There is sun and it is there and Toothless sets his shoulder to it just so and he flies and he flies and he flies and he screams with the agony tearing at his heart and the bite that drips blood from his shoulder is a goodness almost because it hurts less and he flies and he flies and he flies.
There is this wind and it is the wrong one and he flies. There is this wind and it is the wrong one and he flies. There is this wind and it smells almost like the right one but it is going the wrong way so it is the wrong one and a liar and hateful and he flies. There is this wind and it smells of ashes and dust and sticky-sap and old stone and the tall thick grasses that were good to play in when he was not half himself and it is the right one and he flies.
Even the right wind pushes him back and urges him turn and go and not-here and Toothless screams with rage and hurt and must-not! that hauls him back by his heart as if Cloudjumper had caught his tail and lifted him from the stone when he was much smaller and still he hurls himself into the teeth of the right wind and he flies.
The sun flares in his eyes and only his eyes and he longs for the dark that held them trapped but together and he flies. Inside he is hungry and empty and he does not care, he cannot care, because the emptiness inside him is nothing and the emptiness between his shoulders is the weight of the king’s paw brought down with all his strength and he cannot do this thing but he does it because he must and he flies.
Toothless fixes all his faith on chirruped promises and eyes half-clouded with hurt that still shone clever and bright as the sun behind clouds and his beloved dragon-boy’s nose pressed to his and the soft pleading cry of trust? to which the only reply in all the world is yes yes yes always.
And he flies on the strength of a plan only Hiccup-best-beloved could dream up and all the speed his burning wings can call upon and the desperate need to return now! like the sharpest whistle and the swiftest blow and he drinks down the scent of ashes and strange grasses and he flies to outrace his own fires.
He flies to chase the sun as it flees from him and he flies blind with terror and he dreams of horrors and the scent of his beloved’s blood and he listens to the racing paws of his own heart because it would know, it would stop if Hiccup’s did, it would have to, and while it still runs Toothless has hope and he flies.
The scent in the wind is stronger and the ashes turn the horizon to bleeding fires and Toothless flies to the attack with his own fires burning in his throat and he races over the scorched-dead island all unseeing, seeking only the tiny fires and the strange shadows burning beyond the edge of the forest that still stands, and as evening descends like eyelids Toothless howls pure desperation and he dives.
When he lands he stumbles with the bite in his shoulder but he cannot care for that. He cannot recoil and whimper from the shrieks of humans fleeing where he has landed in their midst.
Toothless scrambles back to his paws and he keeps his wings spread ready to fly and big-making, and for all his youth he roars like the last nightmare that kills strong men in their beds and freezes horror into their faces until the fire takes them.
The shapes of the human dens are still strange, but he knows them, he has seen them before, he has scampered beneath their sides and played in their shadows when they were two as they should be and now he is only half-himself and yet he must remember, he must!
He must; it is the trick they have dreamed of and pawed to an edge together, ready to fall.
The sharp clang! of metal against metal and the hiss! of drawn blades tears through him seeking deeper horrors, but Toothless cannot remember or he will drown beneath too many hurts to bear, and he blasts fire towards the loudest of the sounds to drive the humans’ killing blades away.
Toothless marks the den that they raided laughing together and the place with many spikes like ice bristling from it to leap to and the pit with water far below with sides too sheer to climb down and the screaming-terrified mass of fluffy prey-beasts all trapped together and he cannot see it, but he needs it, where –
A flicker of movement in the side of his eyes, and Toothless spins almost to stumbling, and his heart sings relief, and his heart-fires blaze and strike to claim his prey, mine! mine!
Stone and wood and twisted metal fly, and Toothless leaps to tangle his paws and his jaws up in it, and he crouches to leap heedless of the hunters trying to race to their village’s defense very keenly while staying behind someone bigger, and all a safe distance away from the demon-creature like lightning, like death.
Toothless has other hunters to fight, and he leaps into the sky with his prize trailing in his wake, and he sets his tail to the scent of ashes, and he flies and he flies and he flies.
He leaves behind him the most confused of all villages in Vikingdom, because of all the things a dragon could steal, as the villagers will wonder to each other for many years, why in the name of all the gods –
Hiccup has played at weakness and feigned at illness in the water-heavy air and the bright sunlight, beneath the ice of home and the eyes of family with Toothless at his side, and it has been a very great game indeed.
In the darkness, trembling with the wrongness of the void at his shoulder and the languorous, deceptive spinning of the cave everywhere he looks, as if he were beneath the ocean really, he knows he is pretending at strength for his life.
But he bares his teeth and he snarls stay-away! and he raises his blade like a claw ready to strike. And if his paw shakes like he had fallen into ice again with the work of holding it tight, and his voice cracks betraying fear, and one of the front-most fangs in his jaw rattles loose – it cannot matter.
Hiccup is gentle by nature and forever looking for the wonder in his world and the light in others, but his soul is a dragon’s, with all his true kin’s fierceness and fire. In the dark and alone with only a lie and a claw newly his own to hold his ground, he must play at being as bold and brave as Toothless.
The Red She’s strike lingers within him like ice in trees, ready to burst out and leave him broken. Her poison is the only taste in the back of his throat, for he has not eaten in too long; hunger and strain have made the little boy even more vulnerable to her than he might have been.
He coughs the shadow of her poison onto his tongue and spits it away, kicking a back paw in weak disgust, and points you with his nose.
Red She clicks her fangs in an angry chatter. The movement of her tail, signaling ready-to-strike and insulted and back you back I stand I here leader me look mine!, tries to catch Hiccup’s eye, but he watches it only out of the side of his eyes.
His Toothless-self is not here to claim her as his foe, so this Hiccup-self must fight their battle, and he stares his very fiercest challenge.
He knows he cannot escape her, if she strikes. She is too fast. She would be faster than him even if he was happy and well-fed and waking from a comfortable doze in the sun with a wide and even plain to race across, Toothless loping at his side as he spreads out his forelegs to catch the wind and be wings.
Instead he braces his shoulders stubborn to hide the shaking in them, lowering his head like Toothless ready to bite, and the muscles in his shoulders and back spread imagined wings wide and threatening.
The growl that rumbles from his throat is true, even if he wants to whimper and curl himself into an egg to hide from the dizziness that tries to spin him to the stone.
Danger, his growl says, cornered danger I danger willing-to-fight go-away you warning and the sharp quick glaring snarl of you-had-better! that had cuffed the nasty not-to-eat seaweed such a blow.
The Red She shows her tongue to him in a dragon’s grin and whuffs mockery. She darts towards him, snapping her jaws shut a breath from his face, and blows the reek of old meat into his nose. Not-important, her tail moves as if to swat him away, and she yawns wide and obvious, rolling her eyes at her smaller followers.
They chatter laughter of their own even as they crouch obedience beneath her gaze – just a flicker, but Hiccup sees it, and he tastes rage on his tongue like hot prey-blood.
He knows he is small; he knows it more than ever, with the bigger half of himself so far away. Toothless’ absence, even an absence he himself had commanded, hating himself and everything about it except that it had to be done, rips through his chest like a claw of pure ice.
But even at home in their nest, where Hiccup knows he is loved, he does not roll over and look away when one of the flock closes their eyes to him and grumbles too loud over his little voice.
The Red She is nothing but another bully!
And when she lowers her head towards him again with her tongue flashing, he clenches his paw tight and lashes the blade into the tip of it with all his strength.
Her shriek is still echoing through the cave as Hiccup struggles to pick himself up again. The wild boy pants for breath, sprawled helplessly against a lump of stone that was flowing once and is frozen now.
Against his will, he tries to whine fear with the edge of his voice remaining. But there is not enough air in the cave, and he must pant very hard to swallow it all. He tries to shake his head to chase the stars away, whimpering when this only makes the darkness spin more.
Stars should not be underground! They should go back home to the sky where they belong. They should not be trapped here too – it is a wrongness.
He hurts even more so – her back paws are strong, and her claws have torn into his skins where she had kicked him – but her scream of bafflement and surprise and outrage is worth it.
He knows she will kill him, if he lets her. If he surrenders. If he cannot keep her teeth from his throat long enough for Toothless to return.
Breathless, Hiccup makes no sound, but inside he howls lonely, a thin and bitter sound that hides itself knowing there is no one to listen. It sings through him even as he wraps his forelegs across his chest, ducking his nose into them as if they were Toothless’ wings folded around him, and imagines that the hurt in his chest is instead his own heart-fire, blazing bright.
Toothless will come back. Toothless will come back. Toothless will. He will. He did not want to go – Hiccup did not want him to go – and Hiccup is so, so sorry for making him go, but he could not think of another way!
Blinking, the dragon-boy pats at the stone around him as far as he can reach, learning this new space and trying to find the blade again; it is a very good claw. If his paws were stronger, he would not have dropped it.
But if his paws were stronger, he could have clung to Toothless’ back as they have always flown, and they would be away from here together!
The green-striped hunters that are not like him at all at all at all! scatter and flee their Alpha’s fury. They hiss resentment, though, quiet and breathless, and Hiccup could not explain how he knows that she is not loved, the Alpha here. Not as his king – and even weakened, Hiccup reflexively tries to crouch submission at the thought of him – is.
Hiccup is glad he is not like these dragons, even if he wants to mewl disappointment and turn his shoulder to block out the sight of them. They snap at each other, even with an intruder among them; they do not fight together, and their Alpha is cruel. They recoil from her as she stalks among them, biting at the frills of those that do not crouch quickly or deeply enough to escape her fangs.
It is better that he is not like them. He is his own kind of dragon – half of Tt-(click)-th-phuh-ss, they are themselves together – and Toothless will return to purr over him, and their hearts will sing us-songs to each other and that will be everything Hiccup will ever need to know.
But their movements make the faint light shift and dance around them, and a reflection glances off the blade he seeks.
Exhausted, resolved, Hiccup manages to wrap his paw around the hilt again and pull it back to his side. But he can go no further, do no more – he cannot even take his weight off his other paw, and his hindquarters will not obey when he tries to rise.
He can only watch the Red She, spitting her own blood and nearly steaming with rage. She trembles too, and with all the speed of her kind, so that to Hiccup’s disoriented, still-drugged eyes, the air around her seems to waver with heat like the sky above that forest fire.
His tormentor stalks towards him, waving her tail in loud and obvious threat, but her eyes are hard and cold and fixed on him in deadly promise. With her flock watching her, she shrieks insults – coward you small not-important no-threat not-afraid me dismissive uninterested laughter laughter you weak – and struts showing-off, head bobbing like one of the stupid fat birds the dragon-pair had hunted and devoured.
The dragon-boy narrows his eyes and wishes for fire in his throat and a smear of ashes and meaty smoke on the stones of the cave.
The Red She tips her head on one side, and poses consideration at him, and Hiccup glares answer.
She shrieks baby! with insult in her voice, standing tall above him.
Hiccup makes a dragon’s sound, a sharp sound like kkkch! and points his claw at her eye, turning it to catch the little light and flash at her.
The Alpha pulls away, but only for a moment. When she snaps at his outstretched and trembling paw, he is not fast enough to meet her. He could not have been, maybe ever, even if he was not still reeling from her sting and cold with loneliness, off-balance with the half of himself further away than they could ever bear to be.
But she is biting to miss, to show him that she is stronger and faster, and her foreclaws close and open excitement, like she is hungry to snatch him up like prey.
She is playing with him as a hatchling plays with a fish dropped live and flopping and gasping onto their nose.
Hiccup tries, though. The wild boy stabs at her muzzle blindly, slashing the half-sharpened edge through the air. His snarls are shot through with whimpers and gasps as the world reels through his skull, but she is wary, now, of the blade.
Disoriented as he is, he cannot read from her signals that she is baffled by him. She had believed him weak, and yet he displays back to her as she tests him. He had purred peace and cringed obedience, and now, cornered and alone, he fights like one of her own hunters.
A blow from her tail knocks him down, sending him tumbling onto his back, and Hiccup whimpers fear, scattered thoughts all of her powerful back claws as he tries to curl around his vulnerable underbelly.
His flailing, empty paw finds a loose stone, one of the many that Toothless’ first wild shot had blasted from the wall of the cave. It is cold, now, and nothing of the fire remains around it, but Hiccup holds it tight against his chest as he pulls himself to a crouch again.
The wild boy throws the rock with all his strength.
Hiccup has retained many skills that come naturally to his human body. The throwing of rocks – that powerful, overarm pitch that hurts when it strikes – is not among them, and it misses the Red She entirely.
Still, her followers yelp surprise and shriek alarm when it lands among them, and Hiccup scrambles for more stones. Most of them are too heavy for him to lift, exhausted as he is, and he soon gives up. Setting his back against the rock wall, he wraps his forelegs around himself for the little protection they offer, knowing himself cornered.
Hissing rage, the Red She turns on her own flock, driving them away. Mine! she asserts, stomping her heavy back paws, and shoves one with her shoulder, sending him stumbling back.
He is her kill, she is the Alpha, she is defending them!
The Red She is just turning back towards the wild boy, fangs gaping and tail raised to strike, when an eerie scream, like the sky being torn in two, pierces the near-darkness.
And the long evening’s glow turns bright as midday again as Toothless scorches into the cave, flames blazing in his throat just behind his fiercest battle-scream.
Not even the tips of his wings scrape the walls of the tunnel or the edge of the cave-mouth or any of the jutting stones; his dive back to Hiccup’s side is desperate and furious and beautiful.
He lands with all his weight on the spot where the Red She was just a moment ago. Only her own great speed saves her to fetch up against the opposite wall yowling and screaming shock and a raucous protest of unfair!
His roar and his bright fires send the entire pack scattering again, for Toothless can be terrifying, young as he is, and even with the village’s stripped-bare clothesline tangled around his neck and shoulders, the torn edge of a single sheet still flapping pitifully against his side.
Toothless-beloved you here you here you here love-you very-much-so relief scared me scared you here gratitude here good good hurting scared you clever yes clever good brave you!
Hiccup whistles and clicks adoration as Toothless crowds over him, heavy paws careless in his haste but never striking the dragon-boy. His dragon-self licks him all over furiously, anxiously, stopping only to nudge his skull against Hiccup’s as he mewls you you you Hiccup-self mine mine missed-you need need need frightened I fly yes not-want here now!
Cooing, Hiccup nudges him back and scratches weakly beneath his jaw, breathing life and his own scent into Toothless’ nose as a comfort. Brave you clever yes best Toothless proud me.
And yet, even as they cry and nestle together, they cannot lose themselves to that joy and forget the fear. Not when the threat that forced them apart is yowling hatred and screaming promise-of-vengeance from the mouth of the cave where she has retreated, not when her flock is hissing and shrieking anger and encouragement to her and to each other as they mass and pace at her tail.
Lowering a wing between the furious stinging dragons and his dragon-boy, Toothless glances back at them and snarls warning, letting his fire show between his bared fangs.
They do not retreat.
Give, Hiccup beckons, before sneezing irritation at himself and signing instead you still.
