Daylight had just begun breaking as Stoick and a small group of Vikings dragged me along through Berk's untouched wilderness. The first half hour of our trek into the woods was painfully silent, save for a few happy cackles coming from the irritating village recluse, Mildew. Behind him were Astrid and the others, who had followed us despite Stoick's demands they stay in Berk. Surprisingly, he didn't say a word to them when he noticed they'd ignored his orders. In fact, he hadn't said much of anything as we made our way to Raven's Point, and the few glances I stole at him revealed a blank, distant look on his face.
"So what exac'ly are we out lookin' for, Stoick?" Gobber interrupted the silence with a question he'd already asked several times before. When no answer came he elected to keep speaking, if only because the quiet of the village Chief seemed to bother him more than the chance he had of running into a dragon. "Even if the boy really did shoot down tha' Night Fury, why would it still be at Raven's Point? I'm tellin' ya, we're not goin' ta find anythin'. An' now you've got a lot a makin' up ta do for what ya... Did to... Yer... Son."
Gobber's voice slowly stumbled to a halt as we approached a large hill that had been scarred by a mass of upturned earth and mangled trees. Toothless's impact zone looked a bit different, approaching from the other side, but there was no mistaking what it was. Even my father seemed startled by the proof that I did something as difficult as shooting down a dragon, but his surprise ended when he found the bolas I'd never come back for.
"So..." He turned to me with that pained, empty stare he'd been wearing since I'd been caught. "Why did you... Why didn't you SAY anything about this? You could've killed it for the village. You could have been a hero!"
"I tried to, dad. You didn't-"
"Enough. Now where is it?" He locked his eyes on me, his frustration steadily growing. "Well? I want to know where you're hiding that dragon." The anger boiling away in my chest began to ice over as the reality of my situation finally sunk in. Desperate to keep the cove a secret, I tried to fight back and keep my anger rolling, all while gathering enough of my composure to speak.
"Look, I'm not hiding a dragon. Yes, I shot down the Night Fury, but he was already gone when I found this place." My father's brow furrowed before he spat out a response at me.
"Liar. I've knocked dozens of dragons out of the sky with bolas just like those over there. Once they're down, they don't just get away, Hiccup. Someone would have had to help the beast, and the only one who could have done that is you."
"Stoick's right," interrupted Spitelout. He was crouched down in front of the discarded bolas, inspecting one of them in his hand. "No dragon could've done this. Take a good look at these ropes." He dusted off the iron ball before holding it up for all to see. The rope attached to it was sliced clean in half, something a struggling dragon would not have been capable of. "These were cut, no doubt about it." He turned his head to me with a dumbfounded stare. "Hiccup, why would you cut it free? And how? It would've torn you apart in a second!" Nearly a dozen people were staring at me once again, their attention shifted from the destruction running away up the hill.
"I cut him free because..." I took a deep breath, hoping in vain that it would calm me and slow my heart down a little. It didn't work. "I cut him free because I couldn't do it. He was tied up, hurt and completely at my mercy. But I couldn't bring myself to kill him. He looked so terrified that it made me feel like... Like I was some kind of monster." The Vikings around me all slowly succumbed to the same bout of utter confusion as I spoke, save for my father. He stared at me, more stony-faced than ever, before clamping his hands around my shoulders and pulling me closer to him.
"This is a war, Hiccup. We're at war, WAR, with these dragons. They can't be trusted, and yet, here you are, my own SON, turning on me, covering for one of them! Like you've forgotten that they've killed HUNDREDS of us over the years! Neighbors, friends and family! I lost my VAL to those monsters!" His face was now inches from mine, and through all of his anger and his pride, I could have sworn his eyes glistened in the moment before he let go.
"Don' ferget, Stoick. Val was still his mother-"
"Gobber." My father interrupted his old friend in monotone, plunging the group once more into the quiet hum of nature. "We're going to find this dragon. And when we do, we're going to kill it." He stared at me for a moment more before jerking his attention back to Gobber. "Understood?" In a panic, I threw a hand on his massive right arm, hoping to get his attention for once.
