This is Berk.
Notice something about the houses? They’re all new. Old town, new houses. You’ve probably had the situation explained to you by a house-proud Viking showing off the latest fireproofing, or perhaps you’ve seen the driftwood frames burn blue against the night sky.
Notice something about the people? There’s not actually that many of them. At any given time, half of them can be out on a quest. Why? Well, that’s linked to the houses. You see, Berk has a problem with dragons, and everyone knows that the best way to defeat a dragon is to go on a quest. Lots of quests. Quests that quest for dragons, or treasure, or on one extraordinary occasion, a fish made out of solid gold. More common, though, are quests that quest for questing questers.
Lots of quests mean lots of lives. Lives spent at sea, lives lost to flame. Lives almost lost, ending in rocking, quiet half-misery in empty rooms. Sure, people survive. Look at Gobber — two limbs gone but still going back for more. Or Stoick, the chief, who once made a Monstrous Nightmare back off just by yelling at it. Look at Hiccup, who has more accidents than every other person in the village combined, but somehow he always comes out okay.
But for every Gobber there is a Phlegma, for every Stoick there is a Cramboard, for every Hiccup there is an Astrid.
This is Berk. It rains half the year and snows the other half. There are pests that even the most understanding of inspectors would run screaming from in an instant. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the Vikings and the sheep, when a man is wreathed in flame and writhing on the ground.
Almost half of the children in Berk are orphans.
Astrid Hofferson is not an orphan, although some days she thinks that she might as well be.
She gets up at six every morning, and she boils some salted fish for breakfast, and she leaves it out for Phlegma, her mother. In dragon season, she doesn’t bother going to bed some nights, not after a night of fighting fires; in dragon season, the whole village takes a nap in the afternoon. Astrid doesn’t sleep in the afternoon, because her mother snores, and she has better things to do anyway.
She’s not the only one up at this hour. Sometimes she’ll walk through the dozy-quiet village, and there out of the corner of her eye she’ll see a stick-thin shadow creep around a corner. Hiccup. Hiccup is probably —no, definitely grounded, and he’s sneaking around.
Astrid hates Hiccup. For one spine-meltingly horrible winter, she’d thought that her mother and Stoick were going to. Well. Yes. And then she’d be Hiccup’s sister and that’s just. Ugh. One might suppose a woman gets lonely in the cold of endless night, but that’s not even remotely what you want to think about your mother. Mothers don’t do that sort of thing, they either stare out to sea in silent mourning, or go completely round the bend. But Hiccup — Hiccup is the bane of Astrid’s life, sometimes, and when she’s really angry, she’ll list off facts about him to his face.
Hiccup is about fifteen rivets short of a shield.
Hiccup is skinnier than Astrid is, and she didn’t even think that was possible.
Hiccup is lucky, because his father is Stoick, and not some dead guy under the ocean.
Hiccup is the single most annoying person that Astrid has ever met.
But that’s not what this story is about. Today’s story begins with an ornate throwing axe, and a tree. Vikings, real and proper Vikings, give their children weapons to play with. None of this “Child-Proofed”. None of this “Suitable for Ages 0-3”. There is “Suitable for Ages 8 - 80”, because you never forget your first mace, but Astrid began with an axe.
The axe hits the tree, embeds itself several inches, and is pulled out by practised hands. Gobber had looked at Astrid’s hands admiringly the day before and pronounced: “That’s a lot o’callouses for a little girl!” and she’d beamed with pride, because real Vikings have rough spots that can hold a weapon even when it has been heated by dragonfire. Axes are good, because their handles are usually wooden, and the wood won’t conduct the heat; keep that in mind, reader, if you’re going to try to chase a dragon. Her father had given her this axe, when she was so young that she almost didn’t remember it, just a few hazy slants of firelight and a weight too much to hold in her pudgy baby hands.
She can hit a knothole in a tree at fifty paces now, and she’s pulped up one side of this ash, bark and squishy tree-innards everywhere; when she sees something sneaking out of the corner of her eye. Hiccup. She throws the axe anyway, and pretends that she doesn’t see him. He said he’d taken down a Night Fury, and that makes him a liar. Vikings don’t lie. The Book of Vikings has a list of rules, and it is very particular on the facts.
RULE ONE: VIKINGS DO NOT LIE, UNLESS IT IS NECESSARY TO DO SO.
