nrgburst: (handling hiccup's pencil)
[personal profile] nrgburst
Title: Into the Fire (Chapter 4 of Learning to Fly)
Fandom: How to train your dragon/ Dreamworks Dragons
Characters: Astrid/Hiccup (Hiccstrid), Stoick, Snotlout, Tuffnut, Ruffnut, Fishlegs, Gobber, Heather, several OCs
Word Count: ~6500
Rating/Warnings: T
Summary: He might be a smith by trade, but sometimes Hiccup wishes it wasn't always trial by fire. (All Viking Tournament Part 1)

 

Hiccup doesn't usually get seasick- he's taken his fair share of boats in his lifetime, it being the Viking way, and all. But the rough post-winter swell has him and a good number of the others feeling more ill than usual. He barely eats or sleeps due to the constant nausea, and the creeping pace and confinement on the longship makes him yearn for the freedom found on dragonback.

He misses Toothless like crazy, even the early morning wake ups, fish-scented saliva and sassy attitude. But he takes his turn on the oars and keeps his stomach as empty as possible, albeit not always by choice. It's not the end of the world, but it strengthens his resolution to promote cooperation with dragons- journeys like this can be easily avoided with a little more understanding.

The entire gang is going to attend the Tournament, but Fishlegs, Ruff and Tuff are on the other boat with the merchant families. Sadly, the Jorgensons are on theirs and Snotlout gloats over Hiccup's apparent weakness at every opportunity.

Astrid is steadfastly sympathetic, glaring daggers at his cousin although she keeps her mouth shut. Spitelout had ended up overruling Snotlout's decision, and he'd personally asked Astrid to come back- dragons drive fish into nets quite vigorously, so they need every hand to keep on top of repairs. Since Astrid had already found new work at the Thurstons washing and carding wool on shares, the unpleasant incident had ended up a blessing in disguise. She has a good amount to trade at the Tournament markets now, but there's still some underlying tension there.

Compared to Berk, Shivering Shores is huge, sprawling between its beaches like a forest of buildings and bustle. The dockmaster greets Stoick with warm familiarity and gives him directions. They file behind their Chief as he leads the way past markets, storied homes, multiple covered wells and food stalls. It's hard for some of them not to gawk at the sheer variety of food and goods on display- Berk's sparse and simple fare is provincial in comparison.

They walk past a row of longhouses, wood still yellow and smelling of fresh pine. There are simple runic signs over the doors demarking different places in the Viking nation, and Vikings of all shapes and sizes bustle in and out of them. Stoick clears his throat and speaks once they're all assembled in front of the two marked "Berk".

"Our host has kindly built these longhouses for overseas guests, one for the men, one for the women. Toilets are there, Bathhouse there. I don't need to warn you about starting trouble with the neighbors- last thing we need is to be asked to leave. Markets and food stalls stay open here past nightfall- feel free to wash and rest before exploring." He turns to Hiccup. "You put down our things, have a quick wash and then come with me- the Chief's Gathering will convene now that we've arrived. We've kept them long enough."

Astrid throws Hiccup a sympathetic look- she knows how little he's slept over the past few days. But duty calls- his dad has already given him a rundown of the alliances and rivalries to be aware of and the odd outlier position Berk holds among the Tribes. These meetings give them the chance to foster trade and goodwill: very necessary now that their love of dragons has made other Vikings view them as eccentric at best.

The Gathering is at Shivering Shore's Great Hall, and many of the other Chiefs are already there when they arrive, clustered in groups around the table.

All the voices die down when Stoick strides in- nobody could say he didn't have presence.

"Stoick! Good of you to finally show up!" one of them calls.

Stoick acknowledges the Chiefs with a nod. "High seas in the crossing. My apologies for our late arrival." He turns to Nils, Chief of Shivering Shores. "The people of Berk appreciate your hospitality."

Nils is swarthy and dark haired, with oddly light blue eyes. He'd been Shivering Shore's long-time dockmaster before the sudden death of his brother and his heir had forced him to pick up the Chief's mantle. His face is weathered from a life spent outdoors, but it's creased with more laugh lines than age and he acknowledges Stoick warmly before glancing at Hiccup.

