Astrid sat down next to me and put her arm around my shoulder, pulling me into a loose hug. Just like she promised, she was there for me, even though she didn't do anything. But I thought that was why I needed her most. Just in case.
I watched Toothless breathing. Watched as the firelight danced over his skin in diffuse reflections. Some parts of his left side were completely healed, which made it look worse than it really was.
I sighed as I put my chin in my hands, looking through the hearth in front of us. Without looking at Astrid, I said quietly, "I thought everything was gonna be normal again once we got home."
She pulled me closer to her. I let her, mainly because I didn't have the energy to stop her. Not to mention I actually liked being around Astrid. "It'll take time," she said. And she was silent after that.
Even though Astrid was next to me, making sure I was going to be fine, nothing she said or did would make me feel better. I felt so alone and helpless seeing Toothless in this state, knowing he wasn't there to protect me.
I remained silent for a short moment, listening to the fire crackle, listening to Toothless breathing. It was awfully quiet in this house other than the fire and Night Fury in front of us. My dad and Gobber had already left to do whatever needed to be done around the village. Inside, I hoped my dad was headed for Mildew's place for a few choice words.
Astrid pulled me tighter and said, "He's so peaceful." She was referring to Toothless.
I took a moment to really pay attention to Toothless. With the exception of parts of his left side, upper back and tail, he looked generally content with the world. His eyes were closed, and he was breathing rhythmically. No grimace, like what had permanently burned itself into my memory after we took that lightning bolt. Where his skin was untouched by waterlogging, it was a beautiful jet black that reminded me of the night sky. Or a shadow.
An idea struck me, one that made me wish I didn't have to wait until Toothless healed and I had a new saddle and tail fin ready for him. I wanted to learn how to be stealthy with Toothless. He already knew how because of his instincts. But once he healed, my goal was to learn from him how he stayed hidden.
But the idea passed just as quickly as it came, lodging itself somewhere in the recesses of my mind. Maybe I'd remember it when Toothless awoke.
I heard the door creak open as someone walked in. The footsteps had an alternating pat-clunk sound, meaning it was either Gobber or Mulch.
"I was wondering where you went, Astrid," the Viking behind us said. It was Gobber. Stormfly huffed slightly at him, probably because he stepped too close to her head.
I continued staring at nothing as Astrid took her arm off my shoulder, stood and faced Gobber. "Do you need something?" she asked.
"Just to check on Hiccup," he replied. "Stoick just finished…um…'talking' with Mildew." Gobber emphasized "talking," meaning my little wish about Mildew had been granted. Whether he learned something from it remained to be seen. But deep down inside, I felt like this was only gonna cause Mildew to attack me and Toothless with a vengeance. He was gonna have yet another reason to be angry with me.
"Oh, good," Astrid said obviously. She turned to me and said in an obvious whisper, "Let's steal Fungus if he doesn't listen to your dad."
I smirked a little, but ignored her suggestion. Another idea had taken the previous one's place and was smashing against the inside of my head, dying to get out. I stood like I was a hundred years old and faced Gobber and Astrid. "I say we get rid of the statue and perches."
"Uh, Hiccup," Astrid began. "You do realize we're talking about Mildew, right?"
I shrugged. "I gathered that."
"How do the perches and statue have anything to do with Mildew?" Gobber asked.
"If we remove them from town, he can't use them as leverage anymore," I stated. Both of them looked at me with blank stares. Time to start talking like Hiccup. "The iron attracts lightning," I said after a deep breath.
Astrid immediately realized what I was onto. Gobber, however, was still lost.
"We get rid of the perches and statue, and the storms will return to normal," I continued. Astrid's eyes clouded over in thought. She was about to say something. I paused, waiting for her.
"What if we put the statue on a higher point on the island?" Astrid blurted out. "That way, the lightning will avoid town." She had an evil look on her face, which told me exactly where she wanted to move the statue.
Gobber noticed her expression too and said, "Oh, no you're not. Mildew stays out of this."
"So, does that mean you're on his side?" she asked without missing a beat. "You want to get rid of Toothless?"
"No!" he shouted. "But I…"
"So then you support our idea," she interrupted.
I went along with Astrid's little argument, even though I hadn't said anything beyond removing the statue and perches. I thought it was humorous seeing her back Gobber into a proverbial corner anyway.
Gobber paused for a second and then said, "Look, you can't put me on the spot like this."