Toothless holds as still as he can as Hiccup struggles to his paws – the black dragon wants to pin him down and keep him there in a restful sleep until he is better again, Hiccup’s agonized movements hurt – and tug clumsily at the cord tangled all around Toothless’ shoulders and forepaws like a net.
It seems to take forever before it comes free, and Hiccup gathers it up as best he can. Though he turns his head to glare down the Red She and her followers, roaring warning, Toothless watches out of the side of his eyes as his dragon-boy paws over it. He grips part of it in his jaws when his paws shake too wildly to hold it, and one of Toothless’ ear-flaps flip back anxiety.
String, Hiccup had signed to him with those paws and yipped yes this string this there warning-of-humans yes? yes? you?
Toothless had remembered, when Hiccup had drawn it across his side, but he had not understood.
Hiccup had cried a warning-of-nets, and yet he had grunted satisfaction and interest, and whistled I do!
And Toothless had heard in his voice thinking, his beloved’s eyes bright with cleverness, and he had known that he must trust Hiccup, as he has always done. (Sometimes he merely trusts Hiccup to be Hiccup. He does not trust Hiccup not to fall out of trees or not to run full-tilt and leap onto a rock slimy with algae and slide flailing and screeching into the sea.)
Now his wild boy taps his shoulder down and Toothless folds himself to the stone at once.
Beyond the cave, in the tunnel, he listens to the Red She shrieking and hissing at her followers. He sees her turn on one that snarls at her, leaping at it and cuffing and kicking him into submission. She does not see the one that slips around her, hiding behind its fellows, and ventures into the cave, but Toothless does, and he blasts fire at the too-bold small dragon.
It retreats very quickly in a flicker of green stripes.
Hiccup moves around him in limping steps and clumsy shuffles, towing the cord in his wake. Toothless twitches at the feeling of it against his scales, pulled tight as Hiccup bites one end of it in his jaws and nudges the other beneath Toothless’ paw. The black dragon holds it there in response to Hiccup’s paw placed on his, and when Hiccup tugs it back again, the knot at his shoulder stays in place.
It feels like a net, and Toothless feels like he should bristle at it, but Hiccup’s paws against his scales are right, and at last he croons understanding. String ties, and it holds, except when dragons pull on it very hard in all directions. But they will not do that, Hiccup will make it tie careful and right.
And his dragon-boy is humming agreement, tinged with puzzlement even though it was his idea – Hiccup clicks for a moment recognition, just as he had indicated of the little stalking dragons.
Familiar, and yet not.
Cloudjumper? Hiccup mutters, (click)-shhh-prrr, though their guardian is not here.
Low in his throat, Toothless growls back urgency, and his tail taps anxiety and impatience against the stone.
But at last Hiccup pulls himself to Toothless’ shoulders – Toothless braces one paw beside his ribs, to make a ledge for Hiccup to climb – and wriggles his small body beneath the loops of cord. They pull tight, pressing against the scales of Toothless’ chest and beneath his keel.
But Hiccup is back where he should be, and despite a glimpse of the Red She’s muzzle as she peers nervously around a stone at them with fangs bared, Toothless purrs joy.
Hiccup hums back to him in matching joy, and the black dragon can feel his dragon-boy sigh and press his face against the back of Toothless’ skull.
Rising to all his paws, Toothless spreads his wings and shudders all over, shaking himself slightly. He grunts satisfaction, and whistles ready yes Hiccup-beloved us go us now!
He feels Hiccup’s paws tighten into claws, scratching harmlessly across the scales of his shoulders, and they tense and hum ready! together.
It is very dark now, in the cave beneath the stony earth. Hiccup has been working by touch for quite some time.
So when Toothless summons up his heart-fires and holds them blazing in his jaws, the little stinging dragons that had been sneaking up on them, slow and careful and letting their sharp back claws make no sound, squint their eyes shut and recoil, stumbling away from fire they have learned to fear.
Attack! the Red She shrieks again.
But it is Toothless who answers, roaring triumph, and he spits a blaze of blasting-fire straight through them all.
Right in its wake, so close that the heat of it is warm on his nose like the sun, he charges past scattering small dragons and the furious Red She with Hiccup still too weak to hold tightly, but secure on his shoulders regardless.
Once more and for the last time, Toothless races from their cave with all his speed –
And Tt-(click)-th-phuh-ss fly out into the open dark of the wide clear night, and they are free.
Days later, they are still very lost.
They have made themselves a nest-for-now amidst the ashes of the forest fire that was, digging into hollows between stones blunted by debris and turning Toothless’ black and Hiccup’s autumn-forest browns and auburns to a shared dusty grey. It amuses them to be the same color for once.
Hiccup scoops up a pawful of grey-black ashes and ceremoniously smears it across the trailing underside-edge of Toothless’ wing, chirruping amusement. Toothless, having lost interest halfway through a roll, squirms his spines into what remains of the forest floor and yawns.
A shadow falls over them, and Hiccup looks up a heartbeat before Cloudjumper lands with a great thud! at their side.
Shrieking greetings that are happy me very-much-so, Hiccup springs over Toothless’ belly in a single leap, tumbling towards their guardian. But his headlong run falls to pieces, his back legs slipping out ahead of him as he tries to veer away, when Cloudjumper rears up again, spreading all his wings and drawing his head back with eyes wide in alarm.
Instead, Hiccup sits back on his hindquarters at a safer distance and laughs a dragon’s laugh as Cloudjumper shudders disdain, flaring his ruff as he flicks ashes from his claws and fans away a thin grey cloud with one wing. Behind him, he senses Toothless flailing to turn himself right-way-up again, grunting embarrassment to be seen so silly.
The black dragon tucks his head behind Hiccup’s shoulders, muttering exasperation that hides relief, and Hiccup leans back into him and purrs affection deep and true.
This? Cloudjumper asks, his gaze full of skepticism. What this? he looks all around at the burnt forest, head on one side curiosity, then down at still-small dragon and smaller dragon-boy.
Cloudjumper has been protecting them and looking after them, brusque but fond, for as long as either little dragon can remember, and for long before that, too. He is the closest they have to a father, though they have made no connections between his bond with them and the concept of mother’s-mate. Cloudjumper is simply there. That he is here delights them both, for all Toothless’ grumbling.
Not us! Hiccup denies with a snort, waving at the burnt forest and putting his snub nose in the air indignation, to be accused of burning a forest down when they did not even think about doing such a thing. They did not even sneak off across the island and raid the human nest some more.
The dragon-pair had thought about that, between all of the naps that were very important to take at once. It is full of good things to steal, that nest, and there might be more food.
The many-winged dragon snorts hmph, and his hindquarters shift, showing that he wants very much to leap into the clean air and be away from the ashes dulling his red-gold scales.
The wild boy turns his face up to the dragon who had loved his mother and whistles welcome, humming excitement and a soul-deep relief – Cloudjumper is here! Cloudjumper has found them, he will take them home!
Safe you-both yes good where where? worry I look gone you where? not-like you-both small uneasy gone! Cloudjumper complains, shifting restlessly and looking them over.
The bite in Toothless’ shoulder has faded already – it was not deep – and the bruises on Hiccup’s stomach and ribs are hidden by his skins, so they do not fear his gaze.
Toothless is still hiding behind Hiccup, ashamed to be found in their lostness and rescued – if dragons could blush, he would – and Hiccup has turned to comfort him, sprawled across the broad plane of his skull between his eyes, heedless of the small soft spines there as he scratches and tugs at Toothless’ many ear-flaps.
So neither of them see Cloudjumper’s eyes widen at the makeshift harness still wrapped around Toothless’ shoulders and chest. Neither of them understand the grief that he swallows down, to see such a thing again, to be reminded that he will never again fly with the woman he had considered his mate.
But their children, their hatchlings, will fly together – he cannot stop them, he would not want to – and Cloudjumper rejoices at this and is resigned to it, all at once.
He is, after all, their father in every way that matters.
Worry, he snaps, and yet Hiccup can clearly hear the miss-you! beneath it. Cloudjumper flicks his nose in a command of come-here-you-both! and spreads his wings we go.
To go home! To not be lost forever – they are found, they can go home again, at last! Toothless whines eagerness, and the sound hums through Hiccup’s spine to meet the joy burning in his heart.
Wandering dragon and wild boy sigh longing together, so powerful and earnest that Cloudjumper lowers his face to them, eyes widening with concern and suspicion rumbling in his throat that they are hiding some wound from him.
Hiccup looks their guardian in the eyes, smiles his very best dragon-smile, and solemnly smears a pawful of ashes down Cloudjumper’s red-gold nose in a long grey stripe.
thanks for reading – Le’letha
Part Four: Beneath the Earth
The sound of claws against stone fills the cave – so many of them, or so fast! Their claws patter like summer rain on the king’s lake, and Hiccup’s heart clenches. He yearns to be back there, to see the surface of the water all silvery and rippled, full of small movements, and far beneath it, the reflections of their Alpha’s white scales as he waits out the rain.
No-threat! Hiccup whistles to the half-seen dragons surrounding him and his dragon-self.
Over him, Toothless snarls warning, baring his fangs and summoning his heart-fires up into his jaws. Bright purple-white light casts the small crags and corners of the cavern into too-sharp relief, and eyes, eyes everywhere, narrow and squint against the glare.
These new dragons, striped green on green, are small – smaller than Toothless, but bigger than Hiccup, who crouches beneath the black dragon’s chest for the comfort of his presence and so the light does not blind him. They are both hunched low with all their paws tense and ready to spring, Toothless with his wings half-spread even though there is no sky above to vanish into. His tail smacks against stones as he tries to lash it back and forth, warding off a leaping ambush, and his ear-flaps are flattened tight against his skull to protect them from an enemy’s bite.
Hissing back through narrow jaws, the dragons surrounding them shutter their eyes against the bright light of dragon-fires, but they do not retreat. Spiked tails rear above a few heads, and strong back legs tense to leap. Some even step closer. Some have blood dripping from their jaws – Hiccup can smell it – and Toothless’ fires reveal scraps of meat and feathers caught in protruding fangs.
One is different. Its – her – crest and her fins are red, bright and clear, and red stripes lick across her shoulders and her spine. She stands taller. Her flock flows around her, and she stands like a stone with her fangs bared. Hiccup scents on her breath the blood and temper that had woken him, and he crouches beneath her eyes fixed on them so fiercely.
Their sounds are strange, and their movements unfamiliar, and yet Hiccup understands them well enough to listen, as travelers and frilled dragons hesitate, eying each other warily.
This? this? what this? they ask each other, with ruffs flaring alarm and eyes flashing uncertain.
Curiosity shows in the tilts of many sharp-nosed heads, and the pack shudders like a wave as their eager steps forward to see and smell the dragon-pair mix with stalking, proud retreats.
Intruder, the red-striped leader snarls, her eyes flicking from dragon to dragon-boy. Her uncertain coils in her hindquarters, waiting only a weakness to leap upon. Her body hums that she will leap; she hesitates only considering.
In her shadow, another howls enemy, shrieking anger.
Me, Toothless signals silently, shifting his foreleg between Hiccup and the red-striped she-Alpha. Instead, Hiccup turns his eyes to her flock. He tenses ready-to-leap and presses his shoulder to Toothless’ paw, showing his tongue to the air not in a dragon’s smile but to taste the tension like a thick claiming-scent in the air.
But surprise flicks through his shoulders. Hiccup watches the dragons surrounding them with amazement crooning from his throat and shock fluttering in his chest.
Toothless-beloved, he vocalizes, and whistles look! and when he lowers the paw he had raised before him, to strike or defend with blunt claws curled outward, he does not set it to the ground but instead to his own too-thin chest.
Look them me I that I yes me me!
The frilled dragons have no wings, or maybe only very small ones that look more like fins, and they stand on their back legs with their front claws held before them. They have lit no fires of their own in their jaws in answer to Toothless’ display, and except for the red-striped she-Alpha with her head atilt to peer around their sides, they are all each other’s size. These are not hatchlings!
They are bigger than Hiccup still, but the wild boy knows that he will be bigger someday. He makes and remakes his scale-skins constantly, shedding pieces that no longer fit like when Prancing Paws could not stop scratching at her belly until she had dug through to the new and shining scales beneath. He has no choice; his world is too dangerous and too harsh for him to stand beneath the sky unprotected. During the warmer summer, he will run about with all his paws bare, beating thick calluses into skin so much softer than that of his cousins’, but every winter he finds that he must make the wraps that protect his paws anew.
Are these dragons his kin, then? Will he look like them, when he is grown?
Hiccup and Toothless know with perfect faith that they are the same inside, but Hiccup has never seen dragons that are so much like him. They are as close to his image of himself as anything he has ever drawn. Their muzzles are much sharper, and they have very fine tails indeed – the dragon-boy whines envy, secret and hoarded – but they are alike enough that Hiccup cries aloud recognition loud enough to be heard over their snarls and the endless clicking of their claws.
The sound slows their paws as the frilled dragons hesitate and tip their heads to look at the dragon-boy creeping out of Toothless’ shadow towards the Red She. He glances all around for a swift bite or a sharp howl to tell him no! but no snarl greets him.
They back away, and let Hiccup advance, and Toothless’ fires fade slightly. But he does not swallow them away again, and when Hiccup looks back over his shoulder, the black dragon’s eyes are narrowed and all of him howls ready-to-leap and willing-to-fight.
You? Hiccup chirrups, sitting back on his heels and setting his forepaws to the stone. The little boy ducks his shoulders submission and no-threat to the red-striped Alpha, meeting her eyes greeting and glancing away no-challenge.
She narrows her eyes suspicion at him, and he chirrs interest and peace, urging no-fight us not-want no safe us good us yes good you here? this-here this you? us here us fly far fly here sorry sorry no-threat sorry.
He cringes apology for their trespass, but gestures all around to show that they have broken nothing, burnt nothing, made no mess, stolen no prey. He gurgles and flinches hunger, licking at his jaws in open jealousy of those who have been hunting.
One stalks into the cave with a seabird dead in its – her – jaws. At once, the nearest to her try to take it for their own, and she drives them back with quick slices of her tail, raking her heavy back claws against the scales of the most daring.
That? Hiccup continues even as he watches this small fight, gesturing at the spring still welling up among the stones, churning within its hollow before pouring away into a claw-thin crack in the cavern’s floor. Look you want yes yours no-threat this fine fine not-important us fine.
Red She hisses warning, and he goes silent and still, obedient.
Satisfaction, she growls, and out of the side of his eyes, Hiccup sees her heavy claws pace closer. She is not his Alpha, and her claws look very sharp, and Hiccup tenses to leap away.
Her breath fills his nose, and he senses more than sees her tongue flick out to taste him.
No! Toothless roars, snarling possessiveness. Mine, he snarls, you back-away you he mine you don’t-like stranger-alert Hiccup-beloved this careful careful you? you?
