Like the last chapter, which this chapter was supposed to be part of, this kept getting longer and longer as I wrote it. The past two chapters were supposed to be around 4k words god damn it! I guess Hiccup and Valka just really wanted time to calm down enough to talk and try and sort out their complicated feelings with some positive communication, but man do I just hate writing dialogue-heavy chapters; I'm much more comfortable with emotional inner turmoil and the occasional fluff piece. This chapter just kept getting longer and longer and longer, but I couldn't find it in me to just stop and update what was there. WHY IS THIS CHAPTER SO LONG? I just wanted an interlude between the reveal and the culmination. This chapter is probably just as incoherent as the last chapter from my attempts to cut up and rearrange the entirety of it, but I do like what I have, even if I wish I had the time to refine and polish it even more, but I wanted to get it out to you guys. I didn't know how long this thing should be, or how much I should spend on things that didn't matter in the view of the long-term, but short-term it seemed pretty damn important to have these two talk about. Am I making sense? I don't know anymore, I've been staring at this document for way too long at this point.
Guys, the amount of love and support you showed me with your comments last chapter nearly moved me to tears. Seriously, the amount of care and support I've gotten since my last update has been amazing and completely changed my view on the story as a whole. I can only hope that my future updates are deserving of you guys.
These updates are a long time coming, I know. But guys, I'm so happy right now. I'm writing more, even if it isn't for the stories I've uploaded online. I honestly don't know the last time I wrote just for the fun of it.
I really wanted to get this out to you guys, so sorry if there are some odd dips in quality in this chapter and certain sections seem a bit jarring/sudden. I tried super hard to make everything coherent, but it's been taking a long time and I really just want to keep you guys from waiting longer so here it is.
This is more of a pet peeve, but why is it that a chapter I've actually spent a lot of time and effort planning out take so long to write, but a random story idea that came from my frustrations with GOT Season 8 can suddenly pop up and have a word count that would normally have taken me at least two months to write in only a few days? Odd comment, but I've been writing a crap ton of A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones since Season 8 premiered and I was left leaving with wistful fantasies. Would anyone be interested in an ASoIaF crossover fics between the Witcher series or the Elder Scrolls? Because I've been writing way too much on a Skyrim/ASoIaF fic that I've just been writing for the fun of it and the odd oneshot with good ol' Geralt. Can I really even complain about the last season when I only started the show near the end of season six because the books had run out? I guess I can since I've been writing my frustrations nonstop.
They tried their best to avoid certain topics. Hiccup's father was one of those topics and Valka's long absence was another. The two did not dare speak about how many years it has been, or how little Hiccup remembered of his mother outside of other people's memories.
Instead they just… talked of anything and of everything else. They talked of the normal, mundane things that might never have been discussed before. Things that they could discuss freely and openly, without any weight to them that might have brought back newly opened wounds.
In the time that it took to lower his mother's cautious guard, Hiccup learned that Valka hated cooking to the point of utter loathing, and that all she could manage were grilled fish. Valka admitted that she had never managed to improve her skill at all despite living on her own, but she had become proficient at foraging for herbs and mushrooms.
His mother, as Hiccup had been delighted to discover, had an artistic soul and also felt that itchy need to work with something in her hands whenever boredom or stress struck her, or that whenever she had an idea it stuck in her head like a bothersome fly that wouldn't abate until she set to work on it. Even though Hiccup had only become Gobber's apprentice in the forge through his father's attempts to build up muscle, Hiccup truly did enjoy working with heated metal in his hand as he made his dreams into a reality. His mother, who didn't have any access to such a thing, had instead taken up woodcarving.
Over the years, she had picked up wood carving once she discovered that she could find peace by losing herself in the act. With every scrape of the knife against the wood and the careful chipping against the grain, his mother was delighted to tell him, helped her focus. Mother and son eagerly talked of their experiences with their respective crafts, and how they both found some quiet solace that could be found in the simple movements of self-guided hands, and the contentment of watching something become beautiful with every moment passed.
"How'd you pick that up in a place surrounded in stone and ice?" Hiccup asked her, genuinely curious as to how she had picked up the habit. Hiccup had never found much interest in woodcarving since his father and Gobber hadn't trusted him with sharp blades until fairly recently, but he had seen some of the sailors bring back their works after time away at sea.
"Oh, there's more than enough shrubbery and the odd tree that grows here and there. It's a bit hard to understand the sheer scale of the Nest, the Alpha truly went out of his way to create such a grand home. Somehow, there is enough warmth to allow foliage of all types to grow, even in the dead of winter. Considering the Nest is in the middle of the ocean surrounded by ice, one of my suspicions was that it was the collective body warmth of the dragons that kept everything so warm."
