Hi there everyone. This is the third time in a row I've left you all hanging for ridiculous lengths of time and if there's anyone out there still reading this thing, that would amaze me. I'll add a fuller explanation at the end, but for now I hope this chapter is not totally awful and I hope you enjoy it!
Hero of the Day
Succession and Ascension
Of course, it had to end, and reality had to worm its way back in. The sun was clambering its way up into the sky, laboriously it seemed, and the weight on Hiccup's shoulders, lifted though it had been for few glorious hours, settled again, leaden and burdensome. There was to be a meeting - that was all he had been told upon landing, when he'd been accosted by Ansgar, who had only taken a moment to look surprised that his daughter had been on the back of a dragon before he'd launched into the briefest and most frantic of explanations and disappeared before Hiccup had even had time to open his mouth in reply. A public meeting in the Great Hall, that evening, and Hiccup knew that it could only mean one thing.
Astrid had stayed with him for the moment, and the two of them had decamped to the forge with Toothless whilst her father and Spitelout held what could only have been a crisis meeting, locked inside Astrid's house on the other side of the village with strict instructions that they were not to be interrupted. No amount of deep breathing exercises or restless pacing could quash the rising tide of profound uneasiness welling in Hiccup's chest, and it must have showed because it was not long before Astrid grabbed him by the arm and marched him across to a chair, plonked him unceremoniously down and handed him her axe and a grindstone that she'd grabbed from an adjacent tabletop.
"I've been meaning to get it sharpened, Hiccup, and now seems as good a time as any. Would you mind?"
A moment of confusion - the axe was self-evidently as sharp as the day it was made - as the day he'd made it, in fact - before her reasoning clicked. Of course he needed to blow off some tension - it was just that it had taken her a lot less time to notice that fact that it had for him to become aware of the same thing. Smiling momentarily to himself, he spun the grindstone once in his hand, something he'd grown used to doing countless times over the years, before sweeping it once over the edge of the blade, and again, and repeatedly, turning the axe frequently and getting lost in the familiarity of the act.
She could see that his breathing had slowed and his shoulders had relaxed, the quivering bowstring-like tautness that had built up in them washing away as Hiccup took solace in the art of a profession he knew well, a profession that was, later that afternoon, going to be so rudely supplanted by one he knew not a thing about.
The Mead Hall was bustling, full all the way from the wall of the cliff that the chamber was hewn out of, to the great doors at the far end. Dragons of spectacular multitudes and all of different sizes and varieties hung precariously from the rafters by their tails and legs and in some cases, notably the Gronckles, their mouths. A sea of protruding horns adorning floating metal domes, so it seemed, sat below that, about six feet above where the floor of the hall would have been if he could have seen it. Vikings were averse to taking their helmets off at the best of times, and it was to Hiccup's mind a small miracle that nobody had yet suffered an injury of some sort from being packed in so tightly. The raised dais on which Hiccup stood, leaning subtly on Toothless to support his weight, seemed at least by comparison an oasis of calm and silence and a notable lack of cacophony. Even so, as he stood there along with the assembled senior villagers as well as Astrid, Snotlout, Ansgar and Spitelout, he felt distinctly like he would rather have been down there amongst the crowd, and have had a few more minutes of blissful ignorance, than be where he was, knowing full well what was about to happen.
What was in fact about to happen was that the village was to learn of the death of one of their longest-serving and greatest chieftains, and Hiccup had a sneaking suspicion that upon hearing the news, the assembled tribe would show a propensity to suddenly decide that pure undiluted anarchy suited them down to the ground, and Hiccup knew from experience that a horde of panicking Vikings was a sight one was best advised to view from some distance away.
"Hiccup." a voice spoke up from next to him. He turned towards Snotlout, the one who had spoken.
"You're going to need to bring me up to speed on this" his cousin went on, his voice low and even. "I missed some of the detail when I spoke to my father earlier... he was speaking as if his ticket to Valhalla depended on the number of words he could get past his lips before the sun went down. What's happening in what order?"
Hiccup leant in slightly, mumbling with minimal lip movement so that none of the eagle-eyed, bat-eared wives and mothers in the crowd could guess at what he was saying. He'd been given a crash course in the procedure of the event a couple of hours earlier, and suffice to say he himself felt a little short of prepared, but thankfully this meeting was only to announce events, not to actually set them in motion as of yet.
"Your father is going to be the one to actually announce it, and that's obviously first. Then, assuming we've not all been stampeded to death -" Hiccup saw Snotlout smile wryly to himself for a moment - "he'll go on to proclaim me the new chief and you as High Advisor. Next, I fail miserably at finding something inspirational and profound to say -" Snotlout snorted in barely-suppressed laughter this time, and despite himself, Hiccup even managed to grin slightly - "and then the date of my investiture will be announced."
"What is the date?"
"The first day there isn't snow on the ground." At Snotlout's quizzical look, Hiccup continued, "What? It's not as if anyone could fail to notice it."
"Fair point. What then?"
"Then, Ansgar will talk at length about the funeral. I don't really know what the plans are, so I'll have to pay attention... I've been too busy these past hours running over what I have to do in this particular meeting to worry too much about that yet."
"How are you holding up, anyway? It can't have been easy..."
"I'm doing alright, Snotlout. It hasn't... it hasn't really hit me yet, though I know it's going to soon."
Snotlout patted Hiccup on the shoulder. "You'll be alright." He paused, before adding, "We're going to be some of the busiest people on Berk in the next few months, aren't we? How did I get from being so juvenile in dragon training just a few months ago to this?"
"I guess I changed more about this village than I reckoned on" Hiccup answered drily, smiling again to himself in spite of the circumstances, and recieved a genial thwack on the arm from his cousin for his troubles.
