Toothless and I approached the plaza from the air, where a small crowd greeted us. And by "greet," I meant "glare." Mildew was near the front, standing with my dad. Both of them had their arms folded, which told me I was in trouble. If Mildew was able to convince my dad about something concerning me, then I knew it was quite a heinous crime.
As Toothless’ feet hit the ground, he turned toward Mildew and snarled.
"It's okay, bud," I said, putting my hand on top of his head. He quieted down, but didn't stop rumbling. I got off of Toothless’ back. Turned toward my dad and asked, "What's the complaint of the day?"
"Mildew found your footprints by his house," my dad said with no change in his expression.
I didn't have time for this. Astrid was waiting and Stormfly was getting weaker by the minute. "Um, can we talk about this in an hour or so? Astrid and Stormfly are…"
"NO. Why were you there?"
I closed my eyes briefly, knowing any answer I gave him was going to be wrong. "Great," I mumbled before deciding on the truth. "I thought Mildew had dragon-napped Stormfly." My dad raised his eyebrows slightly, which was a signal to explain further. "When Astrid and I found the dead dragon outside our house, Mildew walked by and faked sympathy about the dragon."
"Me? Fake?" Mildew asked. "I was being sincere!"
"Since when have you actually liked having dragons around!?" I shot at him.
"Oh, there are only certain dragons I actually appreciate here," he said at an excruciatingly slow pace. He must have known I was in a hurry, so he made sure to keep me here on the spot for as long as possible.
"Yeah. Dead ones," I said sardonically. "And that dragon wasn't Astrid's," I added before anyone could do anything.
"No?" he said. It sounded fake again. "Well, it certainly looked like him."
"Her," I countered.
"No, boy, not Astrid. The dragon!"
"Yes, her name is Stormfly. And she's in trouble if we don't help out."
"Bah!" Mildew spat. "That dragon will be fine! Maybe she just doesn't want to be around your Night Fury."
That comment threw me totally off-guard. I blinked in confusion when Mildew added, "It would have been a shame to see Astrid's dragon dead. But as long as that Night Fury's around, more dragons will be killed." He said it without feeling, totally contradicting the lies that were flowing out of his mouth mere seconds ago. "After all, the Night Fury is the unholy offspring of lightning and death itself. You don't think Thor will let him live here without consequences, do you?"
"DOES ANYONE EVEN CARE ABOUT ASTRID!?" I shouted to everyone in the plaza. I was sick and tired of being put on the spot just because I happened to show up at exactly the wrong time. "Her dragon is injured and needs help getting back home!" I said, pointing in the general direction of the mountain.
"That wouldn't have happened if we didn't have a Night Fury here," Mildew chimed in.
"Yeah, we'd still be fighting dragon raids and losing our food stocks," I interrupted.
"Really, boy, why do you insist on keeping this monster around?" Mildew asked, generally ignoring my comment. "Thor's anger is only going to get worse."
"And just how do you know that?" I probed.
"One word," Mildew prompted. "Barnstadt." Several of the villagers around us gave an audible gasp.
I knew this story and its hundreds of variations, although what supposedly happened took place about a decade before I was born. According to legend, Barnstadt was worse than what we had with Mildew. His normal state of wakefulness was one of profound intoxication. For years, he had been stealing items such as weapons, shields and valuable trinkets from people on Berk. Nobody was sacrosanct, not even my dad or the chief before him. Several times, he nearly incited Berserker attacks on Berk, just because he was sadistic like that. As the story goes, Thor got increasingly angry with Barnstadt because his behavior had gotten more…um…lewd over time. Thor even sent warning signs, like making the masts of ships glow with an eerie light. Freyr's Light, some of us called it. But Barnstadt never paid attention. So during one particularly bad thunderstorm, Thor came to Berk in the form of a ball of lightning and killed Barnstadt by striking him in the chest and head.
I had heard several versions of what had happened to Barnstadt when he was killed. One version simply stated he died on the spot from fright or from seeing Thor's face in person. Another said the lightning ball entered his chest and blew his head clean off his shoulders in a bloody mess, like it was a statement from Thor. And others were somewhere in between.
"Completely different!" I shouted back. "Name one time when Toothless has hurt anyone in this village after we fought the Red Death!"
I knew exactly where Mildew was going to go with this. "He destroyed the armory when Outcasts were on their way here," he said matter-of-factly.
"And that hurt someone?" I said back.
"Well…he could have!" Mildew said, stumbling in his argument. "Why did he do that when Outcasts were close? It seems like your Night Fury was interested in killing everyone here. Why, I don't think it would be a stretch to say that dragon is an Outcast." He pointed at Toothless. Some of the crowd mumbled at his accusation. I couldn't tell whether they supported or were against Mildew.
