Autumn, 1040 CE
Chapter 1: On Approach
Dragon War, The —Popular name for the low-level raiding conflict between the Green Death Nest and the Viking settlements of the Hebrides islands; specifically in reference to Berk, in the Inner Hebrides, ranging from circa 750 Common Era until 16 September, 1040 Common Era (Julian reckoning). While just one of many human-dragon conflicts in recorded history, The Dragon War is commonly referred to as the singular and eponymous conflict due to its resolution—specifically, the taming and subsequent domestication of dragons by the Norse of Berk, with the resulting impact on history.
Cross-references: Berk (Island); Green Death (Dragon); Haddock, Astrid, I; Haddock, Hiccup Horrendous, III; Haddock, Stoick, I…
—Encyclopedia Norlandia, 7th Edition, 1642, Edinburgh, Scotland
"That there is Berk," one of the sailors said to the other as the lookout pointed to a distant peak above the water; more tall spires of rock were coming into view as they sailed closer. "Raven Point, the locals call the peak. Bunch of real charmers. Viking Hooligan tribe."
"Vikings, eh? They have such delightful attitudes," the other sailor said with a sarcastic roll of the eyes.
"Aye, that they do. And don't laugh at their names, either. It's tradition for them to give stupid ones—frighten off gnomes and trolls, supposedly."
"How stupid are we talking?" the new sailor on the crew said, hauling on a line in the sails. This was his first time at sea, and he'd learned quickly—in many ways—on the long voyage up from the ports of Iberia in the last few months since he'd signed on.
"Pretty stupid," the old salt replied with a smile. "Last year's visit, I got a boast from a boy named Snotlout that he would have plenty to sell me this year." He laughed. "From the way he was chasing after the girls, I'd say that his parents picked the right name. Chief, at least, has a good one. Stoick the Vast. But his boy is named Hiccup," he said with a chuckle.
"Snotlout. Hiccup." The newcomer looked at the old salt. "Is this one of those tall tales told to the new guy to see how much he'll swallow whole?"
"Nah, we did that already. It was fun watching you believe that sea sirens were waiting for you a week offshore and go 'round with wax in your ears for two days."
"Hi. La. Ri. Ous," was the dry reply.
"Aye. It was," came the beaming reply.
"So why does Johann come here in the first place? If not for the charming Vikings and their names? Since you get enough comedy from telling me sea tales, apparently."
"Well, me boy, Berk there is special in one way."
"Oh, do tell," he said with a grunt, tying off a knot of rope as a spray of seawater washed over the gunwales.
"Dragons, me boy, dragons."
The recent landlubber looked at the old salt and said, in a tone that spoke of tested patience, "I thought we was done with the sea tales."
"No, no, you'll see. Berk is one of the few places where there are still dragons. Well, not on Berk, at least. But they've been fighting them for, oh, a few hundred years or so. Dragons come, steal some sheep, just like they used to back in Europa before the hunters got them all, and the Hooligans fight back." He chuckled. "Dem Vikings, too damn stubborn to leave." With a grunt, he levered up a chest onto a stack of crates, as the brightly dressed Norseman merchant, Johann, wandered around examining the cargo. "And that's why we come. From Berk we trade iron to get dragon hide, dragon claws, dragon teeth, dragon meat." He swung around an iron barstock from the chest, a shape that any half-competent blacksmith could make into just about anything, flipping the rough rod through his fingers before setting it down.
"And in London, Lisbon, Barcelona, Pisa, Rome… for dragon hide, dragon claws, dragon hearts, dragon teeth, dragon blood, dragon eyes, dragon bones… we get gold." He grinned and whistled. "And that is why Johann comes here, because every year, they have a whole summer's worth of slaughter ready for us to buy, and their new class will have graduated—and the head of the class will be ready to sell the prize." He smirked. "And that's what that Snot of a lout was promising me last year—that he'd get to kill the dragon, and sell the carcass."
As they had been speaking, the tall spire of rock that marked the island of Berk had been moving closer and closer. One of the harbor statues was just visible now as they approached, and the lookout was calling out the positions of the sea stacks and shoals for the tillerman to avoid.