"You're either for us or against us," she told him. It was obvious Astrid was struggling to keep a straight face.
Gobber sighed and thought for a little bit. His eyes showed a little bit of realization when he figured out what Astrid had really done to him. She had forced him to agree to her idea, and I was mostly sure of what it entailed. "I'm staying out of this," he said. And walked out the door, closing it quietly behind him. I guessed a neutral Gobber wasn't necessarily bad for Astrid's scheme.
Astrid shot Stormfly a quizzical look as Gobber stepped out. She had apparently huffed at him again. I wasn't sure if Stormfly didn't like Gobber or if he had simply invaded her space a little more than she wanted. Astrid walked over to her, checking on her state of mind. Looked like normal to me.
I looked back toward Toothless and noticed he was still in the same position. I had become excited about causing Mildew grief, and then my emotions plummeted just as quickly. It felt like the last few minutes didn't even happen. I sighed and sat back down next to Toothless. Ran my hand over the top of his head. I noticed how leathery his skin felt where it was untouched by waterlogging.
"You're still worried about him, aren't you," Astrid inferred, speaking from near her dragon. I nodded slowly, keeping my gaze forward.
As I kept my attention on Toothless, I realized at least one thing I had been missing since we were stranded on Dragon Island. I missed how Toothless looked at me. Sure, we had made eye contact a few times here and there. And there was that one moment as we were leaving Dragon Island. But I could always count on Toothless to be there for me when I was scared or simply having a foul day. And his expression never changed. I always felt safe when he looked me in the eyes. But now, I realized why I was feeling so scared and alone.
I also missed flying. But I knew it would have to wait. His back and tail needed to heal, and I needed to build a new flying apparatus from scratch. Hadn't done that since the first week he became part of my life. I hoped it would be easier this time around. I could bring Toothless into the armory with me for exact measurements. I knew I had gotten lucky the first time. Didn't mean it would happen again.
I was lost in thought when I heard a low moan in front of me. Toothless clenched his jaw and eyes tightly as he stretched. His left side was still limited in motion, probably because he felt the pain from his skin being so damaged. But he was moving. He held his stretch for a couple of seconds then immediately relaxed with a long sigh.
Remember, you'd spare him a long and painful death. End his suffering now. He's probably upset with you anyway. Mildew's words had suddenly pushed themselves to the front of my thoughts, exactly at the time I didn't need to be aware of them. Not that anytime day or night was ideal for this, mind you.
But the longer I sat there, the louder those words became. It was only a matter of time before my hands and feet would start working on their own, listening to what Mildew had said upon my arrival back home. I closed my eyes and tried to let the thoughts drown themselves out on their own.
Mildew's presence somehow kept intensifying itself, no matter what I did. Like it was the way he said it to me, or how much I didn't want to be around him. I needed a distraction, so I stood and turned toward Astrid. I didn't want to let her know about what I was thinking, so I asked her, "Can you and Stormfly help get rid of the statue and perches?"
"I, uh, I thought we had already agreed on that," she replied. She looked at me in slight confusion, probably because my question seemed redundant.
"Well, I think the statue should be moved to a high point on the island, like you said."
"Like…Mildew's house, maybe?" she said slowly for dramatic effect. Astrid had a small grin creeping across her face.
"I don't think it's gonna matter. As long as it's not on his house or in his 'vegetable garden,' we should be okay." I slurred the words "vegetable garden." Nobody had seen Mildew take anywhere near good care of it, which explained the weak cabbage he routinely gave us during the harvest.
"How is it not going to matter?"
"If we have another storm, the statue will attract the lightning. I think you're right that it'll keep the lightning away from town. But it'll be loud for Mildew," I said.
"And you care about him!?" she railed. "Really?"
"No," I said without missing a beat. "After what he did to me and Toothless, I'd feel great watching lightning hit that statue while he's near it."
"That's more like it," Astrid said in relief.
"I just can't think of a reason we could use to put the statue there."
"I'm sure your dad won't really care after what Mildew's been doing," Astrid replied.
She had a fair point. I probably didn't need to worry about anything my dad would say. But having a reason to put the statue there would definitely keep me safe just in case he did decide that Mildew was worth something in this village.
I thought back to our little arguments before Toothless and I escaped Berk during that thunderstorm. I wondered if there was anything Mildew or someone else said that would give me leverage for relocating that statue. Revenge was out of the question. I had to convince people moving the statue there was a good idea.
