Lightning and Death Itself
Finis Ludum Chapter 4

"Hiccup, no!" Astrid burst out. "You can't be serious! Of all the crazy ideas you've ever had, that has got to be the most insane idea of all!"

"That's saying a lot, Mom, considering that he hasn't even said anything yet," Full-of-surprises interjected. "Now, what are you talking about?"

"If I know Hiccup," Toothless mused, "he's thinking about the dragons of Berk transforming all of Berk's Vikings into dragons so everyone can fly away together."

"That's exactly what I'm thinking," Hiccup nodded.

"I was right," Astrid muttered. "It's insane."

"Are you going to convert them by force, like what Uncle Toothless did to you?" Full-of-surprises. "What if they don't adjust to it the way you did?"

"Not by force," Hiccup said firmly. "It has to be their choice, by their own free will. We'll explain the situation and let every human make up his own mind about it. Some of them are sure to choose the traditional Viking path. If they want a glorious death and a quick ride to Valhalla, I don't have the right to stop them. But some of them will want to go on living, even if it means giving up their humanity. At least I can offer them a choice."

"That's a lot of Vikings to transform," Toothless thought out loud. "Do you have enough dragons who haven't already used their Power?"

"We'll have to double up, or triple up, or even quadruple up," Hiccup answered thoughtfully. "Bang transformed four dragons at once when he was in the East, so we know it can be done."

"Okay, next question," Toothless pressed him. "Who's going to teach all those brand-new dragons how to fly?"

"Would you be willing to help?" Hiccup asked him. "You're our most patient flight teacher, and you'd have a class full of new dragons who would be very motivated to learn."

"Tempting," Toothless nodded.

"Wait," Full-of-surprises said suddenly. "If all the Vikings get turned into dragons, won't that give us the firepower we need to fight the Romans?"

"That's asking a lot of me, or of any teacher," Toothless retorted. "Flight training is hard enough. Fire training has a lot more potential for dragons hurting themselves unless the instruction is up close and personal. We may not have time to teach them everything at once."

"True," Astrid nodded. "Also, it's not just about using your fires; it's also about tactics, defensive maneuvers, and learning to hit targets that are shooting back at you. Training a dragon for battle isn't a classroom exercise. It can be done only in battle. In the past, we let our young dragons get their first battle experience in chosen, controlled circumstances, with limited risk. We won't have that luxury now. If we face any kind of threat, it will be a mortal threat with no safe spaces. We'd lose a lot of dragons that way."

"Okay, last question for now," Toothless said. "Are you going to turn all of the Vikings into Night Furies, or into some other kind of dragon?"

"I haven't thought that far ahead yet," Hiccup admitted. "It might be best to let every Viking make up his own mind about what he wants to be."

"How much time can they take?" Astrid asked. "Some of them will dither back and forth forever, until it might be too late."

"I'm not rushing into this, if that's what you're asking," Hiccup answered. "I'd still like to find a solution that keeps us free and lets us keep our own bodies. This idea is a Plan Z for when everything else has failed."

"Do you have anything else?" Toothless wondered.

"I have the beginnings of an idea," Chief-night-fury replied. "I need to think about it some more, and then I need to talk it over with you, my friends and advisors. It's an extreme solution to an extreme problem, with no guarantees that it will work, but it might be better than transforming everybody and then flying away."

"When you're ready," Astrid nodded, "I'm ready to hear you out."

"And then you'll tell him he's out of his mind and his plan will never work," Toothless grinned.

"Not true," she shot back. "Yes, I'll probably tell him that he's out of his mind, but I won't tell him that his plan will never work. I've seen too many of his crazy plans work out perfectly, or pretty close. I know better than to question his plans anymore."

"Why don't you just tell us what you're thinking, Dad?" Full-of-surprises asked. "If it's a bad idea, then we'll tell you right away, and if it's a good idea, maybe we can make suggestions."

Hiccup shrugged. "We're assuming that becoming part of the Roman Empire is a bad thing. What if it isn't? What if we just invited them in and let them take over? We'd keep our homes and our island, and nobody would get killed. What would be the worst that could happen?"

"You'd lose your position as chief," Toothless reminded him.

"I never cared that much for being in charge," he replied. "The only reason I took the job is to save the tribe from Spitelout. If the Romans treat everyone fairly, then I couldn't care less who's in charge. These Romans seem to value law and order. They'd make better chiefs than most of the Vikings we know."

