Prodigal Son 36
Caught in a daze, Astrid, clambered, tripped and stumbled her way down the stairs from Gothi's hut. Half-formed questions flitted through her mind at lightning speed as she tried to understand what had just happened.
Where and when had Hiccup spoken to the Gods? Confidence to contradict Gothi –something which, to Astrid's knowledge, had never happened before – had to have come from either the most deeply held convictions, or an actual meeting with the Gods.
The Gothi was their chosen conduit to Berk. To be so sure that Odin, or Thor would not be offended by her treatment as to risk a stunt like the one he had just pulled? It would require… knowledge or confidence of the Gods' will.
Where had Hiccup gone during his travels? What had he learned? What had he seen?
Astrid tried to recall everything she knew about the waters beyond Berk. Trader Johann brought stories of far-off places. Of other Vikings battling people on islands so large it took years to cross them. He told great tales of people from different lands, with dark skin, or slanted eyes, who spoke strange languages, and worshipped gods the likes of which Berkians could scarce imagine.
But they were just that: Tales. Stories to fascinate children while the adults browsed his weapons stock, and Gobber bought all of his scrap metal. How much of it was real? Had Hiccup traveled so far from home? Had he perhaps gained the protection of one of those strange gods? No. Nothing could match the power of Odin.
The Gods were on his side.
Which meant that all this time, they had been against Berk. Against Gothi. Against the war with Dragons.
"Astrid!" "There's the lass!"
Or perhaps Odin had decided on a slow revenge, and Hiccup's choice would in the end destroy them all…
"Astrid?" "Someone grab her!"
A hand gripped her shoulder, and she grabbed it on instinct, twisting it around until its owner was kneeling on the ground, gasping in pain.
She blinked. She was standing in the center of Berk, surrounded by a crowd of villagers, most of them women. They were all giving her sympathetic looks. The hand belonged to Bard Barrason, and she dropped it immediately. "Sorry. What's happening?"
"My mother and yours… are marching on the Jorgensons." He managed, massaging his wrist.
Astrid gaped. "What? Why?"
Brunhilda's enraged voice sailed over the crowd. "Spitelout Jorgenson you and your good-for-nothing son get out here right now!"
"Oh no!" Astrid sprinted through the crowd, leaving Bard kneeling in the dirt. She pushed and shoved her way through the crowd to the Jorgenson's enormous, lavishly decorated hall. Brunhilda Hofferson, standing regally upon their Hall's front deck despite her threadbare clothing, flanked by Brenna Barrason, and matrons from a few other families, was pounding at the door.
Brunhilda turned, and her eyes widened as she spotted her daughter. "Astrid!" she went down the steps two at a time and threw her arms around Astrid, "Oh, my brave girl! My poor, brave girl."
Astrid pushed her to arm's length. "What are you doing here, mum?"
"Tearing that whoreson a new arsehole!" Brenna declared. "We'll teach that troll what it means to treat the women of Berk like cattle!"
"They take our money, and now they can just take our daughters?" Brunhilda roared, "where does it end?"
All around them, the crowd of women murmured in agreement. Astrid felt taken aback. So many people gathered there, angry enough on her behalf to call out Spitelout Jorgenson in broad daylight. Iona was there, with her husband Styr at her shoulder, but there were more. So many more…
The Karson brothers, with their ancient, wizened grandmother in tow. Strong-armed women of the Sigurdson and Saemingrson fishing clans were gathered together, some still toting buckets, boat hooks and oars. The Finnasons and Hallkelsons, both of them farming clans who generally steered clear of tribal politics were represented by angry, sunbeaten faces. A few Ingerman women too, accompanied by Fishlegs, looking conspicuously inconspicuous. Hundolfr Hrolfson was there with his son Eyolf, the last remaining members of the entire Hrolfson family. Even the Thorstons, Ivarsons, and Oddgeirsons were represented in the crowd, though those clans were traditionally Jorgenson allies. And more beyond them. Enough to fill the entire street!
