Chapter 1 At Last
- This is Berk.
It snows nine months of the year, and hails the other three.
Any food that grows here is tough and tasteless.
The people that grow here are even more so.
The only upsides are the pets.
Where some people have ponies or parrots...
...we have dragons.
A small dragon known as a Terrible Terror landed flat on the sleeping boy's face, chittering loudly.
- Most people would be put off housing with vicious, fire-breathing reptiles.
The Terror gave the boy a friendly flame-burst hello before fluttering up to the shoulder of its master: a burly, dark-haired man sporting a scar from brow to cheek on the right side of his face. The boy took him in blearily.
- Not us. We're Vikings.
The boy rubbed his face, checking to make sure his eyebrows were still there.
- We can handle it.
"Rise and shine, Hiccup! Time to get moving," said the man. He moved to the next sleeping form with similar encouragements. The boy sat up with a weary sigh, rubbing his eyes against the flickering firelight.
- That's me. Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third. I've never met a dragon I didn't like.
Hiccup swung his legs over the edge of the bed and reached down, sleepily fumbling for his prosthesis.
- Well... actually there was this one dragon... as big as a mountain, with a really bad attitude. So terrible we called him Death. He and I had a little disagreement over the summer.
Grateful that he'd repeated the process so many times he could do it in his sleep, Hiccup closed his eyes again as he settled the stump of his left calf into the attachment. His hands automatically located the straps and cinched them tightly around his leg.
- But that dragon came off much worse than I did. And now my village is safer for it. The Chief was proud of me that day. Even better... so was my dad.
It's just lucky for me they're one and the same.
Prosthetic foot securely attached, Hiccup reached into the basket under his bed to pull out his belt and his vest. And an overcoat. And some mittens. And an extra sock for his right foot.
- So now instead of spending all our time defending ourselves against dragon raids, we get to do other things... like spend three weeks cooped up in a snowbound lodge in the freezing cold, learning the finer points of tracking and hunting.
"Let's go! We're burning daylight!" urged the man.
"How do you burn daylight when it's still dark?" groaned a gangly boy with long blonde hair. He nestled deeper under his covers.
"You're the expertyou tell me," the man answered, and he whipped the blanket away. The boy clamped into a tight cringe and shivered against the sudden chill. "Up, now! Speck, go get them up in the loft," the man added to his dragon, pointing.
The Terrible Terror happily obliged and flapped away.
- The big guy ripping the blankets off my friends is Spitelout Jorgenson. My dad's right-hand man. He's been teaching Vikings how to hunt as long as I can remember.
"Is breakfast ready yet?" asked a muscular, dark-haired boy.
- That's his son Snotlout.
"After we pack up," said Spitelout, walking over to another bed.
- Over there is Fishlegs.
Spitelout gave the rotund young man yet another shake.
"Just five more minutes..." Fishlegs murmured.
And then Fishlegs lost his blanket, too.
The gangly blonde finally sat up and blinked, reaching for his socks. "This is really the last day, right? I'm getting kind of sick of waking up to you guys' faces."
- That's Tuffnut. His twin sister Ruffnut is even more charming than he is.
There came a cry of disgust from above, and a second later Speck the Terrible Terror came sailing out of the loft, not entirely of his own accord. He landed on Tuffnut's head with a squeal.
- Ruffnut's been sharing the upstairs with the only other girl to come on this little excursion.
"Where's my saddle?"
Hiccup heard that voice and the sleep fled from his eyes. He tried his best not to appear as disheveled as he felt.
She stood lightly at the top of the stairs, her sunny hair bound in a thick, hurried plait. Hiccup was just admiring the way one loose hank of it always fell across her eyes when he realized he was putting his mittens on the wrong hands.
"They're all by the door," answered Spitelout. "I want an early start; ready your mounts soon as you can."
"You going out, Astrid?" Hiccup asked as he pulled his boot on.
"Yeah..." she answered.
Hiccup sprang from his bed and moved toward the door to get his saddle.
"...Just as soon as I get the rest of my things packed. I'll be right out," Astrid finished, and disappeared to the back of the loft.