"What about the taxes that they would impose on the Vikings?" Astrid wondered.

"I get the impression that their taxes are more to show us who's boss than to raise huge amounts of money," Hiccup answered. "They gain nothing by bankrupting us. Yes, it will be unpleasant to have to give up some of our hard-earned money and produce. But if that's the worst thing they do to us, then I think most of the Vikings will go along with it."

"What about losing our freedom?" Thing One demanded.

"It looks like that's going to be unavoidable," her father said slowly. "If we fight and win, then they'll keep coming at us until they beat us, and then we'll become Romans. If we fight and lose, then we'll become Romans. If we surrender, then we'll become Romans. Do you see a common thread in all of those options?"

Thing One looked thoughtful. "If all the other tribes become Romans as well, that would mean that we'd never have to worry about being raided or attacked by the other tribes again."

"True," Astrid nodded, "but there's still one big problem. The Romans say they want to kill all the dragons. I'm against that."

"Yeah, that's a big one," Hiccup admitted. "Felix Natalis just said everything is negotiable. Maybe – and I'll emphasize the word 'maybe' – that attitude goes all the way to the top of the Roman hierarchy. Maybe they'll let us live if we surrender, and if we can prove that we're worth more to them alive than dead."

"How would you prove that?" Toothless wondered.

"I'd have to make contact with their commander," Hiccup replied. "We'd have to see if they are willing to negotiate."

"That sounds like a quick way to get half a dozen spears in your belly," Toothless exclaimed.

"If Felix Natalis is a typical Roman, then I don't think their leaders are the negotiating type," Full-of-surprises noted.

"There's only one way to find out," Hiccup said. Before he could say or do anything else, Astrid jumped right in front of him so he couldn't take off.

"Hiccup," she said tensely, "I was very proud of you when you were the Alpha of our nest. I was even more proud when you became chief over the Vikings. But, like you, I don't much care who's in charge around here. The one thing I do care about is losing a member of my family, especially you. And Toothless is right – if you just drop in on their general's headquarters, his guards will react with extreme prejudice."

"And spears," Thing One chimed in.

"In any case," Astrid continued, "how do you expect to find this Roman general? You have no idea where you're going!"

"I was going to ask our centurion if he'd give me directions," Hiccup answered. "I'm sure he knows the way."

"And I'm equally sure," Full-of-surprises interjected, "that he won't tell you, no matter how much Mom scares him in the air. Why would a professional soldier ever tell the leader of a hostile force how to find his commander? He'd assume that we want to take the general out, because that's what most hostile leaders would do."

Hiccup nodded slowly. "I guess you're right on that one." He pondered for a few moments. "Okay, then what if we give the centurion our message and put him back on his ship? If the Romans are willing to let us live in exchange for a bloodless victory, then they'd probably send a ship with a higher-ranking soldier to accept our surrender."

"And if they aren't willing?" Toothless asked pointedly.

"Then we've returned their veteran centurion and made their army stronger against us," Astrid concluded.

"Given that the Romans have proven themselves to be immensely strong, one centurion may not make much of a difference in our fate," Hiccup replied. "His absence might cost them a battle, but it won't change the outcome of the war."

"Here's a better option," Full-of-Surprises said suddenly. "Just overfly one of the Roman camps and drop a written message tied to a rock. Tell them that you want a high-ranking Roman representative to visit us and discuss terms, specifically the survival of the dragons. If they send a single ship, then we'll let them dock and we'll negotiate. If they send a fleet, then we'll do what dragons do best. Either way, we'll keep our dangerous prisoner, and none of us will get hit with a volley of spears."

Hiccup and Astrid looked thoughtful for a few seconds; then they both nodded.

"That will work," Hiccup said.

"That is a lot safer," Astrid said a moment later.

"I'll find a Viking with neat penmanship to write the message," Hiccup concluded. "We'll do it tonight."

"That's it, then," Toothless observed sadly. "You're going to give away your freedom."

"We're not embracing the life of a thrall," Hiccup countered. "We're not going to be anyone's property. We're just giving up our sovereignty in exchange for life. It looks like our sovereignty is toast, no matter what we do, so we might as well get something in trade for it." He paused. "Toothless, what's your plan for dealing with the Romans? Do you think they'll just let you live in your island nest and leave you alone?"