With a shock, Astrid realized that she could get the marriage annulled there and then. Enrage the crowd, march on Jorgenson Hall, find the contract, and burn it.
The Jorgenson warriors wouldn't stop them this time. She could see their hesitation. They were lingering on the edge of the crowd, and ten of them had just taken up positions on the wooden porch, armed to the teeth, and ready to form a shield wall between the Jorgenson door and the angry crowd. Yet even there, they were looking very worried. It was one thing to pull a single man or woman out of a crowd, or discipline a misbehaving child, but they would have to slaughter half the women of Berk in one fell swoop, not to mention a few of the Tribe's most capable warriors. And no one wanted to tangle with the fisherwomen, who regularly used oars and boathooks to fend off the ocean's many dragons, where bows and spears could not. True, the Jorgensons would win in the end, better armed, as they were, but it would be a closer struggle than many would expect.
From there, things would unravel quickly. The rest of the tribe would turn on the Jorgensons once they found out what happened. The battle would be bloody and brutal. The entire Jorgenson clan would be slaughtered, Spitelout and Snotlout likely executed if they didn't perish in the battle. It would be like the civil war between Alvin and Stoick all over again, and that had nearly broken the island completely.
…but Berk would be free. Free of the Jorgensons' taxes, free of Spitelout's arrogance, free of Snotlout's stupidity, and the constant internal power struggle. For a moment, just a moment, Astrid was tempted.
The Island would, however, also lose half of the child-bearing women, two-thirds of its warriors and a fair amount of property from the inevitable fires and riotous confusion of the battle.
With the Jorgenson clan dead, along with every other warrior they slaughtered, when the dragons came, who would man the barricades? With half the women put to the sword, who would birth and raise new warriors to fill the ranks of Berk's guard? The island would be weakened. Broken beyond repair. On the next raid, the few Vikings left would have to take to the hills with whatever they could carry, wait for the dragons to leave, and then…
And then leave the island entirely. The Hairy Hooligan tribe would be seafaring nomads, driven from island to island, whittled down by dragons, pirates, and the merciless sea herself.
No, Astrid decided, as much as she hated Snotlout, and as much as she wanted the marriage annulled, Berk could not afford a war.
The door to Jorgenson Hall creaked open, and Spitelout stepped out into the open air. He stood with his feet apart, his arms crossed. He was dressed in his finest, embroidered tunic, with a black bear cloak slung over one shoulder. An angry murmur grew and spread through the crowd as his warriors fell in behind him. He cast an arrogant, regal look across the assembly. "What's all this ruckus, then? Don't you all have fish to catch, fields to plow, and traitors to consort with?" his gaze lingered on Astrid.
She realized that Brunhilda, Brenna, and everyone else was waiting for her to speak. She grasped her mother's hands. "Mum… I love you, and thank you for everything you do for me, but you need to go home."
Brunhilda gaped. "Astrid-"
"Go home, mum."
"After what they made you do?"
"I chose!" Astrid shot back, "I agreed to it!"
"Like Hel you did!"
"I agreed to marry Snotlout so that the Jorgensons would help our assault on the Nest."
"Hold it hostage, you mean!" Brenna Barrason declared, glaring at Spitelout. The crowd roared approval.
"Astrid has committed herself to Snotlout." Spitelout said.
"The Lass's heart is with Hiccup Haddock!" came a cry from the crowd, to a roar of approval. Gods… did they really see her that way? As the pure-hearted victim, whose innocent, romantic soul had been taken by the war?
"Her heart is with Berk!" an even louder voice declared. Everyone fell silent as Stoick the Vast, standing a head taller than everyone else, shouldered his way easily through the crowd. He reached the center and placed a hand on Astrid's shoulder. Spitelout glowered at him, but Berk's Chieftain turned away from him and addressed the crowd instead, Brunhilda and Brenna in particular. "She may have cared for my son, but her duty is to her people, and her station."