(There is a lot of debate about necessary.)
RULE TWO: VIKINGS DO NOT STEAL, BUT THEY DO PILLAGE AND PLUNDER.
(At age five, Astrid pillaged Snotlout’s toybox and came away with a toy dragon. You could put coloured water in it and then when you stabbed it, it leaked blood everywhere. She’d hit Snotlout over the head with it when she’d been told to give it back.)
RULE THREE: VIKINGS KILL DRAGONS.
RULE FOUR: VIKINGS DO NOT CRY.
(Dragon training is the single greatest thing in Astrid’s life, because she’s finally good at something other than dragging her mum out of the pub at midnight and hiding the evidence of Phlegma’s direct contravention of Rule Four.)
RULE FIVE: AN EPIC DEATH IS BETTER THAN NO DEATH AT ALL.
RULE SIX: VIKINGS NEVER, EVER COMPLAIN.
(If a community’s strength was measured on pure stoicism, the denizens of Berk would probably win some sort of prize.)
Astrid throws the axe with a vicious spin, and it hits the tree with a definite, final THUD.
“Oh great,” she says, and there’s no time to run as the tree falls, hitting the ground, branches sweeping her off her feet until she’s pinned under it. She can see her axe, just out of reach, and there’s a knobbly bit digging hard into her side, just above her hip bone. She can feel the bruises forming, and a faint mad hope that she’s going to come out of this with a scar thrills up her spine just as the ache starts to set in.
“All right,” she says, and braces her arms. She pushes, and the tree rustles and shifts upward a little before the burn in her upper arms is too much and the tree slips from her grip. Her axe is tantalisingly close, but too far to reach, and Astrid swears at it, words she learned from her mother when her mother was raging at Stoick. (Why didn’t he fucking come home? It’s not even an honourable death, sea mice, it’s not a dragon, it’s not…). Astrid roars, and shoves at the heavy tree, and she can taste the effort in the back of her mouth, and she can feel the pressure on her hip shifting, but it’s not enough. She flops back, her breath coming in thick gasps as she tries to work out what to do.
There’s a sound of someone else’s breath coming in thick gasps. Astrid stiffens. It’s not Hiccup, unless he’s suddenly gained a pair of lungs like a bellows, and that’s less likely than a…
“Dragon,” she says, when a pair of reptilian eyes meet hers, staring at her from beside the tree. Images come forth unbidden — Deadly Nadder. Beautiful. Deadly. Can melt metal with its breath, can pierce a man through the heart with its spikes, has a blind spot the size of a longboat.
It makes a trilling noise at her.
The Book of Vikings has this to say about death:
Yt is an honourababale death to die of dragynfyre. Yt is a less honorabble death to die of crushing by dragyn. Yt is an honorablele death to die because yr boat was sunk by dragyn.
Yt is not honorabable to die in your bed.
It has nothing to say about dying under a tree that you accidentally knocked down onto yourself because you were so angry that you went up to the deepest part of the woods to throw your axe at it. It equally has nothing to say about dying from sea mice, which is how Astrid’s father, Cramboard, passed from this world. Astrid’s eyes are open.
“Go on, then,” she says. “You’ve got me pinned under a tree. I don’t imagine you need any more help.”
The dragon turns its head one way, and then the other. She’s close to it, close enough that she could reach out and touch it, close enough that were her axe in her hand, she could reach out and cut its throat. It trills again, and then clambers over her, and she can see every crease in the scales, and every bit of grime. It has a scar on its chest, right where the vulnerable spot on a Monstrous Nightmare would be, but some idiot clearly hadn’t studied their dragons, didn’t know that every species has a different spot.
There’s nothing in The Book of Vikings or The Book of Dragons about what you should do when you're being crushed by a tree and a Deadly Nadder decides to sit on your head. Astrid can see its belly shifting in and out as it breathes, as it takes in a gasp to flame, and she tenses, because it’s going to burn off her legs, it’s going to burn her slowly and she’s not frightened. It is an honourable death. She just wishes that she’d had a bit more time to have an honourable life before it happened.
The hiss of flame is familiar; the wing that protects her face is not. The tree crumbles to ash not over Astrid’s body, but just beside it, and that’s enough to unbalance the heavy treetop and it rolls off her. She can breathe again, even if she’s breathing in dragon scales, and the dragon hops off her, nudging her with its snout. Her axe has rolled away with the tree; she’s unarmed.
