Black as night it was.
Which wasn't strange considering it was night and therefore it was black, fluffy, grey clouds covering the stars and shining moon in the sky, but not being able cover some stars that curiously peeked through the gaps at the world below. At an island, to be exact.
Wind blew over the sea, pushing the water up and letting the waves roll onto the shore. There was fog circling around the island, hiding it in plain sight and making it dangerous waters to cross. The ship blossomed right there on the ocean, with sails as pretty as any petals, for the ones who liked the color of the midnight sky. The rest was all as solid as any oak of the land, warm browns that reminded one of his formal home and hearth, of those quiet family evenings when jokes rose and swirled as eddies in water. Her bows met the water with a regal dignity, creating waves of her own, choosing her path with each passing moment.
The sailing ship was fashioned from the wood of an ancient oak, with masts that stood as tall. Instead of its once green foliage it was adorned by sails as black as night. Yet for the next few years the fragrance would not be of wildflowers and fresh rotting leaves, but of the open sea, ever changing, ever constant, ever in motion beneath the clouds who sailed above.
The thick fog blanketed the entire bay now, and the town. The only structure visible was Fort Barbarian, high on the bluff, like a tall ship sailing a sea of grey. Above the Fort was a clear black sky sprinkled with stars. A waxing moon shone, giving both Fort and fog an eerie glow. Just below the stone parapets of the fort, visible briefly deep in the fog, like a shark fin slicing through the water, was the topmast of a ship, black sails billowing. It moored at the harbor and the crew climbed out.
A tall man with broad shoulders and the build of a mountain stepped breathed in deeply through his nose. He spread his arms out beside his body and laughed. He jerked his head from his crew to the Fort and walked towards it. Another, smaller and more slender man stepped out too. The broad man waited for the smaller man to go first.
The men on the island were tense. Pain, panic and terror was the only energy out there tonight, they could feel it hanging in the air. The air around them felt thick as if before a storm, but with the dryness of a scared person's lips. Something was going to happen, something bad.
The cool breeze brought along tension and the men searched the sky for anything out of the ordinary. Occasionally, a nervous boy with a trigger finger would shoot an arrow in the air, but nobody blamed him. Shadows that had a bit of an odd shape were suspicious, so were too small clouds. If any stars were suddenly blotted out arrows would fly up.
Various weapons hit the table with a metallic clatter. Swords, knives, axes, maces, crossbows, all scattered around the tabletop. The tables were set in a big square with a fire illuminating the tables from the middle. It was like a tiny sun, casting long shadows around the room. The flames curled and swayed, flicking this way and that, crackling as they burned the dry wood.
Mumbling rose from various people in the room. Those few weapons would never be enough, there were barely enough weapons to give every man one. The looks shifted at the smith, the man nodded knowingly and smiled widely, showing his gross, crooked teeth. A fist hit the table. The gazes shifted at the man whose fist it was. The big man.
He called himself the Brute.
Agnos the Brute. A name laughable for some when they heard it. But when you stood in his way you would learn what it meant to be nicknamed 'the Brute' and the laughing would end in a snap… the snap of your neck. He was not one to fool around with nor one to make fun of, that was for sure.
Agnos the Brute was the older brother of Ragnar Mortson, therefore he actually was called Agnos Mortson but he liked 'the Brute' better. They were two sides of a coin. Agnos was the madman and Ragnar was a military genius. Ragnar's unnerving mystique chilled the hearts of the bravest Vikings. But daunting in size and demeanor, Agnos had no tolerance for those who disagreed with him.
Agnos had quick, small eyes. He had a long, elegant mustache, a little limp from the seawater. He smiled a charming, easygoing smile (although a fussy person might think that perhaps it had too many teeth in it). He wore his brown hair and beard in thick dreadlocks. Multiple scars ran over Agnos' body, evidence of his past encounters with dragons and Vikings. His attire consisted of a sleeveless shirt, a thick waist belt and a huge black cape made from dragon skin. Attached to his belt he wore a loincloth, black trousers, and boots covered in fur. His vast power and authority came from keeping the fear of his men and forcing them to join his army. He was not above betraying his allies if they did not follow his instructions and killed without mercy.
His younger brother, Ragnar, was smaller than him, also more handsome. He had short-cropped brown hair, brown eyes and a more elegant figure. But for what he lacked in height compared to his older brother he made up for in cleverness and cunning. He could wield a sword or a dagger with the deftness of a circus act and he sharpened his weapons every morning at sunrise. His clothes were dark colored and strong, but fancy and soft, a tailor made each time he came to harbor. His shoes were a thick black leather, beaten to be supple, he would not abide blisters. He paid the cobbler in advance for a new pair to be ready for him on the shelf.
