Chapter 1: Condemned
A/N: Ah, revenge, sweet revenge… This idea came up as I was chatting to Nightstar Fury and I summarised the plot of the Count of Monte Cristo…and I realised that I could really reimagine that. A quick reread of Captain Fury also got the creative juices flowing. So here is the Modern HTTYD version of Dumas' classic tale of love, jealousy, betrayal and revenge…
Rated M for lots of reasons including adult themes, graphic violence, sexual abuse and language.
Disclaimer: I do not own How To Train your Dragon. Rights remain with Cressida Cowell and Dreamworks.
'The Count of Monte Cristo' was written by Alexandre Dumas and is the classic (and in my opinion, best) revenge novel. I have borrowed some of the plot (at least the major outline) from this work. And yes, it is my favourite novel!
The gavel slammed down and cut through the gasps and protests that erupted in Berk Central Criminal Court. The Jury all looked ashamed and no one could meet the eyes of the huge shape of the Mayor, sitting behind the defendant, his flaming red beard familiar to everyone on Berk. Judge Hoark slammed the gavel down again and his cool brown eyes swept the room, finally landing on the tall shape of the defendant.
"Hiccup Haddock, you are found guilty of treason against the Government and People of Berk by consorting with her enemies and plotting the downfall of the democratic government. I have taken note of your exemplary character references and the fact that you are a member of Berk's ancient line of Chiefs-but in a way, this makes your heinous crimes even more dreadful. There is really only one penalty in the United Archipelago Penal Code for such a terrible crime. And since the death penalty was abolished a century ago…I have no option but to sentence you to Life Imprisonment without Parole in the Jotunheim Maximum Security Prison on Freezing-To-Death."
There was a gasp and then silence as every eye turned to the convict. Hiccup lifted his chin and stared at the judge, his emerald eyes dark with emotion. Tall and lean, his sharp-jawed face framed by casually messy auburn hair, Hiccup's face was pale, his few freckles standing out against his ashen skin. Dressed in his best brown leather jacket with a deep autumn red shirt and dark brown pants, every eye focussed on him-but he turned and looked at the blonde young woman sitting beside the Mayor. She was shaking her head, clear blue eyes filled with shock and incomprehension.
"It's not true," Hiccup said.
"Take him to the holding cells to await the transport!" the Judge said.
"I'll appeal!" Hiccup swore. The man nodded.
"Of course," he said. "Guards-do your duty." But Hiccup turned to the shape of the Mayor, the huge man six foot ten and nearly four hundred pounds, a massive mountain of a man with flaming red braided beard, flaming red hair and cool grey-green eyes.
"Dad-I didn't do it. I swear, I didn't do it…"
And he saw his father, the proud descendant of Chiefs, a man who had dedicated his life to Berk, crack. Stoick's face was stricken, his eyes shining with grief.
"I-I know son," he croaked. "I know. I trust you. And I will do everything to get this sorted out, to clear your name…" But Hiccup was led away, glancing over his shoulder to fix the vision of his father and the blonde girl, who was the love of his life, in his memory.
They kept him in shackles even though he was in a cell, sitting waiting to be taken to the most secure, remote and fearsome prison on the planet. So he sat back on the bed, his head bowed and felt utter despair wrap around him. It was the most mistake and yet…he knew who was to blame. The same man he had taken in as a partner, who he had given a job and helped and supported. Someone supposed to be his best friend…
" This isn't a letter delivery service!"
" The sender of the package paid good money for us to take a single suitcase to Icefell. He specified the date and time for the delivery and he also specified that we must not, under any circumstances, look in the case."
" And this doesn't strike you as say, suspicious?"
" Why should it?'
" Well, all of this smacks of smuggling at best and at worst…well, Icefell is the most inhospitable port in the whole North. It's the haunt of smugglers, gangsters, people traders, even terrorists. That case could contain anything. Our best course of action is to hand the damned thing over to the Police and tell them everything we know."
" I-I can't…"
" What do mean you can't, Eret?" The tone had been sharp and in retrospect, he should have seen the cunning in the man's eyes and the manipulation in his words.
" They made me do it, Hicc! You know, things haven't been going so well at the tables and I'm in a bit of trouble…"
" And I've told you your troubles are your own business, not mine! I offered to help if you accepted help-but you refused an intervention or Gamblers Anonymous and instead, you just keep getting more loans and carrying on. Whatever you're in, it's your problem-and yours alone."
" They're gonna kill me, Hicc! They told me I had to deliver the package or they would find me and…cut bits of me off. Lots of bits. Please, Hicc! If you were ever my friend, you'll help me now…"
" That's pretty low, Eret. I've been your friend for almost ten years and I set up Night Fury Transport so both of us could have a living. But ever since I put the money up, I repair the aircraft, I set everything up…you have just been a drag. At the start sure, you made an effort but since then…you've been late, drunk, just plain missing…"
" I've had issues…"
" You've had no self-control or any loyalty! You used me and continue to use me. Why should I believe a word you say now?"
" Because I'm telling the bloody truth! Those men found me and if I don't deliver the suitcase, they're gonna kill me, Hiccup. Please…I'm begging you…"
" You make the delivery. I'm having nothing to do with it."
But he had broken that vow as well…
His eyes focussed and his head snapped up, seeing the familiar and oh-so longed-for shape of Astrid standing at the bars, her blue eyes filled with complete lack of hope. In a second, he was on his feet, crossing to the bars in a couple of long strides, his emerald eyes filled with relief at seeing her.
"Astrid," he breathed, reaching his hands through the bars and gently stroking her cheek. She leaned into his touch, her eyes closing briefly at the tender caress of his calloused fingers. "Milady, I am so glad you came…"
"Babe-I couldn't not come," she reminded him. "You're my heart, my life. We've been together since Middle School. I can't imagine a world without you in it." He gave a bitter smile.
"I'm still here," he reminded her. "Just locked up in the most inescapable prison on the face of the planet, in a place so cold they named it 'Freezing-To-Death'."
"But my world won't have you in," she told him, her eyes shining. "Thor, I sound like some pathetic female from a melodrama, not a Hofferson."
"My ferocious Valkyrie would never sound pathetic," he told her gently, his fingers gently paying with a wisp of her long golden hair. "She'd be sad but then she would move on because no one could expect her to wait…"
"I'm waiting," she said stubbornly as he managed a small smile. "I'm waiting until the ends of the world."
"I can't ask that of you," he told her gently.
"And I can't accept you're giving up," she retaliated, her eyes glittering with fire. "You're innocent-I know that. Your Dad knows that. Anyone who knows you knows that!"
"And yet, here I am…" he commented sarcastically.
"And he and I will never give up on you," she told him sharply. "The moment I leave here, I am lodging an appeal."
"On what grounds?" he asked. "I mean, I apparently had a fair trial and the person who is actually to blame lied his face off and they believed him. There was no paper trail or any other evidence to link the suitcase to him so they convicted the person who took the case to the island."
"I will find evidence," she told him spiritedly. "I will find evidence that he was the one who accepted the case and that he is the one who knew what was in there and who it was for. You did nothing wrong except try to help a man who claimed to be your friend and who claimed that he would be killed if he didn't accept the case and deliver it. And both of those claims were false!"
Hiccup sighed, his shoulders sagging.
"Believing me, not him, isn't grounds for appeal, my love," he sighed. "The Jury came to the opposite view. I believe that is the basis of our legal system…"
"And it's wrong!" Astrid blurted out. "I'll go to the Chief Prosecutor, Viggo Grimborn, and make him reopen the case…"
"And how will you do that?" he teased her gently, feeling his heart lift a little at her staunch and fierce defence of him. "And please don't threaten him with an axe! Though it would earn you jail as well, I doubt they put women in Freezing-To-Death and we would never get adjoining cells…"
"If I thought they would put me next to you, I would," she promised fiercely and then her head dropped. "What am I going to do? You and Stoick are literally the only people I have in the world. I mean, Uncle Finn died when I was five and my parents when I was sixteen. Your father took me in without hesitation-we were already boyfriend and girlfriend then anyway-and you have been all my family since then. I-I can't go on without you."
"You must," he urged her.
"How can you accept this?" she demanded and he sighed.
"What else can I do?" he asked her simply. "Astrid-I'm hurt and angry and frankly terrified! I'm an innocent man who completed a delivery to save my friend and he lied and I end up condemned to die in prison for treason. I would never betray Berk or Dad or you! And my best friend has framed me for this-and no one will listen. And in an hour or so, they will drag me off to prison…and I will never see any of you ever again. There is no hope of escape…and the place is the worst prison on the planet. I have no idea what will happen…but I know I will never return…"
"You could…" Astrid said suddenly. "You could escape…" He managed to cup her face in her hands and stare into her eyes.
"Appeal by all means…and I would hope you would…" he told her. "And I will never give up. But one day, if all hope is spent, you should move on. You shouldn't wait for me because I think I will never leave there. And if I can imagine you happy and smiling and living a good and happy life, then maybe, I can survive in there." She blinked and tears trickled down her cheeks.
"I love you," she whispered. "I will wait for you, Babe." He leaned closer.
"I love you, Milady," he breathed and leaned forward, managing to reached enough through the bars for their lips to meet and for the two young lovers to lose themselves in a desperate final kiss. Finally, breathless, they separated.
"Hiccup," she whispered. "I'm never giving up on you…" She lifted her hand, showing him the small silver ring with a tiny turquoise in it. "This ring is never leaving my hand. You are never leaving my heart." She rested her hand against his chest. "I am always with you, Babe. So be strong. Be brave. And hang on. I will find some way of getting you out of there. There will always be a Hiccup and Astrid."
"Whatever it means," he murmured.
"Whatever you want it to mean."
"Always and forever, Hiccup and Astrid," he breathed. "I'll hang on. And I will do everything I can to come home to you." He quirked a small smile. "I am an engineer and a pilot. And just because the prison has never had anyone escape doesn't mean I can't." He forced himself to give a small smile. "You know me-I love to be the first to do anything."
"And I'll look after your Dad and Toothless in the meantime," she promised. He sighed.
"He's an old plane-don't let Eret scrap him or sell him," he breathed. She nodded.
"I promise. I'll get him away before I do anything else…" she promised.
"Before you appeal," he told her urgently. "Look, if my Toothless is safe, I can at least relax. A tiny, tiny bit." She lunged forward and kissed him again.
"And then I appeal," she said, forcing herself to smile.
"Time's up," the guard said, his grey uniform marked in silver with the crest of the Berk PD. Astrid clung onto the bars.
"Hiccup," she breathed. "Don't give up! Please…don't give up. I love you!"
"I love you, Milady," he called as she was escorted out and exhausted, he leaned against the bars. But the guards walked forward.
"Time to go, traitor," the guard said. Hiccup's head snapped up.
"But my father…" he breathed.
"We can't wait forever," the guard told him cruelly, his cold blue eyes and full blond beard standard for Berk. He motioned to the other three guards and they unlocked the cell. Hiccup backed away.
"No…" he breathed, his pulse accelerating. The guards lunged in and grabbed his arms, manhandling his lanky shape out of the cell and down the corridor. He struggled and fought but the guards were all much taller and more heavily built than he was and as he resisted, a fist crashed into his middle. Breath crushed from his body, he folded, flopping like a beached fish.
Fighting for breath, he looked up.
"Dad!" he called as the huge shape of his father surged forward, massive fists clenched to try to rescue his son. The snap of firing bolts cut through the melee as the other two guards raised their automatic weapons and levelled them at the desperate shape of the Mayor.
"Let my son go! He's innocent!" he bellowed, his furious shape tense and angry but not wild enough to walk into a hail of bullets.
"Wrong!" the leading guard said, his blond beard moving as he spoke. His scornful voice and the Mayor's face growing red with fury. "He was found guilty by a jury of his peers and rightfully condemned for his heinous crimes!"
"He's no traitor!" Mayor Stoick Haddock yelled.
"Yes, he is." A clear, cultured voice cut through the chaos and Stoick turned to see the neat shape of Chief Prosecutor Viggo Grimborn standing behind him. The man was muscular and poised, his black suit and shirt clearly made of the finest materials by the best tailors. His dark hair was cropped close and his manicured beard was immaculate. His dark brown eyes were pitiless. Mayor Haddock turned to him in fury.
"My son is no traitor!" he repeated, his voice thick with hatred.
"Mayor, you have my deepest and most sincere sympathies-but as things stand, your son is a condemned traitor and has to be treated as such!" the Prosecutor told him reasonably. "I grieve for you-I really do-but I can only deal with things as they are, not as we want or hope for them to be."
"Eret lied," Stoick growled.
"The jury believed him-and the facts pointed to your son as being the person who made the delivery of secret papers to the Terrorist Bludvist," Grimborn pointed out calmly.
"But it's wrong! My son never knew what was in the case and he only made the delivery to save his friend from gangsters who were threatening him for his gaming debts!" Stoick snapped.
"There was no proof of that," Grimborn said quietly. "Bring me proof and I will overturn the conviction and reopen the case. I will happily declare a mistrial because this young man is clearly an upstanding citizen…but I am a servant of the law. And as things stand, the law says Hiccup Haddock is a traitor and must be imprisoned for life to protect the rest of us."
"RKG," Hiccup said suddenly. "There were initials almost rubbed off the case-but they read RKG. That could be a start."
The Prosecutor frowned, his thick brows dipping as his cool eyes looked calculating.
"I shall investigate forthwith," he promised, resting a hand briefly on the Mayor's shoulder. "You have my word, Mayor Haddock. I shall do everything in my power to ensure that your son gets the break that he deserves." And then he nodded. "But in the meantime, he must be transported to the prison as the law demands."
Stoick's head dropped and the fight oozed from him. Then he broke away and walked to his son, wrapping the lean shape in a huge hug, burying his face in his son's shoulder.
"Be strong, son," he murmured, his voice cracked with emotion. "I believe you. I trust you. I love you. I know you are innocent. And I will move Asgard itself to prove that you are not a traitor." Hiccup leaned against his father, closing his eyes and trying to fix the memory.
"I know, Dad," he murmured. "I would never betray Berk-or you. I love you. And I'm so sorry I let you down."
"You never disappointed me," Stoick murmured. "A man could never have had a better son. You stay strong and we'll have you out of there in no time. And I'll write to let you know how things are going. Just…keep your spirits up. I will free you." And then he pulled back as the guards gripped the young man's shoulders once more. "Love you, son."
"Love you, Dad," Hiccup murmured and managed a small smile as he was hauled away. He snatched a final glimpse over his shoulder and then he was pushed through the doors and as they slammed, he closed his eyes.
They took him straight to the helipad and added shackles to his manacles, before forcing him into a heavy military copter. The engineer in Hiccup swept his gaze over the solid blocky craft, grey with red markings of the RD-100 class, an old but solid workhorse of the Archipelago that he had worked on during his engineering degree. His expert ear heard the faint dissonance in the motor and he frowned, knowing it needed a service but should cope with the trip north. The pilot seemed competent, steadfastly looking at his instruments as they guards clambered in and the door slammed closed. Hiccup found his shackles fastened to a loop on the floor of the cabin and then they took off. He cast a glance through the small grubby window in the door, seeing the shapes of Stoick, Astrid and Grimborn standing on the pad, watching him leave. Astrid kissed the ring on her finger and then placed the hand over her heart, her eyes fixed on him. His father waved until the chopper vanished into the clouds and his son was gone.
The ride was long and cold, the bumps as they hit the turbulence north of Berk jolting the prisoner and making him feel sick. But they flew on and on, skirting storms and finally rising over the snow-locked land of Freezing-To-Death. The guards began to mutter, keen for the meal and warm drink they would get before they had to make the return journey while Hiccup felt his spirits plummet to his boots. They circled a cruel looking solid stone fortress perched on the very edge of a cliff, with high thick walls, razor wire, searchlights and guards on every entrance. Slowly, they touched down on the helipad just outside the main entrance on the land side, a huge gatehouse with a portcullis as well as heavy leapt gates and double guards.
A welcoming committee was waiting for them, four guards and a huge man with wild black hair, a wild black beard and a scarred face. He wore the grey uniform of a Prison Governor and a red sash just for good measure while his men were in grey wearing helmets with face-covering masks that echoed old Viking helmets. And as soon as they touched down, even before the rotors had stopped, the guards had wrenched the door open and hauled the prisoner from the relative warmth of the helicopter into the bone-chilling cold of the helipad. Dazed, suddenly fighting for breath in the searing cold and face so cold it felt like he had been slapped, Hiccup hunched up and tried to back away as the Governor walked forward and gave a yellow, menacing grin.
"Welcome to Hell," he said.
Chapter 2: The Prison No One Escapes From
Two: The Prison No One Escapes From
Hiccup had never imagined anywhere could be so secure, so severe and so damned cold. As he was hauled through the stone corridors of the infamous Jotunheim Prison of Freezing-To-Death, he felt himself almost give up-but the stubborn core of the descendant of Viking Chiefs metaphorically grabbed him by the scruff of the neck.
They won't give up-so neither can you, he reminded himself. This place can be endured. You have to hang on and survive. They will get you out. Your Dad and Astrid will never give up.
So he forced himself to look up, memorising the layout, the levels of stairs-straight and winding, the confusing markings and levels as they went up and down, along and back as they disorientated him before they finally took him to the lowest level and unfastened his shackles and manacles before throwing him into a cold stone cell. Before he could even turn around, the door slammed behind him. Slowly, he got to his feet, rubbing the red weals around his wrists and inspecting his new home and trying not to feel utter despair.
He was in a room twelve by twelve feet, the walls made of a flecked grey stone. The roof was high above him, probably about twelve feet as well and the floor consisted of uneven stone flags. In the wall opposite to the heavy metal door was a steep square channel one by one foot leading up to a very high barred window with the briefest glimpse of the grey scudding sky. There was a small raised step to one side of the cell with a single blanket on it and a pillow that seemed to be empty. Breathing heavily, he walked back and forth across the cell, feeling the cold air raise goosebumps on his skin and then he stared at the door. He could hear steps closing and instinctively, he backed up.
The door slammed open and four men in the guard uniforms entered, followed by a fifth man with a mean face, a pointed nose and a rather disappointing moustache. His hazel eyes were mean and cruel and he looked at the prisoner with an unpromising leer. The man looked him up and down.
"You don't look much for a traitor," he said. "I am disappointed-I had hoped for much more. You really are a rather unimpressive specimen."
"Sorry to disappoint you," Hiccup found himself saying. "Wasn't exactly planning this on getting up this morning." The man lurched forward and shoved Hiccup back a step, his expression cruel.
"My name is Savage. Lieutenant Savage. I am in control of this wing. And that makes me your god!" he snarled. Hiccup bit his lip, aching to snark a reply back but he was trapped here with this man forever so antagonising him straight off probably wasn't the smartest move. He gave a small nod.
"Um…okay…" he mumbled.
"You haven't been processed, have you?" Savage taunted him as Hiccup shook his head. So the Lieutenant gestured and the guards sprang forward, roughly removing his jacket and belt. Savage frowned then wrestled his wrist watch off, staring at the classic Aviator's watch and making a scornful face. "And not much here worth bothering either."
"That's mine!" Hiccup protested, struggling.
"It was yours," Savage corrected him brutally, turning the watch over in his hands. "Maybe another blanket and pencils and paper. Yes, that's all it's worth."
"All what is worth?" Hiccup protested.
"These are no longer yours," Savage told him. "You're new. You have earned no privileges. You receive food twice a day. You have two blankets and a slop bucket. And paper and will be able to receive letters. And you may write once a month."
"Once a month?" Hiccup echoed, still struggling. "But that's not enough. I have rights. I…"
"You have nothing!" Savage yelled, suddenly closing his hand round Hiccup's throat. "You have absolutely nothing. Not your freedom. Not a single right. You are condemned to die here, in the middle of nowhere, in a prison where there is no visiting. Where the area is so remote and inhospitable that no one is allowed to travel here. And the only way out of this place is in a coffin that the ground is too hard to bury. So when you finally die, your coffin will be pitched into the ocean, into the Sullen Sea that will not even notice your passing. And there will never be a grave or any other marker-just another traitor who has paid his dues."
"My family will never give up!" Hiccup argued. "They will be lodging an appeal. They will get my conviction overturned and I will be freed."
Savage snorted and released him, motioning to the guards to toss another blanket at the young man and then leave.
"This is the place of last resort, a prison men are only sent to when all appeals are spent or futile," he sneered."No one is coming for you. No appeal will be granted. They send men here when they want you forgotten. To the outside world, you are already buried."
The slamming of the door echoed through the room as Hiccup staggered to the bed space and collapsed.
In his heart, he knew there was no hope.
Stoick slammed the phone down, the force almost cracking the plastic of the receiver. His face was red with anger and frustration that every avenue, every turn seemed to be blocked and that there were hurdles in every direction. All he could do was keep on plugging, keep on pushing until he could finally make some headway. But for now… He lifted the receiver and dialled once more.
He looked up as the door opened and Astrid entered. She was looking pale and there were deep shadows under her eyes, as if she hadn't slept at all. And she probably hadn't, imagining all sorts of terrible things happening to Hiccup. She looked up, her golden hair lank and dropping from her braid as she moved, smiling weakly and resting a freshly baked pie on the table. The crust was a golden brown and there was a delicious aroma coming from the pie, meaning it was one that Hiccup had made and frozen which she had warmed up for them…but in truth, neither had much of an appetite.
Stoick motioned her to sit as she served up the pie and both picked at the meat and pastry, each lost in their thoughts of the person missing. As Stoick looked at her, he recalled that Hiccup and Astrid had known each other since they were little, their parents all friends. They had always been friends and when they got together in Sophomore Year of High School, it had been a relief. So when Astrid's parents had perished in that fire, Stoick had instantly offered to take her in. His wife, Valka, had died years earlier in a car accident and he and Hiccup had lived together in a house that as much too large for them but which Stoick would never leave because it was his ancestral home and still had too many memories of his dead wife: having Astrid around had made the place more homely-especially since it was obvious even to Stoick's mildly untrained eye that the two were in love.
Of course, it hadn't been plain sailing. Astrid was almost completely untalented in the kitchen and her attempts to help out had almost poisoned the pair before they decided she should be confined to heating up preprepared food-with strict instructions, of course-and serving desserts. But she was a surprisingly skilled seamstress and a hard worker, keeping the place spotless and ensuring it felt like home. Over the years, Stoick had come to think of Astrid as his daughter-in-law already and he often wondered why Hiccup hadn't popped the question and asked her to marry him yet. They were close, a loving couple who were clearly deeply in love and who complimented each other perfectly. The Mayor wondered if it had been Hiccup's inherent stubbornness that had delayed the big announcement-that would now never happen.
"We shouldn't waste it," Astrid said, her voice hoarse from crying. She would never admit it…but he had heard her sobbing the previous night, as he had sat in his armchair, staring at the fire all night and recalling when Hiccup had been a tiny boy, filled with energy and curiosity and life…and who would never have harmed anyone.
"No," the Mayor sighed. "He made a mean pie."
"Makes," Astrid said sharply. "Makes. he's not dead."
"Aye," Stoick murmured, closing his eyes as he took a mouthful-and then he was instantly taken back to those evenings in the kitchen as Hiccup sliced the meat left-handed (which had always looked wrong, to Stoick's way of thinking) and had made pastry with the same skill, care and attention as he had with anything he did. They had a few pies left from the last batch and Stoick knew when they ate the last one, it would be like losing his son all over again. "And this is good." She took a small bite and nodded.
"I could be classified as a weapon of mass destruction for my cooking but Hiccup is so talented," she sighed. "And I miss him. I miss having him in my arms. I miss his arms around me. I miss his warmth and his snores and that insanely messy hair and the way he looks in the morning and…I just miss him…" She blinked. "I love him. And no one cares that he is innocent."
"I cannot seem to get a message through to Grimborn," Stoick growled. "He has clearly given orders to refuse my calls and fob me off. So I will need to go to him in person."
"He'll want some new information to reopen the investigation," Astrid reminded him. "You said he mentioned the letters RKG. Any idea?"
"There is no company or organisation that is registered in that name," Stoick sighed. "I suppose I could look for a person but it could be anywhere across the Archipelago and from any one of the islands…"
"I'll start in the Berk phone book after we've eaten," Astrid offered. "Because it's better than doing nothing. I am not giving up-because I know he will be hoping and praying that we will be trying to get him out of there." She looked up. "Have you written?"
"Once already," Stoick admitted. "I'll write again when I have something to tell him."
"Tell him you love him and that you are still fighting for him. That you are always fighting for him. Because that is what he desperately needs to hear right now," she told him. He reached over and squeezed her hand.
"You're right, lass," he murmured. "I'll write tonight." She squeezed back.
"I'll make us some coffee and we can decide what we need to do next to get him out of there."
It was cold and dispiriting in the cell as Hiccup awoke for his first morning in Jotunheim Prison. He was cold and his skin was prickled with goosebumps as he curled up tighter, pulling the thin blankets around his lanky frame. He had dreamed he was home, that he was lying in Astrid's arms, a hand gentling her long silky hair and teasing her by counting her freckles. His heart ached that he would never wake again to stare into those beautiful sea-blue eyes, never hear her voice sleepily greet him. Never feel her warmth against him. Never make love to her again.
His eyes opened again and he stared up at the stone walls of his cell. The air was chilly and he could hear rain beating against the tiny pane of glass over his window, though a trickle of rain was dripping through what must be a hole in the barrier. Miserably, he sat up.
The day was long and cold with food delivered at probably around eight in the morning and again around six in the evening. There was a slot in the door where his metal plate had been placed and some thin gruel was slopped in. Water was splashed into his jug and his slop bucket was emptied. But beyond that, he was alone.
He had found a small stone in the cell and using it, he scratched a single line on his wall by the bed to mark his first day in captivity. Then he had gotten up, walking across his cell and back, only a handful of steps, pacing back and forth as he tended to when he was thinking as he tried to focus on something other than the utter desolation and despair. He did stretches and push-ups, sit-ups and squats to try to distract himself and keep warm and then he sat down on the bed and picked up a sheet of paper than had been pushed under the door in a sheaf with two pencils.
"I can't give up," he murmured. "Now let's clear my mind and just concentrate and everything that happened. Everything I said. Everything he said. There must be a clue in there. Something. And what else have I got to do in here. Maybe it will help Astrid and Dad if I can tell them where to look…"
So, mindful of his limited paper, he closed his eyes and reran every word he had spoken to his former partner and everything to do with the suitcase. And then, making his usually messy and loose writing small and crabbed to fit as much as possible on the page, he began to write.
"So what of Number 34?" the Governor asked. The big man with the wild black hair and beard was named Alvin Forraeder, a former convict and smuggler, a man who associated with traitors and thieves and embezzlers on a daily basis, not all of whom were imprisoned. When the Governorship of Jotunheim had come up, there were almost no takers for a job that isolated the appointee on the most desolate island in the Archipelago for 363 days a year but Alvin had jumped at the job that seemed invented for him.
Originally from the very rough community on Outcast Island, Alvin had plea-bargained his crimes of manslaughter, slavery and larceny down to a relatively short sentence by the simple expedient of betraying anyone and everyone who he had been associated with in order to minimise the dues he had to pay to the state. Dubbed 'the Treacherous' for his actions, Alvin had changed his name to reflect that-and protect himself when he emerged from prison and applied for the post. No one had really checked his forged references so he had found himself in charge of an almost impenetrable fortress with a population that no one would care about and certainly no one would miss. It hadn't been hard to gradually appoint a cadre of guards as immoral and cruel as Alvin himself was, cementing a regime as callous, cruel and brutal as it could be.
Once he was settled in, Alvin set to maximising his profits from the prison. Some of the fitter prisoners were set to work and he had kept the profits for the sacks they sewed, license plates they stamped and other small items they made under strict supervision. But of course, there were a lot of prisoners that couldn't be let out or allowed to associate because the risk of rioting or escape attempts were too high. For those men, the worst of the worst, the lowest of the low, there was only permanent solitary confinement. And among them were those condemned for terrorism, organised crime and treason. Alvin could deal with murderers, paedophiles and rapists easily enough but traitors and religious fanatics, idealists and radicalised terrorists were beyond his skills and usually proved not to be amenable to his schemes. So they were safer locked away.
And it was amusing to toy with them, allowing a few letters in and destroying random missives while not permitting a single letter to be sent out. No visiting was permitted because there was no commercial airstrip and no infrastructure to support members of the public to fly out to Freezing-To-death. And that suited Alvin fine because he didn't want any scrutiny of his regime. And he certainly didn't want a single prisoner escaping and getting word out of his depravities.
The prisoner in cell 34-number 34, the man who had been known as Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third-was unusual because he had come with instructions. The Chief Prosecutor of Berk had sent a detailed letter that the man was a dangerous subversive and a man who had assisted the most wanted terrorist and anarchist in the history of the Archipelago. The communique had detailed what the writer expected of the Governor and Alvin had bristled at the tone, treating Alvin as a mere lackey rather than the master of his own, isolated domain. And he had been intrigued at the letter so he had done some of his own digging as well, exploiting the enhanced access he possessed as a Governor in the penal system to pick through the man's records. And he had come to a conclusion that the Prosecutor probably wouldn't have wanted him to.
"He's a disappointment, to be honest," Savage said. His lieutenant was a brutal man, a murderer and member of Alvin's gang who had been transferred to Jotunheim from his original prison on Outcast and then declared dead by the Governor, who had created a fresh identity for his subordinate and promptly hired him as his assistant.
"In what way?" Alvin asked, pouring himself a generous tumbler of Scotch. He splashed another measure out for his assistant and handed him the crystal tumbler. Savage frowned.
"Skinny, sarcastic, looks defeated to be honest," he reported. "And not a lot worth taking." He handed over the Aviators Watch. Alvin looked at it with a shrug.
"No gold? Nothing…concealed?" he inquired.
"I'll have the men search him…they will enjoy that…" Savage grinned mellowly. "I've given him pencils and paper and he'll write. They always do."
"It helps," Alvin noted wisely, his gruff voice. "We need to keep them hoping…because otherwise they just give up and die. And we need some new fodder."
"I doubt he could be of much use in the Cellar," Savage commented. "He looks like a puff of wind would blow him over."
"Well, he might be of amusement in an opening bout," Alvin commented. "And if not…maybe we could sell him. When I caught sight of him, he did look pretty."
"What about the letter they sent with him?" Savage asked, draining his tumbler and helping himself to another measure. Alvin chewed his lip.
"Of course, selling him would mean keeping him on the premises," Alvin clarified. "But there are men out there who would pay for him. And some ladies, I'll wager."
"I doubt he'd co-operate," Savage noted. "He's too fresh-in all senses of the word."
"Give it a few weeks and he'll do anything for company and for extras," Alvin told him cruelly. "It gets very cold in 34 and solitary can do terrible things to a man's resolve. I doubt anyone is that stubborn that he can survive weeks and months and years alone with no company and no hope. Ensure the jailers don't exchange a word with him. But keep his pencils and paper coming. I want him to keep up enough hope to survive." Savage drained his glass once more.
"Why do you want him to survive?" he asked. "I mean, if he kills himself, you still claim the expenses for his keep and the profit…" But Alvin waved the letter.
"I was expressly told he had to remain locked up here for the remainder of his long and miserable life," he revealed. "They want him buried and lost. He needs to be forgotten and have everyone give up on him."
"But why? He's a traitor!" Savage said without any sympathy. Alvin gave a low, cruel chuckle.
"Despite what the letter says, I think the reason why they want him here is because, despite what he jury said, Hiccup Haddock is innocent," Alvin disclosed. "And the men who are guilty, the men to blame, want to make sure he never escapes to prove it. That is an opportunity-and means we need him alive because somehow, there will be a profit in this."
Chapter 3: Fading From Sight And Mind
Three: Fading from Sight and Mind
Time passed impossibly slowly, marked only by the increasing number of scratches on the wall above his bed and the thickening of his beard. Hiccup stubbornly kept up his exercises because he was absolutely resolved not to let then beat him and he had written out every conversation, every single moment he had spent with Eret-and every tiny detail of the day he made the fateful delivery. And then he had carefully secreted the papers in a gap under the corner of a flagstone, ensuring that no one could find them.
He had written to his father and Astrid, the words tiny and crammed onto the single sheet of paper he had been told he was permitted to send. He spoke of his conditions, of his loneliness, of his fears and hopes. He wrote that he loved them and that he missed them. And that he hoped they were well. But he couldn't write about appealing, about whether or not they had been able to persuade anyone to reopen his case because he couldn't bear to put the words on paper and imagine the response. But his heart had been lifted as he saw the little letters pushed under the door with his morning gruel. So he had grabbed the plate and wooden spoon and had sat down on his bed, ravenously eating the meagre rations and opening the envelope with trembling hands. he already recognised the bold, determined hand as that of Astrid and his mouth had stretched into a smile as he unfolded the sheet of paper.
My Beloved Hiccup,
I hope this finds you…well. Yes, well is probably the best word. Not perfect because you aren't wholly well. I know you must be down and wishing and praying that we can get you out. And we are trying. Stoick and I have lobbied every member of the Council of Ministers and he has used every favour he ever had and all the goodwill he has accrued from his lifetime of service to try to get your case reopened. We have tried to see Prosecutor Grimborn but the man seems to have turned into the Scarlet Pimpernel. We seek him everywhere but he has suddenly become incredibly coy and unwilling to respond to our petitions. I have contacted my friend Camicazi, who we went to school with before she moved back to Bog Island to live with her mother. She did law and she assures me that she can prove that they cannot convict you of treason. The conviction is unsafe, for they have no proof that you knew the contents fo the case, only that you made a delivery. And delivering a package is not treason-it's a minor misdemeanour that carries a fine and revocation of your aviation license.
As you were convicted on Berk, though, we have to work through the Berk legal system and Prosecutor Grimborn is the main block. Stoick has made a formal complaint to the Island Council and has laid down a motion to have Grimborn removed from his post-though Councillor Mildew has opposed the motion. That old goat claims that your father is unfairly targeting a dedicated and good public servant just to try to get his treacherous son off serving his just desserts. His words, not mine, by the way! That man makes my palms itch and I really want to punch him out!
"That's Milady," Hiccup murmured his lips curling up in a smile. "A 'punch 'em first and worry about the medical bills later' kind of girl. What more could a man ask for?"
But it means there needs to be a vote in the Full Council so we have to wait until the next full meeting with room on the agenda for the vote to get this pushed through. That's proving contentious because I think Mildew may have some allies who are slowing the process down-though I have no doubt your Dad will win the motion as soon as it is tabled. There have been so many messages of support for him that I know they will have to support him in this. And once Viggo Grimborn is removed, his deputy surely can't argue with our logic about the wrongness of your sentence and they will have to reopen your case and declare a miscarriage of justice. And then they will HAVE to bring you back from Freezing-To-Death and I can see you once more. I want you to hang onto hope, Babe, because I am never giving up on you. I just need you to not give up on us.
Eret has claimed the whole of Night Fury Transport for himself and I have no idea what he is doing with your business. I've claimed that half of it is mine, as your partner but because we haven't married yet, my claims have been dismissed. Technically, all of your possessions are forfeit for your crimes and Eret was able to pay a nominal sum to officially claim the full ownership of the entire company and all its assets. I'm sorry, Babe-but I haven't given up either. Toothless is safe, though-I moved him to the Cove and covered him with a camouflaged cargo net before Eret could do anything with him. He did contact me and demand where he was-I suspect you were right when you worried he would try to sell him-but I told him where he could go and how he could get there! If I have my way I will never let him get his hands on Toothless. He'll be there, waiting for you when you return.
"I knew I could rely on you," he murmured, his calloused thumb stroking the page.
I am missing you like mad, my love. The bed is cold and I long for your arms around me. I miss your snores, your fidgets, your tender kisses, the safety you make me feel. And your cooking. I fear i may poison your father if you're away much longer. I try to work but my mind is always on you, wondering what you are doing. Are you cold? Hungry? Alone?
"All of the above," Hiccup murmured roughly.
I wish we had gotten engaged or married…but there always seemed to be enough time to delay it until the business was profitable, until I got a promotion, until things were perfect. But what we didn't realise was that they were already perfect and maybe we were just wasting time, waiting for something that may never have happened. And I sort of wonder…why didn't you ask? Did you even want to marry me? Not that I minded because being with you, being your girlfriend was enough. But I lie there and wonder…maybe we should have talked about it. And about a family. I know you probably wanted kids…though we never really had that conversation properly either. It was one of those ones we kept putting off because I think we thought there was enough time. And I knew Stoick kept passing some very broad hints about 'grandbabies' which of course made both you and I immediately declare we were never having a family. Those ornery stubborn Viking genes! I can see he misses you desperately, because he has been with you and only you ever since you lost your Mom. Just you and him. And I think he's only just holding on because he cannot imagine losing you forever.
And I can't either. I mean, there should always be a Hiccup and Astrid. Whatever it means…though I cannot conceive of spending my life with you locked away here. It's like missing half myself. Thor, I even dreamed of hiring smugglers and tunnelling under the prison to break you out…but that's just fanciful. I mean, how could I ever afford smugglers on my wages?
He smiled, mentally hearing her voice speak the words and seeing her write the words.
It's time to mail the letter to catch this week's transport across. They have said I can write weekly and I will. I promise. You are going to be sick of hearing from me, my love, because I need you to know that I am here for you. I am always here for you and I will never give up trying to clear your name. So you have to promise not to give up and trust that we will find a way to get you out.
I love you and always will
Idly, he palmed the moisture from his face, feeling his eyes wet at reading the words from his lover. If he held the paper close, he could catch the faintest hint of her scent, of her shower gel of pine and rock flower and her perfume. And as he closed his eyes, he could see her so clearly, her nose wrinkling slightly as she smiled, her eyes sparkling and hair framing her face. Then he read the letter twice more before he folded carefully and stored it with his notes in his hiding place.
Finally, after walking across the cell and peering through the window at the swirling snows, he sat down once more on the bed and pulled out one of his precious sheets of paper. Sharpening his pencil by rubbing it against the rough flagstones, he began to write.
Time passed and letters from Astrid and his father arrived weekly. Hiccup wrote back, his words minimising the awfulness of the cell and his bleak existence. He reminisced, he talked about the future and declared his love for Astrid over and over.
I love you, Milady, more than life itself. You are my everything, my sunshine, the air I breathe, the wind beneath my wings. And I know that sounds lame and cliched but it's true. Thor, it's true. And Gods, I was so stupid not to have the talk with you that I should have. Of course, I love you and have wanted to marry you since I was about ten. There, I said it. How sad and pathetic am I? I mean, it took me over five years to ask you to be my girlfriend and almost ten years later, I still haven't asked you to marry me. But then, I never wanted to put you under pressure and you never gave any sign you wanted to take the next step. In fact, you often said that we were still too young, that it was a big step to take. And I just agreed with you, rather than having the confidence I should have had and stating that I wouldn't mind.
Because I wouldn't. I would have loved to stand by your side one day and put that ring on your finger. I designed it when I was sixteen and I have the design stored in my notebook. And in my heart. So when I get back, I will ask for your hand and accept what answer you give…though I really really hope the answer will be 'yes'. And yes, I would have loved kids with you-a little fierce Astrid and maybe a small Hiccup-though hopefully less clumsy and accident-prone than I was. But if you had said 'no' to that, it wouldn't have mattered. because I love you and want to spend my life with you. You are all I ever wanted. And all I ever needed. So hold on and one day, we will be together again.
But as the weeks passed, the letters stopped. Hiccup still wrote but after two months, there was no reply. It wasn't a case of one letter missing-there was a complete cessation of letters. Hiccup took to yelling through the hatch on the door, demanding that they hand over his letters and cursing and swearing at them. Then he had tried begging but to no avail. The guards remained silent and there were no more letters.
Hiccup began to lose hope, his spirits still plummeting and every ounce of determination leaching from him. He ate his food but spent his time curled up on his bed. Sometimes he wept, sometimes he cursed and sometimes he screamed that he hated his father, Astrid and everyone else who had brought him to this place. And then he had burst into tears, begging forgiveness from the absent Astrid and Stoick and the gods who had definitely completely forsaken him. He stopped washing using the weekly allowance of lukewarm water and sliver of soap he was allocated and he felt himself weakening. His hair grew shaggy and longer and his beard was wild. His skin and nails grew grimy and his clothes stained and rank. And he stopped writing, sometimes not even collecting his fresh paper and pencils when they were delivered. All he wanted was to fade away and for it all to be over.
But one especially cold night, he was aware he could hear noises through the window: several helicopters and more lights than usual, scouring across the icy clear night sky. There were steps and he sat up, wrapped in his blankets as the cell door slammed open and a trio of guards, led by Savage, burst in.
"There he is!" the lieutenant announced, his finger jabbing at the skinny shape curled in the corner. "Bring him!" Eyes widening, Hiccup fight and thrashed as he was grabbed and dragged from his cell.