There was another thing that Hiccup had come to learn today. With the awkward tension between them lessening and her nerves beginning to get the best of her, it turned out that his mother-
"My other assumption was the ice itself; you see when the Alpha was first creating the Nest with his icy breath, the sky itself was blocked off by a thick ceiling of ice. The dragons don't mind, since the Nest is more than tall enough for any dragon breed to fly comfortably and there are large exit tunnels that can only be used via flight, but on summer days where the sun hits it just so… oh the whole ceiling seems to come alive in a hundred shades of blue with every shift of the light."
- his mother rambled. A lot. It felt to Hiccup as though Valka was trying to unpack fifteen years' worth of conversations within the single evening.
"So, plants grow there regularly? I thought that, with it being an island full of fire breathing dragons and all, you might be missing out on trees and plants."
"Oh, not at all!" His mother was eager to correct him. "Dragons rarely set foliage on fire without just cause, something to do with overwhelming their senses I believe, though some breeds do like to rub against certain barks and grasses because they like the scents, in fact I had noticed that many young males commonly do this when mating season begins. I think it must be a way to try and attract a female's attention, in fact I had always wondered…"
His mother then went on a long rambling explanation on how dragons interacted with the local flora and how very rarely anything was set aflame. Most dragon breeds preferred to focus their fire on melting suitable habitats for themselves and their kin out of stone. "Truthfully, the dragons are usually a great boon to have on hand when you're growing plants…"
That then led into a long tangent on the fertilizing properties of different dragon breeds dung and how it affected growth rates. His mother's eyes seemed to gleam as she energetically explained her experimentation with one of the herb gardens for that very purpose, and of how throughout the years she had found different dung types affected certain plants depending on the air humidity and amount of direct sunlight, and throughout it all Hiccup was utterly enraptured.
Though he referred to her as mother in his own head -it was certainly easier than masked woman or the crazy dragon vigilante lady- though he would never called her that aloud, even if he knew it had slipped out a few times earlier when his emotions had completely overtaken his logic and judgment in a moment of emotional turmoil. Hiccup just wasn't ready to fully embrace that aspect, and he doubted that they could fully reconcile their relationship while the scabbing wounds of abandonment were still sore in his heart. Yet, Hiccup had to admit, it was somewhat reassuring to be able to sit in front of the fire and watch his mother energetically regale him with stories, her hands waving with every gesture.
Discovering that his mother shared a similar passion for creation as Hiccup himself had come as a pleasant surprise, and if there had been anything frozen in his heart that had held him back before as a form of resentment began to thaw.
It wasn't as though things were going back to the way they were before Hiccup had been told the dragon lady's identity, but maybe that was alright. This whole situation was still something familiar enough to be comfortable, but new enough that it didn't ache any lingering aches of resentment. This, talking to this crazy, amazing woman without letting his anger choke him, was like the comforting feeling of rediscovery and the thrill of new horizons and new memories to bury the old.
There were still old grievances, still new resentment joined by lingering pains of abandonment and distance and fifteen years of absence, and yet…
And yet it was during this time that any lingering tension between them had begun to slowly ebb away as the painful reminder of Valka's identity and fifteen year absence was- well not forgotten because Hiccup doubted that either of them could ever truly forget - but overlooked in favor of their shared interests and similar personalities that bordered on the eccentric.
Because his mother really was an amazing woman, and a dutiful mentor who was happy to share all that she knew to the son who had taken after her.
When he asked, Hiccup's mother was more than happy to tell him with stories of her home in the far north. It turned out that living in a place full of dragons still resulted in an odd upbringing that put Hiccup's own village, and all the weird things that came with living in a place full of eccentric Viking warriors, to shame.
Perhaps he shouldn't be so eager to learn about this place his mother had called her home for fifteen years, and maybe he shouldn't be reminding his mother of the home waiting for her that Hiccup did not know how to follow her to, but his burning curiosity to know about this near-mystical fortress of ice filled with dragons of all kinds kept the little voice of caution in his head silent.
Hiccup tries his best to imagine what it must be like, even though a stronghold made of ice and stone big enough for hundreds of dragons seemed so very outlandish. Still, he conjures up imagery that fit his mother's descriptions from her different stories, thinking of an icy fortress with hundreds of passageways carving through the inside like worms, of the stone that rose like pillars from the ground and ceiling in odd, sharp shapes that is only softened by lichen and moss. He imagined the little streams that sneaked through all the stone and ice, pooling into little recesses until they were more like ponds than big puddles, or when the streams fell to the watery floor where the Bewilderbeast spent most of his time slumbering.
Hiccup learned more about Valka's early years in the Nest when she was still learning her way through the labyrinth of twisting tunnels that wound through the entire structure in the before she had memorized any of it, and how during her first year she had discovered that many dragon breeds had an annual mating flight that stretched on for a few weeks at a time, and would return to the Nest with eggs in tow. His mother ruefully told him about the first time she had been able to experience a dragon hatching had come as a terrible surprise in the form of her being startled awake one night by loud blasts. Dragon eggs, as Hiccup now knew, did not so crack open so much as they exploded in balls of fire and egg shards.
