It had been almost a week since Heather's departure from Berk and the endless rain had only let up two days ago. Still, the earth was so soaked with water it left the ground muddy and sprinkled with puddles.
Hiccup couldn't even be mad about the way his boots sunk into the ground and wanted to stick to it with every step he took. Not when the children of Berk were screeching with joy and splashed each other in the puddles, all of them covered in mud from head to toe. The thought of their mother's faces when they got home dirty beyond imagination amused him.
His wife tugged on his arm. "What are you grinning about?"
Hiccup jerked his head towards the playing children. "Under different circumstances, I'd be dragging you into the mud right now."
Astrid snorted and tapped his chest. "You did that often enough after the snow melted, remember?"
He did. They had come back from the crater sodden wet and filthy on more than one occasion much to the dismay of the housekeeping staff. He'd made sure they were compensated splendidly for the extra work he'd brought on them, of course.
"Mm-hmm. And I remember we always had the best bathtime afterward," he murmured into her ear.
Astrid smirked, knowing it wasn't the bath precisely that was on the forefront of his memory just then. "We'll have to repeat that someday," she basically purred. "You know, once I'm not pregnant anymore, we have the house to ourselves for the day and a bathtub to fit us both."
"It's a date," he murmured into her ear.
They kept walking and while the thought of a day like that with his wife did sound incredibly appealing, Hiccup's mind kept supplying him with different images to also look forward to. He cast another glance at Berk's youngest playing joyfully.
"You know," he said, "I actually can't wait for our kid to be old enough to play in puddles and come home looking like a little mud-monster."
Astrid smiled, her hand going right to her rounded belly. "No. What you actually can't wait for is to have a viable excuse in the shape of our baby to go play in puddles yourself. So you're both gonna come home looking like mud-monsters. Probably Toothless, too." She grimaced. "Frigga, save me from the sheer amount of laundry that'll bring me."
Hiccup snickered and pulled her close again, kissing her temple.
The baby wasn't even there yet and already she was talking like the other mothers. It made him giddy with anticipation of what the future would bring.
He felt the faintest flutter of movement underneath his fingertips. It hadn't been that long since Astrid had stopped dead in her tracks one morning - after complaining about having an upset stomach for a couple days - and announced to Hiccup that she thought the baby was moving. Elated, Hiccup had pulled her close and felt her rounding belly, only to discover that while his wife said she felt movement, he couldn't detect anything yet. He had pouted until Ruffnut whacked his head and told him to stop being stupid.
"It's normal. You're gonna have to wait a bit longer to feel the little rascal squirm. Astrid has killer abs that are standing between you and that baby, idiot."
His darling wife had still guided his hand to her stomach whenever she felt it move inside her. But it wasn't until almost two weeks later that they'd lain in bed together just talking and he'd felt a small nudge under his fingertips. He's stopped midsentence.
"Did you feel that?" Astrid had asked. "Here." She pulled his hand a bit higher and now there was no mistaking what he'd felt.
Feeling their child move had brought tears to his eyes and filled him with such a deep, unconditional love for the little life they had created.
"I can't wait to meet you, little one," Hiccup had whispered and pressed adoring kisses to Astrid's rounded belly until they'd fallen asleep.
There were so many reasons why they had to defeat Drago and the Dragon Queen once and for all. Their unborn child was just one of many.
Hiccup just hoped that he'd be able to convince his stubborn warrior-wife to stay away from the worst of the battle once it had arrived, even though it was more likely for the gods themselves to come down to help them than Astrid ever not fighting for the safety of her tribe. This was much bigger than any single one of them.
They shortly after arrived at the steps leading up to the Meade Hall and sat down on the lowest that weren't completely covered in dirt. The council meeting wouldn't be for a little while yet, but they'd agreed to meet up with Snotlout here.
"You really don't need to stay and wait with me. For all we know, Snot could be running last minute again," Hiccup said.
"Are you trying to get rid of me?"
"Never. I just know you have a bunch of idiots waiting for you to boss around."
They were taking turns teaching ever new dragon training and riding classes in between making saddles and endless council meetings. And Hiccup had a feeling she enjoyed teaching. Her patience with the older teens and adults tended to run a little thin, but he'd found out his wife was incredible with the younger ones. Ever patient and encouraging.
Today, she'd taken over his class because Hiccup couldn't be at the meeting and teach formation flying at the same time.
Astrid sighed. "Eret is at the Arena already to deal with the dragon wrangling. Gustav always causes an incredible ruckus when getting Fanghook out because he is too preoccupied with flirting with married, pregnant women than calming his dragon. I swear, one more lewd comment and my fist will meet his nose. I don't mind missing that part. Also, I want to hear if Snotlout has news yet." She tilted her face up toward the sun that had finally decided to show up again.
Hiccup didn't know what to make of Gustav. The boy clearly had an infatuation with Astrid that challenged his own from the time Gobber had pulled them through dragon training. Just that Gustav had developed an ego in his almost seventeen years to match his crush. From afar, it was kind of funny seeing the boy falling over backwards to get Astrid to just so much as look at him. But all fun and games ended when Gustav's eyes strayed into inappropriate territory and his mouth suggested Astrid leave her husband for a 'real' Viking. He would need to have a serious conversation with the boy if even Astrid's axe couldn't deter him.
Snotlout didn't take nearly as long to arrive at the steps as Hiccup had anticipated, weaving around the villagers busy in the streets. He looked around searchingly but kept on heading straight to their meeting point.
"Oi, where's Eret?" Snotlout said in lieu of hello. "I thought he'd also be here." He sat down a set below Hiccup and Astrid, obviously trying - and failing - to hide his disappointment.
"He's at the Arena," Astrid said. "Wrangling dragons and overeager teenagers. But he told me to say 'hi' to you from him and that he'd 'catch you later'." She gently punched Snotlout's shoulder, jostling him in the process.
Snotlout didn't seem to mind much, his focus entirely on looking toward the general direction of the Arena and grinning to himself with a blush creeping on his cheeks.
Hiccup couldn't keep the chuckle in and shared an amused look with his wife.
The young men had yet to confirm anything about their budding relationship but Hiccup knew there was something going on between them when no one was looking.
Eret was a lost case when it came to hiding his romances from Hiccup. Even when he wasn't saying a word about it. Hiccup would bet his left leg that they'd exceeded their mutual pining stage.
"How was your morning?" Hiccup asked pointedly once Snotlout managed to tear his eyes away from the Arena. "Any news?"
Snotlout sighed and hung his head. "No. Well, not really. I don't think he's making much effort with Mouldhair and his friends. Seems like his promise to Heather means absolutely nothing once the lady in question isn't there to ensure his loyalty."
"She'll be back," Astrid said. "Maybe then she can talk to Viggo again."
"I don't think she'll be back soon enough for that," Hiccup said after a moment of quiet. They didn't react much. They'd all been thinking this already. "She's spent years away from home because her brother wanted to use her as a spy. And now she just spent weeks in a village she has no attachment to just to prepare for war. I think when she comes back, it'll be to fight, not to keep negotiating with a man she hates."
"She's tired, Snot. And right now she's probably more worried about her own people and her own family than she is Berk. Rightfully so. I don't doubt we'll be seeing her again, but probably not before she's made sure her people are safe and prepared for what's coming. And if Drago already marched on Berserker Island, well… she'll have other things to worry about than whether Viggo sticks to his promises or not."
Snotlout huffed. "Then what are we supposed to do about Viggo? He isn't doing anything!"
"We need to be patient and trust him. That's the only option we have right now."
"And if we help it along a little?" Astrid shifted on the steps. "We haven't been paying much attention to Viggo in public since Heather left. All we do is listen in when those traitorous pricks are on guard duty. And he probably knows that, too. But how is Viggo supposed to give them 'secret information' when there's no way he could've gotten it other than from some guards don't attend a single council meeting."
