The chief towered over her, but at that moment he looked smaller and frailer than she had ever imagined possible, and she wondered if it counted as a lie to withhold information. He had asked her if anything was wrong with Hiccup and she just stood there in the center of the village looking up at the man – his shoulders heavy and his eyes dark with worry. He had not seen Hiccup or his dragon in over a day and while that wasn't unusual under normal circumstances, he was very well aware that Hiccup was behaving anything but normal those days. Of course he noticed something was wrong. What with the almost sticking his hand in a fire thing, the more-distracted-than-usual faraway gaze in his eyes, oh yeah, and the whole bit about riding down the stairs atop a shield. And not to mention the the thing about his dragon buddy no longer having any interest in any dragon happenings around town. You'd have to be a total moron to not realize that something was seriously messed up!
His eyes were the worst though. They reminded her so much of Hiccup that just standing looking at the older man felt like a punch in the gut. She wondered if she looked at Hiccup some thirty years in the future if those same eyes would look back at her. She wondered if she would ever look at Hiccup again.
"Huh?" She realized that was just standing there looking up at him like an idiot while he waited forever for her to answer his question. She promised Hiccup but... "I'm sorry! There was an accident and Hiccup hit his head." There. That was exactly what happened.
"He hit his head? Is that it?"
The chief shook his head. "Hiccup's been hitting his head on things ever since he could hold it up. He has a bit of resilience built up in that skull of his. I don't know..."
"It was a bad fall! And he didn't have his helmet, and you know head injuries aren't something to ever be taken lightly! It messes up your thoughts, you know? Like, for instance, it could make you think that – hypothetically speaking - a Troll came along and switched up bodies between you and – oh I don't know, say a Night Fury dragon." Astrid finished and took a deep breath. THERE! I SAID IT! She flailed.
"Hypothetically speaking!" She interrupted with a laugh. "ARGH! I GOTTA GO!" And with that, Astrid ran off before he could ask any more questions. Well that could have gone better. She thought after she had put some distance between the two of them. She felt horrible. Hiccup would not be happy about that, but she couldn't keep quiet. It was all his damn fault anyway for running off and making everyone worry.
It was so stupid of her to agree to keep their little secret to herself while they figured it out how to fix everything on their own. And how long did they expect her to wait while they tripped over themselves trying to catch that Troll anyway? She did the right thing, and she needed to do more. She had to go back and tell the chief everything else she knew, everything that Hiccup had told her and everything that she had seen. Astrid ran back to the village but the older man was nowhere to be found. She tried his house and the great hall, but he was gone. She tried waiting for him at the front door of his house, and she waited for an hour, waiting for him or for Hiccup or Toothless. Finally she gave up, muttered a curse and took off out of the village. She had to get out of there before she ran into someone else like Gobber or one of the other teens. She didn't think she could handle dealing with anyone else right then. She was going to find Hiccup or Toothless-playing-Hiccup and they were going to finish this, whether by themselves, or with help from the chief, she didn't care. Hiccup needed to be back.
She made her way to the river at the site where the new half-completed bridge stood and she took a breather, making a seat out of one of the basalt columns strewn about, and took in the mid-morning sun. She was exhausted and she realized that she hadn't eaten yet, but she had no appetite. But she needed energy if she was going to be out all day looking. A power shake would hit the spot, she thought, considering going back to the village for a quick breakfast. A horrible concoction of sheep's milk, raw eggs, pickled herring, a handful of the dragon grass growing out in the back yard that Stormfly was always chomping down, and a little bit of honey... Mmmm... Her stomach began to rumble as the thought of food woke it up.
A pack of Terrible Terrors swooped down and scampered up to greet her. She gave each a scratch behind the ear. "Hey guys." She said. "You wouldn't have happened to see a Night Fury walking around in a human body, would you?" She asked. One of them, the red one with the yellow markings around its horns, looked up at her and tilted its head to the side. Astrid laughed. "I know! Right? It's so stupid that I'm even considering the possibility that Hiccup is right and he really is Toothless walking around in Hiccup's body!" She said, speaking it aloud only reinforced how ridiculous the whole thing was and she laughed.
"Hiccup's really Toothless walking around in Hiccup's body?" A familiar voice asked. Astrid jumped startled and looked behind her to find Snotlout and Ruffnut standing there, watching her interactions with the little Terrors very intently.
"AAAAH! What are you guys doing here?"
Ruffnut shrugged. "Same as you. We work here, remember? But lets just back up for a second. What's with this thing about Hiccup you just said?"
"I didn't say anything! I'm just a little frustrated with him because of none of your business so I was just wondering out loud whether the real Hiccup was snatched away by a Troll or a witch or something. You misunderstood me because you sneaked up on me and didn't hear the whole thing. That's all. And why didn't you call yourselves out anyway? That's very rude!"