And even though his mother talked enough for the two of them, she still asked him questions about himself that she hadn't asked before. Since she had been willing to share more on her home, Hiccup decided that it would be alright if he brought up the Berk, not the village but the village, into their conversation.
Prompted by her smile and curious attitude, Hiccup told her about his favorite places on the island, and even told her stories of his exploits on the rare days he could slink away from his responsibilities in the village to waste the day away sketching or daydreaming. He talked fondly of Raven's Point and how he, Fishlegs and Astrid used to climb up the spire as children, or the troll hunts he would go on with Gobber during the spring season once the winter snows melted. He talked of the silly games he would play with the other children, and how he even won some of them by being quick and clever. He talked about the midsummer boating trips, and the fall harvest festivals. He talked about years and years of icy-cold Snoggletog mornings and horned helmets full to bursting with vellum books and charcoal sticks.
He even talked about Trader Johann, the eccentric southern merchant who his mother had not known during her time living at Berk and recounted the man's stories. "You have to know that he greatly embellishes his stories." He told her. "Johann claims to be fearless, but I saw him shriek and faint when Ruff and Tuff sneaked a giant spider in his bag."
His mother, so isolated in the north with little way of gaining information that didn't come from gossiping fishwives in trading markets or exaggerated stories told by drunk sailors whenever she dared enter a human settlement, was interested in the news of the south. So he told her what he had learned from meetings in the Great Hall and what passed as tidings from Johann about the warring clans of the southern highlands had come to a tentative peace for the past five years with most of the Archipelago, though tensions were strained since the Berserker tribe still raided the trade routes.
"Oswald never did have enough of a backbone to keep his clansmen calm." His mother scoffed.
Their conversation swung away from southern affairs. His mother was curious about Johann's stories about his many far-flung journeys and was especially keen to know if he had seen any dragons not native to the Archipelago or the far north. Hiccup wracked his head trying to recall if the man had mentioned exotic dragons but could not think of any. While Hiccup was friendly with the merchant, their conversations had usually been discussion on the foreign inventions and tools that Johann had seen in his travels. Johann, always a man who loved the sound of his own voice, could spend countless nights describing the look and functions of the contraptions while Hiccup tried to draw it up since Johann never did have any on hand that could be studied in person.
That comment then led into his mother asking him more about his time in the forge as Gobber's apprentice. Hiccup eagerly told her stories of his own about all the different inventions and contraptions he had built throughout the years and, after an odd bout of shyness, even began to tell his mother about creations that existed only in his head. He told her about ideas for refining the everyday tools in the village, and how he could make them better rather than just fixing them every time they broke. He told her about his ideas of redesigning the massive braziers that lit up the night sky during raids, and his plans and ideas of how to make them superior to what they were now, something he had never told anyone, not even Gobber. If he could just reinforce the joints here, and redistribute the overall weight there, then maybe the braziers would not be as big a fire hazard and less likely to break and go rolling down a path of destruction if a dragon's shot hit it in just the right place.
"I remember when the braziers were modified early in my youth." Valka reflected. "The old ones had posts of solid stone and the bowls were made of beaten iron, but they were so heavy they couldn't be raised with a winch. Keeping the bowls clean and stuffed with wood and pitch was a task given to the older children, like the teams tasked with putting out fires. For one summer I was placed in charge of lighting them once the horn sounded. Only during one summer raid a Scauldron managed to get a lucky shot when it spat from the sea and doused all of them out. The whole village fought blind that night, and during the madness one warrior accidently let go of a net full of adolescent Gronkles that managed to knock the pillars down in their escape attempt. It was a fortunate thing the braziers were doused, or the pitch might very well have set the entire village on fire. Your father was so furious I thought he'd throw the man into the sea. There wasn't time to carve out new posts from stone, but the brazier bowls were still intact, and Gobber's mentor was the one to recommend wood fitted with iron plating that could be raised."
"Were you still in charge of lighting them during that raid?"
"Oh no, that raid happened years later. I was an adult by the time."
There was one question that had laid in the back of his mind since he had come to the realization of his mother's identity. Or, if Hiccup was honest, the question had formed when he had first heard the masked dragon lady admit she had been a Viking long ago.
"Did you fight in the raids?" He asked her suddenly, only to immediately regret it.
Would you kill dragons if the village forced your hand?
The bright mirth in his mother's eyes at the antics of Gobber and Gothi faded and dimmed, and her smile slipped away. Valka stayed quiet for several long moments, so long that Hiccup's held breath began to burn away at his lungs. When she finally did speak, Hiccup listened attentively, like he had never done before.
