a/n: Hello again, dear reader. I have to admit I feel a lot like Stoick right now, "finally I can show my face in public again!" It's been far too long since the last update on this story and some of you may have been wondering what became of it. Most of the writing of this last chapter took place five months ago, and in that time before our planned post date I really pressed myself an edge too far. My body needed relief from the stress I put on myself because of this story, and the fandom associated with it. I snapped and just needed an escape. So I basically disappeared from the Internet for the most part, and only now have I gotten up the strength to tackle this again, because like I said in the beginning I want to see this story to the end, with the most capable hands I can give it, for the most quality tale I can tell. I'm shooting to finish this story before the sequel comes out. *crossing fingers*

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How to Train Your Dragon II
The Dragon Whisperer

Act III
A Friendship Tested

Chapter 31
Blood on My Hands

A song of fire and voices, shouts and screaming in the mad inferno of the town, some thick and loud, men who found death threatening to lick the life from them, others wailing and long. Maybe it was dragons and maybe it was women, frightened panicked women, and then the piercing scream, the one that slit thin and painful into Hiccup's head, the shrill cries of dragons he'd never heard before. Or maybe it was the call of dragons in a situation he'd never faced before, a mass hatred he could feel in his bones, a unity in their anger. In his burning mind it made no sense, only a screaming cacophony of flames and confusion.

The village of Herkja was burning. Warriors once fearless and confident began to realize the fierce will in the dragons they called weapons for a day. Rune stayed on the shore, still shocked, weakened by the wracking of his body, angered by the belief that his brother had killed his little girl, and yet that maybe she was right and this curse on him would never die. Astrid was still making her way down to the town, having told the slave and Iggy to run to the woods, her mind only on Hiccup, praying against hope that he was alive, preparing her heart if he wasn't. Fishlegs was disheartened, but when the dragon rebellion began, he made his way back into the town and the cages, suddenly called by the notion a dragon he knew was amongst the vicious crowd. The twins and Snotlout, only hearing the sounds of war and seeing nothing. And Stoick, watching a small, unstable dragon fight his way through the battle to give him a message, the one he hoped would read that this Heather would be exchanged for his son.

Hiccup held onto Toothless with more desperation than he'd ever held on with before. He knew his body was a dead weight, that he needed rest and healing, if he ever hoped to recover. Life was still a question, but one he fought to keep, for Toothless' sake. The ash and heat in the air made his eyes water with irritation and he closed them, let cleansing tears stream down his cheeks. Toothless' thick muscle heaved hard beneath him, a rhythm that was hypnotic and comforting. He heard the yells of war and bloodshed around him, a haunting sound mingled with the fleeing, attacking dragons' wings, the varied pitch of the many wails washing the air with a noise that made the world seem inhuman and foreign.

He couldn't get far, as he guessed he wouldn't. His balance slipped - in the burning instability of Toothless' running, itself jarred by spasms from the arrow wounds the dragon had sustained. And the fire, the yelling, the confusion, at one point Toothless turned, to make a corner and Hiccup slid, grabbed the saddle, but couldn't grip it, felt himself hit the earth again, his body desperate for rest. Toothless' snout nudged into his chest, and his face, and he could feel the rush and panic in the motion, the growl in Toothless' throat, a pleading for Hiccup to get up, iget/i up, and get into the saddle. He felt the fire's heat, flush against his cheek, breathing down his body, and he looked up, saw the structure next to him in flames, not more than a man's length away, the dark black tables and chairs inside exposed and alive, deteriorating in fire. Hiccup raised his arm from off the hot ground, felt the warm scales of his dragon, tried to revive the strength in him. "Buddy, you should've left me," he said, half-chuckling, the end of his phrase buckling as a clutch of pain jumped up his scarred back.

Toothless snorted, jerked his head to the side, his eyes narrowing and his snout shoving faster along Hiccup's side, persistent and undaunted. "Okay, okay-" Hiccup gasped. "That ihurts/i." He turned over, shoved his knee up along the ground to regain his balance. He heard voices on the other side of the corner, thick footfalls even in the midst of the flames and the hot searing sound of fire around them. The shadow of a cottage kept him shielded from the humans making their way to him, but the cover wouldn't last long. He knew in his gut they were after him, from the sound of surety in their step, they weren't fleeing the flames, not yet. Toothless jawed his middle, a gummy hold, tried to lift him off the ground. Hiccup winced, pushed his foot up and sucked in a yell as Toothless' healing yet wet saliva met his fresh wounds. He got a grip on the ground and Toothless released him, as Hiccup pressed his palm into the dragon's forehead, for support, and looked ahead of him and suddenly- a scream, a voice, ahead of him.

Hiccup jerked his head up, knew the sound of that. What was she doing here?

"Hiccup, watch out!"

He ducked, instinctively, felt the swoosh of a spear above him, Toothless screaming in alarm. There was a warrior's yell, from Astrid's own suddenly louder voice, hotter, angry with a passion he'd never heard from her. She somersaulted past him, the fire in her voice and the clash, hiss, iclap/i of metal on metal blade. There was a shout to his right, someone coming close, and he looked, saw for a fleeting instant the silhouette against the orange. He felt Toothless hiss, gather the gas in his throat, but Hiccup yelled, "iNo/i-", an instinct's reaction, because he didn't want to see, not by Toothless, not again. There had been enough fire, enough blood, today. The delay made Toothless spin around to question him, the man to catch up, and Hiccup knew in an instant the danger of the choice he'd made. He grabbed an arrow buried in Toothless' hide, his teeth clenching as he pulled and the weapon sucked out of the dragon's skin, Toothless yelping, an instant before thick arms grabbed him, and he felt his body thrown to the ground, the man above him shoving his knee into Hiccup's abdomen. Hiccup yelled, grunted, the arrow in his hand shaking. The sword in that man's hand suddenly rose, a silhouette against the flames and gray sky above. Fear shot up Hiccup's heart. iNo/i, he couldn't die now. Toothless yelped, Astrid's scream in the air, like a dagger in his heart. It rang in his head, a responsibility he owed them, to survive. He wouldn't die like this, not here, not ipointlessly/i. Hiccup pressed his teeth together, whirled, as best he could, pinned like this. The sword came down, just missed him, and Hiccup turned, grappled for the earth ahead of him. The man hissed, lifted the weapon again, Hiccup yelled, kicked up behind him, the man jolting, his face morphing into irritation. He stared down at Hiccup, for a breathless instant, and Hiccup squirmed, tried to get his body free from the man's pressing knee.

"Not this time," the man grated, lunging a hand around Hiccup's throat. The boy gasped, felt the air escape him, his body lifting. Hiccup flung his hands around the big hand holding him up. He remembered the arrow in his hand, felt delirium pushing into his mind, as the hand squeezed, thickly, swiftly, without remorse or hesitancy. His vision blurred, air impassable through his throat. Gasp. The arrow, death, he couldn't let this happen. iArghh/i. Hiccup shoved the arrow forward, putting all his power into the blow, barely hoping for a good shot, wanting only air, iair/i.

He felt something washing and warm on his hand suddenly, the thick heat of the man's middle, armor that was sharp on the back of Hiccup's hand. He felt wings rush around him, Astrid's warrior yell, next to him, his back on the ground again, and a weight above him, pressing him, crushing him. Air burst into his lungs, the hand on his throat loosening, and Hiccup gasped, his chest shivering, a thrusting cough spitting out of him. Pain and hurt swarming his nerves, a vision swimming with confusion and slowly, slowly . . . He felt warm liquid spill thickly down his upper arm, realized with a shock that the man he was fighting had fallen on top of him, that his suddenly quiet body was bleeding, that the sword he had wielded was on the ground, next to Hiccup's head, glinting with fire and dulled with dirt. Trapped, Hiccup's hand still beneath him, holding onto that arrow between the plates of armor and leather. Hiccup's breath shook inside him, as he felt, breathed into the man's heavy, leather, grimy clothing, soaked in sweat and ash and a warrior's stench, and looked into the man's face, the hateful gaze of his enemy, the nerves that made his cheek shake, the filaments of his sweaty hair shiver in the burning stillness that was suddenly between them. The man was still alive, a fact that made Hiccup suddenly terrified. Not because an enemy wasn't dead, but that Hiccup would see him go, and know that it was his own hand which killed him.

Hiccup let out a nervous moan, yanked hard on the arrow, removing his hand from the man. The man's hardened face contorted suddenly, his groan sharp and pained, looking into Hiccup's face with a curved agony creasing his brows. Hiccup felt blood, a sudden rush of it, pulse out of the man's wound, the chest of his enemy shaking violently, desperately, his heartbeat close to Hiccup's own chest, the pumping instability in its pulse, and the angle of the arrow he pulled . . . it had thrust up into the man's heart, or somewhere near it, which explained the immense rush of blood, the torture in the man's eyes, as he stared into them, watched the life in them ebb, fade . . . close. A spasm shot through Hiccup's body, a disgust, a wild fear and a panic scrambling in his heart. He lashed away from the man, gasping out his own breath, the arrow in his hand tumbling out, dropping from his hand still wet with the life of his victim.

