In accordance with time-honored tradition, participants in the yearly binding ceremony must gather at forests edge a night prior, as the sun meets the sea, to take part in a final monstrous hunt, and prove their skill as an unbound viking.
As Hiccup watches the fleet of ships roll into rest at Berk's docks, he thinks that whoever came up with this rule should be forced to spend an evening in the cold with thirty or so battle hungry tweenagers. In fact, he thinks that they should have to do it every year for six years so they can really understand the depth of the suffering they have inflicted on him.
Hiccup closes his book with a huff and prepares to beat a hasty retreat back to the forge. He had planned on spending the morning enjoying his last moments of peace before a week of torture, but he has little desire to greet the incoming leaders, and even less to spend any additional time with their heirs.
Hearing Hiccup's book shut, Fishlegs startles and pulls himself up from the grass, forgetting his own reading in his hurry to watch the scene. “They're here already! It's not even midday; did your Dad invite them to come early?”
Hiccup shrugs non-noncommittally. “Maybe. He probably wanted additional time for shmoozing with the other chieftains.”
Fishlegs leans over the stone fence Hiccup is perched on, attempting to peer down the cliffside. “The Beserkers brought so many ships!” he exclaims, “You'd think they brought their whole village.”
“They may have. If the rumors are true, this year's ceremony is a big one for them.”
Fishlegs lets out a small noise of agreement. As Hiccup jumps from his perch and begins trekking up the hill, he is met with a large hand around his forearm.
“Hiccup! Don't leave! Please come down to the docks with me!”
“What!?” Hiccup cries out, incredulous. “No way.”
“Please! I want to go see who's here.”
Hiccup raises an eyebrow. “You already know who's here. You can go talk to her on your own!”
The larger boy releases his grip on Hiccup's arm and blushes, sputtering hopelessly.
Hiccup lets out a bemused huff and turns, continuing up the path. “Honestly, you've been writing back and forth for how long now? Why are you so nervous?”
“It's different in person!” Fishlegs insists, shuffling after. “I get all tongue-tied and sputtery. I need a buffer. And you've known her for longer! ”
Hiccup sighs quietly. While it's true that all the chieftain's heirs knew each other from a young age, that doesn't mean they're close. Quite the opposite in fact.“Yeah, but you probably know more about her than I do. What is me being there gonna change?”
Fishlegs stares at Hiccup pleadingly. Hiccup stares right back, unmoving. Fishlegs is the closet thing he has to a friend, but there is no way he's subjecting himself to the jeering of the other clans any earlier than absolutely necessary. Hiccup puts a hand on the other boy's shoulder affectionately. “Fishlegs. It'll be fine. Really. She obviously likes talking with you, why would it be any different in person? You don't need me there being a third wheel.”
Fishlegs shifts nervously from foot to foot, his eyebrows furrowed. “Yo-. You think so?”
“I really do.” Surprisingly. “Besides, I think both me and my Dad would be happier if I stayed in the Forge til the hunt.”
Fishlegs pauses his fidgeting, looking awkwardly at his feet. “Hiccup, that's not true...” he mumbles.
Hiccup let out a dry laugh and nods down the path. “Go on. Go sweep her off her feet. And watch out for her brother.” And her father. And her tens of other “suitors”.
As Hiccup watches his large friend descend the slope, he baffles at the futility of the situation. He was not lying; he does believe Heather likes Fishlegs. But the fact remains: her bind-fire is pure white. She will join the Wing-maidens, and they do not marry. Heather is not the type to turn down duty, and no amount of suitors, regardless of quality or sincerity, will convince her to abandon such a rare honor. She has been given a crystal clear path to glory for her family.
Gods, I wish that were me. Hiccup thinks. Not that he could ever be a Wingmaiden, obviously. But here he is, fifteen and yet to even bind a spirit.
To fail once is acceptable, normal in fact! To fail twice is a shame, but not unrecoverable. A third time will make your family blush. At four you may as well throw in the towel and accept your life as a carpenter.
As Hiccup approaches his sixth attempt, he wonders why he is still bothering.
It's not as though Hiccup has no future. He has trained with Gobber at the forge since he was six, and a blade smith is a vital, even honored, role. He has made and repaired more spirit-blades than the other clans' smiths put together. But even Gobber has had the opportunity to forge his own. Even Gobber has a bind.
And Gobber is not the son of the King of the Wilderwest.
