She was not afraid. She was fearless. She was not afraid. She would face this as bravely as she had ever faced anything else.
She was lying.
Her blood buzzed with adrenaline and fear; the pounding in her ears dimmed the cacophony around her. Outside the air was filled with roars and shouts, and on any other night she would have joined them; adding her battle cry to the noise as she swung her axe at the beasts swooping down on her village. Inside the house things were no quieter; her mother was sobbing again while her father rambled on about ‘three times her mundr’ and ‘never would have married’ and ‘would’ve gotten herself killed’, less to convince her mother and more to absolve himself of his own guilt. Her little sister kept tugging at the hem of her gown and whining about not being allowed to go to her wedding, and though she was the only person in the room Astrid felt the slightest bit of sympathy for, she would not spare her parents the uncomfortable duty of explaining to the little girl what happened to their eldest daughter.
Ruffnut was the only one who hadn’t said anything yet, and Astrid would’ve liked to think it was because she knew her well enough not to bother trying to apologize.
“You’re so stupid, you know,” she said finally, and Astrid glared at her. Ruffnut didn’t look at her. “You should have just married Tuff when he asked. I mean I kinda get not wanting to be crushed under Fishlegs every night but Tuff wouldn’t have been that bad. He’d be an idiot but you could boss him around, and we’d be sisters.” Astrid didn’t answer and eventually Ruffnut glanced at her out of the corner of her eye. “I mean even if it sucked it couldn’t be worse than this.”
Astrid’s eyes narrowed. “Excuse me if I ignore your life advice, Mrs. Jorgenson.”
They heard something exploding in the distance.
“Do you mind if I name it after you? If it’s a girl?” Ruffnut rested a hand on the pronounced swell of her stomach.
Astrid smirked at her. “Only if you promise that if it’s a boy you’ll name it after his real father. What was that sailor’s name again?”
Ruffnut’s lip curled upwards. “Never caught it. You know it could be Snot’s though. He’s not that bad in bed. I mean he’s not great either, but he gets the job done.”
They shared a brief, genuine smile, and then Ruffnut was looking sad again.
“I’m gonna miss you. They’re all idiots for doing this. You’re one of the best fighters we’ve got.” She gave Astrid a serious look. “You could still run,” she said softly. “I could distract them, you could run out the back--”
“They’d just pick someone else,” Astrid interrupted. “Probably one of the younger girls. I at least stand a chance of killing the bastard.” Suddenly Ruffnut’s arms were around her.
“You give him hel, sister,” she whispered, sniffling.
Astrid resisted the urge to shrug her off. She didn’t like this whole ‘saying goodbye’ business. It was too real a reminder of what was about to happen. “Gods, you’re so emotional since you got knocked up,” she snipped, though she said it with a small smile. Ruffnut’s retort was cut off as the sound of a horn blast filled the air. The room stilled.
“He’s been sighted,” Astrid muttered. Her mother sobbed harder and her father looked at her, his eyebrows drawn together.
“It’s time,” he said weakly. Astrid stood and moved towards the door.
She was past fighting.
She’d moved through four out of five stages of grief in the space of two hours when they first told her. She’d shook her head at them, staring wide-eyed at Stoick from where he stood in front of their hearth. This is insane. Dad, you’re not gonna let them do this to me. Tell him! Dad, tell him!
When it became clear that her father would not save her, she’d started screaming. She begged and pleaded, on her knees and in tears in front of her father, imploring him to save her. She had grown up the apple of her father’s eye. He’d been the first one to teach her to swing an axe. She couldn’t believe that he would not fight this. That he would not fight to save her. But the empty, resigned look in his eyes had broken her heart more than anything else. She was terrified of what would happen to her, but nothing hurt more than the betrayal. The village was one thing. But her parents? Her mother and father handing her over for some livestock and a handful of gold as if she was nothing but an object to be sold? That’s what had kept her awake for hours afterward, crying alone in the locked room they’d put her in until it was time for her to be sent to her death. She never quite reached the point of accepting her fate, but eventually she was so overwhelmed with scorn for every other living soul in her village that she just went numb.
