Author's note: First of all, a ton of thanks from the bottom of my heart to all of you who sent me words of sympathy. Really, thank you. You have no idea how much they are appreciated.
Secondly, well, thank you yet again for the wonderful reviews you've given me.
Thirdly, of course, I hope you will enjoy reading this chapter as much as I enjoyed writing it. Indeed, t's a very important chapter for the rest of this story. It may even be the last full chapter of Lacrimosa, the first arc of Beyond the Realms. I still need to decide whether the next chapter will be, well, a chapter or if I will divide it in several parts so it can become an epilogue.
Which means that a BIG revelation is coming up. ;-)
I think that's all for now. Have fun! =)
Sitting as comfortably as possible on his horse, Tiernan watched his men as they prepared themselves to leave the place they had camped at for a couple of days already. A week had gone by since they had left the ravaged village of Teilann and they were now getting closer to the city of Dún Fionnachaidh with each passing day, following meticulously the trail Lytah's spear indicated. Tiernan did not exactly know why but the idea that his twin sister might have been living in a place so familiar for such a long time without him knowing about it disturbed him greatly. However, the fairly young captain knew this was neither the time nor the place to reflect about this particular matter.
His soldiers were working quickly and efficiently, folding the tents, extinguishing the bonfires and loading whatever items they needed to take with them. The sound of their armors clattering with every move they made was synonymous of work for Tiernan and always reminded him of his responsibilities as their leader. He knew they trusted him with their lives and he did the same in return. He also knew how much Holin disapproved of this – the General did not see the point of creating bonds with one's soldiers. However, since Tiernan and his men had never given him a reason to complain about, Holin more or less allowed him to lead them the way he wanted. The captain took this as a sign of trust and recognition of his military capacities. That was one of the reasons he could not allow himself to let trouble infiltrate his troops, not even if said trouble introduced itself under the shape of a Viking woman who happened to be accompanied by a tiny dragon to which he'd had the unpleasant experience of refusing food to. The burn on the back of his left hand was there to testify it.
Tiernan still did not trust her – and it seemed she knew it perfectly well- but he could not deny it; Astrid Hofferson – or whatever her name was – had behaved admirably well up until now. She kept silent most of the time, riding along with him and the Ciar Knights but never really interacting with them, although he could tell his men were slowly but surely taking a liking to her. He scowled at the idea, not really wishing to know why it bothered him so much. He just wanted things to be the way they had always been even though he was aware that such a thing was unlikely to happen as long as Astrid would stay amongst them. He remembered the moment he had allowed her to call him by his first name, which none of his soldiers did, not even those he trusted the most. Tiernan knew that some of his men found this quite funny and he did not like the amused whispers that seemed to follow him around wherever he went one bit.
Looking around to supervise how fast things went so he could roughly evaluate how many miles they would ride this day, Tiernan's serious gaze suddenly caught a glimpse of a golden braid he was starting to recognize just a little bit too fast for his own liking. Frowning for a reason he decided to conveniently ignore, he observed the way she was taking care of her mount, gently stroking the stallion's muzzle and apparently making sure it was okay with having that stupid Terrible Terror –that was the name of the beast's breed, according to Astrid- resting on its croup. The stallion did not flinch, and judging by the way its ears pointed confidently towards the fair-haired woman, Tiernan could tell that the animal trusted its rider entirely.
As if on cue, Astrid suddenly turned round and her deep blue eyes locked with the captain's for a brief instant. Although he was mentally cursing himself for being so obvious, Tiernan did not make the slightest move. He did not look down for he knew it would mean she was taking advantage over him, which, he instantly decided, she was not. But then, she unexpectedly smiled a very much knowing smile at him before turning her back on him again and putting her left foot in the stirrup of her saddle, and he could feel blood rush to his cheeks violently.
He blamed it on the cold wind.
What had gotten into him? He knew next to nothing about Astrid, safe for the fact that she was looking for someone on this island and that she was a more than accomplished warrior. And a Viking warrior at that! In retrospect, the captain felt like he never should have accepted to let her travel with him for he was convinced one could never trust a person who came from the icy north. But it was simply too late now. "Oh, well," he told himself in order to get rid of his troubled thoughts once and for all, "At least I can keep an eye on her. This way, if she tries anything suspicious, I'll be the first one to know about it."
Shaking his brain back into place, the captain made his own horse turn round so he could take the lead of the procession of knights that waited for him. He did not need to say a word; he had earned his men's respect a long time ago. They would follow him wherever he went and stand by his side until their very last breath.
However, when he started hearing his soldiers' weak attempts to come on to Astrid Hofferson - who was currently busy eating an apple for breakfast on top of her black stallion - he swore he was ready to slice their throats there and then. Glancing above his shoulder just in time to see Quinn's horse lick one of Astrid's hands in sudden interest, he wished he could become deaf for the next couple of minutes.
"I think he likes you." Quinn told Astrid with an honest smile. Ever since he had started recovering from his injuries, the massive man seemed to have taken it upon himself to keep company to the woman who'd saved him from a painful and excruciatingly slow death.
"He's not the only one!" Another knight quipped instantly, making all the others burst into a fit of laughter whereas Astrid merely rolled her eyes in what Tiernan suspected was nothing but mock exasperation.
So when said woman drew level with him, he pretended to ignore her as well as the way her pelvis smoothly accompanied the movements of her mount. Feeling his own eyes widen as his brain processed this last thought, Tiernan felt an indescribable urge to tell her to clear off. The problem being, of course, that he could not do so unless he really wanted to become the laughing-stock of his troops.
They rode in silence for a while and the captain had a nagging feeling that the woman beside him knew perfectly well why he was acting the way he was and that she was actually enjoying it, which only served to infuriate him further.
He would never know how right he was.
Astrid was no fool. She knew Tiernan was having difficulties trusting her because of her origins but she had – of course - also seen the way the captain kept stealing glances at her when he thought she was not looking and even though she let him go away with it most of the time, she just could not resist the temptation to catch him red-handed every now and then. She thought it was funny how not even Hiccup had ever been that obvious.
"Where are we going today?" She asked nonchalantly, trying to sound as disinterested as possible.
"I don't know yet."
She did not buy it. He should have known she would not. "Come on."
He glared at her. She only raised her eyebrows in response, obviously fighting back a smile.
"I told you. I. Don't. Know. Yet. If you really want to know, which I doubt you do by the way, for now I'm using my first and most useful weapon."
"Really? What's that?"
"Oh, I've heard of that," Astrid countered, grinning. "Isn't it a substitute for decisive thinking?"
"For the love of- When I need your opinion, I'll ask for it!"
"My, you're touchy."
"I'm not 'touchy'!"
"Yes you are."
"You just can't shut your mouth, can you?"
"Fine! If everything goes according to plan, we should arrive at the friary of Ceartlár by sunset. I want to ask the friars some questions and I will need them to take us in for the night so I can get some answers. There, happy?"
"As a matter of fact, yes I am. Thank you very much," Astrid replied with a sense of satisfaction practically emanating from her, "Tiernan."
He could not help but curse under his breath as he watched her return at Quinn's side as if nothing had happened. He hated her ability to get him to talk when he obviously did not want to and he loathed just as much the way her body moved impossibly beautifully with every stride of her stallion. And of course, he did not appreciate the way her long golden hair seemed to fly behind her. Or did he? By God, just when did he start thinking such corny things?
As for Astrid, she resumed riding silently, occasionally stroking Ruffnut's Terrible Terror behind her and mostly observing the various landscapes and waterscapes that surrounded her. Looking up, she gazed at the black clouds that came from the north and hovered high above the land, coloring it with dark shades that shifted with the clever wind. Suddenly, out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of a mass of bright colors that seemed to be following the procession of Ciar Knights from the sky.