Ragnar was very intolerant towards failure, fail him and one was to be executed. This ruthlessness made him feared by many, including those who followed him. Calm and collected, Ragnar knew that knowledge equaled power - especially when it came to dragons. Unlike his older, more outwardly barbaric brother, Ragnar preferred finesse to brawn. An expert trap designer and manipulator of friends and foes alike, Ragnar always played the long game for power. Ragnar often let Agnos handle the dirty work, but was not above administering his own cruel and unusual punishments from time to time.
"This rubbish is not enough," Agnos said, grabbing one of the swords from the table. He balanced it in his hand and sniffed the edges, holding the blade so close to his nose some thought he would cut his own nose. Ragnar stayed behind him, mostly hidden in the shadows of the room. He didn't speak. He was trained to be quiet, silent, unnoticeable. Unless someone engaged with him, he would sometimes be deadly silent for hours on end: watching, listening.
"This metal," Agnos growled. He bit down on the blade and pushed his jaws down so hard on it he bend the material, earning himself some whoas, as there were supposed to be. Agnos was there for the show, Ragnar was there to make the plans. Agnos looked at the metal sword with disgust in his eyes and threw it to the ground, then stamping on it with his foot. "It is not good enough. Give me stronger weapons!"
The smith grabbed a knife from the table and used it to pick remains of food from between his teeth. He thought for a minute or so, then tossed the knife back on the table and with a grunt he stretched his back. "I can do that, chief. But after that dragon attack of last week they destroyed a part of my workshop, might take a while before I can work on that."
"Oh, I've had it with these dragons! Is the ship ready?" Agnos asked, looking over at his right-hand, Glum, who gave this vague gesture of his hand. "We still have a little more work to do."
"Get it done!" Agnos snapped, "I want my ship ready before we set sail. Berk will face the consequences of their deeds."
Glum nodded and took off, but not before being stopped by Ragnar. The smaller brother whispered something in Glum's ear, the latter nodded again and left the room. Agnos sniffed loudly and spit on the ground, earning himself a slightly disgusted look from his brother.
"For those of you who haven't figured it out... I am the one and only Agnos the Brute. And let me be clear, that name was earned."
A man leaned to his neighbor and poked him with his elbow. "Huh, 'Agnos? Pfft... How did he earn that?"
Lucky for him Agnos hadn't heard it or he would have hung. Agnos was not one would just insult. The large Barbarian looked around the big table, taking in faces. "You are all here because your leader has abandoned ya, maybe because ya wanted another job, maybe ya were sick of your previous leaders, I don't care. You are here now, following my orders. This is war! A war we will most surely win! It won't be long, first out we take their little soldier and then we'll get the Island of Berk. They'll be defenseless without their precious little Dragon Conqueror."
He slammed his fist on the table and the crowd cheered. They hit their fists in the air and waved their few weapons. Ragnar chuckled and narrowed his eyes, some more sheep to send on a suicide mission. This was just too easy.
"It is right out of the same old playbook, am I right?"
The man's appearance was deceiving. He looked like a ramshackle beggar, or a useless old drunk with his big moustache and unkempt beard. But he was nothing of the sort. He was a Barbarian, and a damn good one. He wasn't much of a planner or master strategist, but he had instincts that told him exactly what to do and what not.
He took advantage of people and only attacked when he was sure to win. His reputation proceeded him. He would make his man richer than they could ever dream and give them everything they would ever want; gold, diamonds, women, more gold. But if they questioned him or ignored direct orders they would die a humiliating and painful death.
The other looked up with an eyebrow arched. He had greasy, thick hair that was tightly pushed back over his head and he had a big claw mark in his neck.
"What?" he asked confused.
The first man shrugged and shifted his chair closer to the other. It was like a dance to him, he was familiar with every step and each turn, a deadly dance like that of a cobra. "You know, dehumanize, destabilize, antagonize – our leaders offer an easy solution, which is always war. That's how the psychopaths ruled and even knowing their strategies never helped."
He curled the hair of his moustache around his finger and bend over to the man with the claw mark. "It's human nature to think ourselves smarter, or that this situation is different. The battle is promised to be short, a tactical advantage to our side, and almost no casualties for 'us'. Sounds familiar?"