Chirring a soft, uncertain reassurance, the dragon-boy sidles away from Red She, retreating with as much of a dragon’s courtesy as he can muster. He is not running away from her, he shows with his movements. He only wishes to be closer to Toothless again.
She snorts disbelief, and mockery, and as she turns away her tail flicks a gesture Hiccup understands as dismissal, as if she has shoved him aside as uninteresting.
The little boy has grown up as a creature of the wild, a child of dragons, fighting for survival against the brutally harsh northern realm with every breath. He is a more savage little hellion than any Viking child; few human children kill their prey with their teeth, and eat that catch raw, and think nothing of it. He has frozen, and he has starved, and he has howled endless grief for too many deaths until that grief ended after all; he does not have the luxury of abandoning himself to despair.
And yet he is sheltered, in his way. His flock-mates do not kill each other over prey or mates or perches. They protect each other; they obey the ancient Alpha who rules over them unchallenged. Most dote upon the wild little boy in their midst as a favored child, delighting in watching him grow as one of them. Even those who shrug him away tolerate his presence.
Toothless’ love has been the heart of his world for longer than he can remember; they are a single soul in two bodies, each other’s heart their guiding star.
Hiccup has been raised with kindness.
So when the nearest smaller dragon sidles closer to him, and stretches out its nose in a tentative, exploratory nudge, Hiccup turns to touch his own nose to its – his – and whuff a greeting, sharing scents with him. He does not flinch when another stands over him and stares, turning its head from side to side. When one ducks its head beneath Hiccup’s jaw to taste the skins wrapped around his body, he does not waver to have teeth so near his vulnerable underbelly. He only reaches out a careful paw and brushes it across the dragon’s crest, crooning innocent delight.
Part of him analyzes the ridges of the thin bones and the texture of tiny scales, shuffling through memories and half-learned skills and concluding that he could make that someday, if he tried very hard. If this is the kind of dragon he is, should he have a fin, too, just as he longs for scales of his own that grow there just so?
You? Hiccup whistles again, blinking see? see? friendly maybe back at Toothless, who shuffles his paws unhappily, wary still and reluctant to tuck them beneath his body and be at ease.
The last of Toothless’ fires fade from his jaws – it is itch-making to hold them so, like wanting to sneeze but trying not to – but the cave does not disappear into full darkness. Some light reflects from the stones at the cave mouth, steady and warm as it drifts into the deeper caverns. The sun must have risen, then; they have slept the night away while the frilled dragons hunted.
Hiccup roars their flock-sound joyfully, the identifier that means the dragon-flock ruled over by the king of ice, and the wild boy clicks and hisses the noises that mean Hiccup-self and Toothless-self.
Like many of their flock-mates, Hiccup tangles their sounds together happily, tt-(click)-th-phuh-ss. The way that dragons speak naturally has many sounds and messages happening all at once and all over each other, and their sounds for themselves are like their paws – that they are together is the important thing, not what order they are in.
Toothless bares the very edge of his fangs, rumbling here I here I guard uncertainty very-much-so back to Hiccup even as the scuttling little dragons crowd around his dragon-boy. He does not like it.
He does not like her – beyond her flock and his beloved, her eyes flash hard like river stones.
The black dragon takes a step towards Hiccup, unhappy at having the two halves of himself so far apart, but the moment he does, she whistles alert and command, shrill and sharp.
Like the snap of a branch, many of the little dragons turn on him, sharp-spiked tails raised and tensed to strike. They snarl warning, snapping back-away!
Toothless’ hackles rise in anger and renewed fear. He does not fear for this half of himself, not against such small dragons, but they have Hiccup…
The dragon-boy is surrounded, now. He no longer whistles interest and curiosity and friendliness, rearing tall to show that they are the same almost, they should be friends and tell stories to each other, they should hunt together and share the sun.
Now his yip of enough goes ignored as the pack’s curiosity turns to malicious, cruel teasing of the strange little dragon who seems to be calling himself one of them, part of their pack.
Hiccup stumbles as a frilled dragon shoves his shoulder against the wild boy’s, too hard. When he tries to drop to all his paws again for balance, snaggle-toothed fangs snap shut in his matted fur, making him yelp pain laced with surprise and outrage and betrayal at the tug – and at the huff of spiteful laughter blown into his ear.
And there is no gap in their bodies for him to escape through; everywhere he turns, Hiccup is met with snarling teeth and blood-heavy breath and hard scales that his soft claws can only scream across, setting his own small fangs on edge. Sharp claws scratch too near his own bare paws, and Hiccup wants both to crouch and cower and be small, and to be far away from those claws. He knows instinctively that to fall, in this crush, would be to die.
Across the cavern, Toothless roars protectiveness and rage, and the black dragon lunges forward as Hiccup swats out at a dragon who has nipped straight through his borrowed scales to the soft skin beneath. Even through the layers of skins and the thickening, musty scent of the dragon pack, he can smell the heart-freezing scent of Hiccup’s blood.
Faster than even Toothless can see, the Red She has leapt over all her flock, and he recoils instinctively as her claws tear past his nose. Her tail hisses as fiercely as her jaws as it cuts through the air, and there is intent enough in her movements that the young dragon nearly tumbles over his own tail in his haste to get away.
Attack! Red She screeches, and Hiccup is all but abandoned as the pack leaps at Toothless.
Toothless is the threat; Toothless is the dragon with sharp fangs and strong claws and fire burning their night-sensitive eyes. Toothless is the one big enough to devour the seagulls they prey on and leave them hungry, to take their caves from them and crush their eggs.
The black dragon draws in a breath never truly released and blazes it out again as dazzling blasting-fire. Snarling little dragons scatter – so fast! – and the blast explodes against the cavern wall, destroying only rock.
Faster than the besieged dragon, or the dragon-boy at bay, can see, the Red She darts under Toothless’ paws, nipping at the softer scales above his claws and in the hollows of his flanks.
Screaming shock rage shock what? what? you I bite bite now yes WANT! intertwined with whimpers of Hiccup-love? Hiccup-mine where where terror need-you where mine? Toothless snaps blindly, trying to both pull away and break through to Hiccup’s side. But there is nowhere he can go but into the pack around him; there are too many of them, and this is their cave.
A sharply spiked tail, curved like a gouging claw, finds its mark.
Between snarl and snap, Toothless freezes as still as ice.
Not truly understanding – Toothless is gone, all his signals silent! – Hiccup screams as if the heart had been torn from his chest. Abruptly, nothing makes sense at all, and he reels, more truly off-balance than he can ever remember being.
He can still see a shadow where Toothless was, but it is not Toothless – how can it be? It is only a shape, unmoving, unspeaking, without even the signals that simply are, that say I am.
Even in sleep, Toothless says living. His sides rise and fall with breathing; his paws twitch; his eyes track dreams; his tail furls and spreads as he chases dreaming winds. Even in stillness, Toothless says love. Subtle signals say see-you, a scrap of his attention always turned towards the other half of himself; minute tensions ripple beneath black scales so that Hiccup always knows at a glance which way Toothless will leap, and when. They dance together as if each could read the other’s mind, just by watching and being together.
The shadow that was Toothless says nothing. It says only, shape.
Shrieking pure, unfathomable horror, Hiccup bulls past the frilled dragons guarding him with the strength of fear and the advantage of surprise, squirming between two of them by landing a solid kick into one’s belly.
Small dragons scatter as Hiccup races to Toothless’ side. He does not even try to slow down, and rams straight into the black scales of his dragon-self’s chest.
Mewling denial, blind to anything else, Hiccup presses himself against Toothless’ heart and listens with everything he is and has ever been, needing to find the heartbeat that must be there.
It must be. It must be. It is Hiccup’s heart too. without it, he will – they will – die, and then they will never go home again. They will never see their friends and their flock-mates again. Cloudjumper will never again cuff them for being very silly and watch them over the peaks of rocks and from within the shadows of stone teeth whenever he thinks the dragon-pair do not see him lurking there. They will not be, and that is an unthinkable thing.
Toothless-mine Toothless-beloved need you please please here here please need love-you please Toothless-dearest here… He does not whimper the sounds so much as bleed them, and he must force himself silent to listen.
The world ends.
The sun dies.
The nest’s walls crumble.
So slowly – so barely! – but Toothless’ heart is beating, and in the darkness, surrounded, all but alone, a prisoner of dragons not like him at all, Hiccup howls for broken joy.
His echoes have not even raced back to him when the blood-hot reek of the Red She’s breath hisses over him.
Her stinger lashes into his shoulder, and poison rushes into his too-small body, and Hiccup collapses into a sleep too deep for dreams.
She Who Hunts in Darkness, She Who Kills, She Who Leads, She Whose Stripes Are Bright and Glorious, She Who Runs Swiftest, She Who Fights Trespassers Upon Home Stone perches at the side of a stone. She scratches her foreclaws across the bones of a fish that He Who Smells Like This had brought her as she guarded her pack from the dark ones. She waits with her tail to the sunlight and her nose in the darkness where it belongs, and she watches the two shadows that do not belong.
The presumptuous little dragon-brat still lies unmoving where it fell at the dangerous one’s paws. When she stares very hard, Glory can see the bigger dragon’s eyes still trying to move, to find it. It is hidden under his nose, and the scent of his fear-panic has had a day of hunting and boasting and hissing at her followers to spread through the cave.
Glory licks at her jaws, irritated. She does not like having his scent all over her cave.
She had not thought of that, and she hisses at herself, but inside, where the others cannot hear.
But she could not have let them go.
The bigger dragon has begun to stir, slow and clumsy, but the smaller still lies like a dead thing. That is good. Glory understands dead things.
She turns her head aside to lick at the stripes she wears so proudly, for the comfort of them, and forces herself to touch her tongue to them without hesitation. Silly, she hisses at herself, tail flicking annoyance in a threat to any foolish enough to stay within her reach. She has earned her stripes, they will not fade because she licks them!
Glory had fought hard for her stripes, and the memory still twitches through her claws and burns in her blood. He had smelled so very weak, the one who had led them before. The she who was not yet Glory, who was only Hunter, had dared to creep into his nesting place while he hunted, and when she dipped her nose to his hollow she had smelled death waiting for him.
She had lapped up the scent and carried his death to him in her jaws. It was his.
Her new stripes no longer taste of his blood. They are hers entire now, and she wears them as a warning to any who would dare be bolder than she.
In the depths of the cave, beneath the familiar ripple of the clear water, Glory hears a terrified whimper. She taps her claws against the stone in pleasure as the bigger dragon noses at his littler one, trying to push it awake.
It moves, but only with the pushing. If Glory could not hear its heartbeat, fluttering high and laboring like a prey-bird’s, she would have thought it dead.
She wishes it was. Then… Glory thinks very hard, determined to be clever and strong and brave and fierce enough so that none of her pack will challenge her.
Then – she is very clever – then her pack would have dragged it from their places and left it on the stone in the sun for birds to pick at, and then her hunters would have eaten many birds!
She clicks irritation at the bigger dragon’s whining. It sounds not at all like her pack’s hisses and screams; his grunts and cries and clicks are strange to her. His fussing over the little one is stranger still. If it is not strong enough to rise and fight, why does he want it by his side? It will only tug on his tail and slow him as he runs.
Hidden beside the stone and with the sun at her tail, Glory watches as the black dragon turns his little creature over with his nose. It rolls onto its back and lies still, paws spread wide and belly vulnerable.
Hunting instincts tickle at Glory, urging her leap. She locks her hindquarters in place and waits; hunters must know their prey.
And the black dragon is still much bigger than her. To face him alone…
He whines and licks gently, carefully at the little dragon’s strange muzzle and its stranger scales. He lifts a paw from the stone, straining with the effort, and nudges at the small one. It must be a hatchling. But how can any hatchling be so weak?
The hatchlings of her flock spring from their shells fierce and biting, eager to run after so long held within their eggs. They flee all others but their nest-mother, quicker than even grown hunters, and steal kills from the jaws of any slow enough to be cornered. There are some running wild across their island now, Glory knows – an Alpha should know these things – but they will learn by watching true hunters, following in their pawsteps until the true pack knows their scent and allows them to join the hunt.
Those hunters are far from her, scattered out across their island striking down the birds too stupid to remember that this is a dragon nest, and Glory is unsure if she is glad of this.
She must be strong and fierce and confident, to lead them. She must show that she is the boldest, or another will rise to kill her and wear her blood as stripes.
Hunting intruders is impressive, but Glory is afraid to fail. She does not know how! She does not remember other dragons coming here ever.
She growls at herself – but only inside – and wishes that she had bitten the stranger’s throat like a bird’s while he was frozen-still.
But now he has woken again, even if he has not even looked for hunters watching him. Now he paws over his hatchling with distress bubbling in his throat like (click)-phuh (click)-phuh, but Glory shutters her eyes closed in a flinch. She remembers the fire in his throat, bright like the sun pouncing into their caves to crush stones beneath its paws.
Glory’s instincts want her to be a night creature. But there are not many birds all the time. She and her pack must hunt during the day, but she does not like it.
Glory is intelligent enough to imagine what-if, and she paws at her fish bones and wonders what-ifs that flutter around her like panicked birds. What if she did not bite his throat enough? What if he blasted her open like the stones still scattered around their cave that was theirs before he came and made it stink of stranger-intruders?
What if her pack saw her fail? What if all the pack bit his throat and brought him down, and they turned on her because they were all stronger than she?
She would not be She Who Hunts in Darkness, She Who Kills, She Who Leads, She Whose Stripes Are Bright and Glorious, She Who Runs Swiftest, She Who Fights Trespassers Upon Home Stone then.
She does not want to be someone else’s stripes.
In the cave, the hatchling stirs, crying out like a broken bird. Glory bristles, hackling at its voice. It is not pack, it is not hers, she would never accept a hatchling that cowered before a stranger and did not bare its fangs in a snarl!
Glory is clever, and she can imagine, but she cannot imagine that Hiccup is anything but a dragon. His signals, his scents, his behavior all are those of dragons, with a child’s perfect faith. And she has never seen a human. There is nothing on her island that would bring passing ships to it, not even safe harbors; the sharp stones bristling above the water warn of treacherous spikes hidden below. Her hunters leap between them, when the tide is very low, and shriek laughter at those whose claws are not sharp enough to hold their grip on the algae-slippery stones.
She, too, is very young, and she understands only that the little dragon that smelled more of far-away than fire had gestured to the pack she rules so proudly, and to itself, and signaled same.
They are not alike at all just because it too does not need to set its forepaws to the ground!
But the black dragon fusses over it, yelping relief and chirring love like a nesting mother. Glory watches through the lingering light of the late afternoon as he turns away and pads to the spring. He is clumsy still, and he stumbles even more because he cannot take his eyes from the hatchling curling itself into a pained, shuddering coil.
Glory laughs to herself, fangs bared and tongue flashing, when his paw knocks a stone he broke from their cave and he grunts at the strike of it. She watches, claws clicking irritation and with thief! a bubble in her throat, as he drinks.