"Get off me!" he yelled, fighting. "What are you doing?' The door slammed behind him and the young man stiffened, eyes darting around the stone corridor with the brilliant LED lights that incongruously kept the almost medieval space bright and shadow free. He knew the corridor was lit, of course, because he could see the little slivers of light under the door as he lay curled on his bed space or woke from nightmares but he found himself blinking and shying from the harsh glare. The guards were dragging him along with purpose and befuddled from sleep and weakened by near starvation rations, he was hopelessly overpowered. And they were taking him along a route that they had not used when they brought him in-he had memorised the route and knew they were going down, not up. So in the end, he gave up struggling, conserving what strength he had and trying to work out what was going on.
The guards dragged him down a wide spiral staircase until the ended up in the enclosed space of the old cellars, the space surprisingly warm and free of draughts. He could hear the sounds of people, the hubbub of voices and the sounds of fire crackling, the smells of food and cigar smoke. He swallowed, blinking and taking a few deep breaths as he tried to process what was happening. And then he found himself hauled into a space, surrounded on three sides by heavy wooden tables that wouldn't have been out of place in ancient Viking times, brilliant lights on the walls shining from behind the high-backed wooden thrones that silhouetted the men sitting comfortable and watching his skinny shape shoved forward and causing the young man to squint against the glare. One of the guards grabbed a handful of his unruly auburn mop and hauled his head up displaying his wary face with his wild unkept beard and his anxious emerald eyes.
"Here we have new blood, fresh meat for your edification," Governor Alvin announced, stepping forward to stand by Hiccup's pinioned shape. "Young, pretty…maybe company for someone?" He looked around hopefully but the unknown and silent men all remained silent. Alvin leaned close. "Looks like yer luck is out, 34."
"What?" Hiccup muttered.
"Yer best chance was one of them taking you for their pleasure-but seems yer ain't as pretty as I thought," Alvin told him.
"What the Hell is going on? This isn't BerkMart! I'm a prisoner, a human being, not a lot on BerkBay!" Hiccup growled as the man's dark eyes narrowed. In a second, he backhanded Hiccup and the prisoner sagged back in the ferocious grips of his guards.
"Yer don't sass me,' Alvin snapped. "Yer nothing. Not even a person. Yer number 34, occupant of the cell of that number. And when yer die, another number 34 will take your place." Hiccup spat blood and lifted his head, his emerald eyes defiant.
"My name is Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third," he spat. Alvin fisted his hair-and then glared into his eyes. then he looked up.
"Plenty of fight in this one-even if he doesn't look like much," he announced, his face twisted in a cruel smile. "So if none of you fine gentleman want to have him for your personal desires, I presume you are all keen to watch him fight for his existence?"
The sounds of hands slamming on the wooden tables made Hiccup start and he looked at the shadowy men, seeing them all demanding entertainment. the room rang with deep shouts of "KILL KILL KILL!"
"You can't be serious!" he breathed as Alvin threw him back and he stumbled, almost losing his footing.
"Get this straight, boy," Alvin breathed. "Yer not in Jotunheim because anyone thinks yer capable of being rehabilitated. Yer ain't here to do macrame and basket weaving and find religion. Yer here because society wants yer locked up until yer die. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, yer already dead so what I do with you-as long as yer don't escape-don't concern anyone. So whether I sell you for one of these men to fuck or have you fight to the death for the amusement of these men…no one cares."
"I have family, friends…" Hiccup retorted.
"And how many of 'em have written you recently?" Alvin taunted him. "Yer think they still care about you. It happens to all of the prisoners sooner or later. They give up and the only way they cope is by imagining you're dead. So they stop writing. Shame. I thought yours may actually be a bit more invested." And then he grinned. "Ah well…makes it easier for me."
"I'm not fighting," Hiccup said, backing up. Alvin backed away and gestured to the guards, who hauled a shabby shape forward.
"Yer will," he said confidently. "Winner gets an extra blanket, meat daily and immunity for the next fights." Hiccup shook his head.
"What century do you think this is?" he asked sarcastically. "Eighteenth? Nineteenth? Guess what? You're a couple of hundred years outta date…"
"Well-this guy looks like he'll fight so you either fight or he'll kill you!" Alvin said as the guards released the man. "I present you, the new man versus a former favourite of many of you." He gestured to the other man who was already crouching as he and the guards backed away. "TO THE DEATH! BEGIN!"
Chapter 4: The Only Worth I Have
Four: The Only Worth I Have
Hiccup stared at the other man, a very skinny man in ragged clothes, his face haunted and haggard with starvation and hardship, his eyes narrowed with desperation and concentration. The man's hair was a pale brown, liberally smattered with grey and wild and unwashed like his thicket beard. The man smelled rank-though Hiccup realised he probably smelled no better-and his clothes were filthy and grey, shiny with grease and ragged at the hems and knees. There were old brown blood stains on the material and Hiccup wondered if this man had fought before and how many times. The cold grey eyes were locked on him as he backed up, finding a table at his back. The man advanced, his hands bunched and ready to attack.
"Hey, hey-we don't have to do this," he said quickly, his hands open and showing he wasn't any threat. "All we have to do is behave like civilised beings and they can't do a thing about it…" The man spat, his face twisted with scorn. Hiccup noted rotting and missing teeth.
"They can starve you, whip you, rape you," the man growled, his voice hoarse and rasping from disuse. "You don't do what they want, they make life here literally Hell. And I used to have worth to them. They sold me to men for their pleasure. And it was degrading and usually painful and disgusting…but it earned me extra food and clothes and warmth. I got books, a table, even a radio…but when I stopped being attractive to them, the luxuries dried up and life got cold and hungry and not worth living. So I fight because it's the only worth I have. It's that or freezing or starving to death. No one leaves here alive, red-so you either you play their games and make what life you have a little less hard-or you suffer. And I ain't suffering for you or anyone!"
Then he launched himself at Hiccup and bore the younger man to the ground. Taken by surprise, Hiccup felt the breath knocked out of him and he also banged his head on the ground. His vision blurred and he lay stunned as the man knelt over him and began to punch Hiccup in the head. As the first blow connected, the young man's instincts cut in and he raised his arms to try to protect himself. He caught a fist and forced it back, shoving the man off of him and rolling to his feet. His head was still spinning but he was backing away, realising that reason wouldn't work with this man. So he tried to balance his weight forward on his feet, keeping his eyes locked onto the man's face. So he was ready when the man attacked again.
Hiccup had been a small, undersized boy, bulled by his cousin and picked on at school-it had been only when he was about eighteen that his growth spurt had properly kicked in and he accelerated up to his current six foot one height. However, he had remained lightly built, though wiry and strong, his lanky form very different to his massive and powerful father but echoing his dead mother. Yet as he was bullied, his father and his uncle had both taught him to fight-his father using more conventional means and his uncle not so much. Spitelout Jorgensen was a dour man with a high opinion of himself and his stocky and strong-but dumb-son, a man who usually sneered at his small nephew but who had approached the young boy after a particularly bad session at school that his cousin had stepped in to halt. Uncle Spite had taken his nephew aside and had spent an hour teaching him every dirty trick he knew in case he was facing someone bigger and stronger than himself. And though he had never really liked his Uncle, Hiccup was thanking the man with all his heart as the other prisoner lunged again.
This time he spun, pushing the man past and into the table behind him. The watchers jerked back, recoiling from almost touching the prisoner as he sprawled across the table and shoving him away. They kept slamming their hands on the table, the repeated noise unsettling and eerie. Hiccup staggered forward and turned in time to see the man launch at him again. This time, he caught the man's arms and threw him, his legs wavering from weakness and staggering away as he backed away from the man. Though he realised the seriousness of the situation, he couldn't bring himself to attack the man, recalling the lessons his father had told him.
Never be the aggressor, son. Never start a fight-but always end it.
So he backed away, allowing the other man to scramble up, his face furious and cursing the younger prisoner. Hiccup guessed he was probably in his fifties, maybe his father's age and he wondered how long the man had been in jail and why he had been condemned in the first place. Despite his knowledge that his own conviction was incorrect, he knew that many people in Jotunheim were men from all over the Archipelago who had committed the worst crimes and were definitely guilty.
The man hit him again and he parried, landing a hard left-handed punch across the man's face. Blood burst from the man's lip and he stumbled back, stunned by the blow. Hiccup was much stronger than he looked from a youth spent running, swimming in the lake and working with metal. He had been an engineer since he was small, fascinated by creating machines and devices and had taken courses in smithing, leather-working and woodwork. When he had finally defended himself against his cousin's bullying, he had punched Snotlout out and after had come round, Snot and Hiccup had patched up their differences and become friends.
"Please…" Hiccup breathed, seeing the man run at him again. He was exhausted from lack of food and was struggling. The man yelled and threw himself at Hiccup, this time his hands tightening around the younger man's throat. Unbalanced, he went down and the man straddled him, his face tight and twisted with concentration as he increased the pressure, inexorably crushing his throat. Staring up, Hiccup realised there was no pity there, nothing but the desire to kill the other man and make his life just a little easier.
He lashed out, his arm swinging round and impacting solidly on the side of the man's head. The pressure didn't let up and Hiccup could see his vision greying, but he repeated the blow and this time, the man did let up the pressure and Hiccup shoved him off, crawling away and rubbing his throat. He could hear the man stumbling up behind him and he tensed, throwing himself forward and bearing the man down, making sure he was beneath him. They rolled, punching at each other and Hiccup let his instincts take over, literally fighting for his life. Until the man finally broke free, stumbling away. He snatched a knife from the table and turned to face the younger man, his bloodied face twisted in a triumphant leer.
"Finally," he breathed, slashing out. Dancing back, Hiccup managed to avoid the first couple of slashes, ducking and diving but he gasped as he felt a line of fire across his arm and jumped back, clutching at the cut. He could feel blood well from the wound and saw the red edging the blade. Taking a deep breath, he offered a swift prayer to the Gods and then threw himself forward, grabbing the blade and wrestling with the man. They staggered back and forth, the tip of the knife moving closer and closer to Hiccup's body-then away and towards the man's hollow, heaving middle. Gritting his teeth, Hiccup propelled them sideways and slammed against the table, slamming the man's hand three times against the table with all his might until the knife skittered free. Glancing up as the man wrestled with him and pressed him back, he met cold dead eyes with black, soulless pupils like the eyes of a shark, buried in a sallow-skinned, scarred face with a hook nose and dark hair. Then the other prisoner wrenched Hiccup away and the momentary contact was lost. The man was scrabbling for the knife but Hiccup grabbed him and this time, he slammed the man down onto the table, his head impacting on the iron-hard oak with sickening crack. But, hazed with desperation, Hiccup slammed the man's head once more against the wood, dropping him and staggering back, his entire body heaving for breath.
Immediately, the guards raced forward, snatching up the knife and restraining Hiccup. Savage walked forward and checked the prisoner. Pressing a finger to the man's neck, he paused-then made a slicing motion across the man's neck.
"A KILL!" Alvin roared. "And an excellent bout! I hope this satisfied your bloodlust…" There was another bout of the slamming of hands on the table as the Governor burst out laughing. "I thought not," he chuckled as he waved the guards to haul the exhausted and bleeding Hiccup away. "Now, for our next bout, we have a couple of more impressive specimens who will provide a more brutal battle…"
Listing, Hiccup stopped listening as he was hauled up the stairs, almost dragged and roughly manhandled, He barely realised that he was back in his corridor until they opened the cell door-he could see the black numerals 34 on the blank metal-and then he was tossed in. The door slammed shut and suddenly, he was alone in the cold dark, his body hurting, his neck bruised and his arm leaking blood. And he felt incredibly ashamed and sick that he had taken a life, that he had killed a man even though he had been forced to fight to save his own life. A dry sob choked through him and he painfully crawled to his bed, tearing the sleeve of his shirt to make a strip bandage to stop the bleeding from the slice in his arm. Then he curled up tight, wrapped his blankets around his body and went to sleep.
He awoke late for it was already light and the meal was lying in a new plate just inside the hatch of the door. His throat felt hard and he was conscious of it while breathing, grimacing as the aches and pains kicked in and zinged as he moved. Grimacing, he levered himself up to his hands and knees, seeing the makeshift bandage heavily stained with blood and stiff and then he wearily stumbled over to gather his jug of water-which seemed to be bigger and his plate-which was holding a generous portion of what looked like oatmeal porridge rather than thin gruel. Wearily, he spilled a little water into his hand to scrub his face and then took a long drink, slaking his thirst. Automatically, he scooped the porridge into his mouth and realised it was lukewarm. Eyes widening, he wolfed the rest down, swallowing the closest he had got to hot food for months and sitting back, his shrunken stomach full. Sighing, he wrapped a blanket around his aching body and tried to relax…and then the realisation hit him.
He had earned the hot food by killing the other man.
Instantly, he felt sick but he chewed his lip and swallowed hard, knowing he couldn't afford to lose the precious nourishment. He had paid for that food with his blood and what was done could not be undone. He knew the other man would have no qualms in enjoying the fruits of killing Hiccup so he knew that it was illogical to feel so bad for killing a man who had tried very hard to end him. But that was who he had been raised to be: a decent, honest, honourable human being. And none of that mattered because he had been wrongfully convicted of treason and had been condemned and abandoned to this hell to die. And no one seemed to care.
He shook himself. He knew that his father and Astrid cared, that they would still be doing everything humanly possible to get him free. The lack of letters was probably a ploy by Alvin to try to break his spirit. Maybe they had intercepted his letters and they thought he wasn't responding. But he knew his father and his love would never abandon him. They would fight to their dying days to clear his name and get him out of Jotunheim.
And in the meantime, he had to survive. So he swallowed the bile in his throat and drank the water and then wrapped himself up warmly and tried to recover from the fight. And prayed to the gods that in surviving, he wouldn't lose the man he was.
Time passed and his new improved rations helped. In the morning he had a large helping of nourishing porridge and in the evening it was meat broth and bread. The first time the meat broth had been slopped into his plate, he had almost started crying, seeing the steam curl from genuinely hot food and he had wolfed it down urgently, desperate to savour the sensation of hot food warming his battered body. And afterwards, he had curled up and slept well for the first time in months, imagining Astrid in his arms and his father smiling as they were all together once more. And he knew that they were still fighting for him as well.
Realising his life was now at stake, he resumed his exercises, trying to strengthen his weakened body and sitting down and relaxing, meditating to recall every word his father and uncle had said to him about fighting. The guards took him out of the cell and forced him to run up and down the corridor to try to strengthen his stamina several times a day and he was grateful of the exercise and change of scene. As he worked at sit ups and push ups, he remained focussed by reciting names of the Chiefs of Berk, working his way through the scientific laws he had learned, reciting the Periodic table, saying the poems that he had read to Astrid when they went on picnics…and picturing her beautiful face as she lay by his side.
Weeks passed and there was still no word, no sign that anyone outside even knew he was alive. He felt his spirits flag-but as he looked out of the window and saw the snow pile up as Devastating Winter shrouded the island, he wondered if there was a disruption to the post as well. His cell was frigid but he was given another blanket and he kept moving to remain warm. He continued to mark the days and as it approached six months in the cell and three months from the day when he had last fought, the guards seemed more excited and he guessed the fight was approaching. So he rested and was ready when the door of his cell was opened and he was led out.
This time, he was more alert and he carefully noted the way down to the cellars-just in case he ever got the opportunity to escape. And when he was there, he was less shocked and intimidated, though his heart was galloping and his breaths were coming in small anxious pants. Because he knew he would be fighting for his life once more. And this time, he carefully lowered his eyes to make sure he wasn't looking directly into the lights, allowing him to snatch a few details here and there of the men attending the fights. Once again, the powerful shape with the long black hair and the soulless black eyes was there, sitting back in his black outfit, his hands flat on the table. There were others, men who smelled of expensive cologne and even more expensive Cuban cigars, men in watches that cost tens of thousands of dollars and silk suits that cost more than an average Berkian earned in a year. And heavy chains of gold hung around every neck or wrist.
He was matched against another skinny, wiry man who looked scruffy and desperate and Hiccup felt a horrible tide of guilt flood through him. He had earned himself relatively good rations and warmth for his last fight-and now he looked in better shape than the opponent. But not much and he knew that desperation and the desire to live could overcome any minor deficiencies in physical condition. So when the fight started, he watched the man and was prepared for the attack. And this time, he measured his opponent, watching how he attacked and preparing his counter so when he switched to being the aggressor, he put all his energy into the attack. And when the knife was thrown into the ring, he made sure he grabbed it first.
The other man-a scrawny man with a tattoo on his arm that identified him as a member of a gang, though his lined face and grey hair told Hiccup that had been decades earlier-fought furiously and as they went down, Hiccup maintained a ferocious grip on the knife. He knew his life depended on it and as they rolled, he made sure he landed on top, bringing the knife up and plunging it hard through the man's chest, the keen blade sliding through the grey grimy material and wasted flesh through into the man's heart. His eyes widened and for a moment, there was a flicker of gratitude before the light ebbed and they closed.
Breathing hard, Hiccup sagged, releasing the knife and clambering off the dead man.
"I'm sorry," he murmured. "I am so sorry. But at least you are free. And I think you know that. I hope you are at peace. Because I'm not."
The audience were cheering and their hands slamming on the tables in appreciation of an efficient kill but Hiccup felt sick. No matter how much he had prepared himself, he had killed a man, this time deliberately in order to survive, to allow himself to hang on for a little longer to allow his father and girlfriend to lodge the appeal and get him out of Jotunheim.
"Any time, guys, any time," he muttered as he was taken back to the cell. "Because one day, it's going to be me with the knife in my heart. Please hurry. Please get me out of here before I lose myself."
Chapter 5: From The Heights To The Depths
Five: From the Heights to the Depths
Hiccup began to measure his time in fights. He still diligently kept his calendar on the wall, scratching days in banks of seven and marking the dates of his fights and looking for the pattern. As it turned out, Fight Night happened every two to three months with no absolute pattern but Hiccup kept himself ready. Every time, he ended up bruised and he gained a few more scars but whether it was luck or determination, he managed to survive with everything more or less intact. And he used Astrid and his father as his motivation, as the reasons he had to survive. It no longer mattered that he got no letters because he still had their old letters that he had hidden and when he needed to bolster his courage once more, he pulled them out and read them, hearing the words in his head and feeling their love wrap around him.
His opponents were gradually getting more serious. He had fought several men who were from the gangs, men with tattoos and piercings, men with scars from previous gang fights and men who were considerably more dangerous than he was. But he remained quick on his feet and focussed, using everything his father told him and a selection from the repertoire of tricks his Uncle had shared with him-though he tried to keep his best moves back. Some sixth sense was warning him that these men were working up though the ranks and he would start facing much tougher opponents any time soon. And he needed something as a last resort if he was hopelessly overmatched and facing his death. But somehow, he had kept on winning and every time, he thanked the gods and prayed that his father and Astrid would rescue him soon.
Until he had been a prisoner for just past three years. Three years in the cell, three years of almost total solitude. Three years of no letters, no communication, no sign that anyone was coming for him or that there was any hope of reprieve. And while a small part of him was still clinging to hope, the larger part was telling him that it must be because there was no hope, because the appeals had been rejected and he was condemned without any prospect of release. And maybe, they had done what he had asked and moved on after all, realising that there was no hope and no point in clinging to a forlorn dream. Maybe this as it and they had accepted that he was lost, that he was dead, as Alvin had said. That there was nothing left to cling to because as far as the outside world was concerned, he had died the moment he passed through the gates of Jotunheim.
When he was called to Alvin's office, he had been curious and for a second, his hopes had risen, his heart fluttering with the prospect that maybe…this was his time. But his hopes were dashed just as swiftly as he saw Alvin's smug face. He gestured to the hard wooden stool in front of his desk and warily, Hiccup had sat down.
"I 'ave received an offer for you, number 34," he said without preamble. "All those victories 'ave caught the eye of one of me best customers and he has asked for you to be delivered to him for his pleasure."
Hiccup's eyes widened and his jaw dropped.
"I…you…what?" he managed gruffly, his voice hoarse from disuse. Alvin smiled.
"I 'ave a very rich and very dangerous man who wants to fuck you," he said simply. Shaking his head urgently, Hiccup felt himself drawing back.
"Helheim, no!" he said vehemently. "No. I-I can't!"
"Yes you can," Alvin told him simply. "You just bend over and take it. Bite yer lip, groan at the right moments and do exactly what he says to you. And if you do well, he will pay for treats and food and warmth and who knows? If he really likes how you behave, he may take you away from here completely as one of his harem. After all, who would know? Everyone here is dead."
For the briefest of moments, Hiccup considered the words-really, genuinely considered them, because he was a man who was losing all hope of being rescued and leaving the prison in any way other than in a coffin. What had he got to lose now? All he was facing was a series of fights to the death until the one which took his life. Or maybe he would be injured and they would stop him fighting and he would go back to freezing and starving in solitude until he died of starvation, cold or some disease. And what use was clinging to the image of Astrid, his beautiful, ferocious girlfriend if he was dying here? If he would never see her again.
But what Alvin was suggesting was…to whore himself out. To give himself away for some hot food and maybe a fresh set of clothes. And maybe the chance to dodge the fight that would finally end his life. He doubted anyone would rescue him now and maybe, this was a better option than risking his life every few weeks. But then…what would happen when he was dropped by the client? He would end up like the first man he fought, desperate and angry and bitter and determined to kill anyone for a taste of the comforts he had once enjoyed and which he had now lost because time had passed him by.
But time was passing him by. Three years had already cycled by and he remained locked in his stone box on an island uninhabited because it was so inhospitable. His friends and family hadn't bothered to contact him for almost three years and there was no sign that anyone would ever come to free him. And if he was taken off Freezing-To-Death, then maybe he would stand a better chance of escaping and making his way back to Berk. And when he was there, he would get his hands on Eret and force that lying treacherous bastard to confess that it was his suitcase to deliver and that Hiccup was completely innocent. And gods, when he got his hands on RKG, he would make him regret the hour of his conception because he would treat the man to ten times the torments and miseries Hiccup had suffered.
"Are yer sure?" Alvin asked pointedly. "If yer turn 'im down, he won't ask again. No one will…"
Hiccup took a deep breath.
"I'll meet him…" he said slowly, closing his eyes. "I'll meet him and talk to him."
Alvin gave a nasty chuckle.
"I think talking is the last thing on his mind," he said.
Without preamble, he was taken up the stairs to the top level of the fortress and the guards without any gentility stripped him and forced him into a hot steaming bath, laced with oils. And he almost went into shock as he found himself suddenly warm. His hands and feet felt as if they were burning, so unused to warmth after so long in the bitter cold. Slowly, breathing hard, he sat down in the hot water and cautiously became to clean himself. It was like some sort of half-forgotten dream that he hadn't even allowed himself to consider. But as he sluiced himself off and turned his attentions to his hair and face and beard, he found himself longing, just for once, to be clean.
So he scrubbed and scrubbed until he thought he might finally be clean. And then his rinsed his hair and then used the safety razor that he had been left and carefully shaved off his beard. For once, he wanted to be the man that Astrid had left-though thinner and more scarred-and he managed to trim his hair as well, still messy but sort of at the length it had been when he first arrived. Finally, he got out, using the thick towels lying ready on the stool and drying himself carefully. He winced as he checked the scar on his arm, seeing the ugly line puckered by the hot water and sighing: it was a reminder of why he had to fight for his safety, no matter how bad he felt about the actions he had to take, the deaths he caused to survive.
The guards watched stonily as he pulled on fresh rust red shirt and skinny fit brown jeans, then pulled his boots back on. He looked over at them and nodded.
"I'm ready," he murmured. The guards grabbed his arms and escorted him out of the room, along a corridor that was carpeted and lit by much softer illumination. They took him to a large door covered with studded green leather and knocked.
"Enter!" a gruff voice growled and the guards opened the door and escorted the tall young man in. Hiccup took a shuddering breath and then stopped as he saw who was facing him: the man with the soulless black eyes and black dreadlocks framing his scarred, sallow face with the hook nose and the cruel mouth, a braid of beard hanging beneath his chin. The man was huge, almost the size of his father and draped in a black silk dressing gown, brocaded in gold with naked legs visible under the hem. And he realised as he looked at the man that his left arm was a prosthetic.
And now he saw him clearly, Hiccup recognised the man-as the terrorist he had been accused of supporting and consorting with.
His eyes widened at the bitter, brutal irony of the thought and he almost backed away-but his instinct at self-preservation kept him standing where he was, though his breathing accelerated. Nonchalantly, the man lifted a heavy glass in his right hand and sipped a dark pinot noir.
"Yes, you are very pretty now we've cleaned you up," he said in his gravelly voice, his eyes lingering far too long and indecently low. He placed the glass down and walked forward, his right hand rising to stroke Hiccup's hair. The younger man froze, forcing himself to remain still as the man's rough fingers carded his hair and then stroked his cheek. "Unusual hair…and those eyes are very pretty."
"Thank you," Hiccup breathed, not moving a muscle. Drago leaned closer, his yellow teeth revealed as his thin lips stretched in a predatory smile.
"I wanted you when I first saw you fight-but I needed to make sure that you were worth the effort," he breathed, his fingers sliding down Hiccup's neck. The steady exploration of the prisoner continued as his hand slid lower and lower and Hiccup felt his breathing accelerate. Every instinct that had warned him against the encounter was screaming at him to get out…but as Drago's hand caressed his waist, he knew there was no getting out of this alive. Even the small safety razor head he had sneaked into his boot wouldn't be enough to stop this man with the guards around.
"I'm glad I didn't disappoint," he said softly as Drago smiled more cruelly.
"No-you are definitely pretty enough," he said. "I've been looking for fresh meat for my larder. You look young and strong enough to maybe satisfy me." He smiled. "Think of this as your audition, boy. You do well, and I'll head back home with you are my side." He stroked his thumb along Hiccup's lower lip, before working the digit into the younger man's mouth. "Just think: no more fights, no more cold, plenty of food and warmth and…attention. All you have to do is share my bed."
Hiccup looked into the dead eyes and ignored the fluttering in his stomach and the fear in his heart. Hating himself, he nodded slightly. Drago looked up at the guards and he pulled his hand back and gripped Hiccup's waist tightly.
"Leave!" he growled. "I'll call if I need you." And as the door slammed shut, Hiccup swallowed the bile in his throat, then leaned forward and kissed him.
Alvin was sitting in his office, satisfied with the programme for the evening and already mentally counting the profits for the entertainment. He had two extras for the evening above his regulars, wealthy men who had specifically come from Berk on the recommendation of others to see the forbidden spectacle of men fighting to the death.
"Not so stuck up that you won't be yelling for blood," he muttered with satisfaction, his thick fingers playing over the keyboard and checking that the funds were all safely transferred into his encrypted offshore account before the show started. And then he sat back, sipping his Scotch and already planning the next event.
A knock sounded at the door and it slammed open before the Governor could even open his mouth to invite the person in-but then he rose to his feet in shock as he saw the massive shape of Drago Bludvist stamp in, flanked by two of his minders. Looking for his guards, Alvin nodded and Savage slipped in, standing behind the Governor just to remind the Most Wanted Terrorist in the Archipelago who was in charge in Jotunheim.
"Please sit," he said and invited Bludvist to sit on the padded leather chair that was sitting opposite the desk. Alvin always made sure there there was a luxurious chair in his office for elevated guests, instead of the hard wooden stool he kept for guards and prisoners. As he watched with forced nonchalance, the man lowered himself slowly, his eyes narrow and dark with anger. "How were your encounter, my Lord?" he asked as an afterthought.
"He's pretty-and he tried very hard…considering he was a virgin," Bludvist commented cruelly. "I was satisfied-and I am certain he didn't enjoy the experience. But I needed to make sure." Alvin frowned.
"Make sure of what?" he asked guilelessly. Drago banged his fist onto the desk, causing everything to jump.
"That the man who could betray my contacts in Berk is still alive and available to be spirited off this island and into the hands of one of my enemies!" Bludvist roared. "I could have bought him and taken him away-and then I would have made him talk!"
"I would never have allowed him off the island," Alvin babbled urgently. "My Lord, I would never jeopardise such a valuable contact as yourself…"
"Then prove it!" Drago roared.
"You want him dead?" Alvin guessed. "Savage-go to his cell now and…"
"No need," Drago said, then leaned forward. He picked up Alvin's pen and turned the paper round, his cold black eyes flicking down the list of fights. Savagely, he crossed out two names and placed an arrow. "This is the order." Alvin's eyes widened.
"But he's not ready to fight the champion," Alvin protested. "I have a sequence planned out that will attract more wagers and…"
"And how much money do I pay you for the pleasure of travelling to the most Godsforsaken place on the entire planet to watch a couple of men who should have been executed perform the duty on one another at an inconvenient hour?" Drago roared.
"Plenty-but for this, I was really going to market the matchup…"
"Then I will pay you triple for the fight," Drago snarled and beckoned. Alvin punched the amended fee into his machine and offered the thumb reader which the Terrorist pressed his thick thumb onto without hesitation. Alvin glanced at the screen as a ping sounded and the number in his account further increased.
"Yer wish is me command," Alvin said in a servile voice. "Can I have refreshments brought to your room?" Drago rose.
"Wagyu fillet, blue, with string fries and corn and a 1953 Chateau Lafitte. And fresh sheets on the bed-the current ones are stained."
"I'll send my men immediately," Alvin told him. "The programme begins in one hour."
He tried not to think about it, tried to expunge it all from his mind but all he could think of and see and hear and smell was…him. And feel. Especially feel. Gods, he had been a complete and utter muttonhead, imagining that he could do this. It was a wild instinct born of total despair but now he realised he was worth more than that…and that even escape wasn't worth that price.
He curled on his side. He hurt. The man had deliberately hurt him…and all of Alvin's seductive words had meant nothing because Hiccup was the one paying the price and shedding the blood. He knew he was due to fight and he had been hurt. It had been stupid, senseless, desperate because he was giving up. He was on the verge of giving up and now…he had allowed himself to be harmed when in a couple of hours, he could be fighting for his life. Drago hadn't delivered and instead of staying, instead of the hope of escape and safety from fighting, he had been dismissed once he had been throughly fucked by the brutal man. He just hoped that he could muddle his way through and recover…because if not…it was over anyway.
He was ready when the door opened, his determined mask back in place and back straight. The guards were grinning and nudging one another, which really didn't fill him with much confidence as they walked the now familiar way down to the cellars and the ring. But this time, when he arrived at the ring, there was already another prisoner there, a large and powerful man with muscles bulging on his bare arms and tattoos all over his visible skin. There were piercings in both ears, nose and lips and his head was shaved. And he topped Hiccup by well over half a head, as well as being almost twice as wide.
"And now we come to the final match of the evening, a bout for the ages," Alvin announced, his yellow grin obvious in the light. "To my right, I have number eighty five, the man who has thrilled you with so many brutal bouts over the last couple of years and who remains undefeated and your champion. And to my left, I have the challenger, number thirty four, who has been building over the last months and is now facing the challenger. This bout is to the death." He backed away. "BEGIN!"
Hiccup immediately scuttled sideways and backed up, trying to get a bead on the other prisoner. This man was clearly at the top of Alvin's fighting food chain and he was used to killing…and by the looks of him, revelled in it. He was milking the crowd, his face twisted in an obscene smile of delight as he turned a full three-sixty before he assumed a fighting crouch and prepared for the bout. Hiccup glanced round, looking for anything he could use-and his breath froze. For sitting amid the usual patrons, who Hiccup could now recognise and next to Drago, who was watching with a cruel smile on his face, were two men he hadn't seen before. One was a dapper man with a silver suit, garish pink shirt and cravat, grey-smattered hair and beard and dark, cold eyes-and beside him was Eret in a deep cream suit with dark chocolate shirt open at the neck. All three men ere fixated on Hiccup-and all looked as if they wanted him to lose.
He almost missed the lunge and was borne to the floor with sickening ease. He felt the air knocked from his body and a heavy weight pin him as the man drew a meaty fist back and ploughed it into his face. His vision greyed at the impact as the first boos sounded, the guests dissatisfied with the fare on show. And Hiccup knew that it wasn't a match in any meaning of the word: he had been sent to the slaughter.
And then he slammed his knee up twice, the second impact achieving the desired aim and causing the man to turn puce. Hiccup shoved him off and rolled away, scrambling to his feet and backing away, his fists raised. In a straight fight, he probably didn't stand a chance. So he had to make sure it wasn't a straight fight.
The man lunged at him again and this time, he was ready, diving and rolling to sweep the man's legs from under him, then kicking him in the face as he scrambled away. Twice more, he repeated the move before 85 grabbed his leg and threw him sideways, slamming back against the table and winding himself. He stumbled up-but back into a fist. Staggering sideways, he ducked under another swipe and then felt arms wrap around him, immobilising him and tightening around his chest. Immediately, he slammed his head back twice into he man's face, the satisfying crunch of bone telling Hiccup he had broken the man's nose. But as he released Hiccup, a fist slammed into the auburn-haired man's chest and he cried out in pain, sharp pain lancing through him as he tried to breathe.
The clatter of the knife skittering into the centre of the ring was almost lost amid the roaring and urging of the audience, all pretence at civility lost in their bloodlust. Eret was on his feet, baying for his former friend's death and Drago's lips were pulled back in a shark's leer of satisfaction at seeing the younger man facing his death. Hiccup looked up, teeth gritted and he threw himself at the other prisoner, desperate to stop the man grasping the knife and gaining a lethal advantage. But as he reached him, 85 closed his hands around Hiccup's neck, swiftly beginning to throttle the life out of him. Clawing wilding at the iron grip closing around his throat, Hiccup looked up into pitiless eyes and then gouged them viciously, knowing it was his only chance. The champion bellowed in pain, still tightening the grip until Hiccup could manage to ram his thumbs into both the man's eyes, pushing so hard he could feel blood running over his hands.
The grip around his throat released and Hiccup collapsed to his knees, gasping huge desperate gulps of air, blinking to try to focus and get to the knife-and then he screamed as a foot slammed down onto his left ankle. The champion, his face hideous with blood and his head inclined so he could see with his one intact eye, gave a bloody grimace of triumph as he lifted his leg and slammed his boot down again onto Hiccup's left lower leg. His scream drowned everything out and the audible crunch of bone coincided with an explosion of pain that almost overwhelmed Hiccup's determination. His head spun, his vision was washed with red and he could feel his consciousness drifting as he stretched his arm out and his hand closed on the hilt of the knife.
"That ain't gonna help yer," the man breathed as he closed his arm around Hiccup's neck. "Not when I snap your neck." The arm around his neck jerked his head back and he immediately felt the strain…and then his arm swung up and the knife cut deep into the man's arm, severing tendons. The champion bellowed, the grip loosening as Hiccup swivelled his head slightly so he could sight the man.
"Gotta be alive to snap my neck," Hiccup breathed and slammed the knife straight into his remaining eye. The champion jerked as the blade slid into his brain and collapsed like an unstrung puppet.
Breathing hard and completely overwhelmed with pain, Hiccup lay still for a long moment and then he braced himself and shoved the dead weight off of him. Every molecule of his body hurting, he forced himself to his knees and raised an arm…to almost total silence.
"Sorry," he mumbled. "I win."
Alvin stepped forward and rolled his eyes then clubbed the young man unconscious. He shook his head as Hiccup measured his length on the cold stone ground.
"Looks like no one will do what they're told," he grumbled, looking over at Drago with a shrug of apology. The Terrorist's face was a mask of fury but Alvin knew that neither man believed it possible that the skinny auburn-haired young man could possibly have beaten the champion. Then he turned brashly to his audience who were slamming their hands on the tables in approval at the savage spectacle. "Well, that was an amazing bout and I have never seen such astonishing conclusion. You have to applaud the astonishing grit and never-say-die attitude of the challenger…but alas, this is the end of both their careers. 85 is dead and 34 is crippled and will almost certainly die of his injuries. So next time…we have a match for a new champion. Mark the date in your diaries, friends…this one's going to be a doozy!"
As Alvin continued his monologue, two guards dragged the limp and beaten shape of Hiccup away, back to his cell. Dumped there, one of the guards sighed and lifted the unconscious shape before laying him on his bed and carefully tucking him in with his blankets. His fellow at the door snorted.
"He's worthless," he reminded his friend but the man shook his head, his green eyes thoughtful.
"He fought very bravely," he told his friend clearly. "And he won me great odds in the sweepstake. No one gave him a chance…but I've watched him since I got here. He's determined and brave and he never gives up." His friend shrugged, shaking his head at the other guard's words.
"It's done now," he said. "He'll never fight again. And that broken leg will probably fester anyway. No matter that he won the bout, he's still lost. He'll be pitched over the cliff within the week."
Chapter 6: Lost and Found
Six: Lost and Found.
Waking in his cell, Hiccup was disorientated for a second until all the pain kicked in and he curled up. The throbbing in his head and the stab of his broken ribs was dwarfed by the agony from his smashed and displaced ankle. Some kind soul had put him on his bed but he was in pain and for a long moment, he wondered why he had fought so hard to continue being a prisoner. Why he had killed a man to remain a locked in the same cell until he died anyway.
Glancing over at the door, his heart plummeted as he saw that his plate seemed to be filled with gruel, his privileges revoked after his failure to lose the previous day. They had left him the blankets because if they had wanted him to freeze, they could just have pitched him into the prison yard but his food rations were back to what they had been at the start and something inside him resented that he had fought and struggled so hard for a privilege which had arbitrarily been taken away…even though there was no one to complain to.
He dragged himself over to collect the food and then he crawled back to the bed and curled up once more, trying not to jar his injuries any more than he had to. The previous day, he had been preparing for another bout…and then he was given to Drago Bludvist and he had made the worst decision to co-operate in the hope that the man may help him. The man whose name was the very reason he had been condemned to die in this hellhole. But instead, despite his sacrifice, he had been matched against the champion in a clear plan to kill him. And it looked like Drago had made sure that Eret was there to watch. His hatred for his former friend hardened into an implacable resolve to repay Eret for everything he had put Hiccup through-even if it took the rest of Hiccup's life.
Over the next couple of days, the pain worsened in his ankle and he began to feel unwell, his head aching and body hot and cold. He felt sick and lightheaded and swiftly ran out of water as he gulped the ration almost as soon as it arrived to try to slake his thirst. But it was only on the fourth day, when he collapsed by the door that his guards realised what was happening.
"He's really sick," the younger guard said. The man was a new comer, only a few months in, and his fellow guessed he hadn't yet cottoned onto the plan that everyone in Jotunheim was a lifer, condemned to spent the remainder fo their days within its walls. Only the Governor and the guards got to leave.
"And that is our business why?" the older guard asked him dryly.
"He's a human being," the younger guard said, his buff shape tensed and clearly exercised about the situation.
"He's a convict," the older guard said. "This one, 34, is a traitor. Condemned of being in league with Bludvist!"
"The same Bludvist that set him up to die?" the younger guard shot back. "How exactly does that work?"
"Not our business either, Dag," the older guard told him dismissively. "Traitors, murderers, gangsters…how would we know why they do what they do? Bludvist may have decided the man outlived his usefulness…"
"And why would he worry anyway, Vorg?" the younger man asked thoughtfully. "He's buried here and would remain here, out of contact and dead to the world. Why go to such lengths to kill a dead man?" The older man clapped his companion on the shoulder.
"You're over-thinking this, Dag!" he told his friend. "Maybe he just wanted amusement. Maybe he wasn't a good enough fuck. Who knows?
"And you're okay with this?" Dag asked, his green eyes troubled. The man shrugged.
"These men have all committed unpardonable crimes and are condemned to die here," Vorg commented. "Why does it matter how they die? This place is the backside of beyond. Why shouldn't we have a little fun?"
"Not my idea of fun," Dag pointed out.
"Though not above wagering on the outcomes," Vorg teased him. Dag folded his arms.
"I'm not a saint," he shot back. "Just a guy trying to do the best he can." And then he sighed. "We have to get him help." Vorg grabbed his shoulder.
"But we have a Medical Officer and we really should take him to her…"
"Dag-he's not to leave his cell. Ever. The Governor was very clear. You defy him on that and he has men here who won't hesitate to kill you," Vorg told him in a low voice. Dag pulled away, his eyes narrowing.
"Then we bring her to him," he said stubbornly. "Look, this guy doesn't make sense. He was convicted and there are instructions about him. Why him? None of the others have special instructions! It feels wrong."
"Dag-everything here is wrong," Vorg told him gruffly. "This place is run like some nineteenth century place of torture. Selling convicts for sex, fighting them to death, staving them, denying them any medical help, killing them on a whim…nothing here sounds like a twenty-first century penal institution!"
"That's true," Dag agreed. "But we have to be better than that. I think he is better than that. I mean, he thanks us every time we deliver his food and water. That's how we knew he was ill…no 'thank you'." Vorg sighed.
"What does it matter if he dies now or in twenty years after suffering isolation, misery and despair?" he asked.
"I believe that where there's life, there's hope," Dag told him calmly. "And he deserves a chance because he fought for his life. He wanted to live. We should ensure that his wishes are honoured." Then he scowled. "And he fought and won. Why have we taken away his privileges?"
"Because he's never going to fight again," Vorg told him with an exasperated sigh. "He can't be granted fighter food and…"
"He earned that by his victory," Dag argued passionately. "Look-he deserves to keep that until the next fight when he'll no longer be a fighter."
"Al would never sanction it," Vorg told him flatly.