As Hiccup enters the forge, he tosses his bag haphazardly onto the spare anvil he's been using as a desk. It manages to knock several papers to the floor. Upon closer examination, he can not recall what he was scribbling about, so he leaves them to their fate. He instead opts to close the windows before the visiting vikings start making themselves at home about the village. The last thing he needs is Snotlout, or Hroar, or Gods forbid Dagur, wandering in to harass him.
Hiccup stands on a small crate near the counter and begins his usual struggle to pull the heavy panels down. If anyone else were here he may feel the normal amount of embarrassment regarding his weak frame, but he currently has no qualms about throwing around his full weight in an attempt to knock them loose. He is all but dangling from the ceiling when he is interrupted. “Ah, so this is what you like to do in your free time.”
Hiccup hits the counter with a yelp and rolls off, landing squarely on his back in the dirt outside. Taking a moment to stare at the back of his eyelids, he wonders what he did to deserve this life. He hears the person circle around the counter, stopping beside him. Upon squinting his eyes open, he is met with a deep blue gaze, stoic and unimpressed. He closes his eyes again and wonders a little harder.
“Are you...gonna get up, or is this where it ends for you?”
“It might be,” Hiccup grumbles, throwing a hand over his eyes. “If it is, does that get me out of the next week?”
“Not likely.” All at once Hiccup is hoisted up under his arms into a standing position.
“...Thanks.” he mumbles. She grabs the panel he'd been struggling with a pulls it down with a swift tug. It's pretty unfair to watch. “Thanks..again.”
Astrid turns to face him, scowling. She is dressed for the occasion. Her hair has been drawn in a neat braid down her back, with thin threads of light blue ribbon woven between golden strands. More blue fabric peeks out beneath fitted brown leather, and a single, long piece is draped elegantly from shoulder to shoulder. If it weren't for the choppily cut bangs hanging traitorously over one eye, you might believe she gives a yak's ass what you think about her appearance. Hiccup takes her in for a moment, before noticing that her hands are placed rather firmly on her hips. He already knows what's coming.
“Shouldn't you be at the opening ceremony? Y'know- with every other chiefson? At least acting like you give a crap about this?”
Hiccup stops gazing at her in favor of looking literally anywhere else. “Trust me, no one wants to see me down there. I'm sure Dad's getting enough comments regardless.”
She huffs, sweeping her bangs behind her ear in a sharp motion. “It doesn't matter. There are formalities that need to be met; if you don't at least try you may as well kiss your council seat goodbye!”
I'm pretty sure the Council's aware of the situation. Hiccup thinks bitterly.
After Hiccup's third attempt to bind, whispers began to emerge that Stoick would choose a new heir. Such a shame, that his only child should be physically and spiritually weak. Many names were tossed about, including Snotlout, Hiccup's cousin by his father's sister. Despite him being a blood relative, Astrid has always been the far more popular alternative. Not only is she physically strong and quick witted in battle, but she obtained a bind at ten, during her first ceremony. Her bind-fire never burns unintentionally, even in her angriest moments. It has been agreed (out of earshot of the king, of course) that if Stoick were wise he would declare her heir and let Hiccup retire to a life of uselessness.
Hiccup heard the rumors as soon as they began, of course. Snotlout made it his personal mission to rub Hiccup's face in them. However, Hiccup was not particularly interested in starting any rivalries (especially not with “Hard-ass Hofferson”) so he was quite prepared to let the speculation play out as it would. He was not expecting that his indifference would earn Astrid's fury more than open aggression would.
Hiccup didn't understand then, and he sure as shit doesn't understand now, but Astrid seems determined to make him try. He's not sure if he appreciates the gesture or not. In the moment, as she drags him forcefully towards the docks, he's leaning more towards not.
In all the time he's known her, Astrid hasn't been one to care about others. She's admired for her focus and determination in all aspects hunting; she rarely allows herself distractions. Hiccup has never seen her hanging out with anyone outside of training. He entertains himself with the thought that she may regard him as...something. She is certainly more invested in his social standing then he is at this point. An image of her cooing over the visiting boys like Ruffnut flies through Hiccup's mind and he nearly trips, holding in his laughter. Astrid casts an annoyed glance over her shoulder, but continues her pace.
“You're unbelievable.” she barks out.
“Wha- me? I'm unbelievable? Look at what you're doing right now.” Hiccup sputters and flails the arm in Astrid's grip for emphasis. “I think any image I'd save by being down there is going to be instantly lost when I show up being practically carried by you.”
