Chapter 21: Fuel for the fire
There was still snow in the shadowy places beneath the overhang of rock. Even this late in the spring the snow and ice would remain in the highest peaks of Hoskuld's Spear, especially in those nooks and crannies where the sun could never quite reach. It wouldn't be until those brief weeks of summer were on them that the last of it would finally melt. So far as he knew, Stoick was the only one on Berk who ever journeyed far enough up the peak to see it. The shallow cut in the rocks high up the Spear was difficult to find and harder to reach. He'd found it as a boy, exploring the dizzying heights of the craggy mountains that made up so much of the island.
It was now a tradition for him, one he started the year he became the chief. Every spring, when the snows were gone from the ground and the green things were layering much of the island in flowers, he would come up as far as he was able, to the small cave overlooking his village. He would bring no food or water, only a short sword and a dagger to protect himself from anything that might attack a lone traveler. Without the threat of dragons to concern him, he'd almost left the sword behind this time. Somehow it felt wrong not to have it, so he wore it sheathed on his back instead of his hip to make climbing easier.
Stoick removed his sword and laid it beside him. He settled his large frame against the rock wall and looked out upon the splendor of the island and the vast expanse of the sea beyond. As many times as he'd come up here the spectacle was still breathtaking. The first time he'd seen his home from so high up he'd been convinced he could see all of Midgard. He was no longer so naïve, but it was still a wonder to behold so much of the world he knew in one glorious view.
He took a deep breath, enjoying the stillness and solitude. Once each spring and once each autumn he allowed himself to leave his fellow Vikings to their own devices and make his way up the mountain. The cooling months after the short summer would often provide scenes of iron grey clouds building on the horizon, mustering their power for the coming winter storms. The view in the fall wasn't as spectacular as in the spring; it was more a reminder of the fragility of life and the true balance of any one Viking against the immensity of the world in which he lived. Stoick was never one to look at himself as small, even against large flying reptiles. A day spent at the tip of the Spear would remind him of his relative size and help him keep that balance in his thoughts the rest of the year.
Only the wind spoke to him this spring. He could barely hear a few seabirds in the distance. Even the constant rumble of the surf was too far off to catch. He sighed, as much at peace with himself and the world below him as he was likely to get.
"Have you seen anything like it, Val?"
He smiled and closed his eyes, summoning her face from memory, the sound of her low, throaty voice, the smell of her hair. His arms lay across his stomach as he concentrated on her, his legs straight out before him and his back curled against the sun warmed cave wall. He relaxed as much as he was able, letting memory and his senses fill his mind. He imagined her sitting beside him, looking out at their world.
"Would you have believed it even possible?"
She'd been the fiercest shield maiden he'd ever known. She'd picked her teeth with her dagger, scratched her firm backside with an axe and would as easily lift a hot cooking pot from the hearth with her bare hands as she would swim in the near freezing waters of the sea for fun. Pitching Stoick over an embankment into chest high snow or smacking him in the back of the head with a snowball packed around a pinecone was her idea of flirting.
That same warrior woman had absolutely melted at the sight of their first born child. Her heart had been so large that the love she bore her family could have kept them warm all the winter nights of eternity.
Until this moment, he hadn't known how he would feel; claiming his temporary spot high above the village, speaking to his departed wife, trying to explain to her and to himself what had happened since he'd last been in this spot. He'd almost come to dread making the ascent this year. He didn't know what he would see or what he would say. After half a year he still felt unsettled, unprepared. Lost. He'd been keeping his focus short, working on the problems of each day as they came. Looking too far forward filled him with doubts. So did looking too far behind.
And now, with her strong presence in his mind and heart, the words came unbidden.
"He's everything you swore he'd be."
That, in complete honesty, was the only thing Stoick had ever thought of as 'weakness' in the woman. She'd believed her son was born for great deeds despite his physical form. A mother's blindness, he'd thought. It was true Hiccup had shown signs of cleverness and ingenuity early on, but what Viking had ever bested his enemies with smarts? None that he'd heard of. But she saw something in their son that he didn't. Not until long after she was gone.
And she'd been right.
"He ended our war. Ach, you should have seen it. Flying up into the clouds with that monster coming..."
No. She didn't need to see that. It had been a glorious sight, but her mother's heart wouldn't have borne it well. Likely she would have been at his bedside when he woke rather than the black devil, berating him for his recklessness. He could just imagine it: 'Look at this! See what ye done? Lost a perfectly good leg flitterin' around on that beast!' The thought brought a smile to his lips.
"He's still different. He tamed a Night Fury, Val! It follows him like a lamb, carries him on its back. It's... he's..."
He remembered a red night, more fire and fighting than they'd seen in a long, long time. A short, cold summer left hunger stalking every living thing. The dragons had been as desperate to eat as the Vikings they'd raided. It had gone on for hours until Stoick had been at the end of his strength. Gobber'd lost his second limb and nearly every sheep not hidden was carried off into the glowing night. A Night Fury had hit them hardest, leveling every defensive weapon they'd had. He'd seen a ball of intense blue fire land on the other side of the village, where she'd been with half the population trying to protect what little food they still had. He never knew if that had been the attack that took her, but in his heart he'd always suspected.