“Get off me!” she tells it, getting to her feet. “What do you want?”
It sits. Astrid stares. It’s a dragon, and it’s sitting like a cheerfully overgrown blue dog, burping out a little bit of excess flame.
“What do you want from me?” she asks again, anger rising. It’s not even a proper dragon; it’s a baby one, still all pink about the horn and a bit pudgy in the middle. She’d be able to kill it if her axe wasn’t somewhere over the other side of the clearing, with the smouldering tree.
It burps again, and leans closer, and her nerve snaps. Her hip hurts where the branch was digging into it, and she can smell smoke, and there’s a bloody dragon making eyes at her, and she’s had enough.
“GET AWAY FROM ME!” Astrid yells. The dragon takes a step back. “I don’t want you here! You’re a dragon! I’m a Viking! We are not supposed to help each other! Rule number three! VIKINGS KILL DRAGONS!”
The dragon takes another step back, spits a gob of flame onto the grass between them, and then takes off. Astrid waits until it’s up in the air before she sinks to her knees, coughing from the smoke. Do dragons have rules? Do they have a Book of Humans that says what they can and can’t do? She shakes, realising that she’s being silly and sentimental, and goes to fetch her axe.
She takes it up to the high cliffs, and watches the dragons fly past in the long light of the evening. Soon the sun won’t set; soon, it will be long night. She won’t be able to see her father’s star for a few months, and that’s the loneliest time of the year. The ice floats past and she looks at the ocean, the stars reflected on the wobbly surface.
Her dad died from the ice. Cramboard’s star is reflected up at her from the slick black ocean, and then the bulk of a dragon blocks it out for just a second. Then it’s back, shining, and Astrid sighs. Seam ice, her mother had said when she explained it; the longboat had been crushed between the ice sheets, and Astrid had always thought it meant there were loads of little mice made out of the ocean that had overrun the longboat and eaten it to shreds, like the furry land mice had in the grain store that one winter. Even once she knew the truth, it was the sea mice that invaded her dreams, and they covered her father, swamping him and dragging him under.
All Vikings have a star when they die. It’s a way to be remembered. Astrid wants the little one next to Cramboard’s, and she runs her fingers over her side, feeling the tightness, the bruise that she’ll have by morning. There’s a crashing in the forest behind her, and she stands, looking out at the lights of the village. She’s not scared. Astrid isn’t scared of anything, especially not some stupid blue dragon that is probably the one crashing. But she needs to be back in the village for the nightly raid, and then the nightly sing-song.
“Goodnight, Dad,” she says, using her axe as a lever to help her stand. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The crashing in the bushes stills for a few moments, as Astrid resolutely ignores it, running down the rocky path to the village. Dragons are like owls; when they glide, they are silent as the night air, and if Astrid sees an airborne shadow out of the corner of her eye — still carrying draconic baby fat and a scar on its chest and a crush wider than the ocean for a girl with metal shoulderpads and a scowl that could turn a fluffy rabbit to stone — she certainly doesn't hear it. Especially not when she gets back to the village and there's the roar of flame and the swish of water, and she shoves past Hiccup, who just looks sick, and she can't even speak because he's going to get them all killed one day, if he doesn't pay attention to the rules.
The thing that it’s easy to forget, because she washes the clothes and keeps the household budget and does the cooking and wields a mean axe, is that Astrid is still a child. She lost her father when she was five, and since then her mother makes inappropriate jokes like “We lost him! Sounds like he fell down the back of the long-house toilet!” and Astrid’s fists ball but she never says anything, because she loves her mother and she knows that sometimes adults can hurt so much that they have to drink lots of mead to make it stop. (She’d had mead once when her tooth was sore, and it had made her sleepy and sick. It seems to work for her mother, though, so she doesn’t question it. Not much works for her mother.)
She still puts up with Snotlout and Fishlegs and the twins and everyone laughing at her for being so dedicated to her studies. She reads the Book of Dragons until she can flick through every page in her memory. She reads the Book of Vikings that she took out of her mother’s room, and she makes herself strong and tough, like a real Viking.
