The Heather Channel Chapter 26

The big longship made its slow, steady way across the North Sea, carrying a cargo of trade goods and about a dozen passengers. All of them took their turn at the oars alongside the sailors when the winds were against them, which was most of the time. A few of them got violently seasick from the action of the waves. Heather earned the sailors' gratitude by cleaning up the mess. It didn't bother her; someone had to do it, and it wasn't that much worse than her work in Berk's Mead Hall.

Every now and then, they thought they saw the top of another sail, just over the horizon. It wasn't drawing closer or further away, so they didn't fret over it. But they kept an eye on it, just in case.

Heather was finally on her way to her new life. She'd said goodbye to her parents, probably forever, and bought passage on a ship bound for the Danelaw. She was leaving behind everything and everyone she'd ever known, in the hopes that she'd find something better in the land of the Angles and the Saxons. Given the string of disasters she'd encountered in the recent past, whatever lay ahead had to be better than what she was leaving.

Except for Hiccup. He was no longer hers to claim or to long for. But part of her still missed him terribly.

She gave up her oar to a sailor who was coming on duty, and stepped forward to the space she'd made for herself among the cargo. Her hands were toughening quickly from the work of rowing; her blisters were fading to calluses, and her muscles, though sore, were getting stronger. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath of the sea wind. A minute later, that wind reversed its direction from off the bow to off the stern.

"Ship your oars!" the captain shouted. "Raise the sail! Steer a bit more to port! We have to take advantage of this wind while we've got it!" The ship bustled with activity as the sailors carried out their orders.

After a few minutes, someone else shouted, "They're getting closer." Sure enough, the ship behind them had cleared the horizon and was continuing to gain on them.

"What do you make of them?" the helmsman asked his captain.

"Probably pirates, by the look of their sail," the captain muttered. Heather decided, then and there, that she'd jump over the side and drown before she'd let herself be captured by pirates again.

Nearly everyone's eyes were on the strange ship that was slowly overtaking them. One sailor glanced forward, however. "Oh, Thor, have mercy! As if we didn't have enough trouble!" They all looked where he was pointing. A huge dark shape was making circles in the sky just ahead of them; it was far too big to be a sea bird.

"A dragon in front of us, pirates behind us," the captain mused, as though he were deciding what to eat for breakfast. "What do you think of our chances, men?"

"The pirates might let some of us live if they think they can get a ransom," a man in fancy clothes said. "The dragon will kill us all."

"The pirates could torture us," the helmsman replied. "The dragon will get it over with quickly." Heather was inclined to agree with him, until she took another look at the dragon. She recognized the type.

"What if we didn't have to choose between the two?" she asked.

"What do you mean?" the captain demanded.

"I've spent some time on the island of Berk, where they train dragons and ride them," she said. "What if I could pacify that dragon, and then use it to keep the pirates away?"

"What are you – some kind of seið-kona?" the fancy man's wife exclaimed with distaste.

"I wish people would quit calling me that!" she shot back. "Please let me try it; you've got nothing to lose. If I succeed, I could save us all. If I fail, I'll be dead, but the rest of you will be no worse off than you are right now."

"You're brave – I'll give you that," the captain said grudgingly. "What do we need to do?"

"I'll need some food that dragons like. Fish, or chicken if we have any. When it approaches the ship, everyone except me should get into the bow with the cargo, so the stern deck is clear for it to land. I'll do the rest."

The wind carried them on toward the circling dragon. The pirates were closing the gap between them. It looked like they had extra rowing positions, and two men on each oar, in addition to their sail – no wonder they were moving so fast! Then the dragon decided to make its move.

It swept downward in a graceful curving trajectory. It was a Deadly Nadder, similar in color to Stormfly but not as big. It straightened out and aimed itself right at them. All the sailors and crew fled to the bow, leaving Heather very much alone in the stern.

"Hey! Dragon! Come here!" she shouted, waving a foot-long fish in each hand. "I want to talk to you!" What I really want, she thought, is the Book of Dragons, so I could refresh my memory about how to train a Deadly Nadder. I hope I didn't forget anything important.

The Nadder was on the verge of breathing fire, but it stopped itself. It circled them again at close range, keeping one curious eye on Heather. The pirates stopped rowing; if the dragon attacked their prey, they didn't want to be too close, but they still wanted to be able to pick through the wreckage for valuables.

"Come on down, dragon!" she called again.

"I sure hope you know what you're doing!" called the fancy man.

So do I, she thought.

After another half-circle, the dragon angled its wings and gently landed on the quarterdeck. The ship settled by the stern under its weight. It glared at Heather and made a squawking noise.

"Here you go," she called, and tossed one of her fish to it. It snapped the fish out of the air, and turned its head to watch her out of the other eye. She threw it the other fish.

"How about that?" she asked. "I bet people were never nice to you before. I'd like to be your friend." She held out her open hands. "See? No weapons. I'm harmless and I'm friendly." She took a slow step toward it.

It turned sideways, and its tail spines shot erect with a ghastly rattling sound that all Vikings feared. In the bow, the sailors and passengers gasped and tried to hide behind the crates and barrels of cargo.

Heather froze. She forced herself to stand her ground. "It's okay!" she made herself say. "It's okay. I'm not going to hurt you." She took another step.

This wasn't a big Nadder; it was probably a young dragon. It kept one eye on her. The spines were ready to shoot, but it didn't look like its tail was cocked in a shooting position. She slowly closed the distance to the dragon, saying peaceful things, making no sudden moves, holding eye contact with it. No one else on the ship moved a muscle.

"You're a very pretty dragon," she said. "Unless you're a boy, in which case you're a very handsome dragon. Sorry, I can't tell the difference." She hesitantly reached out to touch its tail.