"And we are honored to be your hosts. You remember me, lad?"

Hiccup smiles. "Yes, sir. Chowder, ale and hot apple pie?"

Nils roars with laughter and stands to clap him on the shoulder. "That's the ticket! And it seems you've finally fed him some, Stoick. Not too much, mind."

Hiccup tilts his head and lifts a shoulder in a half shrug. He can hear the incredulous murmurs from some of the others; he's used to the remarks over his abbreviated size compared to his father's when people first clap eyes on Stoick's heir.

Stoick puts a hand on his shoulder and raises his chin proudly before looking meaningfully around the room. "Not always size that counts."

Nils bobs his head agreeably, pursing his lips. "Agreed, agreed." He turns to address the room. "Well, if you can all be seated, we can start with the Tournament arrangements."

The meeting starts with the Chiefs listing contributions to the prizes and feasts before divvying up the tasks of judging, cleaning and first aid. Hiccup observes the dynamics in the room while the offers and negotiations proceed. Some of the Chiefs hold a lot more power than the others. His Dad gets respect for being the oldest in the room, Nils for hosting; a few of the others also have considerable economic clout. Hiccup commits the faces and names to memory. His dad is big on reminding him that one day he'll be doing this for Berk, no cheat sheets allowed.

"Good. All settled. Now for the participants. From Berk?"

"Astrid Hofferson, carrying an axe. She would like to gain the title of Fearless," Stoick says.

Nils writes her name down on a slip of paper. "No others?"

"None."

The Chiefs start listing names, a few of whom have already acquired descriptive, if not particularly original titles: Rasp the Terrible, Halver the Horrible- Hiccup chokes when Nils names a Grunhild the Giant. But there is a murmur when the Lochtuck Chief names himself.

"Orcan, Chief of Lochtuck. I bear a poleaxe," he rumbles. He doesn't add any descriptive titles but he doesn't need them: his reputation is enough. He'd been barely of age when he'd become Lochtuck's Chief, immediately quashing a rebellion led by his uncle. He'd proceeded to win the last two All Viking Tournaments before marrying the daughter of a Southron state leader, forging an alliance that made Lochtuck a force to reckoned with despite its position to the far east. The young blond giant has mostly observed the proceedings with a kind of watchful intensity- none of Lochtuck's offers have been contested.

"Excellent. And from Hopeless?"

The Chief, a portly man, shrugs evasively. "None this year."

Nils gives him a puzzled look but takes his statement at face value. It seems to be the start of a pattern though: the last three Chiefs also offer no candidates, to Nil's consternation.

"Come, come! Only thirty-nine participants? Where are all your young Vikings seeking honor and glory?"

Hiccup frowns. There are customarily draws for the right to participate, since the pool of hopefuls is usually excessive.

But Stoick has seen this effect before. There's a reason he's only a three-time champion. "Nils is right. There is no dishonor in losing to the better Viking and plenty of room in the Winner's Circle."

The Chief of Injar shakes his head and sneers. "Well, why doesn't your heir enter, then? Surely he can provide us a fine example. After all, we might not be in this situation if the Berserkers hadn't felt the need to boycott due to your ongoing dispute."

There's a nasty silence.

Hiccup's eyes narrow, but he starts to consider it despite himself.

Stoick shoves his chair back and plants his palms on the table. "I'll have you know that my son-"

Hiccup quickly puts a hand on his father's arm. "Dad. Dad. It's okay." He meets the eye of the Injar chief. "He has no idea what I'm capable of. I can enter."

Stoick still looks thunderous and he shakes his head.

"You've not trained for this, son. Astrid's given this months, even years of preparation. I won't ask this of you to appease some fool," he spits, glaring at the Injar Chief.

Nils also stands, palms up to try to stem the argument. "The lad has no blunted weapon anyway. Surely one of the tribes with no-"

"I'm not- a boy anymore. And I happen to have a weapon," Hiccup says quickly. He places Inferno on the table and unsheathes it, but doesn't set it alight. "Haven't put an edge on it yet. It's more of a dragon training tool," he says casually.