Shielding her eyes from the light to make sure she wasn't making things up, she peered at the vast and familiar figure. Now that her attention had been drawn to it, there was no possible mistake. She smiled knowingly almost in spite of herself and silently blessed Hiccup and his teachings.
Starkad was following her.
At the friary of Ceartlár, Nolan was busy carrying Friar Curren's instructions to the letter. The old and yet still vigorous man had asked him to help the friars who needed scrolls to be transferred from the scriptorium to the library. The boy took great care to avoid tripping over his own feet for fear of damaging the precious pieces of parchment. He now knew how much time the friars needed to trace a single letter – let alone decorate it – and he felt deeply honored that the faithful men who had taken him in without a second's hesitation would entrust him with their incredible work. Sometimes, they even asked him to watch over the newest skins as they slowly dried on the walls of a special room located next to the forge of the friary so the skins could benefit from its great warmth.
Nolan was trying his best to focus on his new life in Ceartlár even though he was still haunted by his dark memories. At night, he did not sleep much; he was too scared of his own dreams. He did everything he was asked to do without complaining but the friars saw how still very much hurt the child was. They tried to involve him in their daily activities to keep him busy but it seemed his spirit was always too far away for him to concentrate properly. That was why he usually remained at Friar Curren's side so he could have someone to talk to whenever he felt the need.
But Nolan never talked.
Stepping over the threshold of the library, the ginger-haired boy could not help but admire the numerous stained glass that illuminated the circular room with hundreds different dots of bright colors. There, standing at the centre of knowledge, Nolan felt at peace with himself. He loved smelling the scrolls –especially the oldest ones – or brushing his fingertips over the fragile pages of the multitude of books that were constantly guarded by the loyal, flickering glow of candle light.
Methodically, he started sorting out the newest scrolls with the older ones, taking great care not to put them with the palimpsests, where they did not belong. The friars paid a lot of attention to the library and so did he. He had great respect for this place where one could feel a lightening of the spirit without even trying. The books did not hurt him. They never would. Not on purpose. So he liked them, feeling like they could whisper their precious secrets if he listened well enough.
He could hear the sly wind blowing relentlessly outside and suddenly remembered he was supposed to feed the horses at the stable. His steps echoing on the cold rocky floor, he quickly made his way back outside where the sky was turning so dark he was sure a storm would make itself known before long. The atmosphere was becoming heavy and he could see dozens of birds flying back to their nests, flapping their wings as hard as they could while they fought against the air currents with all their might.
Nolan ran. He was about halfway from the stable when he heard the first roll of thunder. Breathing in and out deeply, he sped up the pace; all around him, the friars who had been busy working in the gardens were hurrying up to take shelter as well, not really paying attention to him. It would soon be time for Vespers anyway. The bells would ring and by then he would be forced to come back to the chapel and pray with the friars when all he wanted to do was being on his own.
He kept running.
Nolan arrived at the stable just in time. As soon as he stepped inside, a downpour started falling from the black skies as if the Lord Himself were pouring His holy wrath on the unfortunate friary of Ceartlár. Panting slightly, the boy listened to the constant melody of raindrops crashing onto the roof and watched the bolts of lightning for a little while, sometimes gasping quietly when they seemed to rip off the heavens themselves.
The horses were neighing nervously, obviously frightened by the violent noise and Nolan quickly fetched the old pitchfork that was lying in a corner of the stable so he could feed the noble animals relatively large amounts of hay and get them to calm down. Along with the library, the stable was one of his favorite places in Ceartlár. Just like the books, the horses did not ask him questions he did not want to think or talk about.
Soon enough, the animals seemed satisfied for they stopped pawing on the ground and, consequently, the stable grew much quieter. Nolan allowed a small smile to creep on his lips while he gently stroke Cion, a five months old female foal whose bay coat was so soft it made him forget about everything else. He thought it was a bit strange how the foal's legs seemed highly disproportionate in comparison to the rest of its body, but he liked it somehow. The friars had also told him that Cion's mother died when she had given birth to her offspring, which was why they had to feed the foal themselves until the end of weaning. But right now, the poor creature was purely shaking with terror each time thunder rumbled and Nolan could not help but sympathize with her.