Then the lookout called out again, his voice much higher, "Dragons ho! Many dragons ho!"
The lookout pointed, up into the sky.
The trader squinted and gasped as the rest of the crew tried to split their attention between not caving the hull in on a rock and staring at the flying doom rapidly approaching.
"Bows! Now!" the seamaster shouted as the crew scrambled.
"I see two dragons coming at us, and a flock near the island! Looks like the dragons are raiding—there's a whole mess of them, flying together!"
The jovial atmosphere of the small trading fleet had shattered; instead of a welcoming harbor, they had sailed into a death-trap. Nervous fingers frantically strung bows, while the lookout strained to see any details of the two approaching monsters that could set their ships aflame.
"One black, one blue! Can't tell the breeds!" There was a pause. "Blue's a Nadder!"
"Christ preserve us," swore the old salt as he frantically bent the bow to accept the oiled string. "That one's breath will burn this ship from stem to stern."
"Can't tell what the other one is!" called the lookout. Another pause. "It's diving!"
A shrill whistle sounded a moment later, one that made half the crew pale and dive for cover. "Night Fury! GET DOWN!" the old salt cried, echoed by many of the crew.
The lookout, sticking to his post, blinked, and called out incredulously, "It's got a rider!" Ignoring the cries of "What!?" from his crewmates, he called out a moment later, "It's slowing! There's a boy on the dragon's back!"
"Poor soul," someone muttered. "Can't get off without getting eaten, probably," offered another voice. "Aye, and we're next!"
"No, look!" shouted the lookout, "It's got a saddle!"
The incredulous shouts a moment later were swallowed by a sound of a boy's cracking voice shouting across the water from the dragon's back, "Ahoy the ship!"
The old salt jerked up and looked across the water at the circling black monster.
"HICCUP?!" he shouted, and, from the back of the beast, a scrawny figure waved.
"Trader Johann! Sailor Beorn! Hi! Come right in!" he called, and then noticed the bows and arrows that many of the crew were nervously pointing in his direction, as the Deadly Nadder approached, also with a rider on its back. "Oh. Sorry. Did Toothless scare you?"
The normally unflappable trader, standing at the stern of the ship, called back, "Just a bit, yes." He paused, clearly trying to compose his next words. "Hiccup… Hiccup, are you riding that dragon!?"
"Uh… yes," came the shouted reply, as the Nadder drew up alongside and then landed on top of one of the nearby sea stacks, a top of blond hair visible behind its fire-breathing jaws. "Come in! It's safe! Things have changed! I'll tell you all about it!"
The trader pointed to the cloud of nearby dragons. "What about that!?"
"Oh, uh, that's a project I'm working on. Right! I saw your ships coming in and came by to greet you, but I have to get back to supervising! See you in the mead hall! Astrid, you coming?" he called out to the other rider. The answer was apparently yes; the boy on the back of the unholy offspring of lightning and death made a sharp movement with his leg and flew off, as the other dragon and its rider dropped off of the top of the sea stack and flew over the tops of the trade fleet. The two of them flew side by side back to the oncoming island.
The old salt, Beorn, stared at them as they went, eyes wide, as did most of the crew.
Then the moment shattered as the newcomer burst out in laughter.
"Dragons! Sea sirens! Dragon riders! We're going to tell people, and nobody is going to believe us!"
Trader Johann stepped gingerly ashore, fighting to keep his eyes in his head.
A Deadly Nadder was just standing nearby on the docks near some fishing boats, its snout in a bucket of fish; the breed's liver was worth its weight in silver to the alchemists of Barcelona. Careless of the wealth in front of him, there was a Hooligan Viking giving it a loving rubdown on its purple scales as the giant beast made cooing noises around the sides of the bucket.
A Hideous Zippleback, whose spark-throats he had sold four of to the Navy of La Serenissima in exchange for his third ship, was flying overhead, a pair of bickering teenagers mounted behind its two heads.
