I don't own anything you recognize here, the things that belong to Cressida Cowell, Dreamworks, and Disney-Pixar.
The majority of what's here is based on the two movies. I took a few details from the HTTYD wiki, but I've not read the books nor seen more than one or two episodes of the show, so don't expect anything to be consistent with those.
This fic contains selective use of historical facts and abuse of a language I don't actually know. Please forgive any mistakes I've made.
Thanks to Mel for enduring my screaming about this one. I hope you guys like it!
Toothless wheeled, turning to follow the coastline. Rumors of raiders crossing the seas to pillage had reached Berk, and the dragon riders were devoting extra time to watching the horizon. They'd learned to live with the dragons and had enjoyed three years of calm together—well, relative calm; there were lots of small fires and fights between young dragons, especially at first, but none of it could compare with the terror of the raids at night. And now they were all preparing for visits from two-legged raiders. Some of them were preparing with a little too much glee: Snotlout's axe had never been shinier or sharper, and Hiccup wondered if anaticipation could literally drive a person insane. But for now all was quiet. The line between water and sky looked much as it usually did—blank, hazy, uninspiring—but something else had caught Hiccup's attention. On the rocky shore, just outside the trees, was an orange glow, bright in the day's gloom. He lost sight of it as the dragon turned.
There it was again: a blaze like a burning ember. From this height, and surrounded by patches of late-spring snow as it was, it was like a beacon. Or a warning, he thought, though a warning of what he had no idea. As he urged Toothless lower Hiccup saw that it was not a fire at all. Whatever it was, it wasn't moving. It didn't look threatening, but he guided the dragon to a clear spot to land. Hiccup had to check it out—that was the point of patrolling, after all—but he also needed to satisfy his own curiosity. The flare of color represented a small mystery. The idea brought a smile to Hiccup's face; nothing much had sparked his curiosity lately. Between working in the armory, patrolling and training, and studying the law with the elders, he hadn't had time for creativity. His father would probably lecture him if he knew what was in Hiccup's head as he slid from the saddle on Toothless' back. He could hear Stoick's voice in his head, demanding to know where his weapon was and what he planned to do if he found himself under attack, and he took pleasure in ignoring the voice. Still, though he wasn't expecting danger, he approached carefully.
It was a person—a girl, to judge from the blaze of her hair, snarled and dusty. She lay on the ground, a rough cloak wrapped around her, and she was shivering. Hiccup wasn't sure anyone could pretend to shiver so convincingly, and he couldn't imagine she was a threat or a scout or anything other than in need of help. He crouched a bit awkwardly, within arm's reach, but not too close. "Hey," he said, and then louder, "Hey!" putting a hand on her shoulder and jostling it slightly. There was no response from the shaking stranger. Hiccup watched her breathe, thinking, wondering what his father would do, what the others in the village would do.
Then he felt Toothless' eyes on him, alert and bright, and any hesitation he had disappeared. As carefully as he could he picked up the girl. She was not heavy, but his leg squeaked a bit at the extra weight all the same. He set the girl on Toothless' back, just in front of the saddle; he looped a length of rope loosely around the dragon's middle and then paused, considering. If she woke up mid-flight there was no telling what her reaction might be, and the last thing he wanted was for her to fall. With an apologetic expression that she didn't see, Hiccup wrapped the free end of the rope around her, trapping her arms. Once he'd climbed on and secured himself, he pulled the girl close, hoping his body heat would warm her somewhat.
"Gently," he said, and Toothless rose into the air with enviable grace.
His father would likely be in the great hall, attending to the village's business, but the forge would be warmer. Gobber had two young apprentices now, a pair of cousins who were already better smiths than Hiccup ever would have been, if the word of their master was to be believed. The fires would be roaring, with one of the boys swinging on the bellows and the other fetching wood and water as Gobber directed them over the din. He'd take her to the smithy. Gobber would know what to do.
Toothless landed in front of the building, and even from outside Hiccup could feel the warmth. He unbuckled and slid down, untying the rope that encircled the girl, thanking whoever was listening that she hadn't woken up and done anything crazy on the way there. He trusted Toothless to catch her if she fell, but Hiccup wasn't sure if she was hurt, and people in pain were unpredictable. He staggered a bit as the dead weight flopped against him and made a less-than-heroic entrance into the smithy.
"Hiccup, what're you doin' here?" Gobber bellowed above the hissing and clanging. He wiped sweat from his forehead and then noticed Hiccup's burden. "What's goin' on?"
"She needs help."
Gobber's expression was one of exasperation mixed with concern. He shouted for the boys to shut up while motioning for Hiccup to come in. "We found her near the cliffs on the northeast coast. She's breathing, but she's cold and she won't wake up."
"Brought her to the right place, then," Gobber said briskly. "Set her near the fire—not too near, though, don't want to get her too warm too fast. Squatwiggle, fetch some wine; Wart, water. In clean cups, mind." Hiccup set the girl down on a low workbench as the boys scurried to fulfill their tasks. With a delicacy usually only applied to his workmanship Gobber drew the cloak away from her. "No blood. That's good."
"Nothing felt broken when I moved her. And she hasn't made any noise, so I think she's not hurt." Hiccup looked down at the girl's face, pale and streaked with dirt. "Just really, really cold."
"She must not be from around here, then." Gobber laid the back of his hand against the girl's forehead and cheeks; then he lifted one limp arm and felt the vein at the inside of her wrist. Hiccup studied her. The girl seemed to be about the same age as him. He wondered what color her eyes were—would be, whenever she opened them. Now it was obvious that she was not a Viking: the dress she wore, though snagged and stained, was nicer than any he'd ever seen, made of some fine, expensive fabric, bordered with gold embroidery in complicated knots. He traced the twists absently with a fingertip as Gobber wiped the girl's face with a dampened rag.
When the boys returned they were went on more errands: for blankets and to ask that a broth be made and to inform the chieftain of the presence of a sick stranger in Berk.
"Lift her up, Hiccup." He slipped his arm around her shoulders and lifted her up; Gobber tilted the cup of honey wine at her lips. When she swallowed, Hiccup let out the breath he hadn't known he'd been holding.
"Will she be okay?"
Gobber shrugged. "We don't know how strong she is or if she's sick," he said. "All we've done is all we can do. We'll have to wait and see." He dropped a heavy hand on Hiccup's shoulder, the most comfort he seemed able to offer.
The door creaked open, and his father's voice called "Gobber?" from the doorway. The smith clomped to the front of the forge and the two spoke in relatively quiet voices, but Hiccup heard them nonetheless.
"Maybe one day that son of yours will stop bringing home strays," Gobber joked.
"I doubt it. He's his mother's son as well as mine." Stoick's even tread approached, and he greeted his son calmly. "Hiccup."
He looked up at the bulk of his father. "Hey, Dad."
Stoick studied the girl impassively for a moment, eyes flicking from her hair to the cloak to the trim of her gown and then back to her hair. Hiccup had no idea what he was thinking. Probably that his son was more trouble than he was worth.
Finally Stoick looked at his son. "Well, this one's much prettier than the last one," he said, smirking. Hiccup felt his face flush.
"That's not why I did it!" Hiccup leaned as far back from the girl as he could manage without falling over, waving his hands. Stoick's smirk widened at the overreaction, and Hiccup covered his face with one splayed hand.
"I know, son. Now come on."
"I don't want to leave," he mumbled between his fingers. It was embarrassing to admit it.
"I know that, too. And I know that if I dragged you home you'd sneak out in the middle of the night to watch over her. We're taking her home. You can fret over her there." As Stoick bent to lift the girl he added in a loud whisper, "You don't really think I want her to wake up here, do you?"
Hiccup grinned. "Thanks, Dad."
They set the girl on a low couch in front of the fire. It was lined with fur rugs and piled with blankets, a cosy nest; there was water nearby and an empty bucket, in case she suddenly took a turn for the worse.
Hiccup settled himself at the table, his sketchbook open in front of him and charcoal at hand. On the page before him there were designs to perfect, problems to solve, if only he could focus on them. But his attention kept wandering away to the figure on the couch until it was pointless to even pretend he was doing work.
His father paused at the foot of the stairs. "Good night, son."
Ruff and/or Tuff would snigger and call him a stalker if they could see him staring across the room, watching the steady rise and fall of her breathing. Worse, he'd be unable to explain, to them or anyone else, why he was so concerned. It wasn't as if the girl meant anything to them; she wasn't important or special or even one of them. She was just...a mystery. Alone. A lost creature.
All the things he couldn't resist.
Of course she would wake up in the middle of the night.
It felt like he'd just fallen asleep moments before, head pillowed against one arm on the table, when he heard a gasp. It was followed by a soft scrabbling noise. Hiccup pushed himself up, rubbing his eyes with the back of one hand, squinting toward the hearth. At first he thought a spark had flown out and started a fire; but then he remembered the red-haired girl. She was awake and sitting up, clutching one of the blankets around her body, her eyes wide as she whipped her head around, taking in the darkened room. "Hey," Hiccup said, with the eloquence and intelligence of the newly-conscious, "you're awake."