How could I do that? After a few seconds in thought, I realized any reason I came up with would have to involve Mildew. Not me. Make him part of the reason. Was there something he complained about? I knew he didn't like the statue…
"What are you thinking about?" Astrid asked. I couldn't hide any expression that told the world I was lost in thought, and something had just clicked.
"I got it," I said, returning my focus to the world in front of me.
"Got what?" she prompted.
"According to Mildew, the statue wasn't in 'Thor's likeness.' We can give it to him so that he can remodel it."
Astrid looked at me blankly. "Really?" she asked after a brief pause. "You actually had to think of a reason for this?"
"It couldn't hurt, could it?"
She rolled her eyes at me. "You are the most elaborate Viking ever."
"Why, thank you," I said like it was completely normal.
We looked at each other for a few seconds, and I could have sworn there was something in the air between us. For a brief moment, I saw Astrid in a completely different way. She looked prettier for some reason. But the moment disappeared, leaving me wondering why I felt like that. I decided to keep it a secret for now. Maybe I'd tell her later.
I noticed Astrid's focus had shifted anyway. She was looking to my left, toward the hearth. I heard a low groan and a shuffle as a dark figure blocked my view of the fireplace. Just as I glanced in that direction, I saw two deep yellow-green eyes staring at me from maybe two feet away.
Toothless closed his eyes slowly and nudged underneath my left arm with his snout. He groaned softly, telling me he wanted attention. The skin on his left side was still fragile, so I kept my hand on the top of his head, just to make sure.
"Hi, bud," I said quietly. He murmured with his eyes closed, telling me he was going to be fine.
"He hasn't changed one bit," Astrid pointed out.
I shrugged. "Doesn't need to. He's perfect."
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Astrid sidle her way in front of Toothless. His snout curled slightly, probably because he noticed her smell. He opened his eyes and looked at her for a second before leaning forward and nudging her right hand with his snout. Astrid scratched underneath Toothless’ chin, making him murmur and smile with his eyes closed.
It wasn't hard to guess when Toothless wanted attention, and this was one of those times. I let Astrid stay at his front, where she continued petting Toothless until he decided he had enough. Usually, his signal was to gently flip my hand away, but he never told Astrid to stop.
"Do you and Stormfly wanna stay here for the rest of the night?" I asked after a few moments.
"Lemme check," she said. She made a show of turning her attention to Stormfly, then looked at me again. "Stormfly said 'yes.'"
I rolled my eyes slightly. Normally, I was the one who would act like that. "I'm gonna get Toothless outside for a little while." Without giving her a chance to answer, I slowly led Toothless to the door, passing close to Stormfly on the way out. She grunted, but never showed any frustration like she did with Gobber. I opened the door and let Toothless amble out, following him with Astrid and Stormfly behind me. Sat down on the stoop and kept Toothless in sight. I was pretty sure he wouldn't wander off, especially with his side the way it was. But I also knew letting him use the skylight to go in and out of the house wasn't an option. It would have been too much for him to handle at this point. Besides, it was still covered.
"Stay close, bud," I said to my dragon. Toothless glanced at me briefly before trodding around the corner of the house, out of my sight. I didn't stop him. He wasn't going far anyway. Turned my attention upward, noticing we had a clear sky with a diffuse light show taking place. The soft green patterns continuously morphed into different shapes and swirls, almost telling a story without words the entire time.
Astrid sat down quietly next to me while Stormfly ambled in front of us. Her dragon stopped occasionally to preen herself. "When do you think Toothless will be able to fly again?" she asked.
"I don't know. When he's ready, I guess."
I was about to say something else when I heard a loud shriek come from my left, the direction Toothless had gone before the house hid him. I bolted up and took off running in that direction. I knew Toothless had intonations in his grunts, roars and murmurs. This time sounded like he was alarmed about something. Like there was a threat near him.
As I rounded the corner of the house, Toothless was maybe fifty feet away from me, locked up in what looked like fear. His wings were folded at odd angles, telling me something had caught him.
"Don't come any closer, boy!" a voice rasped. In the pale moonlight, I saw the occasional pattern of a rope net we used often for fishing. A split-second's worth of thought told me Mildew had somehow restrained Toothless using this net. And Toothless wasn't shooting any fireballs.
"I told you to end your dragon's suffering, but you didn't. Now I have to do it for you," Mildew said. He immediately produced a knife and began moving toward Toothless. "You're too merciful to these creatures," he continued. "You're willing to let them live when they steal our food, destroy our homes and kill Vikings. When are you going to realize Vikings and dragons can't live together?"
