Later half of chapter
Gobber returned, pulling a cart full of coal. He’d taken his time fetching it; Hiccup had been impatient these last two weeks, and Gobber didn’t plan to rush this lesson. The moment Hiccup walked in, he told the youngster to sit and think. Gobber had measured this lesson out carefully the night before. Depriving him of activity proved trying for the boy; sitting without moving would be torture. Let him fidget and squirm, then. Gobber gave him a bit of encouragement, letting the boy know that one day he could do other things. Telling him to think was a mercy, really; Hiccup did that anyway. A ‘course, he wouldn’t have anyone to talk to with Gobber gone. A good plan, that. He’d talk about patience again today and hope it sank in.
Gobber spotted his apprentice still on the stool. He obviously struggled with the command. Hunched forward, with slumped shoulders and his head down, Hiccup looked miserable. Well, time to set him free.
“Hiccup.” The boy’s answer should speak plainer than words right now.
In his matter-of-fact voice, Gobber told him, “Come unload this coal. The smithy needs to be ready to begin.” Restarting the day as if the lad had just arrived ought to help him—he might not like the work, but if Hiccup didn’t do something, he’d go daft. Gobber began whistling.
Gobber glanced at him. Hiccup never called him “sir,” certainly not twice in a row. He called only Stoick sir, usually when he was in trouble. The boy’s mouth moved constantly, yet the expected babble was missing, too. What was happening inside that head of his?
The youngster slid off the stool, and he heard a small voice. “Gobber?”
“What is it, lad?”
“Can...can I wear the apron?”
Gobber was incredulous. “You’re not wearin’ your apron? Put it on now, Hiccup. The apron goes on before you do anything else.” I know you know that, Gobber thought. The boy hesitated, then left to fetch it.
The blacksmith watched Hiccup gently lift the apron off its peg, wrap it around himself, and knot it securely. Hiccup looked down, smoothing the leather with sober reverence. Gobber crinkled his forehead; he’d seen this before, somewhere.
Stoick was like this, Gobber remembered. After he lost Valka, Stoick would caress the pendant he gave her for their betrothal. Stoick would turn it over in his large fingers, study the engraving, and hold that bit of Valka. It was the thing of hers that mattered most to him; loss and love and pain and beauty, encapsulated in one item.
Hiccup felt this way about an apron.
Gobber watched his lad finish with the coal and leave the cart outside. Hiccup returned to Gobber and waited. There was no waiting in the smithy, and the lad knew that. He wanted to move, to get things done, and usually arrived a few minutes early to begin his day. That was why Gobber made him sit; after that confinement, he should be eager to work. He still wasn’t talking, just answering Gobber when he spoke. The complete wrongness of this struck Gobber. Whatever this was, he needed to sort it out. Gobber locked the door and put the board across the window, closing the smithy.
“Come with me, Hiccup.” Gobber steered the lad to the back room. Whatever this was about, Gobber wanted privacy for it; Hiccup was his boy, and needed him right now. He closed the door behind them. With a prayer to Odin for wisdom, Gobber softened his voice and said, “I know something’s wrong, laddie. I need you to tell me what it is.”
§ § §
Hiccup heard the words and they hurt. Gobber didn’t know he was upset about leaving. If Gobber believed Hiccup was happy to go, then he really had been an awful apprentice. Gobber knew he wasn’t a good apprentice: he wasn’t good enough, smart enough, big enough. Hiccup wanted to stay, stay forever, and be in the place he loved. Even if he never became a smith, Hiccup wanted to be here in the heat and dust and sweat, where he fit best.
Hiccup looked up and said, “Yes, sir.” Gobber watched him, a funny look on his face.
“Hiccup, what’s wrong?” The boy looked at Gobber, trying to find the words, and failing. Gobber kept waiting for his answer. Then his lad asked the question that was heavy on his heart.
“What do I do now, Gobber? Where do I go?” He knew Gobber had the answer; Gobber always had the answer. Hiccup was confused and afraid and knew he sounded too little for a six year old. Gobber had always answered Hiccup’s questions, and would answer this time, if he asked.
Gobber placed his hands on Hiccup’s shoulders, holding him steady.“I can’t help you fix the problem until you tell me what it is, laddie. Come tell old Gobber—what’s troubling you?”
The words came out in a rush. “ Oh, Gobber, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry. I know I messed up everything, and I didn’t mean to but I did. I wrecked it, and it can’t be fixed.” Hiccup gulped more air, and kept going. “Gobber, just tell me. I’m listening. I didn’t listen before, but I’m listening now.” Hiccup stood as straight as he could and looked Gobber in the eye, trying not to cry. