This is sort-of a sequel to Home Cooking, and part of a trilogy I'm writing before I get started on my big meandering epic multi-chapter story. Trilogy is called 'Hidden Depths' and in case you couldn't tell, is twin-focused.
I don't own stuff that belongs to Dreamworks yadda yadda.
Image song for this fic: The Sore Feet Song ( watch?v=U-6fkNf1C48)
As it stood, the amount of times Toothless had saved Hiccup's life versus the amount of times Hiccup had saved his was a ratio of 17-3 in Toothless' favour. It would be pedantic to say Hiccup owed him one. More to the point, Hiccup owed him 14.
The illness started with some mild puking, nothing new to the average pet owner. Hiccup cleaned it up and only whined about it a little. Then the fever hit, which was more worrying, and then he started having grand-mal seizures, which was panic inducing. Gobber was summoned, along with Gothi, and between them they dosed the dragon up with vast quantities of a medicinal herb they had for these types of illnesses. However, Toothless being a dragon and therefore several times the size of the average Viking, the doses were only sufficient to stave off the fever for a short time. Meanwhile, they were stuck waiting for Trader Johann to arrive with more stockpiles of the herb.
"Great," Hiccup sighed with relief, stroking Toothless' clammy head soothingly. "How soon will he be here?"
"Dunno, could be weeks," Gobber shrugged non-committal.
"WEEKS?" Hiccup exploded, causing the sick dragon to mumble in annoyance. "He might not have weeks!"
"I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do," Gobber told him. At least this time he did sound somewhat contrite. "It's a very rare herb, only grows under certain conditions. And we've used up the entire village's stock on one dragon already."
"Where does it grow? Maybe we could get to it," Hiccup asked. He had no idea how he'd get to anything with no dragon, but he'd cross that bridge when he got to it. Maybe there'd be an actual bridge involved...
"I told you, Bloodwort is rare. It only grows at high altitudes in sheltered circumstances..."
"High altitudes? Could there be some on Berk?"
"Maybe, but nowhere accessible to us."
Hiccup only heard the 'maybe' part; his mind was already ticking furiously.
"I need you to take me up the Red Steps."
Inwardly he winced, because once he'd said it out loud it sounded like a terrible euphemism for something dirty. However, Ruffnut's occasionally protective brother wasn't beating him up so it probably went unnoticed.
"Why would you need to go up the Red Steps?" Ruffnut asked him, looking at him as if he had gone completely insane.
"Toothless is really sick, and I need this herb to help him get better. I think it might grow on the Red Steps," he told her.
"Oh yeah? What herb?" she asked.
"Bloodwort. Do you think it grows up there?"
"I know it does, I've seen it," she told him flippantly. Tuffnut was ignoring their conversation and concentrating hard on digging something out of his ear.
"Great!" said Hiccup as waves of relief washed over him. "So you can bring me up there with you!"
"Nope," she said. "Too dangerous."
"Please! The whole island has run out and who knows when Trader Johann will turn up?"
"Relax, I'll just go get it for you. I'm overdue a trip up there anyway."
He blinked for a minute, because that was surprisingly generous of her and he was confused. Then he thought on it again.
"No, I need as much as we can carry. Please, I'll do anything!"
He was getting perilously close to getting down on his knees and begging, and the ground looked cold and wet. Luckily, she rolled her eyes and nodded.
"Okay, okay, just stop begging, he's so pathetic you're gonna make me cry. Or punch you, I'm not sure. Whatever. Meet me at sunrise at our house."
And then she walked off. Hiccup stood there for a little while, dumbfounded. He hadn't expected it to be that easy. Then he walked off too, looking to catch an early night's sleep. He'd been walking about five minutes when Tuffnut shouted after him.
"Dude! What did you say about my sister?"
He arrived at the twins' house a few minutes before sunrise, and was surprised to find Tuffnut was awake and working. He was twisting bread dough around a specially-built pole in the centre of the kitchen and tying it into complicated-looking shapes. He acknowledged Hiccup with a nod, and then went straight back to work.
"So, uh, where's Ruffnut?" he asked awkwardly.
"She's outside prepping her climbing tools," Tuffnut told him, not missing a beat with his knot-tying.