Hiccup blinked at his wife- And if they weren't in public right now, he would kiss her silly for being the genius she was. And then he would probably take her to bed and show her how much he loved her. But alas, there was no time for that. Hiccup made a mental note to still find a quiet moment for the two of them later, though.
"You're incredible," he said with a smile of adoration. "And I know exactly who can spend some quality time with Viggo without making it look too suspicious on our part. Mouldhair probably knows none of us would ever let any sort of information slip towards someone like Viggo when we still thought he's working with Drago."
"Which only a handful of people know he isn't," Astrid said. "Most of the Council still thinks he just wants to fool us. But we know better."
"He could still hold all of us for fools," Snotlout said. "I really, really don't trust that guy. He's… fishy. I dunno."
Hiccup grinned at his cousin, the plan taking shape in his head. "Ah, and who also really distrusts him?"
"And who in a position of power is the most likely to let some sort of information slip because he doesn't like how things have been handled so far? Or rather, who hasn't been happy with who's in charge for years now?"
Snotlout's eyes widened. "He'd never actually-"
"That's you know and what I know. But someone like Mouldhair has only seen the contention growing over the years. Your dad doesn't need to do anything but pay Viggo a visit. It's not important what he says or doesn't as long as it looks like what we need it to. And then Viggo really needs to start working his charm."
Snotlout nodded, rubbing his face. "Maybe we can ask him after the Meeting. But you come up with a reason he needs to go see Viggo, alright? He hates taking orders from me." He scoffed. "Especially now."
"Is he still giving you shit for not wanting to keep the position as Heir?" Astrid asked.
Snotlout shrugged. "He's pissed no matter what I do. But yeah. When I said I want to step back, he told me I was stupid and ungrateful and hasn't said a word to me since."
Hiccup had to look away from his cousin, gnawing on his lip. Nothing had been made official yet, but that could change any time if it were up to his father and Snotlout. Hiccup still didn't think reinstating him as Berk's Heir was such a good idea, but he understood Snotlout's eagerness to step back from that responsibility.
"I think Stoick will say something to the Council about it today," Snotlout said. "We don't need their permission for it; it's Hiccup's birthright, after all. But they like to be informed of things like that."
"Not that that's happening all that often," Hiccup said. "Changing the Heir back and forth really isn't everyday's business." He wrung his hands, leg jiggling restlessly. If it were up to him, he'd be up in the clouds right now with Toothless. The sky calmed him, but only if he was close to it.
Astrid took his hand and squeezed. His fidgeting lessened just through her touch.
Flying with Toothless high up in the sky cleared his head. But his wife grounded him like nothing else ever had before.
He threaded his fingers through hers and brought her knuckles to his lips.
Astrid might be the only thing he had to be thankful to Drago for. The only good thing that came of that madman's incessant scheming and plotting. Maybe Hiccup would tell his stepfather that once they met again. Just to remind him that the woman he'd hoped to be the key to Hiccup's loyalty turned out to be his greatest source of strength to defy him.
Astrid placed a kiss on his cheek. "You worry too much, babe. You're going to do great as Heir. And I'm sure you'll make a great Chief one day, too."
She got up and brushed the dirt off her legs. Hiccup shook his head at her. "How you can have so much faith in me while regularly telling me my ideas are stupid is entirely beyond me."
She threw a grin his way as she made her way down the steps of the Meade Hall. "That's because your first ideas usually are stupid. It's the crazy ones that are the really good ones." She laughed as she walked off to the class she had to teach and Hiccup was sure he was sporting the exact same lovestruck expression on his face that Snotlout had just a couple minutes ago.
"Gods, I love that woman."
Snotlout snorted. "Yes. And everyone can see it. Now stop staring at her ass before you start drooling."
"Oh you mean like you did yesterday when you watched Eret lug barrels around?"
His cousin's face went up in flames, not unlike Hookfang. "I don- He- I-," Snotlout stumbled over his words before finally giving up. "Oh shut up."
Hiccup couldn't help but laugh and was glad when his cousin joined in a second later.
Years ago, the thought of one day laughing alongside Snotlout instead of being the source of ridicule himself had been a long shot away at best. He was glad that things between them had changed for the better in just the couple months Hiccup'd been back.
"Hey, Snot," Hiccup said once they'd stopped giggling like little children.
Odin, Hiccup hoped this wouldn't be too much to ask for.
"When dad reinstates me as Heir, would you… would you mind sticking with politics and boring Council Meetings? Or do you have other plans?"
Snotlout furrowed his brows. "I… haven't thought about that yet. I was too young to know which trade I would pick up when you disappeared. I just knew I wanted to fight to protect my village. Anything else I can't remember before Berk accepted me as Stoick's next successor. Why do you ask?"
"Because I thought maybe - and only if you want to - because I really don't want to burden anything else on you that you don't actually want. So really, you can say no, but-" Hiccup forcibly had to stop his rambling and take a deep breath to slow down his thoughts and the words falling from his mouth incessantly.
"I'll need a second-in-command," he said "Not immediately, but I think having someone already decided on would be good for the village to know. I've been gone so long and it's been a tough couple weeks. And I thought…"
"That if I'm your second-in it'll be easier for everyone involved," Snotlout finished for him. Hiccup nodded.
"Also, whether you think so, too, or not. But you're good at all this." Hiccup waved his hand about. "The meetings, dealing with Vikings. And I don't want to take your job away from you. Just the part that would force you into a life you don't want but that I already have."
Snotlout rubbed his hands together and looked away for a minute.
"You don't have to decide anything now. But… consider it?"
Snotlout said nothing for a long time and Hiccup really didn't know his cousin well enough to read his face. But what he saw didn't look too promising.
Hiccup picked at a loose thread on his pants. Maybe he shouldn't have asked after all. Snotlout was just looking forward to getting rid of an unwanted job. The last thing he would want right now was another ungrateful job offered to him because of Hiccup.
"You… don't want to," Hiccup concluded from Snotlout's silence. And as much as he tried, he probably failed at hiding his disappointment as his shoulders sagged.
It took another long moment until Snotlout said anything.
"What about Astrid?"
Hiccup drew his eyebrows together in bewilderment. "What about her?" Had he missed something? Overheard him?
Snotlout shrugged. "I honestly expected you to choose her for that position. Before her mum died and her asshole father took her with him, Stoick and the Council had wanted her as second-in-command for when Stoick retired. I thought her being your second-in would be a given."
"Snotlout," Hiccup chuckled. "Astrid and I are married. I don't think I can make my wife my second-in when she's already going to be the Chieftess when dad retires."
"Chiefte- oh!" Hiccup laughed aloud when Snotlout smacked his hand to his forehead. "Right. Totally forgot that's a thing. We haven't had one of those in like twenty years."
"So what do you say?" Hiccup asked, a little more hopeful now. "Or do you wanna think about it a bit more?"
Snotlout smiled; hesitantly but he didn't look completely disgusted with the idea at least. "You really think I'd be a good pick?"
Hiccup nodded. "I mean what I said. You really are good at these things. And I'd be honored to have you help me wrangle the village."
"Well…" A real grin spread out on Snotlout's face. One Hiccup recognized immediately.
When he was younger, Hiccup had dreaded that expression on his cousin's face, knowing no kindness would follow. But things were different these days. That didn't mean that he liked seeing it appear.
"I would get to call you out on your bullshit all the time. That'd basically be my job, right?" It was an absolutely shit-eating grin.
Hiccup groaned. "Thor, save me. I take it all back."
"No take-backs!" Snotlout continued to grin madly.
"If your only motivation is to make my life difficult, I'll push you off a cliff."
"Eret would never forgive you. And Hookfang would set your scrawny ass on fire for that."
"I'll take my chances and say you jumped off a cliff and I tried and failed to save you," Hiccup deadpanned. "Very tragic. I might even squeeze out a tear for the occasion."