"That's the way, Hiccup. Good lad," said Spitelout, grabbing Hiccup's saddle and thrusting the bundle of cloth and leather trappings into Hiccup's arms. The old hunter slid back the bolt and opened the door in one fluid motion, briefly flooding the lower room with a chill.
Hiccup glanced hurriedly toward the loft. "Ah, okay, I guess I'll see yououtside," he called back as Spitelout shunted him out into the snow.
"Need any heavy lifting there, Astrid?" Hiccup heard Snotlout say before the door was closed and all sound was lost.
That was Astrid.
With a sigh, Hiccup hefted the bundle in his arms and squinted into the dimness. Stark pines loomed in the pre-dawn haze, awash with frozen waves of white.
- Okay, so maybe this isn't exactly Berk...
This is actually the island of Forget Me. Great name, I know, but it fits. We call it that because that's what everyone who sets foot here wants to do. It's the coldest, wettest, most miserable rock along the entire Meridian of Misery.
So much snow falls here that they say the ground underneath has never actually seen daylight.
Do I believe it?
Hiccup picked a beeline course to where his mount would be, and started wading.
- Yes I do.
After only a few steps, his foot began to squeak. The mainspring always squeaked when it was cold. The animals would hear every step of his approach.
Well, every other step.
Hiccup's prosthetic left foot had been needing some refitting. The lower bolt was beginning to rust again. But there was time enough to worry about fixing that back home. For now he was just pleased with how well the snowshoe attachment was working out. He had built it just for this hunting trip.
Frosty moonlight peeked through the pines, silvering Hiccup's breath as he came to the clearing where the animals had bedded down.
He saw the snow-dusted mounds of their bodies, gently rising and falling amid the white drifts. One of the pack-Nadders lifted its scaly, horny head at his approach. It eyed him sleepily for only a moment, yawning a huge, toothy yawn and sticking out its forked tongue before nestling back down among its fellows.
- By the way, Berk's kind of short on horses.
Crunch-squeak-crunch-squeak-crunch... Hiccup passed the frills of the rest of the Deadly Nadders, jutting from the snow like inverted icicles. He passed the ridged horns and huge form of Snotlout's dragon, a blood-red Monstrous Nightmare named Fireworm, followed by a smaller, snoring mass that could only have been Miniboss, the Gronckle that belonged to Fishlegs.
At the far end of the temporary nest, Hiccup found the Thorston twins' two-headed Hideous Zippleback, but saw no sign of his own dragon.
"Toothless?" he called softly, "Come on, bud, we get to go home today..."
Hiccup shivered. The morning was so still. Hesitant to disturb the brooding silence, he whispered a little louder, "Toothless!"
A barely-audible churning of wet snow made Hiccup turn. He spotted two green eyes gazing languidly out at him from beneath one of Fireworm's enormous wings. The head the eyes belonged to inched a little farther out of the snow, revealing charcoal-black scaly skin under the thick white frosting.
"There you are," Hiccup smiled wearily. He retraced the path he had ploughed through the drifts until he came even with his Night Fury. Dropping saddle and harness to the ground (and watching them disappear into a drift), he held out a friendly hand. "You ready to go home, Toothless?"
Toothless shook the snow from his head and auricles, spattering Hiccup slightly, and edged forward for a scratch under the chin.
"Come here, let's get you strapped up..." said Hiccup, moving back a pace.
The Night Fury uncurled and stood to stretch, smoke and steam wafting up from the fading bed of embers the dragon had laid for himself the night before. It was a convenient way to keep warm in lieu of roost or cave.
Arching his back so high into the Nightmare's wing that he woke her up, Toothless shook the remaining snow from his wings and came to stand ready before Hiccup. He knew the routine.
Fireworm merely shifted with a grunt and burst into a mild orange flame.
"Ooookay let's back up a little, c'mere Toothless... here we go..." Hiccup quickly snatched his saddle from the snow and moved to a safe distance. Toothless followed with a reluctant little grumble as behind him, Miniboss snuggled closer to share in Fireworm's warmth.
The innate ability to ignite her own skin for brief periods of time had made the Monstrous Nightmare quite popular among the other dragons during the dark, frigid hunting trip. Occasionally the feeling was even mutual.