"Village first, mum." Astrid added, speaking directly to Brunhilda. Her mother sighed and stepped back.
"You all need to go home!" Astrid yelled. The crowd didn't budge, though many looked confused, and a little put-out.
Astrid turned to Stoick. "Chief?"
"No," Stoick shook his head and crossed his arms, "This is about you. You've gotta speak to them, Lass."
"I'm just a warrior, sir."
"You're Berk's future queen, Astrid. My heir. This is your job now. It's what you asked for when you agreed to this." He waved at the crowd, "Solve this problem."
For a moment, just a moment, Astrid was suddenly six years old, being scolded by her uncle Finn. She recalled his advice one time when, stumped by an issue, she had nearly burst into tears.
We solve a problem step by step, Astrid. Any problem, and every problem. Step by step.
Even dragons, Uncle Finn?
Even dragons, Astrid. Step by Step. Don't look at the whole mountain you have to climb. Look at the steps ahead of you. Approach everything with a strategy. Even if you don't have a full plan, a partial one will get you further than none at all.
"Right…" she muttered, staring at the waiting crowd. Step one: speak to as many people as possible. A line of arrows didn't do much good when loosed merely at the first rank of an approaching army. They would hit the first rank, but none behind. Better to arc them up and over, to land in the midst of the enemy. More death, more disruption to their formation.
Voices and speeches clearly worked the same way. That was a fact that Spitelout already knew, standing as he was at the top step of the stairway into his family's hall. He could speak to everyone, whereas Astrid could only speak to those directly in front of her.
She ascended the steps to stand beside him, ignoring the way his guards tensed, and turned to face the villagers. They stared up at her with expectant faces.
"I- um… I'm no good at speeches," she began.
"Speak up," someone yelled.
"I said I'm no good at speeches!"
"Then why are you standing up here?" Spitelout asked, mockingly.
"Shut up." She hissed, horribly aware of her muddy, faded, threadbare clothing, and worn-out axe. She did not look the part of a queen, especially next to Spitelout and his fancy green tunic. And… gods above- there were so many people down there! She knew their faces, had fought for them, and protected them for years. But she knew so few of them personally. They were simply the civilians. Those to die for. Down in the crowd, Stoick gave her an encouraging nod, but it somehow only made things worse.
Then she spotted the children. Twins Osmand and Hallfrid Halkelson, the two youngest in her class. What would she say to them?
"A warrior doesn't dwell in the past! She can't afford to! Yes I hate Snotlout, but I love Berk more!" The crowd grew quiet, and she continued, "This is our island, and we have enough problems between the long winters and the dragon raids, every day is a challenge, but a… a shield wall can stand strong against anything if the hearts of the warriors within are stout enough! We need to stand together like a shield wall! Tearing ourselves to pieces like this- fighting each other… it leaves us vulnerable, and it's not the warrior's way."
To her astonishment, the crowd was listening to her. Actually listening! Beside her, Spitelout was staring at her in shock, impressed despite himself.
"I chose to marry Snotlout because it allies the Haddocks, and the Jorgensons. It makes our shield wall stronger. I have one reason for everything I do, and it has never changed: Protect Berk. Any way I can. If that means compromise, then I compromise. If I have to- to build a raft and sail out of Helheim to get back and man the barricades, then that's what I do!" This elicited a cheer from the crowd. Astrid could see Brunhilda beaming with pride. "-and if I have to marry someone I hate, then I'll do that too. Because Village First!"
"Village first!" a few people echoed. A few fists were raised in solidarity.
"I need you to do the same. Man your boats, tend to your crops. Please, go home!"
She made to step down, but someone yelled, "What of the Dragon Rider?"
Uncertainty spread through the crowd.
"An excellent question," Spitelout said, his beady eyes glittering, "What about the Rider, Astrid?"
"What of him?" she called back, searching for the speaker.
"Why is he here?"