Stoick's face twitches. It's not like Hiccup to forget to mention the more interesting aspects of that sword of his- unless he has a plan.

He's seen the steely resolution in his eyes before, knows his son's knack for ingenuity and strategy. Astrid's proclaimed him proficient at the sword even given her exacting standards.

And it's the way Vikings respond to a challenge.

"You're a man now. It's your decision."

Hiccup nods decisively. "I'm in."

Stoick grips his shoulder and Hiccup does his best not to wince at the pressure. "So be it. Berk has one more entry. Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third. Sword. I want him known as the Pride of Berk," he says gruffly.

Nils nods and writes one last slip of paper.



"You did what?!"

Hiccup sighs and looks at Astrid. He would have preferred to wait until morning to tell her. The longhouse walls are thin, and he's betting most of the Hooligans are trying to sleep off the journey inside.

But she's Astrid, dutiful and determined. Of course she waited up for him.

"There were only thirty nine entrants. And I was right there."

"Have you lost your mind? You're nowhere near ready! You could be killed!"

He gives her an appalled look, laughing wryly. "Okay, I can't be the only one here with this odd sense of déjà- hey! Ow! Astrid!"

"It's not funny, Hiccup!"

"Well- I'm not joking! It's not like I could refuse with all the other Chiefs watching for an admission of weakness and the Berserker/Berk boycott on the table."

Her outrage deflates, and she just looks at him and shakes her head, stricken.

He tilts his head and takes hold of her hands. "Look, I have a better chance of making it out of there with my head intact than I did say, six months ago. I'm not that scrawny kid that needs protection from even himself anymore, Astrid."

She inhales, understanding the unspoken plea. She meets his eye and squeezes his hands. "I know that. It's just… I love you, okay? And this just sounds like- stupid pride and posturing."

He smiles wryly, keeping a firm grip on the rush of elation her words elicit. "Well, we're Vikings. It's an occupational hazard."

That makes her smile at last and she groans. "I wish you could have Toothless with you."

"Yeaahh, I think that would go over about as well as the first time he showed up in an arena. The other Chiefs think we're nuts."

Her eyebrows knit together with concern. "Trade talks didn't go well?"

"Let's just say there are some pretty entrenched opinions against dragons. The Tournament thing didn't help matters- Dad was a bit testy. Don't think we'll be importing pearls anytime soon."

"Well, maybe the other Chiefs will change their minds when they see the goods we have for trade. Gronkle iron is pretty amazing stuff. And we still have paper, wool, furs and cured fish if they refuse to touch the dragon things."

He shrugs. "I guess. We'd better turn in. We'll have to check the rosters in the morning."

She sighs and kisses him. "Muttonhead. How am I supposed to sleep now?"

"Aw, come on. You would have been too excited to sleep anyway," he teases.

She smiles and leans her head on his shoulder, determined to stifle the feeling of rising panic. He's got the same right to prove himself as anybody else.

She'll just have to believe, pray that he survives despite the odds the way he always does.




Hiccup sleeps like the dead that night, and actually feels almost human in the morning after breakfast, feeding off the excitement of the gang as they gush over the Tournament.

Naturally they have the same reservations as Astrid over his surprise entry.

"You're sooooo dead. You forgot to bring your dragon, you know," Ruffnut says.

Hiccup rolls his eyes. "I didn't forget to bring Toothless."

Fishlegs is equally skeptical. "I would estimate your odds of surviving today's bout without permanent injury to be about thirty percent, based on typical first round statistics. I don't understand why you signed up at all, Hiccup," he says, face pinched with worry.

"Aw, whatever," Tuffnut says, yawning and waving his reservations aside. "The first day is half dud matches anyway- there's usually hardly any blood when somebody gets disarmed or incapacitated. The really cool carnage starts on day two. Just try to get disqualified today and you might not get killed," he advises.

The insights don't help the butterflies when Astrid drags him off to check the rosters.