She made no move to reciprocate when her father wrapped his arms around her. “Astrid, I’m sorry, darling, I’m so sorry.”
Dad, you can’t let them do this to me! You can’t! You can’t! Daddy, please, please! Daddy!
“Stoick offered you three times what you would have gotten for my mundr. How could you possibly refuse?” she said dryly. Behind her she heard her mother wail and reach for her, but Astrid ripped her arm away. She spared them no further glance as the door opened and she stepped outside. They had sold her to her death, and she would not let them think for a moment that they had her forgiveness.
Houses were already on fire. She could hear the panicked cries of animals being carried away. In the center of town stood the chief, framed by flaming pillars and holding a white flag aloft. Her heart beat faster. She looked up. He had to be up there, they wouldn’t have sounded the horn otherwise.
“There! It’s got my yak, hurry, pull it back!” She turned towards the shouting, where several men were trying to pull the arm of a catapult into place. She knew what was going to happen just seconds before she heard the whistling.
“Night Fury!” There was a shadow and a flash of purple light before the catapult exploded into flames. Everyone around her ducked but Astrid kept her eyes on the briefly illuminated shadow as it winged its way back into the sky. In the firelight she saw him: the dark figure on the dragon’s back as it soared back into the blackness of the sky.
Reality washed over her like the waves of heat from the explosion and she panicked.
Astrid grabbed up her skirts and ran.
“Stop her!” Strong arms grabbed at her elbows and she was yanked backwards. She shrieked, all thoughts of maintaining her dignity, of silently judging them as they sent her to her death abandoned in the face of her fear. She was spun around and saw Spitelout shouting to his son to bring rope while he dragged her back to the center of the village.
“Dragon Master!” Stoick was shouting. “We have a bargain to strike with you! Come down and treat with us!”
Snotlout wouldn’t meet her glare as he bound her hands. Like many in the gathered crowd he at least had the shame to look guilty. Spitelout held her by her arms and pushed her towards Stoick before shoving her to the ground at his feet.
Astrid struggled to breathe. The bodice of her dress felt too tight. The ropes bit into her hands and the bridal crown seemed to dig into her scalp. She couldn’t do this. Oh gods, she couldn’t do this.
“I couldn’t have saved him,” she said, her voice shaking. Stoick looked down to meet her eyes. “You know that. You know I couldn’t have saved him.” Her bottom lip trembled. “I know that’s why you chose me but you have to know that! I tried to help him but he wouldn’t let me! He died saving me, he died a hero, why can’t you just accept that?!”
The chief said nothing. He simply gave her the same cold glare he’d been giving her for four years and looked back to the sky.
“DRAGON MASTER!” he roared, and Astrid stifled a sob. She could hear her mother wailing.
Suddenly there were gasps and mutters in the crowd and she looked up in time to see the inhabitant of her darkest nightmares land before them.
She could still remember clearly the first time she’d seen him. It had been two and half, maybe three years ago. It had taken them a long time after Hiccup’s death to convince Stoick to allow Dragon Training’s runner-up to claim her prize. The Monstrous Nightmare had been Hiccup’s to kill, and Stoick saw no reason to give that right to anyone else. Especially to her.
“You couldn’t kill a dragon when it mattered,” he’d said to her, “Why should I let you kill one for sport?”
But finally Gobber and Gothi had convinced him, and he’d relented. Astrid had stepped into the arena, her axe by her side, ready to prove herself worthy where she had failed before. The gates had been raised, the beast had burst forth, she lifted her axe, and then they heard the screaming of the building blast.
Even in broad daylight they had moved so quickly that no one had seen them approach. Suddenly there was a black shape in the sky, and the next second it had blown a hole in the roof of the arena and were standing in the center of it, in between Astrid and the dragon.