"Very heartfelt of you."
Hiccup wouldn't have thought the Council would be so easily convinced. His father had apparently prepared a whole speech on why Hiccup should be allowed his birthright again. And he had been severely disappointed when giving it hadn't been necessary. Only Spitelout and Hoark had protested the idea, not much to Hiccup's surprise. But the latter quickly conceded when Hiccup told the Council that Snotlout would be his second-in-command. Still, that did nothing to deter his uncle from throwing dark looks his way and scoff whenever either he or Snotlout opened their mouths to speak.
Spitelout Jorgenson had always been a complicated man, grasping for more power through his son as long as Hiccup could remember. Trying to make up for the fact that he's been an illegitimate child of the former Chief, born to an unmarried woman. Hiccup's grandfather had recognized Spitelout as his own, but Spitelout had always been bitter about it and then had pushed his aspirations onto his son. Without once considering Snotlout's feelings about the matter.
When at the end of the Meeting Hiccup asked his uncle to try questioning their prisoner, Spitelout sneered at him.
"First, you take my son's rightful position that you abandoned years ago. And now you dare to make orders and demands?" He scoffed.
Hiccup felt his patience with his uncle run thin. 'Stubborn oaf'.
But apparently, Hiccup wasn't the only one getting annoyed by Spitelout's tantrums. His father was fuming under his already flaming beard, knuckles white around his tankard.
"Oh, quit yer yappin' already an' get o'er yerself."
All eyes turned toward Ivar Ingerman in surprise. Fishleg's father rarely spoke out against a singular Council Member, usually staying quiet and observant and giving his input carefully worded and thought through. He hadn't said much when Hiccup had first come back with his mask still hiding his identity and had said even less when Stoick had brought up the matter of reinstating him as Berk's Heir. Ivar wasn't someone who got annoyed with a higher-ranking Viking. And yet his words quickly shut Spitelout up and made him look like a fish out of water, grappling for words.
"Spitelout, yer son became Berk's Heir under the belief that Hiccup was dead, not because of abandonment or otherwise. And I believe you know by now just as well as everyone else gathered here that he didn't stay away for so long of his own volition. I agree that things weren't handled as they should've been upon his return. But you can't deny all the good this young man has done for Berk in the short while that he's been back now. And now your son will take his rightful place again; to be our future Chief's closest advisor. After his wife of course. Nothing was stolen from you or your family."
Spitelout's face had turned puce. And Ivar Ingerman still wasn't done.
"Furthermore, that hasn't been an order, nor has it been a demand Hiccup just spoke. It was a request in hope of gaining more information for all of us. Sometimes it is helpful to bring in a different perspective to discover more. We should be glad he can admit when assistance is needed."
That shut Spitelout up with a mumbled "whatever" and the Meeting dissolved soon after.
Hiccup didn't know what to make of it; this seemingly sudden air of acceptance and… welcoming. He'd been an outsider in his own village for so long and been away even longer. The last time he had truly felt like he belonged in his tribe without a doubt in his mind, he'd only been a kid just starting to be allowed heavy-duty tools in Gobber's forge.
But the feeling was slowly coming back. With every new rider he got to train, every warm greeting he received in the village, every Viking who didn't scowl at him when he passed them. Hiccup felt a little more like he actually did belong back on Berk.
He still wasn't so sure about one day becoming Chief, though, and hoped that that day was still a long ways away. Right now just the prospect of the grand official reinstatement his father had plans for was enough stress for Hiccup at the moment. But he wouldn't be alone with his new-old status. He had his wife, his dragon, his best friend, and his cousin at his side for support. And his father.
He had more going for him here than he'd ever had when playing the part on the mainland just months ago. Sometimes the whirlwind of everything that had happened in less than a year thrummed as a dull pain in his head. Other times it made his heart race and soar. Always depending on whether Hiccup narrowed down on the chaos and danger of it all or the good that had still come of it.
He really ought to thank Drago when he'd inevitably see him next. Right before punching him in the face and having Toothless use him as a chewing toy.
Much to Hiccup's chagrin, Spitelout took his sweet time before finally deigning to talk to Viggo. And of course, his uncle had to choose the morning of the funeral of one of their elders; Old Svenson had peacefully passed away at night and the whole tribe gathered to see him off into the afterlife. On a day like that, it was a downright hassle to shift the guards' schedule accordingly so that none of Mouldhair's buddies would overhear the insignificance of the questioning Spitelout would ask. And all while being inconspicuous about it all.
When Spitelout was done, he looked torn between agonizingly irritated and the embodiment of 'I just wasted precious time of my life'.
"Nothing," Spitelout spit to Hiccup in passing. "We're feeding that bastard for no good reason, boyo. He didn't breathe a word about Drago's plans that we didn't already know."
Hiccup sighed, having known that already. "It was worth a try. Thank you."
Spitelout scoffed. "Don't thank me. Next time ye want ta waste someone's time, pick someone else."
Hiccup didn't think he could recall a time his uncle had ever looked at him with such coldness in his eyes and disdain in his voice. And honestly, he could live with that. As long as things went according to plan, he'd gladly take all of his uncle's hatred for the world on himself.
Sighing, Hiccup headed to the Arena where his next class of recruits waited for another dragon-riding lesson.
Almost all of Berk's younger adults had gotten involved in the creation of an aerial brigade. And the entire new class Gobber had been teaching in dragon-fighting was now progressing ever faster in the air and had bonded quickly with their dragons. Probably because they didn't have so many memories of fighting directly against the very same species they now needed to entrust with their life.
Hiccup was glad for the longer days summer brought with it now that it had finally beaten winter even this far up north. The bone-chilling cold now only reigned on nights that were slowly dwindling away. Summer meant he got more done in a day's work. Hiccup split his time between this new sort of dragon training, making improvements to their equipment at the forge and taking turns doing the patrol flights.
So far, their waters were empty and safe. But things could change quickly if he'd miscalculated Drago's moves.
Hiccup fumbled with the trigger that was supposed to set the fifth iteration of his sword on fire. It created a tiny spark, but the Nightmare gel had run too far down the blade to ignite. He set the weapon down with a groan.
At least nothing was exploding anymore.
But what was the use of a flaming sword that wouldn't ignite? He should probably try to refocus his energy on more pressing tasks, but tinkering with his inventions had always provided a great source of distraction for him, taking his mind off all the things he worried about to focus on problem-solving one loose spring coil at a time.
And in times like these, there was a lot to worry about.
He didn't know if Heather had arrived safely on Berserk. Viggo could end up deceiving them after all. Drago could have succeeded in getting Krogan's dragons to accept flyers. His mother could be someone he'd have to face on the battlefield. He didn't know if Valka was even still alive to be on the battlefield when the time came. Something could go wrong with Astrid's pregnancy; not unlikely with all the stress they'd had and would still have. He could lose his wife during childbirth. Or lose her during a fight before that. He could end up leading Berk to a fight they wouldn't win and watch his people be butchered like so many villages that had already fallen thanks to Drago. Maybe-
Hiccup took a deep breath and tasked himself with taking the sword apart again and carefully put it back together, drowning out the storm wave of thoughts crashing through his head. Piece by piece, Hiccup focused on his project and its purpose. He made tweaks where things didn't click immediately.
Again, Hiccup flicked the flint-trigger.
The sword ignited, flames climbing up the blade and staying where he wanted them to.
Hiccup swung the blade with a satisfied smile, a Latin word popping into his mind.
Hiccup didn't really know if his wife wanted to skin him alive with his new sword or wanted him to make her one, too. He didn't think she knew which one it was, either, constantly switching between "what if it explodes in your hand? We both know your track record with making the forge go boom is worse than bad" and "I bet a flaming axe would look awesome."
Eret eyed first the ignitable - and possibly explosive - weapon and then Astrid with growing apprehension. "Mad terrifying would be a better description," he muttered under his breath but Hiccup still heard.