The pain in Hiccup's back came screaming back suddenly, and he yelled, a surging moan in his throat, the pressure of the man's corpse too much on his whipped and bleeding body. Toothless was suddenly there, hissing, clawing, throwing the weight off Hiccup with a hated urgency, turning back to the boy and nosing him violently, concern wild in his eyes. Hiccup clenched his teeth, hissed in a breath. Toothless moved around to his head, pawed the ground around him, and Hiccup lifted his arms, reached for Toothless' rigging, something to grab onto. Astrid skidded to the earth next to him, shouting, something Hiccup couldn't catch in the urgency of the moment, as she turned her back to him, grabbed his arm and threw him over her back, his head flung over her shoulder. He yelled, the motion torturous, and she hesitated a moment, only a moment as the yell of warriors came crashing into his ears. She threw herself over Toothless' back and the dragon wailed, anger and sorrow in his voice. "Toothless, go!" she shouted, and slid Hiccup down off her back, behind her. "Hold onto me!" she screamed in the chaos, drawing Hiccup's arms around her. He pressed his arms around her waist, tried to be firm, felt weak, his own consciousness flashing away from him, like the sun behind scuttled clouds. His back pulsed and ebbed, irritated, frustrated. "iArghh/i-" he moaned, sharply, vocally. His fist clenched and he pushed his forehead into her back.

"Hiccup- just, keep calm, you're gonna be okay."

He seethed out a breath, tried to concentrate on keeping his heartbeat constant, closed his eyes and saw the image of that man again, still felt the warm wetness staining his arms. Toothless' gait was a rhythm beneath him, hypnotic and pulsing, a jolt that made him spasm as the dragon landed each time into the hard, flaming earth. He opened his eyes sometimes, blinded by the orange and the yellow, the light and the heat, flush on his cheeks, and silhouettes of running shapes flashing by, skirts of women, children on their hands and knees, mothers catching them up. An old man, he swore he recognized him - the balding head and the way he hobbled forward, yelling on his own, telling people to get out. "Fire! Fire!" he called, as if anyone needed the memo. And the crack of whips as small horses whinnied with their riders hasty and urgent lashed them forward. And louder voices, telling the others to get back, back into the thick of the forest. "It's safe there." The flap of wings, the shrill scream of voices, a familiar shout ordering someone to get themselves together. "We've waited far too long for this day." Hiccup heard dragon screams, swooping down and low, and their shapes dark in the air above. Memories flashed through him, his earliest memories - of dragons in the sky, destroying homes, fire and war, his father leaving him on the steps of home, to protect his village and his family. Battle, the constant struggle. And dragons, their wildness terrifying but captivating to him.

A sharp jolt of pain leapt up his back, forcing him back to clarity, and the blue spark of Toothless' blast ahead of him, as the dragon aimed and fired at a flaming obstacle in their path. He kept his arms tight around Astrid, felt her hand holding firm his own, the cool fingers wrapping tensely around his bruised wrists. He kept his head down, felt the dragon screams in the air, filling his ears like a mingled cacophony. The warmth gradually faded, as Toothless raced through the town, and suddenly a pulse of shocking coolness burst upon his body, chilling him. He opened his eyes, found blue darkness ahead of him, trees and bushes, black shapes of people running, reflecting orange and the movement of the flames. He turned back, saw the town below them. Toothless growled and Astrid tensed, her hand on him tightening as he bent back to look- It was destruction on a horrific scale. The landscape was alive with fire, every corner, every shard of darkness, licked by flames. The sea was orange with reflection, the streets lined with light, fingers of yellow glare rising from the chaos. It was the brightness of day mingled with the darkness of night, as black clouds moved in, masked by ash and smoke, over the dark remains of houses and structures. And far away, ships heading out, canvases blooming with air, shaking with urgency, fear in the very air that filled those sails. The crack of flames, the slice of wings in the air, the screaming far away and near . . .

Hiccup turned away, how many lives had been lost in that inferno? It was so sudden, so powerful and hated, driven by dragons full of passion and anger. Who could stand up to the pointed urgency he felt in those creatures? iDeath/i, the word breathed on his mind, dark and frightening, his own hand stained with it now. He exhaled viciously, pushed his head into Astrid's back, concentrated on the muscular jolt of Toothless beneath him. They rushed through the woods, the sound of many fleeing feet around them, their shapes lost in the silhouette of trees and branches. The crackle of leaves under them, and the snap of twigs as hundreds fled.