"Because he knows the beasts. And I am exploring any and all tactical contingencies to defend Berk."
"Tactical contingencies?" Spitelout cackled loudly, seeming to rejoice in his ability to cause her problems. Astrid glared at him as he continued, "What tactical contingency would warrant a dragon-friend being invited onto this island? Those creatures have brought us so much pain and hardship. How could this be what's best for us? Who approved of this?"
Murmurs began to run through the crowd. Astrid searched for Bard, Sirnir, the Karson brothers and the Thorston twins, worrying that the public uncertainty might shake their commitment to a peaceful meeting with Hiccup. The Karson twins were looking less than certain, but Bard Barrason was glaring at Spitelout with a righteous fury. Sirnir the quiet giant was watching the argument with an air of dispassion, and the Thorston twins were reveling in the energy of the crowd.
"I approved it!" Stoick declared.
The villagers gasped.
"That's a bit of a change in tone from you, Chief…" Spitelout observed theatrically, "Little wonder our great city goes nowhere when its leader flip-flops every five minutes."
The crowd scowled, but a few of the Jorgenson warriors were smiling.
"Oh, shut up you old goat!" Berk's Chieftain stomped his way up the steps to stand beside Astrid. His path took him past Spitelout, and he 'accidently' knocked his smaller cousin against the Jorgenson door as he passed by, making a point through his squared shoulders and puffed out chest alone. Once he was in position, he raised his arms and said, "It's true I did not initially approve of the rider's presence here. I still don't. Yet I spoke with Astrid about this. She reckons we should keep our options open. This man knows things about dragons. Things even Bork didn't know. Astrid used Bork's knowledge to get us to the nest. Maybe this rider's knowledge can get us further. Something to slaughter the dragons or keep them away for good. Berk will honor the blood debt. For now."
"Prometheus can answer your questions himself." Astrid called out. "I've arranged another visit at midday tomorrow in the arena."
"That's the end of it!" Stoick barked, glaring across the crowd, "if no one has any objections, of course."
The crowd shifted uncertainly.
"Go home. Please!" Astrid said. The crowd slowly began to fragment, but too many were staying put. The riot had turned into a piece of street theatre.
"Go to your fields. To your boats. There's work to be done!" Stoick hollered angrily, waving his arms, "Enough of this!"
Like a flock of resentful seagulls, the crowd dispersed, heading off in groups, no doubt to discuss the issue to death.
"I'm glad you're finally seeing some sense, Astrid." Spitelout's beady eyes glittered.
"Where's your son?" Astrid shot back, "Hiding under the table? He never fails to disappear when there's trouble, does he?"
Spitelout scowled. He stomped through the Jorgenson door and slammed it behind him.
Astrid's hands immediately jumped into her hair, and she let out a long sigh of relief. "What a nightmare!"
Stoick chuckled, a sound she had not heard from him in a very, very long time. She looked up, surprised.
His eyes wrinkled in amusement, with a hint of sadness as he gazed down at her. "You reminded me of Hiccup for a moment. He grabbed his hair just like that when he was stressed."
Her hands dropped to her sides, "sorry sir."
Stick shook his head, waving away her apology, "No, it was a good memory. Walk with me, Astrid…" He put his arm around her shoulder and guided her off the Jorgenson steps and out into Berk. They headed side-by-side towards the great hall.
"I didn't mean for things to blow up like this, sir. I didn't tell anyone about the marriage. I don't know how they found out."
Stoick rubbed his beard. "No doubt Snotlout was bragging…"
"I didn't expect them to rise up like that. It's an arranged marriage. It's not their business…"
"You're the heir, Astrid. You're going to lead them. Of course it's their business."