The two images couldn't live in his mind at the same time; her lifeless body flat on the ground, a blood stained hammer in one hand and a tuft of wool clenched in the other. She'd fought so hard. And Hiccup, astride one of the beasts that had killed her, laughing, shouting. He'd been too young to really understand at the time. The hatred hadn't lodged in his heart as it had in Stoick's.
"I don't know, Val. I can't deny what he's done but it just..."
How did one live with something that felt right and good as well as hurtful and unjust? Countless raids and countless deaths defined what it meant to live on Berk, to be a Viking. Dragons killed and stole, Vikings hunted and defended. It was never easy but it was simple and clear to the mind. Now their lives were better without the happiness that should have gone with it. It wasn't like a bitter medicine that cured, a price to be paid to counter some ill. It was more like believing in a good dream because you were fairly certain you were better off not waking up any time soon.
That was what bothered him the most. He lived every day of his new life wondering when he was going to wake up and find more blood on the ground and his entire world on fire.
"I... I don't know what to do," he whispered. "I'm worried Hiccup's right. And I'm worried he's wrong."
He looked up at the great piles of fleecy clouds framing the sun. Was that a place for Vikings? Floating above Midgard on leathern wings? Could he see more from up there than from the side of a mountain?
He started wondering if Valhallarama would have taken to dragons had she lived. Her faith in her son might have allowed her to seek a place among the clouds. She'd been fearless. But she'd also been a true Viking, determined to rid Berk of its greatest menace.
Which end of the sword were they truly holding?
The shadows of clouds worked their way across the island, making dark spots that oozed slowly from one shore to another. His eye caught one smaller shadow among the larger. He found its owner gliding among the ever changing cloudscape. A Nadder, from the size of the head and wings. A tamed one, for there was a darker blot on its back.
Stoick supposed it was a good day to be flying. The birds certainly thought so. They were much in evidence this afternoon. They tended to fly lower to the ground when dragons were about but they seemed to have the sky mostly to themselves this day.
He blinked. Kneeling up he moved closer to the lip of the cave to look around. Down around the village, across the many pockets of forest, over the few open beaches and across the entire blue dome of the sky he saw only the one dragon. He looked again, carefully, trying to spot the ever present creatures that now called the island home.
Eventually he spotted two more; a Nightmare diving into the water near the docks to feed and a lump by the Ingerman's house that was most likely the Gronckle Fishlegs rode. But no others.
Where had the rest gone?
The question bothered him enough that he finally came down before he'd intended. He watched the sky and the village, thinking not of his wife or his son or even his fellow Vikings. His mind was firmly fixed on the winged reptiles that had so complicated their lives. As the sun passed its highest point he eventually saw a few more of the beasts moving about Berk, including his son's. Still there were nowhere near as many as he was used to seeing. Was it something to do with their mating cycle? They had all endured the spectacle and cacophony of what seemed a vigorous and healthy mating season a few weeks back. Could this sudden absence be related to that?
By the time he'd come back within sight of the village he'd seen a few more on the wing. Two had riders upon their backs while the third flew alone. The only approach to Berk from the Spear brought him down close to the beach where Ingifast had his shack. There were two huge worn logs half buried in the surf that served as a ramp to build and repair their boats. Rorik sat upon those logs now, the damage to her side plain and worse than the shipwright had implied. Ingifast himself was standing atop a barrel, chiseling away at the splintered hull. He would soon have clean cuts where the replacement boards could be fitted properly.
The older man was concentrating on his work and didn't see his chief until Stoick hailed him. Ingifast waved his woodworking hammer then paused, realizing where the younger man had just come from.
"Been up top, have ye?"
"Aye. A good clear day to see the world."
Ingifast chuckled. "I suppose. Had wood chips in my eyes most of the morning, so I wouldn't know."
Stoick looked around the open beach. "Got the shore to yourself today, I notice."
The shipwright looked around, unconcerned. "Looks like."
"This may seem an odd thing to ask, but have there been any dragons down here today? Eating or bathing?"
Ingifast shrugged. "Not that I noticed. Course I wasn't looking." A sudden look of concern crossed his weathered face. "Anything wrong?"
Looking at the empty beach and the empty sky, Stoick started to answer. He wanted to smile and say everything was fine, especially without dragons underfoot. It didn't feel right, though. If the last six months had taught him anything it was that new behavior concerning the dragons warranted attention. He shook his head and simply said, "Just curious."
He moved inland from the beach, thinking. It could be anything, really. Or nothing. Berk was still learning about how the large reptiles conducted their lives. Their absence this day could be completely normal. It could easily be they were off nesting somewhere safe, getting ready to raise their young. He supposed they should be glad of the brief respite, especially if the beasts intended to come back. But what if they were gradually leaving? It could mean a better life for all of them. He decided on a slow walk through the village, to see how folks were getting on.
He'd only passed a few houses when he got his first bit of evidence. "Chief!" It was Sigurd Clayfoot, the potter. His boots and hands were perpetually stained a dull brown and crusted with the evidence of his craft. He also bore the marks of dozens of battles, various burn marks and talon scars on his arms and neck. "Have ye got a moment?"