But despite the immense appeal of returning to nestle under the great flaming wing, Toothless could not slight Hiccup's call. He could never let down the human on whom he depended for so much.
- Oh, and there's one more thing you need to know...
He stood obligingly still and steady as Hiccup sorted out the bundle and began fastening on harness, saddle, and prosthesis.
Hiccup was not the only amputee on the expedition. Consequently, getting Toothless saddled for the day was a complicated affair. But the heat and glow from the adjacent combusting Monstrous Nightmare were comforting during the long process in the chill morning. Hiccup wondered if perhaps he worked slowly enough, Astrid would finish packing in the meanwhile, and they could have some time to chat when she did come out...
"How does a Night Fury hide so well in the snow anyway, huh?" Hiccup mused to his black dragon. He gave Toothless another scratch as he assembled the intricate rig that would allow him to provide movement and flexibility to a false left tail-fin, via the stirrup.
Toothless' own left tail-fin, crucial to his balance in the air, had been lost months previouslywhen Hiccup himself had brought the dragon down by means of a mad, mechanized bolas-launcher, as his village was under raid.
But in aiming to kill, he had only managed to make the creature lame.
But the enmity between Vikings and dragons was now long gone and past, which was a good thing, as it had taken the strength of both sides to defeat the Death.
Hiccup's eyes drifted to his memento of the incident, now strapped to his leg and enabling him to walk.
For in aiming to save, Toothless had only managed to salvage his human friend.
But however disabled each was on his own, when they were together, with the help of the harness Hiccup had designed, they could move with the grace of a swan and the speed of a falcon.
After securing the fin's control-lines along the length of Toothless' tail, Hiccup eased himself back to his feet, leaning against the dragon for support. He winced at the pressure in his calf.
Toothless turned his head and rumbled in concern.
"No, I'm okay, bud," Hiccup grunted through his teeth, hobbling toward the dragon's head, "I'm goodit'll stop in a minute. It always does."
Toothless gave him a lick, and Hiccup felt the slobber immediately freeze to his skin.
"Thank you for that," he said, rubbing his cheek.
There was a crunching of snowy footfalls.
"This one is your saddle, that one is my saddle!"
"Are your eyes painted on your head? This one is mine!"
Tuffnut and Ruffnut stomped past, kicking up the snow in a flurry and properly shattering the silence. Hiccup watched them as he worked. They would take their identical saddles to their Zippleback to settle the matter, and each of the dragon's two heads, Belch and Flint, would sniff out its own saddleor whichever one it wanted, which preference Hiccup suspected changed every few days...
The twins were followed a few minutes later by a drowsy Fishlegs, who groaned when he saw his Gronckle snuggled up against the flaming Nightmare, the snow steaming off his knobbly brown hide. "Great. I'll never get Miniboss out of there," he complained to Hiccup.
"Well, Fireworm's been at it for a while," Hiccup reassured him, "I'm sure she'll burn out soon."
"I bet it's because he's got dragon-lice. They burrow into a dragon's skin through the cracks between the scales, and they suck its blood, and the only way to get rid of them is to burn them out," said Fishlegs, "I bet Monstrous Nightmares never get dragon-lice..."
Hiccup could think of no relevant response to this. "Ah, so did Astrid have an extra lot of packing to do?"
"No, she was ta-ta-talking to Spitelout," Fishlegs yawned. And he circled wide to try to approach his dragon from the coolest side. "Come on, Miniboss, time to wake up..."
Hiccup sighed. He was just about finished with the harness anyway. He swiveled the stirrup, testing its connections, and watched the tail-fin flex and flare in response. Good.
Content the job was done, he moved to face his Night Fury. "Let's go, bud," he said, rumpling the dragon's auricles. Toothless rumbled happily and nuzzled at Hiccup's ear, and the two of them started back through the pines, Toothless mowing a path through the occasional deep drift with a blue-white stream of flame.
The sun finally crested the distant mountains, throwing the surrounding woods into a slightly less-dismal color as Hiccup and Toothless reached the lodge.