"Aw, come on, Ret. You can't deny it's pretty cool and will definitely be a nice surprise for anyone on the wrong side of it."
Eret shook his head aghast. "I should never have taught you to fight. Not if I had known about the mad things you can come up with when given free rein over a forge for extended periods of time. And an apprentice."
Astrid laughed. "You should've seen the contraptions he made back in the day. Bola launchers that took out more Vikings than dragons. A giant crossbow-like thing that shot four huge arrows at once and sank three of our best ships. Babe, wasn't there also that thing that what? I can't even remember what it was supposed to do, but it set fire to the forge before the raid ever started that night."
Hiccup grimaced at the mention of his failed projects that had done more harm than good.
"And they still let you into the forge?" Eret asked him with a cocked eyebrow. "Why?"
Astrid twirled the flaming sword around. "Because even then he was good at fixing and making normal weapons. Things went awry when he tried to 'enhance' them." She then looked expectantly at Hiccup. "Now, what about my flaming axe?"
Hiccup pointed a finger at her. "You just said that things go wrong when I enhance weaponry!"
"Yeah, but that was then. This one seems stable enough, so… please?" She let the fire extinguish and sauntered up to him. The effect she was obviously going for would've worked better if she weren't currently six months pregnant. Not that Hiccup would ever tell her that, though. He valued his life too much for that.
He took the sword back from her and placed it in its sheath while she snaked her arms around his neck with a pretty pout.
He really wanted to say no. Because seeing her fight with her normal axe was already terrifying enough as it was. But with a flammable weapon? And while visibly pregnant? Hiccup would probably suffer a heart attack on the battlefield along with anyone crossing her path, though for vastly different reasons. But he also couldn't say no to those eyes and her cute pout. At least not directly.
"I'll think of something," Hiccup said and kissed her before she could call his bluff. "But you know I'll need you in the air to make sure those idiots follow orders."
His wife rolled her eyes. "Yeah, yeah. I'll stay away from all the fun so you boys can focus on not getting your asses kicked."
Hiccup would rather she stay out of it entirely as long as she was carrying their child, but that was about as likely to happen as the gods themselves showing up for the occasion. He knew Astrid was more than capable of defending herself and taking down men thrice her size, but he still worried.
His father had told him it was the same with every man watching his wife fight and run about during raids with a weapon in her hand. Rarely anything happened, but always the men worried themselves sick.
The prospect of a new fancy weapon to add to her collection seemed to pacify Astrid some for now.
They retreated into the house a little while later as the sun began to set. So far, the horizon was clear of threats but Hiccup would still take Toothless out for their round of night patrol to scout Berk's waters. With ever more Vikings flying on dragons he rarely needed to go patrol himself anymore. But he loved flying and would be in the air most calm evenings anyway so he might as well scout the perimeter while he was at it.
Since coming clean with his father, Hiccup had gotten to enjoy being in the air with Toothless more often than in the entire last year on the mainland. And that in just under two months. In the process of him just being himself and showing Berk a different way, his home island had become a safer place than it had ever been in three hundred years of Vikings living here.
The dragons from the Nest still raided them every few nights, but Berk stood strong and the growing numbers of dragon riders usually managed to fend them off before they ever reached the village. And the few dragons that did breach the aerial defenses were met with nets instead of weaponry, brought into the arena to be paired up with a rider and trained. It was good practice, too, for when they'd have to face off against an enemy much crueler and well organized than the mind-controlled dragons of the Nest.
Sometimes the sight made Hiccup regretful. If only he had stayed on Berk instead of running away like a coward, then maybe he could've changed Berk for the better sooner, saved all the lifes that had been lost these past years he'd been away. Maybe they could have defeated the Queen already.
But then they'd never have known about the threat Drago posed.
It did not one any good to dwell on the past and how things might have gone differently. So Hiccup shook those thoughts off and focussed on this moment.
Eret threw longing glances at the door as he munched on his stew. He sighed after he swallowed. "I don't think he's coming tonight."
"He said he would. I'm sure he only has to shake off his idiot father and then he'll be all yours," Hiccup said and threw some crust at his lovesick best friend with a grin. Eret flipped him off.
"You know," Astrid said, "maybe I'll join you for patrol tonight, babe. Let's give them some privacy."
Eret shook his head. "I hate you both," he said without malice.
"No, you don't."
"No, I don't," he agreed. "But if you could dial down the teasing juuust a notch, that'd be great. At least if he does still come 'round tonight."
Astrid went to get a refill of the stew she and Ruffnut had made under the scrutiny of Ruff's mother. Hiccup shouldn't be so surprised that it wasn't just actually edible but also tasted good.
"You know, that was a genuine offer," she said. "If you and Snotlout want some privacy for the evening, just say so and we'll make ourselves scarce. Also, the baby's been doing somersaults inside me for the past hour or so, and flying tends to settle it some."
Hiccup sometimes still couldn't quite believe he could actually feel their baby kick and squirm when he placed his hands on Astrid's belly. Not always, but more often with every passing day. And that it already liked flying made Hiccup excited and proud beyond compare.
Eret snorted. "Still in the womb and already you couldn't deny who fathered it if you tried."
"Freya help me," Astrid laughed. "Let's hope it doesn't just take after Hiccup or we won't be getting a peaceful moment again the moment it figures out how to crawl."
"Hey!" Hiccup said indignantly. "I wasn't that bad of a kid."
"Hm, from what people told me, it took the combined effort of your dad, Gobber, your aunt, and half the village to make sure you didn't get yourself killed thrice a day as a toddler. Not that it got any better later on."
Hiccup wanted to protest her claims. He really did. But there was some truth there. "Fair enough," he sighed. "We'll just have to teach Toothless how to babysit. He was incredible at keeping me out of trouble."
Hiccup stuck his tongue out at his wife, making her cackle.
"What Hiccup meant to say," Eret said, "is that in the city, that job fell onto me. Initially, Drago paid me for basically babysitting him for a while. Three others before me had quit within a week because Hiccup just kept running off and into trouble."
"They didn't let me do anything! I was bored out of my mind."
"Which is why I made you spar with me. Kept you too distracted to be a pain in my ass and too tired to get into trouble."
"See, now it makes way more sense," Astrid laughed.
Hiccup opened his mouth with a snarky comeback already heavy on his tongue when the front door burst open and Tuffnut scrambled inside like an agitated Terrible Terror chasing a mouse.
"Guys!" he yelled. "Guys, guys,guys, guys,guys-guys-GUYS!"
"Well, you're not Snotlout," Eret slouched.
"Guys!" Tuffnut stumbled to his feet, pushing his dreadlocks over his shoulders. "Guuuh-ys!" Then he started turning in circles, muttering under his breath.
Astrid huffed in aggravation, grabbed the young man by his ear, and dragged him to a halt bend over so his lobe wouldn't rip right off.
"Odin's balls, speak sense, shut the fuck up, or I'll use you for target practice with the new weapon I've been promised."
That seemed to somewhat bring a bit of sanity to the male Thorston twin.
"Viggo's gonna leave! He spoke to Mouldhair and Mouldhair offered to break him out of jail so he can leave with them! And-and he agreed!"
"WHAT!" all three of them exclaimed almost simultaneously.
"They didn't say when, but I think it's soon. So does Snot. He's at the docks trying to keep an eye on them."
Eret was on his feet immediately, reaching for his scabbard. Astrid seemed in equal haste. Hiccup slowly rose, not really knowing what to make of this information yet.
He glanced at the window where the sun had started dipping below the horizon. Night was still a little while away.
"Alright," Eret growled "This-no. We need to inform your father, Hiccup. We need to arrest them right the fuck now. The whole bunch of them."
"We should never have trusted Viggo," Astrid added with a determined nod.