A Monstrous Nightmare, whose spittle was sold by the pint in good coin and whose hide was prized by the blacksmiths of Damascus for its fireproof qualities, was curled up at the crest of the wooden pathway leading up to the town square, a group of young children climbing over it as though it were a friendly sleeping dog as opposed to a beast known for setting itself on fire.
A multi-colored flock of Terrible Terrors flew by overhead, and Johann tried to avoid recalling how he had once sold a single one of the beasts to the Frankish King's menagerie, out of fear that he might start to salivate.
Then the cloud of Gronckles (whose hide he had sold to be made into royal armor in the Holy Roman Empire) and Nadders that his lookout had spied from miles out drifted overhead, and he whimpered at the sight. Each of the dragons above had a rider, and the flock was straining together, the three dozen beasts harnessed to a single object, a studded ball of bone and scales as big as a house.
He heard his crew exclaiming at the sight behind him, as he walked up the path from the docks, feeling dazed and unprepared for how the world had just shifted without having the courtesy to tell him first.
A moment later, the earth did actually shudder, or at least the wooden docks around them did, as if something unimaginably heavy had just come to rest, and a cheer rose from the village above.
He and his men paused for a moment, uncertain as to whether to take another step, the ground suddenly seeming… unstable. A few cascades of pebbles and loose dirt showered downward from the cliff face, seeming proof that the shudder hadn't been Johann's imagination.
Then, suddenly, with a gust of wind from its wings, the black beast and its rider were hovering in mid-air next to where he was standing on the wooden ramp. "Trader Johann!" the youth called out to him. "All right, that's taken care of! Come on up! I'll let Dad know that you're here!"
And with that, the beast flew onwards and upwards. Johann noted numbly that the beast's tail was half-black and half-red, with a white skull apparently painted onto the fin.
His senior sailor, Beorn, came up behind him and spoke quietly. "Sir, look!"
"I'm looking," he retorted. "What do you see?"
"I see impossible things," the old salt said. "I see a fortune on the wing. I see a beast that was the stuff of nightmares being ridden like a horse by the son of the chief. I see demons broken to the saddle and stirrup." His tone quieted, "I see the future patrician of a great trading house, whose crest will be dragons and coin."
Johann laughed a bit at that, the spell broken, although it stirred again a moment later as three Gronckles, drifted overhead, their harnesses trailing long lines of chain and leather, their riders laughing jovially with each other.
"Stoick must have discovered something, some secret, some hold over the beasts," Johann mused as they walked up the wooden path to the main village. "How else can you explain his son riding the rarest one, other than spoils of conquest?"
A burly boy came running up to them as they mused. "Trader Johann! Sailor Beorn! Welcome back!"
The old salt smiled gamely. "Ahoy there, Snotlout. Do you have the dragon bits that you promised me last year?"
"Uh… sorta?" A Monstrous Nightmare poked its head over the side of the cliff, its scales black and red. "Hookfang here is still using them, though."
The dragon, clearly hearing that the three of them were talking about it, hopped off the side of the rocks above and landed on the wooden boardwalk behind the young man, who then reached back and patted it on the nose.
"Yep. He's my dragon!" He turned back to the beast, his hand resting just below the horn on its snout. "Say 'hello,' Hookfang."
Johann and Beorn were just staring at the demonic beast and Beorn swallowed hard. The beast, for its part, was just looking at the pair of them somewhat inscrutably with its yellow-and-black eyes, perhaps wondering how they would taste. It was making some sort of thrumming noise, and then Beorn spoke up, almost incredulously, "Is it… purring?" for the sound was as if one of the ship's cats had fallen asleep on a drumhead.
"Oh, Hookfang's a big softie, aren't you boy," the clearly demented Viking boy said in that tone of voice usually reserved for the owners of dogs with oversized teeth. In this case, the dragon's fangs were perilously close to the boy's hands—and many of the fangs were longer than those hands, Johann observed somewhat numbly.
Johann was also aware of the rest of the crew crowding behind him, and hoped that the seamaster had had the presence of mind to assign a watch over their ships. Vikings could be light-fingered at the best of times, and while he generally liked the Hooligans, that didn't mean that he trusted them.
Another voice called out from above. "Snotlout, you're blocking the path! Let them get by!"