I froze. I had no retort. Shouting again was only going to make my position worse. Mildew raised his walking staff slightly and pointed the tip at my dragon. Toothless tried to back away, but the staff bonked him in the snout. "I don't think this dragon should…" he started, but couldn't finish his sentence. I knew Toothless was already on-edge just because Mildew was around. And this was all Mildew needed to do to provoke an attack.
Toothless lunged forward with a snarl and grabbed Mildew's walking staff out of his hands with his teeth. He crunched down in the middle of the staff, breaking it into two pieces. Toothless spat the broken staff out of his mouth and roared directly at Mildew's face. There was nothing I could do, not when Mildew had precipitated an attack like this. I am so dead, I thought. I kind of thought Mildew was being intentional with it so that he could buy some of the villagers' respect. So he could spread his opinion on dragons.
Mildew turned his back on the crowd. Smirked briefly at me after Toothless closed his mouth and said, "You should muzzle your dragon, Hiccup." He turned slowly and hobbled away, Fungus in tow. I was powerless to respond. I had no control over Toothless’ reaction. But the exact same thing would have happened with any dragon. I just hoped Mildew felt lucky, because if he would have done the same thing with Stormfly, he'd have ended up with a couple of tail spikes lodged in his midsection.
As Mildew got out of earshot, I said, "So he went from hating all dragons to loathing Toothless. That's just great."
"Toothless will be fine," my dad said. "Mildew was just worried that you or Toothless had stolen something from him."
"Oh, and his fake sympathy about Stormfly didn't matter!" I shouted. "What about this entire production that happened within the last five minutes!? You're just gonna let him walk all over me and Toothless?"
"Hiccup, why are you so concerned about this?" Gobber said. "You know there's a reason Mildew lives out of the way."
"Because he'll do anything to get our dragons killed! What am I supposed to do? Just let him kill Toothless? What about the Academy? What about defending our home? What about me?"
"He won't kill Toothless," my dad said with a tone of voice that sounded final. I gave up the argument anyway. It just wasn't worth it, not when I was trying to fight against someone who so aggressively defied any kind of logic.
I took a deep breath, trying to clear the proverbial smoke out of my vision before turning back to my dad. "Astrid's in trouble. Stormfly can't walk, and they need our help."
"Where are they?" he asked.
"A cave somewhere on the other side of the mountain. Stormfly must have flown there during the storm last night."
"And you say her dragon's injured?"
I nodded. "The ground is nothing but sharp rocks. Her feet are probably in tatters by now. And Astrid had one of those rocks go through her boot."
"All right. I'll get Thornado and meet you back here. Gobber, can you help Hiccup make a sling to carry Stormfly?"
"Don't need to," he replied. "We still have the one we used to move the injured Thunderdrum." He went into the armory, and I followed. Gobber immediately grabbed the sling he had placed neatly in a far corner, just in case we needed it again. I picked up a spare piece of wood about two feet in length to use as a torch when we got back to the cave.
My dad nodded and walked back to the house. He returned a couple minutes later on the back of Thornado. Gobber gave him the sling. "Ready?" he asked me.
"Ready," I said, getting onto Toothless’ back.
Thornado grunted as he took off. Toothless followed, taking the lead. We were headed toward the far side of the mountain. It didn't take long to find Astrid waving her arms at the entrance of the cave.
"What took you so long?" she asked as Toothless landed. He walked slightly into the cave to let Thornado land behind him with a dull thud.
I sighed in frustration. "Mildew." Got off Toothless’ back and held the tip of the plank about a foot in front of his snout. This was something I had taught him recently. A non-verbal command to start a fire. After a couple of fireballs wrenching sticks out of my hands (and pulling out several splinters), Toothless quickly got the idea about using a stream of fire, like when he's getting ready to lie down.
Toothless looked at the plank for a second and pulled in a short breath. A gentle stream of white fire leapt from his mouth to the wood, lighting the torch. He stopped after about two seconds. Torch lit with no problems. Perfect execution, if you asked me.
"Thanks, bud," I said. I scratched him gently under his chin. He closed his eyes and rumbled happily. "Stay here," I told him.
The fire illuminated the path Astrid had cleared using my peg. I let her go first, then me and my dad last. Each step was punctuated by the sound of sharp fragments of rock crunching under our feet. Astrid followed her path until it turned left to reveal an exhausted Stormfly curled against the far wall. The cave extended further, but considering the state of the ground we were standing on, there would have been no way Stormfly would have gotten very far.
As we got closer to Astrid's dragon, there was a large bloodstain on the ground formed by Stormfly tearing her feet on these rocks. They were still bleeding, and it didn't help that fragments of rocks were lodged in the soles of her feet.