"Of course, Sigurd. What's on your mind?"
The potter set his hands on his hips, looking none too pleased. "Someone owes me a string of halibut and a ham."
Stoick blinked. Theft? "Tell me."
"Better I show you."
What Sigurd showed him was a short piece of sliced rope dangling from the eave of his roof and a small bent hook. These were all that were left of the fish string and a ham from a boar he'd taken the day before. When he pointed down at the second piece of evidence, Stoick frowned. Clearly obvious Nadder tracks could be seen below the spot where the meat had been hanging.
"I'd say someone's dragon has decided to start pilfering," Sigurd declared.
It certainly looked that way. Before the battle, meat hung out to dry was safe until the dragons showed up in force to raid them. Stealthy attacks were never a problem. Food that came up missing without a corresponding raid was either theft or some clever scavenging animal without wings. This was too much like the missing sheep from the Ornolf's pen for Stoick's comfort. Why would dragons be stealing food when they were not prevented from feeding freely in the nearby waters or from the game inland?
It then occurred to him that perhaps these two mysteries were connected. If the dragons were nesting then perhaps their mates were taking food to them, as some kinds of birds would. That might explain both their reduced presence around Berk and the incidents of opportunistic food theft. But was that the truth of it?
He gazed a moment at Sigurd, trying to remember. "You don't keep a dragon, do you?"
The other man snorted. "Not likely. I'm glad enough the fighting's done and the raids have stopped but they're no friend of mine."
Stoick nodded, considering. He clapped Sigurd on the shoulder. "I'll look into this. Thank you for bringing it to my attention."
He headed next to the closest place where he knew someone who did keep a dragon. Several, in fact. Before he knocked on Gobber's door he looked around the corner at the large stall the Boneknapper slept in. There was no sign of the beast. There were at least two Terrible Terrors napping on his roof, however. As he looked at them a third poked its head up to stare down at him.
The master blacksmith wasn't home so he made his way over to the smithy where smoke was coming from the chimney in thick puffs. Before he entered he heard the familiar ring of hammer on steel. It wasn't the continuous strokes of shaping, though. They were the lighter, infrequent sounds of what Gobber called 'kisses', the finishing strokes that would put the final touches to a blade before it got its first sharpening. Thus Stoick was certain what the master smith was doing as he set foot within his smoky domain.
As he expected, his burly blonde friend was holding up a dagger to check its edge when he first saw him. He laid the short blade back on his anvil and gave it a few more kisses with his hammer before inspecting it again. Close by sat a pair of newly made rudder fittings for Rorik. He looked around to see what kind of work the smith was involved in as he waited for Gobber to notice his presence. There was nothing unusual to his eyes; a finished door latch sat next to a short piece of light chain. Beside them sat a bent boat hook that would doubtless be strengthened and straightened before dusk.
"Oy Stoick," the smith cheerfully hailed him. He set the dagger down by the grinding wheel and approached. The warmer weather and his glowing forge had given him reason to shed his small fur vest and replace it with a thick leather apron to keep off the worst of the heat. Even so the man was sweating heavily. He picked up a nearby mug and drained it. "What brings ye by? Need another trophy sharpened?" He stumped to the rain barrel outside and dipped his mug to refill it.
"Just... having a look around. Seeing what there is to see."
Gobber noticed the hesitation in his voice. He must have also seen something in his face. He stared a moment before he came closer and stood next to his friend and leader. Setting the mug down gently, the younger man leaned against a work table and eyed Stoick again. "What's wrong," he asked quietly. Trust the man to know when he was feeling troubled.
Stoick wasn't in a habit of heaping his troubles on others. It was his role as the tribe's leader to deal with problems as best he could. At the moment he didn't know if he had a problem or not, so he went forward with his intention of learning more about what was happening around the village.
"When was the last time you saw your dragon?"
That gave the smith pause. He took a moment to consider before answering. "Just this morning. Why?"
Still Stoick resisted speaking on the matter until he knew more. "How often do you see him in a day?"
Gobber was intrigued, there was no doubt. But he answered his friend's question. "Most days he's here wanting attention. Sleeps in his stall most nights." He shrugged. "Now and again he'll wander off for a few days. I don't really try to keep track."
Stoick considered this before offering the first clue to his concerns. "Have you noticed anything different about the dragons lately?"
"Different," his friend echoed. "Like what?"
"Anything. Anything that seems unusual."
There was a long pause as the question was considered. Finally the smith could only shrug. "Not that I've noticed."
Time to be more direct. "Have you noticed a lack of dragons in the last few days?"
Gobber looked over his shoulder and out the large doors of his smithy. A frown slowly pulled at his mouth. "You know, now you mention it..."
"I was up on the Spear this morning. I could count the number of dragons around Berk on one hand."
Gobber's frown deepened. "What do ye think happened to them?"
Stoick sighed. "I don't know. And I'm wondering what it means. For them and for us."
The smith puzzled out that statement a moment. He seemed to come to no better conclusions than his chief did.