She wants a picture of a ship when she gets her womanhood tattoo. A battleship, with cannons and a red sail, red like the colour of blood. Red like the colour of fire, and nothing will ever sink it, because it’s too powerful even for cannonballs, or sea monsters, or dragons.
Dragon training is supposed to be better than this, Astrid thinks, as things go rapidly south for the third time in a row. The Deadly Nadder is jumping from plank to plank, and she swings her axe, only to embed it in a shield.
“HICCUP!” she yells, and swings the axe-shield anyway. It hits, but the Nadder scampers away, cackling and gurgling fire. It wheels around to try to nudge at her; out of all the training dragons, this one is friendly. A little too friendly. Astrid roars, turning on it.
“Get off the field!” calls Gobber.
“Which one of us?” Astrid yells.
“You! You’re too angry. Get angry, start letting your emotions rule, and you’ll get hurt,” he says, as the Nadder sticks out its spines, leaning over Hiccup. “Come on, Spines, time to give it up.”
And then the Nadder, a Deadly Nadder, is rolling and purring for Hiccup, who looks only a little bit sheepish. He looks more — proud. And that’s it for Astrid, that’s it, that’s it, that’s it. She’s sick of this, sick to bloody death of it. All the sensible people, the sane people, well as sane as Vikings ever bloody get, are off questing, and she’s stuck with Hiccup and Fishlegs and the Twins and Gobber and everyone is useless, they’re all bloody useless. It’s like they don’t understand that dragons are dangerous and that people can die. It’s like they don’t think that there are rules.
She caught Snotlout crying the other day, and she’d kicked him before shouting RULE FOUR at him. It hadn’t worked. He’d just cried louder.
She washes off the soot and grime, making sure she’s totally dry before getting back into her clothes. One thing about metal shoulder pads — they don’t deal well with excess water. And once she’s done that, and Hiccup’s little fan club has wandered off to go and fall over themselves at his feet, she sneaks into the dragon enclosure. Everyone knows that Gobber spoils the dragons, that he has this sort of love for them that surpasses their danger. Astrid thinks that she can see that, a bit. There’s a place in her heart that could love something unexpected, something that doesn’t need or want to be tamed.
There isn’t a place in her heart that could love a dragon. There’s a Gronckle in the first cage, dribbling all over itself in its sleep. Stupid, she thinks, stupid animal. Snores loudly enough to keep everything in the nearby forest awake, and to lead predators straight to it. How Gronkles survived, she’d never know. Possibly they just tasted so nasty that nothing wanted to eat them.
She sees the Nightmare in the next enclosure flicking its fire on and off to amuse a tiny knot of Terrible Terrors, and then, finally, there is the Deadly Nadder. It had purred for Hiccup, bloody well purred. It perks up when it sees her, bouncing to the edge of the cage.
“So,” she says, looking in at the dragons. “You’re doing something. Colluding with Hiccup. I want to know how.”
For the most part, they ignore her. The Terrible Terrors have curled up in a pile, and the Gronckle stays on its back, legs in the air and snoring like the roaring breakers on the rocks.
The Nadder looks at her, cocks its head to one side, and then stretches up to expose its belly.
“Oh for the—” she begins. “Why didn’t you do that today?” And then she looks, and she sees. The Nadder has a scar on its belly. It’s THE Nadder. The one that helped her in the woods. Astrid sits, dumbfounded.
“I don’t get it,” she says, quietly.
“I hit you in the head,” she tells it. “Stop that.”
It tips its head to one side, and then tries to butt at her hand through the bars.
“I know you’re the Nadder from the forest,” she tells it, and it trills. “Why did you go and roll over for Hiccup, and not for me?” It rolls over obediently, and Astrid sighs. “Look,” she says. “You’re a dragon, get it? You are not cute.” It hums gently and blows a smoke ring. “Oh forget it.”
She hikes up to the cliff again, because she’s sick of all of this. Her mother is questing, and Astrid isn’t worried, except she is, because she’d have to go and be Gobber’s ward or something, and there’s a big difference between feeling like an orphan and actually being one. She throws a rock into the water and watches the reflected sky ripple.
“It’s all a joke to Hiccup,” she says. “He thinks it’s a game. That people don’t die. Odin, doesn’t he even bloody miss his mother?”
If she squints, she thinks her father’s star is twinkling sympathetically, even though the sun is still riming the edge of the world with light. She picks up her axe.
