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.
After a moment 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?
Fishlegs raised an eyebrow, but made no remark. All he said was, "I'm gonna put these away. See you later." As he carried his armload of books away, 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 ignored (or failed to catch) the jibe, 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 it makes him forget his manners sometimes. 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, rubbing his chin before leading the way to the other man's shop. 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 as she threw her arms around the slightly terrified Goatshanks. From the corner of his eye Hiccup saw Gobber grinning knowingly.