"What do we have that they want?" Toothless answered. "Romans can't live on our island any better than other humans. If we don't attack their ships, why would our existence concern them?"

"Because any independent group within their borders will be seen as a threat, whether you do something threatening or not," Astrid shot back. "If the Romans reject our offer, then we'll know that they have declared war on all dragons, including you and your nest. You'll have to fight them, whether you have a quarrel with them or not!"

"And how will they fight us?" the older Night Fury retorted. "We know from the Berk Wars that human ships can't get to our island unless they're guided by a dragon. They can surround us with ships and shout bad names at us until the last egg is hatched, but that's all they can do. We can pick off a few ships every night until their blockade is broken, and then they'll have to leave."

"Until they build an even bigger fleet with new weapons and try again," Hiccup reminded him. "Their resources seem to be nearly infinite, and they're determined to own every bit of land they can find. They outnumber us, they can invent new weapons to give themselves an advantage – trust me, I know a thing or two about that – and they don't care about anyone's life if we get in their way. You're signing yourself up for our first losing war, and all of your dragons with you."

"I don't like what I'm hearing," Toothless said sadly. "What happened to the Hiccup who never even considered defeat? What happened to the Hiccup who always found a way to win?"

"Toothless, old friend, I've thought about this from every direction I can think of. Every Viking has to yield to his chief, and the chiefs have to yield to the Law-Speaker. As for the dragons, they all yield to their Alpha. There's nothing strange or unnatural about admitting that someone else is stronger than you are. It's not a sign of weakness to admit that the stronger one wants to call the shots. I enjoyed being the Alpha over a dragons' nest, and I've endured being the chief of a Viking tribe. It's been a few years since I had to bow to anyone else, but that day is coming fast. I'm pretty sure I still remember how to do it."

Hiccup looked away toward the dark horizon. "All I really want is to save my family's lives, and the lives of the other dragons. The Vikings' pride will affect their decision, but I never had much of that pride, even when I was a Viking. If the only way to save the dragons is to humiliate myself and surrender, then I'll do it and I'll call it a fair trade."

"From what I've heard," Toothless observed, "these Romans aren't likely to let us live."

"Maybe they will, and maybe they won't," Hiccup answered. "I have to try, because no one else can do it. If I try and fail, then I'll know I did my best. If I never try, then I'll spend the rest of my days wondering if things might have turned out differently. If they accept our offer, then I've accomplished something. If they don't, then I've given up nothing; all our other options, limited though they are, are still on the table."

"Keep those options open, my friend," Toothless said. "I'm afraid this might be one of those times where your optimism is misplaced."

"Believe me, I'll consider any option at all," Hiccup nodded.

"What's your plan?" Astrid asked.

"I'll have Rangi or Anya write up a message this afternoon," Hiccup replied. "I'll fly to Meathead Island tonight and drop it near the center of the village. If the Romans don't have a high-ranking officer there, then they'll know where to find one. Then we'll just have to wait and see if they reply."

"If you're overflying hostile territory, then I'm going with you," she growled.

"Okay, that's fine," he said. She looked shocked.

"Hiccup, is it still you in there? You're acting less and less like yourself every day. I expected you to come up with half a dozen reasons why I should stay home and let you do this on your own."

Hiccup shrugged. "I don't think I need backup for this mission. The Vikings and the Meatheads will never know I was there. But there's something I need to talk about, and talking on the way to Meathead Island and back will work as well as talking anywhere else."

"In that case," Full-of-surprises cut in, "can I come too?"

"I don't mind in principle," her father said, "but this is about humans, not dragons, so there's no reason for you to come along."

Night-fury-full-of-surprises had reached her full adult size, which meant that she was barely an inch shorter than her father. But she crouched down slightly so she was looking up at him. "Please, Dad?" She batted her eyes.

Hiccup snorted. "You little manipulator! Who taught you a girlie move like that?" He glanced at Astrid. "I know you didn't teach her that, right?" She didn't answer. "Right?" he repeated.

Astrid looked toward the harbor. "When I raised my daughters, I taught them everything they might need in order to get by in a male-dominated world. A girl needs to keep all of her options open."

Hiccup sighed. "I never would have expected that from you, Astrid. I didn't think there was a girlie bone in your body! But it obviously hasn't held our daughter back in any way. Okay, Full-of-surprises, you can go with us."