The man with the claw mark sat up straight. He leaned onto the table with his elbow, coming closer to the man with the big moustache and unkempt beard, who scrunched his nose a bit at smelling the awful breath of the claw-mark man. Like smelling the mouth of a dragon who had just eaten piles of rotten fish.
"Yeah," he breathed, making the other lean back a bit to get away from that terrible breath. "Yeah it does. We're always promised everything. But what do we get? Nothing. Only death and destruction."
The moustache man tapped his fingers on the table as he looked at the claw-mark man, estimating him. A low-level Barbarian. Had not been working here for long. Got barely paid since pay-day isn't for another couple weeks. He looked clean, a bit dingy but he still looked cleaner than the most of the other Barbarians here. He still had hope, he wrote letters almost every day, so he probably had a family to take care for. This would be easy-peasy. Time to take the next steps.
The moustache man was named Gunner, he had been working with the Barbarians for nearly twenty years. He was a high-level Barbarian with his own ship and crew, he was the boss underneath the big boss. He could order people around, and he loved that. He was always looking for the newbies, the ones that were impressionable. Easy to convince.
"I've been waiting for, praying for, some kind of top-down change, but now I know it won't happen that way. We're fooling ourselves if we think it will," Gunner continued, seeing he had the other's attention.
The other Barbarian nodded in agreement, taking a big sip of his drink. Gunner kept getting him a refill to get him drunk. Drunk people always agreed more with him and were easier to manipulate.
"We would be stupid to continue this way. We cannot win a war with Berk. Maybe we could with the Outcasts but not with the Berkians. They are too organized, too powerful. I heard their chief rides a dragon himself, and they have the Dragon Conqueror on their side of course. And let's be honest, do you really think all these people, all these mercenaries, will keep on going the second they see men riding huge, fire-breathing war machines?"
The Barbarian with the claw mark shook his head sadly and slumped in his chair. "No. I do not. They will turn tails and they'll burn us down to the ground."
Gunnar grinned and sat up in his chair, leaning a bit towards the other. Time to make the spin in their deadly dance. "Well that's where I cut in, my friend. I don't care about Berk or this Dragon Conqueror. I've heard that Agnos' little brother, Ragnar, is obsessed with him, as you know, and won't stop until they capture him. But I'm not. I'm just here for the money and the raids. That Ragnar fellow, he barely says anything to anyone. He's just sittin' there, in silence. Is that the kind of leader we want?"
The Barbarian eyed him a bit suspiciously. Gunnar grinned wider. "Listen. I'm gathering a group of people who don't care about conquering land, but gettin' rich. Gold, as much as you can carry and beautiful women! Isn't that what every man in here wants?"
The man with the claw mark grinned too, holding out his hand. "That sounds like something I would want to join. I'm Hord, by the way."
The man which the big moustache grinned widely and took his hand. "Well, Hord, my name is Gunnar. And I think we need to take action ourselves."
Hord nodded. "You know. Ragnar says we're gonna get rid of the Dragon Conqueror, but I wouldn't know how in Thor's name he is planning on doing that. The Dragon Conqueror is mean, smart, powerful, but above all, fast. So fast, you never see it coming. He's riding that Godawful abomination, too fast to notice."
"Until you hear the sound of the Devil himself," Gunnar said, "But then it's too late." He took a swig of his goblet and cleaned his mouth with the back of his hand.
The two men sat in silence for a moment, taking another swig and sighing deeply. Gunner scratched his beard and spit on the ground. "So, you wanna join? I still got room for the ones who want to be rich, not take unnecessary risks."
Hord cleared his throat and shrugged. "Why not? Sounds like a dream offer. Count me in."
Gunner brought his goblet to his lips and smiled behind it. Another sheep added to the herd.
This was just too easy.
The eerie darkness of that night would never escape one's memory. They would clearly remember the pitch-black curtain draped over the sky, and the twisted, warped shapes that the stars made against the blackness. The milky speckles twirled and danced along the sky in various patterns. The guards stared up at the sky and studied the silver glow of the moon.
Some stars were dull, merely flickering into existence every now and then, but still essential for the guard's watch. Without the stars detecting danger would have been a whole lot more difficult. The stars gave light, they betrayed things flying through the air, so they were needed.
The sea glistened, mirroring the dazzling assemblage of glittering stars and the white moon in the sky. The faint wind brushed against the water's surface, making the waves just this tad higher. As the night passed and Ragnar was making plans inside, the guards slowly lost their attention. Their eyelids grew heavy and they shifted their weight onto their other leg every few minutes. They had to keep reminding themselves, boring was good, boring was good, boring was good.