They looked much the same now as they had then. The dragon was smaller than most breeds, but smarter and fiercer. The Night Fury moved quickly and fired accurately and never left his rider unprotected. The rider himself was similarly unintimidating in stature, but no less deadly. He was tall and lean, clad in black leather armor and a helmet that masked his face. He’d stood before the Monstrous Nightmare that day while the entire village looked on, too enraptured and confused to move. He had approached it and stroked its snout, and after a moment lifted his hand and waved it around the arena before snapping his fingers at the Night Fury. The horrified calm dissolved instantly as the two dragons turned and fired at the gates of the other dungeons. Astrid rushed forward, her axe in the air while Vikings poured into the arena, but it was too late. The Zipplebacks, the Nadder, the Gronkle, even the Terrors, were loose and the rider was climbing onto his dragon. He held a strange sort of sword aloft and the Fury blasted a hole in the roof of the arena. Warriors were running torwards him but the Night Fury knocked them off their feet with a sweep of his long tail while the freed dragons took to the air. It wasn’t until the mysterious rider and his dragon had shot into the sky that Astrid realized that it had been several minutes since she’d moved.
She wasn’t sure if it was the same one. She never had been. She hadn’t gotten a close enough look at the time; and had never gotten a very close look since. But Night Furies were, as far as they knew, exceedingly rare, and something about the look in those huge green eyes every time they looked at her made her think that yes, it had to be the same one. She wanted to be the one to kill it; to make it pay for what it had done to Hiccup, but whenever she saw it her breath froze with fear, and all she could remember was the terror she’d felt that day in the cove and how she’d failed to save him.
If it were any other dragon she could have faced this fate with more courage, but this one shook her to her core.
“Dragon Master,” Stoick was saying, stepping forward and laying down the flag. “Your beasts have ravaged our village long enough.” The rider said nothing. He never said anything. His head was tilted down as if he was watching them from atop his dragon, but there was dark cloth behind the eye slits of his mask, so they could only guess that he was actually paying attention. “We wish to put an end to it. You’ve made it clear you have no interest in treasure or food or material goods, but there’s one thing all men have an interest in.”
Astrid whimpered as Stoick yanked her up by the elbow and shoved her to the ground closer to the rider. The figure made no move, as if waiting for something. “She’s pure,” Stoick added, a hint of desperation in his voice. “A virgin. Untouched and yours to do with as you please, if only you and your dragons will leave Berk in peace.”
Astrid watched with bated breath as the rider regarded them all silently and unmoving for a minute more. Finally, slowly, he slid off his dragon. A sob shook her and her head fell. She kept her eyes down as he approached. Her breath came in uneven pants as she watched his feet move towards her. His gloved hand pinched her chin and she stifled a gasp as he jerked her face up. The firelight hit his mask at just the right angle, and softly illuminated the face behind the black fabric. Her breath caught in her throat.
They had all long wondered about the mysterious dragon master. They had first seen him three years ago, but dragons, Night Furies included, had been attacking Berk for centuries, and who was to say that he had not been with them all that time. Was he a man or a demon or something in between?
But dimly behind the mask Astrid could make out a pair of eyes. A very human pair of eyes. They were narrowed at first, but as she stared into them she saw them widen slightly, the lines of tension around them fading, and she was shocked to see them stare at her with something almost like longing, and then, pity.
The moment was over almost as soon as it had begun. His eyes narrowed into a glare that shifted to the side, away from her and towards Stoick, and he released her chin and stood. Astrid released a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding as he turned and walked back to his dragon.
He was refusing her. Oh merciful gods above, he was refusing her.
She looked up to see Stoick’s crestfallen face as the rider climbed onto his dragon. “What did I tell you, Stoick,” she heard Spitelout yell. “He’s no man, we can’t tempt him with the things of men. He’s a demon! He wants destruction and death! Well, I say if it’s blood he wants,” he drew a dagger from his belt. “It’s blood we give him.” Astrid barely had time to scream before Spitelout was at her side.
“No!” Stoick shouted, his hand reaching towards her. Spitelout had just grabbed her braid and yanked back her head, exposing her throat, when the Night Fury roared, and rider and dragon lunged forward. They had moved barely a few yards, but it was enough to send Spitelout and Stoick back towards the crowd. The dragon’s teeth were bared and his wings raised in warning.