"Al would never know," Dag told him seductively. "And that poor bastard will need all the help he gets to survive." Shaking his head, Vorg looked at his younger companion. Sometimes, amid his jaded and cold existence, he forgot that some people were still idealistic and decent and that a normal person would expect basic medical aid to be offered, even to prisoners who were expected the spend the rest of their life in jail. And a small part of him was glad that Dag was here to remind him of what the rest of the world would expect.
"I'll get the MO if you stand guard," he said gruffly. "But he is not to leave the cell, okay? I'm not having Savage and Al's goon squad slit my throat for disobeying that order, okay?"
"Deal," Dag said, turning and standing with his back to the cell door. "I'll be waiting."
The Medical Officer was a temporary replacement for the usual man, who was off on his annual month-long leave. This substitute was an elderly Berkian retired medic who never spoke, scowled at most people and was a small, hunch-backed woman who squinted knowingly at anyone who sought her services. Vorg suspected she had been told no one would ever need her skills but when he explained why he was here, she grabbed her bag, another bag, a surgical kit and several vials of medicine and then scuttled past him.
Dag yelped when she arrived at the cell door and crashed her heavy medical bag into his ankle and then she scowled at him until he opened the cell door. Checking with Vorg, the younger guard opened the door and then stood aside as the MO wandered in, her long grey braids swinging as she moved and then she knelt by the unconscious shape of Hiccup. Frowning, she rested her hand against the prisoner's scorching forehead and she shook her head, tutting audibly before gesturing for the guards to carry the prisoner back to his stone bed shelf. Shaking his head, Vorg helped Dag carry him back, wincing as he felt the man moan with pain and struggle weakly. Once they had placed him back on his bed, they stepped back as the MO stepped forward.
Both men winced as she uncovered his broken leg, gagging at the stench as the festering wound was uncovered. The snapped bone had broken the skin and it was obvious that infection had gotten in. Shaking her head, the old medic pulled out a syringe and injected painkiller, antibiotics and then a sedative…and then she tightened a tourniquet just below his knee. Looking up, she beckoned the men closer. Vorg shook his head.
"Oh no…" he said determinedly.
"We have to hold him down," Dag realised and grabbed his arm.
"I ain't no medical orderly," Vorg said flatly.
"He'll die if she doesn't amputate," Dag guessed and the medic nodded absently, ripping the pants leg open to the knee and sloshing iodine over the festering flesh. He walked over and rested his arms across the young prisoner's chest. Then he looked up at his friend. Vorg sighed and then came to kneel by the young man, pressing his thighs down against the bed. He looked over at the medic, who was laying her instruments out and pulling on gloves.
"Do your worst," he muttered. "And pray that Al never finds out about this."
Hiccup woke in pain, his head muzzy and body hurting. The light was hurting his eyes and his memory seemed to be fractured with nightmares, with pain and fear and images of fighting and brutality and death. His brow furrowed and he tried to move but his leg hurt fiercely…though less than it had. And though he felt unwell, something told him that he was better than he had been.
Slowly, he jammed an elbow under him and he managed a slumped sitting position. He was shocked to find a metal cup of water by his bed and he gratefully drank the tepid fluid, sighing in relief as he realised how thirsty he was. And then he tensed as he heard steps approach and he tried to cringe back as the cell door creaked and then opened-to admit a small elderly woman.
Her eyes widened as she saw he was awake and she managed a slight smile, hobbling in using a walking stick and nodding as she saw him. The door closed behind her and she crouched by his side then lifted the blankets, revealing something that stole his breath and felt like a dagger to the heart: his left leg was gone below the mid-shin. There was a neat bandage in place, covering the wound and he could see the skin was a pale reddish-pink just at the top of the dressing. He inhaled sharply.
"What-what happened?" he asked hoarsely as she looked up with sympathy in her eyes. She sighed, then fished a chalk out of her bag and scratched a few words on the stone floor.
YOUR BROKEN ANKLE WAS COMPOUNDED. INFECTION SET IN. YOU WOULD DIE IF WE DID NOT AMPUTATE.
He blinked and felt his throat tighten. He had known the break was very bad-it had felt like the worst pain ever-but he hadn't looked at it because he couldn't even contemplate moving the injury-and he had assumed no one would treat it anyway. He sighed.
"Why did you assume I wanted not to die?" he asked hollowly.
YOU FOUGHT FOR YOUR LIFE. A MAN WHO WANTED TO DIE WOULD NOT HAVE STRUGGLED SO MUCH. YOU DESERVED THE CHANCE.
"To rot away in here," Hiccup murmured desolately. "Maybe it would have been kinder to let me die." She stared at him and then gently peeled away the dressing, inspecting the wound which was clean and dry. The skin was a rosy pink but there was no sign of infection and no smell. She pressed her lips together and nodded in satisfaction, before putting a new dressing on. And then she drew out a syringe, filled it from a glass vial and injected the lot into Hiccup's thigh.
"OW!" he protested.
DON'T BE A BABY. THAT IS YOUR ANTIBIOTIC. IT IS TREATING THE INFECTION THAT ALMOST KILLED YOU. NO MATTER WHAT YOU SAY, YOUR BODY IS TRYING TO LIVE.
"It's clearly not with the programme," Hiccup muttered. "Condemned to die here." The medic gave a shrug.
BUT NOT NOW. I CAN STOP TREATING YOU NOW THAT YOU HAVE REGAINED CAPACITY IF THAT IS WHAT YOU WISH. I WILL RESPECT YOUR CHOICE.
He looked up then and his eyes widened. She was treating him like a normal human being, like a normal person who deserved the same consideration as any patient in any hospital anywhere. He blinked and a tear slid down his cheek. It was the first time he had been treated as anything of value for so long. He palmed it away.
"No, thank you," he said brokenly. "I-I think it would be a waste of all your efforts. And it seems the Gods haven't given up on me yet." He sighed. "Thank you."
She smiled then, her face lit by a satisfied smile. She refilled his cup and he drank the water thirstily, then she gave him a handful of pills. He raised an eyebrow but she folded her arms and he swallowed them without dissent. Finally, she checked his vitals and smiled. Efficiently, she repacked her bag and then handed him a bottle of pills.
THESE ARE YOUR ANTIBIOTICS. TAKE ONE THREE TIMES A DAY UNTIL THEY RUN OUT. Then she paused and fished out another larger bottle which she handed over. AND THESE ARE MULTIVITAMINS. YOU LOOK LIKE YOU'VE BEEN STARVED FOR A WHILE AND YOU NEED THESE TO HEAL UP. She smiled. I FEEL YOU MAY BE MEANT FOR GREATER THINGS. TAKE ONE OF THESE A DAY UNTIL THEY RUN OUT. I WILL RETURN IN THREE DAYS TO CHECK YOUR DRESSING AGAIN. REST AND DRINK PLENTY. He nodded and grasped her hand.
"I don't think I can ever repay you…but thanks," he murmured. She sighed.
ONE DAY, YOU MAY BE ABLE TO OFFER HELP TO ANOTHER, she wrote.
"Not sure how," he murmured but she wagged an admonishing finger at him. "Sorry. Carry on," he amended sheepishly, feeling like he was a small boy being reprimanded by his elderly grandmother. She turned back to writing once more.
ALL I ASK IS THAT YOU PAY THE KINDNESS FORWARD. IF YOU MEET SOMEONE LESS FORTUNATE THAN YOU, DO NOT TURN AWAY. EVERYONE HAS HIS VALUE. AND NO ONE SHOULD BE CAST ASIDE JUST BECAUSE OF WHAT OTHERS THINK.
He nodded as she rose and hobbled to the door.
"I promise," he said roughly. "Not sure that I will ever be in a position to do that. I mean, I may find a seven-legged spider in here who needs my sympathy but beyond that…my chances of large scale help are a bit limited…" She smiled and shook her head. And then she rapped on the door and in a moment, she was gone, leaving Hiccup on his own once more.
His food was once again the good fare he had received as a fighter and the combination of meat, warm food, antibiotics and vitamins helped him slowly recover from the infection and operation. The medic returned as promised and removed the dressing, satisfied that he was healing well. She left him more vitamins and a programme of exercises to strengthen his muscles but told him that she would not be permitted to return again. So she hugged him and wished him good luck. And that she hoped she would see him once again.
Time passed and though he half-heartedly attempted the exercises, he fell into a depression. She had confirmed he had lost a week and he amended his calendar to reflect the time he was ill but as the days slowly passed, his hopes of reprieve finally vanished and as the next fight passed, his rations were reduced to the thin gruel that was barely enough to keep him alive. He tried his mental exercises but as his mood darkened, he began to curse his fate and just sit hunched in the corner of cell for hour upon hour, staring blankly or weeping and wishing for death.
He never saw the old medic again and the guards changed to a pair who never said a word and sometimes forgot to give him his full rations. He lost weight and grew weaker. Sometimes, he could barely recall his life before the cell, his entire existence shrinking to the four grey walls, now scratched with almost five years' worth of days incarcerated. Sometimes, as he stared at the sky through his little window, he thought he could see clouds and once a small bird flittered in his view, sheltering in the recess his window sat in. The sight of another living creature after years brought tears to his eyes and dropped his mood even further, only emphasising that he was alone and trapped while the bird was free.
He considered suicide but he had nothing to hang himself with and nothing sharp to cut his throat or wrists. Until he recalled the little safety razor he had stolen on that final day, concealed in the empty boot from his amputated foot before he had transferred it to somewhere safer…but as he lifted the blade from its little hiding place, he had seen Astrid's letters and he had broken down completely, clutching them to his chest and crying until he was exhausted. And as he weighed the blade in his hand, there was a fragile thread that kept him hanging on, kept him eating the gruel and drinking the water and going through the motions of life because he was still alive and people had risked themselves to give him that gift. He knew the medic and the guards probably had been acting directly against the Governor's orders but those small acts of kindness persuaded him that he couldn't give up, no matter how miserable he was. He had fought to live and something within him wouldn't let him give up on life…not while he still had breath in his body.
He was huddled on his sleeping shelf, wrapped in his patched and stained blankets because it was another bitterly cold day in his sixth Devastating Winter in Jotunheim when he heard a noise. It was like a small scratching. Frowning, he sat up and stared in the direction of the noise, wondering if it was a rat or some other vermin. There was a pause and then it stopped and he sagged back in disappointment. Then there was another bout of scratching and he frowned-and then almost jumped out of his skin.
The slab at the farthest side of the cell lifted and a head popped up. A pair of blue eyes widened and a thick blond unibrow dipped in disgust.
"Blast it tae Loki! This isnae the yard!" the man said.
Chapter 7: Comrade in Arms
Seven: Comrade in arms
Hiccup stared at the man in utter and total shock. For over five years, he had been confined to his cell and apart from the times he had been hauled out to fight for his life and kill for the amusement fo the rich and depraved, he had been alone. He hadn't seen another human being for over two years.
"H-hello?' he tried, his voice very hoarse with disuse. The man looked over at him and winked.
""Don't mind me," he said brashly. "I've just got turned around. Damnation. That's six years of tunnelling in the wrong damned direction!"
"Um…tunnelling?" Hiccup asked. The man looked at him.
"Yeah…I'm digging my way out of here," he said easily. Hiccup took a shuddering breath.
"Can-can I come?" he asked. The man looks startled.
"What?' he asked.
"Can I join you?" Hiccup asked more firmly, a sudden flicker of hope springing up in his chest. The man stared at him.
"No," he said and slammed the flagstone down as he vanished.
"Wait!" Hiccup begged, flinging off his blankets and crawling across the cell. He reached the flagstone and scrabbled frantically at the slab, managing to raise it and rest it against the cell wall and then staring into the tunnel. "Wait!" And then he wriggled down into the space-coming almost face to face with the man.
"What're ye doing in here, laddie?" the man asked, his face inches from Hiccup's. The young man almost gagged at the foul breath.
"Getting out of my cell," he said simply. The tunneller shook his head.
"No yer not," he said sharply. "Get yer own tunnel!" Hiccup frowned.
"I don't think so," he said firmly. "I think you can tunnel twice as fast when there are two of you."
"I mean, twice as much muscle power…"
"Not in you, yer fishbone," the man challenged him.
"Haha," Hiccup said sarcastically. "I'm not afraid of hard work."
"Okay-I go back to my cell, call the guards and they can talk to you about your subterranean activities," Hiccup threatened him calmly. "I mean, I may even get some better food out of it."
"Why not?" Hiccup asked him simply. "If you won't allow me to help, why should I keep your secret? Why should I facilitate your escape while I rot in my cell?"
There was a pause.
"I could kill yer," the man said gruffly, his voice edged with menace. Hiccup felt the prickle of metal against his neck and realised, in the few dim rays of light that filtered past him, that the man had a hook for a hand-and it was dug into his throat.
"Go ahead," he challenged the man bitterly. "I mean, it would pretty much finish my life's saga the way it's all gone. Wrongly condemned for treason, forced to fight for my life over and over, losing my leg as a result of a fight designed to kill me, betrayed by my best friend, abandoned by my family and the woman I love-why should you be any different? Go ahead-you'd be doing me a favour."
There was a silence-and then the pressure withdrew.
"Back up, laddie," the man said gruffly. "I canna let that go. I'm no cold-blooded killer, whatever else I'm guilty of. I'll come through and ye can tell me what's bin happening ter ye." Breathing hard, Hiccup backed up and wriggled out of the tunnel and then the man squirmed and scrambled his way through and pulled himself into Hiccup's cell.
Eyes wide, Hiccup scrambled back to his bed shelf and stared at the man. He was a shadej taller than the young prisoner and considerably broader and thicker in the middle, his face broad with a prognathic chin, a long blond moustache which was elaborately braided and a bald head. His blue eyes twinkled with intelligence and humour and his left hand was indeed missing and replaced by a fearsome looking hook. His right leg was also amputated below the knee and a simple wooden peg was attached in its place. And Hiccup reckoned he was probably in his fifties, around his father's age…and he definitely had a thick Berkian accent. The man looked him up and down.
"Yeh don't look like the usual fare for this place," he commented. "What do they call ye, laddie?"
"Number 34," Hiccup admitted slowly. "But my name is Hiccup." The man chuckled.
"I see the good old Berkian naming traditions are still ruining kids' lives a thousand years after the Viking era," he said cheerfully. "Twenty Nine. Otherwise known as Gobber."
"Wow. I think Hiccup is a better option than that!" the younger man commented as Gobber chuckled.
"Ye know, I like ye, laddie. Yer a sarcastic bastard. I appreciate that!"
"Wow. First person who talks to me for years and he calls me sarcastic. Happy days." Gobber snorted with laughter at the dry comment.
"Yup. You'll do," he said and lowered his heavy body onto the ground. "So tell ole' Gobber what happened?" Taking a slow breath, Hiccup nodded and told his tale.
There was a long pause after he had finished and then Gobber scratched his chin with his hook.
"That is a pretty sorry tale," he admitted, eyeing the young man up and down. "I mean, ye really are innocent. Is there no way ye misinterpreted what yer friend said?" Hiccup shook his head, his hand tightening in anger.
"He testified in the trial that I was the one that accepted the commission to deliver the suitcase," he said bitterly. "He claimed that he knew nothing about the suitcase. He pointed out that there was nothing to tie him to the case. And that he was not at work on the day of the delivery and had nothing to do with the run. And that he was personally horrified by my reckless and illegal actions. That he had begged me not to take the run and put money above the safety of everyone in the Archipelago. And they believed him."
"Must've been the stupidest jury in the history of juries," Gobber commented.
"It was a Berk Jury," Hiccup explained.
"Nuff said," the older man retorted. "Not great thinkers on Berk and with a real sheep mentality. Ye get a good attorney and stir up enough outrage and their brains congeal. Logic and reason go straight out of the window and they'll go fer the easiest option that will assuage their sense of public outrage…whether or not the defendant is actually guilty or not…"
"Sounds familiar," Hiccup said, wrapping his arms around his knees. Gobber tapped his hook on the ground as he thought.
"Of course, no Public Prosecutor worth his salt would even consider a case based on such flimsy evidence…" Gobber commented as Hiccup lifted his head.
"Except Grimborn said he had to because the evidence was overwhelming," he sighed.
"It's circumstantial at best," Gobber said gruffly. "There is no paper trail tae link ye to the suitcase. There is no evidence ye support the Terrorist Bludvist. All the have ye on is delivering the case to a restricted location- a misdemeanour at worst."
"Yeah, he said that too," Hiccup said. "But after he had given his opening oration laying out the case, the judge insisted they add treason to the list of charges. And guess what? That's what I end up convicted of."
"I bet yer family were having nae luck in getting past him," Gobber commented.
"My Dad is a pretty persuasive man but in the end, he had to appeal to the Council of Ministers to have Grimborn removed," Hiccup admitted. "And because I'm still here, I guess that failed."
"He seems to be a nasty piece o' work-that's for sure," the older man mused as Hiccup shrugged.
"Yeah-that really is just my luck," he commented and then he looked up. "I've told you my sorry tale of woe. How did you get here?"
Gobber looked at the young man and sighed.
"Fair enough-though it's not a great story," the older said, sighing. "I'm from Berk as well-though I left a long while back. I was a soldier and then an engineer and mechanic. And I loved my job. I had good friends and a good life…but I was fascinated by legends of the Treasure of Eyja Nott…" Hiccup raised an eyebrow.
"I thought that was a myth they told kids to get them out learning geography," he said dryly.
"I mean, my best friend and I used to go out looking for the treasure of Hamish the First," Gobber revealed, his eyes gleaming with nostalgia. "We were both buff sons of Vikings and both of us boar-headed stubborn men who would never give an inch and who definitely knew that we were always right! We fought like badgers and almost got ourselves frozen to death on a fruitless search for the treasure. But I knew that we had turned back too soon and if we hadn't given up, we would have gotten close." Hiccup pulled his blanket tighter around his bony shoulders and gave a small smile.
"Sounds like something my Dad would have said," he commented. "He would have never admitted he was wrong. Man, he was competitive…" Gobber chuckled.
"A lot of Berkians are the same," Gobber admitted with a grin. "Yours truly among them… But the fable caught my imagination-especially as I learned there was a basis in fact. The ancient scribe and explorer, Bork-who was a very distant ancestor of mine-was an expert on dragons, including a very rare species called a Night Fury…and he claimed that they originally came from a remote island called the Isle of Night."
"Or Eyja Nott," Hiccup murmured. "But it's all…"
"There was an ancient Viking Chief named Grimbeard the Grisly, early on-maybe two or three centuries-after Vikings had sailed to the Archipelago," Gobber explained. "He was powerful and ferocious-a complete sonova rancid troll. He subjugated most of the Archipelago and plundered every single island. When he was finally overthrown, he retreated to the most remote part of the Archipelago and he and his treasure were finally stranded on Eyja Nott. And there it remains to this day."
"Or Grimbeard slipped his pursuers and sailed south and lived out the rest of his life in utter luxury with all the Archipelago's cash," Hiccup commented dryly.
"Boy, you are bitter and cynical," Gobber told him with a raised eyebrow.
"Why thank you, I also do parties," Hiccup smirked and then he gave a laugh. "Thor, I am out of practice." Gobber leaned forward and clapped him on the shoulder with his real hand.
"I like ye, laddie!" he reassured the young man. "Where's the magnificence in yer soul? The dreams? The ability to believe in something amazing happening?" Hiccup gestured to the cell.
"I think it died the day Drago fucked me then fucked me over and tried to have me killed," he said. "The day I ended up with the injury that lost me my leg and almost took my life. The day when I knew there was no hope and I would die in this Odinforsaken place." Gobber's eyes softened at the suddenly defeated tone.
"Laddie-we will get out of here and I will show you that there is hope," he said gently. Hiccup shrugged.
"Knowing my luck, the tunnel would flood or cave in and I'd end up killing myself trying to escape," he said and then he sighed. "But it's the only option because I'm gonna die here anyway." Gobber grinned.
"And ye know, having a partner who can fly a plane will be an asset as well," he began but Hiccup's head dropped.
"Once, maybe…" he mumbled and gestured to his left leg. Gobber gave a shrug.
"That shouldnae stop yer!" he told the younger man brashly. "I mean-look at me! I'm down a couple of limbs and I don't let it stop me…or even slow me down…"
"A peg won't work," Hiccup told him flatly. Gobber shook his head.
"We can sort that," he said. "I'm a mechanic and engineer-I can make you something better."
"In here?" Hiccup asked cynically. Gobber smiled.
"Don't ye worry, laddie," he reassured him. "Ole Gobber will sort it." And then his eyes narrowed. "Ye haven walked since ye lost it, have ye?" Hiccup shook his head. "How long?"
"Two years," he sighed. "I was given exercises but there seemed no point…" Gobber tutted.
"So how do ye…?" he asked and then he saw the damage to the knees of the young man's pants. "Oh laddie…" He gently rested a hand on the young man's arm. "Look-the one thing we have is time. And we're going to get ye walking again." Then he sighed and squinted at the window. "Ah…the sky. Havenae seen that for many years." He patted Hiccup's arm again. "Start on those exercises, laddie and I'll be back later…"
"Where…where are you going?" Hiccup asked, suddenly afraid he would be left alone again after so many years but Gobber grinned.
"Gotta be back in me cell for that lovely tasty gruel or the guards will notice I'm not there," Gobber said with a wink. "In the meantime, laddie, ye need to eat yer gruel, do yer exercises and keep yer spirits up. Because yer right: we can dig better with two of us." And then he squeezed himself back through the tunnel and vanished.
Gobber came back, as he had promised and for the first time in a long time, someone had kept his word to the young man. Hiccup had been almost beyond speech when the man had popped his head up and grinned at the shocked expression. As he struggled out of the tunnel, he couldn't help teasing the younger man.
"What did ye never think ole' Gobber would come back?" he asked and Hiccup desolately shook his head.
"Everyone else has let me down," he admitted wretchedly. The two-limbed man gave a warm grin and came to sit at Hiccup's side.
"Well, I'm not gonna," he said firmly. "Ye remind me of someone…canna remember who…but I'm as keen to have someone tae talk to. And yer young and sassy enough for me…" Hiccup managed a wry smile.
"So it's my sass you're after?" he asked warily and Gobber sighed.
"Laddie-I just need a friend and a helper," he admitted. "And you definitely need a friend. I'm not about to jump ye, laddie…and I'm not getting any younger. These old bones are definitely aching more than they were and I want to finish this tunnel before I die of old age." Shrugging, Hiccup nodded.
"None of us are getting any younger," he admitted. "I've been here more than five years…" And he gestured to the wall. Gobber peered up and sighed.
"Clever lad," he murmured. "So are ye in?" Nodding, Hiccup offered the man his hand, taking a deep breath and praying that his trust wouldn't be misplaced this last time.
"Partners?" he asked and Gobber gave a brash grin.
True to his word, Hiccup restarted his exercises with Gobber helping. The man seemed happy to spend time with his new friend, rather than restart excavation in the opposite direction and acted as a mentor and partner in the belated rehabilitation while Hiccup brought his concentration to the excavation works. He asked a lot of very detailed questions of Gobber and crawled along the tunnel himself before he sketched a layout of the Fortress and the location of the tunnel. Amazed and shocked, Gobber peered at the neat sketches and back up at the younger man.
"That is amazing," he breathed. "Laddie-how did ye do this?"
"I memorised it from when they brought me in and when I was taken to the fights and up to see the Governor and Drago," Hiccup admitted. "I guess I was hoping I may get a chance to escape…though probably didn't think it through. I mean, where would I go?"
"I was gonna wait until the prisoner transport arrived and jump the pilot once they had taken the new convicts inside-and then leave," Gobber muttered. "Of course, once we get ye a second leg, can ye fly a copter?" Slowly, Hiccup nodded.
"May be a bit rusty," he admitted. "But yeah. I can fly." Gobber gave a broad grin.
"So we have a plan," he said. "First, we strengthen your legs and get you walking once more. Then we tunnel in the right direction-while I share everything I have learned with you, because you are a remarkable and brilliant young man."
"Thanks," Hiccup murmured, his throat curiously thick.
"And finally-we escape from Freezing-To-Death," Gobber said. Hiccup looked at the plans he had drafted and nodded.
"It's going to take us five years to get to the outer wall on the cliffside," he said. "I'm with you all the way. Let's start."
Chapter 8: Slow Way Out
Eight: Slow Way Out
Hiccup proved himself remarkably adept at shimmying through the uneven tunnels and working at the head of the tunnel. They had calculated where Gobber had gotten turned round and knew where and in which direction to tunnel next and Hiccup quickly drafted plans and calculated how quickly they could tunnel and how long it would take. The estimate was just over five years-even with both of them digging.
The ground under the Fortress was frozen like iron, limiting the time they could be down there for fear of hypothermia and taking ages to chisel and scrape a few handfuls of dirt away per day. Gobber was heartened because he had been disposing of the waste in his slop bucket but he now pointed out that there was twice as much disposal capacity available which should speed up their progress. But also he wanted to discuss the treasure with Hiccup-and share every instance and piece of knowledge he possessed, because he hadn't had anyone to talk to for over fifteen years. So between exercising and digging, Gobber assumed the role of mentor, friend and teacher. It turned out that he had a mind as sharp as a tack and was an amazing engineer. And as he began to trust the older man and open up.
So he discussed his upbringing, confided his love of mechanisms, his engineering training and the aircraft he had always wanted to design. He grew passionate as he went through the deficiencies he had noted in the current options and what he would want from a light and a medium sized aircraft. As they chatted, Hiccup sketched out his design, showing the design features he knew would improve the vessel and Gobber was astonished that the young man had retained such a complex and detailed design…until Hiccup explained that he had designed it mentally while he had been locked up. He guessed someone else would have already patented the novel design features he had thought up and there would already be an aircraft like his out there. But Gobber wasn't so sure because what Hiccup was suggesting was an amazing leap forward.
So between sessions digging and exercising, they had gone over the plans and Gobber had challenged him, asking questions, pointing out errors and requesting calculations that would prove it would work. And Hiccup had risen to the challenge, modelling every possible situation and refining his plans as they had discussed them. He drew new engines, a novel aileron and tail assembly and Gobber was shocked that this was what had kept the young man going. So Gobber had taught him everything he knew.
Gobber had modified his second metal food plate-he didn't clearly explain how he managed to get his hands on a second one though he did mention that drunken guards weren't especially efficient at keeping track of plates, cups and buckets which is how he had several of each-and found ways to modify the metal to create a new leg for Hiccup, carving a wooden cup for his leg which he lined with beaten leather they rescued from Hiccup's other boot, the one he would no longer need because he didn't have a left foot. And the young man's face had been covered with a genuine smile as they fitted the unique prosthetic and Gobber had taught him to walk once more.
Working in the tunnel was cold and cramped, wax used to make tiny candles and cut hair also used the help light the way. Hiccup gladly contributed his beard and the use of his little razor to trim his hair and beard while Gobber used his hook and a small chisel he had managed to smuggle in to cut. They dug into cells that seemed to be empty and scavenged wood and scraps to brace the tunnel as the inched their way forward. And as they advanced, they knew they were getting closer to freedom.
"When I left Berk, I was used to everyone ridiculing meh obsession," Gobber explained as they sat by the entrance to the tunnel in Gobber's cell. Hiccup had found that initially, he was a little nervous in leaving his cell and clawing his way through the narrow tunnel towards Gobber's cell. He wasn't claustrophobic but he was crawling into the unknown and as he popped his head up, he had been surprised.
Gobber's cell was a little larger than his and he seemed to have accrued far more in the way of amenities. Gobber had a stool, a low table, several books, a small pillow and a spyglass. He still had the obligatory slop bucket, jug and plate but there were also duplicates under the table-and there were also a chisel, a screwdriver and a small wrench. Looking around in shock, the young man had been speechless but Gobber had sat him down on the stool and then sat on the table himself and had grinned.
"Welcome to meh palace," he said.
One thing they had to be careful of was to be back in their cells at feeding time, partly because Hiccup still thanked his jailers for the food and water and because they needed to ensure that their slop buckets were emptied-with the spoils from the tunnel. And of course, because if they were not there or their buckets and plates were not ready, the guards would have opened the cell doors and looked to check the prisoners were still alive. And because, once he had been rehabilitated, Hiccup was such more agile and lithe than Gobber, they tended to meet in Gobber's cell and Hiccup was the one who made the dash back to his own quarters to get there in time.
Between spells of tunnelling and exercise, Gobber imparted his wisdom, both in life, in rehab and living life as an amputee and in fighting. "Just in case," he had explained with a grin as he made sure Hiccup was versed in a wider selection of dirty tricks than even Spitelout knew-as well as making sure the young man learned to box and some simple martial arts moves. And as he had trained the young man, Gobber had fired question after question at his friend, sharpening his wits and ensuring his brain was trained as well as his body. So Hiccup answered a barrage of questions on engineering rules, physical laws, elements and alloys, design principles and even the history of Berk.
In response, he had sparred with Gobber and reminded the man of Ancient Norse, which he was fluent in, thanks to his father. Gobber had been impressed, admitting that his own recollection of his lessons from school was somewhat blurry-mainly because he had been not paying attention at the time. Hiccup had smiled, recalling his father's reminiscences of his own time in school and how he and his best friend were repeatedly sent out of Ancient Norse lessons for playing Maces and Talons-a reason why he had wanted his son to be fluent in the language and skilled in the game. Hiccup had not disappointed his father on either count.
"So tell me how you found out about the Isle of Night," Hiccup prompted Gobber as they ate their dinner together. The gruel had been thicker and much more nourishing recently and Hiccup had overheard his guards talking outside his cell as they had dolloped an unheard-of second spoonful into his plate. Apparently Alvin had lost above average numbers in the fights since Hiccup was retired and there had been fewer convicts sent to Jotunheim over the last year due to a shift in Archipelago Penal Policy so the Governor had decided to feed his current population better to ensure that fewer died of starvation or disease. At least until the supply increased once more. Gobber chewed the hard black bread that had also started to be provided and glared at it.
"Ye know, eating rock would be more tasty," he grumbled.
"No, it wouldn't," Hiccup had retorted. "I tried when I was at my lowest ebb and my rations were being restricted even more than usual. At least this is chewable."
"Speak for yerself," Gobber muttered and gestured. He had a missing tooth and he had fashioned himself a replacement from stone he had painstakingly smoothed down from a stone he had chipped from the wall of his cell. It was prone to fall out and rubbed but Gobber insisted it was better than nothing, though Hiccup wasn't so sure.
"The Isle of Night?" he prompted as Gobber chewed his bread carefully.
"When I left Berk tae follow the clues, I headed tae the Central Library and Archives on Meathead," he explained. "Those Meatheads aren't a patch on good Berkian folk! I spent a good month there, searching the records from back when Grimbeard was mekin' life hell for the other Vikings of the Archipelago-and for the twenty years afterwards. Not that they were properly archived or filed or even in any sort o' order…"
"So what did you find?" Hiccup asked him before the older man could launch into a diatribe against the filing system in the fabled Library on Meathead. Of course, there probably was a unique filing system since the Librarians there were renowned across the North for being intolerant, capricious and quite violent. Hiccup guessed they had been chosen for their martial prowess, not their familiarity with the Dewey Decimal system.
"Grimbeard did go to the Isle of Night when he was ousted," Gobber revealed. "And the Library revealed that his men were sent away when he was dying-with a list of clues how to find his treasure which he ordered should be given to his son so he could claim his birthright. But his son-Hamish the First-rejected his father's legacy and became one of the most revered Chiefs of Berk. He also built up his own fortune, some legitimate and some possibly handed to him from his father anyway…"
"So Grimbeard's treasure may actually be the treasure of Hamish the First?" Hiccup checked but Gobber shook his head vehemently.
"No!" he growled. "Were ye nae listening? Grimbeard kept the vast bulk o' his riches and took them with him to Eyja Nott and died there with them"
"And no one went and stole them after he was gone?" Hiccup asked cynically.
"The Isle of Night is legendary and when Grimbeard's men died, the route was lost," Gobber explained. "Hamish rejected the treasure as the wages of his father's evil and built up his own riches. There are rumours that his great great grandson found Grimbeard's map and renewed the clues before hiding the map once more. And of course Hamish himself buried his own treasure which I didnae find either…"
"Hmm…seems to be a family trait, burying treasure and losing the map," Hiccup muttered as Gobber folded his arms irritably.
"Ye know, it wouldnae ha' been half as difficult is that boar-headed Stoick had taken my advice and we had…" he began but Hiccup started and grabbed the man by the shoulders.
"What? Stoick?" he exclaimed urgently. Gobber nodded, not really paying attention.
"Yes, Stoick," he concurred. "You know, Mayor of Berk? Huge man with flaming red hair, voice that can be heard half an island away, looks like half a mountain on legs, beard you could lose a yak in…"
"My father," Hiccup interrupted.
Gobber's jaw dropped. His eyes widened and he stared at the skinny shape, the emerald eyes now suddenly familiar from a woman he had known as the wife of his best friend…and from the young son they had together.
"S-S-Stoick is yer father?" he mouthed. Hiccup nodded.
"Um…yeah…didn't you know?" he said as Gobber's eyes widened.
"No," he mumbled. "Ye didnae give me yer name…"
"I did," Hiccup said defensively.
"Yeah…Hiccup…" Gobber retorted. "Not Hiccup Haddock…"
"And how many Hiccups do you think there are on Berk? Or in the Archipelago in general?" the younger man asked sarcastically.
"Well, Berk is an island that still celebrates 'Bludgeon Day' where some o' the more enthusiastic members of the community bludgeon each other over the head competitively," Gobber pointed out. "I'm called Gobber, yer cousin is called Snotlout, yer grandfather was called Old Wrinkley…"
"But couldn't you have something?" Hiccup protested. "I mean…" Gobber suddenly sat back and his head bowed.
"I left Berk when ye were a wee nipper, Hiccup," he sighed, his voice guilty. "Last I recall o' ye was a very wee laddie with short straight auburn hair, bright green eyes, the agility of a newborn giraffe and an uncanny ability her get into trouble." He gestured. "I mean…look at yer!" Hiccup glanced down.
"You mean skinny, down a leg, looking like a scarecrow topped by a bird's nest…" he said quietly. But Gobber didn't even pause, throwing his arms around the young man and almost crushing him in a ferocious hug. Hiccup went rigid, unused to any affection or human contact for five terrible years…and then he relaxed, resting against the older man and wrapping his arms around the solid body.
"Laddie-I should've known," Gobber said. "I mean…yer right…how many Hiccups are there? And ye have yer mother's eyes…"
"Yeah, I should have given them back," Hiccup sassed automatically as Gobber squeezed him tighter. He flapped a hand desperately. "Gobber-can't breathe…" he gasped and then inhaled in relief as the big man released him. "Thor-last thing I need is to be smothered by by newly refound godfather." Gobber looked ashamed again.
"Aye…I should've been there for ye," he said ashamedly. "But I left when ye were a nipper because I needed tae satisfy meh own quest, the obsession I'd had since I was a teen. I mean, yer Dad had his wife and the son he had longed for so long and he was Mayor of the island and he didnae need me…" Hiccup sighed.
"A year after you left, Mom was killed in a car wreck and it was just him and me," he revealed quietly. "I know he mentioned you a few times but I got the impression it was just too painful with you not being there. I couldn't remember you-just a big outline… I mean, it was just him and me, since Uncle Spite never really liked me and Snot used to bully me…" Gobber stared at him in shock.
"Thor, yer really tightening the screw, laddie," he grumbled. "I mean, now I know I should've been there when ye needed me…" Hiccup sighed.
"I still have that book ye left me, the book on engineering and smithing and mechanisms," he admitted. "I mean, it was way too advanced for a four year old but it did fire my imagination. It's the reason why I'm an engineer and pilot…" Gobber was sniffing now.
"I never wept when I lost meh limbs…but I'm weeping now…" he sniffed. "I should've bin there, helping ye with yer studies and nurturing the brilliant mechanic and engineer ye've become…" Hiccup sighed and patted the older man's shoulder again.
"Well, you're here now…when I'm alone and abandoned and without hope so maybe…you're just where and when I need you," he said slowly. Gobber looked up, wiping his eyes with his hook hand and then lunged at Hiccup, hugging him fiercely again. Hiccup felt his ribs creak once more but allowed the gesture because it was kind of nice to have the warmth of human contact once more. And then Gobber sniffed and pulled back, reaching inside the noisome recesses of his stained shirt to pull out a piece of parchment that was folded and stained…and, as he unfolded it, marked with a map.
Hiccup's eyes widened and he stared.
"Is…is that…?" he asked quietly. Gobber nodded.
"The Isle of Night," he confirmed. "I found it inside an ancient book from Viking times, a couple of hundred years after Grimbeard's time…well, I copied it because the original was falling tae pieces. I spent hours copying it and then I took the original. Buried it in meh family grave plot on Berk." Hiccup leaned forward and squinted.
"These runes are an ancient dialect and don't make much sense," he murmured. and then he frowned. "But I have seen the island shape before. On an aviation map…" He paused and closed his eyes banging his hands against his forehead. "Think, Hiccup-think!" Eyes widening, Gobber watched him for a moment and then decided to speak.
"Yeh know where the island is?" he asked and Hiccup nodded with a small smile.
"I do believe I do," he admitted. Gobber grabbed him and kissed him on the cheek, causing Hiccup to pull back and wiped his face urgently.
"Gobber! I mean GOBBER! Bleurgh!" he managed, looking shocked as the older man suddenly appeared self-conscious. And then he frowned. "You never meant to show me this map, did you?" Pausing, the older man shook his bald head, his braided moustache swinging.
"Um…no…" he mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. "I mean, I worked long and hard to find this and I wasnae willing to give it tae anyone. What if ye turned out tae be a murderous thief?"
"As opposed to a wrongly-convicted innocent man?" Hiccup asked him sharply. "You were going to abandon me…" He swallowed but Gobber sighed.
"Laddie, I would never…but ye think I lost meh hand and leg in a freak mutton accident? There are some very bad men out there seeking the treasure. I ended here because I had tae kill tae protect myself and stop them taking what I had spent almost ten years collating and researching across the whole Archipelago." Gobber's eyes had hardened..and then he shrugged. "But yer me godson and the laddie I held when ye were a couple of hours old…though Valka didn't know because Stoick stole you to show me when she was asleep after the birth…aye, she had a temper on her when she was riled…I remember…"
"Oh, sorry…" The older man was contrite but his eyes twinkled. "And yeh know ye sounded just like your father then?" Hiccup rubbed the bridge of his nose.
"Oh Gods…" he mumbled. "Gobber!" The man wrapped his arm around Hiccup's shoulders and gave him a squeeze.
"Laddie-I promise that when we escape, it will be together and together, we will find that treasure and return home in triumph!" Gobber promised. "As long as you can find that island…" Hiccup gave a small smile.
"I know exactly where that island is," he said. "And it's not that far from here."
Chapter 9: Dreams Like Fog Slip Away
Nine: Dreams like fog slip away
It was one of the happiest periods of Hiccup’s life, qualified by the fact that he was still a condemned man in the worst prison in the North. Reunited with the godfather he could barely recall and given a companion with whom he got on like a house on fire were two things he had completely given up on. Though Hiccup loved his father and had a very good relationship with him, Stoick Haddock was a very different person to his son,
Large, traditional, loud, Stoick had been a football star at college, spend a period in the army serving his country and then he had returned home to move into island politics to serve Berk, as his entire family had before him. He tended to be blunt, was very wedded to his physical being and was completely dedicated to his job, while Hiccup was brilliant, sarcastic, adventurous and intuitive. Lanky but lean, Hiccup had been more of a runner and swimmer and had excelled at school, taking AP classes in all his Senior Year subjects, though making sure he took Norse and Viking History to please his father as well. Working as a mechanic during the first couple of years of college, he had bought Toothless, his almost-scrapped Night Strike aircraft and rebuilt the rusted hulk from the ground up while funding flying lessons from his college fund. And he had deferred his last two years as he had used the rebuilt Toothless it to set up Night Fury Transport. His father had been mad at that, growling that his son should have stuck at what he had started as he always had. For about a year, there had been a breach between them but Astrid had loyally stuck by him, working evenings and early mornings to bring in extra money until the business had got off the ground-metaphorically as well as literally. Hiccup and his equally stubborn father had been brought back together by Astrid’s loyal mediation and they had talked through their differences and patched their relationship back up. And Hiccup had completed his engineering degree while running Night Fury Transport, graduating six months before he was arrested. And one thing Stoick had never wavered in was his belief in his son…
The only problem with his new situation was that almost constant company had been a little jarring in the first few days for a man who had been subjected to almost complete solitary confinement for five years and Hiccup had found he needed to draw back from the constant chatter and recentre, clearing his thoughts through the chatter. But following that brief period of adjustment, it had been a blessing…and even better when Gobber had recognised him. Following their mutual recognition as godson and godfather, that last barrier was down and Gobber had finally been honest about everything, including his original but now scrapped plans to double-cross Hiccup and leave him once they had escaped to retrieve the treasure on his own.
Thinking about it, as he lay curled in his cell, exhausted by a day of tunnelling and squinting over the map, he couldn’t really blame Gobber. The prison was filled with the worst of the worst and Hiccup was probably the only innocent man in the place, the guards and Governor included-while Gobber freely admitted that his convictions for larceny, graverobbing, murder and manslaughter had been fully deserved, though justified in the quest.