"We'll be ready to go in just a bit, Toothless," said Hiccup, "Just wait right hereI'll find us some breakfast." Toothless purred and flamed a wide circle of earth nearby, vaporizing the snow. He lay down to warm up on the steamy, blackened patch as Hiccup reached for the door.
Astrid flung it open before he got there.
"Well what else can I do?" she yelled over her shoulder before crashing into Hiccup and bowling him over with her saddle. He landed flat on a drift and sank, cutting a comically perfect silhouette in the snow.
"Hiccup! II didn't see you there," she stammered.
"Well, that's understandable," Hiccup wheezed, rubbing the back of his head, "I am a whole foot shorter than I used to be."
Astrid rolled her eyes and pulled him to his feet. She muttered a quiet "Sorry," and gave him the small courtesy of a smile at his pun before tromping off to find her dragon.
"It's not funny anymore, Hiccup," groaned Snotlout. He sauntered out the door with Fireworm's saddle over his shoulder and followed after Astrid.
Hiccup brushed the snow from his clothes and watched them walk away, the sun turning Astrid's hair to gold and her breath to heather-scented dragon-fire... and sighed again.
Feeling green eyes boring into his skull, he turned to see Toothless staring at him with interest.
"Would you stop looking at me like that?" Hiccup flustered, and retreated into the lodge.
He found a brief respite when Spitelout immediately handed him a plate of warm sausage and biscuits and a mug of delicious-smelling broth.
"Perfect timing, Hiccup! Eat it while it's hot," said Spitelout, which Hiccup knew to mean Eat it within thirty seconds. "Is your dragon ready to go?" Spitelout continued.
"Yeah, he's outside," said Hiccup, shoving some sausage into his mouth. He wished he had more time to enjoy it.
"Good. I'm going to get the Nadders. Not for you, Speck!" He paused to shoo his Terror away from the steaming food on the table, and turned to Hiccup again, "When you're done with that, start getting the dragons' food from the cellar."
"Mm-hm," Hiccup nodded, his cheeks bulging.
As Spitelout gathered up harnesses and leads, the twins tumbled through the door, looking winded. Tuffnut laughed and mashed his sister's helmet down over her eyes. "I told you that was my saddle!" he crowed.
Ruffnut's only answer for her brother was a swift punch in the gut.
"Ooughhey look, food," Tuffnut grunted as he doubled over.
"Later, Tuffnut," said Spitelout, tossing him a harness, "you come with me. Ruffnut, eat, then help Hiccup feed the dragons."
"My pleasure," Ruffnut purred, snatching a plate and making sure it passed close enough to Tuffnut for him to smell. She savored a succulent bite of sausage with a hum of pleasure.
"Speck! Come!" Spitelout called as he slung his quiver and bow. The little dragon zoomed up to his perch on the hunter's brawny shoulder, and Spitelout walked out the door, Tuffnut following with a groan.
Hiccup softened his biscuit (which seemed more brick than bread) in his broth before swallowing it whole. After three more gulps to empty his mug, he headed back outside and was promptly confronted with the twins' big green Zippleback towering over him. One of its heads seemed to have caught the scent of the sausage through a crack in the roof.
Beyond the enormous Zippleback, Toothless raised his head and thrummed expectantly.
"We're not going fishing today, bud," said Hiccup, circling the building, "Just gonna eat and leave. Got breakfast for you right here, hang on..." He came to the large hatch at the back of the lodge and pulled the heavy doors aside.
Hiccup took a deep breath at the entrance. Stairs were a lot harder than they used to be. He rolled his left calf, centering its weight. The mainspring shrieked with the cold.
Carefully descending the steps into the cellar he was immediately plunged into darkness. He felt his way gingerly along the wall, waiting for his eyes to adjust until he could see the glimmer of chains and hooks from the ceiling. There, hanging near the corner, was the young boar he had brought down the day before with only one arrow.
Before this outing, Hiccup had never been very fond of the business of hunting wild gamehe much preferred fishingbut in this instance he felt immensely proud, and couldn't wait to tell his father. During gutting, Spitelout had even helped him cut off the largest tusk (which was still quite small) for a trophy. Hiccup honestly hadn't considered keeping it, but he thought it was something his father might like to see. Presently it was tucked away in the basket under his bed. He was still working on boring a hole through it to make a necklace.