She is surprised when he returns to his hatchling with his muzzle dripping, and lowers his nose to the little one’s for it to drink, too.
They mewl to each other, the little one barely moving, the bigger dragon glancing often towards the cave-mouth and the light there. Glory purrs with delight at the echoes of their fear.
She and her pack have frightened them. Her pack is strong.
She Who Hunts in Darkness, She Who Kills, She Who Leads, She Whose Stripes Are Bright and Glorious, She Who Runs Swiftest, She Who Fights Trespassers Upon Home Stone is very proud of herself.
The black dragon curls around his hatchling and breathes over it, but it trembles against his scales as if there were deepcold ice all around. She watches it paw at his side, but it cannot pull itself to stand again, rearing tall like one of her hunters. It shakes too strongly. Her poison-sting has killed all its strength.
And always, they cry to each other. Glory listens to their whistles and yips and purrs and croons with puzzlement. She understands the emotions of it all – need and fear and confusion and nesting-sounds – but not the hidden signals that only the dragon-pair understand.
Their closest friends and the flock-mates who know them best might have understood some of it, as frightened dragon and severely weakened dragon-boy gesture and vocalize to each other. They speak in memories, in signals they have created together, in sketches drawn by touch alone against Toothless’ scales, and in the quick and bitter scuffles of an argument they do not have time to have and cannot afford to get wrong.
To Glory, their conversation is all but meaningless. She cannot understand the plan they are warming like an egg held safe between their bodies.
But she can see that the black dragon is unhappy – it is clear in every scale of him – and she understands from the refusal in his snorts and his glances aside that he does not want to listen. Watching like the predator she is, she stays hidden, away from his eyes.
She understands the fear in both their voices, and the little Alpha comforts herself with this as she hears the rapid click-click-click-click of her pack’s claws against the stones. She smells the blood of good hunting on their scales and claws, and flares her crest to signal them to her. Come here!
The intruders’ fear reassures her. She is pleased that they have not immediately fled the cave, even through a tunnel that seems unguarded. (She is a very good hider; she would have sprung upon them in ambush, if they had tried.)
Any hunter can snatch a bird from a stone. She has kept a big dragon caught here!
Here! she snaps at her pack, nudging one into place at her tail with a warning glare. He lowers his eyes, promising not to bite her. She will tear him, if he tries.
Stay! Watch! Guard! That! Careful! Down! You down! Now! Glory pushes and stares and hunt-signals her followers into obedience. No! You small! Ready! I lead! Brave! I brave!
Wait! she commands, holding her tail ready. The young Alpha imagines nesting mothers holding their hatchlings in their jaws, carrying them to new places.
The little dragon-creature cannot fly. The bigger dragon will have to carry it in his jaws.
But then he will not be able to blaze with that terrible bright fire, and they will sting him again!
Glory and her pack will play with them like birds with broken wings until they bare their throats for her bite.
No one will dare challenge her when she has killed a big dragon!
Glory crouches to leap, head lowered and level with her body as her strong tail curls over her back, ready to strike. She trembles with the joy of waiting to pounce, feeling the exhilaration of the hunt singing through her and tasting the fear of her prey in the air as her tongue flicks out beyond her fangs. Her forepaws curve in on themselves to be all claws, and her back paws spread their claws to grip the stone.
All around her, her pack prepares to strike at her command. For a few keenly savored heartbeats, the violent joy of the hunt sings through them, and Glory is caught up in the shared and single purpose of their nature.
For those moments, she has no doubts about her right to be their leader, no fear of the hungry and the ambitious and the daring who might be scenting at her shadow – She Who Hunts in Darkness, She Who Kills, She Who Leads, She Whose Stripes Are Bright and Glorious, She Who Runs Swiftest, She Who Fights Trespassers Upon Home Stone is of the pack!
Now! she signals, and they pour through the cave mouth as one, and –
Firebrightlikesun blazes, scorching through them, and hunters fall from the roof of the tunnel, blinded and stunned and twisting in their blindness. Their stinging tails scrape across their pack-mates’ scales, and squeals of rage cut through their howls of shock.
Half-blinded herself, Glory screams follow! as the suddenly-huge shadow lunges into their midst. Thrashing wildly, flaming to knock her hunters aside, the black dragon charges like a mad thing. His shoulder rams into Glory and the flashing dark of the world turns upside down and beats her with heavy paws.
Then his weight is gone, and it is only as she leaps back to her feet with her tail lashing that she tastes his blood on her fangs.
All around her, her followers hiss at each other and yip at trampled flanks, pawing at their dazzled eyes. Glory shakes her head roughly, sharply, seething with rage.
With squinting eyes, she peers back towards the sunlight. A great shadow fills the tunnel for a heartbeat, wings spread, before the black dragon beats them down powerfully and he soars up into the light.
Gone, and her hunters scattered and whimpering, and her triumph taken from her!
The little Alpha screams in rage, stalking among her fallen followers and hissing at every eye turned towards her, until all have lowered their heads and looked away in surrender.
Her nose is full of blasting-fire and her skull is ringing with its echoes; the reflections of the too-bright light sparkle and shimmer across the cave that is hers but that reeks of him still!
Glory howls, and whips around, blinking furiously –
And stops, as frozen as if she had been stung by one of her own hunters.
She tips her head to one side, as birdlike as her prey and as baffled.
Crouched in the darkness, pressed as close to the stone at its back as it can go, something shining in one paw, the black dragon’s hatchling meets her eyes and bares its fangs and snarls.
Read the second part of this chapter HERE
Part Three: To the Water
The sun lances into Hiccup’s eyes, and he grumbles a protest, no no sun hurt no go-away bad sleeping hurt bright tired sun don’t-want! Grouching, he buries his face in his forelegs and turns away, rolling over in the ashes of their nest to hide against Toothless’ side.
No warmth comforts him, no thrumming purr or yelped laugh greets him, and the ashes beside him are damp and cool with the morning.
Startled awake properly, Hiccup does not at once leap to his full height and cry out for his dragon-self. He is too wary, too much a wild thing, for that.
He has stalked nesting birds by their calls to each other, learning to recognize the challenging shrieks of defenders chasing away trespassers and so betraying that they have something to protect that a hungry wild child might be able to eat while his flock-mates gorged themselves on still-steaming prey. He has lain in the thin grass that slices at his bare skin, staying as still as a stone and breathing only with the waves rushing through them, and been quieter even than the skittering claws of the nesting grouse, hurrying back to her eggs. He knows the sounds that ravens make in deep winter, when one has found a carcass and called all its friends to join it; Hiccup is a dragon, and no friend of ravens, but he can follow too.
So he listens, only, even as his heart pounds in fear and desperate wrongness at being alone so unexpectedly, for Toothless had been beside him in his dreams, surely… He cannot remember. He does not need to remember dreams; they do not make things or bite him or feed him or push him from his perch only for spite. He cannot even roam through them as he can the imaginings he drifts off into so often.
Still, his ability to imagine things not seen bites him as often as it warms him, and for a breath he can imagine only terrors. Toothless taken, Toothless hunted, Toothless snatched from his side as he slept helpless, useless – no no silly-hatchling no, he huffs at himself, shaking his head to drive away such thoughts. He would have woken; he would have known.
Fear, his body says, nevertheless, cowering, and anticipation-of-loss keens from his throat.
Instead, the feral boy sits back on his heels and looks around, coughing desperation away. He ducks his head to swipe his cheek against his own shoulder, a body memory of tears he no longer sheds, and arches his back against the warmth of the sun for comfort.
He is at the bottom of a small gully, its colors new in the sunlight but its shapes familiar even through half-formed and tired memories of the night. It is no true canyon; no water runs through it, and instead the compact and hardy plants of the far north have grown up around the boulders that have tumbled into it, blurring their once-broken edges beneath lichens like stone and mosses tinged with purple in their strange veins.
A caterpillar makes its way across one such stone, sun highlighting its thin spines as fine as fur. Hiccup pays it no mind as something not-to-eat and not a threat and not much fun to play with, either. Instead, he casts around for Toothless with all his senses, tongue bared to taste the air and eyes wide, ears straining for the sound of soul-familiar wings or the pad of Toothless’ paws.
The shadow cast before him cannot be a stone, even stretched out and splashed against the ground, and Hiccup turns and looks up the precarious slope. The sun glares into his eyes, but his heart sings as he scampers backward – a little awkwardly – into Toothless’ shadow and rears to his back legs and whistle-clicks tt-th-ss! over a croon – Toothless-beloved!
Above, his dragon-self’s shoulders hunch uncertainty and his ear-flaps are pressed against his skull unhappy. When Toothless looks back in answer, his eyes will not meet Hiccup’s; they say shame, and Hiccup whimpers confusion Toothless-mine you sad why sad no sad no no no!
He raises his chin and narrows his eyes, baring the edges of his small fangs and digging the heels of his bare paws into the moss, and snarls a declaration of not!
The dragon-boy charges to Toothless’ rescue with all the fury and determination of a dragon diving to battle upon a great and deadly enemy with all she loves at her tail, all but throwing himself up the rockfall. A lifetime spent in caves and on ledges has not given Hiccup a phenomenal sense of balance and coordination – he has earned it with bruises and humiliation, left behind and having to be carried like a flightless hatchling, embarrassed by the impatience of his and Toothless’ friends.
Now he scrambles through the withered branches of a wind-tangled tree without care for scrapes; his skins turn its thorns aside. A rock shifts beneath his slight weight, the earth beneath it dew-damp and unsteady; he spreads himself out across all his paws and vaults away, almost dancing up the scatter of small stones before they have the chance to fall.
Love-you no sad! Hiccup declares with childish authority, setting his nose against Toothless’ muzzle and glaring into his dragon-twin’s eyes. He nudges their faces together and croons safety and need-you and denial all at once.
Toothless pushes back at him, affirmation, but his eyes shift away and his head lowers even beneath Hiccup’s, nearly placing his throat against the ground. Scattered droplets of fresh dew linger on his shoulders and the top of his back where Toothless’ tongue cannot reach and where Hiccup is always scratching away itches and shed-loose scales, so the dragon-boy knows that he must have rolled all over in it not long ago, or the water would have fled the warmth of Toothless’ fires inside. His forelegs and sides and flanks all bear the faint stripes of Toothless’ own tongue where he has licked himself dry.
Curiosity, Hiccup hums, when Toothless says only hiding, refusing to say. But he must, Hiccup believes, whining anxiety as well. They do not have secrets from each other, they are a single self!
The dragon-pair will bring each other gifts; they will create surprises, sometimes a new idea or game to play or thing to make, but as often a screaming ambush out of some dark corner or high ledge. Falling from the peak of the tallest spire had been a good surprise, even if there had been a very hard splash all the way down into the king’s ocean lake. Toothless had startled so when Hiccup had shrieked at him in passing, and the black dragon had only just saved himself from falling into the water beside his dragon-boy. (Toothless has wings of his own; it is not fair.)
But that was not a secret, only a surprise.
A secret, though – a secret is poison, and Toothless hurts with it. Hiccup can see him hurt, and hurts with him, mewling sympathy and flinching as his dragon-love does.
Where? Hiccup demands, as if the secret were a wound he could find torn through his Toothless-self’s scales. He pets and caresses down Toothless’ side, marking the black dragon as his with his own scent, beyond all doubt, and rubs against dark scales to merge their scents together again. He almost does not need to, after so many years among dragons – he smells thoroughly of dragon, and always will. But he knows Toothless’ scent among all others.
He feels more than hears Toothless’ moan, fear shame fear fear-for-you hide bad me shame me sorry sorry love-you unworthy, as it swells the black dragon’s sides and wavers beneath Hiccup’s paw.
Where? Toothless cries back to him, but his dragon-beloved’s eyes turn to the sky, open and empty of all but the highest clouds. He cringes into himself and into Hiccup’s paws, and calls the sound that every dragon in the nest knows, except for the hatchlings too young to fly over the warding spires of ice that keeps their flock apart from the killing winter wind and the claws of strangers. It is the sound that names them all.
Toothless whimpers home where where doubt us small where home? Flock-family-us? searching, he signals, ear-flaps swiveling up to listen for a sound that is not there.
At his side, Hiccup crouches motionless; he does not struggle to understand Toothless’ signals, he struggles to understand the concept. Home is…home is there, it is…
He does not know. Toothless navigates. Toothless knows which way to fly, once the nest is too far for them to see, when they have wandered away to somewhere new.
Hiccup can turn his face to home when they return to a place, when they have been there before. He can remember the shape of the shoreline they flew away from, the landmarks of mountains and distinctive trees and hunting places and napping spots. From uncountable islands – a meaningless statement; Hiccup can count no more than any dragon – he knows the way straight home.
But not from here. This is a new place, in strange skies with winds that do not know them, that bat them back and forth across the ocean like hatchlings with a terrified, half-stunned mouse.
The dragon-pair does not usually fly in a straight line. They must be very afraid before they will fly only one way, drawing a line from their noses to their tail and turning away from it not at all.
They follow the wind.
Summer storms have driven them from half-intended paths and sent them tumbling in unexpected directions over truly trackless seas, and they flew beneath covering clouds so that they could not see the stars. And so Toothless’ homing instincts, tuned to longer journeys than either dragon-child can even imagine, have failed the young jet-black dragon.
Now he scents at the wind as if it might bring him a trail to follow that smells of…Hiccup cannot break the smell that means home into its pieces, for he cannot name them all; home smells of family!
Lost, Toothless whimpers, a sound for a flock-mate who has not come home, who no one has seen, whose scent has faded from her nest.
Cried with more passion, heavier with grief, it is also the sound for dead.
Numb with bafflement, struggling to encompass a world in which they might not return to their nest again, in which they might wander forever, not by choice because it is a great game and a rightness, but because they must, Hiccup turns his back on the sky – it has never before seemed too wide – and embraces his dragon-self as far as his paws will go.
Hope, he tries to send in the strength of his heartbeat and the knowledge that they are together and a single self and nothing will ever, ever change that, not even if they must be a single self alone forever. But his breath hitches fear to match Toothless’ low keen, and he trembles. Hiccup was not cold before, but now he cannot know that their flock-family waits to huddle close and warm them at the end of their flight.
Toothless growls at the horizon even as he longs to mewl like a hatchling too small even to return to her mother’s side on her own. But instead he cringes shame, and he cradles his Hiccup-best-beloved-self close beneath his jaw, wrapping his wings around them both.
Dragons do not pray.
But they hope.
Toothless hopes with all his great young heart that they will find their way home, and that he will be strong and brave and clever enough to keep them both out of trouble until then.
He despairs of it even as he forms the thought.
Lost is tiring; Hiccup is none too pleased to learn it.
They have flown and flown and flown and they have found only this spire, a tall stone rearing high above the sea. Waves nibble at its sides like fish that have found a carcass, tiny mouths without fangs, but hungry.