It flinched away, and for a moment, she thought it was going to throw its spines at her. But she stayed where she was, hand outstretched, looking into the dragon's eye. It slowly brought its tail back until it brushed against her fingertips. She stroked it, and the spines began to relax.

"Do you like that? I could do that for you every day if you wanted me to," she said softly. The Nadder reached its head back to her; she scratched its neck, and the dragon crooned in delight. Up in the bow, she heard a rush of air, as though several dozen people who'd been holding their breath had suddenly exhaled. She kept her attention on her dragon.

A wave broke over the gunwales, and water slopped on the deck. "I think you and I should get off this ship before you sink her," she told the dragon. "What do you think? Can I go flying with you?" She made a gesture that she hoped looked like flying. The dragon crouched; she used its knee as a step, climbed onto its back, braced herself, and shouted, "Let's go!"

The Nadder sprang into the air, and she nearly fell off. She felt the dragon adjust its attitude in the air so it wouldn't lose her. Reassured, she leaned forward. "Good work, dragon! Did you come out here to attack some people? You shouldn't attack the people on the ship we just left; they're good people. But do you see that other ship?" She pointed. "Those are bad people. If you want to set their ship on fire, that would be great."

The dragon dipped one wing in a sharp turn, straightened its neck, and went into a shallow dive, aiming itself like an arrow at the pirates. It pulled up as it passed over them and unleashed a blast of superheated flame. The sail was sliced in half by the blaze, and the mast began to burn as well. The flaming lower half of the sail fluttered down onto some of the pirates, who either fled to the bow or stern or jumped overboard to escape the fire. Their fellow pirates threw two spears and a hand axe at the dragon, but they all missed badly. When they saw the Nadder curling around for another attack, they all jumped into the sea, preferring the near-certainty of freezing and drowning to the absolute certainty of burning to death.

Heather felt herself smiling savagely. "I'm not a killer," she told the dragon, "but that felt good. If you stay with me, I'm going to call you Avenger." The dragon snorted eagerly and prepared to set the pirate ship's hull ablaze.

"No! Don't shoot!" she suddenly exclaimed. She nudged one of the dragon's horns to change her course. The Nadder looked back at her in confusion. "They had a prisoner! See? There's a young man still in the bow, all tied up! We'll land on deck, set him free, and get him to safety, and then you can blast the ship, okay?"

It took her a few tries to get the dragon to understand, but with many gestures, she got the message across. The dragon landed as lightly as it could on the deck, which nearly sank the ship – this vessel was a lot smaller than the ship she'd been riding a few minutes ago. She slid off the dragon's back, drew her belt seax, and stepped forward to rescue the hostage.

He cringed and pulled away from her in terror.

"It's okay!" she exclaimed in surprise. "Do you think I'm going to hurt you?"

"You've got a knife... you've got a dragon... you're burning the ship... what am I supposed to think?" he stammered.

"You're supposed to turn around so I can cut those ropes off your arms," she retorted. After a moment, he did so. Her blade was sharp, and made short work of the ropes that bound him. He stood, stretched, and massaged his wrists.

"I guess I should say 'thank you'," he began, "even if you did scare the life out of me." He puffed out his chest, which didn't amount to much. "Let me introduce myself. I am Leif, son of Thorn, adventurer for hire!"

"I'm Heather," she nodded, "and it doesn't look like your adventure was going very well."

He slumped. "No, my new career didn't get off to a very good start, did it? At least I've still got my life, and that's something."

"Your new career?" she wondered. "What was your old career?"

"A farmer," he said, as though ashamed of it. "A plain, simple farmer. My father left me some land in the Danelaw, out in the middle of nowhere, and it was working out pretty well, but..."

"But what?" she asked.

He hung his head. "It got lonely, farming all by myself," he said. "That's not a very manly attitude, but that's me. Single girls in the Danelaw are few and far between, and they don't like farmers. They like the bad boys, the manly men, the real Vikings! So I sold my plow and my tools, bought a sword, and set out on a new life. The idea was that I'd have some adventures, win some treasure, come home, and find a girl to impress. Instead, I got captured on my first voyage, lost the sword, and if you hadn't come along, they probably would have killed me. Speaking of which, what's the arrangement with you and that dragon?"

"Oh, we just met. We're learning to be friends," she said casually. "He's very handy for scaring pirates away." Her mind wasn't on that part of the conversation. "So what are you going to do next, Leif? Go back to your farm?"

"What's the use of that?" he exclaimed. "I'd still be lonely, and I sold all my tools. If I was going to be a farmer now, not only would I need a wife who doesn't go for the bad boys, I'd need a wife with some money to buy another plow and stuff."

Her mind was spinning now. He wasn't handsome, but he wasn't bad-looking, either. He had land and knew how to till it, he wasn't full of himself, he'd be grateful for the wealth in her little treasure chest, he was no brute...

...and his eyes were green.

She remembered the words of someone else with green eyes. "Did you ever consider marrying a farmer and settling down to the life of a nice, safe 'nobody'?"

"What if you found a girl like that?" she smiled.

He snorted. "I'd marry her in a cold minute! But girls like that don't exactly grow on trees!"

"No, you're right," she nodded. "Girls with money, who prefer a plain, simple farmer to the bad boys, don't grow on trees.

"But if you look carefully, you might find one growing in a patch of heather."

He looked confused for a few seconds, then startled. Then he smiled at her for the first time.

"Do you think you could teach the dragon to be friends with me, too?"

On that abandoned, burning pirate ship, with a dragon and a failed adventurer for companions, she somehow knew that her life had finally changed for the better.

THE END