Johann and his crew all looked up, to see a young woman riding the Nadder that had overflown them before. It was perched on the side of the cliff, looking down at them, and someone in the crew whimpered when he realized that he was boxed in by two fire-breathing dragons with no place to run other than into the cold sea.
"Oh, right," Snotlout said. "You need to see the chief, right?"
"In the fullness of time," Johann said gamely, feeling a bit more like himself as the shock wore off.
"Oh, all right Astrid, I'm moving, I'm moving!" he said and hopped onto a simple saddle behind the monster's head. Suddenly with nothing between himself and those sharp fangs, Johann felt a bolt of fear, wondering if this was going to be his last moment. But the youth grasped the beast by the horns and they flew off the side of the walkway, over the open water, before turning and flying back up to the village.
They watched him fly, eyes wide, a few of the sailors pointing in varying degrees of awe and fear, and then the young woman's voice said dryly, "Now you're all blocking the path. Are you coming up or down?"
That broke the spell, and Beorn called out to the crew. "Right. You lot," he pointed to the back half of the salty crowd, "back to the boats, keep watch and unload our goods. And you lot," he pointed to the closer half, "you're with me and Johann." He craned his neck up to look at the young woman. "Young lady, where might your chief be?"
"By the mead hall. We just brought in his victory trophy," she said dryly, "and he's admiring it."
"That giant ball?"
"Exactly," she said. "You know the way, right?"
"Aye, that we do," Johann said, and started walking, his crew following behind.
The young woman's dragon took flight overhead, and she flew by. At least one of the sailors gave a low whistle behind Johann, which was cut off by what sounded like an elbow to the ribs.
"What was that for? I was 'miring the view!"
"Save it for the ports that don't have Viking lasses riding dragons. I don't want to get burned down to me bones or the ship's keel because you couldn't keep your trousers on or your hands to yourself," the other sailor said gruffly as they walked in a tight knot up the rough planks.
Johann and his crew reached the main hill of the village, cautiously walking past the sleeping Nightmare at the top, the children playing on it giggling as they walked past. Then they had another moment of shock as even more dragons came into view. A large bowl, which looked like it had started life as one of the village signal fires, was crowded with feeding dragons; based on the smell from here, it was filled with fish. A bluish Terrible Terror flew over the crowd of sailors and then landed on Beorn's head at their front with nary a care and a satisfied squawk.
The old salt froze, acutely aware of how close the beast's sharp claws were to his eyes, ears, and throat, while the animal gave a short bark before flying off once more.
Other people were calling out greetings to the sailors, many of them with dragons of their own. A pack of Nadders standing on a nearby rooftop perked up as the people called out, and seemed to join in, giving a series of trills, as if they were oversized birds.
Walking as if in a daze, Johann and his men mounted the hill to the mead hall. Standing near the carved stone steps was a tall figure whom Johann could easily identify as Stoick the Vast. He was standing in front of the giant studded ball that Johann had seen before, which was now visibly settling into the earth as another pair of figures climbed over the ball, likely untying ropes that were running over its surface. Next to the red-haired chieftain was the black dragon, the pair of them clearly appraising the giant… thing.
A Gronckle flew by, a beardless but husky boy on its back, who waved. "Trader Johann! Hi! Do you have any books this visit?"
Johann, still in a bit of shock, reacted with the sort of reflex that long-time traders develop by necessity, instantly recalling the boy's name and interests from a meeting a year prior. "Aye, Fishlegs, we have some new books, fresh from the quills of the scribes of Pisa! I am sure that you will be interested!" he called back, as if this had been just another discussion with just any long-time customer, and not one mounted on dragon-back—and a dragon that was more or less a flying boulder, on top of that.
The boy cheered and flew on, and, as his dragon moved across their field of view, its tail stood between them and the giant ball at the peak of the village for a brief moment. Johann felt his eyes widen as what the giant thing was became apparent.
The tail club of a dragon.
There was the little fact, though, that the club dwarfed the black dragon next to it, and its rider, who had climbed down off of it, and the chieftain who was aptly described by his title of "The Vast." Together.
