Disclaimer: I do not own any of the main characters herein, who belong to Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, and Cressida Cowell.
YES this title was stolen from "With or Without You" by U2 and NO it doesn't have much to do with the story, nor do I feel particularly bad about ganking it.
Thank you to my twin, who is there to remind me that I shouldn't expect people to automatically go with the Elizabethan usage of words.
Elfy, mīn spell-wine, I certainly hope you like this.
As you read you may have questions. I hope in future chapters most of them will be answered. And I hope you all enjoy it!
Uh-oh. His dad had his Extra Serious Chief Business face on. Hiccup dropped into the chair opposite him without being asked; Toothless would just have to wait until Stoick shared whatever news had him so concerned.
"I've had a letter," he began, and there it was on the table, the vellum pale against the wood. Letters weren't common at all. If one had found its way up to Berk, something really important must have been going on somewhere. "Do you remember DunBroch?"
It'd been a while, since before his mom… "Yeah, I guess." There'd been a sea voyage that had felt long for a young boy, and at the end a strange stone building that loomed above a lake. The family that lived there had been a lot like his: a burly, brawny dad, a mom who was much stronger than she looked, and one child. The chieftain of DunBroch's heir was a daughter, named Merida. She had untamed spirals of red hair unlike anything he'd ever seen and clear blue eyes. She also had a tendency to glare and stamp her feet when she was angry, and to giggle mischievously when her dad indulged her. When they'd visited, Hiccup hadn't been old enough to be embarrassed around girls yet, so Merida had liked him. Or at least she'd treated him with the same bluff affection she had for her dad's hunting dogs. He hadn't minded it, actually.
"They…" Stoick seemed lost for words. "Well. You might as well read it for yourself." He slid the letter forward and Hiccup noted the thick wax seal as he unfolded it. The message inside was written in a sophisticated, flowing hand that couldn't be more different from the hasty scrawling that resulted when anyone on Berk had the need to write something down.
To Stoick the Vast, chieftain of the Hairy Hooligan tribe of Berk,
from Fergus, chieftain of Clan DunBroch and chosen king of Alba,
We hope this missive finds you and your people well and prosperous. Our eldest daughter and heir to the throne, Merida, has reached a marriageable age, and we hope to help her find a suitable husband, one who will be a fitting consort for our future queen, an ally to our people in times of both peace and hardship, and a companion for the rest of our beloved daughter's days. To that end we invite the sons of our fellow chieftains to attend a fortnight-long gathering for the purpose of finding such a match among our noble neighbors. It is our fond wish that you and Hiccup will be able to join us at the next full moon.
With hopes of a renewed friendship, we are ever
by the hand of Her Majesty Elinor, Queen
The addendum wasn't really necessary, Hiccup thought, especially after the king's much less practiced signature. He reread the words, certain he'd understood them the first time through but just wanting to make sure. When he looked up Stoick was watching him expectantly.
"That's…some letter there, huh."
His dad seemed relieved that he wasn't angry or something. If he was going to be perfectly honest, Hiccup wasn't sure how he felt. Some days he wished he was still the useless one that everyone bossed around and no one trusted with anything important. "What do you think?" Stoick asked him.
He glanced down at the letter, where the words suitable husband seemed bolder and bigger than the rest. Did they remember him at all? Could they possibly have thought he'd grown up to be like his dad, who was more suitable and fitting and all the other adjectives the queen had used? "They must be kind of desperate to be writing all the way up here. There've got to be possibilities closer than Berk."
Stoick nodded slightly. "Closer, maybe, but not better." His son managed to look both pleased and incredulous at the same time as his eyes scanned the letter, worrying his lower lip with his teeth.
"It says they're looking for an ally." That could mean they were expecting trouble, or just that they were smart enough to plan ahead. Judging from the queen's careful phrasing, it was easy to believe she was smart enough. An alliance could also mean more trade for Berk. "It wouldn't hurt to have ties to the mainland," he mused.
"That's true enough. It doesn't mean you have to sacrifice anything on our behalf, though."
Hiccup cocked his head and smiled wryly. "Anything else, you mean."
"I mean it, son. We can say no." Between the two of them they could probably even manage to do it in a way that wouldn't offend anybody. But this could be good for the tribe. The odds of the princess picking him to marry were slim, but they could build goodwill, make contacts for trading, renew the friendship his dad had once had with the Highland king. And besides, he was curious.