He thanked his friend for his time, asked him to keep an eye out for any other clues that might help explain the missing dragons and went on his way. There was one family in particular he wanted to check on. He went strolling by Bonescrape's house. Her husband Grumblemud was cutting a log into shorter pieces for splitting into firewood. He seemed grateful for the distraction and eagerly spoke to Stoick about his son's recent escapade.
Oddlog, he said, had indeed returned safe and sound the night before. Bonescrape had been angry that he hadn't returned earlier or let anyone know where he was going. Grumblemud had spoken up for the boy and they'd argued about it for a time. Of more interest to the chief was the fact that the boy's Gronckle Seasquirm hadn't been found. During the course of the conversation Grumble added one other clue of which he'd been unaware. Herdis' dragon Bitterbug had been acting strangely a few days before and was now among the missing. When Stoick asked what was meant by 'strangely', Grumblemud could only shrug. No details had been given but the impression he'd gotten was that the dragon had become moody and somewhat irritable.
He thanked the man and went on his way, once more wondering if there was a simple answer to the mystery of the missing dragons and their recent misbehaviors. Had Bitterbug come into her first mating season? Was Seasquirm out courting some other Gronckle with vomited fish and that strange dance of fluttering wings and deep grunting calls?
Stoick found himself thinking he might have to do as Freygerd had suggested and ask Hiccup if he knew anything about these new puzzles.
When he got home, Berk's leader saw he needed to follow Grumblemud's example and cut firewood before he could begin making the evening meal. Hiccup would help around the house where he was able but handling an axe was simply not within his range of abilities. Not to Stoick's satisfaction, anyway. There was always the concern of the boy hurting himself as well.
The ordinary tasks of a day, such as splitting wood, would often spur thoughts of his son's limitations and cause him to wonder how Hiccup would fare as leader. Would Berk follow a chief that couldn't cut his own firewood? It might very well be that Hiccup would be able to keep himself safe enough with his large and dangerous pet by his side. He supposed the Fury might even be considered weapon enough in a battle that its presence could counter the boy's serious lack of fighting skills. But axes and hammers were not just weapons and he doubted the black dragon could successfully cut a tree into firewood for his rider. Surely Hiccup could see the danger of such limitations in himself. Couldn't he?
Then again, perhaps his skill at building strange tools and devices would be put to use to solve such problems. Would that allow him to be seen as a fit leader? Could Hiccup invent his way through life while being protected by his dragon?
If he could, Stoick couldn't see how. Arguably, self reliance and the ability to perform in battle could be considered some of the lesser qualities needed of a good chief. And Hiccup hadn't really managed to develop most of the important skills he would need when the time came.
The last of the felled logs were split. He would have to go bring down another dead tree soon. That was something Hiccup was good at. When the boy had been younger, he'd called scouting for standing deadwood 'hunting.' They'd all thought it amusing, not realizing that deceased timber would be the limit of the quarry he could hunt.
Stoick had the last armload of wood and was about to go in when he spotted his son approaching. He was on foot with his dragon following right behind. The boy had that look on his face he'd come to dread over the years. Bad news was in his immediate future. Hiccup saw him, their eyes meeting for an instant. His stride faltered at that moment and Stoick could only sigh, wondering what recent catastrophe the junior Haddock would relate.
"Hey dad," came the weak greeting. A painfully false smile made him realize something might be seriously wrong this time. Hiccup's self-confidence was more robust of late yet still a fragile thing. "Chopping firewood, I see."
Sarcasm, a subtle biting wit was Hiccup's style. He tended to disdain those who often stated the obvious. Stoick began to worry.
"What's wrong?" He didn't want to waste time trying to drag the news from his son. The way the boy flinched told him he was right to worry.
"Dad, there's... there's something I have to tell you." He glanced up briefly, trying to judge his mood most likely. "You're not going to like it." That didn't surprise him. "No one is."
That did surprise him. But it also seemed to point to the mystery that had been bothering him all day.
"It's the dragons, isn't it?" The look of utter shock on his son's face said it all. He felt a moment of deep satisfaction at being able to prove he could solve such puzzles as well as his son. "They're nesting and don't want to hunt so they're stealing food again." He shook his head. "I should have known. All that... racket last month was certainly a clear warning."
"What?" Hiccup gaped for a moment before glancing at the dragon at his side. "No, I don't... they, this isn't about-"
"Then why are they taking food that isn't theirs?"
The boy seemed even more confused. "I ... I didn't... they-"
"This isn't your fault son; you can't be expected to control all of them. But we'll need to find some way to discourage them." Hiccup looked pained. "Something not lethal, of course," he amended. "Although-"
Stoick frowned. There was no call for the boy to shout. It was just disrespectful.
The Fury beside him touched his shoulder with its nose. It seemed to help calm him. In a quieter tone, Hiccup said, "There's something very important I have to tell you."
"Does it have to do with the dragons?"
The boy took a deep breath. "Yes, but-"
"Does it have to do with them stealing food again?"
His son didn't seem to have an answer for that. He just stared for several moments. "No."
"Then it can wait. I'm about to start supper. You can help if you like." He stepped into the house with his load of firewood. Hiccup didn't follow him in directly but did eventually step inside. The black beast came in with him. He frowned again as he set the last of the firewood on the pile by the door. He picked up a few smaller pieces to rebuild the fire in the hearth.
