This is Berk. Normally it’s an idyllic wet rock surrounded by sweeping frigid beaches and covered with generally soggy pine forests, but right now, it’s on fire.
I guess it’s sort of to be expected, with four hundred Vikings cleaning up after four thousand dragons, but that doesn’t make the towering flames any less thrilling. My noble steed doesn’t agree, and Bang is so bravely flinching his tidal class belly away from the rising flames even as I’m trying to get a good look.
We’re Vikings, aggressive by nature and prone to taking idioms about fighting fire with fire to a dangerously literal extent. From the edge of the blaze furthest from my mother’s terrifyingly long-reaching gaze, I can see a half dozen Monstrous Nightmares flapping and blasting flames inwards, aided by two looming and massive Typhoomerangs.
The chief zooms through on his nearly invisible night fury, blasting a burning tree to burning dust and I roll my eyes, ducking alongside the fire low enough to avoid detection. As showy as fire and of course plasma is, I’ve got a better idea.
A Thunderdrum’s concussive blast can kill a man at close range, or as Bang has demonstrated many times, blow off a few shutters and give everyone in the vicinity one Hel of a headache. If he aims it at the fire, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be Midgard’s largest puff on a giant candle.
I know, I know. Air feeds fire. I’m a blacksmith, I don’t need reminding before my arm hair grows back. I’ve pumped the baffle a few thousand times this week. But we won’t be giving the fire air, not really anyway. If Bang is really angry, as angry as his uneven wingbeats are suggesting, then he’s going to unleash all that pent up rage in a blast so big that it takes the air away.
I pull back from the fire a bit and steel myself, because it’s now or never and even Arvid can only keep Mom stalled for so long until she’s out here with a pent up decade of shield-maiden rage, dragging me home by my ear. This is it, this has to be the day when one of my ideas works. The first time.
And people will start listening to me. And I might get a date.
And everyone will stop going conspicuously silent when I enter the room in my perpetually bigger than me brother’s shadow.
Today is the day.
No turning back.
I tighten my grip on the wide leather strap around Bang’s head and nudge him with my heels. He snorts, ornery as always, and I tell him again, gritting my teeth and blinking ash out of whining, stinging eyes.
We soar up above the highest flames, arcing halfway back to the ground in the boiling air and I press myself flat against that wide Thunderdrum back, waiting for the gust. It comes, a ripple of scales and muscles and fins beneath me, and I don’t even have time to appreciate the near perfect circle of bare, charred dirt that it leaves behind before realizing that I forgot the sound.
My ears ring like a bronze bell and I slip, clutching the sooty side of my face just long enough to lose my grip entirely and tumble over Bang’s head, a hard-falling thirty feet onto the still sizzling circle of scorched earth.
Even without the overwhelming smell of my burning hair, it’s not exactly where I’d build a summer cabin.
I’m alive, at least. For now.
I scramble to my feet, brushing hot coals off of adrenaline numb hands and whistling for Bang. I can still see him orbiting above the flames, panicky and flailing.
That’s the things about Thunderdrums. They’re the most superior dragon on the island. The small, wet rock adrift in thousands of times more ocean. But they aren’t the dragon of choice if you’re someone who spends a significant amount of time dive-bombing into forest fires.
Still growing forest fires.
“Odin’s saggy left tit,” I flinch away from a shower of sparks and pat out an eager blaze uncomfortably high on my thigh. The fire is a wall around me, curling and creeping back into the shrinking circle of safety, drowning out Bang’s panic with a crackle and a roar. “Ok, ok, ok. Think!” My boot catches on fire and I kick it off in a panic, hopping on one foot and tugging at my singed hair.
Of course I have a lot of options. Behind flame-door number one, there’s a heaping pile of burning alive. Door two is a real kicker, a brand new, fire-resistant dragon in Valhalla because I burned alive.
Door number three is just a slightly smaller dose of burning alive, accompanied by lots of yelling and screaming.
I’m four choice syllables into option three when the most hideous Valkyrie I’ve ever seen swoops down and digs claws into my shoulders, dragging me up into the inferno and catching my other boot on fire, the pain tethering me strictly to Midgard. I kick it off and hold my bare feet away from the flames, coughing miserably when it drops me a safe distance away from the flames.
I keep coughing until I puke and my hands start to hurt like I grabbed a red hot blade and held on for dear life. My mysterious savior snuffles at my back, murmuring almost familiar and I roll onto my seat to get a better look.
It’s the chief’s Night Fury and he licks my face with a fishy tongue before narrowing his eyes and stalking around me in a semi-circle to stand between me and fire that, thank Odin, doesn’t seem to be spreading anymore. I don’t feel particularly lucky with the Night Fury glaring me down.