There was suddenly the sound of water ahead of him, a soft coolness in the air, the sound of forest leaves around him, and Toothless jolted to a halt, unsteady and ragged, slipping to the ground, uncharacteristically. Hiccup felt a wave of panic surge through him, that motion in the dragon meaning only one thing. "Toothless-" he gasped, sliding to the ground, soft dark grass on his knees. "Ouch . . ." he lisped, and he could hear Astrid telling him to take it easy. He stumbled to his feet and crawled on his hands and knees to Toothless' head, falling on the ground, his arms loose over the dragon's ear panels. His back pressed thick with pain on him. More motion, more irritation. What did he figure after nearly dying? He ignored it, put his hand out and stroked the side of Toothless' head. "Buddy?" he breathed, looking over the dragon's scales, seeing the injuries, the one arrow still trapped in him, and the cracked scales. He pursed his lips.

Toothless hummed, leaned his head up to look at him, the growl in his throat strong, firm. His eyes were soft and gentle, comforting, sparked with pain, but . . . steady. Hiccup inhaled again, his breathing hoarse. The dragon had done what he wanted, getting his boy out of there, away from danger, from death. That's what those eyes were saying. Hiccup felt a surge of strength choke his heart, and he coughed in a breath, kept his one hand on Toothless as he reached for the last of the arrows in Toothless' body. He yanked with a force unknown to him, threw the stained weapon on the grass. Toothless yelped, jerked as the wound opened. "It's going to be okay, bud," Hiccup said quickly, pressing his palm into Toothless' red scales. It pained him to see Toothless like this. The dragon gurgled, hummed, pushed his nose into Hiccup's knee.

Astrid was suddenly by his side, taking hold of his shoulders from behind. "Astrid-" he yelped. She said nothing, pushed him forward towards Toothless, a gasp escaping her lips. He sucked in a breath, her hold on him bending his back a little too forward for his comfort. "Hey, that's kind of painful. If you don't mind-" He steadied his hand into Toothless, head down. Her hands let up, gently, shocked in their motion. Her fingers moving deftly over his back, pressing the strips of torn skin, the clothing that was so soaked with his blood that their tattered edges melded into his back. He could only imagine what it looked like on the outside, didn't even want to fathom an image. Toothless hummed suddenly, sensing the tension. Astrid's hand paused, and the other hand on his shoulder squeezed suddenly, a gasping hold.

"You seen enough?" he whispered, breathing out forcefully.

"More than enough."

Astrid's voice was restrained in anger. Hiccup turned around to her, his head suddenly heavy, exhausted. Her eyes were alive with rage, hard and convicted in their passion. Her hand moved down to her skirt, and he heard cloth rip, saw her fingers come away beneath her spiked armor, the shape of her thin legs appearing behind the open spaces between the panels. She pulled the cloth of her skirt around his torso, and he pressed his teeth together as she pulled taut. "What did you let them do to you?" she whispered, cracked fire in her voice.

"Isn't it obvious?" he lisped, gasping as she tied tight the cloth.

"Animals," she hissed, in a tone that suddenly frightened him.

"It's okay," he said, quickly, shaking his head, stroking Toothless, trying to feel the scales warm on his palm. "I chose it," he swallowed. "I wanted to-" He couldn't put the word out, not straight out like that. Toothless rose suddenly, sensing the pain in Hiccup's voice, nudged his head into the boy, licking him, humming. "I'm okay, bud," he whispered, jerking back as the dragon pressed his nose into Hiccup's cheek.

Astrid was suddenly close to him, by his side, her face near his. He turned to her, those eyes were wide in the dim light, looking out at the fire still burning somewhere far behind the thick trees, the people still fleeing through the woods and a short distance from them, smoke rising high into the dark sky, the deep rumble of that mountain even farther away, the haunting swoosh of wind and the noise of the water behind them. "Trying to be a hero." Her voice was knowing. Her eyes were still hard, but in the midst of them, the humanity in her heart, something she wasn't saying out loud.

He shook his head, breathed and looked away from her, bit his lip, as much a spasm from the pain as from his confusion. "Can't have both of us . . . killed," he smirked. He inhaled carefully, looked up at her.