"Dad, I was wrong about the dragons."
Stoick paused. For an instant he wondered if Hiccup might now see the beasts as more of a problem than he'd previously believed, especially in light of their recurring bad behavior. Perhaps the boy was finally ready to see reason.
But that hope quickly faded. This was the same young man who'd worked hard at integrating the oversized serpents into village life. To be fair, they both knew the value of the relative peace they now enjoyed. Hiccup, however, had the same tenacity his father did when it came to matters of importance. He might be willing to concede he'd misjudged the dragon's ability to accept domestication but he would never agree to Stoick's desire to push them away for good. And despite all his misgivings about the other dragons, the chief had no wish to deny his son the protection and loyalty his pet offered.
He gave his son an appraising glance before dumped his armload of dried wood into the hearth. Ignoring the puff of ash it kicked up, he picked up a few of the smallest pieces and began building a small pyramid that would be the base of the new fire. One was a little too large so he used it to dig a slight depression in the bed of ashes for the kindling. "Aye? How so?"
The boy laid a hand on his dragon's neck. "They're smarter than I realized. Much smarter."
Stoick shook his head and leaned back from the edge of the hearth. Trust his son to see everything completely backwards. "Oh, aye. They're clever critters all right. They stopped fighting us so they could start taking our food without getting killed in the process." Even as he said it, it dawned on him that perhaps the reptilian pests were actually doing just that. Without the war going on they were free to nest in peace and could gather food easily, stealthily. Why raid your enemy when you could just move in and take what you wanted effortlessly? His grip tightened on the last piece of firewood still in his hands. Why hadn't he seen it before?
"No, dad, I mean they're as smart as we are. They do a lot of the same things we do." He turned to the beast beside him. "Toothless and I are learning to talk to each other. We've invented a new written language just for us." Hiccup turned back and froze. He could feel the scowl on his face as easily as the boy could see it. His son's voice dropped as he added, "Dragons are... are people. They're just like us. Only shaped different."
Stoick stared. He hadn't heard it right, he couldn't have. But the expression on his son's face denied that.
It was like a dagger in his heart. His chest felt tight and his hand trembled around the piece of wood it held. A red night, a blue fire, and Val laying dead while her son dared to call them people. Dragons were nothing but animals, vicious animals that left scars on everyone they didn't kill. They had no honor, knew no mercy. Their eyes glowed with the fire within them. Demons, devils, destructors.
There was nothing in his mind but anger and memories. He heard shouting, screeching, the sound of fires consuming houses and lives. The dagger twisted; loss, pain and the unwanted undercurrent of fear. He felt the handle of his war hammer in his hand, saw the enemy before him. He didn't realize he'd stood up, didn't know he'd started to raise the heavy stick. Not until a sheet of black leather suddenly unfolded to block his view of Hiccup.
The Fury stared at him, head down. Its pupils were slitted but it didn't bare its teeth, didn't growl. Hiccup made a sound of surprise, called his dragon's name.
Stoick stopped. This creature, this shade of midnight had worked its way into his son's heart and made him its own. One more thing dragons had taken from him. He remembered; houses burning, crops destroyed, food stolen. Screaming and cursing and roaring that seemed to tear the very air apart.
He also remembered the Red Death. He remembered a sound he'd once hated hearing, a building shriek as a sleek, deadly body hurled earthward. He remembered a bolt of blue fire as bright as the sun flashing down and slamming into that immense creature, knocking it flat on its side. A dragon the size of the great hall, possibly the most powerful living thing in Midgard and it was driven to the ground by the very beast standing before him, shielding his son from his rising anger with one unfurled wing.
Stoick let the wood fall to the floor. With a grunt of disgust for the whole situation he stepped outside and grabbed up his axe. He heard his son's voice from inside.
"Where are you going?"
Away from you, he thought. To keep from doing or saying something I may regret.
"Dad?" The Fury was blocking the door, not letting Hiccup come outside. Still protecting him from his own father.
"To get firewood!"
Rage was power. It fueled the body long after it should have been exhausted, conquered fear and doubt. It burned away the trivial and the irrelevant. It filled Stoick with a desire to destroy his enemy.
It also clouded reason, hid truths and caused needless destruction.
His father's words forced their way into his thoughts and drove him to march angrily out into the forest. He approached the trees, his vision tinged with red and a desperate need boiling in his belly. He seethed, muttering as he neared his targets. The words meant nothing; he couldn't hear them in any case.
With each stride away from his house and toward the forest, Stoick fought a battle. The memory of his wife and the wisdom of his father clashed within him until he was nearly blind and deaf to all around him. Valhallarama, the woman he cherished. His father, the leader he'd tried his whole life to emulate. The loss of one and the guidance of the other; these things pulled at him until he felt his mind would tear apart.
She'd died protecting a sheep, only a few bloodied tufts of its wool remaining in her lifeless hand. The sight had shocked him to his core. Val had been far too strong to die for so small a prize. It was a wrong that haunted him even now.