He smacks me on the back of the head with his tail and warbles insistently, coming too close for comfort and nudging my hand. My palm screams at the contact, obviously more burned than I’d realized earlier and I wince. The dragon bumps his head against my back, herding me away from the fire.
“Alright!” I stumble forward and glare back over my shoulder. Bang isn’t appearing out of the gloom, meaning that he went home to tattle. I hope he got there ok. I hope that Mom doesn’t know what the Hel he’s talking about.
The Night Fury trills and headbutts me in the ass. I step on a sharp rock, wincing and glaring at the bottom of my bare, burnt and now bleeding foot. He chirps and sniffs at the blood, sliding into another strange lecture, flapping his frills indignantly against his neck.
He’s lecturing me. As if I don’t get that enough from everyone else.
“Hey!” I push his head away and put my foot down. Literally and figuratively. “Don’t dragon-lecture me. Thanks for saving me from the fire, but I can handle it from here. I don’t have any fish for you—ouch!” He thwacks me on the top of the head with a strange front paw. “Don’t hit me—and back to the lecturing. Seriously dragon, stop it.” He tries to do it again and I deflect the arm with my elbow.
He growls and rocks back onto his haunches like a bizarre person, slapping down with both arms. I duck out from underneath the blows and he drops back onto all fours, shoving his nose in my hair and snuffling before I can stop him.
“What are you doing? Stop—ouch—Gods!” I try to make out the blisters blooming on my palms, elbowing the dragon’s neck and escaping his damn Nadder-nose. “Are you tracking me? What’s your aim here—”
“Eret?” Someone is silhouetted against the waning fire, running towards us. It’s not my mom, thank the gods, and as an added bonus, the dragon backs off, sitting on his heels and mewling confused. “Are you ok?”
It’s the chief, and I’m more than a bit taken aback by how scared he looks. I’ve never seen the chief look scared before, not that I’ve seen very much of the chief, but it’s unsettling. Maybe the fire is out of control somewhere else, even if it’s backing off here.
“I saw you fall, but Toothless was, of course, nowhere to be found.” The dragon warbles and winds around the chief’s back, staring at me with wide, harmless green eyes. He sniffs my bloody foot and nudges his rider’s knee. The chief starts patting my shoulders and sides, grabbing my wrists and wincing at the state of my hands before yanking me into a nearly oppressively tight hug. “But he got you. I’m so glad you’re alright.”
“Uh, chief?” I cough and sputter because the pressure isn’t so great for my charred lungs.
“Right! Smoke, tight hugs, not a great combination—”
The last words come out in unison but the chief doesn’t seem to notice, freeing a waterskin from his dragon’s saddle and holding it towards me. I fumble it open and chug the contents, wincing and near desperate, and by the time I’m handing it back, the chief is ready with a small clay jar of what I recognize as Gobber’s famously smelly burn ointment.
“I know it doesn’t smell great, but…” he takes my hand and swipes the grease across it, instantly soothing a good part of the pain.
“It’s the best,” I finish the sentence and he grins at me, disconcertingly familiar through the smears of soot across his face. When have I seen the chief smile? He’s always so…chiefly.
“The best.” He pulls a strip of linen out of the hand holding the jar and rips it in half, wrapping it around my palm and tying it in a neat knot. “It should calm down the blisters at least.” He does the same with my other hand and mutters to his Night Fury over his shoulder. “How are your feet? I’d give you my shoes but…” he scuffs that famous metal foot on the dirt and I snort, swallowing a raw throated cough.
“Better barefoot than lopsided.”
“Couldn’t have said it better myself,” he smiles strangely again before his face falls back chiefly stern. “What were you doing out here anyway?”
“Uh Bang, my dragon—”
“I know who your dragon is.”
“I was thinking he could put out some of the fire with a concussive blast. And he did, that’s why I wasn’t instantly char-broiled—”
“Huh,” he cocks his head, curious and drawing a circle in the ash with his metal leg, fanning a few vaguely winged shapes around it. “That one didn’t work out so well, no offense…”
“None taken,” I shrug and pick a particularly large chunk of soot out of my singed hair.
“But what if I interspaced Thunderdrums between the Typhoomerangs instead of Nightmares? It might put the fire out without making the whole island hotter than Volundr’s asshole—” I laugh and he stops short, looking up from the plan embarrassed in a way chiefs shouldn’t be.
“I wasn’t going to mention the heat, but since you brought it up…” I fan myself with a freshly bandaged hand, glancing up at the nearby flames.
“Right, I forgot that your feet must be freezing.”