The spire is not a good place to land. There is nowhere to hide upon it, and Hiccup wants very much to hide. He is keenly aware of his own shadow cast dark against the sky, the flicker of his movements like the small creature wary of greater, fiercer predators that he is. He is a dragon – a small dragon, but that is alright because the other half of him is bigger – but with the sky bright above and nothing for it to shine upon but this half of himself and the tall stone, now he wants to crouch and press his tail to his belly at the memory of the fox cub he had cornered, forever ago, the bites long faded.
The keening screech of anxiety hums through his bones, pulling his soft-skin too tight. He wants to chew it all off as if it were shedding scales. Already there is a thin crust of blood caked across one of his claws where he had bitten too deeply as he gnawed at it.
He sings with a fear that will not fade, that lurks in his shadow and nips at him like the waves below the spire. He imagines ear-flaps like Toothless’ pinned flat against his head, eyes flooding dark as he glances all around with the need to watch always, his dreamed-of tail lashing.
They have been lost for many days now, flying by night when the sun seemed to stare too intently. For a time, they had circled, finding their way back to the half-burnt island and then turning away again. The dragon-pair had come to another island where they had caught the scent of fire-skin cousins, many of them all together, and fled before they could be flamed at and driven away as trespassers. There are islets too small to stay on, where nothing lives but plants that have crept out of the sea, and Hiccup had carefully touched the tip of his tongue to one of them that looked familiar, wondering if it might be safe to eat.
Before his stomach could even rumble with hopefulness, his tongue had frozen dead. Hiccup had recoiled, spitting disgust even as he nearly fell over Toothless’ tail in his haste to splash into the waves and scold the rest of it stay you bad bad ugh not-to-eat you here stay you-had-better! – a growled warning and a skeptical glare that promises punishment – this don’t-like bad bad!
Salt water had splashed into his mouth as he screamed indignation, and the little boy had spat his chance mouthfuls at the offending seaweed, washing his tongue of the poison.
Toothless had waited out his dragon-boy’s tantrum, eyes rolling impatience and tail-tip tapping anger and waiting. Once Hiccup had sulked back to the bigger dragon’s side, dripping from a last splash into the sea, Toothless had snorted you small! and blasted the seaweed from the stone.
He had not been at all surprised to receive another mouthful of seawater spat all over his nose.
I small, Hiccup had signed back at him ungratefully, gestures sharp with anger that flamed over Toothless’ shoulder and not at him at all. You wet!
They flew onwards grouching to each other, but the sea had spread out below them empty and Toothless had refused to turn back, hackling at the stupid water for challenging him. He will not be outflown so!
Now Hiccup lies waiting on the edge of the single spire, watching Toothless hover above the waves as he fishes. Water drips from his empty claws after many unblooded, frustrated strikes. The broad black wings that should hold him steady in the air instead shudder and miss their beats, stumbling in the air, and he dives clumsily, almost falling – Toothless is exhausted from fear and far flying and little to eat.
And worse, Hiccup knows, all around there is only ocean, and he can taste salt still on his tongue.
Draped over a stone like a cast-aside scrap of fur, the little boy licks at his own bare paws, trying to summon up the memory of the stolen human food that had spilled down them days ago, that had been almost as much for lapping up as for chewing on. He is terribly thirsty.
To distract himself, he runs the edge of his stolen blade across a stone, grinding at the sharpness of it. Hiccup has watched his dragon-cousins sharpen their claws against stones and tree trunks all his life, grumbling envy and chewing on his own softer claws in hopes that they will grow fierce and sharp. Blades are not so different. They are like claws.
Long-buried memories settle the hilt of the little knife easily in his grip, but the sensation of metal grinding against stone sets his fangs on edge. Undeterred, he persists until he can see the gleam of new metal on both sides.
Against his will, his eyes drift closed as the long northern day and the jangling stress of being too far from home wear him down. The dragon-boy fights against it, trying to mirror Toothless’ movements in the barely-formed belief that he can lend his own strength to aid Toothless’ hunting. That he has none to give matters to him not at all; he imagines as hard as he can his dragon-self’s hover becoming smooth and effortless, as easy as leaves set afloat on the dark, still lakes in the depths of the nest’s caves.
And Toothless-dearest will not dive and sink and never rise again like those leaves – they are good for pouncing on, and Hiccup is the best of all their friends at setting them afloat – he will strike as neat as ice just broken, and he…he will catch those leaves…
Hiccup is asleep, dreaming of swimming in the warm darkness, the reassuring dragon-scent of the flock thick in his nose and with sweet, cool water so close he has only to show it his tongue, when a wail of shockfearfearpanicdanger! snaps him awake again.
He catches himself on the lip of the stone before he can leap to Toothless’ defense, although his heart is screaming terror to match. There is only falling before him, between them, and not for the first time the wild boy wails inside for wings to spread and the wind tearing past his own scales. He wants more than anything to leap from the edge and race through the air quick as light across water, fires blazing in his chest and a battle-scream keening from his throat, singing fury as he snaps his own fangs into the bulging throat of the steam-spitting water-cousin who is at once enemy – she is threatening Toothless!
But instead he is stuck here, caught between stone and sky and sea like the cruelest, sneakiest biting trap, and Hiccup screams back rage frustration danger beloved-mine love-you brave fierce you love-you want-to-fly ready-to-fight angry angry frustration! at himself and to Toothless – they cannot reach each other, but Toothless must not ever, ever think he is alone! – and to the enemy-cousin so she too knows that Toothless is not alone.
His shriek is a dragon’s cry, piercing and shrill and threatening, and the ocean dragon turns her huge blue-green head away from the fluttering, frightened black trespasser tumbling over his own tail in his haste to escape from her. She casts about in confusion for the other dragon, and her throat swells as her own fires turn the water in her crop to steam, ready to blast both intruders from the sky.
She had been cruising deep below on the edge of the true darkness, singing to mark the ridges and spines of hidden stones. But she had kept her eyes rolled upwards towards the distant, glittering sunlight sinking through the waves, and the flickering movement and familiar shapes of many fish had caught her attention. The charr are familiar and favored prey, and she had spread her iridescent broad-finned wings leisurely, letting the currents carry her silently to ambush them from below.
Toothless, fixated only on the fish and too exhausted to pay much heed to his surroundings, had dived nearly straight into her. Only her surprise had kept her from tearing his nearest wing from his shoulder as the charr scattered.
He is a dragon, a cousin, and she would not dream of eating him in place of the lost charr, but had Toothless not leapt from the water again with his most powerful downbeat, fleeing in pure terror, she would readily have left him to die broken and drowning.
Baffled, she blows a thick mist of steam into the air between herself and the black dragon and its ally, hiding herself like an octopus, and howls a threat any dragon would recognize.
Mine! she claims her ocean, roaring powerful. She roars stay-away! mine! and dives before they can flame at her, too canny to fight them in their sky.
Let them only meet her in her world, and she will show them who is Grandmother Hunter here.
Toothless has no desire to fight her, and no hope of victory; he is too young, and too tired, and too hungry, and too scared – and his jaws are too full of fish. Between one beat of Hiccup’s terrified heart and the next, he is landing awkwardly on the peak of the spire, claws scrabbling for the edge of the small plateau and tearing stones away to splash into the ocean forever lost.
Toothless-heart-of-mine! Hiccup wails, scrambling to him and plastering his small body against Toothless’ side, hiding his face against his dragon-love’s steam-wet scales and whimpering terror-relieved. He leads himself back to calmer skies on the warmth of Toothless’ heart-fires and the touch of untorn scales, and sings their secret songs of soul-deep devotion to comfort his other self.
Fish, exhaustion, thirst – all forgotten as they chirrup and cry together. Hiccup praises his dragon-twin in amazed warbles and low crouches, groveling in tribute and gazing up adoringly, miming being unable to look away from such a wonderful dragon, until Toothless drops his jaw onto his dragon-boy and sighs hush love-you enough.
Rising, Hiccup swats at the stone-dust coating his face and is surprised to find it damp. He stares at his paw in confusion only for a moment before catching sight of the water droplets still coating Toothless’ scales from hot steam.
Wait you down stay thinking wait curious maybe… Hiccup murmurs in dragon sounds, and nudges his snub nose against Toothless’ side.
But everything smells of salt, there is ocean all over.
And yet somehow, the droplets on his tongue are clear and fresh.
Purring delight, Hiccup blinks good! at Toothless, squeezing his eyes closed, and unabashedly laps the water from the black dragon’s scales.
It is only a small drink, especially shared between them, but it and the hard-won charr are enough to take them a little further.
That, Hiccup indicates, tapping at his drawing of the water dragon, scratched with a broken, chalky stone upon another stone. Her steam billows from her swollen throat.
Toothless stares at it, head on one side. There is meaning in Hiccup’s marks – it is a magic. And although it is a magic Toothless cannot do – they cannot do all things the same, but that is not important, because they are part of each other – it is a magic he can understand.
He is just as clever as his dragon-boy, and he and Hiccup have grown up so closely, learning from each other, that he is cleverer than he might have been, at this same age. And so, he can make a leap of imagination that would baffle any of their flock-mates.
That, Toothless indicates back, but his nose points at a cloud far away on the horizon, hazy like mist, like the water dragon’s defensive blast.
Hiccup whistles intrigue, an amazed and curious sound with excitement in it. C’mon! he gestures, quite distracted from the tension of being lost with no way home, and leaps to Toothless’ licked-dry shoulders. Hunting! he yelps, and black dragon and little boy race off to see if other clouds might have water in them too.
The crying of gulls ahead jars all the way down to his bones, but Toothless merely flicks his ear-flaps back irritation and grumbles bad noise. He wants almost more than anything to beat his wings strongly and surge to the attack, to descend on the screaming, reeking bird flock with flames burning in his throat and bursting from his jaws. He would soar high and strike down upon them where they have no eyes, and tear them from the sky in quick snaps and harsh shakes.
He would not even eat them, he would only rip each one open with a single bite and see how they flew then! He wants to fly, to race, and be done with this sneaky gliding so far away that the birds have not caught their scent or seen their shadow. Their raucous stupid screaming lays an easy trail in the sky for the dragon-pair to follow, and the stink of fouled feathers and rotted fish is as bright as the slowly setting sun as it flames across the water.
On his back, Hiccup shifts restless, but makes no cry of protest or exhaustion. He does not need to; Toothless can feel his other half’s bone-weariness in his breathing and sense Hiccup’s heart-weariness in his beloved dragon-boy’s silence. Hiccup’s paws are tucked close against Toothless’ scales, front paws trapped between the little boy’s chest and his back paws pressing hard against the black dragon’s ribs. Toothless can feel where Hiccup’s head lolls against the nape of his neck where there are no spine-fins, still baby-soft.
Every pawprint of him whimpers unhappy like a hatchling too neglected even to cry out in disbelief at such an unimaginable betrayal. He does not sit up into a resting crouch to watch the sun burn its way across the small waves of the deep ocean, even though Toothless is flying very steady and level and boring.
It is not right. Hiccup should be screeching mimicry of the distant, tireless gulls and inventing what they are saying to each other, dragon and dragon-boy chuckling back and forth to imagine that gulls could talk.
Toothless wants to fold his wings and hide both halves of himself beneath them. He wants to go home.
But for Hiccup, he fights the dark and pulsing despair that sets its claws into his belly and coils around his heart-fires. He cannot let his wings stop and sink to the water beneath them and the deeper darkness further below. How could he carry his Hiccup-self to such a place? It must be very strange down there. And he cannot allow the whimpers of fear that build in his throat to escape – he must swallow them down as if they were the barely-enough water that snags on their scales in clouds.
They know this thing now. They are very clever, to know it.
But there is no one to boast and roar and prance to.
He would only frighten the little boy on his shoulders, whose paws and breath and body pressed so close against his scales still say trust in every touch.
So Toothless must be very brave, and he must not frighten away the gulls and send them scattering to all sides of the sky. The gulls are going somewhere, and it would not be the first time the dragon-pair has followed birds to prey or perches they can take for their own.
But he flies grimly, doggedly, the only joy in it the little life inextricably twined with his own.
He senses it when Hiccup slips into a stupor like long nights huddled deep within the caves while the wind and the snow howl to each other and the stars beyond the shelter of the nest. Then there is nothing to do but sleep, and now there is nothing for them to do and nothing to see or think about –
Toothless jostles himself awake as he begins to glide towards the water, the wayward cuff of a different wind swatting at his nose. From his back, he hears a high, shallow cry of don’t-want! overshadowed with resignation, as Hiccup awakens to find nothing different than all the long day before.
Sorry, the black dragon whines, unable even to turn and nuzzle his smaller self peaceful again.
Fine fine dismissal sympathy fine regret sorry-too, Hiccup chirrups back, nudging his skull against Toothless’ in forgiveness. It is not his fault.
Hiccup says this, but Toothless still cringes inside, still believing that it is. He should know where they are, where home is – he has always known!
It does not comfort him to know where the spire is, where the steam-spitting water-cousin snapped at him, or where the island of fires and human nests is from here. He could find those places. The burnt island is not far, it is only over there. But they are not important places.
What does he care to know that, if he cannot find the only place that matters?
As he does so, the screams of the gulls they are following, which have long since faded into the horizon of their thoughts, change. The seabirds say all the same thing always, which is as deeply irritating to Hiccup and Toothless as the constant mad barking of dogs might be to a traveler accustomed to conversation. There is no meaning there, only sound, and all the same sound.
When dragons cry to each other as they fly, they say things. They challenge each other to racing or to catching or to skimming low over the waves until one or another flies too low and gets very wet and the others can laugh at them. They sing of the warmth of the sun and the mood of the sky, and they quarrel with each other. They boast of their skill as hunters and roar of how hungry they are, until wiser hunters shoulder-strike them into silence before they warn all the world of their intent.
But now the gulls’ voices change, and Hiccup and Toothless understand new! new! new! new! new! and hear the long shrieking cries of soaring birds fade from their hearing.
The soft sound of curiosity that Hiccup makes stokes Toothless’ fires inside to blaze anew, and he races as he has wanted to for so long.
When the shadow on the horizon takes its shape and becomes an island, Toothless cannot stop himself from crying Look! in triumph and delight even as he feels Hiccup scramble to a low crouch, leaning over Toothless’ head in his haste. Hiccup does not even huff that he is looking, too interested to be distracted by a cheerfully favorite quarrel.
The island is a sharp and broken thing, all jagged stones and harsh outcroppings dark against the sky when Toothless dips into a lower glide. Slime coats the edges of the land where it meets the sea, where the tide will cover it again as the sea breathes. But above the waterline is a wide expanse of rock and shadow, bare to the winds.
The nearest part of it seems absolutely covered in gulls as the flock spreads out over endless small perches and settles down. But not for long.
Birds scatter everywhere as Toothless lands with a careless thump. At home in the welcoming shelter of the nest with familiar eyes all around them, he would have slunk away with shame breathing from him like his own scent, to land so clumsily. Toothless knows he is a beautiful flier, and Hiccup’s constant and openly jealous praise has made him vain.