“If you weren't being an ass I wouldn't have to.” she countered. “I see through you, Hiccup Haddock. If you really didn't care, you wouldn't be trying again this year, would you?”
Hiccup barks out a bitter laugh. “You say that like I have a choice. Have you even met my father? Trust me; I'm not expecting anything out of this years ceremony but the usual amount of misery.”
Astrid stops suddenly, releasing her grip. Hiccup lets out an audible huff of relief, rubbing his upper arm. “Look, Hiccup. Lets say you don't bind this year. Let's say you botch it again- “
“Wow, thanks, very encouraging.”
She continues as if uninterrupted, “-What will you lose by doing some mingling with the other tribes? It'll make the chief happy. It's not going to kill you.”
Hiccup disagrees very much, and expresses such. He feels obligated to continue doing so, even as Astrid drags him the entire rest of the way down the hill.
The main square of Berk is not particularly spacious, as the population of the village is not large. Though the usual crates of goods and market stands are removed for the festivities, the space is still downright claustrophobic. There are Vikings filling every available space, donned in their most festive attire, mingling and exchanging formalities. There is the typical amount of shouting and brawling. Multiple people have taken out instruments, but no one seems interested in coordinating a group; several unrelated melodies clash against each other.
Despite Hiccup's best efforts, people are already noticing his arrival. He pretends to be ignorant of the nods in his direction, the snorts, the comments that are just a little to loud to be unintentionally heard.
“Isn't that Stoick's boy? Looks thinner then last year.”
“I hear he's participating again.”
“What a shame, his only son...”
Hiccup grits his teeth and silently curses Astrid. She had promptly released him when they arrived, and been swept away in a sea of color. He is determined to hunt her down and force her to acknowledge his suffering. But after several minutes of disorganized wandering, he accepts defeat and retreats to the less occupied docks.
As his gaze wanders over the ships, he considers the consequences of jumping a fence and booking it back home. He has already been seen by several Councilmen. If it got back to his dad that he'd shown up only to ditch out, well. Hiccup doesn't want to think about it. He sighs, deciding to find a quiet corner to hide in, but instead spies an unexpected vessel. He grins, approaching the modest ship hurriedly. “Johann!”
The dark-haired captain, who had been bent over a letter, straightens up and opens his arms in greeting. “Master Hiccup! My, it's been a quite a while! Please, please, come aboard! I've obtained many unique treasures as of late, some may be of interest to you.”
Hiccup clamors onto the deck, eyes failing to conceal his excitement. “What are you doing here? I've never seen you attend a binding before. Have you come directly from the Mainland?”
“Oh yes, I have just sailed from the harbors of the Capitol City. I had some very profitable business with a Duke Archibald, and he directed me to a small shop with the most divine pastries imaginable. And I said to him, 'My lord, I cannot even begin-'”
Hiccup allows Johann to ramble on about the intricacies of Mainland politics as he looks through a pile of goods. After a few minutes, a large, red volume catches his eye, and he picks it up with careful motions. Mainlander books are always crafted much finer than anything Hiccup has seen in the Archipelago, but this one is particularly impressive. The leather is almost soft to the touch, but strong enough to hold the large amount of pages firm. It's embellished with intricate, leaf-like patterns. He suddenly feels very nervous, and returns it to it's place.
Johann notices and interrupts himself. “-Oh please, have a look! It is not so fragile.” He picks it up and places it, open, into Hiccup's hands. “How are your studies in Common progressing?”
Hiccup grimaces; the foreign characters on the page make his head swim. “I wouldn't call it studying. Hard to study without a teacher.”
"Ah, it is not the facilities, but the intent that makes a scholar." Johann declares. The language is fluid, too soft; the words blend into one another. Hiccup struggles to piece together what the trader said and recall what he has previously learned. After a moment, he responds, but the words come out harsh, broken in odd places.
"Speak Common, no one here. How can I practice?"
Johann smiles, twirling an end of his mustache. "No one here speaks Common." ,he corrects. “Master Hiccup, I have the utmost faith in your abilities. You are a natural scholar. It is a shame that you live in an environment that is...” he pauses, frowning slightly. “...less optimal than others.”
Hiccup snorts, “Yeah, that's one way to put it.”