The head turned toward him and she shrank back into the couch as he approached. "It's okay," he soothed. "Are you thirsty?" When he bent to pick up the water she clambered backward, off the edge of the couch.
Hiccup watched in confusion as she moved, crouched low, muttering something he couldn't catch. With her attention trained on him she made her way around the back of the couch and toward the door. It was a path not clear of obstacles, and in particular not clear of the bulk of a sleeping Night Fury, well-disguised in the dim light. "Some guardian you are," Hiccup muttered, then raised his voice to address the girl. "You might want to watch out," he said, just before she grunted and fell.
From the darkness he heard the rustling of dragon hide and a shriek that cut off abruptly. He dropped the tankard of water and hurtled over the couch, not entirely sure who he would have to protect from who. He landed just in front of Toothless' head; the dragon nudged him in the back, curious about what was happening. Hiccup had thought the girl's eyes were wide before, but now they were huge as she backed away, one hand covering her mouth and the other on her hip—where a knife would be, Hiccup realized. "It's okay," he said again, slowly spreading his arms. "No one's gonna hurt you." She shook her head, eyes blinking closed for a moment; when she opened them she shook her head again. With a slightly trembling hand she pointed at them and spoke.
When she'd muttered before, he'd thought he just hadn't heard her. This time her voice was clear enough across the room; it was the words themselves that didn't make any sense. He frowned. "Did you hit your head?"
She frowned right back at him and said more words, or at least what Hiccup assumed were words. He spared a glance at Toothless, whose head was cocked curiously, but who made no sign of understanding her, either. Hiccup looked back at the girl and shrugged. Her response, throwing her hands into the air and rolling her eyes in exasperation, took him by surprise, and he laughed. Immediately he turned red and the chuckle trailed off as he rubbed the back of his neck; but when he looked up again she looked more curious than anything else.
Encouraged, Hiccup took a step forward. He pointed at his face, smiling hopefully, and said, "Hiccup." Then, feeling a nose pushing into his back, he stepped aside, laid his hand on the nose, and said, "Toothless." He couldn't help adding, "He's really harmless—well, not harmless at all, I mean he is a dragon, but he won't hurt you. Probably."
She had the usual response to his rambling: a frown of confusion tinged with annoyance creased her face. He muttered an apology. She pointed at him and then Toothless, repeating their names slowly and carefully in an accent that sounded unlike any he'd ever heard. Then she put a hand on her chest and said, "Merida."
It wasn't exactly like trying to gain Toothless' trust, but it didn't feel that much different. It was somehow more frustrating: he'd never expected Toothless to be able to speak, but Merida was a human, and therefore they should have been able to communicate.
He started by walking away. Hiccup patted Toothless' head and returned to sit on the couch. The dragon followed him, curling up on the floor at one end. He was counting on that curiosity he'd seen in her eyes, and hoping that she viewed him as nonthreatening, the way the rest of Berk did. He remembered what Stoick had said about her waking up at the forge and shuddered at the idea of Gobber's being the first face she saw. He gestured for her to come over and then watched as the gears in her head turned.
Would she judge him trustworthy? It must have been obvious that she was being cared for here; she'd woken fed and cleaned (a bit) and bundled up warm. And while Hiccup would acknowledge that their home was clearly that of bachelors, it was tidy and smelled better than some others he could name. Merida bit her lip, thinking. Did she even know where she was? Would it be better to risk whatever was outside, or what was sitting patiently in front of the hearth?
So he wouldn't stare Hiccup looked away, smoothing the furs on the seat and leaning down to retrieve the fallen tankard. When he straightened up again she stood at the far end of the couch, and as he watched she sat down, delicately and deliberately and as far from him as she could be. For a moment they looked at each other. Her eyes were blue, the color of glacier ice in the winter, and he found himself hoping for a cloudless day so he could see what colors her hair was in the sunlight. Then he realized that he was probably staring, again, and dropped his gaze to the mug in his hands. It gave him an idea, and something to do.
Her eyes went wide again as he stood and went to refill the cup, returning with one for himself, too. He offered one to her and she hesitated, licking her lips as she looked from his face to the mug held out to her and back. Surely she didn't think he'd put something gross in it, but in case that was what she was worried about, he took a gulp from the mug and swallowed it. This time she accepted the cup and drank, obviously thirsty. After a moment she lowered the cup slowly and smiled, embarrassed.
He wished he could babble at her—his awkwardness would definitely make her feel better about herself, if she could understand it. Otherwise it'd probably just frustrate her. He sipped from the cup. Might as well start small, Hiccup thought, and said, "Water." At her uncomprehending expression he dipped a finger in his mug and shook the droplets off, saying the word again. She repeated it a few times; then Merida said another word that he supposed meant water in her language (what was her language? where was she from?). As he repeated it, she wet her fingers and flicked them at him. She giggled at the face he made, water dripping from his nose, and drained the rest of her drink.
"Water?" she asked, holding out the cup, looking hopeful and shy. He smiled and took the cup to refill it, even if she was planning to empty the whole thing on his head.
The next time he opened his eyes sunlight was creeping under the shutters. He yawned and stretched; next to him Toothless whuffled. At the other end of the couch the girl—Merida—lay curled up, clutching a blanket in her arms. Hiccup hoped that his father would be able to shed some light on the situation, because having all these questions and no answers was killing him. Now wasn't the time to worry about his ignorance, though; there were chores to do. So he set to work shooing Toothless outside, gathering an armful of wood for the fires, preparing breakfast, and then hurrying to fetch water from the well, all the while hoping that Merida was still sleeping soundly. As he returned, full buckets yoked over his shoulders, a shout from inside crushed his dreams. It was hardly a surprise.
When he pushed into the kitchen Stoick was looming over the table, burly arms akimbo, glaring down at their guest. Merida was frozen, spoon halfway to her mouth; a lump of porridge plopped back into the bowl as she stared up at the man. "Is she eatin' my breakfast?" Stoick demanded. He was not a morning person by any means, and especially not before he'd had something to eat.
"Looks like it," Hiccup said. "I'll get you another bowl, all right?"
Stoick squinted after him as he moved into the kitchen. "She hasn't said anythin'. I yelled, and she's just lookin' at me." And it was true: though she wasn't moving, the girl looked as unafraid of the chieftain as he'd ever seen anyone look. Her expression held more curiosity and—was that a hint of amusement?
"She doesn't understand our language." When Stoick cocked his head questioningly, he shrugged. "We, uh, met last night." Hiccup set a bowl and spoon on the table in front of his father, who sat, grumbling about the fact that she'd taken his seat, too. "Dad, this is Merida. Merida—" She'd looked at him when he said her name, and he gave her an encouraging smile as he pointed at his dad. "Stoick."
"Merida," Stoick grunted, reaching across the table and offering his hand. She put the spoon down and grasped the far larger hand firmly. With a nod she locked eyes with him and said, "Stoick." The exchange seemed to satisfy both of them; they tucked into their porridge without another thought.
Stoick paused to tell Hiccup, "After breakfast we'll go to the elder. She might know something." Merida's spoon clattered against the bottom of the empty bowl and he added, "She might not sound like one, but she eats like a Viking, at least."
From near the top of the staircase Hiccup watched Merida, who stood brushing dirt from her dress conscientiously. He'd been able to change clothes, but she would have to go out in the same thing he'd found her in. He thought that there were still some of his mother's clothes stored in a chest somewhere, but even if he could bring himself to ask Stoick about them, he didn't believe any of the clothes would fit Merida. His own clothes would probably be better—except for the fact that they would definitely not fit in certain places, places where she curved that he did not, places he noticed as she twisted and caught up the hem at the back of her skirt. He pushed that particular thought from his mind and continued to watch her. Though small clouds of dust rose where she brushed, she didn't seem particularly bothered about the state of her dress. The same could not be said about when she dropped the skirt and touched her hair. That expression was nothing less than despair. Hiccup was glad he'd at least found something that she could use.
As if she didn't want to be caught in a moment of vanity, her hands dropped as he clattered down the stairs. He held out the carved wooden comb, its teeth spaced wide. A faint blush colored Merida's cheeks, and he immediately felt bad.
To cover her embarrassment, he'd embarrass himself, so he started to babble. "It belonged to my mother," Hiccup began, and got no further. Her eyes snapped up and she gasped.
"Màthair?" It sounded odd when she said it, the vowels shaped differently in her mouth, but not like when she'd repeated his words earlier.
"Màthair?" she asked again, looking around the hall. Hiccup shook his head. He remembered more of life without her than with her; he felt less sadness and more vague longing when he thought of his mother, wishing they'd had more time together, occasionally wondering if his life would be different if she'd lived. But the look on Merida's face, so full of pity and loss, made him wish his mother was there harder than he'd ever wished it before.
"No mother," he said quietly, hand tightening around the comb. "Not anymore."
She touched his arm, light and gentle, and he couldn't meet her eyes. Hiccup took a deep breath and opened his hand. The teeth of the comb left imprints in his palm. This time when he offered it she took it without hesitation, and set to work.
Combing it took longer than he'd expected, and even then he suspected she hadn't done a very thorough job of it. Once she'd finished she handed the comb back reverently, and they headed out together.
