Several things happened at once; Thornado opened his massive jaws and let out a screech that shook the slaves and Outcasts off their feet, Fishlegs moved and shoved Toothless's head off my metal leg, and and I lashed forward with the dragon teeth. Slaughter screamed as four fangs slashed through his chest armor.
"Why you little-"
I didn't let him finish. Two diagonal slashes to the throat, on each side. Only a few weeks before, I had done the same to Alvin the Treacherous. He hadn't gone down, but Slaughter did. He fell backwards, gurgling with disbelief.
The slaves regained their footing. I slipped on blood and found the railing behind me. It held me up but the hooded Vikings swarmed as they had that night. My arms whirled with the dragon teeth gloves, making deep nicks into their flesh. They seemed to not register the stabs as they reached for my shoulders, where the metal, fangs and leather ended.
The other Outcast reached around around my chest and squeezed. Fishlegs tried to fight off the slaves holding him back; his muscly arms swung forward. Bucket swung blindly with his axe, calling for Mulch. The slaves didn't bother with him because he couldn't aim.
This had happened before; my breath stopped not just because of the Outcast strangling me. The dark sky seemed to light with fire as I remembered . . .
Scorched rubble falling from the ceiling, putrid smoke darkening the burning hut. Dirty hands pressed down.
"Knock him out; he's a tricky one." The same horrid face leering at me, watching me struggle.
"Fast or slowly?"
"No!" I gasped against the pressure around my chest. My present situation sank in, even as my vision went red. This was not my father's hut burning to the ground, stormed with Outcasts and Gobber too far away to help. This was a ship at night, a Berk ship. Not again. Never again.
They hadn't knocked me to the ground this time, so I still could use my metal prosthetic. Standing on my right foot, choking for breath, I used the false leg to stamp into a slave's foot. Here I got lucky because they were barefoot, and as this one shrieked I used the leg to kick him off balance, so he let go. The Outcast, caught by surprise, did not expect two rows of Nadder fangs to crash into face.
Toothless's tail came to life; he couldn't lift his head off the deck, but he could still defend. His prosthetic swished against the remaining standing slaves, knocking them over. I found myself standing over the Outcast, arms free, slashing his throat, hearing a strangled stranger's voice exiting my mouth.
"'Knock him out slowly, he ruined my good fighting hand!' It wasn't my fault you lost your fingers, I didn't ask to get hunted down." My strokes became frenzied, my screams almost hysterical. "I'm not a Dragon Conqueror, you idiots! I'm not a prize you can chain to a boat or mark! I'll kill you, I will kill you-"
"Hiccup." Astrid's gentle hands on my shoulder. Her controlled, calm voice. "He's down. You can stop cutting him."
My arm gestures slowed down. I found myself breathing hard, and not just because of the bruises circling my lungs.
"He's down," she said again. "You remembered out training sessions."
I looked up. Dad and the other Vikings sprinted, tripping over prone dragons. They restrained the hooded slaves, who had fallen back on seeing their leaders fall. Fishlegs bit his lip and whimpered; Bucket did the same as Mulch came closer. Dad looked like half of him wanted to punch me to running into danger while the other half held fear, fear that I might have been taken, and fear of the Jotun numbness that had taken over my face. . .
My arms ached from swinging through flesh with precision. I lowered them and retracted the blood-soaked fangs. Astrid wrapped her arms around me, as if she were a hot blanket. Toothless swished his tail more gently, finding my prosthetic and resting his own there. It felt much lighter than his head.
Dad slowed his pace. He treaded around the soft corpses. He looked at me as if I were a wild dragon with a toothache, and yet a respectable dragon.
"I didn't know you had it in you," he said.
Gobber and Spitelout came from behind Dad. So did Snotlout and the other riders.
"If they were hiding in the barrels and coming out just now, they were probably planning to murder us in our hammocks," Spitelout said.
"That means Hiccup's arrival saved our lives," Gobber added.