He hefted the boar down from its hook. It was only slightly frozen, but Toothless would be able to make do.
As soon as he lugged it above ground and around the corner, three dragon heads turned intently in his direction. Trained manners threatened to evaporate as they smacked their great jaws.
"Toothless, this one's yours, bud," Hiccup called. He edged between the Night Fury and the Zippleback, making sure the latter wouldn't try anything. "Bagged it just for you. Ready?" Hiccup grinned exaggeratedly.
Toothless' eyes widened as his whole body became tense. He knew this game. Though they usually played it with fish.
Hiccup swung the boar into the air with a mighty heave. "Flame it!" he shouted.
There was a blue-white bolt of heat as Toothless flash-fried the quarry in midair. He then caught it squarely in his jaws and began happily ripping it into bite-sized pieces. Contrary to what his name suggested, Toothless' two fine rows of shimmering teeth were quite effective to this end.
"Good boy," said Hiccup.
"Glad to see you found him something big enough to actually hit," Ruffnut tittered through a mouthful of biscuit.
Hiccup turned to see her standing near the door, scratching Belch behind the horns, her three long, blonde, bob-ended plaits swaying indifferently. He furrowed his brow. "What do you mean?" he asked.
She swallowed and started around the lodge with a scoff. "Really, you don't remember the time you tried it with a mackerel, and your dragon missed and blew a hole in my roof?"
"He didn't miss," said Hiccup, following after her, "He just... used too much fire, and..."
"Blew a hole in my roof, yeah," Ruffnut finished, ducking into the cellar and disappearing into the darkness.
Hiccup crossed his arms above her. "Oh, okay, so what was it when your dragon knocked out the smithy wall?"
"That was Tuff's dragon."
"They're the same dragon..."
"Whatever." There was a clinking of chains from the shadows. "Hey, help me with this," she said, coming back into view, dragging a deer by the antlers. She hoisted them up and Hiccup reached down to grab them.
"Ruffnut... Astrid seemed a little, ah, irate earlier," Hiccup panted as he hauled the animal up onto the snow, "Was something... bothering her? Or..."
"Ha!" Ruffnut laughed, pushing from below as she came up the stairs, "She's just sore she's not as good a shot as me," she smirked.
"Well nobody's as good a shot as you," said Hiccup. For Ruffnut had shown the greatest skill with the bow during the hunting trip.
And then Hiccup recalled that Astrid hadsurprisinglyshown the worst.
"Oh..." Hiccup grimaced with realization, "she's still upset about that, huh?" He took two of the deer's legs.
"Ugh, actually she won't shut up about it," Ruffnut groaned, taking the other two. They began to lug the animal around the lodge, toward the waiting Zippleback. "Every night, 'I need to train harder! I need to train harder!' I swear she started saying it in her sleep last night."
"But she's done so well with everything elsewhy's she being so hard on herself?" said Hiccup.
"Hey, Miss Perfect finally finds out she's mortal? That's gotta be a shock. But it's not my problem. Not after today." She gave a single, satisfied snort of laughter.
The Zippleback chirruped and chittered in anticipation when the carcass came into view. Ruffnut and Hiccup counted to three and lobbed it, Ruffnut supplying the magic words, "Get it!" at which consent the two heads darted in for the meat, fangs glistening.
Hiccup looked away before they could snap the deer in half, and saw Fishlegs leading his slightly singed Gronckle through the pines, both of them yawning.
Miniboss curled up to doze beside Toothless while Fishlegs followed his fellow trainees back around the lodge. "When Spitelout took my cousin Foxtoes on h-h-his first hunting trip," Fishlegs began with another yawn, "they weren't nearly this busy." He shivered at the cold and gave a very violent sneeze as Ruffnut disappeared into the cellar again.
"Well they never did it with dragons before," said Hiccup, "That's a lot of extra stomachs to feed."
"Yeah, but dragons can feed themselves," said Fishlegs, "We should have just let them go fishing like usual. It probably would have been better for their diet, too." He looked thoughtful.