Stoick stopped and turned to face her directly, placing a hand on each of her shoulders. He said, "Astrid, I know these are people you've sworn to defend to the death. As a warrior, that's easy. As a Chief, that's easy too. The hard part is when you have to knock their heads together to get things done. You're their protector, but half the time you have to protect them from themselves. That's the hard part. It's when you have to lead them by the nose through the troubles. It's when there are five of them in a room with twenty different opinions on how to solve one problem. They'll argue till Ragnarok if you let them. Then they'll fight each other to the death. You gotta be bigger than them. Take charge. Hold the line. Harden up, Lass"
"Yes sir. Thank you sir. I will do better next time."
"You'll learn." He clapped her on the shoulder, and headed off towards his own home.
The Cove was bright and beautiful when Astrid arrived. Stormfly rose from her napping spot and padded over for a little while to say hi, waking Toothless in the process. Fishlegs and Hiccup were seated on wicker chairs, which Astrid could only assume Hiccup had woven together from samplings in the area, yet she had no idea when he had found the time. They were beautifully crafted, with lines blending in and out of one another. Very different from the rough-hewn logs most Viking households used as benches.
The two young men were engrossed in another game of King's Table they had set up on a wide log between them. A third chair lay empty nearby. It looked inviting and extremely comfortable.
Astrid approached cautiously, watching Hiccup as he brushed aside his feathered hair to examine the game board. All of her questions and worries from their meeting with Gothi came bubbling back up to the surface. She reached their game and crossed her arms, staring down at Hiccup with a solemn look. He grinned up at her, strands of auburn hair dancing around his face as he sat easily and comfortably on his seat. "Hey! I heard there was a riot in town this morning…"
"The village women marched up and laid siege to the Jorgensons." Astrid said tersely, trying to fit the man sitting before her with the solemn, ghostly presence of Prometheus. How could they be the same person? How could he- this dork- have so soundly silenced the Gothi.
"Leave it to you to frame absolutely everything in terms of a war." Fishlegs said mildly. He moved one of his pieces across the board and took one of Hiccup's away.
"You've lived on Berk, Fishlegs. You know how it is: Everything is a war." Astrid shot back. She turned to Hiccup "We need to talk."
Fishlegs and Hiccup shot an I-told-you-so look across the table at each other.
"Promise me you won't kick the table over again…" Fishlegs grumbled.
"If I hear another word out of you, Fishlegs, I will." Astrid threatened as Hiccup rose to his feet. She led him to the far side of the cove and planted her hands on her hips, immediately launching into all the questions which had been bubbling up since his visit with the Gothi.
"How did you learn magic? Were you visited? Has Odin spoken to you?"
Hiccup stared blankly. "What? What are you talking about?"
"The Gothi! You and the Valknut at Gothi's hut! How did you learn magic? Do you speak to the gods like she does?"
"No no no!" Hiccup let out a pleasant half-chuckle, running his hand through his hair, "No, Astrid. I haven't spoken to Odin, and I don't know magic."
"That was the Gothi!" Astrid stomped her foot and pointed back towards Berk. "What have you- how could you- I can't believe you… I just… Gyah!" fed up with trying to find the words, she just growled and turned away, clenching and unclenching her fists.
All the while, Hiccup had been watching her, trying and failing miserably to suppress his amusement. And that easy half-smile at the same time somehow calmed her down, and made her more irritated than before. Her stomach did a backflip. She wanted to smile with him, and punch him at the same time.
"Astrid," he said calmly, "I don't know any magic. I promise."
"Then how did you steal her power?"
"But-" Astrid began to protest.
"She never had any to begin with, Astrid." Hiccup said simply, cutting her off. "There was nothing to steal."
Astrid gaped at him.
He sighed. "Astrid, I've been to lots of places, and I've met a lot of people who said they could talk with their God or their Gods. None of them could ever prove it true. There's no reason why here would be any different here just because it's where I grew up…"
"But the Gothi-"
"Is an extremely smart woman, and she's done amazing things for this Village and I really truly do respect her- don't scoff!"
"Why not? You disrespected our Healer, our Truthsayer, our Elder, our Shaman…" Astrid crossed her arms and gave him a sour glare.