Astrid tried to raise herself to her feet to make a run for it in the midst of the chaos but her legs wouldn’t seem to move. She sat rooted to the spot while the rider again dismounted his dragon and stalked forward. He reached down and grasped her arm, more gently than she expected and far more gently than anyone else had that night, and pulled her up. She tripped over her own feet, her head shaking and tears starting to blur her vision as he pulled her towards the dragon. She heard her mother’s screams and looked behind her at the stunned crowd. They all looked afraid, and most of them looked at least mildly apologetic. But not one of them stepped forward to save her.
The dragon crouched low and she was lifted with surprising delicacy onto the saddle. Her skirts were wide, but not so wide that they didn’t ride up and reveal a good portion of her lower leg when she slid onto the saddle. The rider climbed on behind her and wrapped an arm around her waist. She whimpered at his warmth at her back. He leaned forward, pushing her with him, as the dragon’s wings raised. She had a split second to realize what was happening before they were in the air.
Astrid screamed. She leaned forward and flattened herself against the dragons back, her bound hands gripping at the lip of the saddle while the rider’s arm dug into her stomach. The air rushed past her and her stomach lurched as she felt them climbing higher and higher. Finally they leveled out and she chanced a glance to the side.
She saw clouds beneath them and the ocean miles and miles below. She screamed and buried her face in the saddle. The arm across her stomach moved up her ribcage and jerked her back up until she was pressed against the rider’s chest again. She choked back a sob and stared with wide eyes at the world far, far, far below. Even if she could wrestle free a fall from this height would definitely kill her, and they were so far up that even if she fell he would easily have time to catch her.
The air was freezing, but the heat of the rider’s chest was no comfort to her. If anything, it was a reminder of what might happen once they were on land again. After all, she had seen now that he was no demon, but just a man, and therefore susceptible to the same desires of any other man. And he had looked at her with such longing.
She drew a shuddering breath and closed her eyes, the sheer height starting to make her feel dizzy.
“You need to breathe normally.” She gasped and her eyes shot to the masked face beside hers. She’d never heard him speak before.
“Stop hyperventilating,” he said, and she was surprised at the normalcy of his voice. Given his appearance she would have expected something low and growling; something that sounded as dangerous as he looked. Instead the voice from the mask was a dry baritone, and sounded younger than she would have guessed. “The air is much thinner up here. If you keep breathing fast like that you’re going to pass out.” She stared. “Although if you do pass out then you’ll start breathing normally anyway, so you’re welcome to go that route if you want.”
She did not find it any easier to breathe normally. She opened her mouth to speak but they suddenly lurched sideways and she screamed. The dragon beneath her pumped his wings and they rose a little higher. She gripped the arm that held her so tightly that her fingers dug into the leather arm guards. The rider sighed.
“Calm down, I’m not gonna let you fall. We just hit a patch of rough air. And I’m serious about that breathing thing.”
“Who are you?” Astrid managed to demand, her voice still shaking and her breaths still coming in pants despite her efforts to calm them. “Where are you taking me? You didn’t want me at first but then you changed your mind. What are going to do with me? Because I know what they offered me up for, but I didn’t agree to this, so if you think you’re going to have an easy time with me then--”
“You know what, never mind about the breathing thing, just keep babbling until you pass out. I won’t have to listen to you or deal with your squirming.” Astrid stopped talking. She felt dizzy and her head was spinning, but the sarcasm in the rider’s voice struck her as familiar as it did odd.
“If you don’t want me talking then just answer my,” she swayed, “answer my questions. Are you gonna leave Berk alone now?” She looked down and gasped as the shock of the height jolted through her again.
There was a grumble from the dragon that almost sounded annoyed, and then she heard an exasperated sigh from the rider behind her.
“Okay, that’s it. Look, I’m really sorry about this.” Astrid was breathing heavily again, her eyes riveted to the clouds far below them.
“Sorry about wh--”
There was a sharp blow to the back of her head, and then nothing.
She awoke to darkness.