Her face was strong, but the strength now was of something higher, beautiful, she looked beautiful, and in her eyes was a spirit he could only name as admiration. He looked away suddenly, and felt her hand on his knee, her soft palm around his chin. She pressed her lips to his suddenly, and then her forehead touched his, her voice whispering something he could not hear, her hand holding his head, pressing in with a measure of desperation in that grasp, desperation and hope and trust. He closed his eyes, the warmth of Toothless by his side, Astrid supporting him, the chaos and the madness he had left behind, and his Dad . . . he missed him, terribly. He wanted to tell him he was okay, that his son was still alive. Because who knows what nightmares waged in the mind of a father who had started a war on behalf of a son who was meant to be executed? He heard the soft rush of wind through the trees, the pant of a confused and trickling stream of people crashing through the underbrush. Images flashed in his mind, the pain he had felt and done, and he tried in vain to push the thoughts away. There were still things he had to do here, before he could finally rest.

:: ::

It was as if he expected it, as if it wasn't really a surprise when he heard it.

"He says your son is dead already." The messenger's voice was fast.

Stoick's breath heaved hard in him, thick emotion fighting in his soul. That couldn't be true. It was denial, he knew consciously he could not believe that his son had been killed. That's the reason he was here, the reason he hadn't turned back for hopelessness all this way, the reason he pushed on through every casualty report and battle. It was more than just vengeance after all, more than hatred. He was battling his brother to get his son back, and he could not let himself fail that mission.

And yet was his brother the kind to offer mercy? After what he had done already? Would he play games with him?

Stoick had often joked that Hiccup, in all his weakness, would get carried away by a dragon, would end up some creature's lunch because of his childish rashness at dragon raids at home. A thousand times the boy almost got himself killed. But that was his greatest fear, wasn't it? That he'd lose him, that he would live to bury the person he loved most . . . again.

No.

It wasn't going to end like this. He would not mourn, not yet, and he would not give up until he'd seen his son's lifeless body. He'd lived through one horrible moment when he thought his son had died, and his son had surprised him, as he'd always done, and survived. Maybe the impossible had happened again and maybe he would trust that it could have happened, because this was his Hiccup and Hiccup always did the stupid, rash things which ended up saving them all. No word of man was going to stop him from fighting, and neither would this faceless word from his brother stop Stoick from fighting.

"Get out of my face," he hissed to the smug Skirra Vellite. The horrible arrogance of that face burned into his soul and Stoick ordered the man thrown overboard. There would be no message back, no message that his daughter was still alive. Let him suffer, let him worry, did he think the life of his daughter so small when up against hatred? How low had he fallen?

He called Thornado to him, mounted him, his weapons doubled and stashed over his armor. "Where are you going?" Gobber yelled.

But a fire burned inside Stoick, without words or a fool's hope, just a strong sense of battle - for himself and his son. No thoughts and no conclusions came to his mind, except to fight. He'd wasted too many hours playing child's games, being safe, keeping war to the strategy that would keep his people safe, that would best gain him the advantage in the scheme of things, the kind of war he wanted his son to run - mature, strong, victorious. But this wasn't a war for land or gold, but for lives, and he wasn't going to try holding back anymore, at least not for himself. He'd blamed his son for being rash, to save that dragon, and it was a move which put so many lives at risk - but what was Toothless to Hiccup anyway? He hadn't wanted to admit it before when he told his son how extravagantly he doted on that creature, but he felt it now. A bond unbreakable, one that risked all. Like father, like son.

Like what he was planning to do.

"Gobber," the chief shouted down to the man as he looked up at him, worry creasing his face. "Spitelout gets command for now, I'm heading in myself. Get cover fire for the flank, use our reserves and push forward. No more holding back, this is it. Take care of things until I get back."

"Stoick, where are you going?" Gobber's voice was suddenly very grave, as if he knew.

But some things you don't say out loud. Stoick turned his dragon, kept his gaze on the land ahead, so far away, a surge of murderous anger in his warrior's soul and the image of his brazen brother seared into his mind.

:: ::

Heather's senses were numb, and the bonds on her hands were loose, loose enough to slip from, but where would she go? Her mind was still trying to grasp the meaning of what just took place - the message her father had sent, the intent he had in it, why would he do that? He couldn't have killed Hiccup, she knew that, because she'd seen him and she'd experienced it herself, that boy would not die, there was something with him that she could not understand, but it was a force, a power that kept him going, no matter the pain and the threats they'd thrown at him. Maybe it was Fate, maybe it was him. But this lie her own father had given the enemy - if Hiccup truly was alive, as she believed him to be, if . . . how could he say that? Even if Hiccup was good as dead, ihow/i could he chance that? Did he not see the choice before him? Did he not know that what he said meant that he had given her to them? That he had ensured her own death?