“There’s a community of people out there searching for treasure and they get to recognise yeh,” he explained. “And I wasnae one o’ them so I set about it very differently. I mean, I broke into the museum of Uglithug and found a clue to the treasure on the underside of a parchment that was mounted because no-one had ever tried to look at it properly…”
“And they put out an Archipelago-wide ABP for you for that,” Hiccup added, having heard the tale three times already. Gobber grinned.
“I looked at it differently to them because I wasn’t trained in Archaeology or any of those namby pamby things people study when they want to find treasure…” Gobber told him proudly.
“Like maybe the ability to read the language that the clues are written in?” Hiccup noted dryly. Gobber clapped him on the shoulder so hard he nearly knocked him off the bed-shelf.
“That’s why Odin brought me yer,” he announced happily. Rolling his eyes, Hiccup squinted at the words Gobber had copied out and then his eyes widened as he mentally translated the words.
In Smidvarg’s Lair keep your head,
The sun shall point your way ahead
“It’s a rhyming clue,” he muttered. “That’s why it makes no sense. So who is Smidvarg?”
“One of Grimbeard’s men? Though I never heard of one of them called that…” Gobber muttered, idly rotating his hook. “Do another one…”
On Viggo’s Fall, the flames are hot
Eruptodon, eat your fill,
If it be cool, worry not
Gronckles will feed you still
“You see, that makes no sense,” Hiccup complained. “I mean, I know a Gronckle was an ancient dragon. And probably an Eruptodon. But who is Viggo? Apart from the man who sent me here…and I doubt he’s that old that he’s featuring in an ancient Viking clue…”
“Aye, well Viggo isnae an uncommon name in these parts,” Gobber reassured him. “I knew a lad named Viggo Hardrada in the army…he was a total ass, tae be honest. Couldnae find his ass with both hands if he had a map, if ye take my meaning…”
“Not really,” Hiccup admitted, squinting at the third clue.
At the edge of land and sea
Where water turns to bone
There shall ye see
The path that leads ye home.
“I mean, it sounds like it should be the first clue but that is number three,” he sighed. Gobber frowned.
“What do the symbols and numbers written at various points in the map mean?” he asked. Hiccup rolled his eyes and sat back.
“I don’t know-but I do know that when we get out, we will need to research quickly on the ancient dragons that inhabited the Archipelago until they vanished,” he sighed.
“I have Bork’s diary here,” Gobber revealed but Hiccup shook his head.
“I think we probably need something more detailed,” he mused as Gobber suddenly brightened up.
“The Book Of Dragons and the Chronicles of the Edge,” he realised. “I looked at them in the Meathead Library. Though I can’t ever go there again. I mean, they have a picture of me on the wall as BANNED. And probably KILL ON SIGHT. I mean, I did steal a book.” Hiccup’s eyes widened: the Library on Meathead was renowned throughout the entire Archipelago as unusual as in the only place that carried an on-the-spot death penalty for stealing books, folding corners of a page down or bringing a book back more than fourteen days late. A small part of him wondered why the Council of First Ministers allowed such draconian and sadistic rules to exist but he dismissed the thought as irrelevant. It was tradition and that seemed to matter more than human life or common sense or reason to many people. His faith in human kindness and decency had long since been shattered and if the Meatheads wanted to kill people for marking their places in a book, that was their business. Though he would have to be careful when he visited-because he had already decided he was leaving with both the books Gobber had mentioned.
“Never even had a parking ticket,” Hiccup told him. “Well, until I was condemned for High Treason fo course. But I’ve never got a library fine so I’ll go.” Chuckling at his sass, Gobber winked.
“That’s meh godson,” he said.
Months and years passed as they doggedly tunnelled towards the perimeter of the prison, the men developing an easy friendship as they spent almost all their time together. Sometimes they didn’t even need to talk, though Gobber was, by nature, garrulous. Hiccup was more introspective and found his mind rolling over events. He had convinced himself that Eret and Grimborn were in league and Gobber had agreed that he believed there was a conspiracy there. But he had been forgiving of Stoick and Astrid, pointing out that the guards and Governor destroyed all letters and never allowed a word to escape from Jotunheim.
“Ye cannot expect them tae keep writing when all hope is lost and hey haven heard from ye for years,” he pointed out. “They may even think yer dead, having not heard from yer. They still love yer, laddie-because that lass has been at yer side for most of yer life and yer Dad is a stubborn and loyal man-but sometimes, ye have tae give up hope when the person ye love vanishes into a black hole.”
“I guess,” Hiccup admitted quietly. “I mean why would they hope when it’s been over ten years since I vanished here?” Gobber gently grasped his shoulder.
“They will be overjoyed to see you,” he reassured younger friend. “No matter how long or how improbable, they love you and will have waited.” Forcing a smile on his face, Hiccup sighed.
“I hope so,” he murmured.
But there was a slowly rising sense of anticipation as they continued tunnelling. It was summer again and the temperature had risen to a consistent very positive value, thawing the surface layers of the ground as it hadn’t for many years and making the progress much faster. For Freezing-To-Death, it was a real heatwave and the tunnel was forging ahead. Hiccup calculated that they had about two months left until they were safely beyond the wall and would be able to surface. And the warmer temperatures meant they could work for longer and were speeding ahead. It seemed that after so many years, Gobber was really keen not to wait a moment longer to get out of the prison.
But Hiccup was counselling caution. There was only so much soil they could smuggle out in their slop buckets and they were struggling to find props to strengthen the tunnel which was very long now and he was worried, with the rising temperatures, that the soil would lose some of its strength and cave in. The last thing they needed was a guard falling into their escape route as he patrolled the yard and ruining all those years of work. Stubborn and enthusiastic, Gobber refused to listen so Hiccup had loyally gone along with him, already planning their next move. He had bundled up everything he needed to take from the cell-the letters from Astrid and his Dad, his notes about every encounter with Eret, his plans, his translations of Gobber’s clues and his copy of the map-in a little piece of oilskin Gobber had managed to smuggle in.
He had just scrambled back from the head of the tunnel when he heard Gobber give a low call and he turned. The man was looking back, a smile on his grimy face and a tiny piece of plant matter in his hand.
“Roots, laddie!” he said enthusiastically. “Roots! That means we’re beyond the sterile stone of the yard. This means…we’ve made it. It’s only a few days and we’ll be out!”
Hiccup gave a shocked smile, his breath hitching. Freedom! The culmination of years of work and toil, of cramped conditions and pain and cold and hunger. The chance to finally get back to Berk and clear his name and…
The first siftings of dust didn’t register but the next moments were in horrific slowness as the roof of the tunnel slowly collapsed, rocks and heavy chunks of still frozen soil landing on Gobber’s prone body. Hiccup flung himself back and shielded his head, coughing in the fog of dust as the collapse finally ended. Blinking and lifting his tiny light, he peered into the smog and blinked.
“Gobber?” he called softly, listening for any sounds of life and for any sounds of detection. They were relatively deep and the roof had not breached to the surface but it had seemed thunderous to the prisoner and he was praying that no one had heard. Though the guards seemed to spend most of their time asleep, drinking or watching online television rather than patrolling. He called again, more softly as he was mindful that a rumble or thud could be dismissed but a yell underground would definitely be suspicious. “Gobber?” he breathed. “Please, Odin…” A faint groan sounded. “GOBBER!”
There was no reply so Hiccup burst into action, clawing his way through the rubble, moving soil and rock aside, coughing at the dust kicked up and ignoring the scratches and injuries to his hands. His only thought was his friend, half-buried under the collapse. He had to use all his strength to move some of the chances of sharp rocks that were lying over Gobber’s head and chest and struggling, Hiccup turned the man over, seeing blood on his face and hearing the hitch in his breath. “Gobber…” he breathed, staring into the battered face.
“Y’were right…” Gobber murmured, his eyes fluttering closed. Desperate, Hiccup began the long and exhausting process of dragging Gobber’s heavy body back through the tunnel and finally, he managed the haul to the man back into his own cell and onto the floor. Tenderly, he folded the older man’s blanket under his head and gently raised his metal mug to his lips. A little water trickled over his bloody face but Gobber didn’t drink. Instead, he just licked his bloody lips and his blue eyes opened blearily.
“Gobber…” Hiccup breathed, his face stricken. The older man gave a hoarse cough, more blood streaking from his nose and mouth.
“Rookie error,” Gobber breathed. “Too eager. Stoick always said…” And he halted, fighting for breath. “Sorry, laddie. Yeh gonna have tae…go on without me…”
“No…” the younger man breathed, tears streaking his grubby face. “No, Gobber. I-I can’t lose you. You’ve brought me back to life. You taught me to walk again. You gave me hope. We’ll get out of here together and…” Gobber managed to pat Hiccup’s cheek rather clumsily.
“S’okay, laddie. Dying. I’m not afraid. Tell, Stoick…I’ll be waiting for him with Val…” Hiccup blinked and tears dripped from his face and landed on Gobber’s.
“No…” he breathed as the older man fumbled under his shirt and brought out the map.
“Get the treasure…and have a drink…fer ole’ Gobber…” he murmured, his voice fading. “Build yer plane. Get yer girl. Be happy…” His eyes closed and his head sagged back, his features growing slack.
“Gobber…” Hiccup breathed and flung himself across the body, sobbing bitterly. From the absolute heights of hope at almost being free to despair in losing his partner in misery, Hiccup felt as if he had lost everything. And he lay there, hugging the body as it slowly began to cool.
Finally sitting back on his heels, he palmed his cheeks dry and then looked up. The sun was westering and it looked suspiciously like time for the evening meal. Urgently, he pulled Gobber onto his bed and covered him with his blanket, making sure his plate, jug and slop bucket were in the correct place so he looked like he was just sleeping-for now. And then he grabbed Gobber’s copy of Bork’s Diary, all his notes and tidied the place, then carefully pulled the slab closed over the entrance behind him as he scrambled down the tunnel and erupted into his cell, sliding his plate into place just as the hatch opened and the gruel splatted onto the metal.
“Thanks!” Hiccup called, breathing hard as he watched his slop bucket emptied and water sloshed into his jug…and then he pulled his body back into his cell, staring at the wall of scratches. The tunnel was collapsed, his friend was dead and all his hopes were dashed. Once a new prisoner was put in 29, he would be denied access to the tunnel and that would be the end. He was going to die in prison.
As he lay awake, staring at the ceiling, he ran over all the years they had spent together, from that first moment when Gobber had popped his head up in his cell through deception and lies, realisation and truth, mentoring and laughing and friendship and hope…and now it was all gone. And Hiccup mourned, not only for the man he knew, his godfather and friend but for the severed link with his father and his past. And then he sat up.
They would find Gobber in the morning when his full plate and empty slop bucket would betray the fact that he no longer needed feeding and Hiccup needed to find out what would happen. He gave a thin smile. Unknown to the guards, he had an opportunity to listen in and see if there was any way he could use it to his advantage. So as soon as his morning gruel was delivered, he scrambled down the tunnel and then stopped at the brink of Gobber’s cell-for he could hear voices in the cell-and one of them was the familiar, hated wheezing tone of Alvin.
“Stiff,” Alvin commented callously.
“He hadn’t eaten his dinner,” a guard reported. “Though his plate was in place.”
“Must have died about twelve hours ago,” Alvin guessed and then he shifted his boots, scraping over the very flagstone that was inches above Hiccup’s head. “Search him, Savage.”
“I said search him! This man was sent here for killing men, stealing artefacts and robbing museums so he could find the fabled treasure of Grimbeard the Grisly. And we are convinced he had the map on him when he arrived. And now…well, it’s not going to do him any good so we better make sure it doesn’t go to waste. So search him-every nook, every cranny…”
There were the sounds of muttering and then the creak of bodies, the rip of material and Hiccup screwed his eyes closed, trying not to imagine what the men were doing to the body of his beloved mentor. And he tried not to smile at Gobber’s smug expression that he would have worn, knowing the men were scouring his body for a map that was safely in Hiccup’s possession.
“Nothing,” Savage growled. “No sign of anything.” Alvin gave a scornful sigh.
“Honestly-do I have to do everything?” he muttered and then there were the sounds of creaking and the rip of cloth as he repeated the examination.
“Told you,” Savage said as Alvin gave up. The Governor growled in his throat.
“Okay-prepare ‘im,” he said dismissively and stomped from he cell. Hiccup almost relaxed and then he froze.
“Do ye think the prisoners realise they don’t even get coffins?” Savage asked cruelly. “I mean, why would we waste valuable wood on these scum? Though Al always charges the respective governments for the funerals, we just sew them in a shroud and pitch them into the sea. Ground’s far too hard to dig a grave…and the fishes enjoy the meal…”
“I think they cling to the idea of a good burial,” another guard scoffed.
“Jorg, Knut-sew him in and then I’ll come back with a full party to dispose of the body,” Savage announced. And then the guards left, clanging the door closed and clicking the lock. As soon as he was sure the cell was empty once more, Hiccup popped his head up and sighed, seeing Gobber lying partially disrobed on his bed shelf. Mouthing a silent apology, the younger man slid in and collected the screwdriver, chisel and wrench, bundled up everything he needed and made sure his own and Gobber’s papers and the map and book were waterproof in the oilskin. Then he slid back into the tunnel as steps approached and two guards entered. Silently, they wrapped Gobber in the shroud and sewed him crudely in, then left to collect more men to carry him to the cliff.
Instantly, Hiccup burst from the tunnel, kneeling by the shroud and untying the thread and then pulling Gobber from the shroud and detaching his hook. Urgently, he tried to force Gobber down the main tunnel and felt utter dismay shoot through him, for the man was in full rigour and was stiff as a board. But desperation lent him strength and with a horrible snap, he found he had broken Gobber’s remaining leg and neck and he was finally able to slid him into the cramped space, tamping him down and stamping the slab back into place. Then he carefully stowed the oilskin packet under his shirt and tied it into place before he resewed himself into the shroud, the hook grasped in his left hand in case anyone questioned its absence. The chisel was held in his other hand to help cut himself free when the time came. And then he lay back and prayed.
He had barely lain back when the door opened again and rough hands grabbed him and lifted him up. The guards weren’t gentle in any way and he bit hard on his lip to stop himself twitching or making any move as fingers sank agonisingly into his left thigh, the fingers brutal. The guards swiftly carried him away and he had to try to breathe shallowly, for Gobber, of course, would not be breathing at all.
“He’s much lighter than he looked,” one commented.
“Well, they say yer sins leave you when you die,” another commented.
“Boy-he must have been a bad boy to lose so much weight!” the first guard commented as Hiccup tried not to shiver: they had walked into the yard and for the first time in ten years, he was surrounded by open air. Goosebumps stood up on his flesh and he took a slow breath in, his nostrils filled with the salty scents of the sea, the rich scents of the thawing earth and the light scents of grass as they bruised the blades walking towards the cliff. There were the sounds of birdsong above and the harsh screams of the gulls…and the boom and plash of the waves, breaking on the cliff.
“About time,” Alvin said a few feet to Hiccup’s left. He sounded bored. “I ain’t got all day.” The guards walked forward and Hiccup got a sense of space as they began to swing his shrouded body. He tensed and gripped the hook and chisel tighter as they swung him once, twice, three times…and then the pressure on his flesh vanished. For a long moment he was flying out into the unknown and then he began to fall.
He took a deep breath and managed to angle himself so he was falling feet first. Breathing a prayer to the Gods, he closed his eyes as he hit the water-and promptly sank…
Chapter 10: A Dead Man
Ten: A Dead Man
The water was freezing. Despite the fact that the weather was unseasonably warm and even the ground had thawed, the Sullen Sea was bitterly cold and as he hit, Hiccup felt his breath stolen. It was the one thing he had failed to take into account-but this was the only option he had. All other hopes had been dashed and his friend and partner in misery had been killed. Dying in the cold sea was better than slowly rotting of cold or hunger or despair in cell 34.
As soon as the water closed over his head, he lashed out with the hook and the chisel, slicing into the thick material and ripping a hole through large enough to shimmy through. Then he dropped the chisel and stuck the hook into his waist band before swimming upwards as strongly as he could…notwithstanding the fact he had a metal leg. His chest was burning and he could feel his limbs growing heavy but he thrashed away from the cliff as far along the coast as he could manage before he needed to surface to try to get out of sight. Yet when he finally broke surface, he squinted up at the cliff edge and saw that the 'burial' party had already left, heading back inside. He was safe…but was going to get hypothermia and drown if he didn't get out of the water. But the cliffs were sheer and steep and the ferocious rocks promised a vicious death if he tried to swim to them and clamber out. So the struck out, suddenly finding himself surging away from the shore and realising he was caught in a rip current. Every instinct was to fight but he knew that was the stupidest thing to do so he lay back and floated as he tried to work out which way to try to break to get away. But as the shore receded rapidly, his limbs grew heavier and heavier and it was all he could do was to kick his legs slowly and remain afloat.
His eyes snapped open and he raised his head…to see a small boat only a few yards to his right. He had missed them, almost dozing and he frowned, forcing his foggy thoughts to sharpen to enough focus to answer. Where was he again? He raised an arm and waved.
"'HOY!" he managed. A pair of heads poked over the dark green rails and inspected him.
"You need a hand, my good fellow?" a friendly voice called. Wearily he nodded and waved again.
"Y-y-y-yes…" he managed as the two heads conferred-and the a boat-hook was lowered down. Blinking, Hiccup managed a few feeble strokes that got him a little closer…and then his hand closed on Gobber's hook in his waist band, using it to snag on the book hook and hanging on for dear life with both hands as he was drawn in close and then finally fished unceremoniously from the frigid sea. Lying on the desk, his body heaving with the effort, the cool air just exacerbated his hypothermia and he began to shiver, his teeth chattering and head down.
"Th-th-thanks…" he managed as a blanket was placed over his shoulders. A gruff female voice was loud his ears.
"You're freezing," she said. "We'll get you inside."
"Uh…sis?" the male voice piped up. "You know what he is?" There was a pointed gesture at the dark shape of the island.
"Yeah…but no one ever escapes from Freezing-To-Death so who would believe us?" the woman said. "And anyway, we're not the boss of him. If he wants to run away from there, we're probably bound to help."
"Well, we're not exactly law-abiding, are we?" she told him, trying to rub some life into Hiccup's frozen limbs.
"A valid point, sister Nut," the male voice said. "Why is he holding a hook?"
"Maybe he wants to be a pirate?" the female asked, her hands closing on his shoulders. But he was shivering so hard and his legs were so weak that he couldn't move. "Give us a hand, Tuff? He needs to get inside and he's a dead weight!"
"F-F-Fishbone…" Hiccup managed through his chattering teeth. "'nd alive…" The male moved to his other side and between them, the two manhandled the shivering man into the cabin and sat him on the solid wooden bench bolted to the wall by the window.
"You know, that won't do," the male, Tuff, said. "I mean, we already have Fishlegs…we can't have a Fishbone as well…I mean, if we called Fish, half the crew would answer…"
"But already if you call Nut both of us would answer so it would be fairly symmetrical," the woman answered, still rubbing Hiccup's shoulders.
"A good point, Ruffnut," Tuff said solemnly. "Fishbone it is…"
"N-n-n-no…" Hiccup stammered through his chattering teeth. "Am f-f-f-fishbone…n-n-not c-c-called…"
"Awww…now that's unfair, confusing us…" Ruff whined.
"Unacceptable," Tuff said. "Throw him back in!" Eyes widening, Hiccup jerked forward, his hand clamping around the male's wrist.
"P-p-p-please…" he begged, eyes wide and the male stiffened.
"It was a joke…" he said urgently, not realising the man had taken it seriously. "Boy, you really haven't had it good, have you?" Hiccup shook his head, his head dropping.
"It's okay-you're safe with us," Ruff told him, sitting by his side. "We won't turn you in. We'll get you warm and feed you up and find you some clean clothes…" Tuff cleared his throat. "Well, clothes."
"Th-th-thanks," Hiccup mumbled as Tuff went to a grimy coffee pot and sloshed out a tin mug of the black viscous liquid. Steam curled from the drink and the male pressed it into Hiccup's shaking hands.
"This'll put hairs on your chest," he said confidently as Hiccup took a sip. His eyes slammed open and he forced himself to swallow, the drink warming him.
"And a h-heart attack…" he managed, the chattering of his teeth easing a little. "Strong…"
"Thorston blend!" the male said proudly. "I make it myself…" Hiccup took another large gulp and sighed.
"H-haven't h-had a h-hot drink f-for over a d-decade…" he admitted, hunched over the mug, his long fingers wrapped around the warm metal. "S'good…"
"No it's not," Ruff told him dryly. "It's terrible. But my brother always wanted to be a barista so we're stuck with his incompetent attempts to create the perfect coffee…once he made Fish pass out from caffeine overdose…"
"W-wait…y-you actually h-have someone c-called F-Fish on y-your c-c-crew?" Hiccup asked, feeling the sensation returning a little to his hands and foot. Ruff nodded. She was lanky with a long face, grey-blue eyes and long pale blonde hair in three thick waist-length braids. Her brother, Tuff, was the same shape with pale brown eyes and long blond dreadlocks. Both wore brown leather pants and boots, green shirts and darker green vests.
"Yeah, he's our resident encyclopaedia and respectable person," she admitted. "He's in the wheelhouse, steering."
"Y-you're smugglers?" the auburn-haired fugitive asked and they nodded, both grinning wildly.
"Welcome to the Barf'n'Belch!" Tuff said.
Hiccup's eyes snapped open and he looked around wildly, completely disorientated. He wasn't lying in the cold stone floor of his cell, the room was moving and he was relatively warm with a thick furry blanket tucked around his skinny shape. Frowning, he pushed himself up into a rocky sitting position. Instinctively, he felt for the oilskin packet that had been tucked into his shirt-and his eyes widened in sudden horror as he found it was gone. He looked around frantically-and then relaxed as he saw it tucked on the tiny desk that was hard against the bunk bed. He sagged in relief.
"Morning," an unfamiliar voice said.
He stiffened and his eyes widened. Trying to curl back, he felt wood at his back and the strangeness made his body tense further. A shape moved into view, a husky guy about his height with solid thick body and rather short legs, all topped by a round face with kindly blue-green eyes, a pudding bowl blond cut and a bushy moustache. The man gave a small wave.
"I'm Fishlegs," the man introduced himself.
"H…" Hiccup began and then his brain cut in and he closed his eyes. Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third had been convicted of treason about eleven years ago and condemned to die in Jotunheim. And, as far as the rest of the world was concerned, he was still in there. And would never emerge. He needed another option. "Ingen Dodmann," he said.
"No one dead man," Fish translated automatically and then he smiled and offered his hand. "Pleased to meet you, Ingen." Warily, Hiccup leaned forward and grasped the warm chubby hand and felt a firm and reassuring grip as they shook hands.
"I'm pleased to be here," he admitted. "Um…where are we?"
"Moored in Hangman's Cove off Glacier Island," Fishlegs explained. "You pretty much passed out after your coffee-not an unusual reaction to Tuff's barista skills-and we put you down here in my cabin. There's a bit of a storm blowing out there so the Barf'n'Belch is safer here. Of course, it delays us delivering our load but better to be late than not at all." Hiccup frowned.
"You don't seem like a usual smuggler," he commented. Fishlegs gave a sad smile.
"Yeah, people say that a lot," he admitted. "I grew up with the twins as friends and there really wasn't any work going where we were. I mean, I love botany and reptiles and birds but I couldn't afford college and they refused me a scholarship I qualified for because they needed the money for the relative of the First Minister to go-even though she didn't even need one." There was a brief edge to his voice which just as quickly passed. "So there really wasn't much option. And the twins wanted to be smugglers because they had a great uncle Gorstag who was a smuggler and it sounded cool."
"And is it?" Hiccup asked politely, trying to assess the man. He seemed kindly enough but his ability to trust had been completely eroded by his experiences.
"No, not really," Fishlegs sighed. "The twins are crazy and dangerous enough in their way but they really aren't focussed enough to be big players. Or ruthless enough to get us a reputation to play with the big boys. So we get low value missions and ripped off by most people. And the really serious groupings, like the Outcasts and the Trader Consortium, are really dangerous and I do worry that they may decide to wipe us out if they sense we are a threat." Hiccup swung his legs round and rubbed his left leg, wincing. The cold had made the stump ache and a few sharp phantom pains were stabbing him. Gobber had explained all about them but it hadn't made them any less excruciating and they had become old friends in the frigid cell. "Are you okay?"
Hiccup looked up at the concern in the man's voice and another stab of pain-this time in his heart-almost took his breath away. Gobber had sounded exactly the same when they hit and he could still recall the man's arm around his shoulders and his warm, experienced fingers kneading the scarred flesh to try to ease cramps and alleviate the pain. He blinked.
"Fine, thanks," he said tonelessly as Fishlegs frowned, then rose and opened the little drawer in the small desk and fished out a bottle. He handed it to Hiccup.
"Try these," he said. "I got them when I had an abscess. They may help." Warily, Hiccup peered at the bottle, found that they were painkillers and then tipped two out and swallowed them.
"Thanks," he said more genuinely. The big man gave a happy smile.
"Look, we need to get you some food and try to find some clothes," he said. "I'm making breakfast in the galley…wanna come?" Nodding, Hiccup levered himself up.
"Gladly," he said and followed the man out. The boat was bobbing slightly and Hiccup found his sea-legs were pretty solid as they clambered up to the galley, a narrow room that was almost completely filled by the husky Fishlegs. Managing to squeeze himself into the corner, Hiccup watched the man brew coffee, fry eggs and bacon and bread and cook beans and serve him up a huge tin plate of food. Eyes widening, Hiccup launched in ravenously, hunched over the plate as Fishlegs began his own meal, watching the skinny man with sympathetic eyes.
Fed and warmed by coffee, the men headed for wheelhouse and Hiccup peered at the charts with interest, his eyes drifting to a shape that he recognised from the map he had pored over for so many long hours in the cell. He was so close…but for now, he needed to regain his strength and try to get a means of transportation so he could travel to follow the clues on his own. Fishlegs tried a couple of times to start the engines and then he sighed as there was an unpleasant grinding noise.
"Again with the engine," he sighed as Hiccup frowned. "Barf'n'Belch is an old ship and her engines are rather…temperamental…"
"Au contraire, my fishy friend," Tuff said, appearing at the door and yawning. "She is a he."
"But ships are always female," Fishlegs pointed out.
"Not this one," Ruff argued, appearing beside her brother. "He's a boy all the way…"
"He's not moving anyway," Fishlegs replied with forced patience. Hiccup raised a hand.
"Um…I may be able to help…" he suggested tentatively. The twins were scowling at Fishlegs.
"How?" Tuff asked rudely. "Unless you happen to be a kick-ass mechanic or engineer, I doubt you can help." Hiccup rubbed the back of his neck.
"Ahaha…funny thing that…I'm both," he told them as they all started at him. "Look, I was wrongly condemned and have spent the last five years escaping but I am still an engineer. I built my aircraft from the ground up. He was a hulk and I basically rebuilt everything…" His voice had grown enthusiastic and his emerald eyes gleamed. The twins shared a look.
"Wow-and we believe you," Ruff said speaking for both of them. "You wanna take a look at the beating heart of our beautiful vessel?" He nodded and she beckoned him to follow her. They went down the hatch at the rear and he found himself in the engine room. Ruff shrugged. "Fishy has tinkered without much success and we try to keep my brother away because frankly, how he managed to dress himself in the morning is a miracle…anything you could do would be a help, to be honest." Hiccup nodded and frowned, then lifted the hatch, then peered at the engine. He looked at her.
"Any tools?" he asked and she found him the box, and then, adjusting the light, he leaned forward and began to explore.
Three hours later, grimy and streaked with oil, he sat back, satisfied. He had stripped back the main guts of the engine, cleaning, tightening and relubricating. There were a few old parts that would need changing in the next six months but the engine was basically sound. He wiped his forehead and carefully replaced the engine cover.
"Any good?" Ruff asked from behind him. He almost jumped and wiped his hands on his ragged pants.
"She'll do," he said. "Try her now." Ruff hauled him to his feet and they went up to the wheelhouse. Tuff was at the wheel and eagerly started the engine-to an immediate response, far smoother than it had sounded before. The twins high-fived and Fishlegs squeaked in happiness.
"Thank you!" Tuff yelled and threw a fierce hug around Hiccup. Ruff joined in, murmuring 'Thorston sandwich' as they squeezed him. He looked helplessly at Fishlegs, who was chuckling.
"I think they like you," the husky man said, assuming the wheel. "And this sounds much better than I've heard it."
"HIM!" the twins argued. Fishlegs chuckled and the twins glanced over.
"You know…I think you could be a good…no, great addition to our awesome crew," Tuff asked. "And if you're not in a hurry to get somewhere else…d'you wanna join us?"
There was a pause and Hiccup looked over at the twins and Fishlegs. They could all guess where he came from-and they didn't seem to care. All of them seemed reasonable though on the wrong side of the law…and it didn't have to be for ever. Just until he managed to get his bearings and recover a bit.
"I think…the life of a smuggler is just the career I've always been dreaming of," he told them dryly. The three all flung themselves at him and he found himself almost crushed by the multiple hug…but also, curiously relieved.
"Welcome to the crew," Fishlegs said.
Chapter 11: Through The Fog
Eleven: Through the Fog
The tendrils of fog were swirling around the remote port of Bunion on the Island of Sweltering as the twins waited for the handover. They had made several runs since Hiccup-as Ingen Dodmann-joined the crew and he had found himself settling into the life of a smuggler with surprising ease. He was an honest man but he had little trust in the authorities and after all his experiences in Jotunheim, he found himself thinking like the crooks with shocking ease. Taken on as engineer and additional muscle, Hiccup had been amazed at how the twins and Fish had accepted him unreservedly, clothing and feeding him and making him feel welcomed.
He shifted his feet-flesh and the newly upgraded metal one-and stepped back a little into the fog, peering across the meeting point. Since he had joined the crew, he had demonstrated his abilities at fighting by outmanoeuvring and pinning Fishlegs-though he had complained that Hiccup fought dirty every way he could. Smiling, the auburn-haired man had nodded.
"Fighting fair doesn't win you anything," he explained seriously. "Well, nothing except a life sentence for something you didn't do."
They hadn't pressed him because he held up his end of the deal, ensuring that the engines ran perfectly and that every mechanism on the boat was serviced and in top working order. He had requested a knife and had spent hours practicing throwing it until he was accurate enough to be useful back-up but he was getting a very bad feeling about this deal, because they were late and not showing any signs of getting on the exchange, which was very different to the previous handovers he had witnessed. And wrapped in newish warm clothes, he was determined not to let his new friends down.
Tuff and Ruff were handling the exchange, negotiating for the four crates of chemicals they had been asked to take to bypass strict Berserker customs regulations and the Outcasts they were dealing with were sending out very bad vibes. Two squat men with dark duffle coats, bushy beards and questionable personal hygiene were facing the twins. Fishlegs was standing a couple of yards behind the twins and to Hiccup's mind, they all seemed to be far too easily blindsided-so he retreated further and leaned against the wall, closing his eyes briefly and listening.
There was the sound of a stone skittering along the concrete of the dockside and heavy breathing, not so very far to his left. He grasped the knife in his hand and tuned into the negotiations.
"As you ordered-and on time," Tuff said, gesturing to the crates. The heavyset man scowled over his rather wild beard and gave a loud snort.
"Ya think?" he scoffed in his gruff , he picked his nose and swept a scornful look over the two lanky shapes facing him. Bolstered by matching brown puffa jackets, the twins both looked serious and on point but there were more shapes moving in the fog to the left and right of the exchange and Hiccup realised that they were outflanked and outnumbered.
So why is this guy watching from here? Hiccup mused and stealthily moved towards the sounds of breathing-and the very slow but deliberate snap of a machine gun bolt. Tensing and praying he was still shrouded by the fog, he stuck to the shadows and came at the man from the side, slamming his hand over the man's mouth and driving the knife straight into his throat, the blade arching up deep into his brain. The man went slack and Hiccup carefully lowered him to the ground, retrieving the weapon and weighing it in his hands. He swiftly rubbed the knife dry on the man's clothing and then turned back to the confrontation.
"Hey, man-there's no need to be like this," Tuff was saying, his hands raised to try to reason with the Outcast but the man started laughing.
"I think our chemists will need these precursors and our profits will just be a bit higher if we don't have to pay for our delivery," the leader said and Ruff gave a loud whine.
"Aww, Hardnose-that was the wrong answer," she sighed. "Now we have to take the damned crates back and explain to the Meatheads why their deal went south…" Hardnose the Outcast gave a nasty chuckle and gestured to the two men on each side who coalesced from the fog. The twins shared a look.
"You are off our Snoggletog list!" Tuffnut told the man in a disappointed voice. "Sis-hand me my list…" But Ruff's eyes widened as she saw the Outcasts close on their position, the dull light gleaming off need blades.
"Not the time…" she hissed.
"I think we need to renegotiate!" Hiccup announced from the fog and moved close enough for them to see the machine gun levelled at the Outcasts. "Back away, guys." Hardnose looked up, his eyes narrowing as the twins and Fishlegs obediently retreated.
"Who are you?" he growled.
"Dodmann," Hiccup told him sharply. "What you'll be if you move a muscle." Hardnose frowned. "And sorry-your buddy won't be joining you." He gestured with the machine gun. "Unless you are stupid enough to move when you can join him. I hear Helheim is nice this time of year…"
"Any shots will bring the filth," Hardnose advised him but Hiccup managed a thin smile.
"And all they'll find a bunch of dead Outcasts and their illegal cargo," he pointed out. "Unlikely anyone will shed a tear or put too much effort into finding your killers. Probably be eligible for a medal for public service, in fact." And he turned very slightly to ensure that Hardnose would definitely the first to fall.
"I may…have been a bit hasty…" the Outcast growled.
"I may be a bit lenient…if you pay the agreed fee plus…say twenty percent? For inconvenience?" Hiccup told him, his voice lowering to a growl that approximated his father's thick Berk accent. Eyes flicking sideways at his men, who were all looking as worried at the reversal, Hardnose nodded urgently.
"Just a small misunderstanding," he gabbled quickly and patted his pockets, swiftly pulling out a bundle of hundred dollar bills. "I have the money here." He fished a second one out. "In fact, here's the same again…just as a gesture of good faith. Yes, good faith…" He tossed both to the twins who shared a look and then high-fived.
"Pleasure doing business with you," Ruff grinned and the pair and Fishlegs backed away and vanished into the swirling fog. Hiccup backed away as well.
"You should probably take your goods before something else happens," he suggested and watched the Outcasts cluster around the crates and lift them up. But when Hardnose looked up to check, the man with the gun had melted into the gloom.
Back on the Barf'n'Blech, the twins were waiting eagerly as Hiccup trotted up, the machine gun still held in his hand. Grinning they waved the bundles of cash.
"That was awesome!" Tuff gushed as Hiccup cast off and hopped aboard. He nodded.
"Better leave," he advised them.
"But you were so amazing, my man…" the male twin ploughed on obliviously as Hiccup looked past him at Fishlegs.
"Right now," Hiccup said sternly and the husky man scuttled to the wheelhouse, starting the engine and moving them away. The twins stared at him. "They'll want their money back," he added.
"But they've got their delivery," Tuff protested.
"And they didn't want to pay at all and were happy to kill you all," Hiccup told them, swinging the gun. "I didn't get this from the Seven Eleven. They were happy to kill you to save paying you. And now that we're out of sight, they are just as likely to try to get their money back." The twins shared a look.
"Now that is just plain dishonest!" Tuff said.
"Very very dishonest!" Ruff agreed. "Honestly, if you can't trust a drug dealing syndicate, who can you trust?"
"A good point," Hiccup replied sarcastically. "Are you two sure you're actually smugglers?" The twins burst out laughing.
"Of course we are-and we've actually made a profit for once!" Tuff exclaimed. Hiccup rolled his eyes.
"You mean you don't actually make a profit usually?" he asked and they nodded.
"We don't want to price ourselves out of the market…" Ruff explained. There was a slap as Hiccup face-palmed.
"The only reason for doing this is to make a profit," he explained in an exasperated voice.
"But we really really wanted to be smugglers," Tuff told him simply. "And we haven't been doing it this long so we don't want to get a bad reputation…"
"As opposed to being dead or penniless…" Hiccup pointed our sarcastically. They stared at him. "The guy I killed was there to gun you all down. The Outcasts didn't care that you were on time or reasonably priced: they just looked at their bottom line. So you have to do the same. And in this business, loyalty really isn't worth squat. Friendship is certainly worthless. So you have to charge what you can get away with, make sure you are safe and expect to be double-crossed at every turn. Only make drops at locations of your choice where you can be sure that you are not exposed to ambush. And be ruthless."
"Like you?" Ruff realised. Nodding, Hiccup turned away, lowering the gun.
"I used to run a freight service-and I was betrayed by my partner, my supposed best friend, and he set me up while stealing everything I had," he said bitterly. "No loyalty, no friendship, no decency…nothing there but personal gain above everything else. Don't trust people to deliver…they always disappoint."
And with that, he headed below decks, leaving the twins sharing a very concerned glance.
Hiccup was lying on his bunk, staring at the wooden base of Fishlegs' bunk above his when the husky man knocked and entered. It always struck Hiccup that the man, whose cabin it was, fastidiously ensured that he gained permission to enter when the ex-prisoner was already within. It said a lot about Fishlegs and he felt himself relax slightly, his hand moving away from the knife he now kept under his pillow. The husky man walked in and closed the door, sitting uncomfortably on the small wooden chair opposite the bunks. Counting to ten and realising Fishlegs wanted to talk to him-probably on behalf of the crew-he sat up and swung his legs round to face the man.
"You okay, Fish?" he asked quietly, seeing anxiety in the other man's big face. Fish nodded.
"Fine, thanks-because of you," he admitted. He glanced around. "Um…are you warm enough?" Smiling slightly, Hiccup nodded.
"Yes, thanks," he said. And he was. Once he had settled in, the twins and Fishlegs had found him an undershirt, a think flannel check shirt, a pair of thick jeans too large for his skinny frame, a large knitted green sweater that hung from his lanky frame and a woollen hat. There were three thick blankets on his bunk and Fishlegs made sure the heating was always on in the cabin. "Okay, Fish-what's bothering you?" Fiddling with his thick fingers, the husky man looked up.
"Ingen…" he began and then sighed. "That's not your real name, is it?"
"No," Hiccup said. "My real name has to remain in Jotunheim until I am cleared or until I die." Fishlegs sighed.
"But it seems so wrong to call you no one when you are someone-and someone who saved our lives," Fishlegs protested. "I mean, you came from the sea and it's like you were meant to be with the crew and you've given us so much…" Hiccup shifted his feet.
"I think you all gave me more," he said slowly. "I was about to die and you gave me a chance of survival. A future. You accepted me without hesitation. And when I saw what was happening, I couldn't let you die." Fishlegs looked troubled.
"I-I know it's none of my business…but after this evening I have to ask," he said awkwardly. "Um…what were you in for?" Hiccup stared at him. "Was it murder?"
Suddenly Hiccup was laughing, bitter, harsh laughter that filled the cabin, growing more and more hysterical until he was barely able to breathe for the choking sobs that shuddered through him, until he covered his face and curled forward. Tentatively, there was an arm around his shoulders, a warm presence that hugged him until he finally gathered control of himself.
"I was innocent," he whispered brokenly. "I never committed any crimes…until I went in there."
Fishlegs sat next to him, his solid presence crowding the space and yet comforting just for the fact he was another human being, in close proximity to Hiccup and his warmth and solidity a welcome and oh-so necessary reminder that he wasn't alone.
"I'm sorry," Fishlegs said sympathetically, his face apologetic. "You don't have to tell me if you don't want to…but I hope you realise that I am your friend and I am never going to tell anyone what you say." He patted Hiccup's shoulder self-consciously. "I know I can't even imagine what you've been through…I mean, it sounds like anyone's worst nightmare, being locked up for a crime you didn't commit…" Hiccup nodded, idly palming his face dry. He was still bearded, clinging to the anonymity even though he had seriously contemplated removing the hair because he associated it with his imprisonment. He had cut his hair to his jawline, the soft auburn locks messy and framing his pale, lightly freckled face and that at least had made him feel a little more human.
"Yeah, it is," he mumbled, rubbing his swollen eyes. "And you know the weird thing? Before, I was really…conscious of what I did. Thor, I always bought free range chicken and yak to make sure that they lived a good life! I tried to be a decent, kind human being. I always helped when I could because my Dad always told me 'no job is ever too small or too insignificant' and he believed in a life of service and dedication. He taught me that a man should give what he could to the community and his community would support him in his time of need." And then his face closed. "But it was a lie."
"Was it?" Fishlegs asked gently, his eyes noting the changes in Hiccup's mood. There was grief and sorrow but also anger and bitterness at the betrayal he had experienced. Emerald eyes flicking up to look into the husky man's face, Hiccup nodded.