The back of her head hurt from where she’d been hit, and her hands were numb. They were still bound, and as she came around she realized that they were tied to something. She couldn’t see, and it took her a moment to realize it was because she was blindfolded. She felt at the rope and followed it to a stalagmite. No, stalactite. No, both. The rope was tied around a stone column. She tried to stand but the rope was tied too low and she fell back to her knees again. The stone was cold beneath her.
“Hello?” she called, her voice echoing back to her through the silence. She was in some sort of cave, she guessed. “Are you there?” She took a shaky breath. “Where am I? What are you going to do to me?” She was met with more silence. Perhaps he had left her there. He had initially refused her, maybe he had simply left her in a cave somewhere. But then, why the blindfold and the ropes?
Astrid clenched and unclenched her hands, trying to force feeling back into them. She could feel the knots that tied her to the rocky column; perhaps she could loosen them before he came back. There was a clicking noise behind her and she spun around. There was a strange noise and then light warmed her vision. She still couldn’t see clearly but it was enough to tell her that she wasn’t alone.
“Hello?” she tried again, and heard footsteps echoing towards her. She scooted backwards until she was flush against the rocky cropping behind her. “What do you want with me? Why did you blindfold me?”
“Because the mask gets itchy.” Again, there was that strange sense of familiarity to the voice, though she couldn’t imagine why, and again the casual way in which he spoke struck her as odd. “And I haven’t decided what I’m going to do with you yet.” He sounded close and growing closer. There was a scuffling and she guessed he had sat down in front of her. Astrid whimpered and drew closer to the rock.
“Well whatever you think you’re going to do, you should know that I’m one of the best warriors of my generation, so if you think you can just--”
She heard that exasperated sigh again.
“I meant, I don’t know if I’m going to keep you here or take you back. I’ve already ruled out rape and murder, so you can stop panicking.”
Astrid straightened her shoulders, trying to hide her terror behind bravado. “Well if you think I’m going to give myself to you willingly, you can rule that out too.”
“Yeah, I kind of gathered from how terrified you looked that you didn’t exactly volunteer for this. Which leads to my first question: what exactly was that whole thing? So far I’m getting ‘virgin sacrifice’, but why?”
“If you don’t want me then why don’t you just take me back?”
“Answer my questions and maybe I will. Why were you being sacrificed?”
There was something calm, almost kind, about his tone. Astrid swallowed. “To get you to leave us alone.”
“You might have noticed that the dragons don’t exactly scoop up pretty young maidens. They tend to prefer sheep. Why did your village think offering up a virgin was going to make a difference?”
Astrid shrugged. He said he wasn’t interested in hurting her, but she felt no reason to trust him. “Desperation. You control the dragons. They thought if they gave you something else to occupy your time with then you wouldn’t keep attacking us.”
She heard bitter, surprised laughter. “Unbelievable. So much for a chief protecting his own.” Something about the phrase rang familiar, though she couldn’t place why. “Why you?”
Astrid shifted. “What do you mean why me?”
“Why did they pick you?”
She frowned. “Why not me? I am not pretty enough to be offered up as a sex slave or something?”
“You said yourself that you’re one of the best warriors of your generation. Why would they give that up? I mean you can’t be the only virgin left on Berk.”
“All the others are either married or engaged. I refused every suitor I’ve had, so I was their only option.”
“No, no, no, I don’t believe that. Every other girl of marriageable age may have been married off, but there are girls younger than you who can’t have been engaged yet. If they were going for the whole young and pure virgin deal it makes more sense for them to pick someone younger. You’re nearly twenty; you’re practically an old maid by their standards. And I’m not saying you’re lying, but at your age ‘unmarried’ doesn’t even necessarily mean ‘virgin.’ If the whole selling point is virginal I’d think they would want to offer up some fourteen or fifteen year old maid who’s never even touched herself, let alone been touched by anyone else.”
Astrid’s cheeks burned and behind the blindfold she glared. “I am not lying about my virginity.”
“But why you?”
She scowled. “Why does this matter so much?”
“Because it does,” he said calmly. “Why you?”