“If you let another tree fall on me, I’ll make sure my funeral star is on the other side of the sky,” she tells him, and sets off into the forest for an axe workout.
So this is the place where you get to fill in the gaps. Of course Hiccup is successful. He’s the underdog, and Astrid is very, very good, and Astrid doesn’t understand how these things usually go. This is Berk, after all. Most children go to sleep with stories about big, brave Vikings who beat off dragons bare-handed, not plucky losers who persist in being individuals until their unique take on the world allows them to attain apotheosis, or possible self-actualisation. Astrid watches, horrified, as Hiccup wins every round of Dragon Training and he doesn’t even care.
At night, she reads the Book of Vikings, and she wonders if she could conjure up a fleet of sea mice to come and take Hiccup away too.
And then one day, she learns what Hiccup’s problem is, what exactly Hiccup’s problem is, and the rules don’t seem to fit anymore.
RULE ONE: VIKINGS DO NOT LIE, UNLESS IT IS NECESSARY TO DO SO.
Hiccup has been hiding a dragon in the forest for weeks now, and even if flying around on it is better than anything, better than winning a match or getting a new scar or working out a strategy to stop the Gronckles eating the entire village's stock of sheep, it's still a lie. His dragon training is still a lie; he tricked them, rather than fighting like a real Viking.
RULE TWO: VIKINGS DO NOT STEAL, BUT THEY DO PILLAGE AND PLUNDER.
"Hey," says Hiccup, when Astrid points out that he's stolen her glory. "It's not like I did magic. I learned and applied knowledge."
"Vikings don't learn," she replies. Toothless steals part of her sandwich. "Great, even your dragon is a thief."
"That was pillaging," Hiccup says quickly. "And maybe we should."
RULE THREE: VIKINGS KILL DRAGONS.
Total no-brainer. Toothless brings her a fish to eat, by sicking it up onto her lap. Hiccup laughs, and she is about to throw it away before she sees the look on the dragon's face. It's...familiar. She's seen it on something much more blue and much more annoying several times before.
RULE FOUR: VIKINGS DO NOT CRY.
When they take Toothless away, Astrid sees the tears in Hiccup's eyes, unshed, glittering there like the wobble of the stars on the water. Her own eyes don't burn, and her throat most certainly doesn't tighten, but she goes to him anyway, because Hiccup is annoying and stupid and a glory hog, but he might just care about something after all.
RULE FIVE: AN EPIC DEATH IS BETTER THAN NO DEATH AT ALL.
When they told the adults about the island of dragons, and the Great Dragon, and how it was evil and enormous and it was probably not a good idea to rush out there and try to kill it, Stoick and Gobber and everyone ran to the longboats and sharpened their swords.
They are going to die.
She's glad that the Book of Vikings doesn't specify how one should be burned by a dragon for it still to be an honourababable death.
RULE SIX: VIKINGS NEVER, EVER COMPLAIN.
She's not complaining, she's not complaining, she's not complaining, because she isn't scared, even though the ocean is a long way off, and she's clinging to Hiccup like he knows what he's doing.
If they survive, Astrid thinks, they're going to be so grounded.
Flying on the back of a dragon is like riding a horse. A very lumpy horse with fire in its belly, and therefore a cautious Viking might consider that it could explode and then there’d be a long drop and a sharp splat. None of this is any help to Astrid, as she’s never flown or ridden a horse before. She’s spent a few hours on Toothless’s back, once the mad thing got over trying to kill them both, and now she’s expected to fly on a dragon. A real dragon.
Before they left, Hiccup grinned at her and she felt something in her stomach go flip. She’d thought it was love, but her stomach is still flipping, so now she thinks it might just be motion sickness. Hiccup, she lists, is definitely a head short of an axe. He’s mad and his dragon is madder and he’s just plonked her on the back of this Nadder and expected her to fly. But he’s brave, and he’s going in to fight even though he mostly seems to be made out of sticks and skin, and that’s something that makes her heart clench. There is nothing in The Book of Vikings that covers this scenario.
There is nothing in The Book of Vikings that covers very much that Astrid has experienced. She supposes that Brunhilda the Brave and Oswald the Outrageous never had to deal with anything like this. She leans low on the Nadder’s back, and says to the wind: “Astrid the Awesome.”