Hiccup furrowed his brows. "Tuff, what did they say exactly?"
Tuffnut shrugged. "Mouldy was yapping on and on about how Viggo should come with them, that Drago would need him. Viggo said something like 'yes, I know' and then Mouldy said they'd break him out of jail and that he should be ready."
"That's all?" Hiccup asked.
"What do you mean 'that's all'? That's bad enough!" Eret exclaimed. "Mate-"
Hiccup shook his head. "He hasn't outright said he'll actually leave with them."
His wife whirled on him with an incredulous look. The last time he'd seen it this harshly focussed on him had been years ago; just after they'd been introduced to the Deadly Nadder and all he'd been able to focus on was Night Fury pamphlets.
"Are you- Babe, we can't risk Viggo ruining this! We have one shot to get Drago to sail for Dragon Island instead of Berk. One. It's bad enough that Heather slipped up so badly and decided to just tell that man almost everything. We should have intervened long ago. You can't seriously think of letting this continue, Hiccup!"
Hiccup folded his arms across his chest, frowning. "What other choice do we have, Astrid? Yes, we only have one shot. And this is it. We need someone Drago trusts as a reliable source of information to lead him to Helheim's Gate thinking we've run there. We don't know who else is working for him and if we arrest Mouldhair and his buddies now, that'll only make everyone else more suspicious and we can't keep an eye on all of Berk. We need to make use of what we have and that's this."
Astrid mussed up her bangs. "That's-that's crazy! Hiccup, I love you to Helheim and back, but Odin help me, how can you not see how incredibly crazy and stupid this is?"
"An hour ago you said my crazy ideas are the good ones," Hiccup argued back. Probably not the smartest thing he could've said. "Astrid-"
"We need to tell your dad and the council. We can't let them leave the island."
"What we need to do is wait," Hiccup said harshly.
"How can you still trust Viggo?!"
"I'm not! I'm saying we can't know for sure yet what's going on and what Viggo is planning." Hiccup turned to Tuffnut who was looking at the two of them with badly masked apprehension. "Tuff, did you hear what Viggo told them?"
Tuffnut cut a grimace in thought then shrugged. "Only what we wanted him to pass on in the first place. Didn't even say he got it from Heather or Spitelout, though he did say he overheard me and Ruff gossiping about 'Berk's Grand Escape to Dragon Island' near his cell which, uh, hello? Rude? We'd-we'd never. It's really just plain out insulting."
"Good. Then we can wait. See if Viggo follows through or not. If he decides to betray us, we'll intercept them before they reach the fleet and sink their boat if necessary. But first, we need to wait and see what happens. We need this to work."
A heavy hand landed on Hiccup's shoulder, drawing his attention away from his wife's ire.
"Mate," Eret said, "you know I'd follow you to the ends of the world without much questioning. But every once in a while you need to give me a reason to keep doing so.
It stung more than Hiccup wanted to admit. To hear the two people who he'd thought he could always count on to back him up losing faith in him. For just a moment that reminded him of the last time he'd spoken - really spoken - to his mother. The day he'd lost his faith in her, too.
Valka hadn't been able to give him much reasoning other than 'trust me' and 'it'll happen soon,'
And he had a feeling that's what this must sound like to Astrid and Eret as well.
Hiccup willed his hands to unclench and took a deep breath. "From the moment Viggo set foot on Berk, he's been trying to make Heather see him in a different light. He's been trying to get her approval and bending over backwards to gain her forgiveness. He doesn't even know she's gone yet, so he wouldn't do anything to lose what progress he's made so far. And he's too smart not to know that we wouldn't just trust him blindly. He probably has figured out by now that we're supervising his every interaction with anyone we don't know we can trust and he was the one to tell us Mouldhair is spying for Drago. If he truly meant to escape, he wouldn't have allowed Mouldhair to speak so openly about it. Not while knowing that we're trying to trick them.
"I don't think he'll actually leave with Mouldhair's crew or tell them any more than we want him to because he's not stupid enough to believe we'd just let him go. And he's been trying too hard with Heather for it to be just a farce, either. That's why I think we shouldn't just blindly jump into action. I don't trust that guy past the confinement of the jail, but I know he's smarter than that. And honestly? If Viggo had wanted to make a break for it, he'd have done so already."
There was a moment of silence as he watched his wife and his best human friend contemplate his words. Before either of them could say any more, though, the door burst open a second time that evening and Fishlegs stood in the doorway, gasping for breath. Behind him, the Gronkle he'd been lovingly nursing back to health.
"Gustav and some other recruits just took off with their dragons. They were fighting about something and- I think it's a competition? The entire Academy is a mess and they were headed due south. I think I heard someone says something about Helheim's Gate. We tried following them, but Meatlug couldn't keep up with them and they wouldn't listen when I told them to come back."
This time Hiccup did not hesitate to rush out the door, already whistling for Toothless. He searched the sky and found a bunch of dots dart towards the horizon. He let out a growl.
"Gah! We need to stop those morons before they get themselves killed. Fishlegs, check with the stables and make sure no one else gets in a competitive mood tonight!"
"On it!" Fishlegs climbed on his dragon and off they went.
Behind him, Astrid and Eret were readying their Nadders and Toothless finally came bounding up to him, confined to the ground with his tailfin locked in its manual mode. Stubborn dragon. Hiccup really needed to find a way for Toothless to stop disabling the automatic fin.
Within seconds, the three of them shot into the air to chase the recruits. Their shadows had disappeared from sight, miles ahead. As if they were racing for Dragon Island, to see who would get eaten first.
Hiccup flattened his body over Toothless' back, foot pushing the pedal down. Toothless roared and understood immediately, flapping his wings ever faster until the wind whistled in his ears. Hiccup barely managed to reach for his helmet and push it over his head at the speed they were going. The air stopped ripping his skin clean off his face. His vision cleared and focussed on the living targets appearing in their vision again, drawing ever closer.
They might be racing, but no one could outrun a Night Fury in a sprint.
It still took them precious minutes to catch up to the teens hollering and howling as they raced each other to certain death.
"See you in Helheim, losers!" Gustav yelled with a cackle.
Toothless shot past them at breakneck speed. The teens screamed, unprepared for the Night Fury whistling ahead and then coming to a sudden halt midair. Over a dozen riders tugged their dragons to slow down and hover.
"Oh shit," Gustav cringed as Hiccup pushed his mask off again and slammed it into its confinement in the saddle. He glared at them, panting not just from the adrenaline rush but from anger.
"Someone tell me what the fuck you are doing. And it better be a damn good explanation because I don't have time to chase after a couple morons with a fucking death wish!"
All of them turned their faces down, avoiding looking him in the eyes. The dragons squawked at their riders, unsure why they were stopping. A Zippleback with two brothers on its necks apparently decided to keep going anyway, flying higher to get out of the densely packed group. Toothless growled sharply at it and it fell back into line.
"Well?" Hiccup barked. There really was no time for idiocy like this right now. Not when Mouldhair and his buddies were about to leave for Drago's Army and Hiccup was supposed to follow them.
Finally, a girl - Fleetfoot Olgarsdottír - pushed her Nightmare to the front and hesitantly met Hiccup's eyes with her shoulders pulled up to her ears. "We-we just wanted to help, sir. With the raids."
Hiccup raised an eyebrow. "Help? And how did you think to go about that?"
The girl flinched and looked toward Gustav. The boy had seemed to be at the forefront of all this, leading his peers towards the volcano in the middle of the ocean. Gustav cringed some more.
"It was my idea," the boy mumbled. "Initially, it was only supposed to be a race. See who could get to the fog the fastest. I-I thought that we could try to help while we're already there." Gustav stole a glance at Fleetfoot and blushed. Hiccup felt a part of his anger dissipate; a small part.
Obviously, Gustav had wanted to impress the girl. Just like Hiccup had accidentally set fire to the village numerous times while trying - and failing - to impress Astrid, or at least just get her attention.