"You're missing the point to all of this, Dad. The dragon had a chance to kill me when I cut it loose, but it didn't! It pinned me to that rock over-"
"Hiccup!" My father interrupted me once more as he shoved away my hand. "I don't want to hear it anymore. Every time we find something new, your story changes, and I'm tired of it. Now stay quiet and get going down this hill. And that goes for everyone else. I think we'll find that Night Fury somewhere down there." He pointed in the general area of the cove, using the same broken branches that eventually led me to the quiet forest haven. It would still probably take them hours to find it, even with the old trail left behind from Toothless' attempts at flying without a tailfin. But they would still find it, given time.
"Wait! If you'd just listen to me for once in your life, you'd understand-"
"THERE IS NOTHING HERE TO UNDERSTAND, HICCUP!" His voice boomed out, angry and mournful, louder than I'd ever heard it. There was no doubt in my mind that Toothless would have heard his yell, maybe even along with few people back in the village.
"But there is! There's a lot to understand, Dad! Please, just listen to me!" Ignoring what I had to say, Stoick made to push me out of his way when a roar sounded out from the cove. Before I could react, he quickly grabbed me and flung me behind him.
"Men, ready your weapons!" Stoick pulled up his hammer once again, stepping between myself and the source of the cry. The other trainees, along with Mildew, were pushed up alongside me, behind a wall of armed and capable warriors. With a glance back to my friends, I could see the same kind of fear in their eyes as was in mine. We were waiting for Toothless to approach a fight he very well could lose, if he wasn't careful.
I barely had the time to worry about the thought when a blue streak erupted from beyond the tree line in front of us. It knocked the helmet from my father's head before colliding with a sapling and igniting it like a torch. The flames licked at the attention of the Viking guard, giving Toothless a chance to pounce upon the wall of men between us, scattering weaponry and knocking bodies out of his way like children's toys. As the warriors clambered back to their feet from the strike, I made for Toothless with my hands outstretched. He ripped through the bindings with ease before turning and spitting the leather at the now regrouped Vikings.
Amid gasps and whispers of 'Night Fury!' the warriors began grouping together behind their shields and aiming their weapons at us. Their terror of and lack of knowledge about Toothless kept them from right out attacking, but they were still poised and ready to do it, if needed.
"STOP! He's not dangerous!" I pleaded, hoping one of them would actually stop and think for a moment about what was happening. "Please! He's only trying to protect me!" Toothless nodded as he growled, an action that went completely unnoticed by anyone other than my friends. With an unsure look about her I saw Astrid take a small step forward, her expression telling me she was about to try and help explain the situation. I locked eyes with her and frowned, hoping she'd take the hint and back off. I had no intention of taking her down the path I'd chosen, especially since I still needed someone in the arena to lead the remaining lessons.
"So this is how it's going to be, is it?" My father appeared from behind a tree while brushing at a scorch mark on his helmet. He firmly replaced it on his head as he stepped through the Viking wall, apparently unbothered by Toothless' attempts at intimidation. "First my wife, and now my son." He re-holstered his hammer and stared at the two of us with that same dead, defeated expression that I couldn't stand seeing. "I don't want to hear a word out of you, and I don't want to see you here again. Now take your dragon and get off of my island." My father simply stared at us while his warriors slowly began creeping forward. They hadn't been given an order to stop, and the opportunity to kill a Night Fury was apparently hard for them to resist.
"Hiccup, we need to go, now." Without thinking I hopped in the saddle and hooked my remaining strap into place. With a single, great flap, we shot high into the morning air. I took the last moment I could to glance back at Astrid, my friends, and my father before the trees became too thick to see them.
"Are you alright?" It was the first thing Toothless asked me when we landed on one of Berk's outlier islands. I crawled out of the saddle and plopped onto the grass, ignoring his question as I stared off at the rising sun. "Hiccup?" My brain struggled to build any kind of response to a question I couldn't quite comprehend, but with a few concerned nudges from Toothless' snout, I began spilling whatever words were currently on my mind.