But now he smacks his tailfins down amidst a clump of gulls to show just how much he does not care. Hissing spite, he grunts amusement as the gull-flock explodes outwards, screaming new fear of him.
Hiccup slips from the black dragon’s shoulders with even less grace, sprawling out flat with his face turned to the sky. He grimaces disgust at the reek of the stones all around – there have been many birds here a lot, and birds are not tidy with their messes like dragons are – but only blinks relief at Toothless.
Wings folded at last and solid stone underfoot are a goodness so strong that Toothless sighs with all his soul and flops down beside Hiccup, only breathing.
One day they will fly together forever, but perhaps they are still too small just yet.
Stupid seabirds are very loud, but Hiccup listens to their danger! signals until the gulls forget that there are dragons among them.
At his side, Toothless pants for breath and mewls softly.
Hurt? Hiccup asks, rolling to a crouch. He rests a paw on Toothless’ chest, thrumming comfort and concern. The strong flight muscles under his paw are warmer than even fires inside with all the flying they have done today, and Hiccup chirrs gratitude to them very softly.
He soothes the long sweeps of Toothless’ wings as best he can, wishing for snow. But perhaps…
With a touch to his dragon-self’s nose – stay? – the wild boy trudges across the rough stones one pawstep at a time. He tries very hard to be careful, but his limbs want to be clumsy and fall again.
Clicking scolding at himself beneath the racket of fleeing gulls – they do not go far – Hiccup shuffles to the waterline and dips one paw into it.
Cold, he shudders with all his small body, and grunts approval. Shaking off the impulse to lick his paw dry – saltwater is not-to-eat – he drags himself back up the rocky slope.
Toothless has not moved, and Hiccup nudges his shoulder against his dragon-self’s to wake him, humming regret that is not apology.
C’mon, he beckons when Toothless turns one weary green eye to him. He splashes water, miming paddling in the space between them, and hums relief with a touch to the tight-tangled, burning coal that he can almost feel pulling at the bigger dragon’s chest. Toothless-beloved you come here you please? please? help I good yes yes c’mon hurt you here bad not-like c’mon good promise sure love-you promise.
It is very hard to get Toothless to move. Hiccup clicks frustration that he cannot be big enough to pick up Toothless in his jaws and carry him to the water. But eventually the black dragon slumps into a shallow place, open to the ocean but with stone to either side, and rests his jaw on the hard-earned land with a deep sigh.
Proud me proud you love-you good good good you strong yes-definitely sure, Hiccup praises him, scratching Toothless’ nose. His paws sting with the use of them again, but he stretches them gamely.
Hiccup hums you rest to Toothless, but some edge of intent must have crept its way into his dragon’s voice, because Toothless at once opens his eyes again.
You? Toothless demands, glaring suspicion. Water swirls around his shoulders as he moves to step onto the land again.
No no, Hiccup wails protest, down you rest down stay good down please. When Toothless stares back undeterred, the wild boy signs, I look go I here careful look see? see? curious.
Toothless does not like the idea of Hiccup exploring the island alone. Danger? he whistles, a warning cry softened by doubt. Reluctance shows in his eyes and his ear-flaps, cringing low.
For all the stress of their long flight, still Hiccup can open his jaw and flash his tongue in a dragon’s smile. He waves a paw in a long arc and yawks an imitation of the seagulls, chuffing laughter even as he recoils so absurdly that even hatchlings would roll their eyes at him, just as Toothless does. Hiccup warms inside to see it.
Danger gulls yes very-scary run run run hide gulls I terrified, he mocks.
With his signals singing true again, he gestures again to Toothless stay, pleading you rest.
Still, as he climbs across the stones seeking a high place to see from, staying low so that he is not seen, he looks back over his shoulder often. Toothless’ green eyes on him comfort him, and he picks his way among clumps of sharp-reeking bird mess with a cough of disgust. Small bugs swarm around his paws, fleeing the ravenous seagulls as they turn over stones with their long beaks.
The shadows of the stones stretch out as the sun drifts towards the water. It must be tired too after flying all day. Maybe the sun wants to be cooler, too; maybe its chest has coals in it. Hiccup squints his eyes at it in acknowledgement, and continues to explore with flares burning inside his eyes when he blinks, which he does often.
Hiccup-beloved? Toothless calls – they can no longer see each other. Worry where-you I worry where Hiccup-self answer!
I here! Hiccup shrills back, whistling no-threat.
This island seems to be all shadows between stones, with very little growing, but as the dragon-boy closes his eyes and scents the air, something new and welcome catches his attention.
It is the smell of fresh water, and dark, wet earth, and cool air. He smells caves. He smells shelter.
Where? Hiccup chirrups softly, as if Toothless were beside him, cocking his head in an almost birdlike fashion. He casts around his momentary perch, searching for the strongest scent, and finds it leading into a deeper shadow.
Without the sun in his eyes, it yawns away into a crack into the rock bigger than Toothless; he chuffs at himself for not seeing it before. The scent of water spills from it fresh and clear, with no reek of bird mess fouling the air.
The familiarity of it wakes a purr in his throat; caves are their home.
Trembling with relief at the thought of a safe place to sleep – neither Hiccup nor Toothless sleeps as soundly in the open air, and the restlessness of one always wakes the other – the wild boy scampers back to the water and his dragon-partner with renewed energy. Toothless-dearest! he clicks. C’mere c’mon look look I find yes good c’mon!
The tunnels are dim, lit only by the moon’s reflected light from the stones at the mouth of the first cave, and they are so right that Hiccup nearly curls up and falls asleep before his second step within. Only Toothless at his side and the scent of fresh water deeper within keeps him on his paws and moving. Small outcroppings jut from the stones of the walls, but mostly they are smooth, and Toothless brushes his shoulder against them just as he would in their own nest. The black dragon lifts his head cautiously, questing with his nose for the roof of the cave, and finds it high enough for him to walk easily within. A single note of his high-pitched seeing song, slightly off-key still, shows no biting stone teeth all the way down, and so Toothless walks carelessly, and Hiccup beside him.
There are unfamiliar scents here, but the dragon-pair are beyond caution, driven only by the needs of their bodies for water and rest. So the cave-mouths to either side of them, suggesting other tunnels left unexplored at their backs, go ignored. The dry scent of scales is disregarded, with the scent of fresh water running over stones.
Deep beneath the earth, there is only the faintest glimmer of light sparkling from the ceaseless motion of a pure spring, but it is enough.
It is enough.
Dragon and dragon-boy drink their fill in the silence of the end of their young strength, and curl up together in a dry place, asleep almost at once.
You? a snarl demands, and Hiccup wakes to the smell of hot breath heavy with blood against his face.
You! Hiccup challenges, poking Toothless’ shoulder with one paw. He crouches in his dragon-companion’s shadow, the thrill of the unknown humming through him in a steady keen interspersed with short, excited yelps. He peeks around Toothless, eyes wide. The opening in the wall is no less dark, nor are the scents from within any less strong, but neither has anything snarled from within that they are not welcome.
Behind them, a trail of destruction and disarray marks their small adventures. The cloths once seemed to hang in mid-air, but then small dragons came to play peekaboo among them, peeking around their edges and snarling in play, trying to tackle each other regardless of anything in their way. Most have been torn from the clothesline and to the ground, and they lie fluttering piteously, accumulating dirt again. One end of the line remains anchored to the eaves of the longhouse, clinging doggedly to the few sheets and linens that remain.
Hiccup had managed to drag a wide piece of cloth over Toothless’ head and blind him, leaping to the crown of his dragon-companion’s head and leaning precariously over Toothless’ muzzle to weigh his nose down, only to be distracted by the colorful patterns worked into it. The embroidered lines of thread might have succumbed to the little boy’s picking at them, had Toothless not immediately thrown him off and away. The cloth had gone with him as Hiccup had tumbled to the earth, and wind-blown ash had turned everything the same shadowy brown.
Half-empty barrels lie on their sides, clawed at and stepped upon, the prints of Hiccup’s summer-bare feet upon the wood smudged beyond recognition by Toothless’ heavier paws. Many of them have rolled away and fetched up beneath the overhanging eaves of a nearby storehouse that has resisted all efforts by the dragon-pair to break into.
The scorch-mark of Toothless’ blasting-fires marks the near-obliteration of a hapless chicken; blood on stone betrays where another had met its panicked fate. The scattered feathers not adorning Hiccup’s matted fur scud back and forth in the confused vortex of winds as they change with the tides, caught between the distant fire and the distant sea.
That fire is not forgotten, but the dragon-pair have set it aside as not quite an immediate threat. Perhaps it will not come this far, perhaps the fire will eat enough forest to not be hungry anymore, or perhaps it will hunt elsewhere. And if it does come here, they will see it coming, for the fields around the village have driven the forest far away from the doors of the village itself, creating a wide-open space to watch across.
With that understanding held tightly in their jaws to be licked at and kept for later, Hiccup and Toothless are free to play.
Banners that hung over the doorways of many of the village houses have been snatched from their moorings by sharp teeth and clever paws and run away with. Toothless had nipped Hiccup’s favorite from his paws and tempted the dragon-boy into a yowling, scolding chase through the village and into the waving fields. He had weaved between the barley stalks that bent before his weight but sprang up again to swat smaller, lighter Hiccup away, until the banner had fallen from his jaws and been lost.
It waves from among the growing crops again, unnoticed by the little dragons who have found a new game to play.
I brave look-at-me brave yes me me big not-afraid I go look me, Toothless boasts, raising his head and baring his teeth, showing the unmarked scales of his chest and throat to any enemies hiding within, daring them to do better. And yet his tail waves uncertain and excitement, and he glances anxiously to the side to be sure that Hiccup is with him as they slink, low and careful, into the longhouse.
Hiccup had reared to his full height to grab at a tough leather loop hanging from what they had only seen as a wall, and nearly lost his balance when it had given way and the door had swung open. Toothless had found him lecturing it in dragon sounds, scolding bad you bad liar this liar you well? well? snorting a disappointed hmph and turning his shoulder to it as if he were a big dragon quite unamused by the antics of a hatchling.
Their eyes adapt to darkness quickly, though. Darkness is their natural habitat and their home. And in moments they understood that there was an inside here that they could venture into, if they were brave enough…
Goaded on by each other’s encouragement, the dragon-pair bristle and stare at the long, shadowy space they have discovered within. The air is thick and heavy, full of the smell and the heat of the raised stone hearth that fills the center of the room, and with the fug of many human bodies in close quarters.
But the scent is stale, and so Toothless snaps his fangs away and turns to nuzzle Hiccup calm again, pushing his dragon-boy out from beneath the black dragon’s chest where he shelters, growling. They were taught very young to fear that scent, and neither of them had understood the irony in being taught to fear reeking furs, and being praised for recoiling with defensive hisses, only to run happily back to their human mother’s voice when – or somewhat after – she called for them. The furs had not smelled like her at all.
Narrow slits set high in the walls admit shafts of light that slice down into the room, illuminating shapes new and unknown. Human eyes would see fire-pokers, benches, a wooden sideboard, a pair of cradles, and this tribe’s crest at the peak of the far wall.
The door swings closed, nearly catching Toothless’ tail, but it opens again when Hiccup pushes on it. Reassured to know that they are not trapped, that they can leave again, Toothless breathes love into his dragon-boy’s fur and only licks him a little bit, only until Hiccup can squirm away.
This? Hiccup clicks inquisitively, springing onto the heavy stone block of the hearth. At once, warm ashes stain his second skins and his wet fur greyer and grubbier, and he sits back on his heels, careful to keep his paws from the heat of the still-burning coals in its center. Hot, he snorts, drawing his paws back to his chest; the ghosts of burn scars, not the last he will ever acquire, discolor the sensitive skin of his palms.
The fire is familiar and unimportant, but the smells from the dark metal thing nestled in the ashes near it make his mouth water. Skirting the edges of the hearth, balancing easily on the edge, the feral boy reaches out. He hesitates only for an instant before dabbling his paw in the thick mutton stew, left cooling within the cauldron.
Hot this good good like Toothless-beloved look food good this like like, Hiccup chirrups between licking his paw clean and purring pleasure as Toothless noses a fire poker off its hook, sending it clattering to the ground. Ignoring the ladle left to sit in the stew, he briefly considers drinking the warm, rich liquid straight from the surface as he often does water, but instead presses his paws together and scoops up a pawful. Stew drips from his face and down his forelegs, bothering him not at all as he licks away the escaping food.
Me? Toothless asks, ear-flaps perking up as he sets his jaw on the stone block, and Hiccup blinks love at him, thrumming amusement at his dragon-beloved’s unnecessary begging.
Patting at the metal and finding it cool enough to touch, he tips the cauldron over until Toothless can put his nose into it, and between them, the stew vanishes. The loaves of bread left by the fire meet a similar exploratory fate, pieces torn off and bites taken out of each, knocked into the fire or to the ground.
The plates on the sideboard are ransacked, salted fish pulled apart between them in small tugs-of-war; they overturn half-drunk, abandoned mugs, and both little dragons recoil with nostrils flaring from the strong, alien smell of barley beer.
Hiccup snatches up something that shines intriguingly, and coos over the sharpness of the little eating knife. He has a similar one at home in the nest, left behind in their haste to escape their flock-mates’ temper. He carves aimless lines into the wood of the sideboard where he crouches, happily destructive, until Toothless rears up to see the patterns his dragon-boy has made. The wood cracks beneath the young dragon’s weight, and both scavenging dragon-children tumble to the floor amidst the wreckage.
Unhurt and unbothered, Hiccup signals mine, chirruping amusement. He wraps it away into a thick fold of his second skins, and scampers away to the other side of the den.
There are shapes on the walls, carved into and painted over the wood, and Hiccup runs his paws across the stylized images of monsters and beasts, demons and gods, heroes and tricksters, legends and lies, triumphs and truths without understanding any of them, only wondering at the colors and the smoothness of the carvings.
There are patterns there, but not ones he knows, though Hiccup can draw, and loves to. Ironically, Hiccup’s own drawings, though more often scratched into sand or chalked across stone, are more realistic than the stylized art of the Vikings. Hiccup draws what he sees, as he sees it, and when he imagines things that he would like to make, he sketches with a natural engineer’s practical eye.
Toothless rears to his hind legs to bat at a bundle hanging from the rafters of the ceiling, chirping bird bird bird – he knows it is not, but he swats at it as he would try to bring down a pheasant startled from a clump of grass. His claws catch in the oiled net, tearing through.
Onions rain from on high, and Hiccup shrieks with laughter, wrapping his forelegs over his head as they crash down and bounce away. One strikes his shoulder, and he immediately leaps off the metal-bound sea chest and after it, pouncing and rolling with it successfully caught and clasped to his chest. The moment he tumbles back to his feet, he rolls the onion away chirruping wonder and mimicking its spin with his paws, over and over, around and around.
Ugh! Toothless spits, grimacing and licking at his jaws, howling regret and hissing irritation at his attempt to eat the one he snatched from the air. He backs away and shakes his head as if he could retreat from his own tongue, tail lashing.