"So you thought you could take on the Dragon Queen all by yourselves?"
The teens nodded and mumbled confirmations just as Astrid and Eret finally caught up to them.
"You could have gotten yourselves killed," Hiccup said, forcing a calm tone. They had meant well, even if they'd been incredibly stupid and irresponsible about it. "That thing," he pointed at the horizon in the direction of the Nest, "is bigger and meaner than you can imagine in your worst nightmares. I've seen my fair share of enormous dragons and also enough desperate and scared ones that turned aggressive. The Dragon Queen is unlike anything I've ever seen and could swallow you whole in one bite if you got too close to her. All of you at once. Dragons included."
The group of reckless new dragon riders looked uneasily among each other and talked in hushed voices.
"Alright everybody," Astrid said with her best 'don't-fucking-mess-with-me' look. "Home. Now. You'll be scrubbing the stables for the rest of the evening."
The teens mumbled their apologies and turned their dragons around, headed back to Berk.
"A little faster if you would!" Eret yelled after them and shepherded the group into formation. "Might as well make use of the time."
Hiccup slumped in his saddle and stared at the horizon behind him. They'd see what lay beyond Helheim's Gate up close and personal soon enough as it was. But just the thought made him queasy already.
"What is it, babe?" Astrid asked.
Hiccup sighed. "I'm kinda regretting teaching them to fly on dragons."
"Hiccup. They are hormonal, impulsive teenagers. They're bound to pull dumb shit like that. We should just be glad nothing happened."
"They're-They are only kids, Astrid. Still so green behind the ears and naive and- fuck! What if something goes wrong?"
His wife gave him a quizzical look. "We were younger than them when we started dragon training, remember?"
"Yes, and I can't believe anyone ever thought it was a good idea to let a bunch of fourteen and fifteen-year-olds fight dragons!" He ran a hand through his hair. "It's just- They're still kids. And I wish we could afford to keep them out of the fight but we can't. And if just a single one of them gets hurt or worse… how am I supposed to face their parents ever again if something happens to their children? How, Astrid?"
She didn't say anything for a long while and they just stared at the vast expanse of the horizon disappearing in darkness as the day came to a definite close.
"Let's just hope nothing happens," Astrid finally said. Her hand curled protectively over her stomach. Hiccup didn't need her to tell him to know they were thinking the same thing.
What if anything happened to their baby because they couldn't afford for her to stay away from the fight?
Hiccup took a deep breath. "Let's just go home."
The flight back to Berk took longer since they weren't racing anymore, and Toothless needed the break after that hight-speed sprint so as not to deplete his energies completely. There was a good chance they still needed to follow Mouldhair's boat tonight. But that only gave Hiccup ample time to drown in his head. They'd flown farther out than Hiccup had thought. Astrid eventually joined Eret in bullying the teens into an impromptu training session and had them flying various formations and attack patterns.
If anything went wrong once they faced that army, it would be on him. They had one shot at this or the whole village would suffer the consequences of Hiccup's decisions.
Maybe Astrid and Eret were right and he should deal with Mouldhair and his traitorous buddies before they could leave the island. He couldn't know what Viggo's true intentions were. That man hadn't been Drago's second-in-command for nothing; and maybe he still was. There was no way of confirming anything Viggo had told them so far. It might all be made up to manipulate Berk into trusting him just enough to let him live. Manipulate them all into giving up essential information.
Like he'd done with Heather.
And Heather still wasn't back from Berserk. Hiccup couldn't let himself think anything had happened to his friend. And with how she'd been feeling before her departure, it was more likely that she was simply elongating her stay, maybe even rallying them allies while she was at it. Hiccup truly hoped she was. Even though he'd kind of counted on her being here when he came up with this. She was the only one really able to somewhat control Viggo. There was no doubt Viggo didn't at least hold some affection for her - in whatever twisted was that might be. He was good at playing an act if he wanted to, but no one was able to fake it as well. Or hide it.
If Heather were back, then Hiccup would have one thing less to worry about. It would be even better if she hadn't told Viggo as much as she had.
Up ahead, one of the Nightmares flamed up and dove for the ocean below a second later, its rider screaming and the others bursting out laughing.
Hiccup shook his head, resetting his thoughts.
Somewhere along the line, he'd started thinking about one of his closest friends as a tool; a pawn in his plan. Mad at her absence when he was actually mad at himself. Thinking of Heather as a tool to use against Viggo made him no better than Drago who used everyone to further his cause. If it benefited him then no one was too good to pass up.
Hiccup felt disgusted in his own skin just for having thought that way for a couple minutes.
This all needed to be over and soon. Slowly, he was losing himself trying to stay ahead of his stepfather, Viggo, and the Dragon Queen. He'd played the part of the long lost son to the cruelest man in the northern hemisphere for so long, had had to help him make plans for conquering and learn to pick apart his targets systematically and not letting himself think that they were actually living beings. And then he'd donned yet another mask and pretended again to be someone he was not. It must have started messing with his head. Had been bound to.
Hiccup had stopped pretending on Berk; but as long as Drago wasn't dealt with, Hiccup doubted he'd be able to find peace within himself.
Still torn up about whether or not he should at least confront Viggo about his conversation with Mouldhair, Hiccup guided Toothless to land on a cliff near the port, twilight casting thick shadows over everything.
As much as he hated the idea, they really couldn't be sure who else might secretly be working for the enemy. Making rushed arrests would only lead to unnecessary suspicions and a loss of control on their part. Berk needed to think a while longer they'd be facing the enemy on home turf and Drago needed to believe all of Berk would take refuge with the dragons. The village didn't stand a chance otherwise. But he also couldn't just let Viggo board a boat and make a run for it.
Hiccup was just about to dismount Toothless and send him to the stables when he really took notice of the ships and smaller boats swaying at the docks, gently rocked by the ever sleepless sea.
The low light of a waning moon made it almost impossible to perceive at first glance, but a boat was missing. One of the fishing boats that had no business being out of port for any official reason. Except that it was the one boat with a sword engraved in the hull and Tuffnut had just come running to tell him that they were planning on leaving soon.
Apparently, soon was now.
Now, while he had been chasing after a bunch of idiots halfway to the first fogs of Helheim's Gate.
Hiccup let out a foul curse that had Toothless coo at him.
"I'm sorry, bud. You've been good. It's not you I'm mad at."
For good measure, Hiccup scratched behind Toothless' scaly ears.
"I think we have another long flight ahead of us tonight."
Toothless made a rumbling sound that Hiccup knew to be his dragon's way of voicing his support.
They bounded up to the cliff's edge and Toothless carried them over the port in a slow glide. Hiccup searched every dock, hoping he'd overlooked something, but no luck there.
Mouldhair's ship was gone. And what little he could see of the pitch-black ocean also didn't reveal even a hint of the boat's shadow. His fingers ached from his tight grip on the handlebars.
Hiccup whipped his head around, finding Snotlout on Hookfang flying up to them.
"Snotlout. Tuff said you were watching the port."
Snotlout winced at the implicated 'why weren't you?'
"I was. Until dad showed up right when we were about to follow them. I'm sorry. He wouldn't let me g-"
Hiccup waved him off. What was done was done. "Did you see if Viggo was on the boat?"
Snotlout shook his head. "I couldn't get a close enough look. But I swear there was one more person on board than there should've been."
"Did you check the jail yet?"
"No. Wanted to follow them as fast as I could before their trail is dead. They were headed east."
"Maybe a tad south?"
Hiccup looked in the direction but still couldn't see any more than black waves lapping at lonely sea-stacks and clouds pushing in front of the already dim moon.
He needed to hurry if he ever wanted to find that boat again in the middle of the night. Following them during the day was too risky even with the stealthiest dragon on Midgard. And with summer in full gear, night was a short affair already. But he also needed to know if it was worth sinking that boat or not. And that might just cost him the time he needed.