"I'm… I'm sure you must have noticed but I was never a model Viking in my youth. I couldn't stand the violence. Every time a raid would start, I begged my kinsmen to put aside their weapons, if only so they would be spared from the bloodbath that would soon follow. I understood protecting our home and livelihood, but I never could understand their deep-rooted stubbornness, no doubt brought forth by their loathsome pride, where they would willingly lay down their lives for a single sheep or small cache of salted herring. It was… a waste of life, for Vikings and dragons both."
Valka paused to take a deep breath and stayed quiet as she thought more on what to say.
"The raids brought destruction on the early settlements our ancestors had built their homes upon. Back then, it was for survival that Vikings fought back, but now it seems as though all that matters is how many dragons one can bring down in a night, how fast can you kill that Zippleback over there, how many dragon skulls of rare breeds could you lay upon your hall's entrance." With every new example, which Hiccup had to admit sounded true from his own experiences, Valka became more and more agitated as she wrung her hands together. "Everywhere I go, no matter what region, it's all become the same. No one cares about the people who put out the fires, or protect the pastures and buildings, it's all about who killed the biggest dragon. Once, it was a land of kill or be killed, only it hasn't been in a while. It's not survival anymore, Hiccup, it is sport in pursuit of glory." Valka spat the word out as though it were something foul, and Hiccup shrunk back.
Hiccup wished that he could think of her words as lies, but he couldn't deny that there was a kernel of truth to what she said. Had Hiccup himself not tried to kill a dragon in the hopes of receiving attention? Anyone who was anyone in the village had at least one battle tale against a deadly dragon breed or some accomplishment in kills during a single raid.
Stoick the Vast had not earned his name just for his size alone, but instead become legendary for his brutality in battle. people told tales of his ability to take down Monstrous Nightmares with bare fists over tankards of mead and toasted to his glory. Hiccup had grown up with the story of how his father popped the head off of a dragon clean off its shoulders when he was just a babe.
"Like Berk's tradition with the best in Dragon Training? The winner gets to fight a Monstrous Nightmare before the entire village in single combat." He had never given it much thought. Since it happened every year, it had become something that Hiccup had thought absolutely normal, especially since many of the other Viking villages had the same custom but with a different dragon breed depending on the region. The Meatheads preferred their champion to fight an adolescent Typhomerang if they could catch one, while the Berserker Tribe normally used a Scauldron, since none of them had ever managed to capture a live Skrill.
Hiccup had never thought much of it. Whenever he had worried about dragon training it had been about himself, not about the dragons he would have to face in the Ring. Now all he could think was how unfair it all was to pit a starved, exhausted dragon against a honed warrior eager to prove themselves. It's been an age-old tradition in Berk that whoever does best in Dragon Training will get to fight a Monstrous Nightmare in the Ring before the whole village. The most dangerous common breed that has been trapped in an iron cage for possible months finally let out into a domed arena to defend itself against the best of that year's trainees.
"Trapping dragons in cages for long stretches of time only to release them to a group of teenagers is more of entertainment than survival. After all, a dragon that cannot fly is a-"
"-a dragon that can't get away." Hiccup finished, nerves churning something foul in his gut as he finished. "A downed dragon is a dead dragon." He was rather thankful he had forgotten to eat this morning.
"Aye," Valka titled her head in agreement. "Young Vikings aim to kill Monstrous Nightmares, Hideous Zipplebacks and Deadly Nadders to gain recognition and glory from their peers. Where is the survival in that?" His mother asked him, the frustration clear in her tone.
Hiccup nearly choked on his own spit at his mother's words. "R-Right." He nodded his head furiously, fully aware of the burning at the tips of his ears. He could only pray that his mother didn't notice his shame. In the safety of his own mind, Hiccup swore to himself that he would never let his mother know on just why exactly he had created the Mangler.
Granted, he had had no way of knowing that he would actually manage to bring down a dragon, much less the infamous Night Fury of all breeds, but he had still gone out into the streets to try his luck. To his shame, Hiccup hadn't even considered the idea of protecting the food stores or pastures once, which was supposed to be the entire point of fighting back. His only reasoning that night had been that if he killed a dragon that it might, at the very least, get him a girlfriend.
Fortunately, his mother didn't seem to notice Hiccup's embarrassment as she continued on. "I truly believed that peace was possible. I thought that if people could just stop for one moment and look upon what destruction their pride had brought upon them, they would stop."
There was something harsh and broken in his mother then, a cold anger and bitter resentment flickering behind guarded eyes. It was so unlike the woman that Hiccup had come to cherish that all he could do was shiver at the sight of such soulless eyes. "It was a very unpopular opinion. Whether you're a Bogburglar, a Berserker or a warrior of Berk, killing a dragon means everything. People here don't value the clever or the creative, no, all they care is finding strong bodies to push swords in their hands and telling them that tradition and honor demands they spill blood, no matter if it is called for. They're Vikings so they don't even try to listen; they have stubbornness issues." She smiled, only there was something bitter and unpleasant that curled her lips, drawing them up sharp like the edge of a skinning knife.