The Nadder, for its part, blows a happy gout of flame, and brings them in to land as the (definitely evil) Great Dragon takes to the sky.
“Spines!” says Gobber, when he sees them. “And young Astrid! What’re ye all doing?”
“Fighting,” she tells him. Spines. Spines nudges Astrid, and she looks up at the sky. She puts a hand on his chest, right where the wing-joint meets the body. “Spines, Vikings aren’t afraid of dying.” Spines puts his head to hers, cheek to cheek. It’s strange, and it scares her a lot, because he could just lean further and snap her neck, but he doesn’t. “We have to go and help Hiccup.”
Spines snuffles, and Astrid hears Gobber’s choked-out cry.
“I think you’re too late, lass,” he says. “Too late!”
The fireball sweeps past them with an intensity that singes furs and beards, reduces the onlooker's eyebrows to wisps, paints their faces ruddy and red. Wings wrap around her so hard she’s winded, and she gasps against scales, thinking why me, why did he choose me? and then the air is clearing. Snotlout has his head buried in Spitelout’s shoulder, and Astrid’s mother has her hand on Stoick’s arm. The twins are trying not to cry, and Astrid bites her lip as she looks through the dust. Rule Four, she thinks, Rule Four. And it’s an epic death, no-one would argue that it wasn’t.
Toothless is curled in the dust, and she shouts when he raises a wing to expose Hiccup to the air. There's a trembling in the hot ashy silence; people are unwilling to speak, unwilling to move as Stoick approaches his son, Hiccup's body small in Stoick's arms, so much smaller than he ever was when he rode a dragon. A pair of Gronckles waddle to Toothless, keeping him upright and moving as Stoick carries Hiccup back to the only unburnt boat, and dragons crowd around. There’s no way to get everyone home, not when boats are burnt and men are burnt and their chief is in mourning. Astrid shakes her head.
“Give me a leg up,” she says, and scrambles onto Spines’s back. She looks at the crowd, Vikings and dragons, leaderless, confused. “All right! There’s not enough boats.”
“Well done, narrator,” says Fishlegs, but it’s probably a reflex, so she doesn’t throw anything at him.
“There’s not enough boats,” says Astrid, “but there are enough dragons.”
The dragons look at the Vikings, and the Vikings look back at them. And then there’s a lot of fuss and bother and dragons choosing people, and people climbing onto dragons, and Astrid looks out at it all and thinks they like us; they want to be with us; we just never let them. Beneath her, Spines wriggles until she sits, and then they take off, leading the way home.
Hiccup is whisked away as soon as they get back to Berk. Astrid sits, her back against the pole of a longhouse, watching the people go in and out; people with salve for burns, and spells for healing. Phlegma with some fish for Toothless, who had refused to leave Hiccup’s side. Gobber with the measurements for some sort of extraordinary contraption that will help Hiccup to walk again. She’d seen his legs, seen the burns and the mangled flesh, and for a brilliant, selfish moment been glad it wasn’t her. She doesn’t go up to the cliff, and she doesn’t throw her axe at anything, even if Spines is driving her berserk.
“Leave me alone,” said Astrid, late that night, when Spines sticks his snout under her door. He’s snuffling like a huge dog, and scratching with long claws. She rolls over and covers her head with the blankets. It doesn’t help. It especially doesn’t help when she hears a hacking noise and then smells smoke, and realises that the bloody dragon has burned the lock out of her door.
“What?” she asks, sitting up, because she’s had it with dragons and flames and life in general. It sits, obediently. “Oh for Thor’s sake, get lost.”
She rolls over, turning her back to it, and closing her eyes. It’s probably too much to hope that it will go away.
“Look,” she says to the wall, eyes still firmly closed. “It’s not been a good day for me. You’re a dragon, and just because you’re friendly doesn’t mean you aren’t — I mean — all my life—”
Rule Number Four, she tells herself. But it’s too late, and a heavy head noses at her back. She turns over.
“It’s not fair,” she tells him. He whines, and she sits up. Her bed isn’t really big enough for a human and a dragon, but Spines hops up anyway, and curls up around her, tucking his tail over her shaking shoulders. She cries against warm scales, warm like worn plate mail. Spines licks her face with a damp tongue, and she clings to him, feeling like her ribs are going to shatter because no-one can breathe like this and live.
“He’s going to die,” she says, and Spines makes a soft noise. “He’s going to die and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.”