He shrugged one shoulder. "It's not a big deal. I'll go. I really doubt she's going to pick me of all the guys there."
"If you're sure."
"Yep." He sounded more confident than he felt.
"Then I suppose we'd better let them know we're coming."
As he wrote a message back, Hiccup wondered if they knew about the dragons. He'd already had to fight with half of the village over the fact that he wouldn't allow the dragons to be used as offensive weapons; he sure wouldn't let some foreign kingdom have that kind of power. Then again, if they didn't know, they would as soon as one showed up with a message. Better send someone with enough common sense not to fly right up to the castle and probably get themselves shot in the process. That left Fishlegs or…
"And that's the Macintoshes," the queen said, dropping a reply onto the table.
There was still one more yet to be answered. Merida hoped this would all turn out differently than it had done previously—including that no magic would be involved. This time she had to choose, whether or not she loved any of the suitors.
When she'd told her parents that she wanted to call another gathering they'd actually tried to talk her out of it. "You have time, dear," her mum had assured her. "You needn't rush to choose."
"Don't tell me you like one of them," her dad had scoffed.
Ever since the first gathering, Elinor and Fergus had been careful not to push her into deciding anything about her future, especially as they first had to spend time together, fortifying their familial bonds. Though the lords had agreed to give their children time, Merida suspected that they were not letting their sons off quite as easily as her parents were her. She and the heirs had started to correspond; no more than a week after they'd left the first letter arrived, and one came nearly once a week after that. From their letters she learned a few things about the lads—walnuts gave Wullie Dingwall hives and Domnall MacGuffin didn't care much for swimming—but none of the letters contained any words that made her feel anything more than amiable toward any of them. Maybe, she'd thought with forced optimism, it just wasn't possible for a mere letter to contain their true spirit; maybe they needed to meet again to fall in love. It had to be easier to choose face-to-face.
The more time had passed, the stronger she had felt about it. None of the clans had started grumbling yet, but the lords weren't the most patient of men under ideal circumstances; they had to be chafing at the bit as they waited. And if her lessons taught her anything, it was that crowns always perched precariously on royal heads. The slightest provocation could send the crown tipping off, often followed by the head itself. She couldn't do anything that would make the nobles doubt her father's position, or doubt that she should succeed him, not after she'd been raised to become the queen, been entrusted with all the things her parents knew of ruling. The kingdom needed the stability that came from a clear line of succession, and no one, including the triplets themselves, wanted to see rule pass to one of her brothers if anything happened to her. It would be better for her to pick a husband, produce an heir, and get on with ruling.
And she might have been a little lonely. Her parents were so fond of each other, so affectionate and happy together, that she would have needed a heart of stone not to want that for herself. Her mum and dad seemed so perfectly matched that sometimes she despaired of ever finding anyone who would fit with her that well, who could know her inside and out and love her all the same. It didn't help that she was a princess. Girls who weren't princesses got to meet men, dance and flirt and steal kisses and eventually decide to marry; it was distinctly harder to get to know a young man when all he could do around you was bow and stutter, peeking over his shoulder to make sure no one was going to haul him off before the king for saying the wrong thing to the princess. Marrying one of the young lords wouldn't be perfect, but it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, either. Maybe one of them was secretly romantic and was just waiting for the right time to come in and sweep her off her feet.
And maybe Angus would sprout wings and fly.
The previous spring they'd all been invited to Wee Dingwall's wedding. When the invitation had arrived she'd been surprised and even a bit disappointed; though they both knew they didn't love each other they'd become friends through their correspondence, and Merida couldn't help but feel hurt that he hadn't told her before of his betrothal. But when she met the bride-to-be and saw the way the young lord looked at his intended, utterly smitten, Merida couldn't be upset. Lord Dingwall had spent the whole ceremony torn between agony over his son's missed chance with the princess and pride that he'd found a willing wife, and before any of the other heirs to boot.
That left the Macintosh and MacGuffin heirs to contend for her heart and hand. The decision wasn't much clearer, even with the field narrowed to two: just when she thought Ewan Macintosh had the advantage with his description of a favorite hunting spot, Domnall MacGuffin would send a pressed flower and the story of how he'd seen it and thought of her. She suspected that the big lad fancied her and it made anxiety swirl through her stomach, unsure as she was of how she felt about him, and whether it would be crueler to marry a man whose feelings she might never match or to break his heart all at once by choosing someone else.