Dad did not look as if the news pleased him. I closed my eyes and absorbed Astrid's warmth. There were struggled splashes from the black ship behind us, from where Thornado dove to sink it. He had no reservations about hurting the men who had tried to drown him.
It says something that nothing more exciting happened during my last month on Berk. Chiefs soon sent their sons to enroll at the Academy, Astrid and I screened them to fit them with a proper dragon and to make sure they had brought supplies as tuition, but no slaver dared show their face. Dad made the hard decision to give the slaves to Mogadon for judgment. The Meatheads did not keep slaves, but with the Thing over there was no safer place for them.
The only thing that the twins could deem exciting were my nightmares. Each day I walked around the island as if in a daze, promising that at night I would wake up screaming. Dad and Toothless managed to soothe me to sleep, but Dad's face started to gain circles around his eyes. Tuffnut took to keeping a log and would ask each day at the Academy what the evening's terror had been. I don't know what possessed me to tell him and Ruffnut.
"So you've had the tongue-ripping thriller two days in a row, blood-curdling Alvin laughing his head off every three nights, and the slavers at least once a week. Man, I wish my dreams were this scary."
After catching wind of this the day before I was to board the ship to Scotland-- and I'm surprised she hadn't earlier-- Astrid ripped the logbook out of Tuffnut's hands and whistled for Stormfly to burn it. Tuffnut protested because he didn't write much, Ruffnut backed him up, and Belch and Barf tried to rescue the book. Thuggory, who had shown up for an early flying lesson, attempting to wrestle the Zippleback to the ground and got a faceful of gas. This gave me an excuse to take Thuggory to Gothi, the Village Elder, and talk with her. He didn't lean on me, thank Thor, because he was roughly the size of a baby whale, but he staggered more than I did with a prosthetic.
The winds had finally blown away the scent of burnt wood, but only a blind boar could miss the remains of our village. Some even spoke fondly of the old dragon raids because at least some of the huts stood afterward. Gothi's hut had survived the Outcast attack, perhaps because of the rough runes that decorated the walls. Even as I approached with a peaceful intention, the rune ALGIZ twisted something inside. Thuggory clutched his stomach and groaned.
Gothi opened the door as she approached, an indulgent smile rounding her face. She reached with thin fingers to catch Thuggory's face and escort him to a mat. He lay down, and she pressed dried herbs against his abdomen. I backed away, but she beckoned. That gave me the courage as Thuggory drifted into a drugged sleep.
"Gothi, there's something I need to talk to you about. It may be sacrilegious."
Her expression did not change.
"I need to find a way to communicate with Loki, the god of trickery. He's made Alvin the Treacherous his human adversary, and the only way to remove a god's favor is to talk with the god."
Gothi trudged to where she kept a trough of sand. Her small hands grasped a bone, and she began drawing. It was a rough sketch of a temple. She then drew a stick figure of a man with a brick.
"Worship," I translated. "Build something to worship Loki."
A smile. I couldn't help but return it. First time I had been able to understand Gothi's drawings.
"Loki's signature animal is the fox," I said. "I could easily weld a statue of him and a fox."
Gothi shook her head. She nodded at Thuggory and the world outside.
I deflated. "You're right. There's no time, and Vikings don't worship Loki. If my dad got wind of it, I'd have my butt burned off before leaving for Dunbroch."
She started drawing again. The brick became a wood board, with thick lines. The stick figure gained a knife.
"Carver. Wood, not metal." I thought about this. "There will be a carver in Dunbroch? "
Gothi added an image of a crudely-drawn fox.
"Cunning. Find a cunning carver."
Gothi shook her head. Then she wiped the sand, and drew two women shaking hands in front of a round hut. One woman had Gothi's round face. The hut had a sign in runes.
"Crafty," I read. "Find the Crafty Carver. I will, if the Scots trust me enough to tell me about her."
Gothi tapped the drawing impatiently, at the joined hands.
"I need to tell her that I know you, that Gothi sent me."
She moved away from the drawing. I bent to study the other woman's features. Big nose, like a vulture's beak, and a crow hanging off her shoulder. That wouldn't be much to go on, but I committed Gothi's instructions to memory.