His father had known. Rodmar Haddock, the chief of Berk known as Hammerhand, had seen his fill of death and destruction yet gained as much favor among his tribesmen as a wise man as he did for being a warrior.
Dragons. They were the spawn of Nidhoggr, the great serpent that gnawed at the roots of the tree of the world. They toppled what you built, ate what you grew or hunted, threatened all that was good.
Dragons are people. Just like us. Shaped different.
The very idea that all the death and destruction dragons had caused for generations could be equated to anything Vikings ever did was a mortal insult. Dragons were mindless killers; he'd seen it, lived it. Maybe they could be tamed but they could never be 'people'.
Away from the house, away from Hiccup, away from the Fury. He moved steadily in the direction Hammerhand guided him. His wife was dead, his son called her killer a person and his father insisted he move to the forest.
Something dark and wide and tall stood in his path. Stoick stopped, looked up. He had arrived. It was time to finally let his rage go where it would.
The sound of the first blow against the stately pine resounded among its lesser offspring. Every bit of power Stoick possessed went through his arms, into his axe and into the tree. The well sharpened blade bit deeply and refused to come back out. He tugged at the handle, his anger pushing him beyond control. Being balked by something as inanimate as a tree turned his wrath from a glowing red fire to a white hot furnace. Placing one foot against the trunk, he ripped it out with a bellow that left his throat raw.
The axe flew again and again, sending all his hate and pain into the trunk before him. He roared his fury at the flying chips of bark and wood.
He wanted his life back. He wanted his Berk back. So much had been taken from him, from the whole tribe. It infuriated him that his son had, in his soft, quiet way, exposed the life of lies they had been living for generations.
The axe took larger and larger chunks from the heart of the tree. The sound of them tearing loose was always followed by the deep, meaty thunk of the next strike.
The notion that they could have been taming dragons centuries ago was a wound he could hardly bear. He'd had no way to know. No one in Berk could have known. It was a way of life, it was practically a tradition. It kept the tribe strong, kept them focused, helped them survive.
The rhythm of his attack filled his senses and helped propel his furious movements. He heard a single loud crack but it didn't register in his mind. No more than the harsh, grating howl that poured from his jaws.
They'd been victims more times than he could count. They'd known hunger, deprivation, desperation and death. There'd never been mercy from the enemy and none was given. To kill them was to rid the world of a mindless predator, an animal so fierce and destructive that no other creature than man could fight them.
Another loud crack. It meant nothing. The axe and the tree were all.
He still wanted them dead. He still wanted to kill them, to hear their screeches of pain as they were cut, impaled, crushed. He wanted blood running down his arms and staining his face. He wanted them gone, he wanted his world back.
Befriending dragons was wrong, riding them was wrong, forgiving them was wrong. They'd taken everything he'd tried to protect, destroyed everything he cherished. There could be no succor, no relief, no-
A sound pulled him back from his bestial rampage, a shuddering groan that filled his ears and meant danger. The world seemed to tilt and he hesitated, confused. Then he realized the tree was falling. Only it wasn't falling right. It was coming down in a way that had killed several foolish men over the years.
Stoick had only an instant to see it. His attack on one side of the wide trunk had weakened it. But instead of falling toward the cut, the massive tree was leaning away from him. Because there was no back cut on the other side and his axe had reached the weaker heart wood at the center of the pine, the trunk split lengthwise to a point just over his head. There the increasing angle of the falling tree finally snapped the rest of the trunk.
Instead of toppling straight over though, the weight and pressure of the falling tree pulled the split end of the trunk up in an arc, right toward Stoick's head. Worse, after the jagged wood had rushed up level with his eyes, the other half of the trunk that still jutted from the newly made stump snapped at the base and collapsed toward him. It was as if a huge wooden viper had risen up and struck at him with a mouth as wide as his shoulders and full of pale, splintery teeth.
Stoick leapt back, trying to get away from the tree's ragged end as it came looking to avenge its demise. He felt a hard but glancing blow against his horned helm which knocked it askew. He stumbled as it blocked his view for a moment. It wasn't the worst hit he'd ever taken to the head but it as bad enough that he grunted in pain. A new sound filled his ears and beat against his wide chest. The tree met the earth with a force he could feel in his knees. The aftermath of tearing limbs and falling pinecones gave him something to focus on while he panted, strangely exhausted.
When the tree stopped moving, Stoick came back to himself. He stared in disbelief at the wide swath of destruction the tree had carved through its neighbors. The decimated trunk, he realized, looked like it had been attacked by an enormous fanged beast, not a woodsman. There wasn't so much a cut in the wood as a bite, taken one tooth at a time across the span of his height. He felt a stinging in his hands and looked down. The leather that had wrapped the handle of his axe was gone, torn loose and hanging from the end. The wood was painted with blood from where his hands had worked themselves raw. His knuckles were still white and he flexed his massive fingers, barely able to get his fist to open. His arms burned and ached in a way he'd not felt in years.
Slowly the world leaked back into his mind. He felt frighteningly weak and allowed himself to sink to the ground. He laid the axe beside him and leaned back against his wooden foe.