Astrid bent down to begin removing the shrapnel, but Stormfly wouldn't let her touch her feet. Astrid tried again, provoking a hiss from her dragon. Normally, Stormfly was pretty receptive to Astrid. Except for today, when she must have been in a lot of pain. "She won't let me touch her," she confirmed.
"Well, somehow we've gotta get this sling around her," my dad pointed out.
"Do you think we can team-lift her? Or somehow drag her out?" I suggested.
"We don't have a choice," Astrid said. "Her feet can't touch the ground, and she's got more fragments in her belly." Astrid eased forward and placed one of her hands on Stormfly's snout. She whispered gently to her dragon, saying she was going to be okay. That everything was going to be fine. Stormfly relaxed slightly and took a deep breath.
"We have to take the fragments out of her underside," my dad said. "Then we can get the sling on from front-to-back and get her out of here."
"Can you keep her still?" I said to Astrid. She nodded and kept her hand on her dragon's snout. I crept forward and saw fifteen or so miniature daggers sticking out of Stormfly's underside. Put the torch on the ground so I could use both hands. Gently wrapped my left hand around one of them and pulled. It came out with a drop of blood on the tip. But more importantly, Stormfly didn't react, which was good.
I grabbed another rock and pulled. Same result. On about the fifth shard, Stormfly jumped slightly with a grunt. "Is she okay?" I asked. Astrid nodded and kept her dragon's attention away from me. The rest of the fragments came out without complaint, which told me Stormfly's scales did a good job of protecting her.
"I think we're ready for the sling," I said to my dad. Checked the torch. It had about six inches left, so we had to get it done quickly. I turned around to find Toothless at the entrance of the cave looking at me with a worried expression. Thornado was also there watching the proceedings.
My dad walked toward Stormfly, his feet crunching over the rocks. "Keep her still," he said to Astrid. She nodded, never looking in his direction. Used his feet to break off several ground spikes. He was making a bare spot in the cave floor to let Stormfly rest on without further injuring her. The way he was looking at the path we had cleared earlier told me we weren't picking Stormfly up using manpower alone anytime soon. My thought was confirmed when my dad said, "I think we'll have to drag her out."
He placed the sling on the ground, the wind from it nearly extinguishing the torch. It flickered for a second before steadying again. "Get her to lie down on the leather, then we'll drag her out," my dad said to Astrid.
Astrid pulled gently at the horn on Stormfly's snout, trying to direct her onto the leather. Stormfly grunted quietly, torn between moving and staying still. It wasn't hard to see the hesitation in her eyes. After a short match of tug-of-war, Stormfly finally relented and collapsed on the leather sheet with a groan. She took another deep breath and sighed in pain.
My dad collected the ropes in the front of the sling, lifting Stormfly's head slightly. "I'll take the front," he said. "You two make sure her feet and tail don't touch the ground." He placed the ropes over his right shoulder and began walking forward, using the torch's light as a guide. We followed the path Astrid had created earlier and slowly got Stormfly near the front of the cave. Just as the torch extinguished itself.
"Thank…goodness," Astrid said with a huff. We didn't need the torch anymore, but night was about to fall. As far as I could tell, there were no storms on the horizon, which was convenient.
"You and Toothless take the front," my dad commanded. "Thornado and I will carry the back."
"Okay," I said as I approached Toothless. He grunted as I neared him, thankful everyone was going to be fine. Rubbed gently into my shoulder with his snout. Now if Mildew would have been here to see that…
I looped the ropes underneath Toothless’ saddle and got on his back. He knew what to do once he was airborne, because we found out from other experiences the leather on his saddle was never going to hold Stormfly's weight. Toothless and I had learned that he needed to hold onto the ropes with his front paws to help lighten the stress on his saddle.
"Ready?" my dad asked as Astrid joined me on Toothless’ back, wrapping her arms around my midsection. I nodded. He nodded back.
"Toothless, up," I said. He jumped, his wings working double time to make sure he could lift Stormfly. I felt his front legs adjust so that he had at least some purchase on the ropes. "Keep it slow, bud," I said, rocking backward with my peg slightly.
I heard Thornado grunt as he took off. Toothless tilted a little and then continued toward the village.
We had no major incident getting back to Berk, thankfully. Since Astrid's house was guarded by stairs, we brought Stormfly to her pen just outside of the house. And dragged her with the sling about halfway into the pen, her feet and tail facing outward.
In the dancing firelight coming from around the village, I saw several rock fragments sticking out of the soles of her feet. And all of them appeared to be lodged tightly. This was gonna be difficult and painful, not only for Stormfly, but also for me and Astrid. Because we were gonna have to listen to Stormfly every time we pulled out a rock.
"Do you, uh, have any suggestions?" I stuttered to Astrid.
She tightened her lips and stared at her dragon's feet. And shook her head.