Hiccup sat down at the table in silence, Tuffnut worked on his bread in silence. Hiccup had only been alone with either of the twins once, and as Tuffnut had been sick and delirious at the time it didn't really count. He had no idea how to carry on a conversation with either of them. Tuffnut finished his bread-knot and moved swiftly on to something else. He had two hollow loaves of bread sitting by the hearth and as Hiccup watched, he took two potatoes out of the cooking pot and wrapped slices of roast mutton around them. Then tossed them into the hollow loaves.
There were two leather shoulder bags on the table and Tuffnut filled them with the hollow bread, plus two honey-and-raisin rolls, two canisters of warm mead and a number of other small foodstuffs that Hiccup didn't see properly. Then he tossed one of the bags at Hiccup.
"That one's yours," he said flippantly.
Ruffnut's generosity confused him the day before, Tuffnut's left him flabbergasted. He sputtered out a mumbled '...thanks." If Tuffnut heard him, he didn't show any sign.
Ruffnut strolled in then, carrying a collection of wicked-looking hooked blades and a half-dozen of what looked like black eggs. She didn't even bother greeting Hiccup, just slung her own bag over her shoulder and wrapped the eggs in a long band of cloth. She hung the blades from her belt and then spared a glance at Hiccup.
"Ready to go?" she asked him.
"Uh, yeah," he mumbled.
"See ya," she called to her brother and hustled out the door, Hiccup stumbling after her. Tuffnut just nodded.
Part of the reason the Red Steps were so hard to access was the presence of an immense, furiously flowing river that some genius had named Odin's Pathway. It petered out into a lake further down the island and it trickled into marshland beyond the far border, but the place it gushed forth the strongest happened to be the closest access point to the Red Steps. It was no good for fishing because the fish got swept away too quickly to be caught. The rocks broke to pieces any boats that were put on it and tore down any bridges they attempted to build. It was unanimously decided that Odin's Pathway was too difficult to be bothered with.
Except for Ruffnut, apparently. She was fussing with a nearby tree while Hiccup stared into the abyss of swirling water.
"So, uh..." he began. "How are we gonna cross the doom river?"
She didn't answer him. Instead she pulled a long, thick rope seemingly out of the roots of the tree and tugged on it until it rose out of the water. And now Hiccup could see that the other end was firmly tied to a tree on the other side. After Ruffnut had tied the free end to a large boulder, she repeated the action until there were two ropes suspended across the river, one above the other.
He had to admit, it was impressive. But there was one little thing that niggled at him...
"Hey, how did you get the rope on the other side?" he asked her.
"Swam it," she said breezily. "Got washed about a mile downstream, but made it to the other side."
She climbed up on the ropes and started to shimmy across, and he hurried to follow her, but the first time he put his metal foot down on the lower rope, it slipped and he nearly fell in. He knocked both ropes over sideways and his hair brushed the surface of the water. He clung to the top rope, trying to regain his footing, but his prosthetic couldn't gain any traction at all. Cursing his bad luck, he began to hyperventilate as he inched closer to the water. He'd never been a good swimmer...
A shove sideways sent him flying back onto dry land and knocked the wind out of him. As he struggled to catch his breath again, Ruffnut jumped down beside him. Her braids were soaked and dripping water down her back, but she didn't seem bothered by it.
"Okay, we'll try this another way."
Hiccup knew better than to protest when she essentially trussed him up onto her back like a giant baby and shimmied across the crude rope bridge almost effortlessly. The extra weight made the ropes tilt again, but her grip was strong and she never lost her footing.
They reached the other side just as the sun was climbing the sky. She untied him and let him drop to the ground, and despite the graceless landing he was just grateful she didn't make a big deal out of having to carry him across the river.
The steep banks of the river quickly gave way to sodden marshland and an expanse of trees mired in murky swamp water. Hiccup wondered if they were meant to walk across the exposed tree roots, but they looked brittle and likely to shatter if you tried to step on them. But then the issue was moot because Ruffnut hopped behind a tree and pulled out a boat.
Yes, a boat.
It was an odd-looking boat, white as petrified wood and patched in places with swatches of boiled leather. It was oddly spiked across the top too...wait a minute...