"My business partner, my former best friend had issues," he explained. "We were buddies at High School and when I went to College, I decided to set up my own air freight company. I loved to fly, to be free. I funded my own lessons and up there, among the clouds, I felt…free…" Fishlegs felt his heart shudder in horror: for a man who sought the freedom of the skies, being locked in a dark stone room for years on end was the most appalling punishment. "I bought an almost scrapped plane and rebuilt him myself using my mechanical and engineering skills. And we used him for the business-but my partner had issues. He was distracted, fond of the finer things in life. He got drunk, did some drugs, gambled extremely badly and a lot…and every time, he came to me asking for money. I helped him where I could, but his debts spiralled and there was no hope I could bail him out-nor should I have to. We offered interventions, mediation, even counselling…but he refused and just expected to be bailed out. And then he said he was pressurised by some very bad men to deliver a package, a suitcase to Icefell, the stronghold of the terrorist Drago Bludvist."
"Who were these people?" Fishlegs asked as Hiccup frowned.
"You know, I have no idea," he murmured.
"They certainly knew who he was and must have targeted your friend because he had the capability to deliver the package…away from prying eyes," Fishlegs commented. Hiccup nodded.
"Makes sense," he sighed. "I refused and Eret tried to blame me, tried to guilt-trip me into helping him. And then he called out when he was supposed to make the delivery. He begged me to make the delivery. He cried over the phone…and I, like the soft idiot I was, relented. I believed I was helping him-so I made the delivery. And when I got back, I found the bastard had called the authorities and I was arrested for making the drop the moment I touched back down."
"But you have the phone records…" Fishlegs commented.
"And all that showed was that he had called me just before the flight," Hiccup sighed. "I thought about it every which way I could and it proved nothing. He claimed he called me to try to talk me out of the horrible treason I was committing in helping the most dangerous terrorist on the planet to overthrow the Archipelago government. And that I wouldn't listen."
"Who filed the flight plan?" Fishlegs asked. Hiccup's eyes widened.
"Eret," he breathed. "I mean, he claimed he only did it on my insistence…but he filed it. He knew about the flight and should have prevented it…"
"He was an accessory," Fishlegs commented. "I am sure he cut a deal. Because that action ties him to the deeds and crime in a conspiracy."
"He claimed the fact that he was not there meant he didn't know about the suitcase or the delivery," Hiccup recalled and slapped his forehead. "Stupid! He should have been charged as well-and he must have cut a deal. A friend commented I should only have been charged with a misdemeanour for flying into a restricted airspace because there was no proof what was in the suitcase or that I had any idea what was within. But after the opening statements, the judge insisted I was charged with treason and Eret lied that I knew exactly what was within. Despite the fact I never opened it."
"It sounds like the conspiracy involved more than one person-and you weren't in on it," Fishlegs mused thoughtfully. His eyes unfocussed. "This Eret-your supposed friend, the person who recruited him to take the suitcase, the prosecutor who cut the deal with him…and the judge, who insisted you were accused of a crime that could not be supported by the evidence."
Hiccup's shoulders hunched.
"You know the Prosecutor promised me leniency," he murmured. "He promised that I would not suffer for something as minor as helping a friend and delivering a locked case that I could not open. He knew that Eret was involved. And he set me up." He clasped his hands. "He set me up! He was involved."
"Anything else you remember?" Fishlegs asked as Hiccup's brow furrowed.
"RKG," he mumbled. "The initials on the case, almost rubbed off. Prosecutor Grimborn promised he would look into it-and so did my Dad and Astrid. But my Dad reported in the few letters he could get through that Grimborn blocked every attempt to reopen the case and allow an appeal. Dad even went to the Island Council and moved for Grimborn to be replaced as Prosecutor for incompetence and corruption. I guess, by the fact I spent the next ten years in Jotunheim, that he was unsuccessful."
"Prosecutor Grimborn? As in First Minister Grimborn?" Fishlegs asked, his eyes widening. Hiccup groaned.
"Figures," he commented sarcastically. "Bastard probably made his reputation on the back of my case…" There was an awkward pause. "What?"
"He was elected on a platform of being super-tough on criminality and cracking down on all crime," Fishlegs explained in a self-conscious voice. "He never granted leniency, he never considered any mitigation or appeal and he crushed any opposition." He shuffled his feet. "After I went to the community college, I was training as a public defender but my face didn't fit and I was unfortunately reasonably successful in ruining his 100% conviction rate…so he ensured my registration with the Archipelago Bar was terminated and my pupilage was withdrawn. No one would hire me…so when the twins, my friends decided their only option was smuggling…what else did I have to lose?"
Hiccup inspected his face and chewed his lip. The bigger man's words threw up all sorts of questions. Why did the ornery people of Berk allow this? What had happened to his father? And how could he risk visiting his home when the place was almost a police state? And then he shook himself.
"So the only criminals he prosecutes are the ones who aren't in his favour while the corruption and criminality in his regime goes unchecked…" he commented sarcastically. Fishlegs scratched his nose.
"One point," he murmured. "RKG. Maybe the G stands for Grimborn? I know the First Minister has a brother who is also on the Council of Ministers…" Hiccup's eyes widened and he pressed his hands together, as if praying.
"So the moment I mentioned the initials, I was lost," he breathed. "That bastard. That corrupt, evil, amoral, lying bastard! He was protecting himself. And his traitor of a brother!" His fists clenched. "And if they are that ruthless and would condemn an innocent man to die in prison, what happened to my family? To my father and the woman I love? Because they would not have given up on me-and going after such a ruthless man… They're in danger…" Fishlegs sighed.
"Whatever happened, it was a long time ago," he reminded his friend. "And for you to go back to Berk would be very dangerous if what you think is correct…" He sighed. "We can smuggle you in, if you want…but what are you going to do? No offence, but you don't have any money, only us as allies and no way of proving what you suspect."
Hiccup clasped his hands before his face and he gave a small smile.
"True," he murmured. "But I have a way of solving one of those. And I need your help."
Chapter 12: The Isle of Night
Twelve: The Isle of Night.
"Let me get this straight, dude," Tuff said with a suspicious look in his eyes. "You have a map so you can get an ancient lost treasure that no one believes in, that your friend spent his life searching for in vain and that you reckon you know the location of when no one else does."
"My godfather," Hiccup corrected him and then nodded. He was perched on the table in the small communal room with a bank of built in seating along one side and the table on the other with a TV screen strapped to the wall behind him. The twins and Fishlegs were sitting facing him as he explained about Grimbeard's Treasure. "But yes."
"Get outta here!" the male twin scoffed. "I mean, why would you know where it is when no one else does?" Hiccup paused.
"Because Gobber wasn't a conventional treasure hunter or archaeologist so he approached it like an engineer and was cynical about everything. He went right back to the earliest sources and challenged everything. Gobber was also pretty amoral and direct so he did things people would never do, like breaking open pictures and damaging priceless documents and books to check and found clues that were not previously known. And because I am a pilot with a photographic memory for maps…and I know this island shape." He turned and reached for the chart he had rolled by him, carefully unrolling it on the table and weighing down the corners with two mugs, a serving spoon and a tin chicken that Tuff stored the galley eggs in. He leaned over the chart as the others crowded around him, almost pinning him against the table. The twins were nudging and whispering as he sighed.
"Guys!" Fishlegs hissed and they quietened down. Hiccup's finger slid down the map, southeast of Berk and south of the familiar shape of Outcast Island to a small blobby shape.
"This is the Island of Night, so named as the purported location of the legendary Night Fury dragon according the Bork Archive in Berk Museum," Hiccup explained, tapping his finger on the shape. "This fact is confirmed by old maps, surveys and every historical source."
"Okay," Ruff murmured. "So why haven't they found the treasure?"
Hiccup pulled out his map and carefully unfolded it, dropping it on the chart next to the island.
"Because that isn't the 'Isle of Night'," he said. They all stared. The blobby shape on the chart certainly didn't match the shape on the parchment, a shape that looked like some kind of parasitic worm, curled to the right and looking as if it was trying to eat a medium sized islet and three sea stacks to its left. Hiccup's finger slid up the chart, a long way east and north to the remote reaches of the region, a very long way northeast of the familiar shape of Berk, technically beyond the reaches of the Archipelago, out in International Waters where there was an island shape that exactly matched the shape on the map. There was the sound of three sets of breath been taken in very sharply. "This island is what Grimbeard referred to as 'the Isle of Night'. But it isn't."
"No wonder no one ever found it," Fishlegs breathed. "Everyone has been looking in the wrong place."
"What-you seriously expect us to believe that remote uninhabited island is in fact the place where Grimbeard the Grisly, a seriously messed-up and ferocious dude, ended up with most of the treasure from the entire Archipelago?" Tuff asked suspiciously.
"Yes," Hiccup said with absolute confidence. "Everyone assumed that the island shape had changed over the years due to volcanic activity, erosion, storms…but the truth is that only Caldera Cay has erupted since Grimbeard's time and the very hard rocks of the Archipelago erode very slowly. The entire island shape wouldn't have changed over only a thousand years."
"They assumed it had to be in the Archipelago," Fishlegs breathed.
"No engineer assumes," Hiccup confirmed. "He uses the evidence he gathers to solve the problem. The only island which matches is outside the Archipelago-an island that is recorded in the old Chronicles not as 'the Isle of Night' but as 'Dragon's Edge'."
They all stared at him in shock. That he had worked this out over long years in prison with his dear companion and late godfather and was willing to trust them with his secret was a huge mark of his respect for them and they all felt honoured by the gesture. The twins shared a look and hugged Hiccup while Fishlegs pressed a sloppy kiss on his cheek.
"Ingen-we promise we will help you find your treasure," he said as Hiccup look up at him and then felt the twins kiss him as well. He looked worried.
"Um…thanks…" he mumbled. "Guys…can't breathe?"
"Sorry…" Ruff grinned prising her brother off the tense Hiccup. "He gets carried away." Nodding, Hiccup took a deep breath.
"Um…I suspect it will be all our treasure…" he told them and then he sighed. "Gobber was going to share it with me as his godson and his partner in escape…well, he was once he realised who I was and decided not to ditch me when he escaped. I don't want to be that guy. You have all saved my life when I was in the sea and you have accepted me even though I have nothing, not even my own name. You have given me food, clothes, safety and acceptance. So I will share the treasure with you."
The three all shared a look.
"It's your treasure, Ingen," Fishlegs said seriously. "We will help you find it and help you get home so you can see your family and check they are safe. And then you can decide if you want to split it or not."
"I…" Hiccup protested but Ruff gently touched his arm.
"Look-we would all be dead by now if you hadn't saved us," she told him. "We owe you all our lives. We expect nothing…expect maybe the cost of a new kettle? The amount of cups of coffee you drink since you joined the crew has almost worn it out." Hiccup stared at the woman and then the others-and burst out laughing.
"Really?" he asked and they all started laughing as well. "I have told you where to find the most fabulous treasure in the world which should make you rich beyond your wildest dreams…and all you want is a kettle?"
"And maybe a new toaster?" Tuff asked hopefully. "A four slice one? So we can all have a piece of toast at once? Or pop tarts all round? I love them! Especially the jammy ones. Or maybe even…a sandwich maker? Now that would be really cool…" But Hiccup was now helpless with laughter, tears trickling down his cheeks at the absurdity of the request and the genuine good-heartedness of people who wouldn't expect a share of someone else's treasure. As the tall auburn-haired man continued to laugh at the fact he had finally unexpectedly found people he felt he could really trust, Ruff gave an exasperated nudge to her brother.
"You see?" she hissed. "Idiot! I knew the sandwich maker was just too much!"
They stopped in MuttonPort on the Shivering Shores for supplies, using the money they had gotten off the Outcasts to completely fill Barf'n'Belch's tanks and stock up the galley and stores until they were bursting. Hiccup carefully bought a new kettle for the galley and a four-slice toaster and a sandwich maker out of his cut and the twins were overjoyed.
"Cheese and ham toasted sandwiches all round!" Tuff yelled and sped back onto the docks to go and buy the ingredients. Smiling, Hiccup watched him head for the local branch of Sven's Stores, the Archipelago-wide convenience chain that was found on every island and in every settlement. You knew where you were in a Sven's. And Tuff clearly did because he came racing back two minutes later with a hessian shopping bag bulging with cheese, ham, bread, butter, jam, honey and bananas. The dockhands just shook their heads, because the twins were relatively frequent visitors and everyone knew Tuffnut was prone to fits of wild enthusiasm. Waving, they cast the Barf'n'Belch off and Fishlegs waved back as they sedately pulled out of the harbour and headed out into the sea.
While Tuff was cooking the sandwiches, the ship swung north, on a course that would skirt them east of Healers' Island and the around the desolate unstable island of Dark Deep and then north towards their destination. Hiccup plotted the course twice and Fishlegs and Ruff both checked it, confirming it was correct and safe for the ship. Almost bouncing with nervousness, Hiccup paced back and forth past the wheel as Fishlegs sedately steered them out and the accelerated to cruising speed, checking the radio and flicking off their navigational locator, though the satellite navigation system remained on, scanning for other vessels. And then Tuff arrived with hot squishy cheese and ham toasted sandwiches, banana and honey toasted sandwiches and a fresh pot of hot coffee. He grinned.
"Eat up, mi amigos!" he grinned. "We need strength for this valorous endeavour! And cheers to Ingen who has made sure we have pop tarts for tea!"
"Thor, we'll all have malnutrition by the time we arrive," Ruff commented. Fish bit his excellent sandwich and hummed in enjoyment.
"Though I would die happy," he commented.
The trip continued, the weather capricious with fierce storms interspersed with strong winds, fogs and brilliant sunshine. Barf'n'Belch chugged steadily along, riding the waves as the crew headed up towards the island that no one knew probably held an incredible treasure. Sometimes, they saw fishing boats and even small boats that also had no transponder, suggesting they were smugglers as well…but there were no destinations that needed people to smuggle between in the area. Hiccup crossed his fingers and hoped against hope that none of them were using the island as a base…but he reckoned that it would be just his luck to find a group of the worst smugglers parked just above the treasure.
The twins were in turns excited and concerned and Fishlegs pored over the map with Hiccup, enthralled by the rhymes and wondering what they meant. Hiccup smiled.
"That time we went to Meathead to deliver those bales of purple silk for Mayor Mogadon's underthings, I slipped to the Library and borrowed a couple of books," he explained, fishing out two leather-bound tomes. THE BOOK OF DRAGONS and CHRONICLES OF THE EDGE were reverently laid on the table as Fishlegs stared at the auburn-haired man, seeing the small smile tilt his lips.
"You stole those books?" he squeaked in mock-outrage, though his pudgy hand was already stretching out to touch the legendary Book of Dragons. Hiccup gave a thin smile and nodded, shrugging at the admission.
"Yeah, prison has really worked wonders for my rehabilitation," he commented sarcastically. "I entered there not even ever having a parking ticket and once in there, I fought and killed about a dozen men and since escaping, I've come a smuggler and a thief. Boy, that was a really successful way to protect the public!" Fishlegs stared at him and then began chuckling, Hiccup didn't really speak of his time in prison so when he revealed a snippet, it was eagerly pounced on by his friend. Fishlegs already knew that he liked the skinny auburn-haired fugitive, with his razor wit, sarcastic tongue and genuine kindness and loyalty to the crew. From his broken confession, Fishlegs knew that 'Ingen' had been betrayed by those he trusted most but he had been still willing to offer his trust and loyalty to the crew, despite that. And the plate of pop tarts steaming by them was another mark of the generosity of a man who literally only had what he stood up in…but who was hoping that he maybe could have so much more. And the husky man hoped that he was right-because he couldn't imagine what the fugitive would do if he found there was no treasure.
The Barf'n'Belch circled the island slowly, seeing snow-capped conical peaks typical of the volcanic islands in the Archipelago and beyond, spectacular cliffs, some rather nice beaches, rolling green meadows, spruce forests stretching down to the coast and finally, in the natural harbour that faced the islet and sea stacks, there were ruins. The twins scanned the area and found an old abandoned harbour and managed to locate a safe mooring. Finally, the engine stopped and the crew all stole a look at the deserted mooring before they looked at Hiccup.
"Over to you," Ruff said. For a moment, Hiccup looked uncertain and then he peered at his notes and the map. Flicking through the Chronicles of the Edge, he tapped a finger on one slightly stained page.
"The first rhyme is:
In Smidvarg's Lair keep your head,
The sun shall point your way ahead,"
he said thoughtfully. "Now I have ready the Chronicles carefully and…"
"Dude-this is in foreign," Tuff pointed out. "Look. It's not even written properly…"
"Those are ancient runes," Fishlegs told him, peering at the page. "Wait-you can read these?" Hiccup nodded.
"Taught when I was a boy-to please my Dad…though I did thank Thor that I had," he commented and turned back to the page. "We named the leader of the Night Terrors 'Smidvarg' and noted they spent the day sleeping in the caves above the Outpost," he read and then looked up the path and steps carved out of the cliff. "That must be the Outpost. So in the slopes above, there will be a cave with the first clue." Tuff peered at the sky.
"Not much sun," he commented. "Maybe we should come back in the summer?"
"Not a hope," Ruff snapped. "By then someone else will definitely have found it!" She looked apologetically at Hiccup. "No offence but with Ingen's luck, we'd arrive to see someone sailing off with the lot!"
"None taken-and I was thinking the same myself," Hiccup commented dryly. "But to satisfy my curiosity about the 0.001% chance that something hideously dreadful won't happen, shall we head on up and see if we can find the cave?" The twins shared a look and then ran off up the steep steps while Fishlegs fell into step alongside Hiccup. It was obvious to Fishlegs that the metal leg he was using as a prosthetic was crudely made and wasn't that comfortable but he brushed off any attempts at prying about what happened. "I woke up and it was gone," was as much as he would offer.
"You okay?" Fishlegs offered. Hiccup nodded, his hand hovering protectively over the satchel he had slung across his body. His gait was uneven, the solid clunk of the metal leg hitting the stone step a contrast with the much softer, more careful tread of his real foot and his friend worried that he may slip but Hiccup was dogged and as they clambered past the ruins of Viking houses and what looked like a couple of storerooms in the centuries-abandoned outpost, then further up the shallower slope towards the caves. It was eerie, knowing this was once a thriving little settlement but was now fallen to ruin and the quiet was unnerving. Fishlegs was certain that he would not have coped with the isolation of being locked up for years on end in solitary confinement: coming from a large and bustling family, even being alone on the ship while the twins were on shore made him feel nervous.
"This is infinitely better than being in Jotunheim," Hiccup told him honestly. "I mean my leg is hurting and I have no clue what is happening and I am really scared that everything will prove to be a dead end and this hope will be dashed…but I would rather be here than another second in the prison."
Fishlegs's eyes widened and his mind reeled at the brief and sudden insight into his friend's thinking.
"I am here for you-whatever happens," he promised as Hiccup paused to catch his breath-and then he smiled.
"You're a good man, Fish," he commented. "I probably don't deserve you."
The twins were almost bouncing up and down with excitement at the mouth of the cave as the other two caught them up. Hiccup fished out a torch he had brought from the ship and they carefully walked into the gloomy space, peering at the high roof and the rough walls with nooks and crannies the would be ideal for whatever a 'Night Terror' had been. Leading the way fearlessly, Hiccup scanned the space and frowned.
"The sun will point your way ahead," he murmured. "The sun, the sun…" And he peered over his shoulder at the mouth of the cave, shuffling his position until he approximated the angle of the rising sun, which was the only time when the sun would be able to shine directly into the cave and he said a small prayer. And then aimed the beam of his torch straight ahead. The far wall lit up and as he walked closer, past the fallen boulders and the stalagmites, he could see symbols. Breaths hitching, he ran forward and stared at the map scrawled there, with symbols scrawled round the edge of the shape of the island.
"That is big picture," Tuff commented, walking around. Frowning, he dropped to his knees behind e rock and peered at the oviform rock tucked there, the surface stippled and a variety of green and grey shades. He lifted it up. "Funny rock…" he announced. Ruff scampered to his side.
"Is there one for me?" she asked but Tuff peered into the gloom and shook his head.
"Sorry, sis," he apologised. "You can have the next really cool thing we find…"
"Okay-but you do realise that you have to carry that thing around," Ruff told him. "On your own. Without my help." Tuff grinned.
"I have no problem with that," he said as they looked up-to see Hiccup carefully copying out the map, meticulously checking the position of every symbol and ensuring he didn't miss a single clue.
"OOOH-this is so exciting," Fishlegs enthused. "I wonder what these symbols mean?" Hiccup frowned.
"I've seen them before," he murmured and lowered his pencil. And then his eyes widened as he saw Tuff hugging what was almost certainly an old and dead dragon egg. "They're dragon class symbols from the Book of Dragons!" His eyes widened and he peered at them, double checking he had copied them correctly. "Strike, Mystery, Stoker, Tracker, if I recall correctly…" And then he sighed. "Night Terrors were dragons, weren't they?"
"Stoker Class," Fishlegs said unexpectedly. "What? I collected Dragon Cards when I was a kid. I had the full set, every dragon, every classification. I think I still have my albums at home…" Hiccup peered at the map and carefully circled the Stoker Class symbol. Then he smiled.
"I wonder what the star means," he mused and then he looked up. "You know what this means?" he asked his friends and they all looked at him. Tuff stuck his hand up.
"Ooh! Me! Me! Me!" he said urgently.
"Yes, Tuff?" Hiccup asked patiently.
"We're gonna find dragons here?" the male twin said. "Because that would be seriously awesome!" Ruff slapped his shoulder.
"Idiot!" she snapped. "It means we're got some very complicated puzzle to solve that requires the joint input of Thorston and Thorston, former Private Investigators!" Tuff scowled.
"And who are we going to privately investigate here?" he retorted. "The trees? The birds?" She walked over to him and leaned her forehead aggressively against his, glaring into his eyes.
"Anything could require our investigative and unique synthetic abilities," she growled. Hiccup glanced over at Fishlegs in surprise as they continued to yell at each other from a distance of about an inch. The abrupt change in atmosphere was fairly unnerving-but the husky man was relaxed and shrugged philosophically.
"They do this every so often," he revealed. "I think they've been on best behaviour around you because of your recent history…you know. They didn't want to upset you. I guess they think you may feel enough of the crew now and secure enough to behave normally…" Eyes widening, Hiccup stared at the warring twins.
"Guys!" he said sharply and they both looked at him in shock. "I'm touched-but I need all three of you on point. And preferably not killing each other…" The twins both exhaled.
"Sorry," Ruff said. "We kind of just…well, it's how we communicate, y'know? I mean, I've had Tuff with me every day since we were conceived and we sometimes forget that other people are here. Don't worry…" Tuff nodded, a proud smile on his face at the egg he was still hugging.
"We'll go get the bikes and head to the next place," he said. "I think you said it was in the centre of the island?" Hiccup nodded.
"Viggo's Fall," he revealed.
"A waterfall?" Fishlegs asked but Hiccup shook his head.
"I don't think so," he murmured as they walked to the mouth of the cave. He led them round to the view towards the interior of the island and pointed at the snow-capped, conical peak. "According to the Chronicle of Dragon's Edge, Viggo's Fall was high up there-on the lip of the volcano itself."
Chapter 13: Vindicated
Hiccup was hanging on for dear life as Tuffnut accelerated up the slope, his eyes fixed on the peak ahead and dreadlocks flying around his head.
"Isn't this awesome?" he asked excitedly, gunning the engine. "I never thought taking you on board would lead to so much awesome fun!"
"Always glad to be of service," Hiccup muttered, gritting his teeth as they jolted over a solidified magma flow. "If I have a spine left at the end of this…"
"Aww, man-this is amazing fun," Tuff told him, slewing round a cluster of boulders and surging up the slope. "I mean, my sis is on our tail and I am not going to be the one who does the Thorston forfeit…" Hiccup blinked in surprise.
"Um…what forfeit?" he asked.
"Well, if I win, we swap clothes so she has to wear my clothes!" Tuff told him simply as Hiccup frowned and ran the words through his head.
"Whereas, if she wins…?" he checked.
"We swap clothes and I have to wear hers….bleurgh!" Tuff confirmed.
"You know that makes no sense, right?" Hiccup asked him directly and Tuff chuckled.
"Probably-but we've been doing it since were were kids so it would feel weird not to carry on," he admitted. "I mean, when we were babies, our Mom dressed us both in pink because she only wanted a girl so I was in dresses until I was nearly two."
"Why did Fish squeal when Ruff insisted that he ride with her?" Hiccup asked, glancing over his shoulder at the wild shape of Ruffnut, riding the bike like an expert motocross rider with the husky shape of Fishlegs reluctantly sitting behind her, holding on for dear life. The male twin shook his head, surging forward again.
"Sister Nut loves the beefcake," he revealed. "Or is it lardy cake? Anyhow, she fancies him as her permanent plaything. I don't know how he feels…"
"And you're okay with that?" Hiccup asked, feeling Tuff shift his weight as they headed to the right.
"Of course not," Tuff said. "I mean, she's my sister and I want her to be safe and happy…I mean, we've been fighting since before we were born. Mom told us when we were born, the midwife said we both had foot-shaped bruises from kicking each other. But I know Fish and I know he's an okay guy. I just can't imagine my sister with anyone…" Hiccup winced as they skidded to a halt at the top of the mountain and Tuff kicked the stand down, then threw his arms into the air.
"I win!" he yelled as Ruff screeched to a halt a yard to their left.
"Oh man…" she grumbled as Hiccup waved his arms urgently.
"Please can you do your forfeit when you go back to the ship," he said, clambering off the motorcycle onto shaking legs. Breathing hard, he leaned forward and braced his hands on his knees. "And thank Thor, I'm alive…"
"Thank Thor I'm alive-thank you thank you thank you…" Fishlegs was muttering, walking around and trying to calm his breathing. Hiccup forced himself to stand upright and walked over to clap the man on the shoulder.
"Catch your breath," he reassured the husky man and then he walked slowly towards the edge. There was a definite stench of rotten eggs and the air was shimmering with a flesh-melting heat beyond the drop. Hiccup cautiously peered over, looking at the lava pond in the crater and staring. The slowly oozing molten rock was awe-inspiring and terrifying at the same time and he instinctively backed away from the edge of the drop, the rocks a crumbly mixture of brittle pumice and basalt.
" On Viggo's Fall, the flames are hot
Eruptodon, eat your fill,
If it be cool, worry not
Gronckles will feed you still,"
"That certainly would be a bad fall," Ruff said from about three inches behind him. He jumped and almost lost his balance, his arms windmilling as he tried not to pitch over the drop. Ruff grabbed him and hauled him back. "Easy, Ingen. Don't wanna drop down there!"
"Gah! Please don't do that!" he exclaimed as she grinned.
"What-saving your life?" she teased him.
"Taking a few more years off my life!" he snapped and she chuckled.
"Better than all of them," she murmured as he shook himself and carefully walked parallel to the edge, seeing a rocky outcrop and frowning.
"This would certainly be a bad place for a fall," Fishlegs said, walking up and squinting over the edge.
"What's an Eruptodon?" Tuff asked.
"A dragon that lives in the lava, that eats the lava. Boulder class," the husky man said promptly, his tone slightly lecturing.
"Cool. D'you think there may be one in there?" the male twin asked, crawling to the edge and peering over. Fishlegs shrugged.
"Probably not-because the dragons all vanished many centuries ago," he explained. "Though Eruptodons have to constantly eat lava. Maybe it couldn't actually travel to wherever they went. Maybe there is one in there. Who knows?" Tuff leaned even further over the edge and the rock began to crumble-but Hiccup flung himself forward and grabbed the man's ankles, arresting his potentially fatal dive into the lava. Tuff screamed and Ruff did simultaneously, almost as loud. Lying on his front, his shoulders burning, Hiccup gritted his teeth and tightened his grip.
"Any moment now," Hiccup muttered, slowly inching backwards and starting to pull the male twin back up. "And STOP SQUIRMING!" Fishlegs yelped and knelt by him, grabbing one of Tuff's ankles and he and Hiccup dragged Tuff back over the edge. The male twin was rigid, his face scorched red with the heat.
"OH. MY. THOR!" he exclaimed. "That was…"
"If you say awesome, I am pushing you back over the edge," Hiccup grumbled, grimacing as he rubbed his right shoulder. The jerk had been fierce and it felt like he had pulled something. Tuff cast him a glance.
"Scary. Hot. Amazing. And scary again!" he replied as his sister hauled him up and hugged him fiercely.
"Don't ever do that again," she told him genuinely. "I refuse to do anything alone, Brother Nut. Ever!" Hiccup sighed.
"Stay away from the edge. Please?" he asked as the twins continued hugging. But as he rose, he saw something outlined obliquely in the rocks, the scratches more obvious in relief than looking at them directly. Scrambling up, he headed for the outcrop, peering at the weathered rocks and realising there was a map cut into the stone, the outline almost weathered away. Aching shoulders forgotten, he snatched out his paper and swiftly but accurately traced then drew the island and the symbols. And then his eyes widened and he pulled out the previous drawing. Meticulously, he marked the symbols on the map from Smidvarg's cave.
"Ooh-are those different symbols?" Fishlegs asked, peering over his shoulder and Hiccup nodded, carefully drawing.
"Boulder, Tidal and Sharp classes and another star," he said. "There…"
"Eruptodon is a Boulder class-and so is a Gronckle," Fishlegs said helpfully. Nodding, Hiccup circled the Boulder Class symbol.
"But what does it mean?" Ruff asked, craning her neck to look at the map.
"And why would you put a map in a position you can only see from the very edge of the crater?" Tuff added.
"To prevent casual observers from seeing the map," Hiccup guessed, slowly getting up. "Apparently without considering the fact that you may actually fall to your death and cremation at the same time in the process. Now we need to get to the third location and hopefully find out what it means." The twins immediately hugged him. He stiffened.
"Thanks for saving my idiot brother," Ruff whispered. "He's a pain but I wouldn't want to be without him…"
"You're welcome," Hiccup replied as Tuff tried to kiss him again. "And Tuff-please no!"
"What was the third rhyme?" Fishlegs asked, looking down the slope. Hiccup sighed.
" At the edge of land and sea
Where water turns to bone
There shall ye see
The path that leads ye home."
"So we need to get to the coast and look for this place," the husky man determined and then he paled. "And that means…"
"You're with me, big boy!" Ruff grinned and winked provocatively.
"Eep." Fishlegs said.
Barf'n'Belch sedately sailed round the island as Hiccup idly ate his beans on toast and pored over his map and books. The ride back to the ship had been fraught with anxiety because Tuff was gushing in his gratitude and had promised to show Hiccup his favourite places when they got back from the mission-while hinting that he would approve 'Ingen' dating his sister. But as he washed and then settled down to study, Hiccup felt a sudden and deep pang of pain. This was the treasure hunt that Gobber had waited almost all of his life to do and now Hiccup was doing it in his stead because the man had died, helping him escape. In fact, Gobber's death had proved the reason why Hiccup had managed to escape. He owed his godfather and friend everything and he knew that if he succeeded, he would have a choice to make.
There was a large part of Hiccup that was desperate the exact revenge on the men who had conspired to condemn him for their crimes and bury him in Jotunheim forever. One of the thoughts he had clung to, through those freezing nights, wracked with hunger and enduring agonising phantom pains from his amputated left leg, was the vision of Eret and Viggo suffering in having their lives exploded and losing everything as comprehensively as he himself had. But there was another part, the man he had been who was more desperate to find his father and Astrid, to feel those he loved in his arms and to share whatever treasure he found with them. His father would never have given up, no matter how futile the fight. And Astrid…
He looked up and realised he had sketched her as he recalled her, her eyes filled with that playful expression and wisps of her long blonde hair framing her beautiful face. Tenderly, he lifted a finger and traced the outline of her face, sighing. Through his imprisonment, he had tried not to think too much about her, because being separated from the woman he had loved, his best friend, was so painful that allowing himself to think on it would have driven him mad. And because he wanted to imagine her happy, not waiting fruitlessly for him. But now he was back, improbably emerged from the abyss, there was another fear: that she had done as he had asked and forged a new life without him. It was the best part of eleven years since he was taken and how could he ask a young and vibrant woman to wait for him? What right had he to expect her to share his life sentence and remain alone?
He groaned and ran his fingers through his auburn hair. It had darkened a little in the intervening years and could pass for a brown, though was still devoid of greys. And he knew he was still looking much like a scarecrow…but the anonymity was his cloak. He couldn't afford anyone recognising him until he had a way to clear his name and get his family away. And for that, he needed the treasure.
"You look like you need this," Fishlegs commented, resting a very full mug of steaming black coffee in front of him. Looking up, Hiccup nodded and then sighed.
"This rhyme is…ambiguous," he murmured.
"Water turns to bone," Fishlegs murmured. "Some form of calcification? Maybe stalactites and stalagmites?" Hiccup frowned.
"Makes sense," he murmured. "But that usually occurs in caves, rather than on the coast."
"Perhaps another cave?" the husky man suggested, sipping his hot chocolate, the whipped cream and marshmallow providing him with a sticky milk moustache. "Perhaps a really prominent stalactite or stalagmite that you can see from the sea as you sail by?"
"And maybe it points towards a path that leads to the treasure," Hiccup admitted and then sighed. "I don't know. I guess we just have to circle the island and look for the cave mouth…" He sighed and rose to his feet. "Let's go and see if we can find what we're looking for…"
The ship sedately made its way counter clockwise round the island, sailing close enough to inspect the coastline as they passed. Hiccup strained his eyes using a spyglass and he and Fishlegs-joined intermittently by one or other of the twins-scanned the coast. They located a number of small openings but none of them had anything remarkable which would match the description in the rhyme. They moored halfway round as night fell because Hiccup was worried that they would miss the vital location in the dark. And as they watched him, the others could see him wound tight with tension, unable to rest and ceaselessly scouring his notes and the books. Fishlegs went to bed but he could hear Hiccup tossing and turning, rising partway through the night and leaving the cabin to sit at the table, drinking coffee and desperately hoping his faith and hopes wouldn't be dashed at the last hurdle.
Dawn found him twitchy, pale and looking exhausted and wound up. There were deep shadows under his emerald eyes and his hair was wilder than ever but there was an energy in his body as he waited for everyone to get up and have breakfast: even though it meant so much to him, he knew he was here with the help of his friends and he owed them every courtesy. So he cooked breakfast himself, brewed some decent coffee and waited until they were ready to continue.
As the morning wore on, they rounded the eastern coast and headed towards the northern cape…but as they continued on, Hiccup felt his spirits plummet. There was no cave or entrance that looked remotely like that described in the verse and he wondered if it was all in vain…until they reached the northernmost point of the island and the mountain loomed above them, the snows stretching down in a glacier that nudged its snout right into the sea. Hiccup's eyes widened.
"Water turns to bone," he breathed. "It wasn't literal, it was metaphorical. Water turns to bone. Water becomes solid as bone. Ice!" He waved. "Get closer!" Ruff looked over at Fishlegs.
"There are a lot of submerged rocks that could ground us," she noted. "We could put out the dinghy…"
"There are currents and the waves are crashing quite hard against the rocks," Fishlegs pointed out. "We'd probably be capsized…"
"Then there is only one way," Hiccup said, Stripping off his coat, sweater and shirt and kicking off his boot, he scrambled onto the rail and dived in before anyone could say anything, swimming hard directly towards the shore. The water was very cold and robbed his breath but as he swum closer, he could see there were runes carved into the very rocks, the deep cuts sheltered by a rocky overhang that protected the precious final clue. Tossing his sodden hair back off his face, Hiccup stared at the words.
When stars align
The world is bright
It but requires
A Scauldron's flight
"Finally," he breathed as he turned and began to swim back battling the current. But the waves kept hauling him back. His metal leg slammed against an unseen rock and he cried out in pain, almost swallowing a mouthful of water before he struggled on.
"CATCH!" Ruff yelled and flung a rope at him. It took a couple of goes but his flailing arms finally managed to close on the rope and then she and Fishlegs dragged him back to the boat and hauled him aboard.
"Th's 's gett'n a h'bit…" Hiccup managed through chattering teeth as they wrapped a blanket round him.
"Yeah, you do seem to have a thing about diving into cold water," Ruff noted with a grin as she and Fishlegs led him into the communal room.
"Keep goin'" Hiccup managed. "Don' wanna let anyone know…" But the engine was already chugging and they sedately pulled out and headed off to finish their circuit of the island as Hiccup dried off, changed and was warmed up by yet more coffee and Fishlegs's Viking stew. As soon as he was warmed up, sitting at the table in a fresh shirt and a pair or Tuffnut's old pants (cleaned, thankfully) and wrapped in a blanket, he was poring over his map once more, recording the new and hopefully final rhyme in the corner. And then he sat back and stared.
"What does it mean?" Fishlegs asked.
"I mean, stars only come out at night so do we have to wait until it gets dark to see what's next?" Tuff asked, having pulled them into a small bay and dropped the anchor.
"How will we see if it's the right place?" Ruff asked him.
"Or the right stars?" Fishlegs added. "I mean, on a clear night with no light pollution or cloud, you can literally see thousands of stars..."
"Or two," Hiccup rumoured, his finger tapping on the map. Amid the dragon class symbols, there were indeed two stars. Gripping his pencil, he carefully circled them as well. "Stoker class, Boulder class, two stars..."
"Do we look for somewhere that you find all of these?" Fishlegs mused.
"Apart from the map," Ruff pointed out.
"When stars align..." Hiccup shrugged and then peered at the map once more. "I don't see how they can. I mean they are all at different points almost on different sides of the island..."
"That's because you haven't drawn the line yet," Tuff said simply. "When stars align. Where's the line?" Ruff slapped him upside the head.
"Muttonhead," she growled. "Align doesn't mean that..." But Hiccup stared, then very carefully, rose to get the navigational ruler and used it to draw a line between the two stars. He took a deep breath and then drew another between the two dragon class symbols. Then he dropped the ruler and pencil on the table and sat back, staring at the map with a shocked expression on his face.
"Could it really be that simple?" he murmured. The others stared.
"Unbelievable," Fishlegs breathed. "It...makes sense. I mean, these are not sophisticated twenty-first century people who have been versed in a culture of Treasure Island, of conspiracies and roleplay games and highly complex modern thrillers and..."
"Oh c'mon..." Ruff groaned. "You really didn't go with what my idiot brother said?" Hiccup nodded.
"I think I just did," he said quietly and leaned forward to tap his finger very carefully on the point where the two lines intersected. "X marks the spot."
The next morning they had moored in a little inlet that seemed to be scarcely half a mile from the point where the lines crossed and all four thanked Thor, Odin and all the Aesir that the island was deserted so no one was watching their rather suspicious excursions. Again, Hiccup had been twitchy and on edge, though cold and exhaustion had won him some sleep this time. But he was up first, making coffee and breakfast and waiting with as much patience as he could muster until the others were ready to go.
This time, they went on foot, trudging up a gully that had probably been worn into the ground many years earlier. The weather was a typical day of sunshine and showers, grey clouds scudding overhead, sometimes just making the light flat and grey, sometimes dousing the quartet in a short, sharp shower...and then, just as suddenly, the landscape was bathed in brilliant sunshine, picking out colours that no one had even dreamed were there. Fishlegs was ridiculously excited by the virgin subarctic flora and was taking pictures on his camera phone for his collection while the twins were arguing over who was the smartest, though Ruff did surreptitiously point at a very small and unusual plant that seemed to have the husky man in raptures. Hiccup checked his compass and then stopped as they reached the base of a low depression.
"It should be around here," he murmured as they all looked-and then all at once saw the small ridge with a rocky outcrop ten yards to the north and what looked to be a low cave opening almost concealed under a rough overhang.
"How about there?" Fishlegs suggested but Hiccup was already speeding down the path, ducking in and finding himself standing in a smooth rocky passage that was just high enough for him to stand up in. The others followed as Fishlegs frowned.
"These walls have been artificially smoothed," he murmured, running a hand over the surface. "You can feel chisel marks, even after all these years..." Hiccup took a couple of paces forward and then switched on his torch, seeing the passage wind to the left and head steeply downhill. There were steps carved into the greyish, speckled rock and even more strangely, there were sconces still rusting in the walls. Frowning, Hiccup touched one, feeling the iron rough and deformed with corrosion.
"This was a definitely important," he murmured. "Important enough for someone to install these..." Leading the way, he walked down the steps in a wide curve until they suddenly reached an underground space, a cave with a high roof and the cool drip of water, straight ahead. Hiccup played his torch over a flat pool of water, facing him. Frowning, he directed the torch down and saw it was probably about ten feet deep and it seemed to continue through an arch under the rocky wall a dozen feet in front of them.
"Oh Thor..." Fishlegs said as the auburn-haired man began to strip his coat and jumper off again. "You know you could drown, right? I mean, that tunnel could go anywhere and you could get stuck or run out of air or-or anything..." Hiccup looked up and smiled.
"I know," he agreed. "But somehow, the Gods have kept me alive this long and I have to hope and pray it is for this moment, when all that pain and suffering is rewarded by succeeding where my Godfather probably never would have. I mean, he was short two limbs and didn't have the benefit of you, Fish, with your encyclopaedic dragon knowledge and your steady friendship. Nor the twins with their unique insights and their very unusual biking skills. Or Barf'n'Belch. But I have to do this. If I don't, I will live my whole life wondering..."