Their names are listed far apart. His bout will probably end up mid-morning and hers will hopefully be in the afternoon, as long as matches don't last too long. It really depends on how well the opponents are matched in the first place, and it's literally just names out of a helmet.

The oddest reaction is Snotlout's- he's got nothing to say about Hiccup's entry at all, lingering in the background as Stoick solemnly stripes Hiccup's face with Haddock red in the longhouse. Stoick gives Hiccup a hug, brusquely telling him how proud he is before he leaves to join the other Chiefs in the opening ceremonies.

It's unnerving to see Snotlout quiet for so long, and Hiccup finally breaks the silence as he straps on his armor.

"Is- something bothering you?"

Snotlout shrugs and looks at his hands. "…I never really thought about it, but- I like building ships. Hookfang and I- we're good at placing booms and rigging sails and stuff. It's a good feeling to see a ship come together, you know? And I'm not really a people person. You know- giving orders or being in meetings."

Hiccup blinks, puzzled. "Ooookay? I guess I feel the same way?"

Snotlout looks up at him, annoyed. "No, that's not- Look, just be careful out there today."

Comprehension dawns and Hiccup smiles self-deprecatingly. "Not really dying to be Chief one day either. But- thanks. I'll uh, do my best."

Snotlout looks away. "Yeah, whatever."

Astrid is waiting outside, face painted with a mask of aqua and orange, exuding an air of nervous energy. It fades quickly once they get to the fighter's area by the arena though: it's obvious from the looks on even the judges' faces that they aren't expected to stand much of a chance. All the other candidates present are proper Viking size, with proper Viking helmets. But they ignore the sneers, get their weapon edges examined and leave their shields as directed.

One of the judges makes an announcement. "You can leave, but don't go far. Ale is free for fighters, but try not to get too drunk until after your match. Expect you to report back during the match before yours."

A good number of the participants immediately set off for the ale stands: alcohol dulls pain and inhibits fear, and the price is right. But Astrid has other plans.

"Come on, Hiccup. You need even more of an idea of others' fighting styles than I do."

Much like Berk's, Shivering Shores' arena is usually used for typical Viking Dragon Training, hewn out of stone for maximum protection from fire, claws and teeth. A giant metal cage covers the center, with several heavy doors in both the floor and sides leading to dragon pits. Hiccup wonders absently what they've done with their captive dragons during the Tournament- the arena is huge and he can see at least eight sets of doors.

Astrid leads the way into the stands and spotting Fishlegs waving, they both clamber up to where he and the twins have hogged seats. Looking down, he can see his dad with the other Chiefs in the best seats next to the ring. The Jorgensons also have good seats in the paid section close to the action.

"You missed all the boring speech stuff. Blah blah honor, blah blah Viking cooperation, COME ON, let's get to the fighting!" Tuffnut shouts. He's not the only impatient one; others are hollering for the fighting to start and the din becomes deafening as the first two competitors enter the arena.

They're not disappointed: as soon as the horn blows the two run towards each other, meeting in a clash as their shields collide. One has a hammer and the other an axe, but they seem to be fairly evenly matched, wildly trading blows between shoves and blocks and occasionally peppering the exchange with shouted insults. A few minutes in though, tactics change: the one with the axe focuses on the other's shield, hacking and gouging at the wood until it cracks.

The crowd surges to its feet once the useless shield is discarded, its erstwhile owner swinging his hammer desperately.

Hiccup turns away with a wince just before the final blow. It doesn't really help- even up in the stands the sound of iron meeting flesh and cracking ribs is audible. The crowd roars and the horn blares a moment later: the hammer guy collapsed like an ox. Healers rush into the ring even as the winner holds up his axe and crows with triumph.

Astrid gives Hiccup an anxious look when she realizes he's watching the loser get carted off.

"Hiccup! Don't focus on him! The whole point is to analyze the strategy of the winner."

"There was a strategy besides beating the other guy's shield to a pulp?" he asks dryly.

"Well- no," she admits. "But if one of us faces him in the next round, we'll know what to expect."

The ring is cleared of the broken bits of shield and the name of the loser is crossed off the giant list of matches posted at the side, leaving the winner's – Poxxus Persson from the Meatheads. Then two more Vikings enter the ring, take their marks, and the horn blows again.