When they emerged Toothless was lounging outside, evidently enjoying the sunshine. Merida stiffened as he rolled over, and Hiccup remembered that she couldn't have gotten a good look last night. Here his hide shone subtly, and his claws glinted when they caught the light; he looked sleek and dangerous and Hiccup felt a surge of pride. Was it possible that Merida had never seen a dragon before? The idea was hard for him to imagine, since everyone who lived in Berk had grown up surrounded by the creatures. It would explain her surprise, though. Another question without an answer, he sighed to himself.
"We're going to the great hall," he told Toothless. "It's up to you if you want to come or not." The dragon rose, stretched, and padded down the hill in front of them. Hiccup followed, but after a few steps stopped and turned.
She was still just outside the door, hugging the cloak around her as she stared. There was Berk before her: the slope that led down to the village and the wide sea slate grey beyond it. Long wooden halls with carved decorations, trees climbing the hill off to the left, gulls wheeling around a fishing boat by the docks, and dragons perched on rooftops or flapping lazily overhead. He smiled at the picture he saw. "Merida," he called, and waved her forward, and she took a deep breath, set her shoulders, and joined him.
If Merida was nervous about entering the village, it didn't show. Hiccup was from Berk and he'd lost count of the times he'd been nervous, slinking down the hill and trying to avoid the gossip and mocking laughter after yet another embarrassing misadventure; but she only looked determined and proud, with posture straight as any sword Gobber had ever forged. She couldn't be a servant, he thought, because no servant walked so…regally, head as high as if she wore a crown. Then again, with hair like that, there was no sense in trying to blend in. If Hiccup were better with words he'd be able to describe her hair in a way that didn't involve the sparks that leapt from the fire when a draft stirred it up, or the copper pots when they'd been scoured to like-newness before a feast. At least with her he didn't have to worry about saying the wrong thing.
When they reached the great hall Toothless ambled past, clearly not interested in their intrigues. Merida shot Hiccup a questioning look that he answered with a shrug. Sometimes Toothless wandered off, and Hiccup really didn't have any idea where he got to, though he never stayed away for very long. Since he couldn't explain all that, Hiccup flapped his arms and suggested, "Flying?" That seemed to satisfy her.
The elder was already there, along with Stoick, another of the village's oldest citizens, and Fishlegs, when Hiccup and Merida entered the hall. Their eyes latched on to the girl immediately—everyone knew everyone in Berk, and the old people had been present at most of the villagers' births, so a newcomer was easy for them to spot.
When Hiccup had started devoting more time to studying the law and traditions of Berk, Fishlegs had joined him. It wasn't likely that Fishlegs would ever become chief, but then again it wasn't a foregone conclusion that Hiccup would automatically, either. Upon Stoick's death (which Hiccup hoped was far in the future, possibly after his own), a new chieftain would be elected after any candidates had passed certain tests. The tests were usually physical—they were Vikings, after all—though it was not uncommon for deliberations to take into account the candidates' knowledge as well. So Hiccup studied, thinking that if he did succeed his father, a thorough familiarity with the law would help. Fishlegs tagged along because he just liked learning. Of the two of them he had the better memory; he turned facts and dates into vivid pictures in his mind, and his enthusiasm encouraged Hiccup on the days when every word fought to flee from his brain. Hiccup would never admit it to anyone, but on the rare occasion that he daydreamed of leading Berk, Fishlegs was beside him as his most trusted advisor. The two nodded at each other now, before Fishlegs' attention went back to the source of the current mystery.
She stood next to him as Hiccup related the short tale of finding her and discovering that they spoke in different tongues. "But she understood 'mother,'" he concluded, "so I'm wondering if there are any other words that are similar between our two languages." From behind the elderly listeners Stoick looked hard at Hiccup, as if trying to figure out why that particular word had come up in conversation; Hiccup forced himself not to shrug.
The old man, now stooped, but who'd likely once stood as tall as Stoick, cleared his throat. "In my youth I traveled far, far beyond the seas we know here. I was counted a good sailor, but a master of learning other languages." Hiccup's heart rose as the old man talked. Maybe there would be a way to talk with Merida after all—
"But that was a long time ago," he went on. "I've forgotten more than many will ever know. If only she had come twenty years ago, I feel certain we could have spoken together easily."
"Will you try?" asked Stoick, arms crossed over his massive chest.
"Of course." The old man leaned forward, coughed hoarsely, wiggled a finger in his ear. Then he spoke—first in what sounded like the yips of puppies, then in fluid, rolling, liquid syllables, then in a sort of chant. As he continued, in what Hiccup frankly thought was just a bunch of gibberish, Merida listened politely, but it was clear that she understood as much as anyone else did. Finally, with a resigned shrug, he said, "Hm. That's all I can remember."
Hiccup's shoulders sagged; the exercise had been useless. "Thank you," Stoick said with a nod. "Even if we've not learned what language she speaks, we now know several that she doesn't understand. That will help narrow down where she might be from." Hiccup hadn't thought of it that way. His father managed to surprise him when he least expected it.
Hiccup pulled out his sketchbook. "This would be so much easier if she could, I don't know, write things out for me. Us."
"Where would the fun be if it was easy?" his father asked. Hiccup did not deign to answer, since an annoyingly large part of him agreed with Stoick.
"Why not have the girl draw, then?" the elder suggested. "A map, perhaps."
"That's a great idea!"
"Don't sound so surprised, boy. You don't live to this age without learning something." His ears burned at the rebuke, but she laughed in a cacophony of wheezing and snorting. He moved to one of the long tables nearby and sat, laying the book open. Merida sat beside him, raising an eyebrow at the blank pages; he ignored her, drumming his fingertips against the tabletop and wondering how to begin. After a moment he sketched a small figure, skinny and with one artificial leg.
"Hiccup," she said, smiling.
"That's right." He added an overly round figure towering over the other, and she giggled slightly and said his father's name. Around the two he drew the outline of a house; then he sketched a map of the village and added the coastline, whose features he knew well from hours in the air. Last he drew a girl in a dress with curly hair, around the place where they'd found her. Merida pointed at the picture and then at herself, indignation on her features.
"It's just a quick sketch. You're obviously much prettier than that, I just—" She was smirking at him now, and he rolled his eyes. "Great. Somehow you've managed to tease me without saying anything. I'm not so sure I want to be able to talk to you now." She cooed and patted his cheek, and Hiccup thought that this was the moment in which he would die of embarrassment.
He cleared his throat and pointed at the drawing of their home before turning the page, pointing at Merida, and handing her the stick of charcoal. Her drawings were rougher than his, more stick figures, but he could tell they were herself, another woman, three figures of identical height with linked hands, and a large man with one peg leg. Hiccup looked at her sharply as she flipped back to his drawing. "Hiccup, Stoick," she said, pointing at each figure in turn, then, "Merida, Fergus. Athair."
"Father." If her father really looked the way she'd drawn him, it explained why she hadn't been afraid of Stoick, or bothered by Hiccup's leg. "Mother," he said, pointing to the woman, and she nodded sadly. "Elinor."
The woman was drawn with long, straight hair, but the man's was a frizzy mess, wilder than Merida's. Though it seemed fairly obvious whose hair she'd inherited, he still wanted to ask, so Hiccup tugged on one of her curls. "Fergus?" She nodded again, this time smiling a bit. "And three brothers." He'd always wondered it would be like to have siblings, though three brothers seemed maybe a little excessive.
Merida started to draw their home: instead of inside a house the family stood on top of a wall made of stone, to which she added more walls and towers. The surrounding area came next, but there was no coastline, only the tall, spiked triangles of trees, and rounded humps of hills. Her face was screwed up as she drew; finally she dropped the charcoal with a shrug, apparently unable to add any more details. It wasn't much to work from.
He slapped his palm to his face and turned to his drawing. Circling the village with his finger, he said, "Berk."
She flipped the page. "DunBroch."
He turned back to the others, displaying her map. The elder said nothing, though the speculative look never left her face. "DunBroch? Never heard of it," the old sailor said, "but, y'know, we didn't always catch the local names on some of our more…acquisitive expeditions." He peered at the map with rheumy eyes, and shook his head. "I'm better with coastlines."
"We all are," Stoick said, patting his shoulder gently. Hiccup turned to Fishlegs, now his greatest hope.
"Tell me you've got something, Legs," he pleaded. "Tell me you've got some clue."
Fishlegs ignored Hiccup for a moment as he paged through a thick book. Maps filled the pages, many of them with highly detailed coastlines dark with the names of ports, but interiors largely blank. Fishlegs glanced between Merida's map and those in the book. "Merida, is there a river near DunBroch? One with a source in the mountains and possibly emptying into a large lake?" They all stared at the top of his head until he looked up. "Oh, right," he said sheepishly. In one corner of her map he drew a wavy-lined river, with a fish in it for good measure, and then tapped the countryside she'd drawn. She took the charcoal, muttering to herself and shaking her head, and added a river; Fishlegs laughed triumphantly when it did indeed flow into the lake she'd drawn.
"I think," he announced, "that this is DunBroch." He held the book up so they could all see a map of a hilly place, complete with a little castle. Merida leaned forward for a closer look; her eyes ran over the drawing and she grinned and nodded eagerly, patting Hiccup's arm repeatedly in her excitement.