"Shhh, Cion," he cooed gently in the foal's ear in what he hoped was a soothing voice, "Calm down. It's okay. It's only a storm. Nothing's going to happen to you, I promise. It's alright."
The animal neighed softly twice before it started rubbing its muzzle against the child's warm palms. Nolan felt a bolt of simple joy and pride surge through him upon seeing how much Cion seemed to trust him. He was just about to snake his arms around the foal's already broad and muscular neck when a peculiar and all too familiar sound resonated through the courtyard of the friary. Nolan's blue eyes almost disappeared under his furrowed eyebrows as the entrance bell of Ceartlár rang loudly through the din of the storm. It was the very same bell Brian had rung when he had first brought him to this place.
Someone was asking for permission to enter. Taking a peek through the door of the stable, Nolan saw a couple of friars running to the main gate, following the lead of Friar Curren. In a matter of mere seconds, Nolan decided to do the same, not caring one bit about the fact that he was going to get drenched. He still took the time to say goodbye to Cion who watched him leave with obvious curiosity and interest before he disappeared into the heavy curtains of rain. Straining his muscles and bones, Nolan ran with his gaze stubbornly fixed on the gate of the friary. He hoped he would get there before the friars actually opened it so he could stand at Friar Curren's side and observe the visitors as much as he wanted to without anyone telling him he was being rude.
But of course, he had no such luck.
The gate was opened with difficulty because of the mud but it was what it revealed that made the ginger-haired boy stop dead in his tracks, his mouth opening in the shape of a horrified 'o' as he instantly recognized the riders that were entering the friary of Ceartlár without a care in the world as the Ciar Knights, the very men who destroyed his village and abducted his mother as well as Hiccup. Blurred memories violently flooded his mind whilst he kept staring at the leader of the black-armored soldiers – the army Kiel, his own older brother, was a part of – as he engaged in a conversation with Friar Curren. Nolan knew he had already seen that man, but he could not recall exactly when. He was trying to remember that crucial piece of information when he felt like he was being watched. Looking up, the boy noticed a blonde woman riding beside the leader of the knights and he almost shivered under the intensity of her gaze. He lowered his eyes, feeling uncomfortable for a reason he couldn't fathom.
"…and I was wondering if you could put us up until tomorrow morning."
And then it hit him.
This was the man who had chased after him and Hiccup when they had been trying to escape from the massacre of Teilann; the man whose horse had been stopped by a providential arrow, which had granted Hiccup enough time to shove him into Dalkor's arms. A lump forming itself in his throat, Nolan hoped with every fiber of his being that Friar Curren would tell the soldiers to go away and find some other place to spend the night.
"Of course we can. Do come in, captain, you and your men are most welcome at the friary of-
The words left his mouth before he could stop them and suddenly everyone was staring at him. He thought he might as well carry on before he became unable to fight his tears back.
"No, please don't do this! You can't…They're- They're murderers!"
But the only reply he got was a disapproving frown from Friar Curren and a complete silence that was only broken by the constant symphony of raindrops. Trembling violently, feeling hurt and betrayed, Nolan turned round and ran away from the main gate, his tears and cries disappearing behind the walls of the friary even though he was completely aware that an umpteenth pair of incredulous eyes were watching him.
"Don't pay attention to him, captain," Friar Curren explained after a little while, "The boy dances to his own tune."
Tiernan frowned, not looking particularly convinced. "If you say so," he complied, deciding to drop the matter. He had more important things to deal with, after all. Raising his right hand above his head, he gave the signal his men were waiting for. Slowly but surely, the Ciar Knights entered the friary, feeling relieved at the prospect of getting a little bit of rest as well as a hot meal.
"Rules changed?" Friar Curren asked the captain all of a sudden, designating the woman who had not spoken a word ever since he had opened the main gate.
"She's a traveler. Don't ask."