"You know, I... Astrid could've...Then... " Another light nudge, this time to my head, partially snapped me back to consciousness. "Sorry, Toothless. I'm just saying... I always knew it could come to this. I just didn't realize it would feel so... Will-sappingly terrible." With all of the effort I could gather, I forced myself into a sitting position while fighting wave after wave of emotion slamming every nerve in my body. "I just hope the others are left alone. And the other dragons. I know Astrid can bluff, so I hope she can bluff her way out of this one." The thought of her and the others being punished for my mistakes was physically revolting. "And my father..."
"What about your father? He bound your hands and was treating you like some kind of animal before I put him in his place. I don't care what his excuse is, no one has the right to treat their own flesh and blood that way." I could almost feel Toothless's indignation radiating from him as he spoke. He'd always felt a great deal of irritation about the way my father and my village treated me, but this was far beyond that. It was pure malice, not unlike the feeling I'd gathered from the dragons of raids past.
"It's not that simple, Toothless. My father hates dragons. My mother was killed by them, and that woman was his entire life until she died. Now that he thinks I've sided with you, he probably feels like he's lost everything. I can't really blame him for the way he reacted, even if it did hurt." I felt my stomach where he'd hit me earlier, wincing as my hand made contact with it. It was bruised and painful, but not nearly as badly as I'd imagined it would be.
"How? How can you not blame him? He treats you like dirt, Hiccup. How could you possibly be okay with that? Why do you ALWAYS let that village or that... that ogre-man treat you like garbage?!" In a single motion I pulled myself to my feet and spun to look at him. There was an anger flowing through me that seemed to come from nowhere, and the only place I wanted to send it was through Toothless.
"Because he's ALL I have left!" I snapped back at him. "My mother died when I was a child and I never had any siblings! I can't lose him!" Toothless stood to meet my eye, his earflaps poised back like he was ready to strike.
"You have your friends. You have me. That should be all you need, because your family apparently doesn't care much about you. If you could even call him that."
"I can! Because he is!"
"Well he sure doesn't act like it!"
"How would you even know!? You told me yourself you can't remember your own family!" The words left my mouth at the exact moment I tried holding them back. Almost immediately, the heated air between us was replaced once more with the cold winter breeze Berk was known for. We stared at each other, both buffeted by the cold, before sighing in tandem. My shoulders slumped and his earflaps returned to normal as he plopped his backend on the frozen grass.
"Hiccup... I'm -"
"No. Don't, Toothless. I should be the one apologizing. I never should have brought that up." My anger had completely vanished, replaced again by a familiar feeling of crushing anxiety mixed with considerable regret.
"It's fine, Hiccup. But I am sorry for what I said. It's just... If I were in his position, I'd never turn on my offspring. And I can't imagine anything making me change my mind." He huffed through his nostrils, hitting me in the face with warm, slightly rotten-smelling air. "He doesn't know what it's like to survive in the world as a child. I do... And I'd never wish that on anyone."
"Well, I guess that makes you stronger than my father, in a way." I sighed again, slumping down onto the ground with my arms resting on my knees. "But I wouldn't say he turned on me. He just doesn't think sometimes. In the end, he's done more to hurt himself than I ever will. He regretted even bringing me into that forest from the start; I could tell from the look on his face. But he was too caught up in his own emotions and too stubborn to live down his own orders, so he went through with it." I leaned back again, falling to the grass with a thump. "Once this is all over, and we're living on Berk again... He'll start making it up to me. And I don't think he'll ever be satisfied with the job he does of it, knowing him. All I have to do first is kill the queen." The thought made me chuckle a little. Kill the dragon queen? What was I thinking?
"That seems like a bit much to prove yourself, don't you think?" Toothless stalked over to me, laying down and extending a wing for cover.
"Yeah, but it's not like I have a choice at this point. I said I'd do it, so I'll do it. No matter the cost. It's better than living like this." My eyes finally began drifting shut as the darkness under Toothless's wing enveloped me. "But first... Let's just get some sleep. Assuming we even can."
Nightfall arrived after several hours of tossing and turning. I'd only managed a few moments of sleep here and there, but my tiredness was easily masked by the slurry of emotions still fluttering around in my chest. I ignored it all as best I could as I climbed on to Toothless. I latched my remaining strap into place, but instead of him taking off, he swiveled an eye back to me.
"So, what are we doing? With all of our attempts at sleeping in this cold, we never really discussed a plan of any sort." His right eye kept a bead on me while my brain grinded through the fog it was in as I looked for a path to take.
"Well, the most obvious place to go first is the cove. Then we have to stop at the forge so I can pick up my tunic and your new saddle. After that... I have not idea. The only thing we really can do is hop from island to island in hopes we might find some supplies. If we're lucky and I find the right tools, I should be able to finish my tunic."
"Why not steal the tools you need from Gobber?"
"Yeah, I thought of that. I haven't ruled it out, either. I just want to avoid spending too much time back in town, because they'll probably be on the lookout for us. With that in mind, I don't think we'll be getting that wire rope any time soon. So that means the new saddle's going to have a pretty steep weakness if the rope is shredded or burnt." As I finished my sentence, Toothless nodded and launched us into the air.
"We'll just have to be careful, that's all. But you still haven't really answered my question. After we finish those things, where will we go? What will we do?" Toothless began slowing himself as the cove appeared from the thicket below. I thought about his question as we descended, but I couldn't think of a decent answer. My thoughts were too clouded to even remember the idea I'd originally had for the raid, let alone any kind of exit strategy from Berk.
"Well, I was thinking we could leave the dragon nest's area of influence and see if we can find any other dragons that might want to help us. It's a long shot, but it's the best we have to go on. I just hope Astrid can keep training the others. They'd be a really big help, assuming we can keep the Queen from controlling their dragons." We came to a quiet landing in the cove, touching down in the complete darkness below one of its many towering trees. Even though they hadn't stumbled upon our safe haven, it was best to avoid even moonlight, on the off chance someone was watching.
"That might work, but it won't be easy to find them. Word of the Queen goes as far south as south can go, and you won't likely find many dragons who would put their lives down to - stop." I felt a gust of wind as Toothless's wing shot out in front of me. "I'm pretty damn certain someone really is here. But where's the smell...?" The sound of air sucking through Toothless's nostrils came from just behind me, only to stop as readily as it came. In its place I found a light chuckle. "I think I'm going to sit right here. You two lovers are probably going to need some alone time before we leave."
Toothless's wing left my vision, only to come from behind and push me into the moonlight. I steadied myself and walked forward, looking around for Astrid. I noticed the den had been picked though, and our emergency supplies had been laid out on the ground near the fire pit. Next to it were my tunic, Toothless's saddle, the bucket of scales we were using, and a wrapped up bundle of goods that I assumed were a parting gift.
"Hiccup?" Astrid's voice came from the pile of rocks Toothless had first introduced himself to her on, and upon closer inspection I could see a tousled head of golden hair peak up from behind them.
"Astrid?" I made to walk to her, only to be nearly tackled to the ground before even taking a step. Her arms were tight around my chest, constricting me hard enough to squeeze some air from my lungs. Instead of protesting it, though, I merely returned the favor. I didn't know when I'd be able to do it again.
"I gathered your things for you." Her voice was lightly muffled by my fur vest, but it didn't cover the distress in her voice. "I don't know what we're going to do now... It wasn't supposed to happen like this. You've been banished and I don't even know if you'll ever be able to come back after what Stoick did." She loosened her grip a little, but didn't let go of me. She was obviously scared, and it felt oddly out of character for her, and I almost wanted her to stop because of how jarring it was.
"First, Astrid, could you please try to calm down and gather yourself? It's really not like you to act like this, and it's not going to help us." She squeezed me harder for a moment, and then slowly pulled away. I could tell Astrid was still concerned to the point of sickness, but she seemed to actually be trying to fight it now. "That's better. It'll do you no good to get all worked up over this. Anyway, on to my second question. After I left... Did my father do... Anything? Anything bad?" I locked eyes with her and started praying to as many Gods as I could that he didn't touch any of the dragons in the kill ring. I Even considered several Gods I had only heard of in passing from Johann.
"Nothing bad. Several things that are very unlike him, though."