Maybe it was his mind, this pressure had struck him, and he made a choice that was rash, hateful, confused. But risk the life of your own daughter? What was it? Was it that this hatred had driven him to something irreversible?

Vengeance, honor, it was the thing which kept the two of them together and driven through these years of wandering, the hours of hopelessness, the nights she stayed up and watched him deteriorate slowly, consistently, as his own death stalked him. The death she so desperately wanted to stop, and yet . . . did he not love her? Was he that desperate to keep Hiccup, to hold onto that glimmer of hope that he could be saved, to give up his own child, the child he himself had saved out of the fires of plunder and raid. Did she mean so little against the pain in his soul? iShe/i would kill for him but would he kill her? Or had this mission to cure his heart turned it to stone?

But she would not show her emotions to the enemy, and Heather looked out, felt the splash of water against her face, as the ship jerked forward in a haste borne from panic, as she could read in the enemy's face, as they watched frantically their leader fly away, leave his people, to what? Pursue a failure? A foolish hope that might be true. And her, would they kill her then? Wasn't that the bargain? Isn't that what her father wanted?

She leaned over the edge of the ship, still felt the humming pain of that dragon's teeth in her legs. It was a mere physical thing, a scratch of insignificance compared to the splitting agony in her heart. She didn't want it to get to her, resisted the clawing bitterness and anger against that man she called father. As water and air splashed over her, the fire and breath of dragons in the air and in the sea, warriors fast and violent. War, as she stood there, watching, no one protecting her, no one telling her to step back, no one carrying out the threat of the bargain, as she watched, unmoved, her heart fighting to reason, still trapped in its own desperation. And the shore, coming closer, as she saw out there the chief's dragon land, and then - was that Rune? On the shore? She turned down, hissed in a breath. It couldn't be.

"Get ashore!"

"Beach the ship!"

"Go! Go! Go!"

Men jumping over, ignoring her, the sand and rocks hitting the edge, swords glinting out, some already aware that the journey to shore had struck in them a blow of men and material. The one-legged man screaming out casualty reports, and another, commanding the other ships to collect themselves, gather together and focus forward, iforward/i. She closed her eyes, the cacophony of war around her, her hands wet, her heart screaming, the warmth of dragon fire, the cool splash of ocean and the color red in the sea before her, the blood of war, and the rush of men behind her, getting off, past her, and then a scream ahead of her, she looked up, gasped, the wind buffering her black hair, as she looked out and saw her father, her father's brother- and it was like Fate would have it come to this.

:: ::

The shore was hard, dirty, littered with a scatter of rocks green and gray and pieces of war - weapons, charred remains of wooden axes, clothing and armor that dragon fight had removed, and the red swash of blood, always soothing out to shore, the water lapping it up like a hungry creature, alive, vicious, and cool.

Stoick stumbled off Thornado, his eyes hard and sure on the object of his righteous fury. There, his brother, that horrible man. It was windy on the shore, wet and confusing, but in Stoick's mind there lived nothing but his brother. "Rune!" he shouted, his voice outside of himself, loud and bitter. The foreign warriors around them, kicking up the rocks, their weapons brushing by him as if he were a spirit outside their own consciousness. He felt almost unliving, unreal, charging on a mission to do something he wasn't sure himself of. To tell that man what he thought of him, the audacity to threaten his flesh and blood, the price he'd pay for treason and treachery. He would have forgiven him, he was iwilling/i to forgive him, to put the past behind both of them. It had been so many years, almost two decades, why icouldn't/i he put the past behind him? What was wrong in doing that? Why couldn't he do the same? They both had mourned the loss of Valla, so how did he think himself so different, to take out this revenge on him and his son?

A dragon screamed above him, filled his ears with the fury of that creature, with the burning fire in his heart. Rune's eyes met his suddenly, the space between them filled with smoke, ash, and the swirling air of the sea, the breath of dragon's fire and the splash of water. He stared into those eyes, realized how familiar they were, how this man was someone he lived with, loved once, shared a childhood with, for all their differences. But those eyes he last saw with anger were angry still.

"I once called you brother," he shouted, the hurt and anger cracking in his harried voice, his breath choking with the breathlessness of fury. For an instant of clarity he saw the sadness in this tragedy, the end he knew was about to come to one of them. There was no mercy in his brother's eyes and there was no mercy in his own heart. Rune, for whatever name he had once with them, had crossed a line that no man should cross. The time for mercy had passed. He had offered him peace, but he had come in war, he had offered him forgiveness, but he had only given back hatred and murder. This would be to the death, Stoick knew that, he was prepared for that, and for his son, he was willing to go that far. It was between him and Rune now, no battles, no armies, no dragons. Man to man, one to another. Maybe violence wouldn't prove to him that he was wrong, but it would prove to him that he would never conquer, and that retribution is alive in the hearts of those who are hurt, of those who are wronged, and those who know the right is on their side.