For a time, he did nothing but breathe. No thoughts surfaced, no feelings tore at his heart. There was a strange silence as the birds and animals near the newly felled tree hid in fear. His head throbbed a bit from the impact but it was nothing of consequence at the moment. Finally, he leaned his head back against the trunk and looked up at the enormous hole he'd made in the canopy of the forest.
He felt strangely calm, almost relaxed. The red rage had passed and only the tree had suffered. His face was wet. Sweat, he was certain. Until he put a hand to his face and felt no more than two thin tracks along side his nose. That surprised him, but also told him something important.
He'd seen this before. As a child he'd witnessed an older boy taking his anger out on one of the boats left on the beach for repairs. The teenager's axe had nearly cleaved the vessel in half before his immature rage had been spent. Stoick had thought it a mindless thing to do, to let anger get out of hand and destroy something of value. The older boy had been Anvindr. When he told his father about it, Hammerhand simply said, 'Boy, when the red rage takes you outside of battle, best you go to the forest and get firewood.'
The tree might not have been a boat, but the anger and lack of control was the same. On top of that, the end of the tree had jumped up and tried to crush his skull because he'd been too upset to pay attention to what he was doing. He'd simply taken his anger out on it without thought, without regard for possible consequences. Putting a hand to his head, he winced at the tenderness of his scalp where he'd been hit. Suddenly he felt ashamed at having endangered himself with his thoughtless actions. He knew exactly how mad he would have been at Hiccup if his son had done something so dangerously careless.
"You're acting the child, Stoick", he muttered to himself. "You're a leader, a warrior, a man grown. You're not supposed to throw tantrums out in the woods against harmless trees."
But he had. His father's advice had always been sound. And it had helped. He felt calm and clear of mind. With his anger burned away, he could consider what had sent him out into the forest in the first place.
Dragons. Dragons were missing. Stoick didn't mind that they were missing and he felt he understood why they were gone. But that didn't mean he actually knew what was happening with them. There might be some danger of which he was unaware.
More important, would they come back? And if they did, would they continue to steal food? Such behavior on their part would almost certainly cause renewed fighting and an eventual resumption of the war.
The war. Glory and hatred. Misery and vengeance and the certainty of having a chance to stride into the shining halls of Valhalla. Any true Viking would seek such a chance.
Or would he?
His people were finally beginning to prosper. Food was a problem, but only in the short term. They were looking forward to contacting other tribes. Bram Blacktongue had said it best, hadn't he? 'Good rains, no attacks, plenty of time to tend to such. Makes a man's job easier, eh?'
No attacks. No constant rebuilding, no endless source of injuries and death. No loss of food to repeated sky-borne raids. Well, that last was in doubt now, but otherwise...
The more he thought about it, the more he could feel the hope that had blossomed in his heart after the battle. Berk had greeted the end of the war the way they would greet a warm and fruitful spring after a long, bitter winter. It had been their best chance at living a life they had never believed possible. A chance made possible by Hiccup and his pet dragon.
Stoick's head throbbed again. He closed his eyes and groaned softly. Those two were the center of it. They were the ones who had driven him out here. His ever optimistic son contended that dragons could live peacefully among the villagers. And now he claimed they were as smart as people, that they were people.
His head throbbed again, harder.
Stoick took several deep breaths, forced his temper down. He put that thought aside. What was the real problem? Why had he gone for firewood?
He wanted Berk back, his Berk, the village and its people the way it was before-
Finally he saw the problem. The leader of the tribe wanted the impossible. He wanted two completely different things at the same time: to have his world back as it was and still have the benefits of the peace.
War or peace. One or the other.
If it was war, could Berk survive it? Stoick seriously doubted it. He'd seen that coming before he ever laid eyes on the Red Death.
If it was peace then his world would never change back to the way it was. It couldn't change back. He would have to do everything in his power to prevent it. If he still wanted to lead his tribe then he would have to learn how to live in this new world and deal with its challenges.
It wouldn't be easy.
Then again, living with continual dragon attacks certainly hadn't been easy and they'd managed it.
As much as he might hate it, he would also have to consider what his son had said. Hiccup had been right about the dragons. He'd been right about the Red Death. Odin help him, he may possibly be right about dragons being peo-
The word came from his throat of its own accord, half denial and half plea.
It was too much. It threatened the memories of his wife. Even Vikings had their limits. He had eventually come to accept that dragons could be tamed. Many dangerous beasts could. He had seen that dragons could be friendly with Vikings. Hiccup and his cohorts were proof of that. He could even deal with the temporary necessity of using dragons to gather food to feed the village. He didn't like it, but he could deal with it.
He could even admit (if only to himself) that he owed his son's life to the black devil... no, the Night Fury. To Toothless. There was something different about that singular creature. It lived with them, even came inside the house at times. It seemed to think, to understand. It seemed to listen. He'd noticed more than once the way it would follow a conversation between him and Hiccup, as if it could understand what was being said.
That didn't make it a person. Not in his eyes, anyway. Stoick heaved a great sigh.
So that was it. Even if Hiccup was right about it, Berk's leader could never truly accept dragons as people. He could never fully forgive them for what they'd done to his village, to his wife.