Mildew was about three feet away from gutting Toothless when out of nowhere I heard Astrid shout, "SPINE SHOT!"
There was a grunt followed by a whipping sound. In slow motion, I heard Stormfly's tail spikes hissing through the air. I heard at least one of them hit the ground, followed by another one hitting with a muffled thock sound. In the moonlight, Mildew's pained grimace told me exactly what he was feeling. He dropped his knife harmlessly on the ground and immediately reached toward his right leg. I had never seen Stormfly actually impale someone with a tail spike until now. I also realized I never wanted to see or hear it again.
I heard Gobber shout from behind us, "WHAT IN THOR'S NAME IS GOING ON!?" He rushed past me and Toothless to find Mildew curled up and shouting in pain, holding his right thigh where a Deadly Nadder tail spike could be clearly seen.
Without thinking, I tried to cover for Astrid's actions. "HE WAS GONNA KILL TOOTHLESS!"
From my right, I caught a glimpse of another large Viking running in our direction. My dad must have been coming from the great hall. He apparently noticed Toothless first because he shouted in our general direction, "WHY IS TOOTHLESS TRAPPED!?" He glanced at Mildew and I noticed his shoulders slump visibly.
"Stoick, he's got a Nadder spike in his leg," Gobber said over Mildew's shouting.
"Who, Toothless?" my dad asked.
My dad turned his attention to Mildew, who screamed at the top of his lungs, "KILL THE GIRL'S DRAGON! SHE CAN'T CONTROL IT!"
My dad, Gobber and Astrid stared at Mildew, waiting for him to finish his screaming fit. The spike was still embedded in his leg, and I wanted it to stay there as long as possible.
It didn't take long for Mildew to realize nobody cared about him shouting, so he stopped, whimpering occasionally when his leg moved. My dad immediately reached down and pulled him up by the arm with a gruff sigh. Mildew yelped in pain as his leg was contorted slightly, grinding the spike a little deeper. "Get Toothless inside," he told me as he dragged Mildew toward the great hall.
I stood in shock as Gobber and my dad took Mildew away from here. "C'mon, Hiccup!" Astrid shouted at me. My mind snapped back to the present tense as I saw Astrid kneeling by Toothless. I walked forward and grabbed the net holding Toothless down. Lifted it to find sections of his side bleeding again from the friction of the rope. The net had a strong fishy smell.
I slowly peeled the net away from Toothless as Astrid removed a muzzle that Mildew had somehow gotten onto him. As I walked toward his front, my right boot squelched in what I thought was mud. I looked down and saw the ground had been loosened, like someone had dug a hole, turned the dirt over and filled it with water. I realized Toothless’ front left foot was stuck in mud. That was how Mildew trapped him.
"How did Mildew trap him?" Astrid asked, as if she were on cue.
"Here," I said. Astrid walked over and lost her balance slightly as her foot found the same mud pit I had just encountered. She groaned in frustration.
While Astrid railed about Mildew's dogged attempts to kill Toothless, I dug my hands into the mud, trying to help Toothless get his leg out. Mildew had a pretty good idea of what it would take to get a dragon about Toothless’ size trapped. The mud had a little suction to it when I moved my hand around. Toothless had probably panicked just long enough for Mildew to get a muzzle and net over him. But it was all he needed.
As soon as I uncovered Toothless’ foot, he grunted and yanked it out of the mud pit. And took off in a running limp toward the door. I didn't blame him for wanting to be inside again. I followed with Astrid still complaining and opened the door. Stormfly was behind her. All four of us filed inside. I walked upstairs to get a cloth rag, while Astrid sat down at the table with an exasperated sigh. I came back downstairs to find her with her face buried in her arms. Walked over to Toothless and gently cleaned his foot, trying to keep from opening his skin again. I kept eye contact with him, making sure he knew I was here, making sure he knew I was going to stay with him.
Over a period of about five minutes, Toothless slowly relaxed. I stayed by his side, protecting him, just like he always did with me. Astrid and Stormfly were already asleep, worn out from the trip back to Berk and then fighting off Mildew. I sat down next to Toothless and stroked the right side of his head. I still felt uneasy, but I knew Mildew wasn't going to be walking anytime soon. Thank goodness, too. I sighed, leaning against Toothless’ right side. And it didn't take long before we fell asleep near the hearth.