Johann's mind boggled at the size of the dragon that the… thing suggested, and he blinked as another dragon flew down onto the hilltop.
The girl with the Nadder landed lightly next to the chief and his son as Johann and his men trudged up the hill. Johann had a moment of surprise when she dismounted and walked over to the boy, whom Johann remembered as being the village pariah, and embraced him.
He turned to Beorn and shared a significant look, before turning back to the rest of his men. "Boys, that up there is the tribe's chief. That black dragon is apparently his son's. So's the girl that was being 'appreciated' before, unless I miss my read. I hear any complaints from them about how you treat her, I'm going to start with docking your pay and move up to lashes, am I understood?"
There was a murmur of emphatic assent, and someone roughly cuffed the whistler, who yelped.
He turned back and kept walking up the hill, keeping an eye on the view before him. Now the boy and the girl were climbing over the giant tail club, apparently loosening straps and chains that had been laid out over its surface. Another Viking, one with a missing hand and foot, who Johann remembered as being the village blacksmith and steward, named Gabber—no, Gobber—was standing nearby and coiling the cast-off lines as they were tossed to him. The two dragons were stretched out nearby, much like a pair of giant scaly hounds.
Passing the chief's hut at the top of the hill, he summoned his courage and self-confidence. He was here to negotiate with Vikings. The fact that they had dragons didn't make them any more deadly than they had been when they had just had axes, hammers and swords. He had made this journey many times, and had come away each time richer and more trusted, because, as far as the Hooligans knew, he dealt with them fairly. While the situation had clearly changed, the people had not, and it was the people that he was here to see and trade with.
"Stoick!" he called out as he mounted the stairs up to the mead hall, the small gathering of Vikings standing around the bone club next to it. "Stoick! Look at you! Your village is prospering!"
Stoick the Vast, chief of the tribe of Hooligans of Berk, accomplished warrior, and leader this past score of years, turned away from examination of his trophy and looked at the trader who turned up each year with the falling of the leaves. "Johann! What do you think of it? Bit big to mount over the door to the mead hall, do you not think?"
"It's a touch bigger than Grendel's arm," Johann allowed, having reached the top of the stairs. "Ah, Stoick, it is good to see you," he said, extending out his hands to grasp the other man's, who shook them with enthusiasm.
"Good to see you as well, you old thief," Stoick said with a friendly rumble.
Johann put on a theatrical affronted look. "Me? A thief? That is vicious slander, my old friend, and unbecoming of you. Everything I leave Berk with is on my ship because you sold it to me," he said with a grin. "But impugning my reputation aside, you must tell me of your victory. Three hundred years, is it not, since your people came here and fought dragons? And now you have conquered them and taken them as spoils of war. Simply astounding."
Stoick suddenly looked embarrassed, an expression that Johann had only seen before when his son had caused trouble. "Was not my victory, Johann." He turned and pointed to the boy on the side of the dragon tail, who was prying at a buckle that had bent under stress and now would not open. Johann could see that the boy's left leg was gone, replaced with metal and wood, and that the girl was attempting to hold down the piece to allow the boy greater leverage.
"Twas my son's victory," the Viking chief said, his voice soft.
Before he could regain his bearings, Stoick gave a heave of a sigh, and said, "And I could not be more proud to call him my son." He patted Johann on the shoulder and said, "Come, come in, bring your crew to have something that isn't cured with salt or dried to a stick, and some ale, and you will hear all about it." He turned and called to his steward. "Gobber! How goes it?"
"Almost done, Stoick, just as we said a few minutes ago!" was the comment back. "It'll get done when it's done. Hi Johann! Can you take away our chief and distract him a bit while we finish up on this?"
Johann gave a short laugh. "That I can do, Gobber. Come, Stoick, tell me about your son's great victory over some ale," he said, as the two of them walked to the mead hall's great doors. The trader waved to his men to come up the stairs as they entered. At first glance, the hall was much the same as it had been on Johann's last visit—a great open chamber carved from the stone of the mountain, with a vast firepit in the center, kitchens to the back, Stoick's throne along the wall, tables and benches crowding the open space, carved pillars holding up the roof and woven tapestries on the walls to ward off the chill of the rock.