"Tell Astrid and Eret I'm going after them. And inform my father of… of everything." Hiccup finally said after a moment of agonizing over his choices. Then he pulled Toothless toward the jailhouse, hoping he wouldn't regret wasting another few precious minutes.
It was a short flight - especially on a Night Fury - but it felt way longer. Every single second was one he didn't spend hunting down that boat.
The jailhouse looked too abandoned for his taste. Not a single candle burning inside and no guard at the door, not even one snoring the night away inside. Hiccup crossed the hallway in large strides. Maybe he should've stopped long enough to get his new sword; that would be way more effective than the knife hanging on his belt. He'd expected the cell to be empty, honestly.
"You thought I'd leave with them, didn't you?" Viggo asked flatly, lying on his cot and staring at the ceiling. He didn't spar Hiccup one glance. Viggo scoffed. "I told you. I'm done with Drago."
"Well, forgive me for not just blindly trusting you," Hiccup growled. He slammed his key into the lock. It was probably stupid but he entered the dingy cell and held his knife to Viggo's throat.
"Tell me what you really want here, Viggo."
The older man furrowed his brows but kept lying on his cot as if he was just lounging and not currently being threatened. "Like I said," Viggo said sharply, "I'm through with Drago and I want to see his army fall. Let them burn for all I care. I came here because I thought maybe I could be of some help. And I wanted to see my cousin and tell her the truth. She's the only one in this godsforsaken family who has never done any wrong in her entire life."
Hiccup didn't let up on the pressure against Viggo's throat. A sliver of blood trickled over pale skin.
"Snotlout said there's one man too many on Mouldhair's ship. Did they tell you anything I need to know?"
Viggo minutely shook his head and hissed when the blade cut in some more. It was only superficial, though. "Not a word. After I told him I wouldn't go, Mouldhair was in quite a hurry. They'd created a diversion and didn't have much time to argue with me. Judging from your expression, I take it their diversion was a success?"
"What did you tell them?"
"Only that it would look too suspicious if I went with them. I said that you'd send every available rider after us if I went missing the moment their boat is gone, too. Probably with a sink order. Am I wrong?"
Hiccup didn't answer that. His heart was racing a mile a minute and he definitely didn't have time for any more of this. But…
The last time he'd believed someone naively, he'd had to fear for the life of his wife and had gotten a dagger to the gut for his troubles. Now it was his entire tribe on the line; his family.
"If I find out you've been playing us, believe me, I'll personally finish what your brother and Krogan couldn't."
Viggo took a deep breath and his hand closed over Hiccup's. Hiccup prepared to fight him, his years of training with Eret hopefully worth something. But Viggo just pressed the dagger down harder on his own throat.
"Go ahead," Viggo pressed out between clenched teeth. "Cut my throat and be done with it if you don't believe me. But I haven't betrayed the promise I gave Heather. I told them only what you wanted me to and I have no more information to give you, Hiccup. So, go ahead if you must."
For a moment, they just glared at each other. Then Hiccup eased up on his blade just a smidge. Viggo smirked.
"I know you won't, though. You're not a ruthless man like that."
"You don't know me, Viggo. At all."
"Deep down, you believe me. You're smart. Smarter than most people I've met. How would I benefit from staying here, in this godsforsaken jail if I were still with the Armada? What would that gain me?"
Hiccup hesitated and Viggo used his lack of murderous intent to push him away. He tore a piece of fabric from his tunic and pressed it to his bleeding throat. But still, he stayed reclined on his cot.
"You don't have much time, my dear Hiccup. Stop wasting it on a man in jail and go after them before you can't find them anymore. You'll need to know if Drago changes course."
The moon stood high in the sky by the time Berk disappeared as a small speck behind them. The wind had turned during his talk with Viggo and - if they had kept a straight course - it would only benefit Mouldhair and his friends.
Hiccup pushed Toothless as close to top speed as could be sustainable for a while to catch up to them. But finding a tiny boat on a dark sea during a dark night… Eventually, they had to slow down just to make sure they wouldn't miss their target. Every once in a while, Toothless picked up on a scent trail hanging in the air, but he wasn't exactly made for tracking. A Nadder or a Rumblehorn could pick up on even the faintest scents and follow them with ease; even over water. But that wouldn't get them very far when they simply didn't have the time for their lower speed. Even at a relaxed glide, Toothless slick body allowed him to cut through the air smoothly and quicker than other dragons. And since Hiccup didn't know exactly where Drago's army was stationed, time was of the essence.
Hiccup groaned and shifted in the saddle.
He should've planned this out better. Should've kept a closer eye on the recruits and their competitiveness. Maybe he should've gotten more sleep these past few days to keep his eyes from shutting by themselves right now.
"Lower, bud," Hiccup yawned and pulled his helmet off momentarily. Just above the surface of the ocean, Toothless rolled in the air and dunked Hiccup's head into the cold water. Hiccup gasped and shook his head, instantly more awake again. Toothless laughed at him and rose up high once more.
"Thanks, bud. I needed that."
They kept flying south-east and sometimes in a big circle to make sure they hadn't missed if the boat had changed its course. The longer they flew, the more often Toothless picked up on the trail again. And by the time the sky turned the slightest shade of purple with the first tendrils of dawn, Toothless' ears perked up and he accelerated.
Toothless rumbled in affirmation and Hiccup switched the fin's gear to accommodate their speed. They shot across the sea, headed for the brightening horizon. And almost imperceivable at first between the dark waves was a fishing boat. And closer than Hiccup would've liked on the horizon was the armada.
Hiccup knew rough numbers but seeing the sheer size of it was overwhelming.
At the very least two hundred battle-sized ships and even more smaller vessels dotted in between covered the ocean before them in a tight cobweb. All of the ships varied in size and build and colouring, gathered from all the lands Drago had conquered already. Hiccup spotted a couple Sami ships like the one Eret had been working for most of his youth after Drago had destroyed his village and the one he'd later commandeered himself. Hiccup wondered what had happened to his friend's old crew; they had been good men forced to work for a power-hungry man.
At the front of the Armada was the biggest ship Hiccup had ever seen. At least four times the size of the battleships. Years ago, Hiccup had spotted the blueprints for it in Drago's study.
The Conqueror. A ship specked to the brim with weaponry. Its sole purpose to bring fear and destruction. Three hulls attached with big planks, the middle one being the biggest and it alone reached higher than most of the other ships in their entirety. With the three tall masts, Drago's warship reached a size befitted for a god; like it had emerged in Helheim itself. And to make the sight of it even more terrifying and definitely material for nightmares, the entire thing was decorated with dragon skeletons and metal spikes.
Hiccup and Toothless flew low over the water, blending in with the waves. The fishing boat pulled up next to the warship just as they had to dip below the ocean surface to remain undetected and Toothless swam the last distance. They emerged again right below the Captain's Cabin.
Hiccup was glad he'd already donned his flying leathers for patrol before Tuffnut and then Fishlegs came bursting into the house. The black suit allowed him to be almost as unseen in the shadows as Toothless was.
Toothless crawled up the hull and curled up inside the skeleton of a Boneknapper mounted just below the edge of the quarterdeck.
"Stay, bud," Hiccup whispered.
With the waning night, Toothless needed to remain in the shadows of the carcass or run danger of being spotted just due to his size. Hiccup climbed out of the saddle and pulled himself up the rest of the way. The Quarterdeck had a tent-like structure build atop it. Hiccup didn't look closely enough to identify any species whose skulls adorned it, just the sight making him sick to his stomach.
There was movement within the tent and someone talking. Flattening himself to one of the support beams, Hiccup listened.