Snotlout stood there with crossed arms and looked at her dubiously. Ruffnut didn't say anything either as they waited for an explanation and details they both knew she couldn't keep to herself.
Astrid looked around nervously. "It's just the two of you here? Where are Fishlegs and Tuffnut?" She asked.
"Legs took Horrorcow and her babies for a flight and Tuff's lazy ass slept in this morning. It's just us." Ruffnut said.
"Fine." Astrid explained everything that was going on. She couldn't tell if they believed her, but she was beyond caring. She needed their help in tracking him down, and that was all that mattered. When she finished relaying the story, Lout and Ruff were both sitting cross-legged at the base of her column, listening intently. "Anyway, that's all I know, and neither Hiccup or Toothless have been seen since early yesterday morning. We need to find him. That's it. Storytime is done."
Snotlout stood up and brushed the dirt from his pants. "I'm in." He said.
"Yeah really. The kid's family. I'm not going to let him linger out there all by himself. We'll make him right."
"I'm coming with." Ruff added. "I need to see this Hiccup-Toothless hybrid with my own eyes." She said.
Astrid smiled. "Thanks, guys." She said and watched as they took off back in the direction of town.
"Well that's two more people who know." She said to nobody in particular once the two teens were out of sight.
"Two more people who know what?" Another familiar voice, but this one made her want to tackle its owner to the ground and sit on his back and pin him there until he promised never to run off without telling anybody again.
"Hiccup! Where have you been? Your father thinks you're lying dead in a ditch somewhere!" Her voice cracked embarrassingly, and she channeled all her energy into holding back the huge, ugly sob that was beginning to swell within her. He had only been gone a day and he was already beginning to look feral. His hair was a mess, the fingers of both his hands were black, his visible eye had a dark ring around it, his face and clothes were covered in dirt.
"So you told everyone? They all know?"
"Lout and Ruff know, but that was an accident of sorts."
Hiccup sighed. "Who else knows?"
"Well. I told your dad that you hit your head."
"That's it? That's all he knows?"
Astrid looked down at her mud caked boots. "I may have planted a suggestion that the bump to your head put you under the delusion that a Troll put a spell on you and Toothless."
"I had to tell him. That poor man's been losing sleep over how you've been acting this past week. Are you upset with me?"
He shook his head. "No. I think we got it figured out anyway." Toothless also emerged from the tall grasses growing on the river bank and joined Hiccup.
Astrid looked up, her face brightening.
"Hold up, first I need to go grab my ax." Lout said once they reached the village and he took a quick detour to his house.
"What for?" Ruff asked.
"To help Hiccup. Of course. Isn't that what our quest for the day is?" He bent over the deep shed next to his house where they stored their weapons and emerged a moment later with a smallish ax in his hand.
Ruffnut scoffed. "Well if we're going Troll hunting, you'd better hope it's a little one if that's the best weapon you can find."
"We're not going Troll hunting. We're going Hiccup hunting and I'm going to knock that Troll out of his head." Snotlout explained.
"So you don't believe Astrid?"
"I believe that this all started with a bump to the head, and that's how it's gotta end." He explained and began walking out of the yard when he spotted a very familiar stick figure scamper over to the chief's house. It was clearly Hiccup but... "Huh. Looks like he's back. Well this will be easy." Snotlout said with a shrug.
"At least let me talk to him first. I'm kinda curious to see what he's acting like if he thinks he's really Toothless."
They approached the chief's house. "Okay. Here is the plan. You distract him and I'll hide the ax on the other side of the door, waiting for the right moment to strike." He instructed. "When you find the right moment and you're satisfied with talking to him or whatever say the code word and I'll grab it and knock some sense into him."
Ruffnut nodded. "Right."
"But be discreet! Don't just blurt it out, work it into a conversation or something."
"Okay fine. Let's do this."
With their plan worked out, the two teenagers made their way to the front door of the chief's house. Ruffnut waited as Snotlout hid his weapon behind a pile of wood on the side of the house, and when he joined her at the door, she knocked.
"Hey, what's up?" He asked, seemingly normal. Almost too normal. Snotlout thought. His hair was a mess and his eyes were droopy, he had clearly just woken up, but he had seen him run back to his house look more put together than that.
"Hey. We didn't see you down by the bridge today." Ruffnut said. "We just wanted to stop by and see if everything is okay."
Hiccup shrugged. "Oh." He yawned, "I just woke up. Dad had me doing some extra work last night making some reinforcements for the bridge." He explained.
"Your Dad?" Ruffnut asked. Snotlout knew what she was thinking because he was thinking the same thing. According to Astrid, Hiccup had been missing last night and the chief was worried sick over that.