And then a sudden golden glow filtered through the space, reflecting through the water from the underwater passage that had worried Fishlegs, causing everyone to stare, open-mouthed.
"They heard you!" Tuff gasped. "Oh my Thor. I mean Loki. No I mean Thor. Or was that Odin? Anyway, I just really want you to know...It wasn't me, it was her. It's easy to mistake us, right? I never said you didn't exist! I believe in you all. All of you! All things bright and beautiful..."
"Ingen..." Fishlegs breathed. But he had already dived in, swimming strongly down and under a low arch into an adjoining chamber. His head burst through the surface and he looked up, seeing sunlight filter down through a crack in the rocks, the rays turning the water a clear azure blue and reflecting off the piles and piles of coins, jewellery and ornaments, every single one made of gold. And as he dived down, Hiccup realised there was indeed a treasure, a fortune beyond imagining that even sharing with his friends would still be more than enough to enable him to repay those who had betrayed him in kind. He swum up and realised that the water was part of another pool in an adjacent cavern, with fresh air above his head. The tunnel was only three feet long and wide enough to carry any amount of treasure through to the surface. So he undulated through the piles of gold, the statues and weapons and gems of all kinds. Somewhere in his heart, he felt a surge of joy mingling with sadness that Gobber hadn't lived to see this and be vindicated.
This is for you, old man, he thought then he scooped a solid gold statue of a dragon and a handful of solid gold viking coins before he dived back to his friends, who were waiting eagerly for him.
Gasping, he pulled himself up onto the rocky ledge at the edge of the water and gave a huge grin as he showed his prizes. Three jaws dropped and his friends stared at him in complete shock.
"We're rich," he said.
Chapter 14: Bitter Return
Fourteen: Bitter Return
The lone figure walked slowly through the biting wind and sleety rain of Berk, unnoticed as the few locals on the street headed for shelter as quickly as they could. Not that there was much visible for them to recognised, for the man was wearing a cap shading his face under a hoodie with a denim jacket and a large, shapeless duffle coat over that, sheathing his lean shape effectively. The only distinguishing feature was the metal left lower leg that poked out from under almost ragged jeans.
Despite the slight limp, the man headed determinedly up the hill from the harbour, the steep road uneven and sparsely used. Cars zoomed past as the man continued on his way, working his way up, through the warehouses and the town and beyond, to the exclusive areas and large houses of the rich and entitled. But as he made his sore-footed way up to a familiar set of cast iron gates, he stumbled to a halt and stared in utter disbelief.
Where there had once been a house, there was nothing. The large, impressive stone-built home of the Haddock family, the hereditary rulers of Berk, had been razed to the ground, every trace of the large granite building erased. In its place was a beautifully landscaped pond, surrounded by manicured beds with small, miserable looking plants leaning in the scouring wind. There was nothing to ever show the magnificent house had been there. Gone was the red-tiled roof that warmed in the sunsets, the tree that had been climbed by the sons of the line for centuries and even the den that had been built by the former Mayor and his brother. All he could see in the distance was an enormous new white-painted mansion, sited on the ridge, overlooking the expanded park and the site of the former Haddock home. Whoever had built the new house had destroyed the old-and the man knew it wouldn't be Stoick Haddock, a man who revered his heritage as a descendent of the old Viking Chiefs. And it would have been over every objection he could muster.
A cool gaze flicked over to the new building and the watcher read extravagance in every brick. The person who built the house must have fought a furious Stoick to win the right to destroy his home and would scarcely be willing to sit down and rehearse the battle with some ragged stranger. In fact, the man knew he was more likely to the seen off by the dogs than offered a friendly chat. There would be no answers here.
Chilled to the bone and aching with disappointment, the man had walked down the hill once more, his route clinging to the side of the road overshadowed with trees, careful to keep out of view of the traffic cameras and the CCTV of the mansions that clustered in the expensive enclave. Wearily, he walked across town, feeling the sleet turn to snow and his foot grow numb. There were pains shooting up his scarred stump, making every step a torment but he had endured much worse as he crossed the highway and headed down to the poor eastern side of the town, heading for an industrial park.
The chain on the gates was rusting and unlocked and the metal fence was leaning slightly as the man approached, seeing the peeling sign proudly proclaiming 'JORGENSON TRUCKING AND LOGISTICS'. Unwillingly, a small smile lifted his lips, recalling his Uncle Spitelout's puzzled look at the concept of 'logistics' and his cousin's enthusiasm for the rebrand and statement of intent…but the sorry state of the yard suggested that time had not been kind to the Jorgensons either. Yet they represented his best chance of finding out what had happened to Stoick Haddock. So he pushed the creaking gate open, swiped the snow from his eyes and limped into the compound, heading for the office-and behind it the beat-up static motor home that was the home of the Jorgensons.
For a long moment, he paused, staring at the two little steps to the door scrawled with the unpromising words 'NO HAWKERS' and tried to calm his fluttering heart, hearing the dogs inside bark before he forced himself to lean forward and rap on the door. And again. After a few moments, he tried a third time and was on the brink of turning away, defeated, when a voice yelled:
"For Thor's sake! Can't a man even use the John in peace?"
His head snapped up and he stared at the door, the thump of steps closing until the door was wrenched open and the stocky shape of Snotlout glared at him.
"Where's the fire?' he snapped, his fists bunched and face twisted in a scowl. The man outside lifted his head, emerald eyes sparkling as he stared at his cousin.
"Don't you recognise me?" he asked softly. Scowling, Snotlout frowned at the scruffy shape staring at him. The man was lean bordering on skinny, familiar green eyes topping a long face with a frankly wild reddish brown beard, scruffy brownish hair poking out from under a cap that was under the hood of a beat-up green hoodie.
"Get outta here!" he snapped. "Can't you read? The sign says no hawkers!"
"What does it say about cousins?" Hiccup asked, pushing the hood back and pulling the cap off, staring deep into Snotlout's puzzled blue eyes. There was an awkward pause and then the shorter man swore vividly.
"Hiccup? Oh my Gods, I can't believe…" he gabbled. "I…" And then he glanced around the deserted yard, the driving snow blurring the world beyond the leaning fence and he lunged forward, grabbing Hiccup's arms and bodily hauling the shabby man into the motor home, then slamming the door hard. For a second, Hiccup stared at him in shock-and then he was enveloped by a ferocious hug by the man's powerful arms. Wrapping his arms around his cousin's body, the fugitive returned the hug, giving a sigh of relief.
"For a moment, I thought you were going to chase me off," he breathed roughly.
"For a moment, I was," Snotlout admitted, stepping back and eyeing Hiccup appraisingly. "I really didn't recognise you…and we were told you were dead, a few months into your sentence. We were trying to prove you innocent, to see if we could find anyone who would help…but when news of your death came through, there seemed no point any more. Your Dad wanted to fight on…but when he heard you were gone, it really broke his spirit." Running his hand through his messy and damp hair, Hiccup limped back and forth.
"Oh, I was alive," he said bitterly. "I wondered why after a few letters, you all stopped writing. I kept hoping and praying for a word, for a sign that you still remembered me. I-I even wondered if the guards were keeping them back…but now it makes sense…" Snotlout sighed, then walked to the small fridge and fished out two cans of beer, tossing one to the dishevelled shape facing him.
"I should have known," Snotlout said savagely, throwing himself down onto a sagging couch, his voice bitter with self-loathing. "I mean, the letter said you had committed suicide. No note, just hanged yourself in your cell. You were buried in the sea, denied a decent burial or memorial and that was the last straw for Uncle Stoick." Slumping onto the couch by him, Hiccup gave a heavy sigh, automatically popping the top off his can and taking a long pull.
"How is Dad? he asked wearily. "I never got a chance to properly speak to him, to explain that it was all lies, that I would never do anything like that…and though they allowed letters in, I know no letters out were permitted." He paused and stared at the can. "I mean, they encouraged us to write…but I saw them opening the letters, reading them, then burning them, unsent. It was all a cruel deception, to break our spirits."
"And telling us you were dead was to make sure we gave up on you, stopping writing and made you believe you were forgotten," Snotlout realised, chugging his beer. "Damn, That's cold." Taking another sip, Hiccup shook his head.
"Snot-what happened to the house?" he asked directly.
"You know, I should be asking my cousin-who's supposedly been dead for well over ten years-how he escaped from an inescapable prison," he retorted.
"I died…again…" Hiccup explained, suddenly coy. Snotlout's alarmed reaction had alarmed him and he wasn't sure he should share all the details with his cousin-yet. There was a pause. "The house, Snot. And where is Dad?" Snotlout emptied his can, crumpled it and tossed it expertly into the bin, sitting back and closing his eyes. "Snot? Tell me!"
"It-it's hard to explain it all," the stocky man admitted, his thick brows dipping as he struggled to order the events.
"Take it in stages, Snot." Hiccup sighed. getting up and helping himself to two more cans, handing one to his cousin. Popping the tab and sucking another mouthful, Snotlout sighed.
"Your father never believed you were a traitor," he admitted. "He never believed all the testimony. He knew you-and the moment that gavel came down, he was contacting someone-anyone-he could to get your freed, to appeal. He spoke to Viggo Grimborn and got him to promise that he would help-but he never did. It was excuse after excuse…and then, of course, he had other troubles."
"What troubles?" Hiccup's voice was icy as he leaned forward, his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped in front of his face.
"Well, as a Mayor with a son convicted of treason, he was more or less forced to resign as Mayor and stand down from the Council of Representatives of the Archipelago," Snotlout explained. "And just as he had resigned, the debts came in…"
"What debts?" Hiccup asked frowning. "I owned everything I had. I left no debts…except maybe a five dollar tab at Phlegma's cafe…" Snotlout shook his head.
"Your gambling debts," he said in a dead voice. "Thor, I wish you had told us you had a problem, Hicc. We could have helped…done an intervention…something…"
Slowly, the auburn-haired man swivelled his head to stare at his cousin and took a couple of shuddering breaths.
"I don't have a gambling problem," he repeated through his teeth.
"Well, maybe not now, because you've kind of been locked away but…"
"I. HAVEN'T. PLACED. A. BET. EVER!" Hiccup ground out through his teeth. "EVER!"
"No, that's not right," Snotlout insisted. "You left massive gambling debts against the business and against your personal possessions. And since you were gone and the business was half-owned by Eret, the liability all fell on your Dad…"
"Eret was the one with the gambling problem, not me," Hiccup growled. "Gods damn him! He must have laid his debts against the business-and me. Thor-how could I have been so stupid!"
"I think Stoick tried to argue that-but Johann swore he knew who had played the Craps tables and the Roulette wheel so unsuccessfully all those times…" Snotlout replied, his eyes searching Hiccup's face for any signs of deception…but all he saw was raw anger and betrayal.
"Then he's in on it," Hiccup growled. "Look-Eret had a real gambling problem. I spoke to him about it so many times…but he shrugged it off. He promised it wouldn't be a problem…and all the time, that treacherous bastard was forging my name and doing a deal with Johann to put the debts against my name-and against Dad's. Eret knew the family had wealth in the house and lands-though I funded Dragon's Edge Transport from my own pocket and savings from my time in College, including my college funds-and he used that. No wonder he couldn't wait to support the prosecution instead of telling the truth about what happened. I thought he was just after the business, to steal what I had built up for himself…but he wanted far more than that…"
"Then you aren't going to like what's happened since," Snotlout muttered darkly. Jerking to his feet, Hiccup shucked his heavy duffle coat off and then turned to face his cousin.
"Snot-what aren't you telling me?" he asked grimly. Running his hands through his jet hair, Snotlout sighed.
"Look, cuz-I hate to say that the people who seem to have been involved in you getting convicted are the people who seem to have done best out of the years since you were imprisoned," he revealed. "Viggo Grimborn has been elected to the Council of Representatives and is the Senior Minister from the Berk delegation. His brother has been elected as well-with Viggo's backing. Eret is now filthy-and I mean filthy-rich. He sold Dragon's Edge and got into Casinos with Johann-and both are making a mint at the Berk Valhalla Casino. The he bought Dragon's Edge back just fo the Hel of it when it looked like it could be useful. Eret was the one who ended up buying your old house and lands-and then razed it to the ground and build himself a fancy new mansion on the hill overlooking the razed site."
Hiccup blinked and felt a surge of rage curl in his chest. His father had lost his home and everything because of Hiccup's unfair conviction of treason and Eret's fraudulent use of Hiccup's names and assets as surety against his gambling debts.
"And Johann?" he asked in an icy voice.
"He sold his shares in the Casino to Eret for a mint and since he has been made the Trade Minister for the Archipelago," Snotlout revealed. "And rumour has it that he has been lining his pockets with bribes, especially from smugglers and entrepreneurs…" Shaking his head, Hiccup gave a shuddering sigh and paced backwards and forward across the sticky carpet of the tiny living area.
"Just tell me one thing," he asked in a faint voice. "Astrid. Milady. How-how is she?" His eyes searched Snotlout's face then, begging, praying for some reassurance that she, at least, was unaffected by the disasters that had befallen him and his father. But Snotlout rose to his feet and rested his hand comfortingly on Hiccup's tense shoulder.
"I'm sorry, cuz," he said in a truly apologetic voice. "But three weeks after the news that you were dead, she married Eret."
The room spun and Hiccup felt as if the ground had shifted, the air was suddenly too thin and he staggered, his knees buckling. If Snotlout hadn't acted quickly, he would have face-planted onto the floor and he was barely aware of his surroundings as he was lowered onto the couch, his legs tenderly raised over one arm and head down. Barely aware, Hiccup saw the blurred shape of his cousin recede and he almost cried out-but Snotlout was almost immediately back, a hand towel soaked in cold water in his hand. The freezing object was laid across his forehead and as he lay there, breathing hard, his vision slowly cleared and his head slowly settled.
But there was a searing pain in his heart, for the only face he had clung to, throughout every horror that had befallen him, was Astrid. His lady, the woman who had always owned his heart, the woman who had sworn to wait for him when he was arrested, the woman who had promised she would be his forever…was gone. Almost as soon as he was declared dead, she had upped and married another man, suggesting every word she had spoken to him…was a lie.
I love you, Hiccup.
There will always be a Hiccup and Astrid. Whatever it means, whatever you want it to mean…
But it had meant nothing, because the moment he had been declared dead, she had found another man. Maybe she had been eyeing him up before Hiccup was convicted and she had just been waiting for the news of his death in the Prison that No One Ever Returned From. And now Eret had it all-Hiccup's business, his family home and lands and now his girl.
And all for the price of a simple lie for a package that Eret had accepted for carriage and had then failed to turn up for the delivery of.
In one smooth motion, he sat up and stared into Snotlout's concerned eyes.
"Dad." The word was toneless. Snotlout shook his head.
"Look, when you were declared dead, it broke him," he admitted. "His entire drive was to see justice done for you but when the news came through you had taken your own life, the heart went out of him. Because he could clear your name but he was too late-and he knew he had failed you as a father. Of course, he fought the court orders for the debts, but his heart wasn't in it and when the decision went against him, he left the house with barely a whimper, just taking the things that reminded him of his lost wife and son-and of the Haddock family heritage. Dad and I have it stored in a lock-up because we couldn't let him sell it for food or dump it…"
"Sell it for food?" Hiccup's voice was horrified.
"Once he was made homeless and lost all his assets and his job as Mayor, he came to live with us for a short while-but he was proud and he wouldn't accept charity-so he moved into a hostel for homeless men and volunteered in charity shops and any project where he could contribute towards Berk. I mean, people were shocked that his son had apparently turned out so bad but there was never any ill feeling towards your Dad. Listen, he pretty much was Berk personified and people were always happy to see him. He always wanted to help out…"
"For a Chief, no job is too small," Hiccup quoted. "He was proud to serve Berk, as his ancestors before him." And then he swallowed. "Is he dead?"
"No-but he is dying," Snotlout admitted. "Poor food, stress, constant hard work…it's all taken its toll. Especially for a man whose only dream is to die to rejoin his family. He would never kill himself but he really doesn't care if he lives or dies."
"Where is he?" Hiccup growled, rising to his feet. "Take me to him!"
Gothi's cottage was a ramshackle single storey building that clung stubbornly to the eastern edge of town, in the shadow of the vertiginous mountain that formed much of the upper town. The roof looked as if it would blow off in a breeze and the snow was becoming deeper as Snotlout drove up in his very unhealthy-sounding truck. Purple smoke curled from the leaning chimney as they pulled up and Snotlout hammered on the door. There was a long pause and Hiccup glanced around nervously, the reality of his vulnerability in a hostile Berk striking home. Though no one would expect to see him, since he had been declared dead years earlier. And if they realised he had escaped, what could they do? Send out an Archipelago-wide alert for a man they declared dead ten years earlier? Who would believe them?
But he was still taken by surprise when the door wrenched open and the bowed, wizened shape of Gothi, the Elder of Berk, peered grumpily up at them, her squinting gaze irritated. The woman was only four and a half feet tall, with a hunched shoulder and a squint, her thinning grey hair in a long braid down her back and sharp features unfriendly. Her belted grey dress was patched and thin and her boots were beaten up and scuffed. But as she glanced up at Snotlout, her eyes warmed and she nodded, beckoning him in using her staff-and then intercepting Hiccup, a small smile lifting her lips. His eyes widened as recognised the elderly medic who had treated him all those years before when he was dying after that final fight. She was the woman who had amputated his leg-and saved his life.
"He's a friend," Snotlout explained and she inspected him, her head tilting and eyes narrowing… and then she grabbed his arm, pulling him in and slamming the door.
"Wow-that seems to be my standard greeting," Hiccup noted dryly as he was hustled into the main room-and then, as his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he saw a large shape humped under patchwork blankets, the greying red hair and grizzled flaming beard familiar yet unfamiliar. "Dad…"
There was no movement, no response at all as the scruffy shape walked slowly to the man's bedside. As he got closer, he could see his father's shape was shrunken, his muscles wasted with disuse and his face heavily lined with weariness and sorrow. Pulling up a stool, Hiccup sat and took one of the large hands in his own. In his prime, Stoick had been a mountain of a man, the opposite of his tall, lean son but to see him so reduced broke Hiccup's heart all over again.
The eyelids flickered and opened, revealing eyes that were unfocussed and blank. The hand tightened around Hiccup's and the young man squeezed back.
"Son…?" The voice was hoarse and scratchy, barely a whisper of its former power.
"I'm here, Dad," Hiccup said reassuringly, feeling his eyes burning with sudden tears. "I'm here." The man in the bed moved slightly and he shook his head.
"No…my son died, ten years ago," he managed wistfully. "My poor Hiccup, framed and betrayed. Driven to take his life because there was seemingly no end to his torment. And no one would hear my pleas-not the Council, not that damned lawyer, not his best friend, not anyone who should help me!"
"It's okay, Dad-as long as I know you believe me, nothing else matters," the auburn-haired man told him, leaning close. His hand gently stroked a wisp of grizzled hair off the broad forehead. But Stoick shook his head.
"My son is gone…" he argued roughly. "She has the last…but he is lost." There was a pause.
"Dad-it's me," he pleaded softly as a bout of coughing wracked the older man. Frowning, Hiccup could see his father's sunken cheeks were flushed with fever and the skin felt hot to the touch. "Can't you see it's me?"
But the blank gaze and lack of focus told him the answer.
"A stroke took his sight about three months ago," Snotlout said quietly from behind him. "After that, he really couldn't go out…and Dad and I can barely make enough to keep our head above water. We didn't have the time to take him out and so he couldn't help anyone any more. So he gave up, stewing in his memories and then he became sick. Gothi took him in-because he is her Chief still-but she says he's been fading. None of us can afford medical insurance and he doesn't want to go on. She says…it's only a matter of time…"
"No…" Hiccup's voice was a broken whisper and he stared at the man lying in the bed, the sightless eyes closed once more. "No. I've got the means to get you out of here, Dad. I'm alive and you just need to hang on…because you waited for me. You never gave up-and I promised myself I would come back to those I love and get you away from here. But you gotta hang on, Dad. Please don't leave me alone now…not when I've finally made it back to you…" A tear streaked down his cheek and he palmed it away absently. "Dad…please don't give up…"
The dying man's hand raised and gently stroked the young man's face, feeling the traces of moisture on the skin.
"Don't be upset," Stoick said gruffly. "I'll be back with Val and Hiccup. With my beloved family. I hung on as long as I could-because a Chief never abandons his Tribe…but in the end, it was too much…" There was a pause. "But thank you…" He gave a sigh. "At least I am not alone. Just…look after my brother and nephew…"
"I-I promise," Hiccup said, his voice cracked with despair. "But you hang on. I'm going to get you some help. I…"
"Just sit with me," Stoick said softly. "Let me imagine, just for a few moments, that my son is with me…"
"Whatever you want, I'll do it," Hiccup promised hoarsely.
"You even sound like him," Stoick breathed softly, his eyes closed. "Hmm…tell a little about yourself…so I can hear you speak some more…"
The sun was rising, a faint red smudge on the cloudy horizon marking the beginning of a new day-but Hiccup, grasping a mug of really dreadful coffee in his hand, scarcely saw the hopeful sight. Stoick had died two hours earlier, dropping into coma at dusk as his fever soared and deteriorating with incredibly rapidity overnight. Gothi had tried potions and tisanes to try to combat the infection that ravaged his broken body but Stoick had quietly surrendered and as the stars began to set and the horizon started to lighten, the former Mayor breathed his last.
Snotlout had remained with his cousin, helping talk to the dying man and support the devastated Hiccup, who kept blaming himself for not escaping sooner and not arriving in time to help…though, from what he could see, it was very obvious that Hiccup had barely survived his ordeals. Thin, down a leg and clearly traumatised, that he was back on Berk at all was a miracle…but there was nothing that could have been done to save the man's father.
"He didn't know me," Hiccup murmured softly, sipping the steaming liquid. He grimaced but took another sip: time in the prison had taught him drink or eat whatever was put in front of him. "He thought I sounded like his son but he didn't believe it was me…"
"C'mon, cuz-it's pretty incredible that you're here," Snotlout pointed out. "I mean, I can see it's you and I hardly believe it…"
"But he's my Dad…" The pain was there, infusing every word.
"And he loved you and mourned you every day since the Trial," his cousin reassured him. "When he went blind, when he lost his purpose, he retreated into his memories. And-and I didn't spend as much time with him as I should…I guess I didn't want to acknowledge that the man I admired and loved was slipping away. And Dad needed me as well…" Unexpectedly, Hiccup grasped the brawny shoulder.
"You did more than you could have imagined," he said roughly. "You made him feel that he wasn't alone. And you gave me the chance to be with him…" And then he closed his forest green eyes, his throat bobbing as he swallowed. "But I wish he could have known I was there…"
"I'm sure he knew," Snotlout murmured. "He was smiling at the end. And he never let your hand go, even for a moment. He knew you were there, Hicc." And then he frowned. "But I wanted to ask you earlier: what did you mean when you said you had the means to get him out of here?" Hiccup sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve.
"When I escaped, I found a hoard that my partner in hardship, Dad's old friend Gobber, had located using an ancient treasure map," he revealed, a wry smile tilting this damp face. He ran his hand through his auburn hair, making the whole effect look a little wilder. Snotlout snorted. "Yeah-that was my response as well. We had worked through the clues together and had found the location of the treasure…but when he was killed during a cave-in on our way to freedom, I had to escape alone. And maybe if I hadn't stopped to find the treasure, I would have been able to save Dad…"
His cousin stared at him, open-mouthed.
"What…as in real treasure?" he repeated. "Gold, gemstones, coins…?"
"I believe there's even a crown made of solid gold in there," Hiccup observed dryly, seeing blue eyes widen impossibly.
"A crown…" Snotlout was practically drooling. "What I couldn't do with a golden crown…" He paused.
"Maybe you should think of what you could do with a golden crown," Hiccup suggested with a wry smile. "There are a lot more things, for starters…" Snotlout blinked.
"Look, Snot-I came here to find those that mean the most to me-my Dad, my Uncle and cousin-and the woman I love," he said tonelessly. "And what do I find? My father is dying, my cousin and Uncle are broke and Astrid has married the man who framed and betrayed me, who stole everything from me a couple of weeks after she learns I've died."
"I think it was three weeks," Snotlout piped up and then subsided at the ferocious glare he earned from his cousin.
"I didn't expect her to wait forever but to marry him so quickly and to marry him, when he was responsible for it all…no," Hiccup said, his voice hard. "So I have to believe that she never actually loved me. It was all a lie." He drained his mug and stared at the red-tinged clouds, the sky bright with early morning.
"So what are you going to do?" Snotlout asked, eyeing him. There was a sudden coldness in his voice that had his cousin staring at him. Hiccup blinked.
"I would really really like your help," he said gruffly. "But if you don't want to, then I will make sure you receive enough gold to ensure you are set for life in thanks for all the kindness you showed my Dad."
Snotlout stared at him in shock.
"You'd do that?' he mouthed and the other man nodded.
"Look-you and Spitelout are my only living relatives-so whatever happens, I will make sure you are looked after," he said. "No pressure." Taking a deep breath, Snotlout looked at the scruffy shape in front of him and sighed. The business could do with the injection of cash and his father would be grateful if he could get some new rigs…or hire some men…or even move into a proper house… And then he recalled Hiccup's face as his father died, tears streaming down the man's face unashamedly-and he knew what the only answer there was that he could live with.
"I'm coming with you, cuz," he said firmly. "Dad can hire some men to help him in the business but I think this is something I have to do."
And suddenly, Hiccup smiled, his stern face easing into a relieved smile. "Thanks, Snot-you have no idea how much this means to me…" He managed. Snotlout grasped his hand.
"Just one thing-what exactly are we going to do?" he asked. And then Hiccup smiled and his cousin felt his blood run cold.
"We're going to use the treasure to take my revenge on everyone who betrayed me and put me through Helheim and killed my Dad," he said. "And it's going to take some preparation. But I spent over ten years in prison…so I can afford to take my time and be patient…and when they have forgotten I even existed, I will take everything they have!"
Chapter 15: The Mysterious Tallon Fury
Fifteen: The Mysterious Tallon Fury
Six Years Later...
The news was sweeping the small island of Berk that the Archipelago's only billionaire had bought the land up and around Raven Point and had constructed a magnificent home there beyond the sight of the rest of the inhabitants of the town. Of course, the Berkians had known someone had purchased the land because the area had suddenly become unavailable for hikes and runs but there had been no information and the deeds had all been registered at the Administrative Capitol of the Archipelago on Dragon Island. There had been trucks going up there and helicopters coming in and out, constructing something but no one had an inkling what had been going on…until now.
For Astrid Eretson, the loss of Raven Point-and especially the cove where Toothless, Hiccup's precious Night Fury was concealed-was like the loss of perhaps the last piece of him. Rich and privileged as the wife of one of Berk's richest and leading citizens, Astrid had visited the concealed aircraft every few days or week since Hiccup had been arrested…and it had been the only place to go when news of his suicide had come through. Devastated, heartbroken and raw, Astrid had gone to the only tangible evidence of his existence and had wept in the cockpit, her mind supplying images of his smile as he repaired Toothless. And she had travelled there ever since under the pretext of going for a run. It had been less frequent as the years came but every month or six weeks, she had still made her way down into the depression to talk to her dead lover and tell him what had been happening. But now that was taken from her as well and it had been like losing him all over again.
She had filtered out the chatter in the weekly meeting of the Berk Women's Institute until it turned to the new owner of Raven Point when she had emerged from her reveries and focussed on Atali's words.
"So our new Berk resident is the owner of Dragon's Edge Aerospace, none other than Tallon Fury himself!"
If she had expected a tsunami of exclamations and enquiries, she was sorely mistaken. The other women looked at the red-haired Atali, her copper mane in a high ponytail and green eyes rolling in exasperation. Minden flicked her mid brown bob.
"A bit pretentious, isn't it?" she commented crushingly. Nadia chuckled, her wicked sense of irony familiar to the group.
"He's worth several billion so if he wanted to call himself 'Chicken' and walk around dressed only in feathers, I doubt anyone would comment…to his face, at least," she noted.
"Dragon's Edge Aerospace?" Minden asked sharply. She was direct and cutting about most subjects. Atali shook her head.
"The biggest zero to hero story in the Archipelago's history!" she retorted.
"I very much doubt that," Astrid commented dryly. The other three looked at her. "Well, Vikings came here well over a thousand years ago and I am certain there will be far more worthy tales of heroism and courage than someone setting up a plane company." Atali gave a scornful smirk. She, Nadia and Minden were known as the Wing Maidens, a group of society bitches who had ditched their unsatisfactory husbands, stripped them of assets and risen inexorably in Berk society. They were always on the lookout for a fresh husband or something that could advance their own profile and bank balance: Tallon Fury probably represented all of those opportunities.
"Astrid, Astrid, Astrid," Atali told her mockingly. "You may be satisfied with that boorish loser you're married to but allow the rest of us to assess the fresh meat on the market."
"I am sure a man in possession of billions and an aerospace company will be eyeing much better prizes than you three," Astrid retorted, stinging at the comment about her husband. Not that she actually cared about Eret to any significant degree-but she wasn't about to tolerate Atali and her cronies jibing her about Eret's deficiencies. Besides, puncturing Atali's Atali-centric view of the world was always a worthwhile pastime. The women scowled back.
"Why not?" Atali retaliated. "The man has appeared from nowhere, he's set up this amazing company and has suddenly become the richest and most eligible person in the entire Archipelago…and he's moved into our neighbourhood!"
"He doesn't do any broadcast interviews," Nadia announced, her eyes scanning her smart phone. "Not one. He doesn't allow pictures. He's done one interview with Sven Shepherd, the tech journalist from the 'Berk Viking' paper."
"And?" Minden prompted her, edging to her side and trying to peer over her shoulder. Astrid sipped her tea and watched them, ensuring she still looked outwardly bored. If this man moved to Berk, it was a certainty that Eret would attempt to befriend him and try to weasel some money out of him to support his various and relatively unsuccessful business ventures. Any information would be a help so she listened more intently.
"Single," she read to sharp intakes of breath. Giving a smug smile, Atali tapped her perfectly manicured nails on the table.
"Go on," she prompted.
"Set up the company with an inheritance from his godfather," Nadia read. "He bought a small aeroengineering firm, Dragon Engineering and within two years, he had presented two new aircraft to the world for sale. His NF-400 mid-range passenger jet is a direct competitor for Airbus and Boeing and it has outsold their models by three to one-especially with a couple of incidents with some of the current options. Currently about five hundred are in service with as many on the order books, giving a turnover in excess of fifty billion dollars. The shorter range NF-100 is already a stalwart of island-hopping fleets all over the globe. And all the aircraft have such advanced and innovative safety features that they have completely shifted the safety paradigm within the aerospace industry, leaving rivals floundering to catch up."
"Smart, rich and driven," Atali grinned. "I like him already."
"I don't understand most of that," Minden protested.
"You don't need to," Nadia told her. "It means he's loaded, has his own company and is likely to remain a world leader for years to come. And he's the best catch ever to come to Berk."
"Probably gay," Astrid put in, watching the women bristle at the implications it may not be their charms that would win him.
"I'm sure we can cure that," she said as Astrid rolled her eyes.
"Not sure that is a 'curable' characteristic," she pointed out sarcastically.
"You're very bitter," Minden told her shortly.
"Must be the boorish loser I'm married to that's made me such," the blonde woman commented sharply. "Though I can guarantee that I am going to meet him. After all, Eret is part of the Island Council as one of our leading citizens…and they will have extended an invitation to Mr Fury for the Council Spring Reception. I'm sure he will come…because he could have kept his residency here secret if he had wanted. The announcement is designed to let us know he wants to join our society." And then she smiled. "I'll tell you what he's like…" Then she rose to speak to Elsa Larson, the best baker in the group as the others watched her, a mixture of pity and venom on their faces.
"You think she knows that Eret has been sleeping with you, Atali?" Nadia asked dryly.
"Maybe," the redhead said, tossing her hair. "And if not me…well, there have been plenty over the years. Man seems incapable of keeping his eye on his wife." Then she smirked. "Not that I'm complaining, of course. I mean, he's reasonably rewarding spending time with-and he does like to show off his wealth with a few little gifts…" And she pointedly lifted her chin, displaying the elegant emerald diadem pendant hanging from a beautifully-crafted gold necklace. Nadia inhaled sharply.
"That must have cost a fortune," Minden commented.
"Certainly," Atali told her. "Tens of thousands, if I'm not mistaken. But what am I to do? Man wants to treat me…I'm hardly likely to complain…"
"Though you did deliberately wear the gift when running into his wife," Nadia noted dryly.
"She should do better in satisfying him," Atali retorted cruelly. "He says their love life is pretty much deceased. And he doesn't love her-she's just a good hostess and business asset now. And the fallout if he left her and their children would be very bad for confidence. She always has the option to take a lover as well…" Snorting disparagingly, Nadia shook her head.
"I doubt it," she commented. "I mean, she was supposed to be beautiful when she was younger-but I don't see she's special now." They all stared at the slender, lithe shape, dressed in a simple navy blue shift dress with dark tights and knee high glossy chestnut boots. Her long golden hair was functionally in a thick braid, tossed over her left shoulder and besides her ostentatious wedding band, the only other jewellery she wore was a thin silver band with a small aquamarine around the third finger of her right hand. Her face was still clear and unlined, her sea blue eyes bright and clear and there was a sense of calm in her features. By any standards she was still a beautiful woman-except to her rivals.
"I heard she was penniless and desperate when's he married him," Minden gossiped mercilessly. "She won't give up her meal ticket-or want him to remarry and have more brats which could oust her own offspring." Atali snorted.
"Not about to ruin this figure just to give anyone a son," she said, resting her hands pointedly on her narrow waist. "He's got Eret Junior and he can be satisfied with that!" Then she shrugged. "Not that I think Eret would be much point marrying. I mean, he is boorish and self-absorbed and he does have a gambling habit. I'm not sure he'll be rich for ever and he's better to milk for gifts and…fun…rather than risking anything of mine if it all goes south."
"And it may?" Nadia asked, leaning forward. Atali cast a glance at Astrid, who was nodding and smiling at the older woman, complimenting her on her coffee walnut cake.
"Rumour has it he's not as solvent as he seems," she hissed. "I overheard him taking a call while I was in the bathroom. He's up to his neck in debts and ironically the cargo business is just about keeping his head above water. The house is mortgaged and the children's college funds have been frittered away. Only the fact that he works closely with the Trade Minister allows him to get enough contracts and loans to keep his head above water." Minden smirked.
"So Mrs High-and-Mighty may soon be back where she started?" she scoffed. Atali nodded.
"In the gutter where she belongs," she confirmed and then she looked over at Nadia. "Okay-so what else does that article say about Mr Tallon Fury?"
In the Great Hall, the centre of Berkian administration and government, the office of the First Minister commanded excellent views from its fourth floor position over the town of Berk. Spread at his feet, First Minister Viggo Grimborn looked down on his subjects with contempt. Eschewing the traditional title of 'Mayor', when he had taken over the office some sixteen years earlier, he had changed his title, consolidated his influence and set to erase every last trace of his predecessor.
He stared across the vista, seeing containers gliding into the port and a couple of smaller fishing vessels head round for the fish market. A helicopter was skimming low over the bay and the streets were jammed with rush hour traffic, the lines of cars moving slowly towards the red traffic lights. Clasping his hands behind his back, he noted road works on the main road to the Plaza that should have been completed a week earlier and made a mental note to chase the Highways Department over why the main artery in the town was still disrupted. Then he turned back to his two colleagues, his lips pressed tight in irritation.
"So how are the negotiations going?" he asked. The shape in the chair closer to the window shifted. The man was dapper with a greying brown curled beard, bright eyes and a ready-if false-smile. Clothed on a silver silk suit with a brilliant pink shirt and wildly patterned tie and pink kerchief in his top pocket, Johann Trayder was the Trade Minister for the entire Archipelago and probably the biggest crook that Viggo had ever met. The man's mouth spewed falsehoods as easily as breathing and he was a man who you never trusted. Viggo almost counted his fingers automatically after he shook hands with Johann, knowing the man would even rip off his own mother. Johann was a vicious opponent and had connections with the most shady and dangerous characters across the Archipelago and the North, a man who had started out as a general trader, casino owner and smuggler, a man who had no morals or scruples and for whom, dollars were his god.
"Slowly," Johann said, the edge on his voice irritated. "The Bogs and Paxlandians are being very difficult in accepting your proposal for a pan-Archipelago tariff for iron and power."
"Probably because Paxlandia has the most efficient and profitable steel works in the Archipelago-and they have recently committed to a very large and long term contract with Dragon's Edge Aerospace for their NF-400 model which is providing a serious amount of work for the Paxlandians and the Berserkers," the third man said. Tall and buff with a shaven head and stripe of a beard on his large chin, Ryker Grimborn was Viggo's older brother, a man with a shady past in security and what had been described politely as 'problem management'. There was an air of restrained violence in his powerful form and his hard dark eyes. He was clothed in iron grey pants and a buff shirt that strained across his powerful chest.
"The Bogs are being difficult-because First Minister Bogby has never seen eye to eye with me since I was caught smuggling out culturally-sensitive artefacts twenty years ago," Johann said.
"We need this agreement," Viggo said firmly, sitting down with poise and pouring himself a crystal tumbler of finest Berkian mead. Ryker grabbed the decanter and sloshed more of the amber liquid into his own and Johann's glasses.
"Thanks," he added ironically. "The Bogs have a dedicated electronics facility that is also profiting from a Dragon's Edge contract. And they have already invested heavily in wind and wave power over the last decade, making them regional leaders in clean, renewable energy. They are massive net exporters and certainly they won't be interested in aligning with your tariff levels."
"I can't have that at all," Johann said dryly. "I have slowly increased our tariffs to ensure that we undergo a prolonged economic slowdown to ensure that when an alternative to the current governmental structure is offered, our people will respond positively."
Ryker drained his glass and chuckled.
"You think your beloved sheep realise that some of their senior representatives are trying their best to run down their own government so that it can be destroyed?" he asked. Viggo steepled his fingers.
"No," he said. "I have been manoeuvring them to where I need them," he said. "I have carefully built my platform on being tough on crime and criminals. Crime is right down and convictions are at an all time high. All opponents have been removed using the machinery of justice. I have slowly tightened up the laws where it suits me-and one by one, removed the legal means of removing me from office. There won't be a coup against me as there was against that gullible fool, Stoick Haddock!"
"Just against the United Archipelago Government," Ryker chuckled, refilling his glass.
"None of which excessively self-congratulatory propaganda gets us any closer to harmonising our tariffs at a distinctly disadvantageous rate," Johann commented in a bored voice, rolling his crystal glass in his hands. "Dragon's Edge Aerospace seems to be a rather irritating thorn in our side."
"Also one of the largest organisations in terms of turnover in the North," Ryker pointed out.
"So what do we know about the owner and CEO?" Viggo asked.
"Almost nothing," Johann snapped. "The man is a recluse. He doesn't allow pictures, he gives no broadcast interviews…and I am not certain Tallon Fury is even his real name. My contacts could find nothing about him. He just appeared as if out of nowhere about six years ago."
"He has a small number of close associates who are very efficient in blocking access to him and who give very little away," Ryker reported. "But he is close to the First Ministers of Bog and Paxlandia and is certainly a welcome guest with the leading families in Berserk and Shivering Shores."
"So why Berk?" Viggo murmured. "Why not one of those islands?"
"Maybe he comes from here?" Johann suggested.
"I would know," the First Minister snapped. "I would have noticed if such a talented and innovative young man had vanished from here. I try to watch anyone out of the ordinary. And there are very few people here who have any skills in aeronautical engineering."
"Maybe your friend Eret can use his contacts to dig into this man's past?" Ryker commented, staring at Johann. The Trade Minister scratched his beard.
"I'm not sure he has any contacts except me," he commented. "The man isn't the brains or drive behind the business, since it was stolen from his business partner who was framed to remove him from any prying eyes once he had delivered the access codes to Icefell." Stiffening imperceptibly, Viggo then nodded.
"Make him earn his way for once," he growled. "He plays on his connection with both of us when it suits him. Maybe he can be of some use and deserve the Government contracts he still retains. Get him to find out. To befriend the man. He can use that wife of his…Astrid…to see if she can maybe charm the recluse."
"I don't like rich men," Johann said grimly. "They tend to have expensive layers, excellent security and have a nasty habit of behaving as if the law doesn't apply to them."
"Sounds like people not a million miles from here," Ryker commented gruffly.
"And we-all three of us-have been working with our partner for almost two decades to bring around the triumph of our master," Johann reminded him. "I know he will not be happy if all our plans are disrupted by some brilliant recluse who just happens to have accidentally blocked our proposals…"
"The Archipelago Government won't fail to fall just because we don't completely wreck the economy, Johann," Viggo reminded him coolly.
"But it facilitates the process significantly-and will reduce opposition," Johann added. "And you know our master hates failure. Anyone who crosses him answers to Krogan…or even Grimmel."
"Then maybe we can just send them…" Ryker suggested, sitting back.