"Legs, you're amazing!" He should have known Fishlegs would find the answer. The other boy looked pleased.
"How far is DunBroch from here?" Stoick asked. Fishlegs pulled the book back to himself and flipped through it rapidly. Finally he showed them a page.
"Here's Berk," he said, pointing to an island all alone in the sea. Then he traced his finger down the page. It seemed to take a long time; Hiccup hoped the sea monsters drawn among the waves were fanciful fillers of space rather than real dangers. "And here's DunBroch."
There was little sense of scale on the map, but the two sites seemed far apart. He felt Stoick's eyes on him and answered the unspoken question. "It's hard to say, but it looks further than Toothless can fly at once. If there's no place to stop and rest in between…" Hiccup shook his head. For a second it had seemed like it was all worked out, and they'd be able to take Merida home—not that he was particularly eager for her to leave; it was just obvious that she missed her family, especially her mother. "We'll need a boat to go at least halfway, maybe more, before we can fly the rest of the way."
Stoick's expression was inscrutable. "Right. Why don't you boys show Merida the rest of the village?" he suggested, though it was clearly a dismissal. They gathered their things and left the hall for the sunshine outside. They'd figured out at least some of the puzzle, but they were no closer to being able to communicate with Merida, and Hiccup felt thwarted. Not for the first time he wished the Vikings had devoted more effort to writing things down than to fighting and plundering.
Fishlegs' voice whispering to him interrupted his thoughts as they wandered toward the village. "Does Astrid know?"
"Know what?" Hiccup asked, glancing at Merida.
"That she's here."
"It's Berk. I don't see how she doesn't know."
"About her staying with you, though?"
"I haven't seen Astrid since the day before yesterday." And at the moment he wasn't feeling that excited about seeing her any time soon. There certainly wasn't anything going on for Astrid to be jealous about—the slightly guilty twisting in his gut was just a habit, a physiological reaction born of years of screw-ups. Besides, it wasn't like he and Astrid were anything more than friends, one of whom occasionally kissed the other. Maybe the problem was that Hiccup had been waiting for Astrid to move their relationship forward, and she was waiting for him to do it—but that didn't make sense, because after growing up together, she ought to've known better. So maybe not doing anything more than sometimes giving him a kiss on the cheek was her way of letting things…die a slow death?
"I'm gonna put these away. See you later." Fishlegs carried his armload of books away, and Hiccup and Merida resumed walking.
"Hey, Hiccup!" At the sound of Snotlout's voice he stopped, groaning. Of the people he least wanted to deal with, Snotlout was almost always near the top of the list, to say nothing of wanting to spare Merida the experience. Hiccup turned as Snotlout caught up. "We've been out patrolling all morning. Are you going to do your part, or are you going to take it easy all dahey there, pretty lady."
Snotlout was leering over Hiccup's shoulder at Merida. Hiccup could only imagine what her expression looked like; whatever it was, it had to be more attractive than Snotlout's. "Good morning, Snotlout."
As expected, he ignored Hiccup. "Who's this lovely young thing?"
Well, maybe everyone in Berk didn't know yet. "This is Merida. You might actually have a chance with her, since she doesn't understand our language."
Snotlout pushed Hiccup aside and grabbed Merida's hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you," he said in what he probably thought was a suave tone before he brought the hand to his lips and kissed it. Hiccup watched Merida's face as she tried not to tug her hand away. She managed a nod when Snotlout looked up at her, but it was nothing more than polite.
"What are you up to this fine day?" Snotlout asked Merida, still smiling smarmily. He crossed his arms over his chest in what Hiccup assumed was an attempt to make his muscles look bigger. His biceps were probably bigger than his brain, though.
"We were on our way to look for Toothless." At the dragon's name she nodded seriously, and Hiccup bit his lip to hide a smile. While Snotlout was confused, Hiccup reached down and snagged Merida's hand. "So we'd better get going, bye." He tugged gently and she spun to follow him away, leaving Snotlout glaring after them.
Even if he still had questions and concerns, Merida seemed more lighthearted now. She all but skipped down the packed dirt path, swinging their hands. Her happiness made it hard not to smile.
It was also hard not to talk, so he started pointing things out: the workshops, the houses, the people passing by. She didn't seem to be paying much attention to his talk, but he was used to that, and it didn't stop him. More than a few villagers stared at the strange girl with the red hair and then at him. He dropped her hand like it was burning, then tried to cover it by pointing at a bird. Smooth, he thought. She definitely didn't notice that move.
A sudden clang arose and out of habit he went to the forge, Merida trailing after him. "No, not that barrel, the other one!" Gobber bellowed inside. "Have I taught ye nothing?" He caught sight of Hiccup at the door and called, "How's your girl then?"
"See for yourself," Hiccup said, pulling Merida beside him.
Gobber came over with his usual racket of accessories and looked her over. "Is she still wearin' the same thing you found her in?"
"I guess? I mean, of course she is, you saw her. We're kinda busy trying to figure out how to get her home. Fashion isn't the priority."
"Obviously not for you. You might want to think about her comfort, though."
He rolled his eyes. "Yes, thank you for your input."
"Beg your pardon, miss, Hiccup spends too much time with dragons and forgets his manners. I'm Gobber." He extended his good hand.
"Merida," she said, shaking it.
"Merida of DunBroch, who doesn't understand our language," Hiccup clarified.
Gobber's brow furrowed. "DunBroch? How'd she get here?"
"That is yet to be determined."
"How're you getting her back?"
"Like I said: yet to be determined," Hiccup sighed.
"Well, come in," Gobber said, brushing Hiccup aside to pull Merida in to the smithy. He introduced the apprentices, and knocked them on the head when they stared at her too long; then he showed her the knives the boys were attempting to make and all the finished work around the shop, from ornate door hinges to a bucket full of unsharpened arrowheads. That sight elicited a smile that, while truly delighted, was far from innocent, and she started chattering away. When her words had no effect she sighed long-sufferingly, spread her feet, and drew back an invisible bow.
"Goatshanks across the way might have a bow," Gobber said. There followed a squabble between the two craftsmen, with Merida waiting impatiently and every so often glancing through the open door of Goatshanks' workshop, as if contemplating snatching a bow, permission or none. Finally he stomped into his shop and emerged with a bow and a quiver of arrows.
Merida took them carefully, running her hand down the length of the bow with a contented expression. Then she swung her head up and down the path. Seconds later an arrow was buried in the carved roof beam of a house halfway up the hill. Hiccup's mouth dropped open as she sighed happily.
Merida turned to the similarly gobsmacked Goatshanks and nodded solemnly before holding the bow out. "I'm not sure you should take that away from her," Gobber said slowly.
"A shot like that? I don't know if I feel more or less dangerous with her having it. She can keep it."
"Are you sure?" Hiccup asked, finding his voice. Merida hadn't made any attempts at violence, but he remembered the way she'd reached for a knife that wasn't there. "I'll pay you back for it."
Goatshanks shook his head. "Just keep her from shooting anyone."
Hiccup pushed Merida's hands back gently, and she drew the bow close to her chest, looking so hopeful that no one with a heart would be able to even think about taking it away again. He nodded, reassuring her; then before he knew what was happening—she was so quick; it kept taking him by surprise and it was getting embarrassing, a Viking being caught off-guard so often—her arms were around him and her hair was tickling his neck. She murmured something against his shoulder that he felt sure was thanks. The hug only lasted briefly before she released him, though that didn't stop the blood from rushing to his face, and she threw her arms around the slightly terrified Goatshanks. From the corner of his eye Hiccup saw Gobber grinning knowingly.
"Well." When the craftsmen had gone back to their work, Hiccup rocked back on his heels. "Do you want to keep looking for Toothless, or do you want to go shoot?"
The options must have been obvious enough, so she cocked her head, considering. "Toothless," she decided.
"Yeah?" He couldn't help the smile on his face. She nodded. As they walked a strange feeling that he eventually recognized as relief washed through him, though he wasn't sure why.
Of course, Toothless was nowhere to be found when someone was looking for him. The dragon always knew when he was needed in truly important situations, but if no one was in danger he took his time. They made their way through the village down to the very end of the docks, though Hiccup knew well that Toothless wouldn't be there.
While Merida stood, staring into the distance, the sea and sky shades apart at the horizon, Hiccup sat at the edge of the dock and let his legs dangle. After a moment she joined him, setting aside the bow and quiver before plopping onto the wood, swinging her feet above the water. Had she seen the sea before? According to the maps DunBroch was landlocked, though she must've seen the sea at some point on her way to Berk. He wished he didn't wonder things that he couldn't know the answers to.
She hummed softly next to him, her hands folded in her lap. "Water," she said, then spread her arms wide and said something that sounded like 'more.' "Toothless mór, water mór."
"Big?" Hiccup guessed. "Toothless is big, the water is big..." He grinned at her. "Stoick is big."
"Stoick big," she agreed.
He took a deep breath and ventured, "Fergus mór?" Merida clapped her hands together, and Hiccup tried not to look as foolishly pleased as he felt. Instead he kicked his foot toward the horizon and said, "Big water: sea."