"I think they'll be all right if they skip it for just one day," said Hiccup, "Besides, I don't think Spitelout wanted to spend another hour at the coast for that."
Until today, Spitelout had allotted some time each morning and afternoon for the dragons to feed, skimming fish from the ocean along a bleak stand of cliffs to the north. But these meal breaks took precious hours away from his carefully planned hunting exercises. All other hours in the day were consequently crammed all the tighter with instruction and field work.
Keeping them even busier was the added exploratory practice of hunting in tandem with their dragons, which no one from Berk had ever done before, and which everyone seemed to think Hiccup, as the first dragon-rider, knew all about. However, aside from helping Toothless to balance while skimming for cod, mackerel and the occasional young seal, Hiccup knew about as much of how dragons could stalk their prey as Toothless knew about bows and arrows.
But they had made a little progress. The easy part had been getting their dragons to refrain from immediately devouring the game they brought down. The hard part had been putting out the fires, or, in a few cases, locating the pieces of a recently detonated kill.
Astrid had actually done quite well hunting with her dragon, Quill, who was a Deadly Nadder and could forego the use of fire altogether, instead slinging barbs from his tail with clean, deadly accuracy. In her mind however, this still did not redeem her from her awful bow-work, which she found very little personal time to improve upon, with how busy Spitelout kept everyone.
Now on the final day of the trip, the old hunter was taking special pains to ensure no time was wasted. There were supplies to load and equipment to clean, meat to pack, and a very long way to go before they would reach their village again. The previous day, in an exhausting flurry of tracking and whispers in the endless snow, Spitelout had guided his trainees in trapping and shooting enough game to supply the dragons with a ready-to-eat breakfast, in order to expedite their imminent departure.
It was this stockpile of meat that Hiccup, Ruffnut and Fishlegs now found themselves lugging out of the cellar. Together, the three of them hauled out five more deer, another boar, two foxes, a number of hares, and some poor mangled thing that might have been a puffin at some point. (Unable to land an arrow, Astrid had resorted to her natural axe-throwing abilities for that one.)
Fishlegs had excelled at trapping small animals, and most of these went to Miniboss, finally stirring the Gronckle to full wakefulness. But the larger game was laid out ready for when Spitelout, Snotlout, Tuffnut and Astrid returned with Fireworm and the Nadders.
The dragons at the lodge eyed the meat fixedly, a smorgasbord seemingly going to waste on the snow, and the three young hunters decided that, although their dragons had just been fed, and were very well trained besides, someone had best keep watch until the others got back.
"Well I've still got some packing to do, so I nominate one of you guys," said Ruffnut cheerily. She slapped them both on the back and strode into the lodge.
Somewhere in the snow-dampened silence, a bird sang.
Fishlegs shuffled one foot in the snow. "Uh, would you mind if... I mean, could you..." He stepped toward the lodge. "I need to pack too," he muttered, and followed after Ruffnut.
"Hey yeah sure thing, guys," said Hiccup glumly. He had as much packing to do as they did. But he remained patiently standing between the dragons and the food, morosely shooing Flint away from the nearest deer carcass now and again.
The fifth time he did this, he stepped a bit off, and felt another bolt of pressure shoot up his left calf. Just catching himself from falling over, he gritted his teeth and bent down to squeeze the cramp from his muscles.
His leg wasn't hurting as much as it had in the summer, just after his injury. But every now and then he still felt strange phantom pains from a foot that wasn't there anymore. The episode passed after a few seconds and Hiccup stood up straight. Mostly he was just glad no one was around to see this just now. These moments were debilitating and made him feel pathetic. Gobber, his mentor at the smithy back home and twice an amputee himself, had assured him that these pangs would go away in time, but Hiccup had failed to ask him how long a time that might be.
Shortly Ruffnut emerged from the lodge, her supply-basket crammed near to bursting in her arms. Fishlegs followed closely behind her with his own basket, and they went to their respective dragons to secure the loads to their saddles.
"And they're one of the only flowers to bloom in the winter," Fishlegs was saying, "I knew they weren't mayweed flowers, and I knew you liked those best, but they looked sort of the same, and they looked so nice anyway that... I gathered these for you."
Fishlegs held a small bundle of snowdrops in one portly hand.