She isn't wrong. Hiccup thought, a bit unnerved by his mother's expression. Most people would have left by now, and yet all the Viking tribes have remained and stood steadfast in the face of it all for seven generations. Proud, father would call them. Brittle is what I would call them instead. Vikings do not bend easily, but there will come a time where we don't have the people or resources to continue on fighting and on that day we'll shatter.
Would Hiccup be chief on that day when it finally came? If so, what would his answer be? I would have us all leave. People would call me a craven, Hiccup thought, but better mocked than dead. A leader should put his people's needs above his people's pride. If only others could see the difference between the two. If it were his father or Snotlout who held the position, what would be their answer to their home's dying gasp? How much was a man's pride in the face of such loss? Hiccup thought he knew the answer, but inwardly he knew that many still considered him young and naïve.
"There is no shame in picking up a weapon in order to defend your home and loved ones. A parent has the right to defend their children, and a sibling has the right to defend their brothers and sisters, but what happens when the killing is no longer about defending? Countless battles have been fought, but one cannot deny that this whole war has gone on for far too long with too many deaths on either side." Valka's breath seemed to catch in the back of her throat. "I… I just wanted the fighting to stop. I thought that if we could just stop killing for just even one second we could catch a glimpse of a life without fire and blood and death."
"Do you think it's possible for it to stop? That there could be peace between the Viking tribes and dragons?" At this point if things continue as they are, this war between mankind and dragons could only end in one way: the complete eradication of the opposing side.
His mother grew quiet for a minute, mulling over her next words. "Though I'm sure men like Bork the Bold might argue against it, men and dragon are not so different from one another. Neither are purely evil or purely good; they are fallible to following an undeserving leader who might have other priorities than keeping their kin safe and prosperous. Men have their chiefs, and dragons their Queens and Alphas." Some bad memory must have been remembered, because his mother's face grew grim and frightful. When she spoke next, it was a quiet and somber thing to hear. "I think… that good creatures under the control of bad leaders do terrible things."
Frowning down at the fire, Hiccup thought about that deeply. Mulling it over, he couldn't deny that terrible leadership could lead to terrible consequences. From all the praise his mother had given to the Alpha at her home, Hiccup hadn't thought that a dragon leader could be 'bad'. The way his mother spoke of the Bewilderbeast made the creature seem like a ruler of divine right, born to rule wisely and fairly. Now that he was actively thinking about it, Hiccup realized that he had placed the Alpha and his father on the same pedestal.
Stoick the Vast was a stern man with a fearsome temper when provoked, but Hiccup's father was fair and no one could deny that Chief Stoick loved his people greatly. His father was always the first man on the ground whenever a Raid occurred, and always the last man to walk off. If his father were here now, his solution to solving the question would be that the dragons were to be dealt with a steady hand and a good, sharp axe. His father was a true chief like the warrior-leaders from the age of heroes. Any thoughts on the man's parenting style aside, Hiccup truly believed in his father.
But what would happen once his father was no longer chief? Would it fall to Hiccup himself to give an answer? If uncle Spitelout had his way then Snotlout would be the next chief instead, which Hiccup did not want to imagine. The village would be set afire within the first day, no doubt. Even then, Snot was a fortunate option in comparison to some of the heirs to Berk's neighboring chiefdoms. Hiccup shuddered to think of the day that Dagur, the Berserker heir who was only a few years older than Hiccup himself, came to power. No doubt the sea would run red with the blood of men and dragon alike under a leader who had rightfully earned the title of 'the Deranged'.
But could dragons be just as bad as men? What was the difference between an Alpha and a Queen anyway? Mother's Bewilderbeast is male, so maybe it is just a term dependent on the gender. Hiccup wondered of the terminology. Big Boobied Bertha of the Bog Burglar tribe is still called a chief just like dad, but in southern lands the people call their leaders kings and queens depending on their gender, so how did that term show up in the Archipelago? Or maybe the difference relates to the size of the flock and territory held by the dragon?
"What happens if there is a terrible ruler in a dragon Nest?" Hiccup asked her. "Couldn't the dragons just not follow out orders?" In Berk the chief's word was law, but that didn't stop the twins from causing havoc or force Gobber to take a bath. Surely it was the same with dragons?
"It is possible for some with the willpower to do so, but, even if a dragon were to balk, the Call is like a siren's song that sways all who hear it to some semblance of compliance. Only a few dragon breeds can produce an Alpha or Queen, and they are often the most powerful in comparison to the common breeds, whether in size or speed or firepower. They are long lived as well, their rule steadfast and the other dragons follow."