"Sea. Sea, sea, sea. Sea, water, big." She turned to face him, with her eyes the color of the flashes of sunlight on the wavelets below, and opened her mouth to speak.
A rumble interrupted whatever she was about to say, and Hiccup threw his hands over his stomach as Merida laughed quietly. "Guess it's lunch time," he said, swinging his legs onto the dock. She hopped up lightly, but the hem of her skirt snagged on the wood and tore a bit. From his place on the ground, he reached over and unhooked the fabric. "And then we'll find you some new clothes after we eat."
He planted one hand on the ground, ready to push himself up, when a gentle tug on his other hand made him pause. Merida held his hand firmly and pulled—not raising him all on her own, but helping. Most Vikings would have pushed her away and declared that they didn't need anyone's help; most Vikings wouldn't have offered help, not out of cruelty, but out of respect for his pride and the expectation that he should be able to take care of himself. And he could do it himself, and part of him really hoped no one was watching right then—he could imagine some of the things the twins and Snotlout would have to say about it—but he found himself not minding that much at all.
Though, since it was his life, he should have anticipated that they would both use too much force (Merida probably because she expected him to be heavier, and Hiccup because he didn't want her to think he was weak) and instead of standing gracefully he would stumble into her. In turn she stumbled backward, and he threw his free hand around her waist to keep her from falling. He chuckled awkwardly and she said something quietly, perhaps an apology.
Shouts in the village drew his attention up the hill. Hiccup stepped away from Merida as Toothless came into view, tearing between the houses and skidding to a stop on the dock. He dropped a bundle from his mouth and crouched in front of Hiccup. "What's up, Toothless?"
The dragon quivered with intense energy and flicked his eyes impatiently to the bundle. "All right, all right," Hiccup said, unwrapping the saddle and harness. He set to work, wondering what had Toothless so excited, and in a moment he was climbing astride. Only then did he remember Merida, now with the bow slung over her shoulder and the quiver in one hand.
"Merida, stay here," he ordered, pointing at the dock. Judging by her reaction, it was the wrong thing to say. Apparently hissing "Ooooh" was a universal female expression of anger, and it was followed by an animated rant in which she shrugged exaggeratedly, flung her arms at the village, shook her finger at him, and finally stomped her foot, eyes narrowed. There was only one thing to do in response to all that: he held out his hand.
She swung up easily, settling close behind him and putting her hands around his waist. As soon as she was situated Toothless took off running, and as he leapt into the air she squeezed tighter around Hiccup's middle.
Toothless flew purposefully, no wasted effort or showiness. Hiccup leaned along his back, with Merida following suit; it couldn't have been the most fun first dragon ride for her. When they were nearly to the spot where they'd found Merida Toothless dropped, somewhat suddenly, to just above the treetops. He slowed, gliding silently, and the two passengers peered downward.
Hiccup saw them first. Their ship was moored in a cove below the cliffs, almost out of sight, and they'd climbed up to a clearing. He counted quickly: there were at least a dozen of them that he could see, though there could be more in the trees. They hadn't made a fire, and he couldn't hear any noise, which meant they were trying not to be noticed. With so few, it seemed more like a scouting party than the beginnings of a raid. They had plenty of weapons, though. Like, more than enough of those.
Behind him Merida gasped. Her grip on him tightened again, and Hiccup felt her bury her head in his back. "Time to get out of here," he told Toothless, who turned and shot back toward the village.
"Dad!" They burst into the great hall, Toothless pushing after them.
Stoick didn't look up from the papers spread in front of him. "I'm in the middle of something, Hiccup."
"Raiders. In the northeast. Close to where we found Merida." He glanced at her; her face was drawn and she clutched the quiver with white-knuckled hands. "I think she recognized them."
The chieftain stood. "How many?"
"I counted twelve, but there could have been more. And lots of weapons."
"Right. Call the others. We'll fly together, then surround them once were there. Hopefully they won't be expecting dragons. If they are..." He didn't have to finish the sentence; they both knew how bad it would be if the raiders were prepared for dragons.
Stoick strode toward the door and Hiccup hurried to catch up with him. "What about Merida, Dad?"
He stopped for a moment and spared a quick look at her. In the periphery of his vision Hiccup saw her stand up yet straighter at his father's scrutiny. Stoick shook his head briefly. "She has to stay. It's too dangerous to have someone we can't communicate with. It'll be safer if she's here." Decision made he departed, leaving Hiccup to try to explain.
Hiccup suppressed a sigh and turned to Merida, hoping this time she wouldn't demand to come along. She didn't look eager to go, though. She gave a half smile and pointed at the ground at her feet. Hiccup felt something in his chest lurch.
"Yeah. Stay here. Please," he added fervently. "I'll be back as soon as I can." There were too many answers left not to make it back.
"Hiccup," she said, and he paused. She laid her hand on his chest, over his heart, and said, "Big."
Toothless led the way in silence only broken by the flapping of wings. Before they reached the raiders' camp they split up, Toothless breaking away to skirt below the edge of the cliffs, Thornado circling further down the coast to approach from the south, and Barf and Belch dropping low and continuing toward the camp. Hiccup wished Astrid had been around when they'd sounded the alarm. Awkward feelings or no, he'd rather have her than Ruffnut and Tuffnut, who were as liable to fight each other as their actual enemies. With any luck they'd be able to focus long enough to subdue the raiders.
Toothless skimmed just over the water and close to the cliff's edge. When the ship came in range he shot a jet of fire, setting it alight instantly; raiders or not, Hiccup hoped no one had been on board. At least if their boat was destroyed they couldn't escape. As they rose over the top of the cliffs he saw that the other two dragons had landed; green gas was trickling from the Zippleback's mouth, but it hadn't been ignited. The raiders were doing their best against the dragons, each of them fighting for himself, but they couldn't get close enough to do any real damage, and so far they were too disorganized to fight together.
"It's the white flag or the flame," Stoick called, "your choice." Having been on the wrong end of the flame Hiccup knew which he would choose, but these men were either far braver or rather stupider than he was, and they fought on, throwing spears and firing arrows that had little effect on the dragons. Hiccup understood now that dragons didn't necessarily want to kill, but if they were threatened they would defend themselves, and against humans their defense was disproportionate to the severity of the attack. Several raiders were brushed out of the way by tails and wings, landing far out in the sea or slamming into tree trunks; others leapt into the water themselves after flames caught their clothes and hair. In the end there were about a half a dozen who decided that they preferred to go on living and lay down their weapons.
Ruff and Tuff tied the survivors securely—for once their competitiveness worked in their favor, because they crossed the ropes excessively and tied more knots than were really necessary, each trying to outdo the other–and with a minimal amount of taunting. Barf and Belch caught the rope in its claws to carry the prisoners back to the village. Stoick cast an eye around the site of the brief battle, the ground littered with charred weapons and a few lifeless bodies. He sighed, heavily.
"You'd better get back, Dad. Make sure the twins don't 'accidentally' fly into any trees on the way."
"Are you sure? We have to…"
They had to bury the dead. They were Vikings, not total barbarians; even their enemies deserved a proper burial. "I'm sure. We've got it." He'd dig the holes, maneuver the bodies in, and cover them; then he'd gather the remaining weapons and Toothless would set fire to them. Any raiders who'd gotten away would come back to find a useless pile of molten metal.
Stoick nodded and climbed on Thornado's back. "Quick as you can. I don't want you getting caught out here alone if any of them come back." As the Thunder Drum rose into the air, Hiccup selected a large double-bladed axe and started digging.
By the time he slid from Toothless' back in front of the great hall, the sun was setting. He was covered in dirt—the axe hadn't been the most efficient digging tool—his arms and back ached, and he hadn't eaten anything since breakfast. His body begged to crawl into bed and sleep. Hiccup cracked his neck, rolled his shoulders back, straightened his spine, and tried to walk like he wasn't exhausted. He was, but he wouldn't show it if he could help it.
The captured raiders were now chained near the fire. Each man had a mug of water within arm's reach, and crumbs around them indicated that they'd been fed. Hiccup ignored the piteous growling of his stomach as he walked further into the hall. He didn't see Stoick anywhere, though armed Vikings sat around the hall, keeping watch over the captives. Nor did he see Merida, and he hoped that his father had taken her home, or Gobber to the forge. He'd go home, then, and find her, and eat something.
As he skirted around the chained men, one of them chuckled. "You don't look like much of a Viking, boy."
"Tell me something I don't know," Hiccup muttered. The man regarded him with a disconcertingly shrewd look from beneath a head of matted hair.
"Who're you looking for? That girl?" Hiccup glared at the man, who laughed nastily. "She's not here. Hard to miss that hair, eh?"
Don't react. He's just trying to get you angry, get you to do something stupid that he can use to his advantage. Don't listen. Just walk away. It was harder than it sounded, now that he'd brought up Merida. He clenched his fists and tried to keep his cool. Maybe, just maybe, the man would say something of use.
"What do you know about her?"
The raider shrugged nonchalantly, producing a clinking of chains. "She belongs to us, boy. We took her fair an' square, and we'll get her back."