"I had to gamble, Astrid."
"Gambling against the Gods?"
"Against what our parents- what our teachers taught us!" he replied passionately, arms waving, "we spent out childhoods reading in every book, having every adult tell us that killing dragons the right. It's what the village needed, and what the gods demanded. You swore an oath to Thor and Odin to protect the village. I prayed for a chance to prove myself against them too. But when the time came for me… I freed Toothless." The corner of his mouth curled upwards. "And when the time came for you… well… Stormfly is alive and well. Look me in the eye and tell me it didn't occur to you that you were defying the gods when you let her live."
Astrid looked away, focusing on the bubbling brook which ran through the center of the cove. Yet her arms slowly uncrossed and hung loosely at her sides. She let out a long, deep breath.
"Astrid, can I?" Hiccup said quietly. Her gaze snapped back to him, and she saw nothing but earnest, sincere gentleness in his expression. He was holding out both hands. Tentatively at first, confused, she lifted her hands laid her fingers in his open palms, feeling a slight shock as they made contact. His hands were soft and warm as they closed over hers. She found herself unable to look away from him, even as heat crept up her cheeks. He seemed so calm…
Thoughts crept unbidden into her mind. She had a sudden, gnawing urge to explore. To run her hands up his arms over his thin red tunic to his shoulders, to lace her fingers through his hair. To step closer – much closer and pull him in until she could see nothing but those brilliant green eyes and soft lips-
He said softly, "We are sailing in uncharted waters, Astrid. We know our destination, but the seas between are rough. The winds are strong and change direction on a coin toss. We're going to have to take chances like this if we want to make it. I believe the gods are watching. But only they get to choose whether or not we reach the shore." He gave her hands a gentle squeeze. "Them alone. Not Gothi. She's in the boat with us. But now our hand is at the tiller."
He let go and patted her awkwardly on the shoulder. It was a familiar touch. One shared by warriors on the battlefield. A signal of confidence and brotherhood. A soldier's pact. One of Stoick's favorite gestures. Given the paths her treacherous mind had wandered down it felt so completely inappropriate. She stared at him in a state of disbelief.
He seemed to have reached a similar conclusion. His eyes were wide and filled with worry. He was chewing on his lip furiously, obviously aware that some sort of line had been crossed.
A voice cut the tension. "Hiccup are we going to finish this game or am I to declare victory by default?" Fishlegs called out.
Astrid and Hiccup both breathed a quiet sigh of relief, each trying to suppress and hide it from the other.
"I'd uh… better uh…" he jabbed a thumb back at Fishleg's game.
Astrid realized that her hands were still up where he'd let them go. She carefully closed them into fists and lowered them to her sides. "Yeah." She said faintly.
He turned away.
He turned back towards her so fast his foot slipped slightly on the wet soil, leaving a long, deep trench. He did not fall, but it took him a moment to regain his footing.
Astrid tried not to smile. "Dragon training. The arena. Midday tomorrow."
"Of course." He took a theatrical bow, which somehow made everything even more awkward and horrible. "Mystic Grand Wizard Prometheus will be there."
"Mystic Grand Wizard Prometheus had better keep his tongue in his mouth and his head out of his arse." Astrid told him, dryly. "You respect these people, Hiccup. No magic runes or anything."
Fishlegs was watching them closely, his mouth twisted in a smirk. Astrid shot him a glare and turned on her heel, headed back to Berk.
At Berk, she found that the children had already gathered in the arena, and were training as per the usual schedule. Fridleif was there, sitting on a crate, and being tended to by Lifa Thorston. All the same, he was directing the lessons, having the kids run around the arena and practice with wooden swords. Three Jorgenson guards were stationed at intervals around the space, each armed with a bow and a healthy stock of arrows.