Hiccup vanishes into the shadows beneath a heavy trestle table after the onion Toothless bats angrily towards him, the bigger dragon whistling the sharp warning of not-to-eat!
Not-to-eat! Toothless’ whistle becomes a scolding shriek. Anxious to protect the other half of himself from this half’s mistake, Toothless dives after him, and a bench goes flying. The black dragon drags him out again past its upturned legs, a single sharp tooth caught with infinite gentleness in a fold of the dragon-boy’s leather skins, and Hiccup sighs silly and pats his nose understanding and soothing and love.
A tall metal torch near the hearth gutters out, deprived of fresh coals, as the mercurial pair tire of onions and continue to explore.
Strange, Hiccup mutters, wary again without the distractions of food or chasing. Perched atop the table, crouched with his weight on his hindquarters and his paws lowered before him, balanced and ready to leap, he looks almost exactly like a little dragon, lacking only a tail. And yet, he imagines that lack as if it were a part of him, only unseen because it is behind him. He can all but feel it coiling in close, pressing against his flank and the wide tail-fins of the tip of it – for of course his tail would be like Toothless’ tail, only smaller – twitching against his stomach, small blows like the heart pounding within his chest.
Danger wary us you? you? us together yes Toothless-love here yes together good good good us, he mutters and gestures. The presence of his dragon-partner is the one familiar touchpoint in this strange place they have ventured into, and he is constantly moving to keep Toothless on the edge of his vision, if not right before his eyes.
This? This? what this? this? danger? Danger? No-threat? Toothless’ body says, even as he grunts and whuffs and declares brave us brave this ours us here yes us brave! in small roars.
Here cave-nest here look us want? Hiccup asks, skittering across the room and coming to a stop against one wall. He has paced out the perimeter of this space, and the smell of the air tells him that there is another space beyond it. When he sits up and brushes his paws across it, he can catch his claws in the small gap between one piece and the next. It is like the one outside, he reasons – it is exactly like. There is even another loop to pull on, and so this one can open too.
Keeping low, all but howling caution, Toothless joins him and sniffs at the small gap between ground and piece-of-wall-that-moves. In among the bristling-boldness in his shoulders and the jangling almost-frightened and trying-not-to-be humming through his breathing, Hiccup understands the still-smaller signals that say you here you here you here good good best Hiccup-mine beloved-always you here reassurance comforted you here.
The dragon-boy leans against Toothless’ shoulder in reply, setting their hearts alongside each other to beat together, mimicking Toothless’ crouch and matching his dragon-partner’s breathing, and Toothless relaxes just a little.
There is no fresh scent of humans beyond, either, and Hiccup lifts a paw to tug on the loop and make it open.
I do! Toothless insists, nudging him aside. One ear-flap flicks back, annoyance, but not at Hiccup; his tail-fins slap against the floor with a sharp declaration of bold!
Meekly, Hiccup drops back to his crouch, the movement quite naturally becoming a roll that leaves him sprawled out easily, only waiting. You yes safe I safe you you strong I here see you.
Reassured by Hiccup’s trust, Toothless considers mimicking the way his dragon-boy had caught and pulled on the other loop, but the moment he raises one paw, he sets it down again. It is only the pulling, the clever young dragon understands, not the paws. And so, he snaps out his fangs and very carefully catches the loop with them, backing away.
Half of the double doors swings open, and Hiccup whistles delight and praise even as the dragon-boy leaps back to his paws, already crouched alert and ready to run from imagined monsters in the space beyond.
All their attention is ahead of them, and so it comes as a terrible shock when the door behind them opens again, spilling sunlight down the length of the room.
The sunbeam, broken by the broad forms of two humans standing in the doorway, stops just short of the black dragon and the feral boy, who stand frozen and frightened only for a frantic heartbeat. Terror washes through them like a wave, whimpers of fear caught in throats too paralyzed to give voice to them. For all their different shapes, Hiccup and Toothless drop into identical cringes, bodies pressed close together and cowering down into the too-shallow cover of shadow, shoulders hunched defensively, heads down even as their eyes remain fixed on the predators in the light. Toothless’ tail whips to the side, shielding Hiccup, who sets his paws against the earth with claws crooked ready to strike, even knowing the soft claws that are all he has will do nothing against thick fur and gleaming metal.
From beyond, the sounds of human voices, raucous like seagulls’ cries, drift in through the open door. The longhouse walls are thick enough to keep its inhabitants warm even in the brutal northern winters. They had been enough to keep out the sounds of the returning villagers too, allowing them to sneak up on the distracted dragon-pair.
Now one of the creatures in the light makes an angry sound, waving its forepaws in the air and setting them against its sides. It mutters and grumbles to its companion, which shakes its head sharply – the fur on its face waves like a fox’s brush.
The angry creature makes no sounds they recognize specifically, but the tone of its voice is one they recognize clearly. The dragon-pair recognize anger, and frustration, and confusion.
Memories Hiccup cannot place suggest mess this mess who mess everywhere! But it is not at all unusual for bigger dragons to be frustrated with hatchlings tumbling all over each other, racing through others’ nests and mobbing their flock-mates’ tails and wingtips, swarming around the jaws of hunters returning from fishing and pleading to be fed. He himself has made similar howls, when his younger cousins have scattered the toys and tools he hoards across half the cave, and he and Toothless have been similarly howled at.
Beside him, Toothless is whimpering low in his throat, barely more than a thrum, and Hiccup can sense his dragon-twin breathing in sharply, ready to flame through his fear.
The fox-fur human steps into the room, looking around.
The moment it does so, the young dragons dart away, deeper into the shadows of the den. Closer to their predators, yes, and it terrifies them, but they are hiding just as they would hide from an angry flock-mate (it is easier to think of that, they can think through that), dodging past and away.
Dropping into the shadows of the table, behind the undisturbed bench, twin to the upturned one, Toothless feels more than sees Hiccup pressed against his chest, matching his movements. (The wild boy has been scrambling about on all his paws for most of his life, and has no trouble moving low.)
Through its legs, they watch the two humans lurch into the room, snapping to each other. One stoops – at once black dragon and dragon-boy scramble a little closer to the open air and freedom, trusting to the heavy stone block of the hearth to conceal all but the tip of Toothless’ nose and his tail-fins – and rises again with an onion in its paws.
It bears the marks of Toothless’ fangs, nearly bitten through and still fresh enough to ooze thinly.
It says something to its companion, and the other human shambles closer to see –
And at once Hiccup is on Toothless’ shoulders and the bigger dragon is streaking towards the light as fast as he can possibly go, dodging around a half-strung loom Hiccup had wondered at without comprehending and leaping over a discarded round shield, its shining metal boss for a moment reflecting only night-black scales.
Toothless skids to a landing just over the threshold of the longhouse, briefly gawky as his hindquarters regroup beneath him and his wings spread and his tail-fins hiss across the packed earth in his wake –
And even as he does, he tries to recoil at the sight of human eyes fixed upon him, wide and amazed and shocked.
If anything, the child’s stare, jaw fallen as if to scream, crude straw moppet slipping from its grip, saltwater dripping from the edges of the cloth wrapped around it as it climbs to the top of the path and freezes there, only drives Toothless to leap faster.
On his back, Hiccup clings tightly to his scales. He is blind to the human child – not the other human child, the only human child here – for his face is buried in the nape of Toothless’ neck and his dragon-scent in pure fear he cannot face, all the tension in his small body urging his dragon-beloved up up go now now up go! and Toothless is only too willing to fly.
Only when they are safely high in the air and out over the sea again does Toothless follow Hiccup’s unsteady snarl and the wave of his companion’s paw at the ships drawn up to the shore, shapes scattering away from them, and understand that the humans who abandoned the village had come back.
By then they have flown a little further inland, back towards the forest and the fire, to confuse any hunters who might chase after them. But the fire has not come this far; the changed wind has turned it away from the bare swath of ground where there was nothing to eat, and the flames have retreated towards the nest of their birth again.
Still, it is enough of this island, and Toothless shudders as if he was shaking water from his scales.
Hiccup whistles agreement and relief and no-more, a surrendering, backing-away sound.
And Toothless turns away, and beats his wings strongly to soar upward, hunting for a wind that will catch them up and carry them away over the endless ocean towards somewhere else, without forest fires or humans or onions.
Neither of them suggest anything about going home just yet.
Author’s Note: If you, your local library, or your dad subscribes to National Geographic, the Viking longhouse Hiccup and Toothless just ransacked can be found on pages 36 and 37 of the March 2017 issue.
Part Two: From the Fire
Pressed low to the rough grass of the meadow cliff, the ocean roaring below, Hiccup shifts one paw forward, silently sliding his small body across the ground. He shifts his weight with the ease of long practice and many similar hunts, ready to spring.
Humming on the edge of his own hearing, singing readyreadyreadyready to himself alone, the wild boy catches sight of his prey as it returns within his reach, and leaps. He pounces like any little predator, up and down like a hunting fox, but with the muscles in his shoulders straining to spread wide wings that are not there, and with his imitation of Toothless’ diving scream tearing from his throat.
Just for a moment, he flies.
But even sprawled out and half-asleep in the unusually warm day, Toothless snaps his tail-fins away. Instantly, the black dragon slaps them back again, swatting his dragon-boy from the air.
Once their mother could hold them both, one cradled in each arm, but Toothless’ growth has far outstripped Hiccup’s over their life together. Toothless’ tail is more than strong enough to knock Hiccup flying.
Yelping hey hey no mine mine I catch fly fly fly look me fly! – a tangle of hunting sounds flowing easily into cries of surprise and mingled exhilaration and uncertainty – Hiccup tumbles through the air, lands as best he can, stumbles backwards clumsily, and misses his footing, feeling the rocks slip from beneath his paws at the edge of the cliff.
But the cove beneath the weathered-away shore is deep, with no sharp stones or broken branches for Hiccup to strike as he splashes into the water and sinks in a shaft of bubbles and displaced pebbles.
Undisturbed by impact, cold, or immersion, the little boy spits a soundless hmph! of annoyance, and paws at his long fur, floating around his head in a blinding cloud. Through it, he watches for the movement of startled fish and water bugs, scattering in fear, and peers curiously at the bubbles flying back to the air where they belong. He takes in the shifting clouds of mud and silt, stirring in the shallower waters where the waves can push them. The water is calm again, no longer roaring and crashing like warring dragons beneath the howling, flashing thunderstorm that kept both young dragons from sleep last night, but the ocean is never still.
Twisting around, paddling as if his paws were wings, he turns to stare into the deeper waters, unafraid of the darkness and vastness of the true ocean while there is breath within him still. Is there movement there? A shadow of some creature or dragon-cousin much larger than him, but a cousin still?
Too far to see, too far into the dark cold distance of it, and Hiccup turns away, not without a flicker of regret.
It is not his world, and he does not see how he and Toothless could ever fly there, but it is there, another place they have not gone yet!
For now, he decides he would probably like to breathe again, and paddles back to the surface with a childish wave, which he retains as a paw batting at the air for attention, to the creature hovering far away in the deeper waters.
You! he shrieks with his first breath, treading water as he flicks his fur out of his eyes again and slashes out without hope of reaching the dark muzzle and green eyes peering curiously over the edge of the cliff far above, paws braced securely and wings half-spread. Toothless’ tail flicks up behind him, and Hiccup cries you bad bad trick splash me down splash bad bad! but with undercurrents of teasing not-mad play me play love-you laughter laughter humming beneath.
He blinks away seawater from his gestures – splash is just that – as Toothless yowls back laughter laughter clever me clever Hiccup down and his tail waves can’t-catch-this!
Grouching in aggrieved dragon noises, Hiccup sights on a lower stretch of shore and clambers out of the water. He pays no attention to the mud and slime coating his paws and drenched skins, snatching halfheartedly at a crab that scuttles away from him before he can catch and eat it.
Only when he has climbed back to the peak of the cliff – accompanied by Toothless’ chortles of dragonish laughter – does he pounce directly under the black dragon’s nose and shake himself dry as best he can. Brackish seawater flies everywhere, and Toothless recoils and pretends to flee, but in fits and starts, a shuffling retreat that allows Hiccup to almost keep pace with him.
Many of his leaps miss, but when the wild boy manages to land on Toothless’ shoulder, the bigger dragon collapses sideways as if he has been struck down by a much bigger foe. Hiccup pounds his small fists against his dragon-self’s ribs with all the solemnity of a mother inspecting her hatchlings one by one until Toothless strikes all of Hiccup’s ribs at once with a single nudge of his wide nose.
The air warms even further as they tear up the grass and kick up tight-packed dirt, stumbling over small stones and each other’s paws. Hiccup snatches hold of one of Toothless’ ear-flaps and sets his heels into the earth, pulling back hard enough to drag Toothless’ head to one side without yanking hard enough to hurt. The black dragon wheels in a barely-enforced circle before retreating backwards, knocking Hiccup off-balance and sending him tumbling to the ground, and then stands over him licking his face and fur and second skins for the moments it takes the much-slobbered-upon dragon-boy to roll away and scamper off in the all-paws-to-back-feet-to-all-paws-again run that is all his own, with his twin-self in joyous pursuit.
Dust from the ground scatters to join the haze still filling the air as black dragon and feral boy scuffle and roll, yelping and yowling in laughter and pretend snarls, until Hiccup signals stop ready Hiccup-self stop no-more enough stop Toothless-mine tired now! and collapses flat across Toothless’ back, almost entirely dry again and quite done with pouncing for the moment.
As he gasps for breath, Hiccup picks up a new scent in the wind, familiar but unexpected, and raises his head to track it. That? he whistles curiosity as his dragon-love rumbles uncertainty and follows his lead.
There is a deep roar in the distance quite different from the clashing of waves and the wind hissing through the grasses, although it has been buried beneath those sounds and the dragon-pair’s cries. It growls, hungry; it rumbles, coming.
Fire! Toothless signals, roaring a mimicry of other dragon’s flames before letting his own fires pool in his jaws, swallowing them away again at once. He tenses alarm beneath Hiccup’s touch, wings spreading go go go ready us go, for the sounds and the scents are not of dragon-fire, but of a wild, eating blaze that devours forests and those too slow to flee.
Hiccup cries danger! reflexively, in case there are other flock-mates around to hear their warning, and scampers across Toothless’ side as his dragon-partner rolls to his feet.
The little boy drops into his accustomed place between the bigger dragon’s shoulders, clinging tightly to his scales, and Toothless waits only a moment more to be sure Hiccup is ready to fly before taking off with a single powerful downbeat. It is not his strongest leap – Hiccup cannot hang on against that quick a jump, they know – but even as the echoes of Hiccup’s warning cries fade, they are already in the sky and away.
They have no better way to fly together, yet. The riding-harness their mother wove for Hiccup once has been transformed beyond recognition; its remnants formed the skeleton of the makeshift clothing Hiccup first created for himself, knowing only that it traced his shape conveniently enough. It has long since been outgrown. The greater harness she created for Cloudjumper has been forgotten. Too big for Hiccup to understand, and too painful for Cloudjumper to face as a reminder of his lost beloved, it has been scavenged and repurposed, cut apart and lost.