The sun doesn’t go down, not in midsummer, but Spines rests a gentle wing over her, blocking out the light so that she can sleep. She sleeps, her head resting against the warmth of scales, hearing the slow thud of a great reptilian heart through her dreams—
and the sea mice come onto the island of dragons, overrunning the flames, making them hiss out; and the dragons are there, catching them, keeping them back from the shore. Spines clears a circle of flame around Astrid, and there are no more of them, no more; and somewhere in the dark Cramboard’s star is shining, and on a dragon’s back Astrid can reach it, almost, and then she sees Hiccup’s star and she cries out, ripping it from the sky instead
—and then she wakes, still curled between wing and scales, the sound of the villagers getting ready for the day drifting in and through and past her window. She exhales, sharply, and there's an answering huff of breath that ruffles her hair, so she relaxes back against the bulk of her dragon, heartbeat slowing, fingers tracing the overlaps of the scales that rise and fall with Spines's breath, like the ocean, only warm.
He’s been sleeping for two weeks, and Astrid’s presence in the room is the direct result of her bullying, and of Phlegma comforting Stoick, which doesn’t seem like so much of an imposition now. She sits by his bed, and Spines sits by her shoulder, and Toothless sits on anything he can find, which so far this morning has been the fireplace, the beams of the roof, Spines, and then finally Hiccup’s bed.
She reads the book to him, because it seems like the right thing to do. His body is different under the blankets, his leg ending in a short blunt knob, not a strong, fine-boned foot. When she pulls back the blankets to look, his leg is scarred and red, the stump cauterised by dragonfire. Toothless is interested, nosing at her shoulder, nosing at Hiccup’s hip.
“He won’t wake up yet,” she tells him. “They’ve given him herbs so that he can sleep.”
She tucks him back in, gently, and picks up her book. The Book of Vikings. She’d started with the Proper Construction of a Longboat; Feast Manners; How to Decoratively Braid Bones into your Beard, and now she’s onto the Rules. She's skipped the chapter called 101 Ways to Kill a Dragon, because that seems a little disloyal to Spines and Toothless after all they’ve done. Spines is leaning over her shoulder as if he can read, stupid creature, and he looks at the rules as if dragons do have rules. Spines huffs a breath at the page, and Astrid is too tired to pull it back out of the way. Thankfully the dragon’s flamer is soft when he’s in public, so she can pat out the fire quickly.
There’s something on the page, a faint webbing of writing, like someone had written it in lemon juice or invisible ink and then Spines had…
She traces the words with her finger, and wonders who wrote them there. Under the rules of the Vikings, there are new words, in the same hand as the others, only lighter, less final.
RULE SEVEN: RULES ARE MADE TO BE BROKEN.
She reads them out, one by one, and the dragons watch her with bright, damp eyes. She’s not expecting anything to happen, but then Hiccup grunts, and stirs a little. She shuts the book, astonished — he shouldn’t be awake at all. But then. Rule Seven.
“A’trid?” Hiccup asks, very weakly. “Is that you?”
“It’s me,” she says, taking his hand. “You’re not going to remember this in the morning, but it’s me.”
“I like you reading,” he replies. “Did the rules change?”
“Yeah,” she says, and leans down to kiss him on the forehead. “They did.”
Astrid Hofferson isn’t an orphan, nor does she really feel like one anymore.
It’s rough, sometimes, and sometimes she’s still frightened of her dragon, because it takes a long time to push away a lifetime of prejudice. But she comes back, usually with a large snapper, and she sits with her back against his flank and talks, and Spines listens. It’s certainly healthier than talking to the ocean, because dragons understand, they understand all of what we say. The long summer gives way to the winter, and the house is warmer with a dragon in it, and warmer still now that Hiccup and Stoick spend all their time there, even if it’s a tiny bit mortifying to go on a double-date with your parents and your dragons.
“I just want to know that I’d make Dad proud,” she says at her coming of age, dragon tattoo still painful and wet on her arm. Spines shuffles beside her, licking her cheek before hopping off to play with Toothless.
“I think you would,” says Hiccup, prodding gingerly at his own tattoo. “Wow, they never said this would hurt like it does.”
“Idiot,” she says, and kisses him anyway, as the first rays of dawn hit her face, and she is, officially, a Viking.