The eight-foot-long tooth mounted over the door was new, though.
His sailors fell quiet as they filed past it and into the hall.
Stoick, without even a glance at the giant fang, nonchalantly walked over to one of the great barrels along the wall and twisted the tap, pouring a measure of ale into a wooden flagon and handing it to Johann. "Welcome, my old friend, to my hall," he said as Johann took a swallow. The brew was passable, if a touch rough and bitter, but completely drinkable.
"And I thank you for your hospitality, old friend," the trader said, and waved to his men, who quickly took flagons and seats of their own. A moment passed as the sailors quenched their thirst, and one of Stoick's people came out with bowls of slow-simmered stew, thick with meat, onions, mushrooms, and cabbage, which were quickly passed around. Stoick himself personally served Johann with his own hands, a high honor for a valued guest. Several others of the tribe entered the hall, with their dragons sometimes at their sides, which made the sailors shrink back into their seats as the beasts passed nearby. One of them, an adolescent Nadder, sniffed at them as it passed and made a slight squawking noise as its human led it onwards by a thin leather leash.
As the sailors ate, Johann leaned over to Beorn and spoke in a low voice, "Once we are done eating, send a runner back to the ships to tell the seamaster to rotate the men for liberty on the island, with the same rules as we already spoke about." The old salt nodded.
As Johann finished his bowl and flagon, he looked up at Stoick, who was across the hall speaking with one of his tribesmen about something. At that moment, the doors opened again, and a step-click footfall pattern sounded, which made Johann turn back to the door.
The young Hiccup, whom Johann remembered as having a sharp mind and enough clumsiness and enthusiasm for any ten young boys, had entered his father's mead hall, speaking with a young woman who was half a hands-breadth taller than him. A closer and longer glance at the boy's metal foot showed that it was no simple peg like that of the steward standing by the doors behind him, but a contraption of wood and sprung metal. Behind the pair, their dragons followed in, Gobber holding the door for them. The two young adults waved to their chieftain, who waved back and walked towards them, having apparently finished his business with the other man.
Johann watched with covert interest as the young pair approached the chief, wondering how Stoick would treat the boy. In previous years, the relationship between father and son had been strained, and the boy had spent much of Johann's visits talking with the sailors about faraway lands and faraway ideas. Now, he saw respect, which was saying much from a man of Stoick's stature. While Stoick certainly honored Johann, provider of iron and coin and treats from lands far from these snowy shores, their relationship's respect had always hinged on knowing that each of them was taking advantage of the other. That was not what he saw in Stoick's eyes as the boy approached them, but respect and love.
"Well?" Stoick said to the boy and girl.
"Well, Dad, the thagomizer isn't going to move anytime soon. It's not going to roll downhill, or into the mead hall, or somehow end up atop Raven's Point unless the twins' pranks get really really ambitious," the boy said. "It settled into the hole we dug first just right, and probably by next week, it'll be lying on the rock underneath as it settles more and crushes the dirt. It's not going anywhere, and thank goodness, because we were running out of time before winter."
The girl standing next to him said, in a completely innocent tone of voice, "Yep. Tail end of the season for sure."
Hiccup did a double-take before she broke into a grin. The boy groaned, and Stoick chuckled. "Aye, good one, Astrid," he said, giving her an affectionate pat on the head. The girl just put her arm around Hiccup's shoulder and gave him a peck on the cheek, which made the boy give the sort of smile Johann usually saw from the truly—and mutually—infatuated.
The black dragon, sitting behind its master, simply chuffed as if it could understand the humor of the wordplay.
Stoick looked at the beast and gave a little laugh. "Aye, right, Toothless. Who is in the lead today?" The dragon looked at the dragon-slaying chief and just pointed at the girl with its nose.
Hiccup muttered, "Traitor," as Gobber walked up. The dragon just gave what was unmistakably a barking laugh, and the young woman smirked.