:: ::

Heather felt the heart in her jump. She'd expected her father to succumb to his illness at some point, it was a curse on his body - but she'd wanted to at least delay that inevitable. Cure his heart so that his body would come alive.

Never would she have imagined the war taking him, him who was invisible in battle. Her scream was wild and reckless, as her legs crashed through the sand and waves, as she watched her father take up his axe and wield it, heave it up into the murky air - slicing down, clap and shock, against the same weapon of his brother's. She heard the guttural grunt of their voices, her father's swing hard and yet fragile, unlike him, lost of some of its power, she could tell. He was normally fearless in war, but here, he was different, still strong but somehow weak, and maybe it was the fact that it was his own brother he fought, someone who looked so much like him, fought with an arm that sparked in her memory like lightning. The vision when she herself was lost in the water, that river so close to home, and a man from the enemy came and picked her up, brought her home and called her his own. She fought the stinging pain from the fresh wounds on her leg, stumbled on the rocks and sand, the confusion of war messing up her vision - and yet clearly men were rushing past her, beaching onto her land, weapons raised against her people. One-on-one battle on the shore, the smack of shields breaking, the yell of victory and defeat, the crack of weapons breaking into bone, unclean and painful. War. Her face stung with salt, from the ocean crashing into her, as she caught the ground suddenly, looking up, gasping, seeing through the melee the pair that still struck blows at one another.

She saw the vision before it happened, knew in her heart it wouldn't end happily, knew it as if it was prophesied, that this stained water would wash away all she'd worked so hard to heal.

:: ::

Color and fire burned in his heart, searing the sense and reason in his mind, to see his brother there - that man, Stoick. Rune wanted to say so much, accuse him to his face of cheating him for the love of Valla. What kind of a chief was that, what kind of a father to the son that should have been his? He deserved inothing/i. Somewhere the pallor of death needed to curse him. It was like a nightmare alive, the torture of his dreams awake and conscious in front of him, finally - and yet, it was burning his soul, his heart lashing in emotion, fire eating at his arms and lighting up his mind.

"You were inever/i my brother," Rune yelled, heaving his sword, a shatter in his bones as the weapon took on its own life from the power he gave it. His brother deflected the blow, came with one of his own. Rune stepped back, shield up, the wood cracking as his brother's weapon drove into it.

"You murdered my son-" Stoick spat, throwing the axe into the shield again, the wood splitting. Rune shoved the shield down, water splashing, lapping up between them. He looked up into his brother's eyes, a flash of light, creases of anger in them.

"He killed her," Rune spat, lashing his sword out, catching his brother's leg in the slight curve of its shimmering blade. Stoick yelled, gritted his teeth, smoke and ash filling Rune's eyes. He felt his heart heave dangerously, knew it was the hatred storming through it, pounding and thrashing in it, to be so close to bloodshed, to fulfillment. His own brother - that evil man, to take away the one thing which mattered to him, ihis/i Valhallarama. Rune stepped up, felt his body unsteady and cracking under him, his brother on the ground, the tide swishing and licking around him. "You've never seen me," Rune shouted, the wind catching his voice, thunder thick behind him. "You've never seen the ipain/i I've gone through." Lightning, flash in the black. "You've never seen the itorture/i."

"You created that torture." Stoick's voice bitter and loud, his form rising from the shore, axe dripping with wet and foam. Rune pressed his lips together, a spasm of weakness paralyzing him a moment, the fire in his soul alive and writhing, beyond his body, screaming to be let out, to do something. "iHe/i brought it on me," Rune spat, his voice shaking, cold.

"He only lived."

"He ikilled her!/i" Rune heaved the sword and met the head of Stoick's axe.

"Then blame iher!/i" Stoick shouted. "She wanted him alive." He slid the axe down the blade, jamming his hands into his brother's. "She risked her life to save him. iShe/i did it, not I, not anyone. It was her. She wanted that child. Would you tell me to my face she was wrong?" His voice hissed, and their eyes met, staring into one another, wet and angry, cold and burning all at once.