I took a deep breath. "I'll get the bandages and other supplies." Without waiting for her approval, I walked maybe twenty feet to the armory and grabbed what I needed. A large sponge, soft sheets of leather, forceps and a bucket of water. And a ridiculous amount of seaweed.
Gobber noticed me and asked, "Need any help?"
"Please," I replied. Returned to our group huddled around Stormfly. "All right. Here we go." I took another deep breath.
Using the forceps, I quickly grabbed onto a rock shard and pulled. Even though the rock came out cleanly, it took way more effort that I wanted, and blood began oozing out of Stormfly's foot. Stormfly gave a screech and kicked at the air just as I backed away from her. Her tail thrashed slightly, some of the spikes getting dangerously close to being airborne.
"Can you keep her company?" I asked Astrid over the din. She nodded and knelt by Stormfly's head. Whispered something as she stroked her dragon's head. It worked to calm her down somewhat, although her tail still had its spikes standing at attention.
Gobber came out of the armory and looked at what we were trying to do. "Ah, so you found her," he said to Astrid. My dad, Astrid and I glared at Gobber for being so dense at the moment.
"If you have any suggestions, I'm all ears!" Astrid shouted at him.
"All right then," he said. "You stay by her. Hiccup, out of the way."
I moved, letting him do his thing. I knew there was a chance Stormfly was going to impale him with a tail spike or two, but Gobber was probably the man for this job anyway. When it came to something dire like this, he turned into a no-nonsense kind of person.
"Hold her leg down," he said. I walked up to Stormfly and put my hands gently on her right leg. "No, Hiccup, her other leg." I sighed as I walked around her tail and knelt, placing my hands just above her left foot. "Make sure she doesn't kick."
Without checking to see if I was ready, he quickly got his prosthetic forceps into position. Using his right hand, he closed the forceps over another rock and yanked. Stormfly shouted again and tried to kick. It took all of my strength to hold her leg down as Gobber readied his forceps again.
I was tired after about four shards, and we still hadn't finished Stormfly's left foot. Gobber was working at a breakneck pace, trying to get this ordeal over. And not only was I tired, I also felt horrible for what Astrid and Stormfly had to go through. Sure, this was our only choice to get her on the mend, but everyone here had to experience the pain Astrid and her dragon were going through.
"Okay, only one foot left," Gobber said after inspecting Stormfly's left foot, which had become a bloody mess. Gobber looked at me and noticed I was getting worn out. "Stoick, can you help?" My dad nodded and held Stormfly's right leg down.
I grabbed the bucket of water and sponge. Began gently working it over Stormfly's left foot while Gobber and my dad started on her right. Immediately, I found what I was doing would have to wait. Stormfly was kicking both feet every time Gobber pulled out a rock. So my job became one of simply watching. And feeling completely helpless every time Stormfly shrieked into the night. Every time a rock shard clattered to the ground, leaving a snail's trail of blood. I stood next to Toothless, hoping he could bring me a little solace. But the screeching never went away. Astrid's pained expression was still clearly visible to me.
"Get her feet cleaned and wrapped!" Gobber shouted to me.
I snapped back into the present and grabbed the bucket and sponge. Gently brought the sponge to Stormfly's left foot to clean it before applying the seaweed and bandages. Every time I touched her feet, she kicked slightly.
Gobber produced a second sponge, which me must have grabbed from the armory and began to work on Stormfly's right foot. She groaned in pain, but never thrashed her tail, which is what I was really worried about. She had already thrown about fifteen tail spikes when Gobber was removing the rocks from her feet.
We wrapped her feet in seaweed and bandages before Gobber and my dad turned in for the night, taking Thornado with them. Toothless and I stayed next to Astrid and her dragon. I was planning on keeping them company tonight. I wanted them to know that we were a team. That Toothless and I were never going to leave them.
I settled next to Stormfly's head, putting her between me and Astrid. Stormfly craned her neck slightly, sniffing at me. And gave me a gentle lick on the arm. Her way of saying thanks.
Astrid sighed and put her head in her hands. There was nothing I could say or do that would instantly heal Stormfly, and that was probably the worst part of this ordeal. That bleak, hopeless feeling when you know there is nothing you can do.
"Thanks, Hiccup," Astrid whispered as she stroked her dragon on the top of her head. Stormfly took a deep breath and sighed.
"Not a problem," I said. I knew it was a lie. But it didn't matter.
I watched as Toothless charred the ground, tromped on it and curled up. He looked at me before laying his head on his paws and closing his eyes.
"She's gonna be okay, isn't she?" Astrid asked.
I took a deep breath. "Yeah," I lied. "She's gonna be fine." In reality, I had no idea if Stormfly was going to heal fast enough to stand without trouble again.
Astrid didn't reply. She only edged closer to her dragon and wrapped her arms around Stormfly's head. After a few minutes of looking out into the darkness, I heard her silently crying.