The next few bouts are pretty much the same- a contest of brutality until someone makes a sloppy move from tiredness or gets hampered by an injury. Occasionally some sort of dumb luck hastens the ending: a helmet falling over the eyes, tripping over the edge of a dragon pit door. Hiccup isn't sure he's learned much of anything, but he's very aware of the progress down that list of names.

Astrid is too- she doesn't usually hold his hand in front of everyone, but she takes it now and grips it while they sit. When the horn signals the end of the penultimate match to his, Hiccup gives her a pensive smile.

"I've got to go."

She nods, not letting go. "I'll walk you there."

"Hey Astrid."

Astrid gives Ruffnut a harried look as they get up. "What?"

"You get free ale, right? Hook us up on the way back?"

Tuffnut sits up at that and grins. "Yeah, free ale! Oh right, Hiccup. Hope you don't get killed. Sorta."

Astrid looks ready to explode, so Hiccup starts pulling her toward the stairs and calls over his shoulder.

"Look- if I make it out of the match, the next round is on me, okay?"

The twins deflate immediately. "Awwww!"

Fishlegs squirms, seemingly unable to contain himself. "You know, you can just drop your weapon. You'd lose by default and end the match immediately. There are several precedents!" he calls after them as they head down the stands.

"I can't believe them. I just can't believe them. What they're worried about is free ale?" Astrid seethes as they walk back outside.

"Relax. You know what they're like."

"I can't believe you're telling me to relax," she sighs. But they're already in front of the holding area doors and he can see all the conflicting emotions in her eyes- pride, fear, love. She presses a hard kiss on his lips and hugs him tight. "You can do this. Just promise me nothing will go wrong."

He tilts her chin up and presses a gentler kiss to her lips, trying to believe in his own reassurances. "I promise. I learned from the best this time."

She smiles bracingly and steps back, and he walks into the holding area with only a little trepidation.

The horn blares, and the crowd roars as the previous match starts. One of the judges immediately walks over to him.

"Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third?"

"Yes."

There's a sort of pitying look in his eye, but he's matter of fact. "Well, pick up your shield and follow me."

Hiccup has to stand and wait by the entrance while the judge checks the proceedings before hurrying back in.

"Take your mark. And may Thor favor you today," he recites.

Not really Thor's favor I'm after.

It's funny- the nerves are similar to those he had before that memorable final exam, as is the noise of the crowd and proud set of his father's shoulders.

No Toothless to dash to the rescue though.

Well, hopefully he can rescue himself this time.

"An actual Hiccup and a stumper? This has to be a joke!" his opponent exclaims as they take their marks. It's impossible to tell his family colors or even what he looks like besides big and brawny: Spiderclaw from Swirling Sands wears expensive gear- iron armor and a full helm- his upper body and face -even his eyes- are well protected.

Hiccup can feel his confidence waxing and a plan forming though, and he flexes his shield arm. "Good luck to you too," he calls.

The horn blares and Hiccup removes his shield and throws it to the side so he can transfer Inferno to his right hand while Spiderclaw closes the distance between them at a run.

The crowd makes noises of surprise when the shield hits the ground, but he stays alert and watchful, readying the blade, waiting until his opponent is starting to swing the heavy mace at his unprotected chest.

Then he drops, left hand braced for support as he pivots low on his peg leg and sticks out his good foot. With that narrow eye slit, Spiderclaw should lose sight of him for a moment.

He grunts as their boots meet, but it has the desired effect: the bigger man goes flying, arms outstretched.

Hiccup swings smoothly around and leaps forward to plant Inferno against his neck before he can recover, but a horn is already sounding: the mace's own momentum ripped it out of his hand.

There are exclamations of incredulity from the crowd, and Hiccup can see his Dad and Nils roaring with laughter and slapping each other on the back.

Spiderclaw sits up and pulls off his helmet, muttering oaths and looking baffled.

Hiccup smiles sheepishly and he leans over to offer the bigger man a hand up. "Peg legs can be handy when you need to pivot," he explains.