Sword and axe clashed that day, brother to brother, on the brisk, rushing shore, the night of darkness falling, ash and shadow breathing into air, the hulls of ships cracking, burning, as dragons breathed upon them. And warriors, the remains of many, friend and foe, mingled on the shore, lapped by the waves that carried their lifeblood to the sea, where a thousand water dragons still played, alive with the tension in the water and the confusion in the air above. The hiss of creatures rose into the air, as caged and free dragons alike sensed the climax of the struggle, felt the dragon time coming, when they could throw off their human riders and turn the violence upon all of men.

Rune pressed his sword against his chest, as Stoick threw his heavy body into his, both of them crashing into the water, the hard knobs of pebbles chipping into Rune's back. He hissed, fought the weight above him, the hot angry breath of his brother, the warmth of his bosom on his, cold metal of their weapons pressing flat against one another.

"And you would kill me, brother," Rune breathed, the battle biting at his strength.

"iNow/i you call me brother."

"Let me return that favor," Rune choked, his heart heaving, as he struck his arm, now free, into the armor in front of him, his weapon sinking into the body of the man he once knew as his family. He could barely hear the grunt that escaped Stoick's lips, but he felt it - the weight falling on him, the cringe of his knuckles and the tense firmness in his arm. Rune's own eyes were dilating, losing focus, as something hard and tense grabbed his chest, and his breath locked up on him, screaming in his mind. He tried to see his brother, tried to grab that filament of satisfaction he should have for what he'd done, but why couldn't he see him? Why was his vision blurred? Why now? "iNo/i," he gasped, and turned over, tried to clear his eyes, to see - more than just the redness and the dark shape of the other man, the floating glint of his weapon on the water, like the gleam of sunlight in a storm, the murky waves of the sea. He needed more than that, he needed to isee/i him, the pain in his eyes, the longing for life, the retribution and the revenge and the sorrow. He needed his eyes to be clear, iclear/i but why, why the murky water and the blindness, the choking visions of nothing, screaming in the air and red water in his eyes, splashing now and a voice, something familiar. He cried out, reached for his brother's body, to feel it once more. But he came back empty, his chest locking up on him and his hands flailing hopelessly in the rush of the water. And then-

"Dad-!"

Rune yelled, his shoulders hard and sparking with pain, his jaw suddenly hard.

"iDad./i"

That familiar presence. iI didn't see his eyes,/i he gasped, if only in his mind, as the familiar arms came around him and his own eyes bleared out in clarity for a moment, and in an instant he saw - that familiar face, the tender face that was suddenly close and staring at him, water in those new and lovely eyes. Her hair was wet and black, slick in the darkness, a sheen on them from the moisture and the glow of lightning and fire, her clothing wet and ragged, and her lips, trembling and open, screaming for him, why so loud? Daughter, why so loud?

"Heather . . ." he choked suddenly, his breath caught inside him. His daughter. She was alive. But wasn't, didn't . . . his brother had killed her, his brother had cheated and gave him a false bargain. He'd do a thing like that, he believed his brother would pull a trick like that. Like it was so many years ago, with Valla, he'd do it to him to spite him and defeat him. And yet-

"Dad, father, please . . ." Her soft, warm hand on his shoulder, her hair falling on his chest.

His eyes cleared suddenly, and he saw the clouds above, the crisp bold wings of dragons in flight, of his warriors yelling, their dark forms atop those creatures, swooping down against other dragons, collisions in mid-air, great living beasts falling to the earth in a scream of fire and motion. And the cool water in his ears, the water finding his wounds, the pain somehow nothing compared to the squeezing in his chest, and yet - in those eyes above him, those living eyes, alive with tears. Tears he never saw her cry. His own Heather.

He felt cheated, betrayed, saddened - and confused, because why didn't his brother kill her? When he had the chance? Rune turned, tried to see Stoick, found only gray rushing ocean by his side. Gray, endless, cold and mad, terrifying ocean. An ocean that changes its face and its mood day by day, an ocean that is never constant, that swallows others in their futility. Could his brother have changed since he last met him? And those words, ishe wanted him alive/i. For so long he'd hated Hiccup, he'd hated the boy who killed his love. iShe wanted him alive./i Stoick had kept Heather alive . . . but how could he dare bargain with him? He was hurt, he needed to exact violence on something, someone. That was the point wasn't it? The pain in his chest and shoulders burned suddenly, making him convulse, shout. That was the point, and he'd gotten his retribution didn't he? Hiccup was going to die, and Stoick had fallen. Then why the torture in his heart, seeing Heather there - that error in his logic, that thorn in his mind, about who his brother was, what he believed about him. What if what he said about Valla was true, what if the boy who killed her was the boy she chose to die for?