From above, the forest fire burns like the sunrise, on the horizon but inevitable. The heat that has made the day so warm boils from it in waves of air, twisting the winds and shimmering against the sky. Reds and golds and oranges blend and meld and flare like a living thing; the fires are so powerful they seem to burn black, rich and intricate and uncontrollable. Sparks fly from the land beneath the tar-rich, sticky pines as the mast of the forest floor becomes coals and embers.
Even from far away as they are, the fire is an awesome, wondrous beast. They are beyond its reach for the moment, but the flames roar like a king dragon, a behemoth of fire rather than ice, wreathed in its own element like a nest it has built for itself.
Staring in wonder, mouth open to taste its ashes, Hiccup cries aloud a low, soft sound of pure awe, a small and cowering sound that does not expect to be heard. Beneath his chest, Toothless rumbles wariness in reply.
Neither of them truly fear fire. They are dragons, and fire is in their nature; they have fires inside. But neither of them feel any desire to race towards such a danger – fire can hurt, or why else would dragons hunt and fight with it?
Careful Toothless-beloved us careful, Hiccup murmurs, but he cannot take his eyes from the flames. Part of him wishes to cringe before it, to crouch submission as he would before an Alpha, pleading with its power to accept them and show mercy.
The dragon-boy has always understood that the world is much greater than him; he is a child of a dragon nest, and the world has never been otherwise. With the cheerful ease of familiarity, he scampers among the feet of giants and growls back to jaws larger than his entire body. He climbs down the backs of dragons as tall as great trees as if they were shallow slopes, and if he is bothered at all by wings wide enough to blot out the sun, it is only when he is drawing and they are in his light.
The sky is wide, the sea vast, the winter long, but they are his, his playground and his territory and his home. They are, in a way, too big. Hiccup cannot be overwhelmed by these things, for then when would he hunt? How would he play? How could he think of anything else but the greatness of it? He would be caught fascinated and terrified, unmoving, and some enemy would snap him up to be shaken in her jaws and cast aside broken.
But the fire, blazing and roaring to devour all within its reach – it strides between familiarity and incomprehension with its head high and its shoulders broad, heavy paws pacing with perfect confidence. The inferno is big enough to cower before, but small enough to be understood as itself and trembled before.
They could turn and fly away, seeking out a different, safer island, but Hiccup does not signal reluctance and draw away anxious. He only watches, and Toothless with him.
They do not shudder or mourn for the forest the inferno consumes, or the island crackling beneath it; it is not theirs. It was only the nearest refuge when the clouds grew heavy like a dragon-mother lumbering through the caves to claim the nest where her eggs will lie warmed and protected and sung to, knowing that wherever she walks, her flock-mates will step aside and lower their heads to offer not even the threat of a glare, not even a resentful grunt if she should choose to claim their nest for her eggs to rest.
With the smell of rain and lightning washing through the air, Toothless had turned and let the restless winds of the storm carry him before them, seeking shelter.
They had found a place where two freshly-fallen trees, their needles still green and bitter and the edges of their broken places still sharp, had been caught by a jagged rock face. It had served them less as a shelter than as a corner where they could watch the storm clouds engulf the sky and break it open. The wind shook the dying needles from the dead trees and scattered them all around the dragon and the wild boy as they huddled pressed close together for warmth and comfort in the face of the power cracking across their world. And they had watched wondering and exhilarated, startling with every flash of lightning and the answering roar of thunder, but not in fear.
Never in fear; only with the desire to leap and soar and roar reply, and with the frustration of all small creatures that long to be big enough to fit their soul.
Eventually Hiccup had fallen asleep out of pure exhaustion, and with a gentle paw, Toothless had nudged his dragon-boy closer, against the dark scales of his ribs, and spread a wing over him, engulfing Hiccup in a living cave. Thrumming with contentment and exhaustion of his own, the black dragon had tucked his own nose beneath that same outstretched wing, and fallen asleep with the scent of his beloved-self overlaying even his dreams.
From their half-hidden nest, beneath the high-rearing rock face and the blinding pine branches, and the whipping sheets of rain, neither had seen a bolt of lightning strike the heart of the island, nor could they have known that the embers of that strike had smoldered there, waiting to burst to life in the next day’s winds.
And now it blazes, and the storm’s hatchling roars answer to its absent mother, and Toothless hovers and hesitates. His instincts tell him to flee – fire is a thing of dragons, but fire can kill them, if there is enough of it.
Dragons can burn; dragons burn their dead, and so those who wish to remain living flee great fires that are not their own.
(Toothless does not think of this in so many words; it is merely an instinct, something as part of his bones as his need to fly as far as he possibly can.)
Both Hiccup and Toothless know that they should be away from this place as it burns. They do not know these waters where they have traveled – it is a new place – but the sea is full of islands.
But fascination crackles between them, and Toothless cannot turn his eyes away even as he feels Hiccup put more of his weight on a single small paw as his dragon-boy leans towards the flames, crooning amazement that Toothless echoes.
Below, flickers of movement betray animals fleeing from the devouring fire, panicked and heedless of the danger in the sky, but Toothless ignores them. He too can feel wonder and consider it more important than his instincts to hunt and feed. He can imagine the heat of the heart of the flame rather than the taste of quick blood in his jaws, can notice the contrast of dark and dying tree trunks striped against the light of the fire and consider this new thing more interesting than an easy strike. He can even, faintly, judge that there is enough fear racing across the ground without subjecting the panicked wild creatures to his own teeth and blasting-fires as well.
Instead, Toothless turns his wings to the heat of the flames and only glides on the rising thermals, circling wide and wary around the burning forest. When the fire lunges towards them, hot and close enough to pull his dragon-boy’s skin tight and make Hiccup pull away, then Toothless veers further away to match, dancing with it careful and slow.
They do not fear fire, but they respect it, just as they do not fear the sky, but they respect storms.
The wind changes, driving the ash and heat of the fire out of their noses, and instead the sharp salt smell of the sea washes through them, breaking Hiccup and Toothless from their rapture. Shaking himself and touching his nose to Toothless’ scales, grounding his paws on the familiar texture of his dragon-twin’s shoulders, Hiccup is, unusually, silent, and Toothless lets him be, only humming reassurance and keeping his wings level as they fly away.
The untouched forest rolls beneath them like ocean waves, deep valleys like wave-trenches and higher peaks like breakers, as they fly across the heart of the island and towards the other shore.
The strongest scent in the air is still the fire, and neither Hiccup nor Toothless understand the meaning of the wide, bare channel cut in the earth, trees fallen and dragged aside, ground bare and burnt when the fire has not yet come here.
Look! Hiccup yelps, taken by surprise.
At once, Toothless backwings, spinning almost in place. Below his wings there are dark shapes crouching beneath the shelter of the valley, clustered near the small stream that he can see becomes a greater river as it runs down to the sea. They are strange, sharp-cornered things with nothing living about them, things made rather than shaped by the wind and the tide or the hurrying paws of dragons that knock away loose stones as they run. Some rise to sharp peaks, while others are rounded, like gentle hills, and the ground between them is bare and barren, trampled flat, with strange objects scattered around. Spread out beyond them, long furrows stripe their way across the fields as if dragon-claws had torn through the earth, still visible beneath the plants growing in unnaturally orderly lines.
He does not need to know the words hut or hall or longhouse; he cannot think market-stall or stable or forge, but Toothless recognizes the smell of humans and the shapes of their dens. While he cannot think village, either, he does not need to, to understand that this is a place of humans they have almost stumbled into, and he can recoil, body anticipating the hiss of arrows as his ear-flaps flatten back to his skull, already expecting the alien sound of human shrieks.
Humans are a part of their world but an unwelcome one, to be avoided when possible and fled when not, and, increasingly, to be fought. Their mother’s battle against the trappers who stalk the far northern wastes and the mildly more hospitable south is becoming her children’s, as Hiccup learns more of how to pick apart the mechanisms of snapping traps and slice through the triggers of snares, and as Toothless grows big enough to carry them on longer and longer journeys out into the world, and to fly away in a flicker of dark wings when threatened.
Once, the dragons of their flock knew to race home and cry out to Valka when their friends were captured or when the gleam of metal, unearthed by a scavenging paw, flashed back at startled eyes. One day, the king’s dragons will call on Hiccup and Toothless the same way.
For now, they are only children, and they consider humans – the word Viking is lodged in Hiccup’s memory from his mother’s stories, unspoken and unused – with childish fear and hatred.
Danger! Toothless yelps, and casts about for cover, up into the sky in search of clouds to hide in, and down towards the ground. As he does, his flight, aided by the pushing heat from the flames behind them, carries them ever-closer to the village.
From his shoulders, Hiccup whimpers and snarls bad bad no fly-away bad danger fear flee fear no no go us go away away…
But in the moments it takes Toothless to look for a hiding place, his dragon-boy’s signals change, becoming danger Toothless-heart careful danger curious careful us Toothless-love curious hesitation thinking thinking wait thinking hunting look hunting thinking – this, an atonal hum of more spilling through him than Hiccup can keep up with verbalizing, for he thinks aloud quite naturally – wait Toothless-beloved look look wait look wondering here where? where? He clicks the puzzled sound of a dragon that has lost its prey, shifting on Toothless’ shoulders as he searches.
Hiccup-beloved? Toothless vocalizes, the (click)-phuh they retain of Hiccup’s spoken name underlaid with pure adoration. He whines puzzled don’t-like go go bad uncertain you you what? and growls urgency, eager to be away.
Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Hiccup wave a small paw, gesturing to the settlement below Toothless’ anxiously hovering wings. The dragon-boy chirps and whistles where humans uncertain humans no and the inquisitive gone? of a dragon searching for her friends, but leavened with distrust. He paws at the air as if digging in an ermine’s burrow, casting aside clods of dirt and brushing unfound things aside, searching for his prey even as the tension in his body betrays his readiness to leap away.
Ermines do not like small dragon-children digging into their dens to steal pawfuls of soft fur or the still-smaller predator’s own kill, and they bite.
Shuddering, Toothless nevertheless looks closer, as Hiccup is urging him to do.
Fear is Hiccup’s primary association with humans – that he was born one of them is something he cannot comprehend, and he does not identify with them at all – but laid atop that deep foundation is an additional layer that will lead him and Toothless into danger, all their lives. Entirely too clever for his own good sometimes – but exactly as clever as he needs to be, to survive and flourish in a world that regularly tries to kill him – Hiccup is smart enough to look at his predators and their skills and wonder, how can I use that?
Hiccup also looks at the humans he fears with entirely practical greed.
The enemy, yes, but humans make things, and Hiccup shares with his dragon-kin the same ruthlessly practical approach to possessions as understood by all human toddlers, or any cat in history, which can be broadly summarized as, “But it can’t be yours! I want it.”
And here is a human den all laid out before them, and empty.
No shambling two-leggers, heavy in their furs and metal, glaring from beneath their horns, roar and wave their paws and brandish sharp things at Toothless in the sky. No Vikings huddle in the shadow of their dens, staying still like a deer waiting to be overlooked through the trees.
It has been years since Hiccup and Toothless were anywhere close to awake and angry humans, although they have flown wide of ships with humans seething across their backs, darting into clouds to hide. They followed along beside Shadow-Across-Water as she snuck around the edges of a pack that had gotten lost in the woods, perhaps – who understands what humans do? Shadow-Across-Water had only wanted to chase them from her hunting-grounds, and had come home with laughter in her eyes and her shoulders, hiding the fear that pinned her tail to her belly, inviting her flock-mates to follow her and snarl intruders away from their forests.
But they remember that humans move so strangely, lurching and rearing tall, baring their stomachs for a blow; the little dragons would surely know, if there were humans still here.
The only movements are the flapping of cloths that seem suspended between two of the dens, hanging in mid-air like small and solid clouds, and the small, jerking steps of fat stupid birds, which scatter as Toothless’ shadow passes over them, screaming mindlessly. Small fires burn abandoned in wide metal holding-things, and clumps of straw shuffle across the trodden-solid ground, blown by the wind. A round thing spins in an eerily perfect circle (dragons must think very hard to understand wheels, and Hiccup and Toothless have never seen an unbroken cart, much less one on its side this way). Colorful strips and sheets of cloth wave from the edges of the nests, and mud dries to dirt again beneath the open mouth of a carrying-thing, on its side on the edge of stones; the water within winks at them, catching the reflection of the hazed-over sun.
The only sounds are the wind humming through the stones and wood of the village, and the distant-now roar of the forest fire further inland. The ocean breathes on the edge of even Toothless’ hearing; the screams of the fluffy birds are far louder, practically demanding that some ever-hungry dragon bite through their feathers to silence them.
Descending almost against his will, caught by his own curiosity and Hiccup’s low chatter of interest, Toothless’ murmurs of uncertainty counterpointed by anticipation, even as his body shows wary and yet strives towards brave, wind their way into the small sounds as the black dragon lands.
He is at once ready to leap again, to fly without hesitation, never looking back.
Humans would find the village eerily silent, deserted. To Hiccup and Toothless, the near-quiet is the most reassuring thing they could hear.
Nothing strikes them, no one roars trespass!, no one charges with shoulder lowered to knock the young dragons from their paws and send them scampering away.
Gradually, Toothless uncoils from his half-defensive crouch, folding his wings back against his spine and raising his head to look all around. The tightness in his chest, half muscles tensed for quick action and half excitement, loosens and uncoils with every moment no danger leaps from the shadows and curiosity wins out. His ear-flaps twitch and turn, fanning out as he tries to pay attention to everything at once.
This is a very new place to be!
Wonder, Hiccup churrs, chuckling mischief. His paws tap excitement against Toothless’ shoulders, an uncontrollable staccato of anticipation and the shuddering edge of danger that, even at this young age, he thrives on.
Toothless has always been with him, and Toothless will always protect him, and so a very small child in a very hostile world is perhaps more fearless than he should be, with such a force at his side.
(There was a time that was not enough, but he has forgotten, save in brief moments of hesitation. There will be times when that will not be enough, but then Hiccup will defend Toothless in his turn, and has before.)
Hiccup has no nightmares of empty human nests; part of him remembers playing among ruins, Toothless at his side, knowing with perfect faith that they were safe and watched over.
Thinking for the moment only of new things to play with and steal most cleverly – the dragon-boy is and always will be a proper little thief - Hiccup leaps from Toothless’ shoulders and darts away a few steps, laughing as dragons laugh. He nearly tumbles over his own front paws as he tries to at once glance back at Toothless and run headlong to the nearest new toy he can pounce upon, whistling c’mon Toothless-beloved c’mon c’mon c’mon look want want us brave us good clever us brave yes yes c’mon want want!
And Toothless races after him, yelping eagerly, the entire deserted village theirs to explore.
Read the second part of this chapter HERE