"Yeah, you know. The big guy who lives here. Prize-winning beard. Not much in the way of subtlety." Hiccup said. "Do you guys want to come in? I'm about to make some breakfast." He turned their back on them and that was when Snotlout noticed a weird ridge on Hiccup's back growing down the length of his spine. It was visible through his shirt. Ruff noticed it too, he was sure of that as the girl turned to look at him with panic and confusion in her eyes.
"You wouldn't happen to be cooking up some cabbage root would you?" Ruffnut blurted. "I got a craving." The code word. Snotlout scrambled to retrieve his ax before he felt Hiccup's scrawny hand grab him by the hair and violently yank him into the house.
"What are you planning on doing with that ax there?" Hiccup asked, at least it sounded like Hiccup, but the strength he exerted was inhuman for any of them, the least of all Hiccup! "Hit me in the head with it?" Snotlout watched in horror as Hiccup grabbed each of them by the face and held on with a grip so strong it hurt. He began to panic, thinking that Hiccup could crush in his skull with whatever superhuman strength he discovered. And then he felt the air being sucked out of his lungs. His eyesight began to go blurry as he looked between Hiccup's fingers that covered his face, and he saw Ruffnut struggling as well, clawing at her neck gasping for breath just as he was, raking futilely at the clawed, withered hand of the one that had attacked them.
"I think I'll like it here." He heard someone say, a faraway voice, and then it was over. Hiccup let go and he fell to the ground. He still couldn't breathe and his vision was fading in an out – more out than in. He tried to look around for Ruff. He could hear her thrashing somewhere close, but he couldn't see her and he couldn't find the strength to lift his head. But he did notice Hiccup standing above him, looking nothing like Hiccup at all. And then he saw complete darkness as everything faded away.
"Be careful here." Hiccup warned as their hike took them into the woods. He put up an arm to keep her from stepping any further into the clearing where he and Toothless had led her.
Astrid looked around but did not see anything particularly interesting. It looked like any other clearing in the woods. Though on further review she noticed that the ground looked like it had been turned over recently. That would explain Hiccup looking like he took a dirt bath, she thought.
"We spent all day and night yesterday installing the Troll trap under the ground here, and the slightest bit of weight in the wrong spot will set it off, so keep back. Once it goes off, we'll have to bury the thing all over again." Hiccup explained.
"That doesn't sound much like a 'Troll' trap, to be honest." Astrid shrugged. "It sounds more like an 'Anything' trap if the slightest bit of weight will set if off." Hiccup glared at her. For an instant she remembered Toothless giving her that very same look a long time ago on the first day they met, and she found it strangely comforting.
"It's the bait that we're going to use which is what will make it a Troll trap." Hiccup explained.
"Oh! Right. I get it." Astrid peeled off her left boot and sock, balled it up and threw it into the clearing. Hiccup looked at her and blinked. "What? That wasn't your bait?" She asked.
"I suppose we could use your sock as bait." Hiccup said. "Of course if we do, we'll need to put up a sign that says 'Free sock! P.S. Totally not a trap!'
"Okay, okay!" Astrid jammed her bare foot back into the boot, while Hiccup and Toothless retrieved the sock for her from the air, and even then they acted as delicately as possible. She was curious if the thing would work. She was beginning to think it might.
"The bait needs to be something else, something that a troll can't resist no matter the risk." Hiccup explained handing the sock back to Astrid.
"And what would that be?" Astrid asked.
"An easy target." Hiccup answered.
Snotlout groaned as he came to. He was breathing. That was a good sign he thought to himself after taking in a few deep breaths. His eyes didn't work, but then he realized that it was the middle of the night, and he could see the shadows in the bedroom just fine.
Was that all some messed up nightmare, he wondered, the thing with being attacked by Hiccup's evil doppelganger. It had to be. He thought to himself and turned over in his bed, trying to get comfortable and go back to sleep. And then he turned over again. The bed felt wrong. It was just wooden planks. His soft and fluffy feather mattress was gone. He then realized he wasn't facing the usual direction that he did in his bed. He sat up. He wasn't in his own bed. Weird.
"Will you stop squirming around and go back to sleep? I'm tired!" A voice called from across the room. But why?
"Yeah what do you want?"
"Where are we and how did we get here?" He asked.
"Did that whack across your head dislodge your tiny brain or something? We're in our room."
"Yeah, the room we shared since we were born. Mom dragged you back here after she found you passed out on the chief's doorstep. Now go back to sleep!"
Passed out on the chief's doorstep. Our room. Our. Room. A common 'Mom' who dragged him back to Our Room, the room that he also shared with Tuffnut since they were born.
Snotlout lifted both hands and pressed them against his chest. And then he screamed.