"Can Smith-flies-for-fun come too?"

"Why would... oh, I give up. Apparently, someone has spread the word that this trip will be an exciting adventure, so everybody wants to join me."

"Either that," Astrid rejoined, "or you've been so busy working on this Roman problem that you've been neglecting your family. We all love you and we like spending time with you, but you've been absent, mentally if not physically, for days."

Hiccup shook his head. "If that's the case, then I'm sorry. I guess the whole family might as well join me tonight." In no time, they'd been joined by Smith-flies-for-fun, Bang, and Youngest-boy, who still followed Bang wherever he went, all wanting to know what the plan was. He let Rangi and Anya know what he wanted in a message and left his apprentices to do the writing. Then he took his family out to sea for some fishing and some wild maneuvers. The Night Furies were feeling back to normal as the sun went down and they departed on their mission.

"So, what do you want to talk about?" Astrid began.

"It's my plans for a negotiated surrender," Chief-night-fury replied. "Some of the Vikings are not going to take it well."

"Foremost of whom will be Thuggory," Bang interrupted. "He left his own tribe willingly and came to Berk to avoid the humiliation of surrender. If he finds out that he'll have to surrender anyway, he'll go berserk, and I mean that literally."

"He may not be the only one," Hiccup went on. "My concern is that, if enough of them think I'm making a bad move, they could vote to depose me, and my replacement would be a classic Viking who would rather fight to the death than work something out with the Romans."

"Dad, we still don't know if it's even possible to work something out with the Romans," Full-of-surprises noted.

"No, we don't," her father replied, "but from what we've seen, they have a reasonable side. Felix Natalis is cocky and and self-assured, but he's not crazy. When he saw that he was surrounded, he didn't try any useless escape attempts. I'm hoping that the leaders higher up in his hierarchy will also be reasonable."

"Just like most of the leaders of our Viking tribes?" Astrid said pointedly.

"Ouch," Hiccup said, and visibly winced. "Yeah, you're right. We have as much chance of dealing with another Dagur the Deranged as of another Sigurd the Sociable. This plan of mine probably has less than a 50/50 chance of success... but don't you see? I've got to try, no matter how bad the chances are! I won't accept defeat until I've exhausted every other possibility."

"By 'defeat,' you mean unconditional surrender?" Bang asked.

"No, I mean being forced to take any course of action that I wouldn't freely choose," Hiccup replied. "No matter how bad things have been, I've always found a way to call our own shots, and I've gotten used to that. Whether it's surrender with special conditions, or turning all the Vikings into dragons, or some other option that I haven't thought of yet, I want to feel like I'm still in charge. If I have to dance to Rome's tune, then I'll feel like I've lost, no matter what the actual outcome is."

"I know I feel better when Dad's fully in control," Thing One chimed in.

"And me!" Youngest-boy added happily.

"Meathead Island is in sight," Bang interrupted.

"Spread out a little," Hiccup ordered. "We don't want to blot out a big patch of the night sky; somebody might see us. Blotting out a bunch of small patches of the night sky won't be so obvious."

"You have the message that you want to drop, right?" Astrid asked.

"Of course I do! And it's weighted with a rock so it will fall straight down. I won't risk it getting blown around and possibly winding up in the water."

"Mom, you don't really think Dad would make a plan like this and then forget something important, do you?" Full-of-surprises marveled.

"I just want to be sure," Mother-of-twins replied. "There's a lot riding on that piece of parchment."

Hiccup adjusted his course so that he'd overfly the main village, and reduced his altitude to about two hundred feet. The others followed him, adjusting their positions so they formed a wedge, with Hiccup at the tip. He lined up on the chief's longhouse, made a last-moment change in his heading, and released the rock with the parchment wrapped around it. It fell, as perfectly aimed as any Night Fury firebolt, and bounced into the longhouse's open doorway. Whoever was living there, he'd find the message in the morning.

"Now we go home," Chief-night-fury said. "Thanks for coming with me."

"How long will we have to wait before the Romans send us an answer?" Thing One wanted to know.

"We have no idea," Mother-of-twins replied. "The Roman general is almost certainly on another island, so it will take days before someone brings him our message. Then he'll have to think it over and talk about it with his advisors, and then they'll have to decide how to send us an answer. It will be a week at the absolute least, and two weeks would be a better guess."

"I hate waiting," Thing One complained.