"Very well. This way, if you please."
Whereas the rest of the Ciar Knights led their respective horses to the nearby stable, Astrid kept staring at the direction the red-haired child had disappeared into. She was convinced he was perfectly sane, regardless of what Tiernan had just been told about him. Something disastrous must have happened to that boy, she decided, something that the friars must have known about but refused to mention and she fully intended to find out what it was.
"Call it feminine intuition, Spark," she told Ruffnut's Terrible Terror as he climbed up her back to perch himself on her shoulder, "But I'm sure this kid can help us."
She knew she would have to wait for the right moment, though. Shrugging, Astrid followed the rest of the procession, her mind already setting up a plan that would enable her to escape from Tiernan's attention.
The night had fallen upon the friary of Ceartlár and the rain had stopped for a little while, letting a cold wind replace it once again. Under normal circumstances, the friary would have been utterly silent at this hour of night but the Ciar Knights were still gorging themselves on meat and wine in the refectory of the friary, some of them singing drinking songs with their loudest voices when they did not end up throwing up in a corner of the room. The friars, even though their anger -caused by such a disrespectful behavior- was perfectly apparent, they did not say a word. It seemed that only Tiernan remained more or less sober and alert, much to Astrid's increasing annoyance.
She was eating her food with all the speed of a slug, her mind completely focused on the captain and the way she would get out of the refectory without him noticing her. So far, however, her efforts had proved to be useless for the captain never seemed to take his eyes off of her even though he did his best not to show it. Clenching her fists under the table to release some of her frustration, Astrid looked around herself methodically when a flash of orange hair caught her eye.
She peered at the entrance of the refectory to see the ginger-haired boy from earlier looking angrily at the commotion the soldiers were rudely making. She could not see his face as well as she would have wanted, but even from where she was, she could tell the boy was upset and furious. He kept staring at the Ciar Knights as if he wanted nothing more than to kill them all at once by merely snapping his fingers.
And then, their respective gazes somehow met for the second time that day. And for the second time that day, Astrid was astonished by the spark of intelligence she could detect in the boy's eyes. He did not, however, grant her any more time to study him; a mere second after their eyes locked, his whole body tensed and he span round and dashed outside, his small body disappearing within the night's thick cloak.
Glancing at her side, Astrid suddenly realized Tiernan had actually gotten up and was providentially taking it out on two completely drunk soldiers who were busy trying to start a fight. She rose to her feet instantly and made sure to hide behind one of the numerous pillars of stone that supported the ceiling of the refectory. There, merging with the shade, she strode along to where the door was and, upon taking one last look above her shoulder to check whether she was being followed or not, she exited the building as noiselessly as the graceful flight of a barn owl. Breathing in and out in relief, Astrid paused to enjoy the cool night air that felt incredibly good on her face before she looked down and easily spotted the boy's footprints.
"Well," she commented aloud much like Hiccup would have done while Ruffnut's Terrible Terror emitted a series of inquisitive sounds, "This shouldn't be too difficult. Come on, Spark, let's find our little friend."
Following the fresh trail with no problem whatsoever, Astrid was surprised to spot her target much sooner than she'd expected. The boy was standing in the middle of the courtyard of the friary, completely motionless and obviously staring into space. He was shivering from head to toe, she noticed, but he did not seem to pay any sort of attention to that.
"Hey!" She called out to him loudly enough for him to jump with a start even though that had not been her intention in the first place. The boy turned round to find out who was talking to him with an almost visible jab of pure fear coursing through his veins. And when he seemed to register that it was her, he simply fled.
"Hey! Wait!" Astrid shouted without a second's hesitation, immediately breaking into a sprint to catch up with him, "Come back! I'm not going to hurt you!"
Whether he heard her or not, she did not know. The only thing she knew was that whether he did hear her or not, he certainly did not stop running, let alone come back to where she was. She sped up the pace; she wanted – needed to talk to that boy and she would be dammed if she did not succeed in getting him to speak. It wasn't long before she saw him enter a circular building that looked like another part of the friary she had failed to notice before. Immediately, Astrid slowed down for she knew the boy could not escape from her anymore.
