When facing a dragon there were three lessons to always keep in mind: Figure out the beast's shot limit, find a blind spot, and make noise to distract and disorient it. Unfortunately, none of those rules helped Astrid in her current predicament.
Vikings didn’t have shot limits, and even if they did, her weapons had been confiscated from her and hidden. Her former home was guarded at each entrance, so there was no hope of finding a blind spot to slip away, and the guards had no interest in her threats or cries for help.
She had been stripped, scrubbed, doused in perfumes, and dressed up in the finest wedding silks and furs. For a bride, she looked beautiful. But she wasn’t a bride. She was a yak to the slaughter.
When the sun dipped beneath the horizon, she was to be offered up to the Dragon Master as a peace offering. Her heartbeat thudded in her ears as she watched the shadows outside her window grow longer.
Terrified, and betrayed by her own people, Astrid wrapped her arms around herself and whispered words of encouragement to herself. She was a warrior. A shieldmaiden of Berk. She had slain dragons. She would slay the Dragon Master and his devil before he could lay a hand on her.
The door opened, pulling Astrid from her mantra, and bathing her in the cool, low light of dusk. It wouldn’t be long, now.
“How much of that junk are you wearing, Ast?” Ruffnut asked as she entered the hut. “Your scent alone could take out the Dragon Master!”
“Why are you here?”
Ruffnut didn’t respond, instead choosing to move to Astrid’s side. In her hands, she carried a small bowl of crushed charcoal. Taking Astrid’s arm in her grasp, she dipped her fingers into the black dust and began drawing symbols on the girl’s exposed skin.
“Protection Runes?” Astrid snorted. “They sent you to protect me?”
“I am a priestess now.”
“Priestess, my ass. If the gods really talk to you then I’ll marry a Night Fury!” Astrid huffed.
“You’re going to. In like two hours.” Ruff reposted.
Astrid growled in her throat but didn’t respond to the taunt. When whispers of sacrifice began to spread through the Village, Ruffnut had conveniently begun receiving visions from Odin. First, it was small observations that any Viking could see if they only looked close enough.
But it worked. The village bought it, and before the week’s end, Ruffnut was Gothi’s apprentice and Astrid was the only eligible virgin.
Astrid numbly felt Ruffnut drawing, and she looked down at her hands. The symbols for Protection, Strength, Quick Hand and Calm Mind stared back at her. The runes would do little to protect her against the unholy offspring of lightning and death.
“Lean down,” Ruffnut commanded.
Astrid did as she asked, her mind miles away. Ruffnut drew one final symbol on her forehead.
Strength of Will
Outside, one of the two guards called for Astrid. It was time. Ruffnut stood, patting Astrid’s shoulder, and giving her a comforting smile.
The gesture was not returned.
“Here,” Ruffnut said, drawing a drinking horn from her satchel.
Astrid took the horn, and cautiously sniffing the contents, wrinkled her nose. The smell of rotten fruit filled Astrid’s nostrils. Wine. Strong wine, but there was something else to the drink. Beneath the aroma of fermented fruit, the bitter smell of Oleander reached her nose.
A final gift from a former friend, ingesting the drink would kill her within hours. It was meant as mercy, to dull her senses and giver her control over her death, but Astrid was not one to face death with dulled senses. She was a warrior. And when death reared its head, she would face it with an ace in hand and a smile on her face.
She stood, ready to fulfill her final duty for her tribe, and poured the drink onto the ground in front of Ruffnut’s feet.
“You’re a fool.” Ruff hissed at her.
“And you’re a liar. We’ll see who the gods smile on.”
She was sitting in the dark when the guards, accompanied by Snotlout, entered the hut and tied her wrists together with thick rope. Resigned, she didn’t fight them. Snotlout peeked around the men, trying to glance at Astrid.
“You can still marry me, babe.” He said. “Think about it, wife to the Chief of Berk! We would have beautiful and strong children!”
“I’ll take my chances with the dragons.”
Snotlout’s face scrunched up. “Fine! Be a dragon’s whore for all I care!”
The guards, pushing past Snotlout, drug Astrid out into the center of town. Vikings that Astrid had fought alongside for years were now peering at her with curious eyes. None moved to help her, and it broke her heart. Torches in hand, they followed her to the cliffside.
Atop the cliff, a wooden post waited for her. Pushed to her knees by the guards, Astrid was bound by the arms to the post. The light from the torches obstructed the faces of her tribesmen and women, and tears threatened to fall from her eyes.
“Make way for the Chief!” Spitelout’s voice rang through the crowd, and obediently, the crowd parted as Stoick the Vast walked to the cliff’s edge.
A hush had fallen over the once excited crowd, and Astrid brought her eyes to meet her chief’s. Her last chance at salvation., she nearly broke down as his gaze looked through her.
“Chief, please!” She cried, “You can stop this! What happened to a Chief protects his own?”
“I am protecting my own!” Stoick roared at her. “And if I have to sacrifice one innocent girl for the lives of my village, I will!”
Astrid swallowed her humiliation, her pain, and her fear. No help would come. Astrid would have followed Stoick to the ends of the Earth. Years ago, Stoick would have risked everything to save her for no other reason than she was a Hooligan of Berk. But that was before the Dragon Master had ravaged her village for five long years.
Like a plague, the Dragon Master arrived in the night without warning. He tore through the village like a strong winter wind, destroying anything in his way. First, it was the island’s defenses. The warning horns were melted by dragon fire, catapults sabotaged, and the training arena’s dragons freed.
With time, he grew bolder. He would release the dragons and lead them through the village center on a tirade. Berk was used to dragon raised. Three hundred years and every building was new, but nothing could prepare the Vikings for the devil that came for their tribe each night.
Swift and merciless, the unholy offspring of lightning and death itself never missed its target. Without Berk’s defenses, the tribe was helpless to the onslaught of dragons that attacked their tiny island.
With their defenses gone, their food storage was quickly depleted. Each winter grew harder and harder. The Village wouldn’t last if Stoick didn’t do something.
Convening the clan heads, Stoick swore they would not adjourn until a solution to their problem was found. Knocking the Dragon Master from the sky was impossible, his mount was too fast, and many feared what they would face if they succeeded in grounding the devil.
Many of the clan heads suspected the Dragon Master and devil were, in fact, one creature, a monster escaped from Milphelheim to run amuck on Midgard. Others, believed it to be a phantom, seeking his revenge.
Stoick, however, was a warrior. And as a warrior, he thought in more practical terms. The beast was like the thousands of other dragons he had killed in his life. If they could down the dragon, they could kill the dragon and his master.
After days of deliberation, they made the decision to appeal to the rider. If he was a man, he would not be able to resist the call of wine, gold, furs, and any other luxury item Berk could find.
The next night, the village piled the offerings in the town center and barred their hurts for a sleepless night. That night, dragons descended from the sky like rain. They left the homes and defenses in place, and many had believed their offering had worked. That was until they saw the goods ripped and torn apart by dragon claws.
Next, Stoick the Vast gathered an offering of livestock. Appealing to the devil’s draconic side, cattle, sheep, and yak were tied in the village square.
To the council’s dismay, the animals had remained untouched. Furious, they locked themselves away once more. The older, more superstitious Vikings had believed the Dragon Master was a punishment from the gods for turning their backs on the Old Viking ways. The sentiment spread like Wildfire, and soon, the clans were demanding to give the dragon rider a sacrifice worthy of Odin. If he was pleased with the offering, perhaps the Allfather would rebuild their broken tribe.
Stoick had refused the demands. There had not been a human sacrifice on Berk since the time of his great-great-grandfather. He would not be known as the chief who brought back the bloodied tradition. Stoick was a man of honor. A chief who protected his own.
But honor was hard to uphold when his village burned in the night and dragons took more and more from them, leaving them a broken shell of their former selves. First his wife, Valka. Then, his only son. Now, the dragons threatened to destroy his people.
Stoick used to be a man of honor.
After the third hour of her imprisonment, Astrid had stopped tugging on her restraints. After the fourth, her muscles had become so stiff that even the simplest of movements pained her. By the fifth hour, the village had decided that the Dragon Master had rejected their offer. Many had returned to their homes for the night, leaving only the most dedicated of the tribe. Astrid’s eyelids were heavy, but terror refused to let her rest.
“We should let the lass go. He isn’t goin’ tah show.” Gobber said.
Nearly morning, Berk was cloudless. No Night Fury obstructed the stars, and the only sounds that remained were the crackling of torches and the crash of waves against the rocks hundreds of feet below them. Stoick breathed in, long and deep.
“He’ll show. He won’t resist saving one of his demons. Ruffnut!”
Confused, Astrid swiveled her head to look at her former chief. He was dressed in his finest armor, a battle hammer larger than her head strapped to his waist, but he looked tired. Stretched with lines from years of trauma, the Chief of Berk’s face was growing old. But old or not, Astrid knew he was still a force to be reckoned with.
At his words, Ruffnut moved from her place beside Gothi, and stood in front of Astrid. She was dressed in different robes than when she had visited Astrid earlier in the day. Now, she donned dark green robes lined with the bones of dragons. Around her neck, she wore a necklace with the skulls of terrible terrors that clanked when she moved.
Astrid had to hand it to her, she was really playing the part of a priestess well. In Ruff’s arms was a struggling and bound terrible terror. With its mouth muzzled and a chain around its neck and wings, it could do little more than tremble. From her arms, it whined pitifully. Ruffnut tied the beast to the same pole as Astrid. The beast attempted to cower in the overflowing fabric of Astrid’s dress.
Ruffnut, avoiding Astrid’s glare, kept her eyes glued on the writhing form below her. Stoick stepped forward, for the first time that night. Moving toward the blackness of the sea, and turning to face the few tribesmen that remained. Raising a hand for their attention, he called out to the empty sea.
“Dragon Master! We have tried to assuage your anger through food and through gifts. Both were rejected. Now, we present you a virgin maiden worthy of Odin himself. Pure, strong, and brave, she is the best Berk can offer. Take her to do as you wish, leave our village in peace, and bring us the Allfather’s blessing again!”
Stoick received no response from the empty sky, but Astrid’s eyes were watching the stars. The only way to see a Night Fury was to catch a glimpse of the stars blinking out, but it didn’t happen.
“So be it.” Stoick growled. “Then we will sacrifice one of yours. Ruffnut.”
Unsheathing a long, ceremonial dagger from its place on her hip, Ruffnut raised the blade above her head. The dragon, seeing the threat, curled tighter against Astrid’s legs, crying pitifully.
Ruffnut brought the knife down for the killing blow—
“Night Fury! Get down!”
A flash of purple light blinded Astrid, and when the stars faded from her vision, she saw Ruffnut collapsed on the ground, screaming in pain and holding a blackened hand to her chest. The dagger lay destroyed, several feet away. Tuffnut, fearing for his sister, rushed to pull her back into the safety of the crowd.
Astrid’s eyes, trained from years of raids, watched the silhouette of the Night Fury circle back and land at the cliff’s edge. Its snarling teeth were a distinct contrast to its otherwise black body.
Wings spread in warning, the beast snarled at the Vikings. From its back, a figure dropped down and appraised the crowd. Astrid had always imagined the Dragon Master to be a hulking brute of a man, but the tall, lanky man clad in black armor, shattered her expectations.
The man waved a flaming sword in an arc around him and approaching the terrible terror, sliced through the chain.
From the light of his sword, Astrid could make out the tiny pebble-like pattern of his armor—dragon scales. Astrid could tell that he was taller than her, even in his crouched position. Mouth hidden beneath a black helmet, he made a clicking noise and the terrible terror quickly slithered up his arm, settling itself protectively around his neck.
She could feel the heat of his weapon on her legs, and she pulled them back in fear that he would burn her. The sudden movement drew the Dragon Master’s eyes to her, and for a moment, he looked shocked. Behind his mask, large green eyes gawked at her.
In her nightmares, she pictured his eyes ablaze with dragon fire. Instead, they were brilliantly green and filled with the strangest mixture of confusion and worry. Astrid had feared he would swoop in on his Night Fury and whisk her away to Helheim to be raped or beaten.
But the man made no move toward her. Instead, his eyes moved from the runes on her forehead to those up and down her arms. His eyes wrinkled, indicating a frown beneath the helmet. He turned his gaze on the villagers, demanding an explanation.
“Take her and be gone!” Spitelout shouted.
Astrid could hear him cursing beneath his breath in a mixture of Norse and that strange draconic language. For a moment, she feared for Spitelout’s life, but then the Dragon Master reached out a hand to her, and she remembered that she was the one who was being sacrificed. She leaned away from his touch.
“Stay back!” She warned.
The man ignored her warnings and cupped a hand against her cheek, the terrible terror at eye-level. He heaved a tremendous sigh and stood from his kneeled position. “Don’t move.”
His sword made quick work of the ropes that bound her to the post. But once free, Astrid immediately lunged for him. Her fist aimed for the soft skin between his neck piece and helmet.
The Dragon Master was faster. Before she could make contact, he had her pinned to his side, arms bound. The terrible terror hissed at her, before taking flight and finding protection on the back of the Night Fury.
He lifted her off her feet.
“Put me down!” Astrid demanded, her legs kicking out beneath the silk layers of her dress.
Ignoring her, they approached the Night Fury, who lowered his wings to accept the pair on his back. Astrid could see that the Dragon Master did not fly unassisted. He had broken the beast to a saddle, which covered roughly a third of the dragon’s back.
Placing Astrid gently on the saddle, the Dragon Master swung into the saddle with natural grace. Wrapping an arm around her middle tightly, the man held her in place. Then, with a draconic click, Astrid was given one last look at her tribe before they fell.
Astrid screamed as they fell closer and closer to the rocks below. Behind her, the masked man laughed, and with a great whoosh of wind, the dragon opened its wings and they were flying.