"And... They are?"
"Oh! Sorry. I... I haven't slept at all. Anyway, Stoick canceled dragon training. No one's allowed to go near the dragon ring, no one's allowed to talk about you, and other than Gobber and Spitelout, no one is allowed to go near his house. He hasn't left it since he got back from Raven's Point, meaning those two runners-up in command effectively run the village now." Astrid sighed and crossed her arms, her eyes aimed down at the ground. "But restrictions or not, somehow I need to get the others back into that arena if we're going to continue our training. We'll probably have to wait on it for a week or two before we give it another shot."
"That's probably a good idea. But I think you should let the dragons know about what's going on. You can't communicate without me, but they can still understand you. Knowing you, you'll work something out. Hel, you might even have their language deciphered yourself the next time I see you." As I finished my thought, Astrid's eyes shot up to mine.
"When do you think we'll get to see each other again?" The question lingered in the air, leaving us in an uncomfortably long silence.
"I... Don't know, Astrid. But there's nothing we can do about that." I turned to the fire pit and our supplies to gather them, only to find Toothless already doing so. He worked so quietly that I hadn't noticed him, and I suddenly felt a lump of appreciation for his actions. He wanted to give us more time.
"Toothless... I'll miss you, too." The dragon stopped and looked up at her, nodded, and went back to his business. "And you," Astrid spun her attention back to me, "you had better be as careful as you possibly can. Please. Just... Don't do anything stupid." She walked forward and wrapped her arms around me again, pulling me as close as she could. "If you do accidentally hurt to yourself, I'll never forgive you. Got that?" My response was stopped by a loud whoosh coming from near the den. A roaring fire had appeared in the pit, and lying nearby it was Toothless.
"Why don't you two come here and try to get some sleep? I'll make sure we're up before daybreak." His tail lightly slapped the ground between him and the fire, and with a glance at Astrid we both made for the warmth he and the pit would provide. We sat down against him, his tail wrapping around us as it had those few nights ago in the dragon nip fields. We sat there in silence, enjoying the crackling of the fire, when Astrid interrupted my tiring eyes with a light hand against my stomach.
"How are you feeling? I never really had a chance to ask you about Stoick knocking the wind out of you. Your father was way out of line when he hit you like that, you know. I almost wanted to yell at him... But it was a good thing I listened to you earlier. Speaking up would've only been worse for us." She rubbed my bruised stomach gingerly, lulling me into a comfortable puddle of warmth. "I really can't forgive him for it, though. At least not now." Silence temporarily retook the night as Astrid pulled her hand from my stomach.
"I'm okay, but thanks for asking. And to be honest... I'm not about to forgive him for it, either. But he's still my father, however bullheaded he can be."
"It's still no excuse." I heard Toothless grumble lightly when Astrid spoke, and I couldn't help but smirk despite the argument we'd had. "See? Toothless agrees."
"I know, we had some words about that." I scratched at his tail a little, coaxing a purr out of him. "Could we talk about something else, though? If it's my last night on Berk for the time being, I'd rather not spend it wallowing in pity over everything that's happened."
"Fair enough. Before we move on though, I have to say, you sure can take a punch. That's something to be proud of." I shot her a blank stare, and all she responded with was a smile. "Don't give me that look! I'm being serious. Now, we can move on to whatever else you want to talk about, but give me a moment to get comfortable before we start, okay?" She spent a moment removing her armor and pulling her hair out of its braid. She slid closer to me and, after a bit of fidgeting, found a soft place to rest her head on my vest.
"Better?" I asked.
"Much. Now, what do you want to talk about?" I looked down at where she was resting her head and smiled. "You know, this kinda reminds me of my seventh birthday. Remember?" Immediately a grin spread across her face. "I do, in fact. Snotlout decided it would be a good idea to show off in front of me by pelting you with rocks, on your birthday of all days. I don't think it ever dawned on him that throwing rocks at a good friend of mine was a terrible way to flirt with me. I was so sick and tired of his antics that I made sure to let him see me leaning against you by the fire in the Mead Hall that night." We laughed a bit about it, but Astrid stopped sooner than I had. "I hope you never thought that I only did that to get back at him." Astrid stopped smiling, but the grin on my face didn't falter.