"Is that a dragon skull?" Hiccup asked incredulously.
"Yep," she answered as she climbed in and pulled some long poles from the side of the boat.
"How did you...what...?" he sputtered.
"Found it at the base of the Steps. Nobody was using it, so I took it," she said casually.
Looking closely, and it was hard to tell with the patches, but it appeared to be a Nightmare skull.
"And...this is our boat?"
"Floats, don't it?"
It was hard to argue with logic like that. He gingerly took a seat on one of the eye socket bumps while she took some of the black eggs out of her bag and perched them in a hollow on the brim. Then she tossed him a pole and ordered him to start rowing.
"If you feel anything moving against your oar, stop rowing. Got it?"
"Uh, yeah?" He was starting to feel very nervous.
"Good. Don't look so grim, the swamp is a breeze."
With that, she pushed off the bank and they went smoothly across the glassy surface of the water. It was uneventful, mostly, but every now and then Hiccup caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye, something sliding across the tree trunks or slipping through the mud of the swamp bed. There was a soft droning noise coming from somewhere and the sky was barely visible through the canopy of trees.
And then, something latched onto his oar.
He stopped rowing, as ordered. And tried to move the long pole up and back into the boat, but it was held firm. He could practically hear his heartbeat in his ears.
"Ruffnut? Something's got my oar," he whispered to her.
"Hm? Okay, move over," she said as she reached over and grabbed the oar.
With her free hand she picked up one of the black eggs and cracked it against the side of the boat. It started hissing and emitting gas, whereupon she dropped it into the water right beside the stuck oar. She waited for a full minute in complete silence, not moving a muscle, and Hiccup tried to follow suit despite now being slightly terrified.
Then, in a move that looked so polished and practiced he swore she could have been training for it just to show off to him, she thrust the pole out of the water and swung it over his head. There was something clinging to it, something with lots of teeth and spikes and other pointy things and easily the size of a yak, but it let go of the pole as she swung it and crashed into a tree, and then was underneath the water again before he could get a good look at it.
"What the...what...what was...!?" he gibbered.
"Big fish," she explained simply.
"Yeah. It tastes terrible."
He decided to let that one go, to ask about something else.
"What's in those eggs?"
"'Couple ounces of Barf's gas. It slows them down, they're pretty aggressive otherwise," she said calmly.
"How do fish even get that big around here?" he wondered, more to himself than anyone.
"No-one around to hunt them. Dragons can't get in here, most people don't even bother. They've got no competition for food, what's stopping them?"
That made sense. Ruffnut was turning out to be a lot more insightful than he'd ever given her or Tuffnut credit for.
About halfway through the swamp, they took a break from rowing and ate the honey-raisin bread. Ruffnut cracked another egg at the base of a tree, underneath a buzzing hive of some sort of large insect. One flew lazily past Hiccup's ear and he noted with trepidation that it was roughly the size of Toothless' eye socket.
Hiccup was relieved when he saw they were getting closer to the Steps, but that relief was short-lived as they rowed closer and found that the base of the Steps was a thick maze of woody brambles so big they looked like a hundred caves stacked on top of and around each other. He felt tired just looking at it.
But, there was no slowing down now. Ruffnut rowed them under a bramble cluster and tied the boat to it, then they both climbed up onto it. The surface was uneven and he wobbled, grabbing onto a jutting thorn for balance. Then he noticed splashes of bright paint not only on the thorn he was clinging to, but to a whole bunch in front of him. Red, green and blue.
"What are these for?" he asked.
"Pathfinders. Follow the red marks to get to the mountain base," she told him. She had her ear to the central branch and was concentrating hard on something.
"What about the other two colours?"
"Green is for night travelling, you take the red path at night you'll lose sight of the moon and get lost."
Hiccup tried to imagine getting lost in this maze. Looking into the hollows between the thorns they seemed to stretch for miles and faded to complete darkness. He barely suppressed a shudder. He didn't suppress it but let it run freely when Ruffnut tapped the wood and a strange rustling noise came from deep inside the bracken. The strange creatures were not confined to the swamp, it seemed.
