Title: Edge of Glory (Chapter 5 of Learning to Fly)
Fandom: How to train your dragon/ Dreamworks Dragons
Characters: Astrid/Hiccup (Hiccstrid), Stoick, Tuffnut, Gobber, several OCs
Word Count: ~4500
Summary: Because we are strongest when we are true to ourselves. (All Viking Tournament Part 2)
The "new Berkian style" of fighting becomes the talk of the crowd when Astrid elegantly dodges and disarms her way to the Winner's Circle a few bouts later.
Vikings like a good bash and bust, but they're appreciative of skill as well. And the demonstrations from two such unlikely physical specimens earn a lot of respect: the girl is slim, small and so pretty that she's obviously never even had her nose broken. It's almost a joke that the other is the son of Stoick the Vast- he's more string bean than Viking, and a stumper to boot.
Astrid is almost bursting with pride and accomplishment when they're officially given their new titles before the Viking Chiefs and other titled Vikings in the Great Hall. She's not the only one staring at some of the more renowned fighters before they take seats at the table reserved for the Winner's Circle: tonight they get first choice from each feast platter before it circulates and have a server attentively filling their goblets. Stoick, sitting with the other Chiefs, is in a fine humor and being rather insufferable, judging by the sour look on the Injar Chief's face.
Hiccup can't help feeling slightly smug about that, even if he's starting to worry about how much they've bitten off. The Tournament feast became a day two event about twenty years ago because the final rounds are deadliest. Better to celebrate before winners are too injured or dead to receive their prizes.
But Astrid's flushed from the wine as much as the excitement of accepting compliments from famous warriors like Big Bertha and Daring Dinnis before the feast finally draws to a close. Her eyes are bright when they leave the hall, joining the crowd in the square where the feast has been enjoyed with a lot less pomp and ceremony.
"Won't it be amazing if it ends with the two of us sparring for the championship?" she asks Hiccup, keeping hold of his arm. "How fun would that be- just like back home, except for the incredible prizes!"
He gives her a worried smile. This is her first time drinking wine and it's not like her to be so giddy, even if she's steady enough on her feet. He makes a mental note to get her some water- she might not get a headache in the morning, but this is one time he'd rather err on the side of caution. "Well, Fearless Astrid Hofferson, I'm just hoping to make it out with all remaining limbs still intact," he replies wryly.
She smiles proudly at the mention of her new title but gives him a puzzled look. "You trained all winter and made it to the Winner's Circle fair and square. You were amazing out there today, Hiccup! Don't sell yourself short."
Hiccup shakes his head. "Well, I didn't train for this. I hardly expected to make it this far, and tomorrow is supposed to be brutal. You've seen what some of the others can do."
She shakes her head at his pessimism, pulling him towards the dancing in the square with a smile. There's music and ale and every Viking is having an uproarious good time. "Come on. Tonight is for celebrating. You're the Pride of Berk! And I want to dance with you."
He gives her a pained look at the mention of his new title as they join the Vikings wheeling to the music. "I wish Dad had let me choose something slightly less pretentious," he half-shouts. The musicians are loud.
Astrid chortles, eyes sparkling teasingly. "Hiccup the Handsome Toothpick? Hiccup the Dragon Whisperer?"
He hooks his elbow to hers, grinning as they wheel in a circle. "Ahhh- I'd have preferred something terrifying like The Talking Fishbone."
She laughs and then suddenly leans into his arms, swerving to avoid a Viking standing in their path.
"Fearless Astrid Hofferson."
Breathless and surprised, they both look up.
Orcan gives them a respectful nod and smile. "We didn't have a chance to speak at the feast. I'm Orcan, Chief of Lochtuck. May I have a dance?"
She blinks in shock and shoots Hiccup a bewildered look- she's never been formally asked to dance before, nonetheless by a Chief from another tribe. Hiccup looks surprised but he gives a restless shrug and puzzled frown as he looks at Orcan. It's odd- most tribes stick to their own, but it would be insulting to decline. He's already married so this shouldn't be some attempt at courtship.
"Sure?" She smiles in polite confusion and Orcan inclines his head at Hiccup and takes her arm.
"I will return your lady shortly."
She can't think of anything to say as they whirl off –she can't remember anything about Lochtuck except its position in the far east. Berk doesn't even trade with them because of the distances involved. But he's got a topic ready as they turn and step to the lively rhythm.
"Your fighting style is fascinating. You're his teacher." It's not a question.
"Yes- uh- thank you." She's heard similar compliments for the past couple days. She has no idea how he'd figured out the second part though.
"I've seen something similar from a neighboring kingdom to my wife's. They use a different kind of weaponry and armor- light, but surprisingly effective when combined with their techniques. It's very interesting to see with a Viking axe. Did you study under a master?"
She frowns, but she's candid by nature. "Well, our Chief trained me this winter."
He shakes his head dismissively. "I've seen Stoick the Vast in battle. He does not move the way you do."
Astrid shakes her head, shrugging. "Well, no. I'm not built like everybody else so it makes more sense to use speed and precision more than strength. I started doing it as a girl, and just kept practicing what worked."
His dark blue eyes light up with satisfaction and he smiles. "Ah!"
The musicians switch to a ballad, but she can't spot Hiccup. It's hard not to be disappointed, but she dutifully switches to a couple's dance position, placing her hand in his and the other on his arm. Orcan's a good dancer, at least, and he doesn't seem to mind how teensy she is in comparison. "So- you're married?" she asks bluntly.
He smiles at the obvious change of subject. "Several years now. My Aria's home kingdom is two weeks sail from Lochtuck. They make wonderful wine- perhaps you had some tonight?"
She looks upwards in surprise. An arranged marriage. But he looks just a few years older than them. "Oh! Yes, it was very good." She wonders if Hiccup will ever be expected to make some political marriage. It's sobering to see Berk in the context of so many other tribes- it's normally just them and their dragons in their cold little corner of the world.
Orcan smiles indulgently when he sees the look on her face. "I would not have searched for an alliance if I'd had a love match. But a Chief does what he has to for his people. And we learned to love each other."
Astrid smiles, flustered. She hadn't meant to be so transparent. "I can't imagine. I've known Hiccup my whole life," she admits.
Orcan raises a brow. "And it isn't boring, that same person since childhood?"
Astrid laughs. "Hiccup? Boring? You know we train dragons, right?"
His expression darkens. "My father was killed by dragons."
She's immediately sympathetic. "I'm sorry to hear that. My mother was too, when I was a girl."
He gives her a piercing look and arches a brow. "And yet…?"
She thinks of Stormfly and smiles wanly. "I… can't imagine life without dragons now. All we needed was to really understand them and Hiccup showed us how. I mean, the markets and food and people here are amazing. But I'd still rather fly to some brand new uncharted place or teach my dragon a new trick. I don't know- maybe it's just us on Berk like that. But we get so much from them in return for a little care."
Orcan listens impassively as she explains, and she wishes she had some of Hiccup's flair for persuasion- she knows how important this is. They've wound back to the spot in front of Hiccup though, and he relinquishes her with a bow.
"Thank you for the dance. I look forward to seeing you in the ring tomorrow."
He's been nothing but pleasant, so she's not sure why that sounds slightly ominous.
They're both rather dismayed by the roster in the morning: Hiccup has the dubious pleasure of starting the day's matches, and Astrid's in the final bout before the melee. They're all expected to stay in the holding area since there are only five matches- six if you include the final melee. It helps level the playing field and gives the healers a chance to patch up the winners before sending them back in for the last round.
Injury does seem guaranteed this morning: Hiccup is up against Rotspeck the Ripper from Fort Sinister- a vicious fighter, judging from the battered condition of his previous opponents. He prefers to win by incapacitating his opponent and Hiccup is grimly hoping not to go down bloodied and unconscious. Astrid is anxious too- the kiss she plants on him before the bout is surprisingly passionate given the number of people watching.
Rotspeck fights with a bastard sword, which has the blacksmith in Hiccup puzzling over the non-standard length, although he's quickly glad for the slightly shorter reach of it.
Hiccup is fast, but Rotspeck's stronger and better armored, and they're fairly evenly matched skill-wise. Hiccup has to draw on every ounce of his training; tumbling and dodging; parrying and blocking as a last resort, feeling a kind of grim satisfaction when the Gronkle iron on his shield turns the tip on Rotspeck's sword even though he grunts with the effort required.
It almost makes up for the spiked steel wristguards, iron chestplate and pauldrons Rotspeck wears: they absorb a lot of the damage Hiccup inflicts. He's managed to stay clear of that bastard sword and land a few critical hits to no avail. It's frustrating, but he supposes this is what real combat would be like- a merciless, heavily armored opponent; his nerves humming with adrenaline, and muscles and lungs straining to keep up.
Well, real combat without Toothless guarding his back.
And he might not have his dragon, but he has those last dragon tricks in reserve.
Hiccup counterattacks, painting a stripe of Nightmare saliva down Rotspeck's shield before he finally sets Inferno alight, smirking at the startled horror in Rotspeck's eyes as both sword and shield catch.
Rotspeck shouts an oath and flails back instinctively. He shakes his shield, trying to extinguish the flames.
Hiccup's smacked the sword from his hand an instant later, with the ringing sound of Gronkle iron meeting steel.
The crowd, on its feet since Hiccup ignited Inferno, goes absolutely wild over the dramatic win.
Hiccup swings Inferno once in salute to their ecstatic cheers before extending the blade for inspection from the judges running towards them.
He calmly runs his hand through the rippling flames. "I promise it's a non-lethal weapon. We sell torches that work the same way. The shield shouldn't be damaged- the flames extinguish once the Nightmare saliva's been consumed."
The judges inspect the sword, one of them even passing his hand through the flames himself before they admit that the only real rule for weapons is the lack of an edge and that the win is a fair one.
Rotspeck stomps out of the ring.
The other bouts are equally contentious- even the fifth place melee prize is worth a year's work or more, depending on your trade. Halver the Horrible and Rasp the Terrible both return to the holding area with damaged armor and chipped shields, and Orcan emerges from his bout looking satisfied after actually fighting for several minutes. His second match had ended immediately, with his opponent dropping his weapon and surrendering- unpopular with the crowd, but understandable, given Orcan's track record.
They're all watching when Hiccup kisses Astrid before her match, so she doesn't linger. But Hiccup can see the bravado with which she strides to the entrance, and he's almost relieved that he can't be a spectator.
Astrid is fighting Grunhild the Giant, who hails from Shivering Shores. Her supporters always pack the arena for her bouts, hurling taunts at her opponents and screaming their love for their homegrown champion. The bigger woman easily outweighs and outreaches Astrid, and this is her turf: she knows exactly where those inset doors are; how many paces it takes to cross the ring.
Hiccup can't help but listen to the way the crowd reacts, although the admiring gasps and cheers just build an agony of suspense- the match continues for ages. Finally there's a kind of splintering sound and he shuts his eyes with relief when the crowd groans before the horn sounds.
Astrid re-enters the holding area smiling triumphantly, although she's moving a little stiffly.
He frowns with concern. "You okay?"
"She got me once when I stumbled over one of those doors. Hard to get close 'cause she used a spear," she admits quietly. If it had been just Hiccup there she would have peeled up her shirt to check the extent of the bruising but there are too many eyes watching for weakness.
Well, she can do pride and posturing with the best of them.
Hiccup gives her an alarmed look. "Used?"
Astrid smiles smugly, tossing her braid over her shoulder. "Ended up breaking the shaft to disarm her. Axe still beats ironwood, blunt or not."
He shakes his head, smiling proudly. "Have I told you lately how scary you are?"
She chuckles, pleased. "Aw, thanks babe."
But her respite is brief- the judges only have to chalk new marks for the final melee.
Astrid's never plotted fight strategies and moves for two- she hadn't expected both of them to make it this far and she's not sure if she's more worried than glad that he'll be in the melee too. This is usually the most brutal stage of the tournament, a free-for-all like an actual battlefield. Ending up the last one standing is a feat even for hardened warriors in that enclosed space.
The predatory looks from the others don't help the nerves- they're the most inexperienced and will probably be the first two crossed off, "new Berkian style" or not.
"Maybe we can try to stay back to back," she suggests.
Hiccup gives her a resigned look. "I'm pretty sure they're going to separate us. Most logical thing to do when you have two from the same tribe."
He's right- the judges call them an instant later and walk them to marks with the bigger Vikings between them on either side.
They start toward each other once the horn sounds, but Orcan cuts off Astrid and the other two immediately converge on Hiccup.
He'd expected to be targeted, quickly pivoting to release a ring of Zippleback gas from Inferno before igniting it.
The explosion knocks both bigger Vikings off their feet, and Hiccup doesn't hesitate to follow through, releasing the blade and leaping forward while the smoke is still clearing.
Halver spits oaths and drops his axe when he feels the blade at his throat, and Hiccup whirls to deal with Rasp even as the horn sounds the first to be crossed off.
He needs to end this quickly: the remaining fighters all have the same strength advantage as Rotspeck did, and he's out of tricks. He's only dimly aware of Astrid and Orcan circling each other at the other side of the arena- Rasp is still scrambling to his feet in front of him.
It's all the advantage Hiccup needs, pressing forward with a series of blows while Rasp is still off balance until he blindly swats his shield forward to try to force Hiccup back.
Hiccup skips smoothly to the side, slashing at the unprotected sword hand. Aiming at wristguards is fine in normal circumstances, but he's learned a lesson in ruthlessness from fighting Rotspeck. Rasp shouts in agony, his sword falling from his crippled hand, and the horn sounds again.
Only then does Hiccup stop to breathe and note the roar of the crowd, switching his attention to the deadly dance Orcan and Astrid are performing.
She's more than met her match.
Orcan is just as skilled and strong as Stoick, but that poleaxe of his gives him a truly unfair reach advantage.
She has no room for error; she's had to discard her shield because it was slowing her down too much. That poleaxe keeps whizzing close enough to make her guts freeze and she's been on the run the entire time, unable to get close enough to even try to strike. The crowd is gasping over the acrobatics, but she's not trying to show off: it's eating up all her energy just to stay in the match. And he just won't back off; he keeps coming after her, as implacable and inexorable as a mid-winter blizzard.
If only she'd had a chance to rest after that last bout… She's tiring fast and she knows she's going to make a mistake soon- her axe is getting heavier and heavier and so are her limbs. Her muscles are starting to burn and there's sweat stinging her eyes.
She wonders why he doesn't go after Hiccup- it would give her a breather. But even as she thinks it, she looks at that satisfied smile on his face and feels her heart sink.
He's enjoying the challenge. All those questions last night. I'm the one he wanted to fight all along.
So she keeps Orcan circling and waves Hiccup back when he anxiously catches her eye.
Don't make yourself a target. My fight, for my honor.
She tries to dodge past the poleaxe and strike again, but has to abort and tumble to the side when he steps back and swivels the poleaxe into a defensive figure eight. Orcan carries no shield, but he doesn't need one- the metal shaft makes an impenetrable barrier when he spins it.
Thor's teeth, this is impossible.
She catches sight of Hiccup again as she comes out of the tumble. How does he always do it against impossible odds?
Something stupid. Something crazy.
And suddenly she knows exactly what it's going to take to end this.
She springs forward once he's just swung the poleaxe past, close enough that she hears the whistle as it passes her chest.
Started too slow. Son of a-
She's braced her right arm to protect her head but the pain almost does her in. There's an audible crack and she can't help crying out as white-hot agony screams down her nerves, blotting out her vision for an instant.
But a shaft hit isn't lethal the way a hit with the poleaxe head is and he's been unable to give it enough momentum to smack her over.
And she'd planned ahead: her axe, transferred into her left hand, is now pressed against his throat.
Orcan laughs with stunned delight as the horn blares, dropping his poleaxe in surrender.
All Astrid can do is gasp for breath: she's struggling not to faint. Gods, gods, gods, my arm, my arm.
She's had a fracture before and that was excruciating.
This is definitely worse and she doesn't dare look down to see how bad it is.
She lets her axe arm drop, fighting the instinct to hold her injured arm and panting through the agony. She's ready to sag to the ground, and in training she would have.
But there's still one more competitor.
And all she can think when she turns around to face Hiccup is that it wasn't supposed to go this way.
Gods, the look on his face.
She's yelled at him for it more than once- he's just so damn expressive and it gives away everything when they're sparring. Keep your face blank already! I can practically see what you thinking!
Her ire over that gives her the energy to stagger forward, but she doesn't try to lift her axe yet- she needs to conserve her strength until he comes near and it's so hard to push past the pain.
She sees his gaze drop to her axe, dragging on the ground, and then he looks straight into her eyes. Calm, resolute.
Her eyes widen and her mouth drops open with disbelief. She starts to shake her head.
But he drops Inferno anyway.
The crowd gives a collective gasp and even the judges look at each other in consternation.
But rules are rules- one judge brings the horn to his lips and blows.
There's the babble of incredulous conversation: half of the crowd is obviously as bewildered as she is. She stands motionless, feeling baffled and stupid as he walks over.
"No dishonor in losing to the better Viking."
Astrid isn't the kind of girl who cries. Tears are useless and weak, and she's tough as rawhide, steadfast as a stone. But his gentle words make something splash down her cheeks and what comes out of her throat sounds suspiciously like a sob when she gives him a lamentable excuse for a punch. "Muttonhead."
He smiles wryly. "Okay. But raise your axe already. You're the All Viking Champion."
She looks up at the crowd. They're all on their feet and the rising tide of sound makes it easier to push past the agony of her arm and the aching weariness.
She raises her axe with some semblance of triumph.
"Fearless Astrid Hofferson!" Stoick shouts, and the crowd roars back her name.
What else is a girl supposed to do when all her dreams come true? She huffs a laugh and smiles.
It goes down as one of the Tournaments that people talk about for years.
But even some of those from Berk still think he was a complete and utter moron.
"I don't get it, man. You could have just disarmed her like you did the others- no harm, no foul. Probably like, your only chance ever to beat Astrid," Tuffnut says, shaking his head. "Just look at all the stuff you gave up."
Hiccup looks over to where Astrid stands next to her father, waiting to board with crates containing precious cargo that Berkians rarely see- embellished daggers, pearls, wine, peppercorns, gold and silver coins. She's straight and proud even though her arm is bound and immobilized in a sling. It's broken in two places- it will take weeks for her to regain use of it. He can tell it still pains her, and the healers warn that it'll ache before bad weather for the rest of her life, but she bears it stoically: she's the All Viking Champion after all. And she's won more than just prizes and glory- quite a few Vikings, Snotlout included, have asked to be trained by her next winter.
Hiccup smiles and shrugs. "Well- some things are more important. Second place isn't too shabby for a guy nobody expected to survive the first round." He's got a couple crates of prizes, a fraction of what Astrid won, but it's not what he was after anyway.
And that self-assurance despite -or because- of his Hiccup-ness means more than any prize.
Stoick grips him on the shoulder, radiating pride and approval. "Not every Viking would have acted with the same honor. A true warrior doesn't attack the defenseless."
Tuffnut is unconvinced. "Yeah, I don't get it. She still had her axe."
Stoick just sighs. No point trying to convince the inexperienced. "Your family all loaded up?"
"Huh? Oh yeah. Did pretty well this year." He looks over to the other longship and blinks when he spots the frantic gestures Ruffnut and Fishlegs are making. "Oh. Guess we're leaving or something."
Every merchant from Berk has prospered this year- spectators naturally want souvenirs from the place the Champion calls home. Gobber has been especially pleased by the increase in sales after Hiccup's little demonstrations in the ring.
Best of all are the trade agreements that come out of that newfound respect for Berk- Stoick shakes on lumber and fish trade agreements with both the Uglithugs and the Hysterics in the closing Chief's Gather. Even better: Orcan asks not only for dragon related goods in trade; he also asks Hiccup to bring their dragons to Lochtuck for a training demonstration. It's an unprecedented opportunity and Hiccup is both awed and excited to accept.
Stoick inhales with satisfaction as Vikings bearing Lochtuck's trade goods are escorted down the dock by Orcan himself.
"Well, here they come. Gaining Orcan's respect was no small feat- I'm proud of you, son."
Hiccup tilts his head thoughtfully. "Not sure it was me that won his respect."
Stoick raises his eyebrows and nods. "Well, you'd better put some of your winnings aside. Her mundr has at least tripled, by my estimate."
Hiccup flushes and nods.
Gobber inspects the crates that are to go to Lochtuck one last time. "Eh, so you might not be a completely useless apprentice and heir. Now wipe that cheeky look off your face and grab a crate- we've got a trade contract to fill before we can get home."
Home. Just the word makes Hiccup think longingly of wind-swept open spaces and Toothless' exuberant displays of affection. Berk will be turning green by the time they're back.
He's got to figure out a way for Astrid to mount and ride Stormfly now that she has a "matching gimped limb" for the next couple months. They haven't had any privacy for far too long, and while expressing the depth of his feelings for her might be redundant, it's gratifying to know that she's comfortable expressing hers now too.
And he can hardly wait to see where that leads them.