Spiderclaw shakes his head, still finding it hard to believe that the whole thing is over. But the audience is abuzz with amusement, and he inhales and half smiles.

"Thor take it, I guess they are. And here I thought I was ready for anything."

He's still shaking his head, but he accepts the hand up.

Hiccup raises his sword in salute once Spiderclaw is back on his feet, and the crowd whoops with approval. Everybody from Berk is jumping and shouting, fists raised.

He can't help grinning.




The next few hours pass in a blur of free ale for their friends, ecstatic congratulations and tripping imitations, several gruesome injuries in the ring and the dull roar of crowd noise. Astrid insists on watching all the bouts even though the crowd has been thinning as the day wears on. She points out the opponents who fight with special skill or brutality.

Unsurprisingly, the ones with titles always fall in that category- one doesn't win renown in battle or get to the Winner's Circle purely by chance. The way Orcan almost casually hooks aside his opponent's shield and then knocks him onto his back with a thrust to the chest is chilling- he's only seen that kind of power in older Vikings like his dad. If there had been a tip to that poleaxe, the man would have died instantly- as is; the healers carting him out look grim.

But he knows how determined Astrid is to get a title herself, and she's only going against some unproven guy from Bashem in the afternoon. Hiccup thinks he's being admirably calm when he walks her to the holding area and kisses her good luck before joining his dad and hers in the Chief's section.

Her dad isn't the first to get a special invite- almost every Chief has extended privileges to proud (and occasionally distraught) parents during their child's match. But if there's anything Hiccup has confidence in, it's Astrid's ability to kick ass, and he almost laughs when he hears her opponent jeering over being in the ring with "some tiny dragon loving girl".

She doesn't disappoint: Astrid dispatches him quickly, dodging the swipes of his sword and shield with seeming effortlessness before hooking her axe under his wrist and sending his sword flying.

His infuriated attempt to bludgeon her with the shield after the horn blares is met with a disgusted sneer and her axe. The force sends it into his face and he reels back, bleeding copiously from a split lip and broken nose.

"That's my girl," her Dad gasps proudly, relaxing his white knuckled grip on the cage. He's been caught between worry and pride the whole trip, and they'd argued every time she'd gotten training injuries during the winter- Hiccup had always gotten an earful about it the next day.

"Reflexes of a Nadder. She'll be the crowd's darling now," agrees Stoick, placing a reassuring hand on his back.

The judges converge hastily and lead the loser out, accompanied by boos from the crowd for the lack of sportsmanship. But they quickly change to cheers when Astrid lifts her axe and beams.

They raise their fists and add to the noise- it's been a good day for Hooligans.

But Hiccup can't help feeling a sense of unease when he catches a glimpse of the intense way Orcan is looking at her.




He's relieved when Astrid elects not to watch the few matches left that day- he's been aching to hit the markets and get something proper to eat. She'd insisted on eating lightly all day so that they wouldn't be lethargic or nauseous while fighting, and it's been hard to walk by all the stands with tantalizing smells.

They go with Shivering Shores chowder first, creamy and savoury and chock full of clams and mussels. Thinking of Nils, he gets them hot apple pie from the next stand to follow. They both eat enthusiastically, Astrid especially.

"This is the best thing I've ever tasted," she groans, licking sticky filling off her fingers, and Hiccup has to laugh.

"You said that about the chowder!"

"Well, I've changed my mind," she says airily, swiping a bit of apple out of his piece.

He grins. "It's probably the spice they use- it's called cinnamon. We can try to find some in the market to bring back to Berk."

She nods and wipes her mouth, looking curiously at the other stands as he finishes eating. "Wouldn't mind changing my mind again. Recommend anything else?"

He smiles and reaches for her hand. It's a nice change of pace from their usual dates, the violence earlier that day notwithstanding. "Why don't we take a look?"

It's fun trying out different foods- roasted nuts, fried dough, skewers of chicken dipped in delectable sauce. Astrid wants to try everything and there are a couple things he's never seen before, despite having come along with his Dad on trips before.