The time was approaching for the meeting to get underway, and the guards at the doors heaved the great slabs of oak shut against the still-bitterly-cold elements, before themselves turning towards the platform to watch and listen. Gradually, the cavernous room began to quieten and the echoes subsided as one by one, the men and women and children present began to notice the elder staring out at them, waiting for silence, where moments before she had been absorbed in urgent conversation with Spitelout. Even the Terrible Terrors had stopped their mindless chittering. That had never happened before.
Hiccup had begun to note the first stirrings of unease rumbling through the crowd, as they realized that, at the start of the meeting proper, Stoick was still absent. Evidently, the villagers had up until that point assumed that the chief had been somehow delayed and that the meeting would begin once he arrived. Hiccup grimaced slightly at the thought that so many people were about to have their illusions so violently shattered, and Astrid must have noticed, for he felt his arm being squeezed ever so slightly, and he looked up to see her smiling reassuringly at him. He smiled back wearily, grateful indeed for her presence and her actions, but already feeling somewhat wrung out, and Astrid just squeezed his arm again, her eyes full of understanding.
Gods, what would I do without her?
It was all so subtle, so that a casual observer would have had no inkling of the true nature of circumstances. None of the Vikings besides Ansgar and Snotlout knew yet what had transpired between the two of them, and only then because as Astrid's father and Hiccup's soon-to-be right-hand-man respectively, they needed to know - he and Astrid had told them little more than an hour previously, and the two of them had barely lifted one eyebrow between them. The sense that the whole village had been waiting for them to realize what everyone else already knew had only grown at that point, but it did him the world of good for her to be there and, given what was about to happen, he felt he might need it.
He would have his time to grieve later of course, but right now there was a mountain of technicalities and due process to get through, which tended to block out everything else. Never let it be said that Viking politics is simplistic, nor that we only debate with axes, thought Hiccup as he waited for Spitelout to step forward to the front of the dais. His head was still aching a bit from his attempts a couple of hours ago to decipher the myriad laws of succession that applied to a sudden requirement for a new chief – even despite the fact that he'd had help from Spitelout, a man who'd been dealing with these very laws, in all their infuriating detail, for more than half his adult life.
It had all moved quickly, though. It was pretty brutal stuff in its own way, and for the moment it seemed to Hiccup almost as if his father had been forgotten, such was the obsessive focus on ensuring the succession.
He wasn't honestly sure whether he was glad of this - whether he was ready to forget so early. But he didn't really have much choice.
"Order! The meeting will come to order!" Spitelout's voice rang out over the heads of the villagers, and under those of the dragons, and instantly the volume in the room fell from low to nothing. All eyes were now on the platform.
"I have a... a very solemn duty to fulfill today." Spitelout went on, his voice somber and monotonic.
Stoick had been one of his closest friends.
Hiccup saw Spitelout square his shoulders and suck in breath, and it was then that the real magnitude of the situation punched him in the gut with something approaching physical revulsion.
Gods, I am not ready for this.
"It is my duty to announce today, that..." Hiccup saw Spitelout clench his jaw tightly and close his eyes, before the hulking great man, one of the patriarchs of the village, forced the last of the words out.
"It is my duty to announce that yesterday night, at or around midnight, Stoick the Vast, mighty chieftain of the most high and great tribe of warriors of the island of Berk, passed from the world of Midgard into the afterlife, at the age of forty-seven"
As he spoke, and for the first few seconds afterwards, his words hung in the air like some delicate vase suspended high above the flagstone floor, held only from falling and shattering into oblivion by the momentary disbelief of the assembled masses.
It was almost as if Hiccup could see it in front of him, in his mind's eye.
The vase began to fall, slowly at first.
The first growing looks of horror began to appear on a few of the faces in the crowd.
Faster now, plummeting, he could see it.
A couple of gasps and cries echoed sharply around the hall. The unease grew with every second for those who did not already comprehend what was happening, what they had been told.
Faster and faster, tumbling end over end, the vase that he swore he could see fell and fell until finally it hit the ground, shattering into millions upon millions of minute pieces.
A wall of sound, an indescribable cacophony, rose in the Mead Hall. Wails of hysterical grief rose above the noise and seemed to rend the air asunder; shouts and screams echoed and bounced off the walls, only adding to the volume and the chaos. Every single one of the dragons in the rafters was running amok above, empathising with the mood, hurtling frantically around the roof beams in a kind of panic all their own. It was all too easy to see they could tell something was dreadfully wrong.
In the middle of it all, once again, the platform became the island of calm at the centre of the storm, and Hiccup stood at the centre of that island as the chaos washed over him in wave after wave, his eyes shut as he absorbed it, reflecting on how, as the starts of chieftainships go, this was one of the less auspicious ones imaginable.
Things had eventually calmed down in the Mead Hall, but it had taken a while, and the great central planning table had a few new dents in it courtesy of a couple of ill-judged axe swings. Vikings were prone to react to any bad news with violence, after all.
Spitelout had managed somehow to drag the meeting, kicking and screaming, back to some semblance of order, and had gone through the necessary technicalities, and they'd all gone through the motions, but it had never quite felt real. It had felt like they'd been play-acting some bizarre, macabre scenario, rather than dealing with reality.
Hiccup's speech hadn't gone badly, considering the circumstances, but he'd got the distinct feeling nobody had quite been listening.
Standing fore-square in the shadow of my father, even in death.
Finally, the whole wretched thing had reached its end and the villagers and assorted dragons had left the Hall, collectively dazed and stunned, leaving only the few of them standing there, some in deep conversation spoken in low tones, others doing nothing but staring at the floor.
It did not bode well for events to come.