The small hands shoved an herb bag into my hands. Inscribed on it was the word "SECRET." Gothi pressed a finger to her lips.
"What is this?" I opened the palm-sized satchel and sniffed. The scent was unfamiliar.
Gothi rolled her eyes. She touched my darkened eyes, pressed fingers to my lips and pointed to my trousers. On seeing my expression, she flung back her grey hair as if it were in a ponytail and mimed petting a dragon.
"Astrid. Wait, this is for me and Astrid to . . ." A blush crept over. "Gothi, I can't! I'm leaving tomorrow! It wouldn't be right!"
Her face became hard. Her gestures indicated that, if I dissolved the herbs in boiling water and drank them, that I would finally sleep at night. She wouldn't take them back, so I stuck it into my pocket, blush not fading away. Thuggory snored innocently from where he lay on the mat.
Sneaking out while my father snored had become a regular past-time before this. Toothless stayed behind to allay Thornado's suspicions, only agreeing when I donned the dragon-teeth gloves. Astrid soon stayed up to hear my metal leg clanging against her house. I had fought fatigue and the nightmares with companionship. Gothi must have known about these jaunts.
Most evenings we soared on Stormfly over the cliffs, visiting old haunts. We fed Terrible Terrors on crumbling cliffs or splashed each other in the cove's pond. Occasionally Stormfly let us drop from her back, scooping us to safety.
This night was a chilly one; Astrid had bundled in our thickest furs. I tapped the grass with my prosthetic, thrust the bag at her and tried to explain what it was as she crept out of her hut.
"Gothi thinks- uh, what I mean is that I think we should be-"
"Moon tea!" she exclaimed with a raised eyebrow and a mischievous smirk. "I know just the spot to brew it."
"Wait, you know what this is?"
She tossed her head back. "Wait here. I'll be right back." Her boots turned on the wood floor. She returned in a minute with a crude metal pot.
"No talking," she said. "We only have a few hours before you have to get on that ship, and gods help me, I don't want to waste a minute." She grabbed the front of my shirt and dragged me to where Stormfly waited. Her harness clicked in place.
We soared in silence for a few minutes. Then Astrid started talking again.
"Are you taking the dragon teeth gloves with you?"
"I have to." They felt cold against my skin. "Toothless wouldn't let me leave without them. And Toothless is coming, of course."
"The Scots won't like that."
"He can't fly without me, and he wants to be with me." I paused. "If I can play the part of being harmless, so can he. And if things go wrong-"
"You can fly away, come back to Berk and apologize for failing." Her voice became hard, to hide a noise bubbling in her throat. "And then we go to war with the other tribes."
"Only if things get desperate." I tried to keep my tone light. "You can come rescue me if things get bad. I'll write, of course, and tell you how much danger I'm in."
"If you land yourself in trouble again, I will kill you myself." She sounded like the old Astrid, and I relaxed.
We landed in the cove, where Toothless and I had once shared raw fish and started flying together. Astrid unrolled a yak-hair blanket as Stormfly started a fire. Soon the herbs bubbled as we huddled and gazed at the sky.
"I wonder if the nights will be this cold in Scotland," Astrid said. "I've heard it's soggy country filled with damp forests and mysterious blue spirits that drown in bogs."
"You're really comforting," I muttered. Starlight glittered on the small pond. So did the embers.
"Thuggory mentioned that the monarchs have a red-headed princess, next in line for the throne; he said she's quite a catch."
"I bet she can't swing an ax."
"Probably not. Still, she may be like the Bog Burglar heir."
"You mean Chief Bertha's daughter?" I grimaced. "Thuggory said the Bog Burglars have that name for a reason; could be a security risk if we invite their heir to the Academy."
"Yeah, but they've never robbed Berk shores out of respect for your dad being a widow," Astrid said. "I wouldn't invite someone who wants to steal a dragon, but we need more warriors who will take our side."
"I don't know; I think the Berk warriors are fine enough."
"That's because you're loyal," she said.