Suddenly there was a high-pitched whistling sound, faintly to be heard in the distance. One of the people in the village looked up into the blackness of the night, but saw nothing. He narrowed his eyes, peeking between his lashes at the sky. His hand went to his belt where his axe was, resting his hand on it. He knew that sound. He stared up at the sky, at the stars in particular. It was an almost cloudless night, clear and cool.
His fingers curled tightly around the handle of his axe when some of the stars disappeared for a second and then suddenly came to vision again, as if something had covered them for so short. Something fast flying, something that could blend in with the night sky. The whistling got louder and his eyes widened. He knew that sound.
"NIGHT FURY!" he yelled on the top of his lungs.
"GET DOWN!" Came an immediately reply.
The whistling got even closer. Screaming Barbarians ran around, trying to find cover before it would fire. A purple gaseous ring and a huge ball of fire at the center shot through the air, not all too big and seemingly harmless. Until it hit its goal, a catapult, and the whole thing exploded into thousands of little pieces. Fire grasped around at everything it could find, catching the wood and making the thing collapse.
"JUMP!" the men who were standing beside the catapult yelled and they jumped away. The whistling sound moved past the now exploded catapult, made a turn and approached the village again. But other than the bloodcurdling whistle there was nothing else it made that reached their senses. There was nothing to see. Men screamed and ran around, some tried shooting with crossbows or catapults with giant boulders, but the monster was hidden under the cover of the night.
All they saw was darkness and stars. Sometimes a silhouette shot by, only visible by the sudden disappearing of the stars behind it, but it was too fast and before one could aim properly it was already gone. Too fast to see or shoot at. This thing never stole food, never showed itself, and never missed. No one had ever seen a Night Fury, let alone killed one. This monster of the night was so fast and so deadly many prayed never to come across one. Those who did had not lived to tell the tale.
Another blast pierced through the atmosphere and the next catapult was blasted into bits and engulfed into flames. Streets, buildings, docks and ships shattered and exploded beneath the onslaught. Villagers panicked, ran for cover and dodged flying debris as best as they could. If this wasn't hell on earth yet, then it was about to be.
A black dragon shot through the sky. Stretching out its wings and beating them to gain speed, then pressing them against itself as it dive-bombed down, wind blowing along its body creating a high-pitched whistle, making itself ready to fire another purple blast, destroying catapults and houses.
There was a rider on his back, dressed in black and brown amour, a helmet covering their face. On their back was a silver shield, made of the strongest metal existing. Its rider tucked close against the neck of the dragon and pressed the pedal, causing the left tailfin to flare.
The dragon growled low and tucked his wings against his side again. For a second they slowed down, but as they dived down they regained the speed. The dragon narrowed his eyes and started forming a plasma blast in his mouth, aiming carefully before shooting. The purple blast found its way to the harbor and it exploded, fire grasping up at the air and destroying the boats, including the huge new flagship. The rider pressed the pedal, the tailfin flared out, the dragon spread its wings to create draft and was so lifted back into the air.
When all the catapults had been brought down, and the Harbor was nothing more than some smoldering wood and debris, the rider and the dragon shot up into the night sky, climbing up higher and higher, away from the village. They were done there. They hoped Ragnar Son of Mort got the message. It was best to keep a man like him on a tight leash, making sure he didn't have enough resources to attack other islands and villages. He was a dangerous man, not one to be trifled with. But so now and then his fleet had to be thinned out a bit and it was always good to take out some of his island's defenses.
It wasn't Agnos the rider feared, though. That man was aggressive and impulsive, yes, but therefor also quite predictable. It were the silence ones you had to keep an eye out for. Ragnar was silent, but incredibly clever. He was a master strategist and made a back-up plan for everything. He made even back-up plans for his back-up plans.
He manipulated his victims in thinking they had free choice, while they didn't. He made them unknowingly choose from A and B, letting them think that when choice A seemed stupid, they would have the upper hand with option B they thought they had come up with themselves, while all along Ragnar had been in control of both choices. If one ever thought he could outsmart Ragnar by choosing option C or even D they were wrong. Ragnar had option A to Z all covered. The only thing one could do to avoid being caught in his web was to catch him positioning the strings, catch him off guard.
Something many men had tried, but only one or two had succeeded. Up was down and down was up. And when you finally thought you had the upper hand he was right around the corner to smack you back down and take away everything you love.
It was that man she had to look out for, and it was that man she would look out for.