A thought occurred to Hiccup. A deep unsettling thought. "You talk about your Alpha in the north and rules from there, but what about the south? What about the Barbaric Archipelago?"
What about Berk? Was what went unsaid. Why do the raids even happen? We've been fighting for generations, and I don't know why. Do you?
Valka didn't answer, and the gloomy look on her face made Hiccup wonder if he had stepped over some unknown boundary. He was about to speak up to change the subject, only his mother spoke up. "No leader, human or dragon, should rule through fear." When she talked, it was almost hesitant. "A leader should be ready to spill blood to defend their people, but not relish in the destruction that battle brings. This is… I do not know how to explain. If we could, I would rather not speak of it further, at least not now."
Dozens of questions burned at the tip of his tongue, and Hiccup was half-tempted to prod further anyway, but the troubled look in his mother's eyes stifled his curiosity enough to settle the matter. Hiccup's knee bounced restlessly, his fingers tapping the ground as he chewed the bottom of his lip in thought. The air, once light and free of any tension between the two, began to grow heavy again as the silence stretched on.
Surprisingly it was his mother who broke the silence. She seemed just as aware of the tension creeping back in between the two, and immediately tried to fix it by throwing out a question so quickly and random Hiccup was certain she hadn't planned on what to say beforehand. "So how is Gothi doing?" Valka blurted out.
"Gothi?" Hiccup questioned as his eyebrows furrowed deeply with confusion. He wouldn't admit that the change in subjects had shaken him, but after spending so long avoiding the village and its people Hiccup felt a bit uncomfortable. Gobber was one thing, but talking about Berk again felt odd.
They had been skirting around the village ever since Hiccup had learned that the woman before him was his mother. Talking about Berk and his father and all the villagers just brought up the painful reminder that his mother had left him behind for fifteen years, had omitted their relationship when they had first met and it threatened what stability they had built.
"How do you know Gothi?" It was logical to assume that his mother was curious about the people she had been raised beside and how they were after so long away, so Hiccup should not have been surprised, but the mute village elder had not been what he had expected.
Still, Hiccup was curious about his mother's past before Cloudjumper had taken her away all those years ago… if he didn't ask now, there might never be another chance again.
"Aside from Gobber and your father, she was one of the few I would ever call a friend." His mother replied from across the fire. Her eyes, though brighter now that the tension had clear, were troubled, and it made his heart ache something fierce to see such melancholy in her eyes. Hiccup realized that she hadn't planned on speaking about the woman until the last second and was getting swept up in old memories. "She was a dear friend to me, even before I truly knew your father or Gobber. I guess… she was the closest thing I ever knew to a mother, since my own died when I was too young to remember her by. A sickness took her in my early years, I believe, though it's been so long that I'm no longer sure."
Out of all the people on Berk, the village elder had never once struck him as someone who had been close to his mother. The old woman had never mentioned his mother once, and she had never seemed to hold much interest in Hiccup aside from his status as the heir apparent to the chiefdom. "Why are you asking about her now?" Hiccup asked even as he tried to remember if the village elder had ever come up back when his mother was just the dragon lady. He couldn't remember.
His mother shrugged her shoulders, looking just as lost as him. Still, perhaps for Hiccup's benefit, she continued her story. "When it came time for me to join dragon training with the others, she came forward and offered me an apprenticeship to work under her and learn the healing arts. It saved me from living a shameful life branded as a craven, and from having my hand forced into violence I wanted no part in." Valka's voice caught in the back of her throat, but the small, watery smile she gave him was genuine. "I can never thank her enough for that. No doubt she thought I was some idealistic fool, but she cared about me nonetheless."
The idea that there was so much about the people he had grown up around his whole life that he never knew chaffed against Hiccup's mind. Why had no one ever mentioned Gothi's relationship to his mother, why had he not grown up to view the elder as an honorary clan member? These were the questions that came to mind, and Hiccup could not find any answers to be given or, at least, none that mattered anymore. Father and Uncle Snotlout were the only Haddocks left, since Snot took his mother's clan name, and both had had little time to spend on two young children, but surely Gothi could have looked after them? Hiccup could have had someone to call grandmother. I would have liked that, Hiccup thought, only a tad wistful, but mostly he felt sad. I would have liked a grandmother. No doubt I would have been her favorite since Snot's attitude would have just gotten him the birch rod.
Hiccup had never cared much of the mute village elder and couldn't truly say he had spoken much with her aside from respectful greetings on the street or the odd word or two during religious events and festivals. It had always been his father who worked with the village elder during official ceremonies and clan moots. It was no small secret that Stoick the Vast greatly respected Gothi and her counsel, and always sent over builders to repair her home first during winter raids. Perhaps it was due to some lingering affection towards the old woman who had taken care of his wife during their youth?
