another couple of days, but I figured that I could get my well-wishes in early! ^_^ (Also, I totally didn't plan to have the first appearances of Islamic characters in the fic this week-first of many!-but I was very gleeful when I realized how nicely it worked out)

Second, I have an addition to my trigger warnings schema; in addition to the Mention/Threat/Attempt/Act axis I have for intentional acts, I will be adding a Mention/Thought/Discussion/Depiction axis for, well, "shit happens" types of events-the sorts of things that there isn't someone to blame, but it is still the sort of traumatic event that leaves its marks on the victim. Under this topic, I'll be grouping things like disease, miscarriage, accidents and the like, and updating earlier chapters accordingly.

As part of that second point, I want to be emphatically clear on something. Yes, I'm going to be depicting triggering content in this story. I have already done so. But, as part of that, I don't want to trigger anybody. I want you to be able to enjoy the story, not suddenly be forced to relive a traumatic memory. So, this is an open point: if you need me to add something to the trigger warnings because I didn't think of it, please, tell me. I promise I won't take offense.

For the moment, I will be sticking with the chapter-by-chapter trigger warnings, mostly for pragmatic reasons: it lets me mirror the warnings between FFnet and AO3 without problems, and I believe that a targeted focus of "This happens in this chapter" is much more effective than "Somewhere in this half-a-million-word-plus fic is something that will harm you."

Third, by popular request, I've created some maps that have the major locations in the fic highlighted; they're available at the Appendix for this fic, which is posted on AO3. I'm not doing political borders for the moment-too much work, and things will be shifting in that regard over the course of this story-but with the specific places highlighted, I figured that would help people get an idea of where things are in relation to each other.

And finally, while I don't normally answer reviews in the AN directly-and I need to get better about PMs to reviewers-there were two specific reviews this week that I want to address.

First, to Troodontius, Read and Find Out. Suffice it to say that, until and unless a specific dragon type is mentioned in the fic directly or mentioned in the first film, assume it does not exist. And making a list of what types Berk has and in which numbers... no. Not because of spoilers (although there is that as well), but because of logistics. Do I update it to be in sync with the latest chapters? Do I make and update specific versions at major events, like egg hatchings? Etc.

Second, to Somebodynobody10, thank you so much. Your review made my week. I'm so glad that you enjoyed the story, and hope that I continue to live up to the plotting and characterization that you found so enjoyable as I continue.