"And miss the opportunity this man offers?" Viggo snapped. "I am ashamed of you, brother! This man could be a major asset. And I am certain we can find some way to persuade him that assisting us would be in the Archipelago's-and his-best interests." He leaned forward. "No-Johann, you must get Eret to meet him. Soon. I will have him invited to the next Civic Ball. And you can arrange to meet with him to ease trade conditions here…in the interests of the business, of course, as well as Berk. I will ask our master's agents to see what they can dig up on this man." He sat back. "Whoever Tallon Fury is, he cannot be allowed to derail our progress. After all, we are now so close. By the end of the year, our master will rule the Archipelago."
In an office on Dragon Island, the President of the United Archipelago Government sat back at her wide granite desk. Light filtering through the wide picture windows gilded her page-cut strawberry blonde hair and her green eyes narrowed at the man sitting opposite her as she digested his words.
"You are sure?" Her clipped tones were cool and very slightly concerned. He nodded.
"You start from a position of scepticism," he told her clearly. "While I start from knowledge that they are corrupt. I have investigated their concerns over the last five years and uncovered incontrovertible links between them and the gravest danger facing our Government. It means I have no qualms about using whatever means to investigate and stop them. And I have no concerns about their welfare during that process either."
"This must be done within the bounds of the law," the President insisted as the man sat back, lacing his fingers. "I have spent the last seven years trying to humanise the penal system and ensure that human life is valued and the emphasis is on rehabilitation, not on brutalising the prisoners. And that justice is transparent and fair for all."
"If you wish," he said, his tone cynical. "I give my word I will not kill any of these men…but I will not stop them if they choose to harm themselves or others wish to do so." The President paused, hearing the flat tone-and then she nodded. The truth was that the tale he had revealed was so terrifying and so advanced that they would need all he help they could get to halt it before it was too late.
"Good enough," she conceded. Then she looked up to the third person in the office, a tall powerful man with a stern face, deep caramel eyes and short, reddish hair, standing quietly by the door. "My Special Investigator has wide powers that outrank any local law or governmental officer. You may deal directly with him. He will ensure that those you have named will not escape justice." The man nodded.
"And the other thing?" he asked. This time she paused-and then she signed the paper embossed with the Presidential seal that was placed on the desk in front of her.
"The immunity you requested," she said reluctantly, blotting her signature. "I must know…why did you request this?" The man smiled as he accepted the paper and fastidiously rolled it up.
"My friends," he said. "This is to protect them, not me." Then was a gruff, bitter edge to his voice as he looked fearlessly into her eyes. "It's too late for me." Then he rose and offered the President his hand. "You will be hearing from me soon, Madame President. And you, Special Investigator." She grasped his hand firmly and then nodded.
"Thank you. And good luck, Mr Fury," she said.
Chapter 16: The Most Eligible Man In Berk
Sixteen: The Most Eligible Man in Berk
Berk's Annual Spring Civic Reception was the best and only place to be seen. Held in the Great Hall, that magnificent stone monolith that dominated the upper town of Berk, the building had its roots back a thousand years and was built on the ruins of the old viking structure that had formed the heart of the community. High ceilinged with massive granite columns supporting the soaring arched roof, the place more resembled a Gothic cathedral than a reception venue but the marble floor, elegantly decorated walls with plaster friezes and Viking tapestries and generous nods to Berk's heritage made it an impressive venue. At the far end, the larger than life portrait of the First Minister dominated the wall, staring down at his subjects. A red carpet ran all the way up the central aisle and out onto the street where limousines for the honoured guests were already arriving.
Astrid paused to take a deep breath of the fresh night air before her husband joined her, his arm draping possessively around her shoulders to ensure that no one was in any doubt that this expensive piece was his. Tall, very buff and handsome, Eret Eretson always wore cream and beige as it complimented his tanned skin, jet hair and dark caramel eyes. He took Astrid's hand and enclosed it in his as she lifted her chin and walked forward in step with him. Her asymmetric azure cocktail dress shimmered in the brilliant lights, flowing as she moved and her hair was loose over her shoulders. Classic gold heels and gold Chanel purse completed the outfit as they made their way in, the flash of cameras following them as usual.
Once inside, Eret dropped her hand and cast around for a server.
"Gods, I'm parched," he said without preamble. "I need a drink."
"You always need a drink," Astrid commented dryly, gesturing discreetly to a young woman who immediately brought a tray over. Eret grabbed a flute of champagne and downed it in one before grabbing a second.
"Get me a double bourbon on the rocks, hold the rocks," he said brusquely. "And snap to it, sweet cheeks,"
"Very good, sir," the young woman said and he froze, looking up to the slender shape facing him. Dark auburn hair was braided over her shoulder and bright blue eyes stared boldly back into his face, the few scattered freckles moving as she tried not to smile. Eret scowled.
"Zephyr? What are you doing here?" he growled.
"Work experience," Astrid cut in, nodding to her daughter.
"Absolutely not! I completely forbid my daughter from working a minimum wage job especially here, where my fellow Councillors and business associates will see her!" Eret hissed. "Are you trying to make me look a fool, woman?"
"No, you can do that all by yourself," Astrid replied through gritted teeth. "What they will see is a wise father encouraging his child to get valuable work experience in a safe environment where he is present to keep an eye on her! A good businessman encourages self-exploration and development and customer service skills are always valuable." She nodded to her daughter. "Off you go, Zeph." Smiling, the young woman headed away, the drinks tray elegantly balanced on her arm.
"We will talk about this later," Eret promised venomously.
"No we won't," Astrid retorted, her patience worn thin. "Later, you'll be drunk or up the casino losing our money or banging some whore."
"It's MY money!" he growled but she turned to face him.
"Ours," she reminded him. "As your wife, I am entitled to half of what you have." Because you took everything of mine. Eret snorted.
"You only do half the job so what does that make you?" he sneered. She sighed.
"A fool," she muttered and then walked up the red carpet towards the black-clad shape of the First Minister, holding court up on the raised dais with the tall shape of his brother in attendance. Walking forward with a carefully judged smile on her face, she nodded to Viggo and he took her hand, ghosting the slightest kiss on her pale skin.
"My dear Astrid, you look utterly gorgeous," he said smoothly. "Are you well?"
"Very well, thank you," she replied as his eyes glanced over at the shape of Eret, who was loudly greeting one of his friends from the casino. "And you?"
"Oh, better than good," he revealed. "I notice young Zephyr is working here tonight?" Astrid nodded.
"I was keen she should get some work experience, since we live a very comfortable life," she explained. "Money earned, not given has more meaning."
"An unusual view for one in your position," Viggo replied, his gaze trailing the slender shape walking swiftly and assuredly round the periphery of the Hall.
"Fortunes change overnight and I don't want either of my children to be ill-equipped for life should the storms hit," she told him. He smiled.
"Excuse me," he said and turned to the next guest. Relieved that part was over, she headed back into the throng and found herself a glass of wine, then watched her daughter continue with her job, hoping the girl noted that most of the wealthiest people treated her as if she was nothing. Only the self-made and middle class attendees fastidiously thanked her. Over to one side, she could see Atali, Minden and Nadia all clustered in a little group, all wearing similar silver outfits that shimmered in the light. Turning away, she walked slowly round the periphery of the Hall. Long ago, she had been here with Hiccup, attending one of the Mayor's Banquets and she recalled how kind and warm Stoick had been, circulating and making sure he spoke to everyone. Viggo was more like a king holding court than a leader among equals.
And then she became aware of a hubbub, of whispers and conversations quieting as the sounds of a helicopter landing suddenly roared outside before the engines damped down, the roar softening to a decelerating whine. There was a slow but definite movement towards the doors and intrigued, Astrid followed, hanging back enough so she could have an unimpeded view as shapes approached the door out of the dark night and there was a collective intake of breath.
"Ladies and Gentlemen-Mr Tallon Fury!" The voice of the announcer silenced the hubbub and now every eye turned to the great doorway. The sounds of the helicopter died away and there was a pause before a tall lean shape walked in, the faintest trace of a limp the only anomaly in his casual gait. Dressed in what was clearly a handmade Savile Row suit of deep mahogany with an emerald green silk shirt open at the neck, he cut an elegant figure. His deep chestnut hair was casually trimmed, framing a face with a neatly trimmed full beard, the pale skin lightly freckled and eyes hidden by dark shades. At his side walked four shapes: a stocky man with black hair and blue eyes wearing a black blazer, white shirt and grey slacks; a lanky women with long blonde braids, a long face and wearing a brown pinstriped suit; a lanky male with long blond dreadlocks wearing an identical brown pinstriped suit and finally a slender very pretty woman with raven hair braided over her left shoulder and bright green eyes in a calm, cool face, wearing a simple little black dress.
The man looked around, his head swinging to inspect the assembled throng of Berk's great and good and then his lips curled in a small smile.
"Wow-I'll stand aside for whoever you're waiting for," he said in a light, amused voice as Viggo Grimborn walked swiftly forward.
"Mr Fury-I think I speak for everyone when I say that we are all waiting to make your acquaintance," he said smoothly, reaching for the man's hand. Fury paused for a long moment, before grasping the hand and shaking it firmly. As he shook, Viggo stared into his face, hoping to read the expression-but all he met was a small, irritating smile and the reflection of his own frustrated deep brown gaze in the mirror shades.
"Looks like I'm in for a busy evening," Fury commented mildly. "I should warn you, I am terrible with names so I almost certainly won't recall who any of you are." He gave a disarming smile. "However, my assistants will recall for me." He gestured to the stocky man. "Simon Nightmare, my security adviser." He glanced over to the almost identical blonds. "Miss Barf and Mr Belch, my acquisitions and development specialists." Then he glanced over at the raven haired woman. "And Miss Shearer, my personal assistant." From her vantage point, Astrid could see the expression in the woman's eyes and she gave an inner smile: she recognised the affection in the woman's eyes, though she couldn't judge his response. There was an inflection in his voice that suggested some partiality on his part: she suspected they were lovers. She stole a glance at the Wing Maidens and was rewarded by the sight of Atali white with fury and the others not far behind at the implication their target was already attached. Viggo bowed his head and gestured towards the Hall.
"Then I should start by introducing my leading citizens, starting with my brother, Ryker…" he began, gesturing to the powerful shape that walked forward. Adopting a polite expression, Fury shook the man's hand and listened to his clearly shallow greeting. Seeing her husband and his friends surge forward, trying the elbow his way through the throng of merchants and citizens who all imagined they were the most important people in Berk, Astrid backed away, almost pitying the billionaire. He would be busy for some time and she guessed she wasn't important enough to be introduced in any case...though a small part of her was curious. For a man who seemed to treasure his discretion, he certainly knew how to make an entrance. Shaking her head slightly, Astrid walked back, heading for the side of the room where Zephyr was standing with her tray of champagne. Her daughter looked tired and a few strands of her thick auburn hair were escaping from the braid.
"You okay?" Astrid asked, standing beside the younger woman and her daughter nodded.
"My feet are aching," she admitted. "And I've had to restock my tray nine times already. Do people really drink this much?"
"They do when it's free," Astrid told her dryly. "And while you may have noticed already, Berkians tend to be greedy, not especially bright and rather inflated with the sense of their own importance." Zephyr tried not to snigger.
"Oh, that is so true, Mom," she admitted, trying to look serious as she had been ordered to do. "I mean, many of them don't even acknowledge I am a person and some of them have asked me if I know who they are. And when I don't know, they just keep droning on about how important they are…" Astrid smiled.
"That is very true," she sighed. "I mean, they were always like this but before you were born, when we had Mayor Stoick, he made sure everyone was treated equally. He treated everyone as his equal. And he was a kind and generous man." She sighed and the girl realised that she had known the man.
"Are you okay, Mom?" she asked gently as the woman forced herself to smile.
"Yes," she sighed. "His son was my first love. My only real love."
"Is he the one Dad sometimes sneers about when…" Zephyr asked and Astrid nodded.
"When we argue," she concluded. "Yes. He was Dad's best friend. He gave Dad a job and helped him. Dad…stabbed him in the back."
"So why are you with Dad?" Zephyr asked and Astrid closed her eyes.
"My…friend…was arrested and convicted of treason. And that was wrong, a lie, a farce," she said evenly. "It wasn't his treason. He was framed and shipped out to prison. His Dad and I never gave up and we appealed, even trying to get the Prosecutor replaced and appealing to the Council of First Ministers…but before we could succeed, my friend…killed himself. The prison was so horrendous, so devastating that he couldn't cope any more and he took his life rather than hang on."
Zephyr swallowed, hearing her mother's voice waver.
"I'm sorry," she said softly. Astrid sighed and absently patted her arm.
"After he was gone…well, your Dad had been pestering me every day since my friend was arrested. And he wouldn't take no for an answer. My family was all gone and the Mayor…well, things went south and I spoke to him. He told me I had to do what I could to try to clear my friend and to look after myself. So I finally acquiesced. And he insisted we were married straight away so that he could show the world that he had got everything that had been his friend's."
"That sounds horrible," Zephyr said, her voice shocked. Sighing, Astrid nodded.
"It is," she confessed. "But your Dad isn't the nicest person." There was a raucous laugh and they both looked over as Eret clapped the lean shape of the billionaire on the shoulder.
"Dad's been drinking," Zephyr sighed, looking down.
"Dad's always been drinking," her mother confirmed. "He's either drunk, drinking or hung over. When he's home at all."
"So why don't you leave him, Mom?" the younger woman asked her softly. Astrid looked up sharply. It was the last thing that she had expected her daughter to suggest. "I know you're not at all happy."
"I made my choice many years ago," she sighed.
"And if you hadn't, you wouldn't have us," the girl added. Astrid conceded with a small smile.
"You and Finky are my greatest achievements," she said softly. "And I could never leave you with Dad if I left him. Because he would fight in the courts to keep 'his' children. He's much more ruthless and rich than I am and I know, with his friends in the Granite Office and on the Council, I would never hope to win and keep you. And why would I want to disrupt your lives for a situation that has existed since the day I accepted his offer? Maybe when you are both grown up and have left home for College, I will think again about my future. But until then…I stay."
"Not sure Dad wants us to go to College," Zephyr said softly. "He always laughs when I mention it. He keeps saying I won't need it for what I will be doing…"
"He wants you married to one of his business partners in payment for loans or contracts," Astrid said grimly. "I won't allow that. You're a brilliant artist, Zeph. And I will make sure you get the chance to pursue what you want to do with your life-preferably off Berk and away from this poisonous place…" She sighed. "Don't worry, Zeph. I won't let your Dad use you in any of his business schemes, no matter what emotional pressure he tries to put on you." She rested her hand on the young woman's arm. "Always remember, Zeph-whatever trouble Dad says he's in probably doesn't exist. And it is his trouble, not yours. And you shouldn't put your life at risk or have your life ruined just to bail him out when he should have the balls to face up to his own mistakes, rather than making everyone else sort them out for him."
"Mind if I interrupt?" an unfamiliar voice said and Astrid's head snapped round-to see her surprised expression reflected in Tallon Fury's shades as the man himself stood a mere couple of feet away. He offered a small smile. "I wonder if I could possibly have a drink?" Zephyr's blue eyes widened and she started.
"I am so sorry, sir," she said and tried to offer him a drink-but her tray tilted and a flute fell over, splashing champagne over the tray and onto his jacket. She gasped and her face was stricken. "Oh Thor, I am so sorry…" she mumbled. "I'm so clumsy. Please let me get a cloth…"
"Let me," Astrid said briskly and fished a paper tissue from her purse, deftly wiping the fluid off. The billionaire watched them with a small smile. "I'm sorry as well," she added, looking up into the handsome face. The man gave a small chuckle.
"I don't normally have this effect on people," he apologised. "Can't think what has caused it…"
"I think…you're their first billionaire," she told him dryly. He chuckled.
"I'm just a normal guy. The only difference is that my bank account looks like a telephone number," he quipped, reaching out and grasping a flute. He looked from women to woman. "She's your daughter?" he asked Astrid and she nodded.
"Astrid Eretson," she introduced herself. "This is my daughter, Zephyr. She's getting work experience." The man gave a genuine smile.
"She has your eyes," he commented. "And we all have to learn." He tipped the flute slightly and sipped the dry liquid. "Good luck with the work experience, Zephyr, Mrs Eretson." Then he turned and walked back to the effective scrum of leading citizens who were all competing to get his attention and befriend the newcomer. Zephyr sighed.
"He was so nice," she sighed. "And I looked like a total klutz." Astrid smiled and collected herself a drink from the tray.
"Yes, he was very patient," she admitted. "You know your father and his friends wouldn't have been."
"Maybe, because he's rich and everyone is fawning over him, he can afford to be kind?" Zephyr asked as Astrid narrowed her eyes. There was a sense of familiarity about the tall, lean bearded man that had her confused.
"No," she murmured. "If a person is decent, that's because it's who they are. When you spilled the champers on him, Zeph, he didn't bat an eyelid. Most people here would shout or sneer."
"Most people here aren't very nice, are they?" Zephyr commented dryly.
"What did our famous guest want?" Both women started as Eret's voice cut across their soft discussion. The man approached brashly, a tumbler of bourbon grasped in his hand.
"A glass of champagne, apparently," Astrid replied sharply. Eret chugged a mouthful of his liquor and gave her a sneering look.
"I noted he couldn't keep his eyes off you," he snarked.
"How? He wears those sunglasses all the time," Astrid retorted. Eret chuckled.
"He was glancing over in your direction even while he was talking to half of the leading citizens in Berk," he scoffed.
"Really?" Astrid's voice was cynical. "I suspect he was just looking for a drink since Viggo pounced on him before the poor man could be served."
"And yet…he made a bee-line for the most attractive woman in the room," Eret said. "What did he say?" Astrid frowned. Eret's jealousy over her interaction was incredibly irking when he was incapable being faithful himself. The young woman she had been refused to rehearse every word she spoke to anyone for Eret and that had led to furious rows and even more furious fights. Pragmatic in the face of her vicious and cruel husband, she had learned to control her temper and reveal as little as she needed to.
"There really is little to discuss," she said evenly. "He came over for a glass of champagne, Zeph accidentally knocked one over and I mopped it up. He was very nice and then he returned to the scrum of grasping Hooligans over there."
"I might have known Zeph would make a fool of herself," Eret added cruelly. "I'm surprised that you haven't fallen over your own feet or dropped the entire tray." Astrid instinctively glanced over to her daughter, seeing her pale, freckled cheeks warm with embarrassment.
"It could have happened to anyone," she said firmly. But Eret's eyes narrowed with malice.
"And yet-it always happens to Zephyr," he insisted. "You could have ruined our chances with the man."
"And yet she didn't," Astrid retorted. "He was very pleasant. Off you go and circulate, Zeph. And don't listen to Dad. Go." The girl swiftly scooted away, leaving Astrid with her husband. Eret was standing close to her, swiftly draining his bourbon and watching the mysterious billionaire.
"Did he say anything else?" he hissed.
"He clocked Zephyr was my daughter by her eyes," she replied.
"Did he show any interest?" Eret asked directly. She stilled and stared at him.
"What do you mean?" she asked in a freezing voice. He leaned close.
"Did. He. Show. Any Interest?" he repeated, emphasising each word. They both understood the meaning and Astrid's fists clenched.
"You're despicable," she hissed. "Zephyr is sixteen. For you to even suggest…"
"He's a billionaire and I need investment," Eret hissed. "If he wants to fuck my daughter-or my wife-he can do whatever he wants, as long as he pays for it." Astrid jerked away from him, a look of disgust on her face.
"Maybe you should offer yourself, since it's your mess," she hissed back.
"Oh, I would if I thought I could get a seven figure payout-but the way he looks at 'Miss Shearer' tells me he doesn't swing that way. Maybe you…"
"You can go fuck yourself," Astrid hissed. "You stole everything you have-maybe you should finally earn something…" He grabbed her arm, the grip tight and turning her skin white. She gritted her teeth, knowing he wouldn't strike her in public.
"I own you," he reminded her cruelly. "And you better readjust your attitude. I've invited him for dinner. And the first Minister and Council. So get a sumptuous meal organised, wife and put your best face on. Next week Mr Fury will be visiting our home and by the time he leaves, he will be our best friend." And then he released her arm, swinging off in search of more bourbon, leaving her absently rubbing the red weal on her arm and gazing at the tall man. For a second, the man lifted his head and gazed in her direction, meeting her thoughtful gaze-and then he raised his flute-still barely sipped-and smiled at her before turning back to his latest new acquaintance and almost completely ignoring Atali and her Wing Maiden cronies. Unbidden, Eret's words rolled round her head once more.
Is he interested?
Curiously unsettled, Astrid turned away in search of Zephyr once more.
Hiccup sat back in the seat of his helicopter as they rose above the Plaza outside the Great Hall and slowly ascended over the gaily-lit town of Berk and gave a huge sigh. It had been an exhausting evening.
"Thank Thor that's done," he exhaled, looking over at his friends.
"You were awesome as ever, Ingen," Tuff complimented him as Snotlout sat up front with Cami, their pilot. They circled round and then headed away from the bright lights, over towards the west of the island and Raven Point. Breathing deeply, the mysterious Tallon Fury removed his shades and ran his hands through his auburn hair.
"That was hard," Hiccup admitted. "When I saw Viggo, I was scared he would recognise me…but then I asked myself why he would recall a young man he saw a couple of times over fifteen years ago who he sent to his death? And then I felt a sudden wave of anger when I saw him in my father's place, holding court like a Chief and welcoming me to my home island which he took from me."
"That must have been hard," Heather said softly. Quietly, Hiccup glanced over to her and moved his hand to brush against hers.
"Are you okay?" he asked her gently, his tone concerned and she nodded silently, the expression in her eyes thoughtful. She nodded again.
"Going to a function like that brought up a lot of memories…" she admitted. "I mean, not at first when I was first forced to work…but after a while, after they had made sure I wouldn't run or resist, clients used to take me to parties, used me as an escort to enhance their appearance as well as…" His hand closed around hers.
"Sorry," he whispered. "I never meant for you to feel at all uncomfortable." But she looked up, her green eyes filled with sudden worry.
"It's okay," she said quickly. "Please, I want to help you. Any way I can. You rescued me, Ingen. I will do whatever you ask." But he turned to face her, carefully taking her hands in his.
"Heather-you only have to do what you want," he told her gently, inspecting her pretty face and seeing the anxiety in her expression. "Please, if you don't feel comfortable doing something, if it stirs up bad memories or you don't want to do something…tell me. You can refuse. You have a right to say no to anything." She looked away, closing her eyes and sighing.
"I-I don't want to anger you," she whispered. "You have done so much for me. You literally saved me. And I will do whatever you ask to help you finish your plan."
"Heather…" he murmured as her fingers curled around his.
"Whatever you ask of me, I will always say yes," she whispered. He sighed and sat back in his seat as they banked and circled round his new home.
"Please remember you can always say no," he asked her as Tuff and Ruff shared a look.
"Well, that's not at all awkward," Ruff muttered as Hiccup looked up and gave a small smile.
"Nope," he said. "Heather and you guys were superb. You all played your parts well."
"Hey, I could spend my entire life being the security chief for a billionaire," Snotlout called from the front. "I mean, I could really get used to this…"
"Me too," Tuff admitted. "I mean, the lifestyle not the subterfuge…which is also awesome by the way. In fact, that is much more fun than being a smuggler. Though that was fun…"
By now even Heather was smiling at the male twin's unbridled enthusiasm. Ruff unexpectedly gave her twin a hug.
"And I couldn't be more grateful to you guys for your support and help," Hiccup said honestly as they high-fived him. "And that was just the start…"
"Almost everyone invited us round for dinner, barbecue, cocktails, picnics, lunch, breakfast or just a cup of coffee and a business meeting," Heather confirmed. "I noted them all down so you can decide which ones to accept and which to decline or postpone." Hiccup nodded and then he started out of the window as Cami hovered the helicopter down over the illuminated landing pad..
"I saw her," he murmured as every eye turned on her. "She's as beautiful as the last day I saw her. And…calmer. But also…sad. The light has gone from her face, from her eyes. She is surviving but she's not happy."
"Which is what she deserves, from what you said?" Ruff asked gently as he nodded, pursing his lips.
"Yes," he sighed, taking a shuddering breath. "She has a daughter. She has her eyes. She's maybe sixteen…" He shook his head. "It means she conceived her shortly after she married him. While I was still rotting in jail, while I was still hoping and praying that she was trying to get me out and overturn my wrongful conviction, she had married the man who set me up and already conceived his child. And yes, he is drunk and from what we've already learned before we even declared ourselves, he's a womaniser and a gambler and a bad businessman. His commercial interests are all mortgaged to the hilt, even the casino is losing money and the house is collateral against the debts. They are certainly unhappily married and he's probably violent towards her."
"Poor woman," Heather murmured as Hiccup sat back. They touched down and the engines throttled back and were switched off.
"She made her choice," he sighed. "And though she and all my family were told I was dead…she didn't wait. She just…went ahead. And she abandoned Dad. Everything that happens is deserved."
"And her children?" Heather asked him. Hiccup rose, grabbing his shades and opening the door, his face grim. He jumped down from the cabin, heading directly back to the house.
"Why should they profit from my decade in hell?" he asked and walked away.
Chapter 17: The Owner of Raven Point
Seventeen: The Owner of Raven Point
Eret Nuffink Hiccup Eretson Junior-usually known as Nuffink or Finky to his sister and Fink to his Mother-accelerated his motorcycle up the narrow, winding road towards Raven Point Forest, slewing round corners in a manner his mother would definitely have disapproved of. His black helmet was marked with dragon scales and his tinted visor covered his face as he leaned low over the bike, his black leathers also marked with dragon scales. A daredevil and already junior champion of Berk, Nuffink had been riding up and around Raven Point since he was six and he had been as upset as his mother when the area had been fenced off by the new owner.
But unlike his mother, Nuffink wasn't one to stick to the rules and he had been intermittently visiting the area since it had been fenced off, carefully avoiding any security. The area was familiar but was the most challenging topography on the island and if he wanted to keep his championship, he needed to keep practising on the area-no matter that it was now forbidden. And it had been no effort to sneak out of the house, for his Mom and Dad had had another one of their stand up rows, his father yelling at his mother and threatening to divorce her and render her penniless as usual while she had retorted by accusing him of incompetence, corruption, philandering and drunkenness-all of which Nuffink knew were valid observations. His sister had been hiding in the den, working on her Art assignment as well as her other lessons. Zeph was ferociously intelligent and artistic and Nuffink knew that she should not only go to College but was on course to be accepted a year early…if their father would allow it. The problem was that Eret was a controlling ass and his world view wouldn't consider his daughter studying and having any sort of life that she had planned: instead, Nuffink knew their father planned to marry off his sister to some old man in return for covering his business debts and that would wreck his sister's life. Somehow, Nuffink would find a way to stop it.
He took the right fork and followed the road round the coast until they dived into the woods-and hit the barrier. Undeterred, he left the road and drove along the line fo the fence until he reached the ditch where an ash tree had fallen and breached the barrier. Without even hesitating, he accelerated and roared along the trunk, flying over the lowered fence and landing on the mossy earth of the forest. Glancing over his shoulder with a triumphant grin, he gunned the engine and sped off up the slope, dodging spruce trees and avoiding the bramble patches, mud flying up as his heavily treaded tyres churned up the earth. Rising in the saddle, he expertly bounced over ditches, sped down galleys and finally burst through the tree line to the lip of the Cove.
But when he looked down, he felt his heart sink. The Cove was empty and the camouflage nets and branches that he and his mother had kept there had all been removed. And Toothless was gone.
Strangely, he felt winded. The old aircraft had meant almost everything to his mother, a special place where she let her guard down and talked in gentle and sad tones about the friend she had lost, the man she had loved before she married their father-and still loved now. A man who had built the aircraft from the wreck it had been with love and attention and who had been the person who his Mom had spoken about with a smile. It was the only place where he had seen his Mom happy and he knew that she was heartbroken when the Cove was fenced off. So Nuffink had occasionally sneaked in to check the old aircraft was safe. But he hadn't been up for three months, what with school and his training and he bitterly regretted not visiting the little Cove more often.
Carefully, he drove down to the small crevice that formed the door entrance to the Cove and killed the engine, carefully resting his bike against the rock and then pulling off his helmet and resting it on the handlebars. Deftly, he bounded down, slipping through the narrow crevice and jumping down to the patch where the aircraft had rested. The grass and moss had almost completely died back and Nuffin cast around, then skirted the cove, gathering a small handful of daisies and buttercups that he wrapped into a tiny bouquet using a couple of long blades of cooch grass. Silently, he rested the bouquet directly in the middle fo the bare patch, then dropped to his knees, then sat back on his heels.
"I'm sorry they took your plane," the young man said, his spiky blond hair the exact colour of his mother's. His face was thoughtful, a ready grin and sparkling green eyes meaning there were a lot of Junior girls who flirted with him-and not just for his supposed money. Lean and a little lanky, he was already a couple of inches taller than his mother and still growing, though his father constantly teased him for being a stick rather than the buff shape he was. His father was the only person who called him Eret, in fact-because he was determined that his son would inherit the Eretson name. And he knew that Nuffink had acquired his other names from his mother, in defiance of her husband, because she had chosen names she would have used with the man she loved-who he was named after. "I know Mom looked after him for all these years…but it just became impossible. And I'm sure how I could have stopped them but I would have tried."
"Mom is really unhappy," he revealed. "I mean, I'm sure you already know, watching down from Valhalla or wherever…but she doesn't deserve Dad. And I know she stays with him because of us but he is just worse and worse to her. I wish we all could leave." He sighed again. "I wish you were still alive. Because maybe then, Mom would be happy. And maybe, you could be my Dad. I mean, there is no way you could be a millionth of the asshole my actual Dad is. I mean…Gods! If he could embarrass me more than he does, it would be a miracle. And when he calls me 'EJ' I just wanna puke. And when he looks at Zeph and then talks about how she would make a good wife for one of his business partners…well, my skin crawls because he doesn't even see her as worth anything except a profit. I mean, she's my sister. And I-I don't know what I can do to…"
"HEY! YOU! WHAT ARE YOU DOING DOWN THERE?"
Nuffink's head snapped up and he stared at the shapes peering over the edge of the Cove. Scrambling to his feet, he sprinted for the crevice.
"Shoot," he hissed, scrabbling up to his bike, jamming the helmet on and kick-starting the engine. He could hear engines closing as he shifted into gear and gunned the engine, lurching fast up the slope and past three shapes on Quad bikes that were closing on his location. Grinning at the prospect he snatched a glance over his shoulder and accelerated forward.
"Come back here!"
"Hey, old guys! You think you know Raven Point better than me?' he called and then leaned forward, dinking through the trees and skidding down the steep little track. To their credit, the pursuers followed him, two of them whooping and yelling while one just cursed a blue streak. But they remained on his tail, splaying out wide as they tried to flank him. Knuckles tightening as he gripped the handlebars more tightly, he saw one move ahead to the left-where he had intended to turn-and then broke through the trees onto a gravel roadway that hadn't been here before. Skidding along, he accelerated down the hill, heading for the fence and hoping he could escape them. The sounds of their engines were really close and as he checked, another had joined them, making four pursuers coming after the young man.
"Shoot shoot, shoot," he muttered, racing along as fast as he could. The road gently inclined downwards, straight and clear and the woods were thick with brambles, making escape almost impossible. The bikers behind him were closing and he snatched another glance over his shoulder, then spun round a curve to the fence-and found his way barred by gates. He skidded and tried to turn but the four pursuers were almost on him. He tried to dink sideways but one of the bikers threw themselves onto him and found himself borne to the ground, the breath squashed from hiss body and himself pinned by a buxom blonde shape with wild hair poking out from under a deep purple helmet. Twisting his arm across his back and pressing his face down into he ground, she flipped her visor up, revealing an exultant face and sparkling blue eyes.
"Gotcha," she said. The other three pulled to a halt.
"Aww-it was my turn, Cami…" a male whined, pulling off his helmet off and releasing his long fair dreadlocks.
"Way to go, Cam!" a lanky female added, her long blonde braids disarrayed. The last biker dismounted and walked forward. Stocky and powerful looking, the man seemed to have black hair and cool blue eyes.
"Who are you?" he demanded, gesturing for the others to haul Nuffink to his feet. The young man struggled.
"Get off me!" he shouted. The stocky man nodded and his helmet was ripped off, revealing his face.
"Thor, it's just a kid," the buxom woman, Cami, said in surprise.
"He's a hell of a biker," the dreadlocked man commented.
"And he's trespassing, Tuff," the stocky man told him flatly.
"Awww, Snot-can't you cut the kid some slack?" the woman with the long braids asked in a wheedling voice.
"Yeah, Ruff-because that's what a Chief of Security does-he watches people break into the area he's supposed to be protecting and he lets them off!" the stocky man, Snot, replied sarcastically. "Muttonhead," he added under his breath.
"I heard that!"
"You were meant to," Snot growled.
"I wasn't doing any harm!" Nuffink protested. "I was just biking…"
"This is private property," Snot told him.
"It didn't used to be," Nuffink argued. "I've been coming up here since I was a little kid."
"Well, it is now," Snot told him harshly. "Okay-what's your name, kid?"
"Nuffink," the boy said. Ruff and Tuff started sniggering.
"What?" Snot asked.
"Nuffink. Or Fink. That's what they call me," the young man told him with a smirk.
"And your family name?" Snot pressed.
"Can't remember," Nuffink lied. Snot scowled at him, trying to ignore the twins, who were roaring with laughter.
"I like this kid-sassy little bastard that he is," Tuff commented. His sister nodded sagely.
"We were just like him when we were younger."
"Happy days," Tuff agreed.
"Why you little…" Snotlout growled, ignoring them. Then he shook his head. "Shame, I had hoped we could just speak to your parents about this…but if not…we can just call the police and they can arrest you for trespassing. I'm sure they would be able to find out who your parents are and can tell them why you've been charged…" Nuffink's emerald eyes widened in shock and dismay. The last thing he wanted was his father involved, having his friends bail him out and then having his ear bent by his Dad who hated to lose face and have to thank his friends for sorting out his family. He'd been grounded for sure-if not having his bike sold as a punishment. Nuffink wasn't sure he could stand to stay on Berk if he couldn't bike, because it was the only time he felt anything other than a prisoner… The beating he'd certainly get would be nothing by comparison. Reluctantly, he shook his head.
"Please…don't…" he murmured. "Eretson. My name is Nuffink Eretson." The stocky man inspected him carefully and then nodded.
"Okay-we'll take you up to the house and you can speak to the man whose land you've trespassed on," he said. "We'll see what he wants to do with you." Nuffink found himself bundled behind the male twin while Snot lashed his bike to the back of his own. Then he looked at the young man. "If you try to run, we'll call your father and keep your bike. Understand?"
"Yes," Nuffink replied sulkily, hanging onto the male twin as they headed back up the path to the house. Even through his dismay and worry about what would befall him, he was able to recognise that Tuff was an excellent rider and rather than worrying about what was going to happen when they reached the house, he focussed on the ride. But his eyes widened as they topped the rise and reached the magnificent new home that had been constructed on the edge of the forest, overlooking Thor's Bay and the Sullen Sea. Two tall storeys high and extremely modern, the building seemed to be mostly glass with wooden frame, solar panels and a living roof over the garage. Instinctively, Nuffink realised this was the latest technology and he stared as they sped round to the back of the house, where a helicopter was sitting on the pad and underneath, the doors to a hanger were open, revealing the familiar grubby shape of…
"Toothless!" Nuffink's eyes widened in shock as they pulled up and he jumped off the bike. "Toothless!"
There was a movement and the young man saw a long, lanky pair of legs sticking out from behind the pilot seat. They were sheathed in a slightly beat-up pair of jeans and sturdy leather boots and as he watched, a man reversed out and looked up. He was wearing a green check shirt open at the neck and rolled up above the elbows, his face framed by messy very dark auburn hair, his emerald eyes sparkling and a smear of grease on his cheek, above his neatly trimmed beard. For a second, Nuffink felt a thrill of fear: he knew that if he was facing one of his father's business associates, he would be in real trouble. They would be cruel, sneering, maybe threatening and when he got home, he would definitely be grounded and certainly beaten as well. But the man facing him looked up with interest, a small smirk on his face.
"What did you call him?" he asked, his voice light and nasal.
"Toothless," Nuffink said. "Because that's what he's called."
"He belongs to my Mom," the young man continued firmly. "Well, he used to belong to Mom's boyfriend but he was arrested and died so he belongs to Mom. She hid him to stop the people responsible for her friend's problems getting him and she used to visit him every couple of weeks because it was the last thing she had of him. She used to take us to visit him as well-my sister and me-and we would spend time with him as well. My sis drew him and us and I…well, there was a book in there on engineering and mechanics and I just read it over and over so when I got my bike, I stripped the engine down and rebuilt it just because of the book…"
"This aircraft is on my property so it belongs to me," the man said, his amused gaze flicking to the stocky man behind him. "Why is he here, by the way?"
"He was trespassing at the Cove," Snotlout told him.
"He put a small bouquet where the aircraft had been," Cami reported. The man frowned.
"Really?" he asked. "Why?" Nuffink looked self-conscious.
"Because Mom always did-but she hasn't been able to come up here since the fences went up," he explained. "But I have-so I put a bouquet there for her. I mean…she was heartbroken when she lost access to the Cove."
"But you don't respect other people's property?" Hiccup asked him dryly, reading the fervour on the young man's face. The lad's blond hair was as messy as his own tended to be and his emerald eyes were bright with honesty.
"Um…usually," Nuffink explained. "But no one said who owned the area and it's the best place to practice so I didn't know who to ask…and I wanted to visit Toothless. Mom and Dad are rowing and…well, I guess her friend would want to know." Hiccup sighed.
"What's your name, kid?" he asked.
"Really?" His voice was cynical. The young man's shoulders slumped.
"Actually, it's Eret Nuffink Hiccup Eretson Junior," he revealed in a defeated voice. "I know, right? I mean could it be worse? I'm named after my father-who's a total ass-and my Mom's friend Hiccup-I mean who is called Hiccup? Really? Why? And then my own name is Nuffink! I've always wondered why Mom felt she really had to call me such a rubbish set of names."
"Hey, I've known worse," Hiccup admitted, smothering his smile. "This is Berk, after all."
"Definitely on the Meridian of Misery," Nuffink agreed. "So what are you doing to Toothless?" Hiccup rested a tender hand on the panel.
"Repairing him," he admitted. "He's a Night Strike-a very rare example. And he has suffered for however long he's been here…"
"About seventeen years," Nuffink helpfully supplied. "I think they called him Toothless because most of this kind of aircraft are armed and he isn't…hence Toothless…" He edged forward. "Will he ever fly?" Hiccup nodded.
"He needs rebuilding-again-but he'll get back in the air," he assured the boy. "But what am I going to do with you?" The young man lifted his chin.
"You could let me go," he said. "With a warning. Or you could call my parents-I would prefer Mom, to be honest. Dad will go crazy if you call him and I will end up grounded forever. Or you could call the police because I was trespassing and then you would get the chance to go to my funeral because Dad would definitely kill me…" Hiccup rose and walked over to the young man, then glanced over at his bike.
"You any good?" he asked. Nuffink nodded.
"Junior Island Champion," he said proudly. "And I need to keep practising to maintain my edge…or I'll get beaten…"
"And Raven Point is the best place to practice?" Hiccup checked seeing the boy nod. "How did you get in?"
"A tree has fallen on the fence about four hundred metres coastwards from the place where the fence cuts across the forest road," he admitted. Hiccup nodded to his assistants and the boy felt his heart sink, knowing his secret way in would be blocked. "Sorry," he mumbled. Inspecting the boy, the tall man walked forward and rested a gentle hand on his shoulder, giving a squeeze.
"Look, Nuffink, I'm not going to get you into trouble," he said thoughtfully. "And you can come up to Raven Point to practice if you wish-but please check in with the house first so we know you're here. And if you want to chat to Ruff and Tuff-who are the two best and craziest bikers I know-then feel free." Nuffink's emerald eyes widened in shock.
"Really? For real?" he asked. Hiccup smiled.
"The only thing I ask in return is that you tell me when your race is, so I can come along and cheer for you," he said, earning a genuine smile from the lad. "Now off you go." There was a pause and then Nuffink offered his hand.
"Thank you, sir," he said honestly and then he paused. "Seriously. I am really grateful. If you need anything and I can help, I will."
"I may hold you to that, Nuffink," Hiccup commented with a small smile. Then the young man frowned.
"What do I call you?" he asked warily. Hiccup smiled.
"Ingen," he said and shook the young man's hand. Grinning, Nuffink turned and ran to grab his bike and speed away, leaving the billionaire to watch him with troubled eyes. Cami and Snotlout moved to his side.
"You want us to take any further action?" the stocky man asked but Hiccup shook his head.
"He's just a kid," he murmured. "And he's Astrid's son. So she has a son and a daughter. And they don't look that young…"
"I'll ask Fish to do some digging," Snotlout suggested and Hiccup nodded.