The door creaked when she pushed it, as if it did not want her to discover the sacred place it shielded from the cold. There was no sign of her young target.
"Oh, perfect. Everybody knows hide-and-seek is my favorite hobby."
Stepping quietly inside the building, Astrid felt her eyes widen in astonishment. It was huge and circular, illuminated by both candle light and the silver moonlight beams that were showing through colored windows the like of which she had never seen before. Characters had been painted on them, making the glass appear like a wordless story. Astrid did not know what it meant, but she thought it was beautiful. All around her were hundreds of books and scrolls that gave this place an aura of wisdom and mystery yet to be discovered that she thought felt almost otherworldly. She suddenly forgot the reason why she'd come to this place for a couple of seconds, feeling like she was being swallowed by the sheer knowledge which had been stored in this library –for that was obviously what it was – for the Gods only knew how long.
Looking down at her feet, she noticed concentric circles that had been carved onto the rocky floor. Almost in spite of herself, Astrid followed them to their very centre which, she realized upon brushing her fingers against the smooth and precious surface, was a relatively large representation of the sun. It was made out of gold. Crouching, she could make out an inscription that had been carved all around it but she could not read it. It was written in what she supposed was Latin.
The spell was shattered.
Astrid's head instantly jerked up, searching for the source of the familiar noise and she couldn't help but chuckle tolerantly when her gaze fell upon some kind of altar that was covered by a long piece of white fabric at the back of the library. The poor kid might as well have painted a sign on it.
A very much knowing and amused smile gracing her lips, she took a couple of steps forward, her right palm resting loosely on Dagmar's pommel.
"Between you and me, you could have found a better hiding place, don't you think?"
She saw movement under the fabric and the red-haired boy slowly left the altar, looking both incredibly flustered and scared – even though he tried concealing his fear with anger. It did not work, of course, but she did not have the heart of telling him so. She simply kept walking towards him. Astrid thought her body language made it clear enough that she meant no harm, but he did not seem to agree the slightest for he rushed to the nearest candlestick he could reach and hold it at arms' length like he wanted to protect himself with it. She froze.
"If you've come to kill me," Nolan proclaimed with as much faith as he could muster, "you will have to fight me first!"
An incredulous look painted itself on Astrid's face as she looked forth and back between the boy and Spark as if she were asking for the tiny dragon's opinion. And then, she burst out laughing, leaving her young opponent utterly confused. "I'm being serious!" he insisted angrily, making another fit of hilarity rise through her throat. It took her a moment to calm down.
"Don't be ridiculous, kiddo." She replied with an indulgent smile.
"I'm not ridiculous!" He countered instantly, feeling like she was insulting him. "I'm not a coward!"
"No, that much is obvious," she conceded, still smiling, while she took a seat on one of the benches of the library, "You're not a coward. You certainly are a bit naïve, though, but given your age, there's nothing to worry about."
Nolan lowered the candlestick he was holding, taken aback by the blonde woman's attitude but still not feeling comfortable around her, especially not as he watched her unsheathe her sword. "What do you mean?"
She looked him in the eye. "Listen. I'm not here to hurt you. You can trust me on this, kid; had I really wanted to kill you, you'd be dead already." Ever so slowly, Astrid lowered Dagmar and gently put it on the ground, where it would not be considered a threat.
Nolan stared at the magnificent sword for a little while, fascinated, before he looked up again to meet the young woman's intense gaze. "What do you want, then?"
"Nothing special, really. I was only hoping we could have a little chat together."
"For example, about the reason why you seem to hate the Ciar Knights so much."
Nolan instantly recoiled. "Why should I trust you? You're with them!"
"No, I'm not. I'm only travelling with them. The Gods only know what could happen to a single woman if she happened to travel on her own."
"The Gods? You mean you have more than one?"