It's not that vikings dislike scholarly pursuits: no not at all! It's only that those who pursue them are time wasting, resource squandering hooligans. If you aren't producing goods or slaying the monstrosities that run rampant through the forests, you are leeching. Hiccup is pretty sure the only reason his “studying” is tolerated is because he can crank out spirit weapons like nobody's business.
Johann returns to his makeshift desk. He nervously fiddles with one end of his long mustache.“Are you...” he clears his throat. “...participating? In the ceremony, that is.”
Hiccup is suddenly very involved in tracing the books' embellishments, and avoiding eye contact. He murmurs, “What else can I do? You know what he's like.”
They fall into silence briefly. When Hiccup glances back up, he is unable to read Johann's expression. The trader opens his mouth, but a moment passes before any noise comes out. “...Master Hiccup. I'm sure that-”
A horn suddenly pierces the air. Hiccup takes the opportunity to avoid the awkward conversation that was sure to follow. “Ah-that'll be for dad's speech..I'd better go-” He closes the book gently and extends it to Johann. He is surprised to find it pushed gently back at him.
“Ah, keep it. It will surely assist your studies.”
Hiccup sputters, “Oh- no, Johann, I can't, I didn't bring any gold with me.”
“Consider it a thank you, for your past business.”
After a few more moments of insistent back and forth, Hiccup finds himself walking away with a small smile and the book clutched firmly to his chest. At least now he has something to look forward to at the end of this week. He mentally thanks Johann a final time as he follows the crowds to the Great Hall.
If a villages' town center is for its residents, its Great Hall is for its visitors. It is meant to summarize a Clan's values, virtues, and power to its rivals. And Berk's Great Hall is very, very large.
Massive pine pillars tower in rows overhead. Wooden tables are pushed messily towards the windowless walls, leaving the center of the room open for the masses of visiting clans. Several large fire pits sit throughout the center, illuminating the entirety of the hall. At the far end, raised above the main floor, is a great throne of wood, engraved with powerful runes and embellished on nearly every plane. Large curtains of green fabric hang from the rafters behind it. They appear to shimmer in the torchlight, creating a stunning backdrop of emerald. In the center of it, standing menacingly near his seat, is Stoick the Vast.
The King of the Wilderwest, Head of the Council of Chieftains, is certainly an intimidating figure. He looks down to speak to even the tallest among the Council. His face is shrouded by a large flaming beard, and thick eyebrows. His shoulders are as wide as three average men, even without the great fur cloak he wears at all times. Rumor has it that when he last cast his bind-fire, he snapped a pine clean in half and crushed a ghoul beneath it.
Hiccup could clarify that it was actually three, and the cause of his anger was no ghoul, but a very persistent son who was expressing his distaste for repetitive ceremony.
Hiccup often wonders at what his mother must have looked like to create an offspring so completely separated from his father. Without prior knowledge, it would be impossible for anyone besides Berkians to connect that the two of them were family. This is both a blessing and a curse, as it currently allows Hiccup to avoid notice as he enters.
As the councilmen begin to seat themselves around the throne, Hiccup perches on a stool near the door. He despairs at the thought of getting trapped in conversation with anyone here; he'll leave during the toast.
Once the councilmen are all seated, Stoick turns towards the assembly. Idle chatter quickly fades away, and a relative quiet falls over the hall.
“Welcome, fellow clansmen, to Berk!” He all but shouts. The Berkians nearest to him give enthusiastic cheers. Stoick gives a hearty laugh, but gestures for silence before continuing. “I will keep this brief, as I am sure we are all anxious to begin the festivities.” Hiccup lets out an internal groan.
“We are once again honored to be your hosts for this years hunt and binding ceremony. We ask that while you are here, you respect our few rules. Casting bindfire within the village borders is prohibited. Keep fighting to a minimum. And most crucial,” with a laugh, he casts his arms wide. “Make yourself at home.”
Pleased exclamations swept through the hall. Hiccup sighs and silently prays that their guests wouldn't take that last comment to heart. He does not need them invading his life anymore then they usually do every year.
“This years ceremony is sure to be an exciting one.” Stoick gestures towards a councilman to his left and tips his head respectfully. “Oswald, if you would.”
Oswald, Chief of the Beserkers, stands and approaches Stoick. A slightly proud smirk shows vaguely through his white beard. It is very uncharacteristic of him; it is usual to see scowling at any and all proceedings.