It's embarrassing when they get recognized though. Astrid gets congratulations on her victory and good luck wishes, but Hiccup's tripping stunt has made him rather infamous and Vikings from all over hoot with laughter, slap him on the back and re-enact the bout with much exaggerated wheeling of arms.

One of the things he'd loved about trips to Shivering Shores was the relative anonymity, and Hiccup belatedly wishes they'd scrubbed the face paint off.

So he winces when they hear their names called.

"Astrid? Hiccup!"

He blinks with surprise and grins when they look back though. "Hi! Wow, we didn't expect to see you here."

Astrid smiles delightedly when she turns too. It's such a pleasant surprise to see a familiar face in this sea of strangers.

Heather's leaning out of the squid-on-a-stick stand and waving. She's prettier than ever, even with the kerchief over her hair and the sauce-splattered apron.

"Oh, we're here every Tournament. We always try to hit the big events around the Archipelago- lots of people needing to eat," she says, smiling widely. Her brows furrow as she takes in the face paint and armor. "You guys were contestants?"

Hiccup smiles and raises his eyebrows wryly. "Yeaaah, we made it to the next round, actually."

She smiles with surprise. "Well- congratulations. May Thor favor you both tomorrow." She glances down at their linked hands and raises her eyebrows. "What happens if you end up in a bout against each other?"

Hiccup shrugs a shoulder. "Ahhh, she'll kick my ass in front of the entire Viking nation, I guess."

Astrid laughs, flushing. "Hiccup! You're pretty good with a sword now."

He tilts his head. "Not against you with an axe."

She frowns. He's right. She'd been focused on his swordsmanship and reflexes, not expecting him to face actual combat. "We need to work on that. Won't have time when we're back but maybe next winter…"

Hiccup sighs, smiling with mild irony. "Guess I need to survive the next round."

"Well, I hope you do," Heather says. She looks at Astrid hastily, not wanting to step in it like before. There's no possessive irritation in her eyes but she clarifies anyway. "I mean, both of you- we owe you big time. Say- you want to try some squid? It's from Southron waters- super tender."

They're both skeptical about eating anything with tentacles but she has a small basket of samples and they both have to admit that it's good- savoury and chewy like jerky, but less stuck-between-your-teeth stringy.

"You can have a couple sticks for free if you like- we wouldn't even have our boat back if not for you," she says, and they agree to one last snack.

"So this is what your family does? Must be exciting going to so many new places," Astrid says, studying the stand as Heather grills the squid quickly.

"Yes. We tend to stay south ever since the Outcast incident. More competition but more civilization, so…" she shrugs. Her eyes widen and she quickly amends her statement. "Not that Berk is uncivilized."

Hiccup and Astrid both grin. "Yes, it is," they proclaim proudly, and she has to laugh with them.

She gives them a few tips over which vendors to avoid and which are reputable before a customer comes up, and they wave and move on to the markets. There are fascinating goods from all corners of the world, and Hiccup happily bargains for lead, glassmaking sand and a Southron device called a compass that always points north- perfect for exploring.

Astrid just browses despite the fullcloth and fish credits in her bag.

"Aren't you going to buy anything?" Hiccup asks, perplexed.

She smiles and shrugs. "I'm making a list. I can come back once I decide what I want most."

They stop by the Hooligan stalls too: Fishlegs is dutifully taking his shift selling paper and card and Ruff is making wily bargains for their yarn and woven fullcloth. Tuff is sleeping off all the free ale on the floor of the stall.

Gobber is doing slow trade in Gronkle iron weapons, and the emergency torches and Zippleback firecrackers are even harder to sell.

"It's bizarre! What sort of Viking children don't like explosives?" he fumes.

Hiccup frowns. That is bizarre. "Maybe they need a demonstration?"

Gobber gives him a disgusted look. "And waste perfectly sellable goods? Don't see the Jorgensons throwing away their fish do you?"

"Well, that's not what I mean-"

"What's next? You'll be giving away daggers just to get them out the door? Aw, get out of here and leave the selling to the proper adults. Go on," Gobber says, shooing them away from the booth.