"I can't say that I really know her, aside from the odd visit when I was a child and the winter storms or spring rains brought a terrible fever in me when I was young." Hiccup told his mother who was listening attentively. "She swore a vow of silence in the name of Freya when I was very young, though I don't know the reason why." Hiccup smiled faintly as an old memory suddenly came to mind. "When we were kids, the twins used to tell me and the others that she had cut out her tongue and set in in the fire to spite Loki. I never believed them, and neither did Astrid, since the twins always liked to come up with far-fetched stories to try and scare us, but Fishlegs was so scared he couldn't look at Gothi for the next month without stuttering and dropping anything he had in his hands. Snotlout thought it was hilarious."
The Jorgenson boy had loved the story so much that he tried to get to sneak into her house to see if the tongue was still in the brazier before Astrid had put a stop to the idea. Hiccup was sure that Astrid had let the Ingerman boy lean against her for comfort during the story and had even knocked the twins' heads together when they started to cackle at the boy's forming tears. Astrid, when he thought on it, had always been protective towards Fishlegs since they had been children.
"Well this Fishlegs boy had nothing to fear." Valka was quick to assure him, smiling still at the memory of the short, old lady Hiccup barely knew. "Gothi was always a gentle soul, though she had a fearsome temper that was quick to burn and quick to die, like a summer storm, but only to those who truly deserved it."
Hiccup hadn't known that. He barely knew anything about Gothi. The village elder had always seemed rather grim and feeble to him. "I've never heard her make a sound, aside from that cane of hers digging into the dirt. Gobber seems to be the only one who can read it, so he acts as her mediator and interpreter whenever he has the time away from the forge and the Ring."
"She chose Gobber?" Valka asked, looking aghast at the very idea that Hiccup couldn't help but smile. Gobber really wasn't a good choice for any type of responsibility outside of the forge.
"He's the only one who can read her scribbling, but even by his own account he is not the best at interpreting them." Hiccup admitted. "One time during a ceremony for the harvest festival, Gobber had challenged uncle Spitelout to a drinking contest beforehand, and he was so drunk he made an utter botch of the whole thing and made some, er poor choices for interpretation, that Gothi stopped the ceremony and spent the rest of the night chasing after him with her cane." He laughed at the memory. "Gobber was so drunk that it was a fair match since he never thought to go to high ground, and he walked with a lurch so bad he kept falling. He woke up the next day in a pasture with the worst headache he'd ever had and a bruise the size of a walnut on his head."
Valka's smile grew wide, and faint crinkles appeared in the corner of her eyes. "I'm glad to see she still has steel in her spine."
More like there's steel in her fist, Hiccup dryly thought. It was no wonder that Gobber, who has never been known as a stickler for propriety or as a man to hold back his tongue, treated the village elder with some form of respect that he barely showed the chief. The old woman had literally beat it into his head. The thought of the tiny, old Gothi whacking the massive, muscular Gobber did bring a small smile to his face.
The two grew quiet as they both reflected on what they had just learned. The tension in the air had faded away. Valka seemed to be lost in her thoughts, seemingly focused on the fire even as her brows furrowed further and further in thought. Hiccup didn't say anything at all, content to wait and listen.
"Those other children you mentioned from before, are you all close?"
Hiccup blinked, caught a bit off-guard at the question. "Er, well, they're my agemates so I share dragon training with them now that we're old enough to not have to do the water brigade during a Raid, though I never got to do that with them since Gobber wanted me in the forge doing repairs and weapon handouts." Hiccup forced out a cheerful laugh, trying his best to not wince when it still came out strained. "I guess everyone just assumed that I'd make a ruckus and cause more fires than I would put out."
Valka poked the fire with the branch, carefully stirring up the embers until they glowed a bright red orange. There was something in her eyes, something closed off and guarded as she focused on the flames. "But are they your friends?" She pressed the question almost gently, but there was no softness in her voice, only the quickest flash of the steel hiding beneath. She still wasn't looking at him.
"I-I," Hiccup bit down on his tongue, shame flushing his cheeks. He could tell that she knew the real answer; Hiccup had never hidden his frustrations towards his peers from her whenever they had been brought up in the many conversations they had shared back when he had just thought her some crazy dragon lady that lived in the woods outside his village. It was one thing to offhandedly mention his lack of companionship amongst his agemates to a kindly stranger, but even Hiccup, who had been mockingly called 'the Useless' for years at this point, thought it seemed rather pathetic to admit to his mother that he didn't have friends.
"… No, I wouldn't call them that or, at least, I haven't for a long time."
After all, Fishlegs and Astrid had been his friends once. When they were still children, free of the burdens and worries that plagued them now, the three had spent long summer days exploring the forest, wielding crude swords they had fashioned from fallen branches, in search of trolls and gnomes. Snotlout and the twins had been content to stick near the village to cause their traditional mayhem and chaos, and Hiccup had been thankful for it once upon a time. Even as a child, he had never enjoyed his prideful cousin's company.