It was Astrid's turn to be taken aback by the boy's question. "Of course I do. How many do you have?"
"Just one?" Now that was a strange concept if she ever heard one. "What does he take care of? Love? War? Twilight?"
The boy kept silent and looked at her as if she'd grown a second head.
"Nevermind that. What's your name?"
"Well then, Nolan, I can promise you that I have not sided with the Ciar Knights. I am merely benefiting from their reluctant protection."
"You don't look like you need anyone's protection."
She laughed again, appreciating the boy's wit that reminded her of Hiccup's.
"Alright. Since there's nothing that can escape your attention, I come from a Viking tribe that lives far from here, much more to the north."
Much to her surprise, Nolan's eyes all of a sudden filled with tears. She did not know why, but an almost unbearable urge to pull the child into a hug and comfort him coursed through her entire being at once. She did not fight it and opened her arms. The boy hesitated for a second before he literally ran into them and pressed his head against her stomach, his arms encircling her waist as he cried quietly, holding onto her as if he never wanted to let go.
"Hey, what's wrong?" She asked him, stroking his soft bright hair in previously unknown concern, "What did I say?"
He did not reply, of course. Imitating her actions, Spark took flight in order to perch himself on Nolan's shoulder and coil around the boy's neck, rolling his eyes out of worry and chirping pitifully. Nolan almost jumped with fear when he realized amidst his tears that a dragon was actually nuzzling him. The blonde woman told him to calm down, told him that there was nothing to be afraid of and somehow, he felt like she was telling the truth and, consequently, he slowly allowed himself to relax within her warm embrace.
"They destroyed my village." He whispered hoarsely against her tunic.
"Who did that?" She asked him gently. No reply came, so she insisted. "Nolan, who did that?"
"The Ciar Knights. They came to Teilann and…they killed everyone. They took my mother…And…and…"
Teilann. Astrid's brows furrowed upon hearing that name, understanding what must have happened to the child she was holding in her arms. He'd lost everything, she realized. His home, his family…
"They took Hiccup, too…" Nolan finished in an almost inaudible whisper.
Astrid felt like she'd been hit by a bolt of lightning. Hiccup. Grabbing the ginger-haired boy's shoulders and crouching down to his level with a spark of indescribable hope glowing in her eyes, she forced him to look at her.
"Tell me more!"
"I-I found a young man on the beach. He was hurt so my Mom and I took him to our house so she could heal him. When he woke up, he- he said his name was Hiccup and that he came from…from…"
"Yes! Berk. That's the name he used."
"What happened to him?"
Nolan looked down and Astrid feared it was too late.
"He saved me," he confessed, his voice trembling ever so slightly. "But I'm not sure what happened to him after that. He may...He may have been killed. If not, the Knights probably took him away, but I don't know where to, I promise."
She could not believe it. Hiccup had been there when Tiernan and his men attacked the little village. And yet, Tiernan had told her that the only Viking –other than her, of course - he'd recently met with was named Feren Rurikson.
Unless, of course…
Mentally kicking herself for not having thought about it sooner, Astrid quickly put the pieces of the jigsaw together again. Hiccup had chosen another name to travel under. And Tiernan had told her that Feren Rurikson was alive, which meant that he had certainly not been killed by the Ciar Knights even though he had been made prisoner yet again. Knowing Hiccup, she reasoned, he must have pulled out a trick of his own to stay alive. Now all I have to do is find where exactly he has been taken to.
"Why do you ask about him?" Nolan wondered aloud with interest and sudden curiosity.
"My name's Astrid Hofferson."
"You mean…you're saying you're the woman he told me about? The one he's in love with?"
She smiled again, a blush rising to her cheeks, and simply nodded once in response. He did not look convinced yet.
"If you're really Astrid, then tell me what the name of your sword is."
Gods, the boy was clever. Slowly, she motioned for him to look over to where her sword still laid, untouched and bare, its blade beautifully lit by the soft moonlight.
"This is Dagmar."
Nolan beamed at her.