"The thought had crossed my mind, but I didn't have a chance to really consider it, what with you resting against me. To be honest, I'm surprised I can even talk with you so close, even now." Astrid laughed again and hit me lightly on the arm.
"Oh, quiet, you. You're not a coward like that, and you know it. Anyway, I didn't do that just for revenge. I did it because it was your birthday, and we were friends. And we were cold. And... Well, back then I liked you a lot more than any of the other kids. They were always so obnoxious, and you weren't. And I liked that." The butterflies I'd gotten so accustomed to containing now found themselves plastered against the walls of my stomach.
"Really?" I pushed through the nervous tingling coursing through my veins and placed my left hand on her hip. "Interesting. Are there any other stories you could give me another perspective on?" Her eyes drifted down to the hand I'd placed on her, and all it seemed to do was cause her to grin a little more.
"Probably, mister adventurous. But I'll need you to refresh my memory, so start talking."
We sat there for hours, slowly drifting in and out of comfortable sleep next to one another. Conversation was interspersed in our waking moments, almost entirely about our childhoods with a bit of dragon taming talk here and there. Most of the stories I could remember clearly, but it was nice to hear them from her perspective. It couldn't last forever, though, and as the sun began lighting up the darkened sky, our reality reared its head. Time was nearly up, and there wasn't much we could do about it but fill it with our thoughts and memories.
"Once I'm done teaching them," Astrid blurted out, "I'll be coming to look for you." Her finger met my lips before I could counter her. "Don't argue. You won't be here to stop me, so once I'm done, I'm gone. I'll set something up with the others so they can stay here and hold down Berk, but I'm not going to be needed for that. Besides, you're going to need my help if you seriously plan on restocking everything we lost with just one dragon."
"I'd originally planned on it being the six of us," I admitted truthfully, "so I probably will need the help. Even so, you need to be extra careful you don't get yourself caught in the process," I said as she glanced back up to me from the crook of my arm.
"Between the two of us, you're the only one that needs to be extra careful. You might be unmatched when you're with Toothless, but you're still too weak to hold your own without him, so please, please try to avoid other clans. Especially the outcasts," she added with a shiver. " Oh, and... well..." as her voice trailed off, her eyes looked away from mine again.
"And... Look, I know this is going to sound silly, but I can't help but remember those stories Gobber and your dad told us when we were kids. I mean, the ghost ships, pitch-black ocean fog, the wandering haunted island... Stay away from those things, alright? It's stupid, I know, but-"
"Astrid." I moved my hand from her hip to her shoulder. "You're right, that is silly. None of those things are real, and you know it. They're just some stories my dad heard years ago from that old wandering couple he and Gobber always talked about. But I promise you, I'll be careful. Especially if I come across some evil spirits. And I want you to promise me the same thing, alright?"
"...Alright Hiccup," she said as she nestled in deeper and closed her eyes, "I will. Promise." I felt a wave of happy tiredness hit me and began to close my eyes with her when Toothless began with his usual waking call.
"I hate to interrupt you two, but I've given you as much time as we can afford. The sun will be up in less than half an hour." Wish a collective sigh, the three of us rose to meet the day as best we could and finished what little else there was to prepare. I stowed Toothless's old tack in the den before equipping his new one, making the few adjustments it needed before liftoff. I tested the shifter as Astrid loaded the saddle with our gear, and before long we were ready to leave.
"So." Astrid started. "I guess this is goodbye for now."
"For now, but I won't be gone forever. We'll be back on Berk some day soon, and once that happens, we'll be taking out the queen before you know it." With a smirk, Astrid hit me, and as expected, followed it up with a kiss. This one was different from the others; sweet bliss mixed with all of the negative sensations we'd gathered in the past day and a half. Slowly and eventually, we split apart, leaving us with nothing left to do but mount Toothless and make our way as close to Berk as we could. Upon arriving at the village outskirts, Astrid and I shared another hug and a small kiss, and once she hopped off, Toothless and I left for the world.