"I want to know everything about Zephyr and Nuffink Eretson," he said. "Somewhere in there, I may find a way to start…" And then he turned back to Toothless. Cami and Snotlout walked slowly away, still hearing the faint sound of the motorbike receding in the distance. The woman, daughter of the Mayor of Bog and a close ally of Hiccup, shook her head.
"Do you think he realises?" she murmured.
"It's like looking in a mirror," she said. "That boy has Ingen's eyes."
Chapter 18: Into The Lion's Den
Eighteen: Into the Lion's den
The House looked spectacular, the floodlights illuminating the brilliant white frontage and making the extravagant construction glow against the dark sky. The drive was illuminated with small lights that lined the edges of the tarmac, leading up to the large gravel parking area in front of the double doors that were open to reveal the glass inner doors. Eret had spared no expense, with flaming torches in the gardens, highlighting the beautiful manicured gardens that spread below the house on the ridge and a glorious fireworks display planned for the height of the celebration.
The gravel parking area was already busy with chauffeurs and large, statement cars from those who chose to drive themselves. Eret had servants valet park the vehicles and a doorman was sternly admitting every invitee, checking their gilt-edged cream card invitations and announcing them as they were conducted into the Hallway. Servants were standing by in deep navy uniforms, trays of drinks and canapés held steadily. Eret had forbidden Zephyr from helping, of course, because he had no desire to have his daughter embarrass him in front of his friends. He would have confined her to her room, in fact-until Astrid had pointed out that her presence would be expected and having her absent would raise more questions than Eret wanted to answer, leading him to grudgingly allow the girl to attend-under her mother's watchful eye.
Fury arrived in his usual helicopter, the chatter of the rotors announcing his arrival long before he touched down. Everyone stopped and heads all turned to see the aircraft circle the house once more before it neatly touched down just beyond the gravel parking area on a wide path that snaked off into the darkness. As the engine died and the rotors slowed, the watchers inched closer, eyes round with interest and curiosity. At the brilliant door to the house, Eret appeared, his jet hair slicked back into his customary ponytail, his white tux and black pants elegant and highlighting his impressively buff shape. Automatically, he took a swig of whiskey from his crystal glass, his deep hazel eyes sweeping over the show-stopping entrance. Slowly, the rotors stopped and the pilot-a blonde women wearing shades and a professional dark suit-clambered out and opened the door, allowing her passenger to emerge.
Stepping down easily, Fury paused and murmured a thank you to his pilot, then turned and inspected the road to the house. He was clothed in a fitted black tuxedo and black dress pants. His dress shirt was a plain mandarin-necked cream silk with a narrow green edge to the collar and he wore no tie. His lips tilted into a practiced smile and the lights of the house reflected in his customary mirror sunglasses as his security chief emerged behind him sweeping the area with his alert blue gaze. And then the billionaire set off towards the house, walking forward with the slightest of limps, crossing the gravel parking area with the shorter, stocky shape of Snotlout walking a pace behind and to the side of him in an anonymous black suit and black shirt. Fury nodded pleasantly to the assembled gawkers and they all nodded, speechless and embarrassed that they had been caught as he swept by and walked up to the door. Not even hesitating for a second, he walked up the steps and stuck his hand out, his smile widening very slightly as he approached the host.
"Mr Eretson," he greeted pleasantly. "It's a pleasure to see you again so soon. This is a spectacular place!" Blinking, Eret regained his composure rapidly and gripped Fury's hand firmly, feeling an equally firm grip back as he smiled insincerely.
"Built it myself," he said proudly. "Had to demolish an old building that was obstructing my view down the slope but this is a home that is commensurate with my status." Fury nodded, sweeping his concealed gaze over the vista, seeing the lights of the town spread below the ridge in a view that he recalled from his own childhood.
"It's an impressive estate," he agreed. "Excellent position, looking down over the town-and your neighbours?" Eret gave a chuckle and took another swig of his whiskey.
"In an island community, a man has to fight for his position," he said smugly. "And I have fought and used every means I could to ensure that I am in the position I am in." Fury gave a small knowing smile.
"I see," he said neutrally. "I will be interested to see what your home looks like inside…" The prompt was subtle and Eret stood back a step, gesturing for his guest to walk in and marvel at his personal palace. A magnificent marble staircase swept down from the wide landing in an elegant curve, dominating the huge hall. To the right was a pair of ten feet high double doors that were flung open to allow seamless traffic in and out of a magnificent reception room that wouldn't look out of place in 18th Century France, the mouldings elegant and a self-aggrandising painting on the ceiling, aping the roof of the Sistine Chapel with God's hand reaching out to what was clearly Eret, not Adam, a smug smile on the man's face. Astrid, Nuffink and Zephyr appeared as angels, hovering around the buff shape fo Eret. The walls were a deep regency green and the floor an inlaid marble. Regency-style lights and a couple of enormous ostentatious chandeliers hung from the roof, washing the entire space with bright lights. In the corner, a piano was playing softly as the gentle hubbub of the guests filled the space.
Fury walked in and looked up, giving a small nod of approval, hiding his emotions as he took in the wide hall, the walls white and floor dark mahogany. Eret frowned and gestured for his glass to be refilled.
"I wonder where my wife…" he began and then looked up. Hiccup followed his gaze and then froze, staring as Astrid appeared at the top of the stairs, her sleek shape sheathed in a strapless ultramarine silk gown that reached her knees, a diamond choker glittering at her slender throat and diamond studs in her ears. Her long blonde hair was loose, flowing over her shoulders in a golden sheet that almost glowed in the light. Her eyes glittered and she wore no other jewellery except her wedding band-and the little silver and aquamarine ring on her right hand. Golden strappy heels finished her outfit-but she turned and glanced over at the self-conscious shape at her side.
Zephyr was as slender as her mother, her hands clasped anxiously in front of her waist and her shape sheathed in a knee length shift dress of deep stormy blue satin, her thick auburn hair tamed into a neat bun at the nape of her neck, her blue eyes wide and anxious. She was wearing bronze coloured simple heels and a thin chain around her neck with a simple heart pendant that Hiccup recognised with a jolt as a gift he had given to Astrid on graduation. Smiling gently at her daughter, Astrid led her down the stairway, her elegant descent drawing every eye and allowing Zephyr to walk sedately behind her without having to draw the eye. Eret gestured proudly.
"Fury-may I present my wife Astrid and my daughter Zephyr!" he said as the pair reached the foot of the staircase. Adopting a small smile, Hiccup took Astrid's hand and ghosted a kiss on the knuckles.
"Enchante," he said smoothly. "You look even more gorgeous than you did in the Great Hall, Mrs Eretson." She gave a polite smile and retrieved her hand.
"Please, call me Astrid," she asked him calmly as he turned to the younger woman with a small smile.
"And Miss Eretson-I see they have relieved you of duty for the night," he said gently as she blushed.
"Um…yeah…my father didn't like me working and doing it here would bring shame on the family…" she mumbled. He gently took her hand and repeated the chivalrous gesture.
"I am just teasing you, Zephyr," he told her gently. "I admire a young woman who learns how to do honest work, even when she comes from money. The values of hard work, team working and customer service are always valuable." Her blue eyes flicked up, so similar to Astrid's, and she smiled.
"Thank you, Mr Fury," she said softly and he smiled, winking at her though she couldn't see the gesture. "And I promise not to spill any more champagne over you…" He chuckled at her spirit.
"If you ever want more experience, I would happy to accommodate you," he promised as Eret wrapped an arm around his shoulders.
"I am grateful," he said brashly, steering him away from the girl. "I mean, a man must teach his family to value what he provides-and show off what he possesses. Am I right? And a beautiful wife and daughter are certainly worth having." Fury nodded, noting how he described his family-and what was not said.
Nothing about love or affection. Nothing about accomplishments or interests. Just there for the look of the thing and how he can utilise them to further his own image, he thought silently.
"You are certainly to be envied," he commented as Eret steered him into the reception room, leaving his family behind.
"Now, let me introduce you to the other leading guests…" he continued, beckoning the first man forward. The dapper shape of Johann smiled, his eyes twinkling as he stepped forward, his silver tuxedo gleaming in the lights. He offered a hand and Fury grasped it firmly, staring into the eyes of the Trade Minister. He had learned a lot about Johann Trayder over the last couple of years as he had really started his preparations to return to Berk and the man's name cropped up everywhere. If there was a block to trade or some unreasonable rule, regulation or tariff, Johann Trader's name would inevitably turn up somewhere in the conversation. It was also clear that the man was subtly but sequentially undermining the interests of Archipelago prosperity by almost creating a trade war within the Archipelago in the hope of setting the islands against one another. His allies on Bog, Paxlandia and Berserk had all complained bitterly of the actions of their Trade Minister.
"Johann Trayder," the man introduced himself, smiling insincerely. "And I have no need for your name, Mr Tallon Fury. You are the greatest success story in the history of the Archipelago! I mean, I have dealt with the uber-rich and the global elite and I never would've imagined that one such person could come from the Archipelago-and in such a short space of time. Have you any tips?" The last question was asked with wry good humour but Hiccup gave a chuckle.
"Inherit a fortune and use it wisely," he said dryly. "Oh and find an incredibly expensive product that people want to buy in huge numbers!" Johann burst out in forced laughter.
"I shall try that," he said hastily. "Now I wonder if we maybe could have a discussion? I know you have already signed some contracts with certain islands…but I wondered if you would consider sharing your bounty around? There are places-such as Jaegerby, Meathead or Shivering Shores that really could do with the economic investment that a contract with Dragon's Edge Aero could bring…" Hiccup gave a small frown, seeing Johann trying to assess his reaction and being thwarted as ever by his mirror sunglasses. He had very good reasons for sticking to his disguise-his unusual and distinct eyes could be recognised by those who knew him being the primary one-but he enjoyed the frustration in the eyes of the men trying to outmanoeuvre him.
"An interesting idea," Hiccup said thoughtfully. "But I'm not really a benevolent fund and the economic woes of your more uncompetitive and unhelpful islands isn't my concern. I run a business and I only deal with those who are willing to make products to my exacting specifications for a competitive price and at the absolute minimal environmental impact."
"I am sure the Archipelago Government can offer grants to support contracts on those islands…" Johann began but Hiccup shook his head.
"I've already negotiated with their First Ministers and we don't share enough common ground to work productively," he said easily. Johann's brows dipped in a scowl for a long moment at the implication before he forced his usual bright and insincere smile back onto his face.
"A pity-but of course, I respect your decisions," he said nonchalantly. "It was just a thought. But don't think I won't be plotting other ways to benefit from the coattails of the Archipelago's only billionaire!"
"No doubt," Hiccup replied guardedly. Eret gave a nod, having watched the exchange and judged that the initial discussion was over. Fury clearly wasn't receptive to just investing where Johann wanted-not that the Trade Minister had expected him to be-but Johann wouldn't give up. He already had very detailed plans about how he would inveigle the man into his orbit and use Tallon Fury to aid his master's conquest. Eret gestured to the next man who was sipping his mead on the rocks.
"And may I introduce you to another member of the Council of Ministers, Ryker Grimborn?" he interrupted, steering 'Fury' away from the Trade Minister and casting Johann a thoughtful look. Hiccup found himself facing the tall and very buff shape of Ryker, in his white tux and shirt and black pants. The man forced a nasty smile onto his face.
"I've waited to meet you for some time," he said gruffly. Hiccup looked up into the cold eyes.
I can guarantee I have waited longer to meet you-Ryker Kilian Grimborn, he thought, finally facing the man whose initials, RKG, had puzzled him for years in the cold of Jotunheim. He took the man's proffered hand and felt his own grip crushed by the bigger man's grasp. Forcing himself not to wince, he stared boldly into the Minister's face until he released him.
"The pleasure is all mine," he said aloud, seeing the man's dark eyes narrow.
"You have appeared out of thin air," Ryker said without preamble.
"I value my privacy," Hiccup replied amiably.
"I value security more," Ryker told him. "I don't like not knowing everything about an opponent."
Me neither-but I seem to be better at uncovering the truth than you, Hiccup thought.
"Am I an opponent?" he asked calmly, sipping champagne from the flute he had just grasped from a passing server. "That's disappointing."
"Ryker, Ryker-I am sure you don't mean to insult our honoured guest," Eret said, glaring at the bigger man. Grimborn scowled.
"Anyone I don't know everything about is potential threat," he growled.
"A rather combative mindset," Hiccup commented, his gaze sweeping the room. Viggo was nowhere to be seen and though he was disappointed at not having the chance to spend more time studying his main target up close, a part of him was relieved that he wouldn't have to be on his guard quite as much. Viggo was clearly the most astute and dangerous of his enemies-though the encounter with Johann had shaken him. Hiccup knew of the man's connections to the underworld and knew that the man had been the leader of the smugglers who had ambushed the crew of the Barf'n'Belch and tried to wipe them out. That knowledge had convinced Hiccup that the man was ruthless and evil-notwithstanding his close ties to Drago Bludvist.
"Security is my business and I don't like anomalies," Ryker growled at him.
"And yet your life is filled with them," Hiccup commented. "You're not a Berkian yet you sit as a Berkian Minister on the Council. You have never been elected to office yet you occupy a post that is by law an elected one and your own past is swathed in obscurity as well." Ryker's thick brows dipped.
"Someone has been doing his homework," he growled. Hiccup gave a small smile.
"A good businessman ensures he gathers as much intelligence as he can about those he may be dealing with," he reminded the man, seeing his eyes glitter with anger.
"And yet you have no history until you appeared six years ago," Ryker snapped. "And no track record in business. You just appeared out of thin air-as if you didn't exist at all before then."
Well, I had officially died about ten years earlier so I'm not surprised, Hiccup thought smugly but he just stared steadily at the frustrated man.
"Clearly I did exist," he pointed out. "I was just a normal person. Maybe I didn't leave much of a footprint before I bought Dragon's Edge Aero." He shrugged. "So what security concerns could an aeroplane manufacturer possibly pose?" Ryker growled at him as he sipped his champagne and then he bowed his head. "Charming to speak to you," he continued. "I am sure we will talk again!" And then he turned away, leaving Eret and Ryker staring after him. The dark-haired man glared at the First Minister's brother.
"Idiot!" he hissed. "We're supposed to be courting him, not scaring him off or worse, making him an enemy!"
"He is an enemy," Ryker corrected him, throwing back his mead. "He doesn't trust you. I wager Johann didn't get anywhere either."
"No-but I didn't expect to," Johann confirmed, walking forward. "A man can be lucky or clever to acquire such wealth. I suspect our Mr Fury is both-but he is extremely cautious. He has clearly learned not to trust…and those idiots in Meathead and Jaegerby haven't helped!"
"My cousin is First Minister of Jaegerby," Ryker pointed out.
"And your brother is First Minister of Berk," Johann retorted. "A situation that by law should not have happened since he is not Berkian and is thus disqualified from being First Minister of Mayor of anything but his home island. Fury picked that one up straight away when not one of the members of the Island Council ever mentioned it at the time. And while Viggo clearly meets residency qualifications now, he didn't when he assumed the post and thus should be disqualified from office." He looked after the tall figure, who was politely taking a canapé and offering a few pleasant words to the young server before circulating. The discreet shape of his personal bodyguard was never more than a couple of steps behind him, always on alert.
"And I don't like the way the man brings his own security," Ryker grumbled.
"Again, he has realised that a man of his substance would be a prime target for kidnappers and smugglers-many of whom I control," Johann commented. "He has clearly done his research on us. The question is-what is his agenda? Why is he here on Berk? Why now?"
"Inconvenient," Ryker commented. "I can arrange for him to meet an accident…"
"Now, now, Ryker…you always go for the nuclear option," Johann chided him, watching the billionaire talking to Atali and Mindy, who were clearly flirting with him. "There is much value to be gained from Mr Fury-both economically and politically. He poses a challenge…but I am sure we are all up to the task."
"And the fact that he flies everywhere in that damned chopper makes it much harder to facilitate an accident that actually looks like an accident," Eret pointed out.
"So we stop acting like idiots and start thinking with our brains," Johann said firmly. "Eret-our guest seems to appreciate your wife-certainly more than those rather obvious gold-diggers, if I am reading his body language correctly. Perhaps you could get her to talk to him. Maybe let her obvious charms draw him in…since clearly our initial overtures haven't worked."
"I haven't spoken to him yet," Eret added smugly. Johann rolled his eyes.
"He is unlikely to invest in your dubious ventures if he has any business sense," Ryker sneered. "Any money sunk in any of your businesses is always gone for good."
"All I need is the proper investment at the proper time…and expanding the freight and elite passenger business will reverse my fortunes," Eret told him smugly. "And Mr Fury will be the key to that. All I need is to persuade him that I am the answer to all his prayers."
"Only if he was praying for large investment losses and a business partner who had the acumen of a rock and fritters away money like water," Ryker scoffed.
"Bide your time," Johann told him. "Let him mingle with the hoi polloi and put up with the insensitive, blunt and stupid Berkian sheep. Then you can deploy your beautiful wife to soften him up and then make your move, Eret. By then, he may have lowered his defences a little and maybe be more receptive." Eret snapped his fingers and a server brought him another tumbler of whiskey.
"I'll do as you say," he said thoughtfully. "In the meantime, I need to speak to you about the Casino…"
Hiccup had finally managed to get away from the crowd of interested fellow guests who all wanted to ask him the same selection of Berkian questions:
Is Tallon Fury your real name?
Where did you come from?
Are you married?
Do you want to be?
Are you interested in investing in Berk? Because I know this great little business/concern/idea…
He sighed. A Berkian born and bred, he was very familiar with his blunt and oblivious people and he had anticipated what they would want to know. It wasn't a surprise, really-because everywhere he went, it was the same interrogation. As a billionaire with no history and a mysterious past was fascinating to everyone he encountered and his carefully constructed persona was a good shield for a man who was certainly a fugitive from prison and a condemned traitor. And who was plotting revenge on those who had wronged him so badly. He walked across the hallway and sought sanctuary in a quiet gloomy corridor that headed towards the kitchens, the shadows allowing him to take a moment to regain his breath and decide what to do next.
And then he peered into the gloom. The walls were in shadows and clearly not meant for the view of the visitors to this sumptuous and vainglorious house-but there were pictures here, hung neatly and carefully and free of dust or grime. He peered at the first-and back-pedalled, his eyes widening at the shape staring back at him with a grin.
It was his father, Mayor Stoick Haddock.
Taking a deep breath and forcing himself to take a step closer, he stared at an image of his father, grinning happily at the camera with his arms draped round the shapes of eighteen year old Hiccup and eighteen year old Astrid, both smiling back at the camera. It was from a professional shoot that Stoick had bought for them as a present for Hiccup's eighteenth. Hiccup had insisted on the image of them all together and it was one he treasured the most. Breath hitching, he reached out and gently stroked the image of his father as he always recalled him-smiling and full of life.
"Dad," he breathed, his eyes prickling with unshed tears. "I'm sorry." Mastering himself, he withdrew his hand and turned to the adjacent image, another image from the shoot in a matching gold frame, showing himself and Astrid in loving embrace. He was sitting with Astrid resting back against him, his arms wrapped around her slender shape. Both looked delighted and in love.
Next to it was a slightly yellowed paper, carefully framed. It was a simple pencil drawing of Astrid that Hiccup had done maybe a year before he had been arrested, the image simple but highlighting Astrid's smile and the twinkle in her eyes. Hiccup recalled it had taken him ages to get the complexities of her braid right but he had persevered and he knew that Astrid had been delighted with the picture. And next to it was an image he didn't know, a picture in oil pastels of Astrid and a slightly younger Fink, laughing at the watcher. Realising that it was drawn from a photograph, Hiccup leaned closer, seeing exceptional talent in capturing the beautiful detail. It was fully the equal of his own effort and he wondered who had done the drawing-because whoever it was, they had immense talent.
"What are you doing here?"
He spun round-to face the scowling face of Astrid.
Chapter 19: Friends and Family
Nineteen: Friends and Family
Facing Astrid in the confined space had Hiccup's pulse accelerating, seeing the glitter in her beautiful blue eyes and the spirited plant of her fists on his hip. She looked so much like the woman he had known that he had to remind himself that she had married Eret a few days after he had been declared dead, that she had thrown her lot in with the man who had framed him without hesitation. He shrugged.
"I needed a moment away from the constant interrogation," he told her honestly. "Not used to crowds."
"And yet you put yourself out here," she told him bluntly. "You didn't have to announce you had moved here."
That's the Astrid I know, he thought, inspecting her face. Go straight for the kill.
"That is true," he admitted. "But with the mandatory publication of property ownership in First Minister Grimborn's latest bill, my secret would have been out soon enough. I just chose to control the release of information." He gestured to the walls. "I take it these aren't meant for public consumption?"
"No one ever comes here," she explained, her voice calmer.
"So why hang them at all?" he asked. She walked to the image of younger Astrid and Hiccup and stared, her eyes unfocussing.
"Because my husband won't permit me to hang them in any room he uses," she conceded reluctantly. He frowned.
"Why?" he asked and then looked at the image of the woman with his younger self. "Old boyfriend?"
"My first love," she admitted softly.
"You dumped him for Eret-or did he dump you?" he asked callously. Her head snapped round angrily and her fists bunched.
"Neither," she breathed, visibly controlling her temper. Then just as suddenly as her anger flared, it was gone, leaving her looking unutterably sad. "He was the kindest, sweetest most decent person I ever knew-and he was wrongfully convicted and sent to prison. His father and I were working on his appeal, contacting everyone we could…but while we were still working, we heard he had committed suicide. It just got too much for him…and I felt my heart had been ripped out. I keep these because they are all I have left of him…" And her thumb unconsciously rubbed the back of the little silver ring.
"And that," he said, realising that it was the little Promise ring he had given her at Graduation.
"It never leaves my hand," she sighed. "Eret hates that as well. But Hi…my boyfriend…was my best friend as well. We had been friends most of my life. And I wish he had written that he was feeling like that..because I would have found a way to smuggle myself to Jotunheim to see him, no matter if I ended up in prison for doing it."
"I can see why your husband wouldn't want to compete with a dead man," he commented, sipping the last of his champagne. "A dead man can never make a mistake or sully his memory…which grows more and more glowing as time passes…while the living never fail to disappoint."
"You sound as if you speak from experience," Astrid noted and he gave a fake smile.
"I've had my share of disappointments," he revealed calmly. "But I have learned to live with the fact." She wrapped her arms around her body, staring at the image of the couple in the embrace.
"So have I,' she breathed but he walked to the last picture.
"This intrigues me," he said evenly. "It's very good. That's you and your son?" She nodded.
"Fink," she murmured.
"Odd name," he commented. She looked up with an arched brow.
"This is Berk, a land of ridiculous names and even worse traditions," she commented. "Mr Fury." He chuckled.
"Touche," he acknowledged. "But this is seriously good work."
"My daughter did it," Astrid said.
"I only have the one," Astrid commented tartly then raised her hand in apology. "Sorry. I think you may have caught me on a bad day. Yes, Zephyr. She's a really talented artist and already has scholarship offers from Archipelago University and University of the Arts, London. And I think my husband is determined that she isn't going to be allowed to go to either. He wants her here, under his thumb and is doing everything he can to keep her doubting what an amazing and talented young woman she is." Hiccup frowned.
"That doesn't sound very…responsible," he noted as she frowned.
"No, I guess it doesn't," she murmured. "But regrettably, my husband does many things that are neither responsible nor honourable. I…"
"So this is where you're hiding, wife," Eret said, walking up and gripping Astrid by the shoulder, the grip clearly painfully tight. "And talking to our honoured guest, no less." The tone was edgy, his eyes already hazed with alcohol and Hiccup realised the man was drunk and jealous, despite his own investigations detailing how many women he had betrayed Astrid with. His eyes narrowed as he saw the display. "I thought I ordered you not to hang that rubbish anywhere I could see it!"
"You don't see it, Eret," she replied coldly. "You never come this way to the kitchens and the scullery. This is my area-and I think after seventeen years of marriage that I am owed a few square feet of wall space to hang the only four pictures I own." She flinched as he tightened the grip.
"We'll talk about this later," he promised and then gave a fake smile. "Where's my son?"
"I don't know." Astrid told him tightly.
"Did you tell him I ordered him to be here?" he demanded coldly.
"Oh yes-I would never dream of disobeying one of your orders, husband," Astrid replied coolly. "But whether Fink decides to obey is a different matter."
"His name is ERET!" he snarled.
"You're the only person who calls him that," she retorted.
"He is MY son and I will call him what I want," he growled. "Find him." Then he turned to the billionaire. "I apologise, Fury. The problems of a wife and brats. You know what I mean?"
"Not really," Hiccup replied calmly. "The girl I loved left me many years ago."
"Bet she's kicking herself now," Eret chuckled smugly but Hiccup shook her head.
"I doubt she cares," he commented. Then he smiled brightly. "I gather you wanted to speak to me?"
"Not much gets past you," the bigger man commented, wrapping his arm indiscreetly around Hiccup's shoulders once more. "Why you're such a successful businessman-rather like myself. I mean, I am the owner of the Berk 'Asgard' Casino, Night Fury Transport and a number of other business ventures. And I am always looking out for a new opportunity…and recently, I have been moving into small inter-island transport and passenger runs. And I am looking for aircraft to service my needs."
"Listening so far," Hiccup admitted as he was steered away, filching another glass of champagne from a server. Eret gestured to the magnificent reception room.
"As you can see, I'm pretty successful," he announced brashly. "I'm on the Island Council so if you need the ear of the First Minister, I am the man!"
Or maybe his brother…or perhaps the man himself, Hiccup thought sarcastically.
"I can see the benefits," he commented aloud. "So what are you proposing, Eretson?" The man grinned.
"I run an air freight and passenger business and you make airplanes," he said without any preamble. "I believe there is a deal to be made there." Hiccup's brows dipped slightly, his eyes inspecting the man facing him. Slightly hazed with alcohol, his inhibitions lowered, Eret was hoping that he could just acquire millions of dollars worth of brand new aircraft on what? The shake of a hand? And no doubt 'Fury' would never see them again as the man ducked and avoided any payment.
"Indeed there is," he forced himself to say, quashing the desire to punch the man into face…or do something more lethal. There were glasses and knives around here and it would be so easy to end the man's life…but that would be too easy and far, far too kind. Instead, Hiccup felt his hatred crystallise into an implacable desire to take everything from him and leave him to the same desolation and fate that Hiccup himself had faced.
"So what you say?" Eret grinned. "Maybe a couple of your new island hopper aircraft? They look pretty nice and word is they are the most efficient on the market. Should save me a fortune on fuel costs…"
Assuming you pay for that as well, Hiccup thought darkly but he sipped his champagne as they walked out the front door and into the cool evening, under the brilliant floodlights. The scents of the spring flowers, of early honeysuckle and apple blossom, were light on the breeze as the gravel crunched underfoot.
"I love this time of year," Eret continued. "The Spring always seems filled with promise, of new life and new opportunities…"
"It's certainly a very pleasant time of year," Hiccup agreed, matching the man for pace. Eret paused at the flower bed and glanced down the slope, looking at the gap where the Haddock ancestral home had been razed.
"So what do you say?" he asked as Hiccup inspected him.
"Loaning me a couple of aircraft," Eret said brashly. "The small ones."
"NF-100s," Hiccup corrected him automatically. "And no." Eret paused and glared at him.
"No?" he asked more sharply. Hiccup shook his head, conscious that Snotlout was maintaining station in case the man tried anything inappropriate.
"I'm afraid I cannot loan you any aircraft," he said. "You can buy them…on favourable terms." Eret paused…and then gave a broad grin.
"Of course," he said cheerfully. "You can't blame a man for trying…" Hiccup forced himself to smile slightly.
"No," he said non-committally. "But I haven't built up a several billion dollar business by giving tens of millions of dollars of aircraft away to a man I barely know and have met only twice. I'll have my lawyers draw up a quick contract…nothing messy…just terms and conditions. You can sign on delivery." Eret offered him his hand again and Hiccup shook it firmly.
"Pleasure doing business with you," he grinned as the roar of a motorcycle closed and Fink pulled his bike up in front of the main doors, killing the engine and pulling his helmet off. From his vantage point, Hiccup could see the widening of the young man's green eyes and a sudden pained look cross his face as he realised what day it was.
"ERET!" the black-haired man yelled and Fink flinched. Of all the people he could have met first when he arrived clearly very late, his father was completely at the bottom of the list. Hiccup turned to watch the man storm towards the teen on the motorbike, seeing Snotlout stand back and watch as well. Fink kicked down the stand and dismounted, trying to face Eret. The difference between the lad's slender build, even in his black biking leathers, and his buff and powerful father was stark, reminding Hiccup of his own physical difference from his father. Yet Hiccup had never been in fear of his father as Fink clearly was, though the lad lifted his chin and faced his father bravely.
"Hey, Dad," Fink said as Eret stopped mere feet from him.
"Did you not get my message from your mother that you were to be here on time, dressed and ready and were not to embarrass me again?" Eret snarled at him and Hiccup drifted a pace or two closer, watching the fear flash through the boy's emerald eyes.
"Yeah, Mom may have said something…but I was out and forgot the time," Fink said with forced casualness. With blinding swiftness, Eret backhanded the boy, the blow slamming him to the floor and he looked up, a livid welt on his cheek.
"I warned you what would happen," Eret growled but Fink scrambled up, his eyes wide.
"And how will it look if your son, the island champion, isn't taking part because his father is pissed because he stayed out practising?" he asked, flinching as Eret raised his arm again.
"Get that put away, get inside and get changed!" Eret snapped. "We'll talk later. I expect you downstairs in ten minutes or you know what will happen!" Fink nodded and grabbed the handlebars, then urgently began to push the bike off round the house while his father watched, breathing furiously before he stormed into the house. Frowning at the scene, Hiccup drifted over towards Snotlout, who was trying not to look concerned.
"Enlightening, eh?" the billionaire murmured as his cousin sighed.
"If he hadn't been the lad's father, I would have punched his lights out," Snotlout murmured.
"And if you hadn't, I would," Hiccup agreed, staring after the vanished boy. "He and the boy really have a bad relationship-to the extent where he dropped his facade and went after him in preference to maintaining his illusion."
"Ah well-he had got what he wanted off you, hadn't he?" Snot guessed as Hiccup gave a small smile.
"He wanted me to loan him some brand new aircraft that I would never see again and never get a penny for," he chuckled. "So I offered the sell them to him…at a competitive price." Snotlout shuffled his feet.
"How much of his soul precisely are you asking for?" he asked with a grin. Sipping his drink, Hiccup chuckled.
"None-but I'll make sure Fish and lawyers put enough small print in there that he'll never read," he said. "You okay?" Snot nodded.
"This is quite fun," he admitted. "No one pays me any mind and I can listen to a host of conversations. And everyone is talking about you. The women think you're hot and the men are jealous and out for all they can get. And everyone wonders why you wear the shades. The top pick is that you are hideously disfigured."
"Thanks," Hiccup said sarcastically. "That makes me feel so much better."
"Though the ladies think it makes you look mysterious and sexy," Snotlout teased him and Hiccup face-palmed.
"And my day just keeps getting better and better," he dead-panned. Then he sighed. "I better go back in. Seriously, are you okay?" Loyally, Snotlout nodded.
"My feet are aching a bit but I wouldn't trust anyone else with this gig," he confessed. "Now in you go, sir." Chuckling, Hiccup walked back in with his cousin at his shoulder, immediately being greeted by the effusive Atali, who handed him a Kir Royale and launched into a concerted effort to seduce him which was wholly unsuccessful. Forcing himself to concentrate on the woman and not look at Snotlout, whose slight grin would have caused him to burst out laughing, Hiccup still saw the shape of Fink speed down the staircase, his blond hair still tussled and the welt obvious on his cheek. Dressed in a slim-fit back suit with a simple white shirt, he looked smart but wary, seeking out his sister and leaning close to murmur a few words in her ear. Even from the distance of halfway across the room, Hiccup could read the concern in her eyes and worry at her brother's injury, but he saw Fink smile and nod reassuringly.
The conversation was terminated by the reverberation of a gong, struck by two servers dressed charmingly in mock French 17th century garb, the powdered wigs and embroidered pantaloon suits ridiculously incongruous. Hiccup walked amid the crowd and found himself-as expected-seated near the top of the table, opposite Astrid and with Zephyr and Ryker on either side. Eret glared at his wife and leaned close to her as he walked past to the head of the table.
"I thought you were supposed to sit by Fury," he growled but Astrid looked up coldly.
"You had placed Zephyr next to Johann and I don't like the way he's interested in her, Eret," she said coolly. Eret chuckled.
"He's a rich and powerful man," he told her.
"She's not even seventeen and she finds him creepy," she told her husband simply, uncaring that the man in question was seated at her side.
"He's a good match," Eret insisted. Astrid's eyes narrowed.
"You can alter the seatings while we're all seated, Eret, though you know it will look incredibly obvious and violates etiquette," she told him sharply and he subsided. Hiccup glanced over at Johann, reading irritation in the man's eyes though his facial expression was one of a fake benign smile. Disturbed at the subtext, Hiccup leaned towards the young woman, who was blushing.
"So we meet again, Miss Eretson," he said in a low voice. She nodded, her eyes flicking over to inspect him nervously.
"Please, call me Zephyr," she said quietly.
"Only if you call me Tallon," he replied with a smile. Her blue eyes flicked up guiltily.
"Oh, I am sure I couldn't," she said softly. "I mean, you are a rich man and very powerful and you couldn't want someone as worthless as me insulting you by…" He frowned and she looked worried. "Sir?"
"Zephyr-I asked you to use my name because you offered me the same courtesy," he told her firmly. "Now, I am not offering that right to everyone-just you. Because you seem to be a polite and beautiful young lady who seems unduly lacking in confidence." She looked down at her place setting and fiddled with her fingers in her lap.
"Well, my father always tells me that I'm not really worth much attention," she told him. "I mean, he sneers that I do art, that I can't really cook and that I am dying to get off of Berk…"
"Well, I'm with you on some of those," he told her honestly. "I saw your drawing in the kitchen corridor. It's good. You have real talent." She looked up guiltily. "I draw as well so I can recognise talent. Your use of oil pastels is really impressive because blending them to get the correct tones is very tricky. And the likenesses are excellent." She gave a small, tentative smile.
"Mom's hair is tricky," she admitted. "She does some complicated braiding thing that I just can't get. And Finky has this weird hair thing as well…" Hiccup chuckled. "And I'm left handed so Dad says that makes my writing and drawing clumsy as well…"
"Well, I'm left handed as well so I obviously don't agree," he told her. "I designed my aircraft myself and the fact they're selling like hot cakes means that something went right. And Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the most famous artists and inventors in history was left handed as well." Her eyes widened.
"They're pretty certain due to the angle of shading on his drawings and the way his writing slants," he explained. A grin covered her face then.
"Thanks," she said. "And he always goes on about my hair as well…" He frowned.
"What's wrong with it?" he asked. "It's a nice auburn-and done beautifully."
"It's red…and Dad says I have to be a throwback-or genetic aberration…" Her voice almost completely lacked confidence but he leaned closer.
"Mine was similar when I was younger-maybe a bit lighter when I was a younger teen-but it did darken as I got older," he admitted. "And yes, I spent most of my school years being teased for being a redhead. It's the one protected characteristic that no one cares about." Her eyes widened.
"I thought your hair was brown…" And then her blue eyes narrowed, her nose crinkling just as her mother's did when she was concentrating. "But in the light, you can see the red and auburn tones. It's nice."
"Your colouring is unusual, Zephyr-and you are a pretty young woman," he told her. "Never doubt that and don't let anyone tell you any different." Her smile lit her face then and he felt a small warm glow at helping the young woman's confidence.
"Thank you," she said again as he leaned closer, checking no one was listening.
"Do you mind if I ask a question then?" he asked and she nodded. "Why Zephyr?" She shrugged.
"It was Mom," she admitted. "I mean, Dad didn't care when I was born-he just wanted a son. So Mom named me. I think she said Zephyr was after the west wind, which was the wind from where her friend had gone." She shrugged. "I mean, I got off lucky. Fink's real name is Eret Nuffink Hiccup Eretson. I mean how much worse could it be?" Hiccup chuckled.
"That is pretty bad," he admitted.
"And he hates Dad so he never uses Eret," Zephyr revealed. "He always uses Nuffink…well, Fink or Finky."
"So which of you is older?" Hiccup asked casually as bread rolls were served. Zephyr sighed.
"I am," she admitted.
"How much?" he asked and she shook her head.
"Three minutes," she admitted. His eyes widened behind his shades. "We're twins. Mom had complications so we ended up needing an emergency C-section early. She's never had any more children. She loves us both dearly but Dad…well, he only has any interest in Fink because he's Eret Eretson Junior…but Fink hates him because he tries to control Fink." She looked over at her brother, talking politely to Mindy with the welt obvious on his cheek. "I think he defies Dad because it keeps Dad from bothering me or Mom. And he does want his freedom and does his best to try to grasp it. It only makes Dad more mad." Then she sighed. "I'm sorry-I'm making him sound like a monster. He just has different priorities to us. He values business and his friends and allies over his family-that's all."
And that's pretty twisted, Hiccup thought privately watching the young woman butter her roll and smile at the server who brought her the plate with langoustine and avocado salad. But then I know that Eret's priorities don't include friends anywhere in them.
"So why does your mother wants to keep you away from Minister Trayder?' he asked in a low voice as she blanched.
"I guess she thinks it's not healthy for a man in his fifties to want to spend time with a sixteen year old," she mumbled, poking an avocado.
"And you? What do you think?" he probed gently. Her eyes glittered.
"I find him creepy," she said in a very low voice. "He watches me all the time we are in the same room-and then I feel like I need to have a shower. I know he has mentioned to Dad more than once that he is looking for a wife…and there is no way on Midgard I am marrying him. But I do worry because I know he's been Dad's business partner for years and Mom also knows that Dad owes him a huge amount of money. I think she's worried Dad may use me to pay off his debts."
"That is monstrous," he murmured, his gaze trailing over to the men, seeing Eret leaning close to Johann and whispering furiously. "Maybe he just really likes you?" Her eyes widened and then she shook her head.
"Mom told me that he started talking to Dad about it three years ago-when I was thirteen…" Zephyr murmured as she rested her knife and fork neatly together on her plate. "I've never really talked to him other than the usual politeness you say to a friend of your father's before you ask to be excused. It's not real and it's not healthy." Hiccup finished his salad and glanced over at the Minister.
He's also a man who owns the most brutal and cruel whorehouse in the North, he thought as his eyes trailed over the young woman. And this is very much the sort of thing that Heather told me: that he befriended her and said he wanted a relationship. But when he persuaded her to come out with him…she never went home. Kidnapped to Betsy's, she was abused until she stopped fighting…and then they put her to work… His eyes narrowed behind the shades. Until I found her.
"I'm sorry," Zephyr apologised. "I think I'm ruining the atmosphere…"
"It's not down to you, Zephyr," he said evenly. "But the fault is mine for I asked the question." Then he smiled again. "So tell me-what does a young person do in Berk?"
As she smiled and began to talk, he kept half an ear on Ryker, Eret and Johann, filing away the quiet conversation for future reference. Leaning slightly towards the young woman, he still asked a few relevant questions as she explained what she enjoyed doing and he found himself smiling at her enthusiasm for her home…just as he had been when he was younger. But at the moment, she didn't have a boyfriend, though she revealed that Fink did have a girlfriend, though Eret didn't know. And Zephyr had a role in helping the young couple spend time together, inviting the girl over as 'her' friend…and then covering for her twin to spend time with the girl. And he was struck by the generosity of the girl in helping her brother…similar to the way Ruff and Tuff always had each other's back. As an only child, Hiccup had no practical experience but he respected his friends and found himself rooting for Eret's children against the man who had betrayed him. And the kernel of a plan began to form.
Then he looked up and found Astrid staring at him, her blue eyes guarded and concerned. Realising her concerns for her daughter and unable to obviously reassure her, her offered a small nod which she met with a stony stare. It was clear that Astrid was fiercely protective of her daughter and though Hiccup meant the girl no harm, the same couldn't be said about his intentions for Zephyr's parents. But for now, he needed to befriend them and not appearing threatening to Zephyr was key to that. However, he found himself liking the young woman's kind nature and admiring her artistic talent. And as he gently encouraged her to talk, she emerged a little from her shell to reveal a girl with sharp observation and a dry sense of humour. Unwillingly, he also realised he was taking a little about himself to her, sharing his reminiscences of painting and drawing when he was younger, though he mentally edited the stories to remove any references that could betray his identity. And he found himself pulling out a biro and swiftly sketching on the back of a napkin, swiftly producing a very good picture of Zephyr. And the girl's eyes widened in surprise and delight, her face lighting with a smile. He finished shading the slight dimple in her cheek and then presented the picture to her.
"For you, Miss Zephyr," he said with a small smile. "Sorry-I am rather out of practice…" But she clasped the napkin reverently and her face was brilliant with her smile.
"It's perfect," she said in delight. "Thank you so much, Mr Fury…" He inclined his head. "Tallon?" He nodded.
"Better," he murmured. Then he sat back and sipped his wine. For now, he had everyone where he wanted them-and plenty of ammunition for the next stage of his plan. The work would begin in the morning.