They hustle along, but Hiccup's brow furrows. Not much they can do to change people's minds about their dragons when they aren't even allowed to come. But surely the prejudice against dragon products can be tempered somehow. All they need is some kind of chance…




They check the roster first thing the next morning. There are only ten matches, and the winners not only earn titles and a seat of honor at the evening feast, they proceed to the prize rounds on the third day.

Astrid is even tenser than usual- this is all she wants. To be disqualified would be the ultimate disappointment, and she sighs with relief when she sees that she's up against an untitled Viking from the Uglithugs. She has a vague recollection of his bout being won by brute force rather than skill, which is very encouraging. She scans the list for Hiccup's name and smiles to see that he's also lucked out. He's up against that Meathead axe guy from the first match, and he can probably dodge and disarm if he stays focused- that tripping trick won't work a second time.

She wishes she'd done some training with him on fending off other types of weapons. Hindsight is always so annoying clear. But he's got Inferno, and well- if anyone can leverage an advantage out of that sword of his, her bet would be on Hiccup.

The bookies have other ideas though- they're out in full force, hanging out by the rosters. She pretends to study the matches while one gives his spiel to a potential better. Apparently she has decent odds of making it through but Hiccup has been given very slim chances.

Well, anybody judging skill alone would have arrived at the same conclusion.

Hiccup is listening with mild bemusement too. He's used to being underestimated, and this is not the only time he's counted on it. "Well, I guess I'm glad it's the axe guy. I think I remember yours too."

"See? Aren't you glad we watched? Come on- let's get something to eat."

She's relieved there won't be such a long wait until her match this time. The nerves are making her jumpy and she just wants to get it over with.

Giving Hiccup tips on what to watch for seems redundant but she does it anyway during lulls in the fighting- after all, an axe isn't just deadly for its cleaving power, it can be used strategically as well- tripping, swatting, bludgeoning. The only thing that won't happen in the Tournament is getting one hurled at you- automatic disqualification for losing a weapon, even if you take out your opponent.

They're both more confident of his success when she kisses him at the door of the holding area, and the judge who greets him actually strikes up a conversation as they wait.

"Quite a Loki's Jest you pulled yesterday."

Hiccup smiles and shrugs. "Seemed the right move against a Viking wearing a helm like that."

The judge purses his lips and nods. "Aye. Good against archers but not many of those in Tournament."

The wait is longer- the clash of metal and wood and grunts of effort continue for several minutes. But soon enough the horn blares and a few minutes later Hiccup is walking to the mark again.

"Not going to trip me, I warn ya," Poxxus calls. His face is painted with a grinning skull- appropriate for family colors of black and white.

Hiccup nods. "Hadn't planned to." He already knows that he'll be dodging hacks to the head and shield thrusts, and trying to get through his guard.

The horn blares and Poxxus approaches slowly.

Hiccup paces slowly to the left. From the confused expression on his face, Poxxus is obviously used to sparring against someone with a shield on the opposite arm, and Hiccup silently thanks Astrid for insisting he learn to fight with both arms.

He doesn't try to parry the axe, just dodging the first few strikes to gauge his reach and recovery times. Astrid's trained him to be fast, and Hiccup strikes decisively as soon as there's a decent opening, bringing his sword down on a leather wrist guard with a crack.

Poxxus shouts but doesn't drop the weapon, and Hiccup dances back when he swings his shield defensively, feeling confidence pump along with adrenaline. He might not have the Viking knack of cracking bones with a single blow, but he's just gained a decisive advantage. The pained way Poxxus is holding the axe and angling his body behind the shield is telling.

He's slower when he swings at Hiccup again, but he tries to bludgeon him with the bottom edge of his shield as well to make up for it.

Hiccup easily skips back out of range before jumping forward and striking at the inside of his wrist.

The axe tumbles out of numb fingers when he connects this time, and the horn sounds.

His dad's proud shouts are audible even with the roar of the crowd, but Hiccup searches the stands for Astrid and grins and raises his sword for her when he sees her whooping proudly next to their friends.

He couldn't have earned this victory without her.

 

***

 

 

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