Another man put in, "Fought like a wildcat, that one did." Hiccup smirked briefly. "S'pose she didn't want to be kidnapped."
"Then why did you?"
"For the ransom, o' course." He said it in a perfectly matter-of-fact tone, as if kidnapping was the most natural thing in the world. "King Fergus would pay loads to get his oldest child back. Most parents would."
The first man looked Hiccup over skeptically. "Maybe not yours..."
Hiccup ignored the dig at him; he was focused on one particular word. "King Fergus?"
"Yep. That girl's a princess."
The knowledge nearly set him reeling. It explained so much, it seemed so obvious now; he felt stupid for not having figured it out.
"Royal pain in the arse is what she is," grumbled a third man. "We should've beat her. Just a little, so she knew her place."
Hiccup lunged forward, stopping inches from the man's face. The man reared back in fear and shock. "You'll never lay a hand on her. If you try, you'll lose the hand."
"Someone's touchy," sniggered the man. "Don't worry, squirt, we didn't hurt the princess. Not any more than she hurt us, at least."
Hiccup resisted the urge to kick him, but just barely. "Shut up. Just...shut up," he muttered. "You're lucky I'm not letting her use you for target practice."
"Let women fight all your battles, do you?"
"What do you expect? He's not a whole man himself." The three of them laughed, but Hiccup felt much calmer now that they were mocking him. That was something he knew how to deal with.
So he took a deep breath and said, "Sleep well, boys. If you need anything, just ask Toothless." Right on cue a pair of glowing eyes appeared in the darkness, and at the prisoners' gasps Hiccup let himself smile as he walked away.
Merida jumped up when he walked in. "Come here," he demanded, pulling her over to the table. He quickly sketched her family, to her puzzlement; then, with deliberate strokes, he added crowns to their heads. Hiccup jabbed his finger at the crowns. "Your father—Fergus is a king? Your mother is the queen? And you're a princess?"
She looked somewhat abashed and shrugged one shoulder. Like being a princess was no big deal. Then she snatched the charcoal from his hand and drew Hiccup and Stoick, drawing a little crown on the latter. She raised her eyebrow, and he shook his head in return. He drew a crowd of Vikings pointing to Stoick, hoping that would illustrate the process.
"Are you just back?" Stoick asked, his footsteps heavy as he descended the stairs. He sounded tired; as he came into the firelight he looked it, too.
"I stopped by the great hall first in case you guys were there. Had a little talk with some of the raiders."
"Did you learn anything interesting?"
Hiccup scrubbed one hand through his hair. "Only that Merida's dad's the king of DunBroch and she was kidnapped for ransom." The girl in question sat looking suspiciously innocent but not particularly regal.
"I had my suspicions."
"Were you going to share them with me?"
"Eventually." Stoick walked into the kitchen and started clattering around there. It gave Hiccup an excuse to raise his voice to vent some of his frustration.
"I've just been treating her like a normal girl!"
"I'm sure she appreciates that."
"But I should have been treating her like a princess!" He threw his hands into the air.
"That's the best thing about you, son," Stoick said, setting stew and bread in front of Hiccup. "You treat normal girls like princesses and princesses like normal girls." He ruffled Hiccup's hair affectionately, patted Merida's shoulder, and left.
The stew smelled heavenly, a symphony of mutton and onion with a touch of mint making his mouth water. He jammed a heaping spoonful into his mouth and nearly moaned. Beside him Merida coughed delicately. "Sorry," he said, and then swallowed and said "Sorry" again. "Are you hungry?" he asked, offering the bowl, though he thought she'd probably already eaten. Sure enough she shook her head. Hiccup went back to eating, just as hungrily but more politely than before.
"Water?" Merida asked, hopping from her seat and walking backward into the kitchen, watching for his response. She got a lot of use out of that word; it made him glad she'd learned it.
With her watching him, an idea came to him. "Yes, please," he said, carefully not moving his head, to see what she'd do. She stuck her tongue out at him. As she spun around to fill the cups, he noticed that someone had done for her what he'd said they'd do hours ago: gotten her new clothes. Gone were the cloak and the fine embroidered dress; the one she wore now was a plain russet color and fitted more loosely than the other had, with a long brown apron over it, fastened below the shoulders with pewter brooches. If it weren't for the hair, she would have easily fit in in the village.
She certainly looked at home as she brought back the water, setting one cup before him firmly. "Thank you," he said, smiling, and she inclined her head graciously. "I like your new clothes." He plucked at the fabric at her wrist. She smoothed the dress down, seemingly pleased. "You look nice." Something—the tone of his voice, suddenly heavy with tiredness, perhaps—made her meet his eyes.
"I wish I knew what you were thinking." He laughed a little and added, "And I bet you wish you knew what I'm saying. Don't worry, it's nothing worth repeating." Even as the words left his mouth he had a feeling they weren't true.
A good intense yawn was interrupted by a knock at the door. Every feeling of contentment and goodwill leached out of his body as he trudged to the door, expecting the worst: that the captives had escaped somehow, or that another party of raiders was attacking. What he wasn't expecting was Astrid.
"You look terrible," she said when he opened the door. He'd forgotten all about that.
"Yeah. Bit of a busy afternoon," he said, standing aside to let her into the house. "Where were you? We fought off the raiders' scouting party."
She rolled her eyes. "A whole flock of sheep wandered off and Stormfly and I had to find them and then try to herd them back to the pasture. Do you know how stupid and stubborn sheep are? It was exhausting. How was the fight?"
"Not as bad as it could have been, thankfully."
"Oh, Hiccup," she sighed fondly.
"Hey, if I'd known the options were finding sheep or a skirmish with the raiders, I would've traded places with you."
"Snotlout won't shut up about some strange new girl in Berk who's supposedly totally beautiful. Have you seen her?"
Hiccup took a step back. Warnings flashed in his head that he had to tread carefully in answering. "Funny you should ask that..."
He led Astrid a few paces forward to where she could see Merida, flipping through one of his sketchbooks. "Astrid, this is Merida. Merida, Astrid."
"She's here?" Astrid looked less than pleased, eyeing Merida up and down. For her part, Merida smiled politely and studied Astrid's outfit for a moment before going back to the book.
"Toothless and I found her yesterday—was that only yesterday? The raiders took her from a place called DunBroch. Somehow she escaped, and when we found her she was nearly frozen."
"Huh." Astrid crossed her arms, eyes narrowed slightly as she turned over in her head what he'd said. "Why don't you know how she escaped? Hasn't she said?"
"She doesn't speak our language. We've figured out a few things through gestures and drawing pictures, but not much. The raiders might be able to tell us more tomorrow."
"That seems pretty convenient: find the lost girl, raiders show up. What if she's with them? What if they let her escape—sent her—so that some sucker would find her and rescue her, and she can spy on them that way?"
Something of the sort (minus the sucker part) had crossed his mind, when Goatshanks had let her keep the bow, that they probably shouldn't arm anyone they barely knew, especially when she was such a good shot. But she'd done nothing to deserve that kind of distrust.
Hiccup shook his head. "She's not with them."
"How can you be sure?" Astrid pressed.
He didn't want to mention the word princess, not yet, not to her. She would not take it as lightly as Stoick had. "I just am."
She looked at him with the cold anger that hurt worse than his father's blustery rage ever had. "You've done some dumb things in your time, Hiccup, but this might be the dumbest. I just hope it doesn't get all of us killed." She stalked away, into the indigo of twilight, and as the door swung shut it had a depressing air of finality about it.
Stoick glared at the captive scouts. Gobber and Spitelout stood behind him; the elder sat nearby, staff across her lap. Hiccup stood to one side of the group of Vikings, hoping to hear something of use. When he'd told Stoick that he wanted to be there, his father had looked at him with mild surprise. Belatedly Hiccup hoped that Stoick assumed it was because of his leadership studies, not because of…anything else. At the far end of the hall Merida sat with Toothless and Gobber's apprentices, who appeared to be teaching her a game.
"How many were in your party? How many more ships do you have?" Predictably, none of the raiders answered. "Are you all deaf?" Stoick demanded. "I asked you questions, and I want answers!"
"Or what?" one sneered. "What are you going to do, feed us to your dragons? Or just use them to roast us alive?"
"We're good as dead anyway. There's no reason to tell some fat lump of a Viking anything."
Stoick changed his approach. "If anyone wants to be helpful, that man will get meat with dinner tonight. Otherwise it's porridge again."
"Stick your porridge where the sun don't shine, Yer Vastness. Give us the girl and a ship and we'll be on our merry way." This from the one who'd first spoken to Hiccup the night before, the one who seemed to be the leader of the scouts. Even though he knew Stoick wouldn't just hand Merida over to her kidnappers, Hiccup stiffened. Stoick's eyes slid over to him, which was bad enough; but apparently the raiders noticed it, too.
"Oho, loverboy won't stand for that, will he?"
"No, I won't stand for it," Stoick said impassively. "She's not yours to command."
"I agree. The choice is hers. If she wants to take up with you, she's free to do so. But if she wants to stay, we will protect her 'til our last breaths."