"Here, you might need these," she said, handing him two of the black eggs. Then she broke one and tossed it into the cavern in front of them. She wrapped a scarf around her nose and mouth and Hiccup copied her as best he could, then they entered the nest of thorns.
Climbing through it was hard work. The surface was rugged and made his bad leg ache, and although Ruffnut was pacing herself to let him keep up with her, he felt out of breath and winded.
"We haven't even reached the mountain yet," he thought sourly, reminding himself that he was doing this for Toothless.
By the time they emerged from the brambles at the base of the mountain, he was ready to drop. Ruffnut looked insultingly fresh as a daisy by comparison. He sat on the ground, slumped over a canister of water and a handful of dried fruit while she checked her equipment and fiddled with her ropes. Within moments his respite was over and she was hauling him to his feet.
"Here's how we're gonna do this," she started by way of preparation. "See those grooves in the mountain?"
He looked, and saw a series of pits cut into the Cliffside every couple of inches. He nodded.
"You're going to use those as footholds. Don't even bother trying to climb, I'm going to tie you to me and you can hang onto the rope."
"But I...that seems a little..."
She sighed. "You ever climb a mountain before?"
"I... not really, no."
"Then don't try getting all macho on me now, you'll just get yourself killed. Then I'll have to waste a whole bunch of my time finding your body and dragging it back home. Do as you're told."
She went up first, digging her hooked blades into the grooves and hauling herself up easily. There was ten feet of rope between them, and as soon as the rope became taught, he followed her up, clinging tightly to the rope with fists and arms and fitting his feet into the groves for balance. If the extra weight was a hindrance to Ruffnut, she didn't show it.
About a quarter of the way up, and the altitude already making him dizzy, Hiccup's metal foot slid out of the groove and he fell, for what was likely only a few seconds but felt like an eternity. Then he stopped as the rope halted his fall and battered him against the Cliffside. He looked up, and saw Ruffnut hanging on to the mountain with one hook and holding the rope with the other.
About halfway up, there was a natural shelf cut into the mountain face. It was barely big enough to fit the two of them, but they took a break for lunch there. Hiccup had never felt so ravenously hungry in his life and he gulped down his mutton slices, potato and bread in seconds, delighted to find they were still warm. And once he was done, there was nothing to do but admire the view (admittedly, spectacular even when not from the back of a dragon) and attempt to make conversation with his guide.
"So, uh," he began, "why did you start coming up here anyway?"
Strangely enough, she didn't hit him for being nosey. He was starting to think the twins were only violent in each other's company.
"Remember when everyone in the village got that weird yellow plague?"
"Yeah..." That had been four years ago, and was one of the biggest crises Berk had ever faced. They'd lost almost every child between the ages of newborn and three years, half of the elderly and the village nearly went bankrupt buying medicinal herbs from the traders.
"Tuffnut got it real bad," she continued. "He gets every illness going so of course he gets this one, and we had no money to buy herbs, so I came up here to look for wild ones."
"So, you made the boat and the pathfinders and all that other stuff just to help your brother?" Funny, he thought she liked seeing him in pain...
"Pfft, no! I didn't have any of that stuff the first time. Took me three days to get to the top and back."
Hiccup tried to imagine making the journey they'd just made, over the course of three days with none of the fail safes she'd put down, but when he tried he felt a strange sort of terror well up inside him.
"How did you cross the swamp without a boat?" he asked. Surely she didn't swim it, with those things in the water...
"Jumped through the trees. I lost one of my boots to those fish, it just barrelled out of the water and tried to grab me. After that I used to dump crushed valerian root in the water, but Barf's gas works way better."
"That's why I got stuck here for three days. Found my way just fine the first time, then tried to retrace my steps in the dark and I couldn't see a thing. Spent a whole day just trying to get back the other way, plus I dislocated my shoulder coming down the mountain so that slowed me down a lot..."
She kept talking, but he wasn't listening anymore. The strange terror that he felt, it was growing as the synapses in his brain fired up and connected all the dots. Four years ago, she'd have been twelve. Her brother had nearly died because they were too poor to afford the herbs to save his life, and out of desperation she'd nearly gotten herself killed looking for help in the most dangerous spot on Berk.