The nightmare corpse had been chopped up and thrown over the side of the cliff. A throng of gulls had gathered to peck at its remains. Sand and straw had been spread over the puddle of blood where Astrid had cut the beast's throat. The hole Hiccup had made during his incredible entrance into the arena was still there as well. That was the end of live dragons in the area, Astrid knew. For this season at least; there was no time left for Gobber to fix it. Not before winter truly set in. even at midday the air was cold enough that Astrid could nearly see her own breath, and Berk awoke regularly to a light dusting of snow which always seemed to melt away by mid-afternoon.
Winter would be upon them soon.
The children slowed to a halt when Astrid strode through the arena gate. She noted the way young Lifa Thorston's hand was resting in Fridleif's palm, and looked away almost immediately, shaking off the sudden flood of emotions, and the memory of Hiccup's light touch. She had to stay focused.
The children had gathered in a line three rows deep, as Astrid had taught them. She surveyed the line, with their tiny swords and tiny shields, tiny horned helmets, and proud, determined faces. Astrid realized this was the first time she was addressing them since they had faced the Monstrous Nightmare.
She said, "I'm proud of all of you," and was rewarded with dozens of gap-toothed smiles. "You did well against the Nightmare."
"You killed it…" Osmand Hallkelson said in awe.
"You have killed a dragon too, Osmand." She replied evenly. That was true; she had started the children on dock rats, then field hares. She had trained their archery skills using seagulls. Finally she had brought in a crate of Terrible Terrors, muzzled and hogtied, and given each child a small, sharp knife to do the deed. Some of them hesitate. Most plunged their blade in immediately.
Gods… it hadn't even been that long ago… just last season.
Astrid felt a stab of guilt, remembering how helpless the creatures had been, but she ignored it. A full night's sleep was for those who could afford it, and Berk's warriors were too busy watching the skies.
"But Nightmares are bigger and meaner!" Hallfrid added.
"Size makes no difference if you know your lessons, and you did. You kept your shields up. You always moved. You worked as a team. You remembered your training. That's how raids are driven off. That's how battles are won. That's how Berk has survived this long."
"Can we punch Snotlout?" Rangvald asked. She was a thirteen-year-old from the Ragason farmstead. Sturdy, practical people. She had her father's blunt manner. Yet the other students were nodding in agreement. Steinvor Karson was grinning maliciously.
Yet Astrid frowned, "No."
"But-" another student began to protest.
"No!" she repeated sharply. That ended it there. "Fridleif?"
"Here!" the young man rose from his seat and came forward, Lifa at his side, tutting and fretting with every ginger step he took.
"What was the class doing?" Astrid asked brusquely.
"Basic exercises and sparring." He shrugged. Lifa's fingers threaded through his own and squeezed. Astrid pretended not to notice. She also pretended not to notice the jealous and dirty looks a few of the older girls in the class were shooting the Thorston nurse. Fridleif added, "I didn't really have a lesson plan, Ma'am."
"Really?" Astrid said dryly. "All those hours spent resting and you didn't think to put them to use in any way?"
The boy turned bright red.
"If you're going to take over my class, at least have a schedule next time." Astrid scolded. She turned back to the class. "Everyone grab your gear. We're going for a run."
They left Fridlief behind. Astrid led them on a long, winding path through the village. They looped down to the docks, across the boats to practice their balance. Astrid led them up and down the steep steps leading back up to Berk, building stamina. Then it was through the town square where just that morning the crowd had gathered. They ran a few laps around Gobber's forge, up and down the front porches of various residences to add a little roughness and variety. As they ran, Astrid noticed that a strange thing was happening: Berkians were joining them.
It was women at the docks first. A mother or two recognized their child and greeted them with a smile and a wave, and pretended to chase them off the boats, but soon they were joining them in running up and down the steep ramps.
Kolbeinn and Kolfinn Karson were lounging at Gobber's forge while the smith finished up a job for them when Kolfinn recognized his daughter Steinvor in Astrid's line of students. He took up his sword and shield and began to run alongside her, his chainmail jangling, and heavy footsteps thudding into the well-worn ground beside her own. His brother joined him, running alongside a slower, younger student in the class, taking his pace, but feeding him words of encouragement.