Words like that came so easily to him. Hiccup doubted that he'd ever be able to say anything so convincingly. He could learn the law backward and forward, he could become the greatest strategist Vikingdom had ever known, but he didn't think he'd ever command respect with just a few phrases the way Stoick did.
"Fetch her, then, and let her decide."
Stoick called her name and Merida walked over. Hiccup stepped forward, trying to ignore the catcalls from the raiders, and joined her halfway between where the raiders were chained and where the Vikings stood. When he placed his hands on her shoulders, she pointed at the ground, looking up at him with a mischievous smile. Maybe she couldn't feel the slight tremble in his hands.
"Do you want to go with them," he asked, motioning toward the captives, "or stay with us?" Hand over his heart he backed away, leaving her to decide. Surely no one really expected her to choose the raiders.
Which was why they all gasped when, after a moment's contemplation, she walked toward them. The raiders cheered and hooted, rattling their chains. Hiccup couldn't believe his eyes. Astrid had been right after all. He'd never live this one down; he'd be the official laughingstock of the village. They'd probably make him wear a badge...
And then, with the same accuracy she'd shot with, Merida spat in the dirt between the chief raider's feet. Three brothers, Hiccup thought, grinning, as she turned her back on the chained men. She crossed to the Vikings and knelt before Stoick. With a small smile as tender as Hiccup had ever seen, his father lifted her up and put his arm around her shoulders.
"It was worth a try," the raider said.
"Hiccup, take her out of here," Stoick said quietly. "Go with Hiccup, Merida." She stepped forward and then curtseyed to him; Hiccup whistled and Toothless bounded across the room.
"Boys, go on with them," Gobber called, and they whooped and ran eagerly for freedom.
Once they were outside she breathed a sigh of relief, and then thumped him on the arm. "Ow! What was that for?" he asked, rubbing the spot.
She babbled at him, waving her arm at the great hall, imitating the raiders as they mocked Stoick and then imitating Hiccup himself. Apparently he shouldn't have worried about what choice she was going to make. He was pretty sure he got called an idiot somewhere in her speech, too.
When she was done he rolled his eyes a little. "Whatever you say, princess." She thumped him again; he bowed elaborately and skipped out of the way when she tried to hit him a third time, this time laughing as he dodged.
"Hey, Squat. Go down to Goatshanks' and buy a dozen arrows. Tell him I'll pay him later. Wart, run up to my house and grab the bow and a quiver by the door." She hadn't wanted to leave them behind when they left the house, but Stoic had insisted, and she'd pouted all the way to the great hall. "Meet us in the arena."
The arena was empty, but luckily the targets and hurdles were set out. There was still a hatchet stuck in one of the targets, and as he pulled out she asked a question behind him. When he turned to look she mimed throwing it. Figured she'd want to see him do the thing he was worst at. Hiccup made a face; she nodded encouragingly. "Watch out," he muttered, squinting as he took aim. The hatchet at least thunked solidly into the wood, though nowhere near the center of the target. Merida's face was a reflection of his earlier one, and he stuck his tongue out at her.
"Hiccup!" Wart called from above, holding up the bow and quiver.
"Bring them in," Hiccup said just before an arm wrapped around his neck with more words of thanks. Merida raced to meet Wart at the entrance and cuddled the bow, cooing to it happily. Squatwiggle joined them, the extra arrows bundled in one hand and a sack in the other. From it he withdrew a sweet bun.
"Told the baker you'd pay him back, too," he said cheekily, handing a bun to Wart. When he offered one to Merida she shook her head, tapping at the bowstring.
"Can't get the string sticky," Wart admonished around a mouthful of bun, and Squat dropped it back in the sack. "We'll hold on to it for you."
Hiccup motioned to the arena. "It's all yours." She curtseyed with a smile.
Toothless was perched on the edge of the wall at the top of the arena, with the boys close by. Hiccup dropped down next to the dragon. "Thanks for doing all that. I guess you can go home if you want."
As one they shook their heads. "We want to see."
"Gobber said she's good." They handed him the sack and Hiccup munched his bun, waiting for Merida to reappear in the arena.
When she did her hair was plaited haphazardly down her back, and she'd rolled up her sleeves. She walked to the center of the circle and rotated, marking where all the targets were. She nocked an arrow, breathed deeply, and fired. Squat and Wart cheered when the arrow landed near the center, but she shook her head. Before she grabbed the next arrow she rolled her neck and shook her arms, loosening up, and the arrow she fired slammed into the center, as did those that followed. Only when all of the arrows were seated in bullseyes did she smile, fierce and proud.
She collected the arrows and shot again and then a third time, each shot coming quick on the heels of the previous one. The targets weren't much of a challenge to someone as good as her. After she'd gathered the arrows up again she paused for a moment, examining the arena with a calculating eye. Then she called, "Toothless," and he perked up, cocking his head. She said something and waved, and he waddled down into the arena. Hiccup leaned against the chains that domed the arena, wondering what she was up to, as below them she scratched Toothless' head, speaking to him in a low voice. Her finger traced a ring in the air, and she pointed at the targets. Hiccup hoped she wasn't suggesting what he thought she was suggesting.
She was. She clambered onto Toothless' bare back and settled into position, which involved hiking the skirt up around her knees. Hiccup was sure he'd been about to say something, but all of a sudden he couldn't remember what it was. Then she poked her heels into Toothless' sides and he started pacing around the perimeter of the arena, occasionally glancing over his shoulder to check on her. At Merida's urging he quickened his stride to a trot. She laughed, bouncing on his back as she rode; then she raised her bow and shot at a target on the wall opposite her. The shot was wide, landing on the edge of the target, but she seemed more than pleased with the new challenge and swiftly loosed another arrow. Eventually Toothless slowed when she'd fired her last arrow. Merida leaned forward, lying along Toothless' back, arms spread wide around his neck. Even when he stopped and lay down she stayed there, smiling happily.
Wart and Squat ran around the arena to pull the arrows from targets as Hiccup went to check on Toothless and Merida. The dragon opened one eye and snorted at Hiccup, so he moved around to Toothless' side. "You okay, Merida?"
She opened her eyes and gazed down at him, smiling. "Yeah, you're fine." He smiled back and leaned against Toothless, arms crossed. She petted Toothless' side, sighing and murmuring. Then she sat up, swung one leg over his back, and slid down. Apparently the circuits around the arena had made her unsteady, though, because as soon as her feet touched the ground she swayed. With the hand not occupied with equipment she reached out to steady herself; the closest thing was Hiccup, and she caught his bicep, shutting her eyes until the feeling subsided.
"Dizzy, huh?" This close he could see the faint dusting of freckles, the red-gold of her eyelashes against her cheeks. There was a faint pink in her pale cheeks; the fingers around his arm were long and elegant, but he'd watched her shoot and knew how strong they were, how calloused they must be. Curls were escaping from the braid and twisting around her face. If he stared at her hair for too long, burnished in the sunlight as it was, the ghost of it would be there when he closed his eyes.
Like he would forget it anyway.
Stoick answered the knock at the door and showed Fishlegs in. "Hi, Merida. Hi, Hiccup."
"Hey, Fishlegs. What's up?"
"I had an idea." He held up a book—not one of his usual ones, but a board book bound with loops of twine. A book for a toddler.
He put the book in front of Merida, who opened it curiously. On the first page there was a duck, painted in yellow that once had been vivid but had faded over time. "It was one of my first books," he admitted to Hiccup. He slipped a blank page from the back of the book as he told Merida, "Duck." When she'd repeated it a few times he pointed at her, and wrote down the word she said, or the closest he could get.
Realization slowly dawned on Hiccup. "You're starting a dictionary." Good old Fishlegs. "That's great."
"Thanks. Now at the very least well be able to discuss animals. That will be really helpful." He spoke self-deprecatingly, as if he hadn't thought of something no one else had.
"Really, Legs, I mean it. It's a fantastic idea." Fishlegs smiled, ducking his head, as unused to true praise as Hiccup himself was.
Hiccup knew he should listen and learn along with them, but in all honesty he was thrilled that someone else was talking with Merida. The struggle to make himself understood was draining. He couldn't imagine how she felt, a stranger in a place she literally couldn't understand. If he'd learned anything important about Merida it wasn't that she was a princess, or that she'd be able to kill him before he had the chance to beg, or that she blazed like a star; it was that she had a spine of iron, a will too strong to break. She'd found a way to escape her kidnappers and then spit at their feet for good measure. Maybe in DunBroch queens were supposed to be more refined than that, but he'd have her as chieftain of Berk in a heartbeat.
For a moment he tried to focus on their words, how she said cat or horse, but even Fishlegs' syllables ceased to make sense. He let them slide over him and pass by, background noise to the scrape of his charcoal over the page.
An impassioned debate was raging. Escorted by Stormfly, Barf and Belch, and Astrid and the twins, the captives had been taken down to the arena for a chance to stretch their legs and get some fresh air; in the meantime, the Vikings were discussing what to do with them. "We can't let 'em go!" Spitelout cried. "They know where we are, they know what we have, and they know about the dragons."
"If we let them go, they'll use all that against us."