He remembered seeing them shortly after the plague was starting to leave Berk, not knowing them well at the time he'd barely paid attention to them. But it would have been hard not to notice how thin and sickly Tuffnut looked, how his eyes were so sunken in their sockets it looked like someone had blackened them. And Ruffnut's arm was in a sling, every inch of exposed skin covered in small red scratches, and her practically asleep on her feet. It horrified him that any villager of Berk would have had to take such drastic measures to stay alive, especially two children.
"...pretty sure that's Bloodroot up there."
Her voice broke through his reverie and he realized she was pointing to a spot above his head. And when he looked, sure enough it was the distinctive bloated little white bulb he was looking for. Seeing it hanging there blew all the feelings of unhappiness and exhaustion right out of him and filled him with pure elation...
"...it's gonna be okay. Toothless will be fine, we've found the herbs. Hang in there, bud, I'll be back soon."
And in that moment, he knew exactly how Ruffnut felt on her own first trip up the Steps.
The rest of the trip felt like the easiest thing in the world, because for every ten feet of rockface there was a patch of Bloodroot perched on an outcropping. The twisting red vines that gave the Steps half of their name started growing about a fifth of the way up, and Ruffnut warned him not to put his feet anywhere near them because they were slippery and prone to breaking away from the wall. At this point he was so grateful to her he would have climbed up himself using nothing but said slippery vines if she told him to.
Their bags were bulging by the time they reached the summit, and he watched her climb down and around various different parts of the peak to pick up other herbs he didn't recognise. She allowed them both a ten-minute break, where they chugged their mugs of lukewarm mead for a quick burst of energy. Then they set off back the way they came.
The journey home was a breeze compared to the journey there. They were down the mountain in half the time it took to climb up, they took the blue path back through the bracken which, she informed him, was quicker but only safe at certain times of the day due to the path taking them straight through the middle of an insect colony.
She dumped the remaining eggs in the swamp as soon as they got there, and he got a closer look at the biggest, ugliest, spikiest fish he'd ever seen as it lazily drifted past the boat. Even crossing Odin's Pathway was easier, the swell of the river was reduced as the sun set and not as intimidating.
As soon as she sat him down on the bank, she wordlessly handed him her bag of Bloodroot and without a backward glance, he ran the rest of the way home.
They'd gathered more than enough to quell Toothless' fever, and as soon as his dragon was out of danger, he was mildly content to leave him for a few minutes. He'd forgotten to thank Ruffnut properly for her help, and even though it was odd for a Viking to have good manners, he took a certain amount of pride in being courteous. He could work out a suitable gift later on. Maybe a shield. She liked shields. Probably.
He knocked on the door. Tuffnut answered, and just looked at him without saying a word.
"Uh..." Hiccup began.
"Um, I just wanted to thank your sister..."
"Don't mention it," Tuffnut said and continued staring. Was it so hard to have a normal conversation with either twin?
"Well, I kinda wanted to say it to her..."
Tuffnut cracked the door open an inch and sure enough, she was asleep. More to the point, she was slumped over the table with half a mug of warm yak milk in front of her. A blanket was draped over her, tucked in neatly at the sides. The sight made Hiccup's heart ache a little, though he couldn't have said why.
"Oh, well I guess..." he stammered.
"I'll tell her you said thanks. Bye!" Tuffnut said, and then closed the door abruptly.
Hiccup stood there for another full minute, then shrugged his shoulders and went back to see to his ailing dragon.
The Sore Feet Song
I walked ten thousand miles, ten thousand miles to see you,
And every gasp of breath i grabbed at just to find you,
I climbed up every hills to get, to you,
I wondered ancient lands to hold, just you.
And every single step of the way, of pain,
Every single night and day,
I searched for you.
Through sandstorms and hazy dawns i reached for you.
I stole ten thousand pounds, ten thousand pounds to see you,
I robbed convenient stores coz i thought they'd make it easier.
I lived off rats and toads, and i starved for you.
I fought off giants bears and i killed them too.
And every single step of the way, of pain,
Every single night and day,
I searched for you.
Through sandstorms and hazy dawns i reached for you.
I'm tired and i'm weak, but i'm strong for you.
I wanna go home, but my love gets me through.