Off in the trees, the bird trilled a few more notes... and then broke into a full-blown aria.
"Uh, who started the rumor that I like flowers?" said Ruffnut. Her eyes turned glassy and her expression flattened as she strapped her basket down over the Zippleback's broad, mottled back.
Fishlegs said nothing, though the proffered bouquet seemed to go a little limp in his grasp.
Hiccup coughed and shifted his footing, squeaking on the left side. "Ah, well, I've got some packing to do myself, so, I'll just..." Finishing the sentence in mute gesticulation, he hurried inside the lodge and shut the door. The others could supervise Flint from here.
Once inside, he pulled his basket out from under his bed and dumped its contents on the bedclothes, accidentally spilling his quiver of arrows across the floor in the process. Hiccup had always considered himself more tolerant than most, but Fishlegs' resolute awkwardness during the three cramped weeks was beginning to wear on even him. Or it was contagious. Either way, he was looking forward to sleeping alone in his own room tonight.
With a sigh he bent to gather the arrows. He then swept the room for a few more articleshis draftbook and markers from a shelf, his cloak from the hook by the doorand added these to the pile, blinking at how lightly he had packed after all. After arranging each item in snug parallels to the next, he rolled the lot of them up in the blanket and shoved the bundle into his basket, fastening the lid down tight.
When he walked outside, the bird was still singing. Ruffnut stood facing the lodge, stroking Flint's head, while Fishlegs had become very interested in double-checking the straps of Miniboss' saddle. Both of them wore expressions similar to the kind one might get from wearing socks and stepping in something wet.
In the pines beyond, Snotlout and Tuffnut approached, discussing what first to do with their liberation upon reaching the village. Between them they led five Deadly Nadders and a Monstrous Nightmare closer to their breakfast.
His arms full of basket, Hiccup squeaked his way over to where Toothless lay curled on his ember-bed. It wasn't until he began strapping down his load that he finally spotted Astrid. She and Spitelout stood farther behind the approaching dragons, a bit off the trail and into the woods. Spitelout's bow was in Astrid's hands, his arms around her shoulders and his head next to hers as they both squinted down the length of an arrow.
She let fly into the trees behind the lodge. Thock into a trunk went the arrow, and the chirping stopped.
Hiccup saw the bird's silhouette detach from a branch and flap into the pink sky. It gained a few wingbeats before another arrow whistled in, dispatching it in mid-flight.
Looking back to the woods, Hiccup saw the bow now being lowered in Spitelout's hands. "Fetch, Speck," he heard the hunter say. The Terrible Terror chittered and leapt from his master's shoulder, blowing little flames of delight as he zoomed into the trees.
Spitelout started toward the lodge, leaving Astrid standing alone. Hiccup saw her eyes close and her fists clench before the approaching Nadders and Nightmare obscured his view. They were hungry, and they let the hunters know it.
Hiccup left his basket half-strapped and went to help the others keep them in line. Ruffnut helped too, Belch and Flint looking on in devastation as the remaining meat was divvied out to the other dragons.
"And then I'll teach Fireworm how to draw my name so she can burn the biggest graffiti ever on the south cliff," Snotlout continued to Tuffnut, "And after that, me and Dogsbreath are gonna rematch you at bashyball. I will pummel you into the ground," he said dangerously, "With my face." He pointed a stout finger at his burly mug, grinning wickedly.
"Right," sneered Tuffnut, "Yeah, after me and Speedifist mop the floorwith your face... and hisyou know what I want? Bread. Just a loaf of bread. No more of that hardtack stuff your dad brought." He stuck out his tongue and made a horrible gurgling sound as he pantomimed throwing up. "I can't believe those biscuits were the only food he brought along for this whole trip," he grimaced, "Why would he do that?"
"Didn't I ever tell you?" asked Spitelout, making the boys turn, "Nothing motivates good hunting like bad rations! Though if I'd had my way we'd have brought nothing at all. In any case I'd say it's worked out, with how well you've done, Tuffnut." He thumped his pupil on the back, beaming, and then turned at the sound of his returning Terror.
"Your dad's sick," muttered Tuffnut.