One day, Fishlegs had taken a strand of pine and fashioned it into a circlet and the boys had named Astrid the queen-Valkyrie of all Vikingness and Berkhood. For a large boy with hands like leather mitts, the tiny, fragile crown had been surprisingly well crafted. Hiccup had thought it pretty. With the crown upon her head, Astrid had braved through the rushing water of a creek. She had always done everything fearlessly, Hiccup remembered fondly. She had found a mossy gray-green river stone, polished smooth by the water, and had pressed it into Hiccup's hand. For luck, she had said, before she turned her attention back to the water's edge to find another stone for Fishlegs. The memories of the day the three had spent wadding through the slow-moving waters trying to find river stones was a cherished memory, even though they never did find any precious gems.
He remembered that once they had gone back to the village with their treasures, Astrid had shoved Snotlout into the mud when he had laughed at her crown. Hiccup could still remember the pine needles and dirt caked into her cheeks, and the warm weight of the river rock in his palm.
Those were summers long since gone. Not too soon afterwards, their parents had begun to encourage them to practice fighting with blunted steel. Once Astrid had been given her first practice axe by her mother, the days spent outside the village ended. The pretty river stone Astrid had given him was still somewhere in his room, though Hiccup hadn't thought much of it in years. It wasn't as though it had brought him much luck.
"I didn't really have an opportunity to spend much of my time with them once I became Gobber's apprentice." Hiccup tried to explain, hoping that it didn't seem like he was trying to give an excuse as to why he didn't have any friends. "With all the dragon raids and Nest searching, the forge is almost always lit and there's always more work to be done, whether its repairing weapons and armor, or just crafting new building materials. Astrid, Snotlout and the others were just as busy once they became part of the water brigade, since they always had to run around back and forth from the docks to even Old Mildew's hut to-"
"Mildew?" It was the first time she had ever interrupted him today, and it made him jolt in surprise. Valka's lip had curled downwards in distaste as though she smelled something foul. "That sour old goat is still alive?" She asked abruptly.
"You know of him?" The cranky, old recluse did look and act like a short-tempered goat now that Hiccup thought of it. The only creature that was worse was that Loki-damned sheep of his.
Valka's nose wrinkled in distaste. "Know of him? Pah, it seemed as though every other sunrise he would come to the Hall with another new complaint. His bellyachin' and ramblin' nearly drove us all mad." She seemed to have forgotten about Hiccup's agemates entirely, which he was inwardly thankful for. "During one harvest season, Mildew near drove the whole village mad when he began to complain about how his cabbage harvest was beginning to rot with worms and maggots and how it were some curse from the gods and that someone in the village, though not him, was to blame. Finn finally took it upon himself to knock the man down a peg or two when he grabbed the old man by the scruff of his beard and threw him down the stairs that led to the Great Hall face-first into a snowdrift. Oh, no one in the village could look him in the eye for the next month without bursting into laughter!" She laughed at the memory.
The name did not sound familiar to Hiccup, but the mere idea of Mildew stuck in a snow pile, bottom up, nearly left him in stitches. The Mildew that Hiccup knew was a bitter, sour-faced old man who only seemed to have time to complain or curse his luck to anyone who would listen. During one summer, the farmer had made Fishlegs break down in tears from some forgotten jape. Hiccup and Astrid had spent a whole week planning their revenge, which had been the childish, yet effective, ploy of throwing week old rotten eggs at his hut in the middle of the night. Hiccup had no warm feelings towards the man and hated only his foul-tempered sheep even more.
As though she could read his mind, Valka asked. "Does he still have that sickly sheep of his? Ah what was that Hel-damned sheep's name again… Ferris, Fergus?"
His mouth twitched just a bit at the lips. "Fungus, actually."
Hiccup couldn't even try to keep his face straight when his mother wrinkled her nose again. He threw back his head and laughed, bright and loud. It wrung through the air like a bell, and not even a moment later his mother joined him, her laughter just as bright.
*Smacks head* When I had updated the last chapter, the first sentence of this chapter was "you know Gothi?"… somehow I added in nearly 6k of dialogue before that. I don't even like writing heavy dialogue, it always feels too stilted.
Me at the beginning: This should only be around 3k words at most.
Me now: Must write more… inconsequential dialogue… it's good for the pacing, I swear, otherwise people will think Hiccup is too forgiving… time has to pass before what I plan next…
Nearly 9k words later…
Still, I felt like this story needed this chapter and the last chapter as a breathing room between the revelation of Valka's identity and what is coming next in the story. This whole story is about their growing relationship, and having them just sit down and talk to one another seemed important to me, though I'm sure some bits are a bit of a snooze for certain people. Still, I hope this chapter was worth the wait.
Thank you again for all your lovely reviews from the last chapter. Please don't forget to leave a review this chapter as well!