“My thanks, Stoick. I will make this brief, as I have been told most people here already know.” he raises his eyebrows in mock scolding. There are a few quiet chuckles. “It is with great pride that I must announce; as of this years binding, I will begin the process of stepping down as chief of Beserk. My firstborn, Dagur, will henceforth carry the Beserker bind as his own.” The crowd applauds politely in response, and a few hearty shouts can be heard from the front.
“However, this is not the only news I must share.” Oswald continues. Stoick, who had turned to face the audience again, raises his eyebrows and returns his gaze to the Beserker. The crowd murmurs, curious. “I hope that Chief Stoick and the Council may forgive me for diverting the subject, but since I have your audience, this is an opportune time.” Stoick nods politely, indicating he should continue.
Oswald clears his throat, “It is not everyday that I have the pleasure to announce the betrothal of two young peoples. It is even more rare that I may announce the betrothal of one of my own blood.”
Soft murmurs pass through the hall. Hiccup leans forward in surprise. Oswald has no living siblings or cousins. No nieces or nephews. It must be Dagur or Heather. Surely not Heather... still, Hiccup's stomach clenches in worry for Fishlegs.
Oswald lets the crowd speculate a moment, eyes flaring in excitement. “Today, I officially announce the joining of my eldest, Dagur, and, Mala, of the Defenders.”
Hiccup can't stop his mouth from falling open. The crowd surges and wild chatter erupts. Hiccup looks towards his father. Stoick's eyes move from shock, to fury, to restrained calm, in seconds. The seated councilmen have varying expressions of disbelief and anger.
“What is the meaning of this?!” “Is Mala no longer heir to the Defender throne?”
One harsh voice carries over the rest. “Aren't the Defenders supposed to remain neutral?”
Alvin the Treacherous, Chief of the Outcasts, stands. “I do believe that was at the request of the Defender's themselves, generations ago! How fickle your peoples' decrees are, Halvar”
Oswald's typical scowl has returned. The Defenders' King rises and speaks calmly, “There is no reason to believe we will not be in the future.”
Minor chaos re-erupts up front, interrupting the Kings' attempt to placate the council. Hiccup lets out a snort of disbelief. There is no way in Hel that two future clan leaders getting married won't effect council politics. Especially when one of them will be Queen of the Defenders.
Out of all thirteen Council seats, two of them are purely advisory. These seats belong to The King of the Defenders and the Queen of the Wingmaidens, both of whom act independently. They don't get a vote, but they also don't have to respect the outcome of a vote. If the council bans a trader from archipelago ports, the Defenders and Wingmaidens may still choose to trade with them. This makes them both valuable political allies, and even more dangerous enemies.
In addition, The Defenders are responsible for investigating and intervening in potential possessions. For the Beserkers and the Defenders to have such an intimate tie...
Hiccup bites his lower lip. This marriage will ensure that the Defenders have preference to the Beserker clan and their politics for generations, at least. For Oswald to make such a public bid for political and military advantage...what was he playing at? And what do the Defender's have to gain? Hiccup doubts his father will just stand by idly. He once again turns his gaze to his dad, who is trying his best to keep composed. Despite his efforts, mild fury seeps out in his eyes. His hand is nearly white around the handle of his axe.
“My good men!” King Halvar rises from his seat and moves to join Oswald. He gradually calms the riled up councilmen enough to be heard through the room. “This betrothal has been formed with the utmost propriety and respect for tradition. Any concerns will be addressed when we next meet privately. This is neither the time or place.”
Alvin exclaims, “You're right! This was not the time for this announcement.” For once, Hiccup agrees with the old coot.
As the noise starts to ramp up again, Stoick slams the butt of his axe onto a nearby table. The thunderous sound of metal on wood pierces the room; the crowd and Council quiet instantaneously.
He heaves a tense sigh and speaks, “This is a time of celebration. This extends to unexpected achievements.” Alvin lets out an audible snort and turns away. Stoick ignores him, facing Oswald and Halvar and offering a short, curt bow. “Congratulations are in order for the...joining...of your children.”
The two councilmen bow deeply in return, seemingly relieved that the arguing could be postponed to another date.
“Back to the matter at hand,” Stoick produces a mug from the table nearest to him. The tension lifts as the rest of the hall hurriedly follows suit. “Let us toast to this year's successful binding; may all our children be spiritually fulfilled, and fearless in their efforts against the monstrous horde.”
Alvin gives Stoick a withering smirk, and Hiccup decides its high time he takes his leave.