"You have no idea," sighed Snotlout.
Speck fluttered down onto Spitelout's arm and obediently handed over the spitted redwing. He pawed his master's sheepskin bracer and chittered in hungry anticipation.
"Where's the other arrow?" Spitelout asked in exaggerated shock. Speck looked confused, his yellow eyes popping curiously. He nipped at the bird.
"Ah-ah-ah, not yet," Spitelout pulled it away, "Arrow. Arrow back. Go get it." He pointed into the trees where Astrid's arrow had landed. "Arrow."
Speck flew away again, a little less spring in his wings this time.
Hiccup finished strapping down his basket just in time to see Astrid slip into the lodge. He wished there was something he could do for her, even if only to cheer her up for a while, but no bright ideas came to his mind. Even so, he found himself walking blankly back toward the building.
And for the second time that morning, Astrid threw the door open just before he could reach it. "Hiccup, is this yours?" She held a small white object wrapped in a leather cord.
"Oh..." Hiccup started as he realized it was his boar-tusk, "Where was it?"
"On the floor. Here you go." She dumped it into his reaching hand and walked back through the door.
Hiccup looked back at his dragon and his basket. Toothless shook his head with a snort, his shrewd green eyes burning holes in Hiccup's forehead.
"Hey, Astrid?" Hiccup piped up, following her inside, "Ah, my stuff's all strapped down alreadydo you think, maybe, this could go in your basket? Just until we get home?"
Astrid stopped halfway up the stairs and turned. She looked weary. For one terrifying moment, Hiccup wondered wildly why of all the things he could have done he had decided to ask her a favor...
But she smiled a friendly smile and descended a few steps. "Sure," she said, and Hiccup handed the boar-tusk up to her.
The only sound was the crackling of the fire as Astrid ascended the steps once more. Hiccup racked his brains in the disquieting closeness of the structure. It had been so much easier to talk to her before this whole stupid training exercise, back when she was still perfect at everything.
But as long as he was here he figured he may as well test the water. "That was amazing the way you and Quill took down that stag the other day," he said.
"Heh, thanks," came Astrid's voice from the back of the loft, "But he really did most of the work on that one." He could hear her stuffing her basket.
So far so good.
"The antlers look pretty cool tied to the top of your axe-shaft," Hiccup went on.
"You think so?" There was a pause in the sound upstairs. Hiccup imagined she had stopped to take a look at her handiwork.
The silence carried on a little too long.
"Did Ruff put you up to this?" Astrid finally asked.
"Up... to what now?" Hiccup thought fast. He could salvage this if it went wrong...
The sounds of packing resumed above, a bit more vigorously than before. "I think," said Astrid, her voice venomously calm, "you should just drop it until after I've had some decent time to train back home."
"Train? But... you've done so well with everything, and"
"Would you cut it out?" she snapped, her sharp footsteps pounding the upper boards until her head appeared over the edge of the loft. "You know I can't shoot worth sheep-snot so stop trying to tell me otherwise!" And she disappeared again.
"Astrid, I'm not telling you otherwise" That was stupid. "I meanyou have done well with everything else, you've done perfect with everything else, tracking, field-dressing"
"That's great. I'll go down in history as the Viking who could skin an entire moose in twelve minutes." Her voice was colder than the ice outside.
"I don't think you give yourself enough credit forI mean" Hiccup sighed. Dat-da-daa, he thought to himself, he was dead. "I just wanted to cheer you up," he admitted.
"Well I appreciate that thought," said Astrid flatly, "But I think you should save any praise for when I actually deserve it. You won't have to wait long."
She appeared over the edge of the loft again, her basket bulging in her arms. "In the meantime," she continued, "if you want to help me, you can haul this out for me." And she tossed the basket down to him.
Hiccup wasn't quite ready for it, and it squashed him to the floor.
Astrid descended the stairs with her axe, the only item too big to fit in her basket, and walked unceremoniously out the door.
Very slowly, Hiccup rolled the basket off his chest and sat up with a groan. He wouldn't have to wait long, huh? he thought to himself. He certainly hoped that was the case. He didn't think he could survive very much more of this new, mere mortal Astrid.