When Elinor had suggested broadening the search beyond the original suitors Merida had agreed, only later considering how much more exhausting that could make the whole ordeal. They'd sent invitations to men of good repute throughout the kingdom, common as well as noble. And then one afternoon Fergus had emerged from a council session looking unusually grave. Mother and daughter exchanged concerned glances but left him be until he was ready to speak.
Eventually he'd asked, "Do you remember Stoick the Vast?"
She nodded to show she remembered the man, a coarser version of her father, gruff but kind in his way.
"And," Fergus had gone on more slowly, "do you remember his son?"
"Ah," she'd said, or perhaps it had been Elinor. Either way the implication was clear.
"I'll not lie to you. Clans to the north have reported more Viking raids recently—though not from Stoick's tribe, mind. And there have been…sightings."
"Of what, dear?"
Fergus had grimaced into the fire for a moment before turning to the two. "Dragons," he'd said almost sheepishly.
They'd talked, the three of them, for nearly an hour after that, and then Elinor had gone off to pen another invitation. Afterward Merida had wondered vaguely if she ought to feel outraged that her dad had even suggested such an alliance. She certainly would have done in the past, but this time all he'd done was introduce the possibility. It was a possibility that made sense. An alliance would help protect the clans; it would give them and Stoick's tribe leverage over the marauders, and assurance of mutual protection. It would be as smart as any match with a Highland lord. She saw no harm in letting a Viking try his luck, and said as much to her parents.
And then there was the matter of the dragons. Her reaction and her mum's had at first been incredulity, but her dad's cocked eyebrow and significant look at Elinor had silenced any possible denial. Witches and magical transformations existed, so why not dragons? The existence of such creatures may have been more plausible now, but that just meant the questions were more pressing: Were they in imminent danger? If so, how could they defend themselves? Fergus urged her not to worry, saying it was only rumor so far; if they'd any luck at all it would stay rumor.
Before she'd gone to her room she had popped into her brothers', where some of the books from the library had found a home. Hubert liked to read, to his mother's delight, and often forgot to return books when he was finished with them. A stack of them was on the desk in the corner, and in the midst of the pile was one that she'd hoped would help: Faery Tales and Phantasms.
Past the brownie and kelpie, past the unicorn and seonaidh, and then there it was. Dragon. The book was not as helpful as she'd dimly hoped it would be; it described the wings and tail, scales and fiery breath and love of treasure, the things that everyone just knew about the beasts. Then it went on to tell about heroes who'd faced down the dread creatures and triumphed because they were pure of heart and driven by the noble willingness to sacrifice their lives for their people and the love of a beautiful maiden. "What bollocks," she'd muttered under her breath. Driven by the desire for some of the treasure, more like, and the chance to get a wife without having to do any wooing.
Not only had the stories not told her anything she didn't already know, all the heroes in them were men. They charged in on their white horses and waved their swords around while the women stood (or swooned) patiently off to one side, only to pledge their hearts to the brave warriors who had saved them. If nothing else, it seemed that it would be easier to kill a dragon with help. Apparently proper heroes always worked alone, though.
Merida had shut the book impatiently and thought of the other part of her dad's news, staring into the fire. Stoick's son with the funny name had been relegated to distant reaches of her memory; there wasn't much more than knobby knees and dirty hands, bright green eyes and a squeaky voice and questions without end. Some of the questions he had asked, of whomever was there who might have the answer to how deep is the loch, who put up the standing stones, what is haggis made of, but with some he'd skipped the asking and gone right for the finding out himself. She'd liked that, the way his boring tendency toward thoughtfulness was kept in check by a welcome reckless streak. Now she realized that in reality it had probably been the other way around. She wondered if he'd grown out of either trait.
When the reply came her mum had dropped her fork. She'd handed over the letter without a word and Merida had scanned over the pleasantries and acceptance of the invitation until she read the words My son and I will be traveling by dragon. Stoick went on to assure them that the dragons wouldn't pose a threat to anyone and would stay hidden well away from the castle, but she hardly cared about that. Dragons were real, and one would be coming to DunBroch.
It might almost be enough to make the whole thing bearable.
A seonaidh is a water spirit from the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides.