Chapter Three

Nightfall, Part Three

Astrid has never in her life run away from a dragon. Evaded, dodged, been driven backwards by, yes. Run? Never. Until today. Only the sight and shock of what that thing had done to her hiding place, and that Stoick had ordered her not to engage it and to report back directly, lessens her shame.

She manages to stop running before anyone sees her or before she’s back in sight of the edges of the village, and as she composes herself, she swears an oath to herself and the gods that she will never run away from a dragon again, not even black-as-night devil dragons that vaporize rocks just because she happened to be looking at the thing and its unnatural feral boy. Ruthlessly, she squelches the cowardly part of her mind that’s yelling wait, wait a second, never? Never ever? But we could die! It’ll kill us! at the rest of her.

The thing hadn’t even waited to see her to attack! No warning, no indication – she’d been lucky! Astrid wants this thing off her island and away from her people, and she only cares whether it’s alive or dead when she gets rid of it because she’d rather it be dead, especially since it’s evidently smart enough to carry a grudge. No one had seen it or engaged with it before Gobber’s ridiculous contraption shot it out of the sky by accident, but once it was hurt – well, she’d barely escaped the consequences.

If it goes on the attack…

She promises herself she’s going to get rid of it before that happens, before it gets back in the air and comes after them all.

By the time she reaches the village she’s back in control of herself, falling back into the almost-routine of getting the village back on its feet, fed, and sheltered after the local dragons have tried their best to smash them to pieces. She calls in a favor a family owes her for clearing up an in-house quarrel and gets them to put up another couple whose house is now missing a roof until they can repair it. When they look mutinous, she tells them to help their neighbors fix the roof, then, and they’ll be out of their space that much faster. When she gets away from them, they’re all looking for wherever their tools have gotten. (Inevitably, each family is sure that the other has borrowed them.)

She stops a small boy from falling in the well with a bucket that weighs almost as much as he does empty and would outweigh him easily full, picking him up from off the edge of the well and handing him to the nearest pair of open hands, which happen to belong to Fishlegs and were apparently only empty because he’d put his own buckets down to wash soot off his hands, not to mention the rest of him. It means the kid gets covered in ashes and Fishlegs looks put-upon at being handed a little boy. She tells him that if the boy wants to fight fires so much, Fishlegs should put him to use and watch him closely.

“Did you see that dragon?” Fishlegs tries to ask her over the kid’s head.

“Yes,” she tells him shortly and walks away to the accompaniment of questions like “Was it really a Night Fury? How big was it? What did it sound like? The Book of Dragons says –” which is the point where she stops listening. She has definitely seen that dragon, and she doesn’t really want to talk about it. Fishlegs can sound interested in it – he doesn’t know how deadly it is.

A dozen more people ask her the same question, and most want to know if there was really a human with it. She tells them all variations on “Yes, it was a Night Fury. Yes, it had a rider. No, we don’t know anything else. The chief will tell everyone when we know anything more. Have you seen him?” In this way she gets sent all over the village looking for him. Along the way she deals with people who want to complain that they’ve lost their pet sheep, people who are insistent that someone has borrowed their favorite axe and won’t give it back because they killed a Gronkle with it and it’s now a lucky axe for them, people who want to know if there are any plans for dinner tonight – at least that’s an easy one, the night after a raid everyone eats in the Great Hall until they can make sure that everyone has food left in their houses, so of course there are plans for dinner tonight and she decides that everyone who asks her that should be sent up to the Great Hall to help if only because they should know better. And there are people who want to know if Berk is going to launch a counterattack – on what? she doesn’t say – and a whole array of problems that boil down to wanting reassurance that their tribe is still together and their leaders are still protecting them.

She manages to avoid Snotlout, who is back on his feet already and boasting wildly about having survived the fierce and ruthless dragon-man, who according to him is quickly approaching a height of ten feet and acquiring the ability to breathe fire. He still has both eyes, Astrid notices, despite a set of gashes very close to the left one, and briefly regrets that the dragon-boy hadn’t been a little more accurate or ruthless – it would be so much easier to avoid Snotlout if he had a blind side. As it is, she manages to pretend she doesn’t hear his shout of “Hey Astrid!”

It shouldn’t be that hard to find someone as tall as Stoick the Vast, but Berk’s Vikings run to big. Astrid herself is comparatively small but she doesn’t need to be approaching seven feet tall to lead (or, for now, be a very good deputy). Still, she must admit, if only to herself, that she will never be able to prop back up, all on her own, one of the battle torches that stand throughout the village and light up the sky when the dragons come after dark or before dawn, which is what she finds Stoick doing when she does track him down.

“Ah! Astrid! Good,” he booms, seeing her. “Walk with me.”

As soon as they’re out of earshot, he drops a huge and heavy hand on her shoulder and asks, “Did you find them?”

She nods. “You know that sea cave on the western shore that Snotlout and the twins found last summer? The one they nearly broke all their necks trying to get to?”

“I often wish they’d succeeded.”

Astrid knows better than to ask what Stoick wished they’d succeeded at, the getting to the cave or the neck breaking. “I think that’s where they’ve gone. Just because Snotlout couldn’t get to it doesn’t mean a dragon couldn’t. The Night Fury was dozing on the shore when I found it – its wing is definitely broken, but it’s been splinted – and I think its rider was on its back, too.”

“You saw him?” Stoick says urgently. “Hiccup? He’s still with the dragon?”

“I saw the boy,” Astrid temporizes. “Chief, surely you don’t think that…do you really think that boy is your son? The one that dragons killed when he was a baby?” Stoick has gone silent and cold as they walk, but he didn’t take her on as his heir because she was afraid to ask hard questions. “Chief…you know there’s just no way, right?”

For a minute she thinks she might actually have gone too far, but then he rumbles, “I know it’s unlikely. I want to think my son might have survived, that he might have grown up, but…I gave him and his mother up for dead a long time ago. Still, I have to know. I have to see him in the light. I’m going to the western shore. The village can do without us for an hour or so. Are you coming?”

The cowardly part of her mind starts screaming about that Fury! again, but she stomps it silent and keeps her oath. “Yes, sir. There’s a shortcut. I’ll show you. We can…wait a second –”

Astrid dives for a stack of half-empty barrels nearby, knocking them flying. She gets hold of a hank of ratty blonde hair almost by accident and pulls on it hard, dragging Ruffnut out of concealment. Her other hand misses Tuffnut, who tries to bolt as if thinking he might get away with it, but one of the flyaway barrels lands squarely on his shoulders and drives him firmly to the ground, groaning more in disappointment at the failure of his grand escape than any pain.

She decides she meant to do that.

You two! What are you doing here?” Stoick demands angrily, hauling Tuffnut up from underneath the barrel and relieving Astrid of her handful of Ruffnut hair. He grabs them both by the back of their tunics and lifts them so that only the ends of their toes touch the ground. Otherwise they’ll just try to make a break for it despite the fact that they’ve clearly been caught eavesdropping.

“You had a son?” says Ruffnut, who has no survival instinct whatsoever.

“Weird,” her brother, who also has a death wish, backs her up. It’s a minor miracle they’re both still alive. Personally, Astrid thinks that if they walked off a cliff, they’d be too dumb to hit the ground. “How’d your son turn into a crazy dragon boy?”

“Cool! I want to be a crazy dragon boy!” Ruffnut yells.

“Don’t be stupid,” Tuffnut objects. “You can’t be a crazy dragon boy, you’re a girl. Probably. You can be crazy, though. Pretty good at it already.”

“Yeah! Hey wait! Am not! You’re crazy!”

“Am not!”

“Are so!”

They prove their own points by trying to attack each other despite the tightening grip on the back of their shirts, completely oblivious to the shade of red Stoick is turning, which is gradually matching his beard.

“Enough!” he roars, shaking them both equally. “Didn’t Gobber find you something to do?”

They look completely – and identically – blank, a look they’ve been cultivating since birth.

“Well, now he’s going to,” Stoick declares, and starts marching them back down towards the village proper. They bicker the whole way there that Gobber doesn’t like them, and of course he doesn’t, who’d like you, and Gobber was boring, and so on, and so forth.

“Or you could drop them in the well,” Astrid suggests, grinning, recalling the little boy earlier.

Stoick stops midstride, looks down at her over Tuffnut’s head, and says, “That is an excellent idea.”

And he does.

The twins scream with rage until they discover that the rock walls make their voices echo interestingly. Then they just scream.

The noise draws Gobber’s attention. Everyone else looks up, registers twins, and moves on. “Been lookin’ for those two,” he says, hobbling over to the lip of the well and nodding approvingly at the sight. The screaming twins scream at him.

“Don’t let them out until I get back.”

“Fine by me.”

Astrid starts laughing the moment they’re outside the village and no one is watching. It distracts her from the continuing wail in the back of her mind that every step is taking her closer to that blast of heat and fire and sparks, so it takes her almost halfway to the western shore to stop snickering. When she is chief, someday in the distant future, the twins will be spending a lot of time in the well.

They approach the inlet as silently as possible. Stoick is remarkably stealthy for a man of his bulk – privately, he has told her that it helps him sneak up on and unexpectedly loom over people who are complaining about him. He might have been just a little bit drunk at the time, but Astrid is an excellent hunter and she has already added that ability to her list of chiefly qualities that she wants to embody one day.

With gestures, she draws his attention to the vaporized blast area. I was there, she mouths, jabbing a thumb at herself, pointing at the scorch marks and chips of stone, and looking alarmed. His eyebrows go up, and his lips purse in a silent whistle.

They find a different vantage point and watch the shoreline.

The black dragon is nowhere to be seen, and Astrid wonders if the odd pair has been flushed out by her earlier appearance and has gone to find another hiding spot. It’s what she would have done.

It’s mid-afternoon, and the tide is going out, leaving a variety of tide pools and isolated puddles of seawater and shore dwelling creatures concealed amid the rocks exposed by the receding water. None of them are big enough to hide a dragon the size of that Night Fury.

Stoick spots him first. Close enough in to the cliff face that he’s half-concealed in its shadow, the dragon-boy is crouched at the edge of a tide pool, still as stone. With his face partly turned away from them, he blends into the shadows in his black scales and dark leather and brownish shock of hair.

Most people would be sitting or kneeling, keeping their hands free, but the boy is poised as if to leap or pounce, legs curled up under him and right hand down for balance. The only reason his left isn’t similarly braced is because it holds a knife.

He is ready to pounce, and does, stabbing the blade into the tide pool in a single fast and efficient strike and twisting something – it’s impossible to tell what at this distance – out of the water. Whatever it is that’s impaled on the blade goes straight into his mouth, freeing up the knife for another strike.

The boy is too preoccupied by whatever he’s eating to notice them, but he can afford to let his guard down, the two Vikings realize a moment later – he’s not alone.

A dragon’s warning screech splits the air, and the dragon-boy comes to attention, twisting around to look for the threat. The knife vanishes into a sheath incorporated into the armor protecting his right forearm, and his head and shoulders come up, but he keeps that one hand close to the ground as he pivots in place instead of rising and preparing to run or fight the way a human would.

The Vikings can see him, but he can’t see them, and his distress and fear are obvious as he casts about for the threat, mouth opening to simultaneously bare his teeth and voice his own scream of warning. As he does so, repeatedly crying out a harsh and threatening sound that somewhat resembles the dragon’s howl, he comes partway to his feet and backs away towards the cliff. This frees up his hands to pull on those dragon-claw gauntlets he used so effectively last night, and he curls the claws in towards his palms as if testing them.

Part of the way up the cliff, far too high to climb from below but completely inaccessible from above, as Snotlout and the twins had found out last year, the Night Fury comes into view. It starts scrambling down that treacherous rock face, agilely despite the broken and bound wing, to retrieve or defend its companion.

Before it can get all the way down, Stoick steps out into view.

They both freeze, staring; the Night Fury still halfway up the cliff and the boy in the shadows below it.

From the undergrowth, Astrid gapes at him. Had he not seen the scorched and broken wreckage where she’d just now told him the black dragon had tried to blast her into ashes for looking at it wrong?

Stoick raises his hands to show that they are empty, and stops at the edge of the shoreline. “Hiccup?” he calls out. Through a very great effort of will, he keeps his eyes on the boy on the ground and not the dragon, which is continuing its descent very slowly. He thinks it might be trying to get to the boy without making any sudden and alarming moves, which is odd, because that’s exactly what Stoick is trying to do.

(Astrid should go with him. She should back him up, watch his surroundings while he focuses on the dragon-boy, defend him, support her chief and mentor.)

(She does none of these things, fixated on the black reptile slinking down the cliff like a shadow. The taste in the back of her throat, she realizes, is terror; the phantom smell in her nose the fireblast from earlier. Astrid isn’t running, she swore an oath…but for the life of her, she cannot get any closer.)

“I know you don’t remember me,” Stoick is saying, “but it’s all right. I’m not going to hurt you.”

The boy audibly growls across the distance between them, baring his teeth and lowering his head defensively as if planning to charge or expecting to be jumped on.

(Astrid’s not sure whether he’s trembling or she is. She desperately hopes it’s the boy.)

The chief is still talking, in the low voice he’d use to head off someone gone battle-mad even when the battle is over. “Are you Hiccup?” he asks, and then, taking one step closer, “Are you Valka’s son?”

The boy backs away, and runs, scrambling up the cliff side and making an impossible leap to a rock nearly on the level of his head. Dragon-claws dig into the stone and he drags himself up onto it, fleeing from there directly to the back of the Night Fury, which whirls around and takes off back up the cliff, setting off a minor avalanche in its wake. They’re ahead of it – they don’t care.

Dragon and boy vanish over the lip of the ledge and, presumably, into the cave that the twins and Snotlout saw but never got to.

Silence, except for the waves and the wind, falls.

Stoick breaks it with a curse, and drops his hands. A second later, as if he’d been waiting for the Viking chief to give up, the dragon-boy’s head and shoulders appear at the edge, claws gripping the stone tightly and leaving little scratches. He hunches his shoulders defensively, bares his teeth in a gaping snarl, and screams, raucous, angry, frightened, and completely inhuman.

He retreats from the Vikings’ line of sight again before the echoes have died down.

They head back the way they came, Astrid desperately hoping the chief hadn’t noticed her paralysis back at the shore. She is ashamed, truly and passionately humiliated in her own eyes, which is worse than almost anything.

“Was it him?” she finally asks, cautiously.

Stoick walks on in silence for several more steps. “I don’t know,” he finally says grimly.

“Chief,” Astrid says tentatively, “even if that was, at some point, your son…it’s not anymore. That’s an animal. It’s a dragon.”

He says nothing.

But Astrid desperately wants that dragon gone, so she persists, saying, “Chief, whoever the boy is, that dragon is dangerous. We should drive it out and shoot it down for good while we still have a chance.”

“No!” her mentor rejects this instantly.

“But sir –”

He stops walking and turns to face her, holding one hand up to forestall her objections. “It has nothing to do with the fact that I still think that might be my son Hiccup, and that in an assault on that dragon he would almost certainly be hurt or killed. But even if he isn’t – think about it, Astrid. He can communicate with dragons. He can control them. He’s got that Night Fury eating out of the palm of his hand! Can you imagine how much of an advantage we would have if we could get hold of someone like him? If he could order the dragons that have been attacking us for longer than anyone can remember to stop? If he could find out where the nest is?”

Her eyes must be huge. She hadn’t thought of that. She was too afraid to – Astrid is disgraced all over again. She will never live down the shame her fear of that Night Fury has incurred. The dishonor of it will stick to her for the rest of her life if she doesn’t find a way to think through it.

“You’re right,” she says, because he is. “I should have thought of that. I’m sorry.”

Stoick chuckles, and they resume their journey back to the village. “It’s all right, Astrid,” he replies. “You think to defend your people first, to keep them safe at all costs. That’s a noble way to think and the mark of a great chief. In any other circumstances, you would be completely right.”

His praise only rubs in the shame she feels at her fear.

Astrid is humiliated.

She can’t live like this. She can’t live with the disgust she feels at herself.

At this point, the dishonor may be greater than the fear. She has to do something about it. It won’t even be dark for hours yet on the same day she ran from the dragon, and the humiliation is eating her alive.

And no one else even knows.

She tells Gobber he can let the twins out of the well, but it’s not funny anymore. She actually yells at Snotlout before he’s even said more than “Hey –”, which is pretty much how Snotlout starts all his sentences addressed to her. She steps in to mediate a dispute between two sisters but forgets what they’re arguing about even as they try to explain. She’s too busy kicking herself to focus.

Astrid has to overcome the fear she feels. She has to do it now, before she no longer deserves to be the chief’s heir.

(Rationally, she knows that everyone is afraid of something, and every leader has a bad day. But her honor demands she be as good at it as possible – Stoick chose her over his own nephew, who, fair enough, is a self-centered jerk who is only less dumb than the twins because the twins’ dumbness is automatically doubled, but he is Stoick’s own blood – and she is letting herself, him, and the whole village down.)

If she could just go back there, she decides, if she could walk on that beach and look at the places where the Night Fury and its wild boy are likely to be and not freeze, not run – surely that will mean she’s not afraid anymore? Or at least that she can work through the fear, which is all that matters?

She needs a reason to go back.

Astrid decides that she will map that area of the shore and its surroundings, just in case they do have to stage an attack on it at some point. That makes good strategic and tactical sense. There’s no point having an area of Berk they don’t know how to defend, whether or not they use the knowledge to confront the Night Fury and its boy. A map of it would be good to have. It would help her tribe.

Anyway, it would probably be good to observe the thing and know where it goes. If it’s ready to fly again, she wants to know in advance. They need to know the area. They really do.

She gathers up a large piece of paper, puts a conveniently-sized stick into the nearest fire for a moment, and commands her feet to take her to the shoreline.

They don’t want to obey, but she forces them to go, counting off steps and focusing on her count rather than the destination, all the way back.

When she gets there, she knows no amount of counting will get her feet out into the gritty, rocky sand, which is steadily being eaten up as the tide comes in.

That flat rock, she decides, picking one well above the tide line. I will go to that rock right now.

She does. It’s one of the worst things she’s ever had to do. She’d rather be back in the ring during her training days, on one of the days where Gobber thought it was a good idea to give them all tree branches, or pots and pans, or nothing at all, and set something large, nasty, and angry loose on them.

The rock is also very close to the cliff wall, putting her back against it. That has nothing to do with her choice of vantage point.

Astrid puts her piece of paper on the rock in front of her and begins to sketch out the area, roughly.

Very roughly – she has to erase her lines a number of times because they don’t look anything like either the shoreline or a stylized map of it.

The fear she’s facing just by being here and the frustration of not being able to get the lines to do what she wants to makes the fine hairs on the back of her neck stand up. She can’t get over the feeling that she’s being watched.

Succumbing briefly, she looks up, craning her head around to make sure that dragon hasn’t snuck up on her. Surely it’s too big to do so…but then, a number of people would say the same thing about Stoick…

She doesn’t see anything, so she goes back to mapping.

The feeling returns a few minutes later as she rubs out yet another meaningless line. How do people do this?

This time when she looks up she thinks she catches a glimpse of movement in the tumble of rocks on her left, a body-length or so above her head. But she stares in its direction, and nothing else moves. It might just have been a lizard – a proper small one, not a dragon – or the sea wind.

Or maybe not…

Deliberately, Astrid lowers her head over her utterly useless map, which she has to admit is not worthy of the name, but watches out of the corner of her eye and listens closely.

Skritch tic-tic skritch, she hears, like scraping on rock.

She pretends to draw on the paper.

After a minute or so of ‘drawing’ she sees movement in the corner of her eye, up in those fallen rocks. It’s too small to be the dragon, though.

A minute later she clearly sees the dragon-boy’s head come up over the rocks, staring at her.

She can’t resist looking up, and actually makes eye contact for a second, catching him by surprise.

The boy ducks behind his rock again, and bolts, heading for a different hiding place. Astrid catches a glimpse of him as he moves, animal-like and on all fours. His hands are as dark as the rest of his coverings, and she realizes that the tic-tic noise was coming from his dragon-claw gauntlets, protecting his palms and giving him a better grip on the rocks. The skritching was probably the scales on his armor, which was why he had sounded like a dragon even when he moved.

When she bends over the paper and waves the stick over it as if busy again, she sees him emerge very slightly from a new vantage point. But he’s definitely watching her.

Still, even though he hasn’t gone on the offensive, it’s not making her mapping any easier. The fear she feels of his Night Fury companion is still reverberating through her, and the dragon-boy’s eyes on her are just another source of tension.

Astrid tries to go back to mapping for real. After a few more minutes, she knows she’s not going to get anywhere. She thinks she’s somehow rubbed out more marks than she’s put on the paper, although how that could be possible considering that it was blank when she’d started she isn’t sure. It makes about as much sense as her map.

On impulse, she crumples up the blank-again paper and throws it away from her along the beach, well ahead of the incoming tide.

To her shock, the dragon-boy suddenly pops up from behind the rock he’d ended up at, placing his claw-gloved hands on the top of it and staring after the flying piece of paper with obvious interest. He’s all but vibrating with it, teeth chattering and making little noises through them like a cat that’s just seen a bird.

He leaps onto the rock and slinks down across it, moving in fits and starts towards the beach and abruptly completely ignoring her.

Fascinated – more fascinated than her fear – Astrid watches him go.

The dragon-boy is moving cautiously but quickly, stopping to check out the area and then making abrupt leaps and shifts. When he gets to more level ground, he almost stays on all fours, crouching and staying low to the ground.

She suddenly recognizes the pattern of movement and realizes that he is stalking her crumpled piece of paper. He’s gone totally silent, as if it might hear him coming. When the wind moves it, he freezes and watches it intently. When it’s still, he creeps towards it as if trying to take it by surprise.

Between the way he moves, the fin on his back, the scales on his armor, the claws on his hands, and the sheer intensity, he really does seem to be a dragon.

Astrid knows the black dragon could very well be creeping up on her as she stares, but even that is not enough to make her take her eyes off the incredible spectacle of a dragon-boy hunting a piece of paper.

He chases it all the way down the beach as if it might spot him and bolt at any moment. She doesn’t need words to know that he really, really wants it, although she has no idea why. Surely he knows it’s not edible or dangerous? He’d been watching her work on it for a while, she knows.

Suddenly he pounces, coming down on the crumpled ball with those sharp claws wrapped around it and kicking up sand in all directions.

Craning his head up and arching his neck, he peers at the paper in his hands and makes a chirping noise that’s too happy not to be contagious. Astrid actually smiles, even though her mouth is still half-open in bafflement. The dragon-boy rolls onto the sand on his back and admires his catch, wriggling joyfully. Then he rolls back onto his stomach, kicks his feet up like any child, and flattens it out to look at it.

He gets about halfway before remembering she’s there. His head snaps up, hair flying in all directions, and he stares back at her.

Astrid doesn’t move.

The dragon-boy does, crumpling the paper back up and sidling away towards the rock fall that she guesses must be his way back up to the cave.

She’s right, although she couldn’t have made that climb and doesn’t know anyone who could, especially with a piece of paper in one hand. Actually, about halfway up, he snaps a corner of it into his mouth and carries it the rest of the way up like that.

When he vanishes onto the ledge, out of her view, Astrid has to see the rest of this. She leaves her drawing rock without hesitation and is very pleased that she’s just spent the evening mapping the area, because she knows immediately that if she climbs that tree very recklessly and distributes her weight very carefully between its uppermost branches and stretches she might be able to see into the cave, or at least the lip of rock outside.

She drops her charred stick, evaluates her target branch for a moment, and sheds her armor and belt knife as well to reduce her weight. And then she climbs.

A few nervous near-misses later – this was easier when she was a little kid! – she can barely see the entrance to the cave.

Astrid’s jaw nearly drops all over again. The dragon-boy is lying on the rocks outside it, nestled comfortably in a crouch between the front paws of his dragon-companion, who is looming over him watching him draw.

When the wind off the sea changes she thinks she can hear the boy humming to himself, a low vibrating purr with occasional chirps mixed in.

He can draw. She can’t see what’s he’s drawing at this range, but his movements and focus on the paper are obvious. And even if he’s just imitating her – but she’s willing to bet he’s not. His attitude is too sure of himself, completely at ease as he works.

They’re perceptive, though – to Astrid’s horror, the Night Fury looks up and sees her.

She stares back at it. She couldn’t move if she wanted to – if she does the branches will break and she’s going to fall out of this tree.

After a moment the dragon-boy follows the Night Fury’s attention and sees her too. His reaction is to sit up partway so he’s sitting on his knees with his hands on the ground in front of him – she’s fairly certain he usually does that. The exception, she learns quickly, is that he glances down at the paper in front of him, back at her, back at the paper, and then snatches it up in both hands and clasps it to his chest.

Even from this distance, she can hear him squawk as if he thinks she’s going to come up there and try to take it back.

She doesn’t try, and after a second he relaxes, crouches down again, and returns to drawing.

The Night Fury eyes her for a little longer before also turning its attention away, resting its head on the boy’s shoulder lightly. In response, she sees the boy twist his head sideways to rub his cheek against its face.

Before it gets too dark to do so safely, Astrid carefully climbs back down out of the tree with her honor restored. She can come to the dragon’s beach without freezing in fear. She has sort of interacted with its boy without him screaming at her and running away in fear. And she has learned a valuable piece of information that might just give them a way to communicate with him.

She is no longer ashamed of herself. She might even be proud of today.

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