Perhaps he could step back a bit and give them and Berk the room they needed to come to terms of some kind. Maybe he could let Hiccup try his hand at working out this particular dragon problem. He didn't have to argue with Hiccup about it, he could just keep his feelings to himself. Stoick believed he could do that for his son, for the village. He'd not had much practice at hiding his feelings, so he knew that was going to be a challenge all by itself.
He stood, brushing off the dirt and leaves from his clothes. Picking up his helmet, he noted the shallow dent in the front. He glanced at the trunk of the pine, laid a hand on it. "I supposed I should thank you, too, for knocking some sense into me." The trace of bitterness was plain in his voice, even to his own ears. He shook his head, donned his helmet, picked up his axe and headed home.
Stoick didn't know for certain how long he'd been gone, but he didn't expect his son would still be home when he arrived. A glance at the sun told him it hadn't been overly long. There was at least another hour before sundown.
Hiccup was, in fact, still there. He was rigging the Fury - Toothless - to fly. Knowing how it might look, he drove his axe into the block they kept for splitting firewood before he approached the two. He clasped his raw, bloodstained hands behind his back and looked Hiccup in the eye. When the spindly young man looked up at him it was obvious he was as uncertain what might come out of Stoick's mouth as the chief was. His father surprised them both with his calm, quiet statement. "I'd like to see this writing you invented."
Hiccup blinked at him, obviously pleased but still apprehensive. He responded with, "We invented it together." He patted the dragon on the neck.
Stoick looked Toothless in the eyes, not sure what he would find there. The dragon's serene, thoughtful regard surprised him. "Yes," he said quietly.
He remembered this creature knocking down the Red Death. He also remembered him nuzzling his sleeping son. There was something in those yellowish green eyes that he found unnerving and compelling at the same time.
It came to him at that moment that the dragon before him, this remarkable creature, represented a crossroad. One way could still lead away from dragons living in Berk and, as he saw it, eventually back to war. The other would take him down the most difficult path he could imagine, one that would never let him fully understand his world again.
War or peace. The decision was still his.
Stoick decided. Wanting to let both his son and the dragon know, he held out his hand palm upward toward the dragon's muzzle. He moved slowly so as to not startle the beast. He expected the dragon to either sniff or lick his hand to show approval. Perhaps it might even react with sympathy to the dried blood and raw skin.
He did not expect it to slowly raise one forepaw and gently place it on top of his hand, to carefully grasp it.
That was shock enough. When the Fury released his hand and drew out a metal spike from some hidden place on its flying rig and began scratching in the dirt between them, he wondered if he was dreaming, had gone mad or if the gods were simply mocking him in some incredibly cruel fashion.
He looked down to see the dragon had scratched a childish figure in the dirt. It was drawing, he realized. Was this the language Hiccup had spoken of before? He squinted at the lines, curious in spite of himself.
It was a Viking, wide shouldered, wide legged with large horns on a helmet and a cluster of squiggly lines coming from the face that obviously depicted an immense beard. Next the Fury drew another figure, small, slight and with an abbreviated leg. Lastly he drew what looked like a Night Fury beside the Hiccup figure. It then drew a line which encircled the three figures.
"I think he's saying we're all one family now," Hiccup commented quietly, watching Stoick for his reaction.
An involuntary twitch shot up Stoick's spine. He said nothing, only stared. For a few seconds the idea of including Toothless in the Haddock family sent tendrils of anger into his heart. But it lasted no longer than that. He couldn't deny the lines in the dirt, or that the dragon before him had actually drawn them with its own paw and a metal stick his son had no doubt created for his use. The Berk he'd known his whole life gasped its last breath as he stared at those lines. All that lay before him now was the new Berk, the one that would be fashioned by his son and a powerful black dragon.
He felt odd, unsettled and wary. It took him a moment to place the feeling. It was fear. He'd felt it worst when he realized he was going to have to face a life without his beloved wife by his side. He'd hated the feeling so much he eventually buried it, and with it much of his ability to connect to the only other person left in their small family. That fear had poisoned much of his life.
Now he was feeling that kind of fear again, this time for everything else he held dear. But like Valhallarama, the old Berk was already dead. He could only mourn its passing and try to learn how to live without its comforts and familiarity. And this time he knew he couldn't bury the pain. He would have to face it, acknowledge it, live with it.
Then Stoick saw the true problem they had before them. How could Berk accept this? Stoick could barely deal with what he'd just seen. To thrust this on the rest of the village would bring chaos if not done carefully. This was a far larger, far more complicated challenge than he'd ever expected. And he truly had no idea how to deal with it.
He looked up from the drawing to the dragon. He looked at his son.
"We need to ta-"
He couldn't complete the sentence without a glance at the Fury. Those large, expressive eyes stared directly at him. He spoke again, this time to Toothless.
"We need to talk."
The dragon nodded.
Feeling strangely disconnected and lost, Stoick followed them into the house to see if they could find the answers Berk needed in the ashes of a cook fire.
"How to train your dragon" and all attendant characters are copyright
Dreamworks Animation and used without permission
AN - Another chapter delayed by life. I keep thinking I can't get any slower, yet I prove myself wrong each time.
So now Stoick has been forced to see the world the same way his son does. Not an easy day for the chief.