When they passed through the market, they picked up Hundolfr Hrolfson, who had lost his family in the last raid. He ran alongside young Sigrun Sigurdson, a quiet 11-year-old whose father Snorri had also died in the last raid.
Berkians joined in ones and twos, entering the line from every direction. Farmers paused while wheeling crops or bags of grain and join their sons and daughters. Warriors from every clan, in full battle dress paused in their duties to run alongside their younger siblings. Older warriors came down from the lookouts, and the meal hall to relive the training from their youth, and share in the burden.
Taking up the rear was Sirnir the giant, standing head and shoulders above everyone else in the crowd. Quiet though he usually was, he seemed to delight in letting out great earthshaking roars which shocked and frightened the youngest children into fits of giggles, but they all ran a little faster every time his great bellow echoed across the town of Berk.
By the time Astrid came panting to a halt at the door to the great hall, around half the town was spread out across the hillside behind her. The children, true to their training, formed ranks. This time though, the townsfolk joined in, doubling the line's thickness. The sun hung low in the sky behind them as the afternoon waned into evening. Father's stood shoulder to shoulder with their sons, mothers with daughters. Brothers and sisters, orphans with the bereft parents. All of them stood together, and the children of Astrid's class looked up with awe and pride at the true warriors and survivors who stood beside them as equals.
The door to the great hall creaked open and Iona the cook stepped out, tutting to herself as she examined the sheer size of the crowd. She said, "Astrid, I don't have enough grub on the hob for everyone…"
Astrid smirked at her. "The children eat first. They earned it!"
This proclamation was met with laughter, jeers, and boos from the more boisterous warriors in the crowd. The oldest among them nodded and stepped aside to let the hungry youngsters pass. It was the first time Astrid had ever let her class eat without first running them through a test of some sort.
For the rest of the afternoon, she split her new class into groups, dividing the children up amongst the various warriors and villagers, trying to mix as many different families and clans together as possible, and expose the children to as many different perspectives and experiences of the war as she could. Some groups practiced sparring together. Others had the children sit and listen to the stories of the old warriors. Fishing families told farming children of the terrors they faced on high seas, while farmers shared their troubles keeping livestock and crops safe not only from the dragons but from draught, disease, and the elements.
It had turned into a special day. A festival. A gathering the likes of which had not happened on Berk in most people's living memory. Even Stoick the Vast exited his home to wander the crowd, greeting friends and socializing. He looked happier than most people had seen him since before Valka had died. The evening was nicely capped off when, in the gloaming, Sirnir challenged him to a duel. They each took up a wooden club and an enormous shield, and battered each other into exhaustion, with Stoick taking a bruised but solid victory when he smashed his friend's shield into splinters and tackled him to the ground.
All the while, far above their heads, wheeled the distance black shape of Prometheus and his night fury. When the mead was passed out Astrid had a horn or two, dutifully toasting to Berk with the other warriors, but she found herself watching the bat-winged silhouette as often as she did the crowd around her. She eventually found a seat for herself on the stone steps of the great hall, with her horn beside her. She rubbed her fingers together absentmindedly and wondered what tomorrow would bring.
So hey there! It's been a while, but I'm baaaaack!
The thing about Astrid, the VITAL thing about Astrid, is that she could be an incredibly strong and capable leader in her own right. Trouble is, her definition of correct action is to keep things the same. She would be very conservative, politically, and tactically.
If given power on her own, with Fishlegs at her back, she could keep the island going for another few generations. Give them enough new tactical ideas to stand their ground against the dragons despite a dwindling population, but it's a war of attrition, and in the end, Berk would lose.
Despite being a very good leader in her own right, she is not right for Berk because Berk is in desperate need of drastic change. I think on some level she recognizes that, which is why she bows so easily to Hiccup, who is a true revolutionary, and willing to take real chances.