We took turns sipping from the scalding pot; our lips burned. I crawled to the pond to rinse my mouth of the strange aftertaste. Then I let Astrid take control.
Afterwards, the stars settled into orderly constellations. If a painter were peeping at us from behind a rock, he would add beams of moonlight to shine on Astrid's hair, which draped over my bare shoulders. A bard would add somber minor chords to emphasize her closed eyes as I pressed my cold lips to her cheek. She was exhausted, and her blunt aggression had dissolved with the mist.
Stormfly rested by the dead fire, tail ready to shoot spines. The wind seemed to blow the stars at a rapid pace. I rested my head on Astrid's shoulder; her headband had slipped off.
Minutes passed like dull mayflies. I fretted the longer Astrid slept. She was used to being in charge, of knowing when to strike at an Outcast or snag her boyfriend, but control burdened her like a heavy cloak. When I was gone, she'd be in complete charge of the Academy, of making my father proud. A part of her would worry about me, imagine my big mouth landing me in trouble, and she'd stay up at night if a letter didn't come regularly.
The horizon lightened. Stormfly gave a soft chirp; Astrid stirred. She pressed her head into my chest and rubbed. Her eyes were still closed. I kissed the top of her head. Our bodies quivered, wrapped in the blanket.
"You better not die on me," she whispered fiercely. Her cold hands clenched my bare arms. "Frigga's Promise was bad enough. If war breaks out, hop and Toothless and fly back here. Or I'll come rescue you."
"I'll do all I can, but the gods haven't been favorable lately," I whispered sleepily, adopting a light tone to hide my worry. "Maybe I'll end up like Siegfrid if Odin deems me a tragic figure. Love potion slipped into my drink, arranged marriage, and then I die a gruesome death by sword."
She shoved me with cold hands. Her eyes became brittle and watery as she opened them and once more saw the bruises decorating my chest. Astrid hadn't punched me since that painful day on Frigga's Promise.
"If that princess slips you a love potion and arranges a marriage, I'll cut her head off."
I smirked. "I'll do the same to that Bog Burglar heir if she steals your heart and locks it in a casket."
She looked puzzled and angry. Then a harsh smile broke through her face.
"Believe me, Hiccup, that's not going to happen. I don't want to get married anyway."
I sat up. "You don't?"
"There's so much I want to do before settling down," she said. "Islands to explore, quests to fulfill. Not to mention that needing to make the Dragon Academy work if we want to keep all the tribes from turning against us."
"But I want to marry you," I said, stung. Did that mean our time together meant nothing? What about dragon-sled racing during winter? What about this very evening, the tea having flowed through our veins?
"I want you to come back alive first," she said more softly, seeing the pain cross my face. "I want to know what I can do. what we can do, before settling down and having kids."
"Who said anything about kids?" I asked. "We're only kids ourselves."
"That's my point; we haven't grown up, Hiccup. Not enough to do what our parents did."
"We've done more than what they've done."
"With dragons," she said, partly scornful. "With combat."
"I want us to be together."
"I do too." She leaned into my chest, closing her eyes. "Just not married. Not when people keeping trying to take you away . . .not when I can't keep you safe from the idiots in this world."
I stopped talking. Astrid handed me my sweaty tunic, and I pulled it on. my insides tore up. Vikings didn't cry, so I pretended that the hotness burning my throat was just an aftereffect of the tea. I let her run her fingers over my back, committing a sensual image of me to memory.
"If it were up to me, I'd let you keep me safe," I whispered fiercely. "I'd stay here in the Cove, where no one would find us. I'd-"
She pressed her lips at mine with such violence that I nearly fell over. Her arms wrapped around me. She broke away just as abruptly.
"Oh gods. We have to go." Her voice broke. "Your father will miss you otherwise."
Dawn. Cursed, bitter sunrise. Why hadn't it languished and let night stay longer? I had to help Astrid onto Stormfly, her hands were so jittery and retrieved the pot. It rested innocently in her satchel. We pretended that the cold winds made our noses run, and that I would never stop holding her.