Johann kept his face schooled in friendly impassivity, but, inside, he was shocked. A year ago, the boy had been ineptly trying to subtly ask for romance tips from the sailors, and had been the subject of a drunken complaint from Stoick over how his son was not a Viking, and deeply unlike his father.
And now he was apparently a war veteran, with a war wound and peg leg, the respect of his sire, a mutual infatuation with the subject of his puppy love, if Johann recalled correctly, and last but most certainly not least, a pet dragon.
Named, of all things, Toothless.
Johann had again the sort of feeling that the gods were playing pranks on him. Probably Loki.
The young couple walked off to get food from the mead hall's kitchen. Johann watched them walk off. He hadn't really interacted with the girl on his previous visits and now he made a strong effort to etch her name into memory with his other clients as he watched her catch Hiccup occasionally as the peg leg tripped him. Astrid. He'd have to find out what clan she belonged to, but given the name, he'd bet that she was Hofferson. They had more normal names simply as a show of confidence or bravado—that they were simply so potent that they did not fear gnomes and trolls, as the rest of the tribe did with their silly names.
Johann's eyes then narrowed as he caught sight of the Night Fury's tail as the two dragons trailed behind their people. It was not paint on the left fin, as he had originally surmised, but actually a complex contrivance of cloth and metal instead.
Stoick sat down across from him at the table, his wrist-guards thunking against the wood, bringing Johann out of his reverie. Embarrassed at having been caught staring, he looked at his host with all of the decorum he could muster.
The chieftain just looked at him with an understanding gleam. "Aye, there have been some changes around here, yeh might say," he said in his thickest drawl.
Johann glanced at the young pair, currently waiting to get their own bowls of stew, and then at their dragons, who had lain down by a table near the fire, near a pillar decorated with a carved relief of a dragon breathing fire at a longboat filled with armed Vikings. After a long glance at this last, especially taking in the tapestry with the heroic Viking stabbing a dragon in the head on the wall behind them, he looked back at Stoick, and said, in his dryest tone possible, "I hadn't noticed, old friend."
Stoick laughed and leaned in. "Aye. Seven generations of Vikings, and my son there, the least Viking Viking Berk has ever made, has turned the place upside-down." He slapped the tabletop with his meaty hands. "It's been less than two months, and, well," he waved around to indicate the hall, "things have changed."
Johann leaned in conspiratorially. "Stoick, what happened?"
The big man grinned. "I'm no skald. I couldn't give it justice."
"Pheh. Bards lie to make their patrons sound good. You can tell me just the facts, Stoick, and leave the sagas for the tale-weavers."
"Just the facts?"
"Just the facts."
"All right then," Stoick said, leaning back with his hands folded in front of him. "Just the facts." He grinned evilly. "Hiccup shot down a Night Fury, healed it, tamed it, placed first in dragon fighting, found the dragon nest, found the dragon queen, and when I was too stubborn to listen to him, flew in on dragonback to save his father and the rest of his tribe, killed the dragon queen with his Night Fury, lost his leg, ended the dragon war, and tamed the rest of the dragons in the nest, who now follow us around like pups." He took a draught from his ale flagon, as someone audibly dropped theirs behind Johann.
Johann became aware that his jaw was hanging open and shut it with a click.
Stoick looked at him innocently. "Those were the facts. Oh, and he also managed to build that contraption that helps the Night Fury fly after he accidentally tore off its tail, and caught the eye of the best shieldmaiden within five years of his age." He took another draught. "Ah, tale-spinning raises a mighty thirst, does it not? Aye, Johann, he does his father proud. And, yes, before you ask, that's one of the dragon queen's fangs up there," he waved his flagon towards the eight-foot tooth mounted over the door, spilling a little ale, "and, well, you saw the tail."
Another click as his jaw swung shut, Johann looked at Stoick, who was looking back with bemusement.
"A bard, you most certainly are not," he managed to say in a level tone, knowing that he had already lost the fight to appear unflappable and worldly.