“Frigid,” I step up to the drawing and he laughs, watching me drag a still bleeding foot around part of the circle. “Also, I was thinking it’d protect the halls better if we thinned out this section of forest. It’s too easy for the fire to jump.”
“It’s too close packed,” the chief shakes his head. “You’re right but I can’t get Gronckles in there and if I clear cut it with a Timberjack, I’d risk taking out the halls I’m trying to protect.”
“You don’t—ah, crap,” I reach for my axe, but of course I left it at home earlier, “you don’t need dragons. A couple of axes could do it in a few days.”
“The only problem with that is getting Vikings excited about chopping something that doesn’t bleed to add onto wood piles that are already over capacity.”
“I’ll do it,” because this conversation is productive and he’s listening and I haven’t managed to silence him with my mysteriously offensive presence. “I’m going to need something to do while I’m grounded.”
“I flew into a forest fire after being expressly told to stay inside. And that’s not even getting into the fact that I blackmailed my brother into covering for me. I’ll be lucky to see the clouds again this season.” I bury my face in my hands and groan. The longer that I’m here, the longer that mom has to decipher Bang’s panic.
Gods, he must be terrified. I’ve got to get home.
“Maybe I’ll come break you out sometime.” I freeze at the bizarre offer and his metal foot scrapes harshly against the sharp rock that cut me. “If I need your help with another fire or…”
“I wouldn’t, unless you want my mom to mount your head on a spear.” His smile is disconcerting, like he somehow doesn’t remember that my mom was apparently even scarier when she was younger. “Seriously though, let me thin out those trees. I can use the wood.”
“I won’t stop you,” and he’s sad for a moment. “Just come tell me when you’re done and I’ll get you some silver for it.”
“Really? Thanks,” I raise my hand in an awkward half wave, flinching when the bandage digs into the edge of a particularly enthusiastic blister. “And uh, thanks for this,” the dragon steps forward to sniff me again, “and thank you, bud. Really.”
“Do you need a ride home?” The chief asks, swinging into his saddle and leaning forward to free up a foot of seat behind him. “Your feet look a little worse for the wear.”
“Alright,” I look both ways before climbing on, suddenly sure that Rolf or Arvid or Dad is going to see and ask or judge or be mad. Their comments about the chief make less sense than ever, and I get settled on the narrow dragon’s spine, gingerly setting my hands on his shoulders. “Don’t show off too much, I’m used to a sturdier seat.”
The dragon snorts, and his tail smacks me in the back of the head, again.
I’d flick him if I could move my fingers.
“And the burns can’t be helping.” He calls me out before urging the dragon into the air, practiced and smooth, arcing around the rapidly diminishing fire. Of course Mom is out in front of my house, halfway onto Stormfly when we land.
Bang nearly knocks me over as I get off of the Night Fury, sniffing my bandaged hands and pressing his face into my stomach. I hug him back and tell him I’m alright and he wraps his long, cool tail around my ankles.
Mom starts yelling and I flinch, but it’s miraculously not aimed at me.
“This is your influence!” She roars, stomping up beside the night fury and jabbing her finger into the chief’s chest as he dismounts. “You’re the only one dumb enough—”
“He doesn’t have any influence!” I interject and Mom looks at the chief, oddly smug, before turning on me. Her eyes catch on my bandaged hands before sticking on my bare, bloody feet.
“Where are your shoes?”
“Probably somewhere with the rest of the ash…”
“Do you have any idea how scared Bang was?” Mom points over her shoulder at the front door, blown clean off of its hinges and laying in the remnants of the dining room table.
“I’ll fix that.”
“You are grounded for the rest of fire season—”
“At least,” she walks up and starts patting me down like the chief had, checking the knots on my bandaged hands and resting a relieved palm on my cheek for a second until she’s furious again and I’m wincing from the punishment that I haven’t even heard about yet. “And you definitely can’t have Bang sleep with you tonight. Someone has to guard the doorway.”
“You’re going to make Bang sleep in the barn with the other dragons?” I sputter, holding his broad head close to my side. “Look at his face—”
“Oh, he doesn’t have to sleep outside,” she shakes her head and points to the barn. “You do.”
“Like you said, look at his face,” she pats his head, and I can tell she’s grateful beneath the fury. “He looks pretty happy about having your bed to himself.”
“But look at my face,” I try to wipe some of the soot away, but he’s nonplussed.
“Not doing much for me.”
“I think it’s alright,” the chief calls out and I’m startled because what kind of psycho would willingly stay through one of my mom’s famous reamings.
Maybe Dad’s right and the chief really is a nutjob.
“You, barn,” Mom points at me before turning to the chief with a scathing glare normally reserved for well…me, in situations like this, when I’m still talking and she’s done yelling. “Chief, get out of here. And next time send him home.”