She remained silent for a moment more before she slumped against the rocks behind her. “The chief has something of a vendetta against me.”
“Why?” he sounded surprised.
“He blames me for his son’s death.”
There was silence for a long moment, and then quietly her captor asked, “Why would he blame you for that?”
She swallowed thickly. She didn’t like thinking about that day. “I couldn’t save him. We were a couple of kids up against a dragon. A Night Fury, like yours. It might even be yours, I’ve never been able to tell. He tried to save me, I survived, but he…it ate him. The chief has never forgiven me.”
There was silence for so long she began to wonder if he’d left her. His reply was so soft she could barely hear it. “My dragon didn’t eat your chief’s son.”
She frowned again. “Well a dragon ate him.”
“Dragons don’t eat people.”
She wished she could see him. Wished he could see her. She wanted this stranger to see the fury on her face. “This one did. I saw it happen. It killed him. It ate him. There was nothing left.” She rubbed the side of her head against her arm, trying to push the blindfold away from her eyes. She felt her hair snag on something and pull. She yelped, and then felt calloused fingers against the side of her face. She screamed.
“Calm down, Astrid, I’m just getting your hair untangled from your crown before you yank it out.”
“I don’t need help from you!”
“How do you know my name?” He’d known her age, too, now that she thought of it. He hadn’t said it like a guess, he’d said it like he knew. The fingers pulling hair away from her crown stopped. She heard a sigh and suddenly she felt him tugging at the knot of the blindfold.
“The same way I know you didn’t watch your chief’s son get eaten by a dragon.”
The blindfold fell away and she blinked until her eyes adjusted to the light, then looked up, fully intending to glare at her captor. Instead she gasped.
Four years had changed him; his face was longer and thinner, his jaw more chiseled and sprinkled with scruffy stubble, but something about his eyes, the same and yet so different from how she remembered them, and the freckles scattered across his face…he looked so different and yet instantly she knew. His face had haunted her dreams for four years. Even four years older she recognized it. The scar on his chin that she’d always wondered how he got; the perfect triangle of freckles near his lips that she’d noticed the day she looked at him and had the absurd thought that he might be nice to kiss. Those green green eyes she’d watched narrow in determination before he told her to run; to get help; to save herself… to leave him to die.
Astrid would forever deny what happened next, forever claim it was still from the lack of air when they’d been flying. It was a stupid, girly, weak action, and she would never admit to doing it.
She swooned, right into Hiccup’s very-much-alive arms.
“Hiccup, are you out of your mind?! That’s a Night Fury! An actual, real live Night Fury! You can’t go up against something like that!”
“Neither can you, Astrid!”
“I stand a better chance than you! Just give me my axe back! I’ll distract it, and you make a run for it.”
“No! Astrid, I’ll distract it, you run. I’ll follow.”
There was a roar from the other side of the rocks they cowered behind.
“Hiccup, no, you’re the future chief, I should be protecting you!”
He yanked her axe out of her hands.
“I am the future chief,” he said, a hard look in his eyes. “And my father always says that a chief protects his own. So go.”
“I said go!” His tone brokered no argument.
They leapt out from behind the rock. The dragon immediately locked onto her and bared his teeth. Hiccup threw a rock that hit the side of its face and it turned to look at him.
“Over here, you big ugly demon beast!”
Astrid ran. She stopped by the exit to the cove. She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t leave him.
She turned and bolted towards where the dragon was bearing down on Hiccup. He could barely even lift her axe; he’d let it fall to the ground.
“Hiccup!” At her shout the dragon had turned its huge green eyes on her again. It roared and advanced on her.
“Astrid, no!” She lifted a fallen branch to swing at the dragon when Hiccup hurled himself at her. He shoved her out of the way, behind the rocks they’d been using for cover. She heard another roar and Hiccup’s shout just before her head hit the rock wall and everything went dark.
When she came to the cove was empty. The handle of her axe was broken in half, hopelessly splintered, and part of the blade was melted. There were scorch marks along the ground and the wall.
There was no sign of the dragon, and more importantly, there was no sign of Hiccup.