"Never pretended to be," Stoick said. "And I have no patron to lie for, Johann. I told you the truth. My son and his dragon killed a beast that was the size of Berk from the docks to those doors, and in front of every man and woman who could lift a blade. He out-fought it, and out-thought it, and saved all our lives." Another draught. "And I walked the entire tribe into the thing's nest because I couldn't listen to him," he said, much more pensively. He looked up at Johann, a smile returning to his face. "So, old friend, that's what's happened." Johann managed a weak smile in return, as Stoick continued. "As for what's changed… well, we have dragon parts to sell, from the fighting over the last few months, but," he waved his arms wide, as if to encompass the whole island, "I think the supply is going to drop off just a bit from now on."
Johann stamped on the impulse to swear, imagining angry alchemists, blacksmiths and royals across the continent demanding to know what had happened to his supply.
Stoick just continued, his flagon weaving a pattern in the air. "Live dragons, on the other hand, well. That's a different story." He thumped his flagon down on the table. "I've claimed the main wild flock on the island as my family's, as is my right as chief, and because they belong to Hiccup. Because I don't want to have to feed the whole damn flock, I've let my people take ones that they've adopted as their own. If they want to sell to you, that's their business, but don't expect much luck," he said, his hands describing a wide mass as he gestured. "The wild flock, at least for now, is not for sale, nor are their eggs. So don't ask."
"Hiccup wants to study them and get them used to people first." He picked back up his flagon and took a draught. "We'll see where that leads, but I think it'll be interesting for you in a few years." The chieftain smirked. "Beyond that, we do have a few, small things that you might be interested in," he said, leaning back on the bench as Gobber walked up with a woven basket. Reaching back, he took the package from his steward and set it on the bench beside him. Flipping open the lid, he reached in and tossed a blue-green scale the size of a dinner platter onto the table.
The trader blinked, and his sailors all craned to look at what had just landed in front of him.
"That there is one of the dragon queen's scales," Stoick said. "We're still picking bits of her off of the beach. While most of it got ashed when my son killed the monster," he shrugged, "as you know, dragon hide is fireproof—and from both sides, it seems."
Johann had picked up the scale as Stoick spoke. The scale, blackened with fire and melted a touch around the edges, was easily twice the width of the span of Johann's spread fingers and more. He looked up at Stoick, eyes wide.
"Aye. That devil was a big one," he said. "That one's yours, as are the rest in here." He lifted the basket and pushed it across the table. "Consider it a gift. I know that you don't come up here out of the goodness of your heart, Johann. I know what a sea voyage costs. And I know that you're not happy with what I just told you. So, aye, that's yours. And," he smiled, "I know that if you're half as good at trading as you think you are, you'll be able to get your patrons to bid wildly over the last dragon parts to come from the barbarians for a long while." He leaned back on the bench. "I think you'll do well."
Johann just looked at him.
"How much of that did you have planned out before I even arrived?" he asked, trying to keep from sounding petulant.
"Oh, me and Gobber talked it out the other day." He winked. "Johann, I've known you for nearly as long as I've been chief. Give me some credit for realizing that a dragon tooth is worth more than a quarter bar of iron or a half skein of linen." He folded his arms and extended his right at the elbow. "Besides, if not for you and yours, we'd be long wiped off this island, stubborn or no. You've brought food that we could not have grown for ourselves, iron that we could not have mined, and goods that we could not have made, and gave our spoils of fighting that much value. We rebuilt burned homes with saws made with your iron, burned trees for warmth that were chopped with axes made from the same, and fed those whose food had been stolen with your wares." He extended his hand to the other man, who took it and shook. "Thank you."
Johann looked at the chieftain; tall, broad, with a thick accent, wearing a pelt and the remains of a set of scale armor that Johann had sold him a decade before, with a helmet decorated with dragon horns atop his head, he was the very image of the dull barbarian chief.
And he had just run rings around the sophisticated trader.
It wasn't fair.
Johann surprised himself by bursting out laughing.
"Stoick, Stoick, my old friend. You are wise, and I accept your gift in the spirit in which it was intended." He raised his own flagon. "To the end of one era, and the beginning of a new one, where we shall grow fat on peace, instead of lean on war!"
"I'll drink to that!" Stoick said, knocking his flagon against Johann's, and they drank.
A/N: And so it begins...
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