Gobber scoffed. "So we kill them in cold blood? That's murder. If they'd die trying to invade, that'd be one thing, but we don't just murder people. You know that."
"What else can we do? Either we kill them, set 'em free, or keep 'em locked up forever. If they're dead they can't fight us again, and I'm not feedin' 'em for the rest of their worthless lives." Spitelout crossed his arms defiantly, and other Vikings muttered their agreement. He had a point: Berk was only so big, and some years the village struggled to feed everyone. Adding six more mouths—six loud, obnoxious mouths—probably wouldn't cause any catastrophic consequences, but was it worth the lives of villagers to test that theory?
At the same time, Hiccup knew Gobber was right. The scouts that were left had survived and chosen to surrender under the assumption that they'd be treated fairly. Killing captives couldn't be right.
"If they don't come back, won't the others come looking for them?"
He hadn't realized he was going to say anything until the words had come out of his mouth and everyone was staring at him. In the past he would've flinched and shrunk under the scrutiny, played his question off as stupidity, and he still wanted to, especially when faced with Spitelout's sneer. But there hadn't been anything wrong with his question, only in who'd asked it, and he refused to back down just because Spitelout of all people had a low opinion of him.
"It's possible," Stoick answered.
"Or it's possible that they won't care and will leave us alone."
"They're raiders. They'd slaughter their own mums if there was any profit in it."
"There's precious little worth a profit in Berk," Gobber said. At Stoick's glare he challenged, "What? Strike me dead if I'm lying."
"Little worth a profit except the dragons," Hiccup said grimly.
"Or the girl. They said themselves they'd leave of they got her."
"Surely you don't believe that. We give them Media and they go home nicely? Not likely." Stoick spoke to Spitelout like he was a particularly dimwitted child, which Hiccup didn't think was far from the truth, at least at the moment. "Besides, the girl's not one of them. They kidnapped her. She's had the chance to choose whether she'd rather go with them or stay with us, and she chose Berk. I'll not hand her over now."
Spitelout's face was mutinous, but at the chief's tone, or perhaps his stony expression, he made no more protest. "That still leaves the question of the scouts," Stoick went on. "Any ideas that aren't about killing them?"
The old sailor staggered to his feet. "Maroon 'em," he rasped. "Stick 'em on an island somewheres. They get off, more joy to 'em; they die, it's their fault."
"Send them to Dragon Island!" someone yelled, to general assent, but Gobber snorted.
"And have them learn to ride, or smash the eggs? Kill the young ones? No."
"There are other islands, to the north. We'll take them there, give them a few days' food and a knife or two, and tell them they're dead if they ever set foot on Berk again. Agreed?" There was a chorus of ayes. "Then let's get to work."
The next morning the captives were again bound in ropes and blindfolded. Hookfang carried them, while a barrel of water swayed under Toothless, and a large sack of bread, much of it already stale, sat behind Stoick on Thornado's back. The villagers, Merida among them, watched them take off toward the north, Thornado leading the way. Merida had been staring, more solemn than anyone around her; when Hiccup looked back he saw Fishlegs trying to lead her away, but she shook get head and stayed, watching them fly into the distance.
The island was small, with scrubby trees on mostly rocky ground. It wasn't pretty, but they'd be able to build a fire and maybe even a small raft. The boys untied the blindfolds as Stoick explained to the raiders what was happening and how they'd be punished if they ever returned to Berk. The leader nodded, apparently approving of the situation, but one of the scouts balked.
"You're leaving us to get et by dragons, that's what this is! Call that fair?"
"Don't worry," Hiccup reassured him, "dragons don't eat garbage."
"You've got bread, fresh water, and a knife. Your fate is now in your hands."
As they returned to the dragons one of the raiders yelled, "Where's the knife?"
"D'you think I'm an idiot?" Hiccup heard Stoick mutter as he swung astride Thornado. Only then did he toss the knife into the ground at their feet. "Stay away from Berk," he said, and they took to the air again.
Fishlegs and Merida were sitting outside their house when the dragons landed. They both stood and waited as father and son undid straps and removed saddles.
"She didn't want to do anything but wait for you to come back," Fishlegs explained. Her face was still serious, and her hands twisted in the apron (this one blue; it suited her). She gazed steadily at Stoick, who nodded down at her. Merida let out a breath and took his hand, kissing it; he looked taken aback, then swept her up into his arms. She stretched her arms as far around him as she could, sniffling against his chest, and Hiccup wondered when the last time she'd hugged Fergus was.
After a moment, during which Hiccup barely stifled his laughter at Fishlegs' wide-eyed amazement, Stoick set her down and coughed. For her part, she grinned, albeit with watery eyes.
"Come in, Fishlegs. We need to talk about taking the princess home," Stoick said, and swept into the house. Fishlegs followed, still agog, and Hiccup let himself chuckle.
"We'd better go in," he said. "After you, Your Highness." He bowed, one hand at his waist and the other flung into the air, to let her enter before him. He heard her huff, and then her fingers twined with his and she pulled him, stumbling, into the house.
Because he was always left behind, he hadn't ever had to put much thought into organizing an expedition. Now he was learning that it was easier said than done. There were maps and tide charts to consult, food and clothing to prepare, volunteers to recruit, boats to inspect. Fishlegs was tracing a route on a map, Stoick nodding. The latter looked up, his glance taking in their joined hands, at which Hiccup's ears started to burn; if Merida noticed she made no sign, but dropped his hand to climb onto the bench.
"The currents should be in our favor on the way back, at least," Fishlegs said.
"Good. We'll be without the dragons then, and the faster we can get back, the better."
"Dragons? Who else is going?"
"I don't know." Stoick scratched at his beard. "I can't leave the village, not when raiders might return."
Fishlegs' expression was apologetic. "I'd go, but Meatlug can't keep up with Toothless." Hiccup knew that, but he wished all the same that if someone had to go with him, it would be Fishlegs.
"Do we need anyone else to go, though? You said yourself, the raiders might return; shouldn't the others stay here to help defend Berk?" It was kind of a low blow, appealing to his duties as the leader of the village, and he saw the conflict between chieftain and father on Stoick's face.
"The raiders know they've lost the princess, though. They'll be looking for her, and we don't know where they might be. It'll be safer for the both of you if you're not alone."
Pushing Stoick was a risk, he knew; but the other option was traveling with one or both of the twins, Snoutlout, or Astrid. He hoped he wouldn't have to explain why none of those were attractive prospects. "But can you justify putting the safety of two people—only one of them actually a villager, the other one a stranger—over the safety of everyone else? What'll Spitelout have to say about that?"
Stoick sighed. "Hiccup…" He rubbed a large hand over his eyes. "Sometimes I wonder how I had a son so devious. You're right, Spitelout wouldn't like it. And in a perfect world, we wouldn't have to worry about attacks or kidnappings or any of that. But you're my son, and I'll do anything to protect you."
"I know, Dad."
He leaned forward across the table and lowered his voice. "And to be honest, I'm a little concerned about the two of you being alone together, for who knows how long. I know you're a good boy, but…" He trailed off, embarrassed.
"Dad!" Hiccup hissed. His eyes shot to Merida, who was watching him with interest, and then Fishlegs, who was either really into his book or pretending to be. He'd never been happier that Merida couldn't understand what they were saying; otherwise he would have died of utter humiliation. All the same, he hid his face in his hands. "Why would you say something like that?"
"Well, you're a man now, and she's a lovely girl—young woman. It's natural that you should feel certain—"
"No no no I am not hearing this." Hiccup threw his arms over his head, wishing he could disappear. "It's not like that. And even if I wanted it to be like that, which I'm not saying I do, there's no reason she would want anything like that, not with me, and oh gods Fishlegs can understand all of this."
Fishlegs snorted, quietly. "I can leave if you want," he said mildly.
"No, it's too late. The damage is already done." He sat up and scrubbed his hands over his face and through his hair. "I don't know if I'll ever be able to look any of you in the eye again, but stay." Out of the corner of his eye he saw Merida biting her lip with a furrowed brow, but there was no way he was going to look at her now.
Stoick looked contrite. "I'm sorry, son."
"Don't be. You're right. I mean, not really, but if you think someone else needs to come along, I understand."
His father studied him for a moment. It came to him suddenly that for all he'd wished Stoick would look at him, he'd never really looked at Stoick. There was silver at his temples and in his beard; the lines in his face were deeper than they appeared at first glance. But Hiccup remembered the smile that had caused those lines, and he recognized now the sense of responsibility, of duty, of worrisome care that brought out the grey hair. "Are you sure you can do it alone?" Stoick asked.
Viking pride all but demanded he say yes, but this was a time for truth, not bravado. He took a minute to think before he answered. "No. I'm not sure. But I think we have a good chance. Do you think we can do it?"
"I've trusted Toothless with your life more than once; another time won't hurt. And I hear the princess is quite the archer."
He smiled at the understatement. "She is."
"I do think you can do it, Hiccup. Together I think you'll be safe." He wouldn't say it if it wasn't true; he really trusted Hiccup not to get them all killed. Hiccup knew his father's opinion of him had changed over the years, that he no longer had to feel like the changeling of the village, but he didn't mind being reminded of it.
"So what's our route, Legs?"