"Get them to me," Drago barked at some unfortunate soul and then said some more. Hiccup couldn't quite hear the words. He needed to get closer somehow without stepping out of the shadows or risking to attract attention. Despite the ship's sheer size and gruesome decorations, there weren't many spaces to hide, except…
Hiccup swallowed down the bile rising in his throat and grimaced. He crawled closer to the tent, pulled himself up its back pillar and into the big dragon skull attached to it. From his new hiding spot, Hiccup noticed small gaps between the sheets of leather stitched together into a war-room atop the ship. And judging by the texture and size of the individual pieces, he would bet his left leg that they were made from dragon-hide. Hiccup had had to help Drago kill enough dragons to make at least a dozen tents like this.
When he got off the ship, Hiccup would need to empty his stomach into the ocean.
Commotion below him attracted his attention once more. For the blink of an eye, Hiccup saw the dark figure of his stepfather pacing the room below. Drago had donned his dragon-skin cloak and his metal arm seemed freshly polished.
"I'm not sure we should trust them." That was Krogan. "If your idiot brother is to be believed, that boy is with them."
"I'll decide whether to believe anything they have to say after they've said it."
Hiccup listened closer, tried to see more through the gaps, but all he saw was Drago standing at a table and Krogan lounging on a chair off to the side. No sound of another person in the room with them.
He didn't know if he should be relieved or anxious about not seeing his mother at Drago's side. But then again, she'd never joined for any of Drago's council meetings; why should a war council be any different?
A minute passed and Mouldhair entered the tent, immediately falling to his knees with his head bowed. Krogan huffed.
"D-Drago! It's an honour. I-"
"I was told you have news from Berk," Drago cut the man off impatiently.
"Y-Yes! We set sail immediately after hearing of it."
There was a beat of silence. Drago knocked on the table once.
"Ah, you see. Somehow, Berk managed to capture Viggo. We were tasked with guarding the jail. Apparently, he sailed too close to their waters, and your- eh, I mean, ah- Hiccup and his friends joined him. Viggo's been able to get some things out of them and pick up on a couple conversations. The village hasn't even been told this yet. I think the Chief doesn't want anyone to panic. But they wanna evacuate the island, sir! They've trained dragons and wanna make a last-minute escape, the cowards."
So Viggo had indeed held true to his word. Hiccup held back his sigh of relief, but he felt like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.
"And where do they want to run?" Drago laughed. "I have my men on every island. They all bow down to me. Berk can't run."
"They said something about Helheim's Gate. I think they wanna make a run for Dragon Island to cuddle up to even more dragons," Mouldhair said, clearly disgusted by the idea.
"Dragon Island, you say?"
"And you are absolutely sure this isn't some made-up bullocks?"
"Viggo got some high-ranking visitors, sir. And two of Hiccup's closest confidantes like to argue near the jail. Not the smartest of the bunch, those two. Viggo said he's picked it up from there, pieced it together eventually, and told me to go warn you. Sailing for Berk will be for naught. They'll be gone the moment they see foreign sails on the horizon."
"And what about Viggo? You come here. To me. And you don't think to break your superior out of a measly island prison?" There was an edge to Drago's words that Hiccup knew very well. He was goading Mouldhair. So there really was no place for Viggo in Drago's ranks anymore. Made Hiccup wonder just what exactly had happened to bring that about.
"I-I-We tried to, sir. But Viggo said that it wouldn't be smart. Berk would immediately be suspicious if he was gone. Our absence will go mostly undetected. We left the fishing storage empty and the village'll think we're just gone on another fishing trip."
Hiccup suppressed a snort. Idiots. They hadn't even noticed that most of the fish in that storage have been caught by the dragons these past few weeks, making fishing by boat mostly superfluous at this point.
"And you're sure about that? Nobody followed you?"
A smirk spread out over Hiccup's face. Sure, he hadn't exactly been following them to Drago's armada, but he had found them.
"We set up a diversion. Those younglings they taught to ride dragons are rather impressionable. We told them how much glory it would bring to the one to bring down the Nest. They got the idea quickly enough and off they went. That twiggy bastard, his wife, and one of his friends followed them and that's when we took our leave. Nobody will notice until morning and think nothing of it. We usually set out in the wee hours for these trips."
Mildew's son really wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed. It kind of was a wonder he had managed to end up a rather valuable spy for Drago.
Drago rounded the table, hand trailing the map spread out atop it. "Hmmmm. If what you say is true… Did you bring him?"
"Bring- My father, sir? Yes, he's on the ship with us."
"And his death? How did you fake that? I need to know they won't get suspicious, lad."
Hiccup frowned. Mildew? Was he the additional figure Snotlout had seen board the boat? And they'd faked the old bastard's death?
Mouldhair shifted, still kneeling before Drago. It was getting rather ridiculous at this point. Hiccup wouldn't be surprised if Drago threw him overboard the minute he was done with him. He hated cowering idiots who couldn't even look him straight in the eyes. Hiccup had learned that the hard way during his first weeks in the city.
"One of the elders died last week. We sneaked on the funeral ship before the ceremony and stole the body. They burned nothing more than straw and wood. We burned the body ourselves to the unrecognisable and set fire to my father's chicken coop. Made it look like a dragon did it. They should find it when he doesn't turn up for the next meeting."
Hiccup really hoped his stepfather would throw them overboard now. Or maybe feed them to the dragons he undoubtedly had caged on his ships.
Old Svenson deserved so much more for his afterlife than for his body to be desecrated like that. At least Hiccup could set it right when he got back home.
"Good. Good," Drago muttered. "Your father will be of good use. He knows more about the inner workings of Berk than you and your friends. Leave now."
Mouldhair nodded and stumbled to his feet. He basically scrambled off like a dog with its tail between its legs.
Drago stared at his map and pushed some pieces around. Krogan got up from his chair and joined him at the table.
"Tell the men we're changing course."
"You really want to head for Dragon Island? You really want to trust Viggo's word?"
"Viggo is a desperate man. He probably hopes to get his position back if only he gives me the information I need. Or he simply hopes he won't get hanged once I get my hands on him again." Drago laughed. "We'll intercept the Berkians in the fog. Shoot them right out of the sky. They'll never see it coming. And then we'll make their pathetic island our stronghold in the north."
"Your wife won't be happy about that."
"My wife," Drago spat, "will learn to live with it."
Krogan picked up a little figurine and looked at it. "Where is she now, anyway? She still hasn't got my men in the air and by now I'm starting to think she never will."
"She's at her Sanctuary. Still trying to get her Alpha to leave. I told her not to bother. We'll set sail when she's back."
"And when will that be? You've been telling us that for days now."
Drago looked up sharply and snatched the figure back, placing it onto the map. "Don't question me like that or I'll feed you to your Singetails. She should be back in a couple of days time. Now. Tell the men. That's an order."
Whew! This, my friends, is the fifth-longest chapter to date in the entire story. There was a time when I could punch one of those out within just a couple weeks, with how the world and my life currently is, I am extremely pleased to be posting this as soon as I am. But I wanna get this baby done already, I have the last Act all planned out and I think I've found a system that helps me keep my thoughts together even when I'm not able to write for some time, so I can just pick up where I left off. I am excited for the last leg of this journey. Some fun statistics Scrivener provided me with: If this were a printed book, it would be roughly 838 paperback pages long and apparently takes about 19h32m14s to read. That's almost precisely the length of George R.R. Martin's "A Song Of Ice And Fire" according to readinglength . com. As in, I'm only 700 words short. That's kinda crazy to me. Especially considering I've still got like another 50k left to write if things go according to plan.
So thank you to all who have ever liked this story, commented on it, and left me nice dms. It means a lot to me still. Especially since there are new people here every day and I'm always like "You read this from the beginning, with the horrible puns and wonky writing and still thought it a grand idea to stick around? In the most loving way, have you lost your mind?"... I really need to someday rewrite/rework those early chapters and give them a nice polish. Until then, I hope that life treats you all well in these trying times. 3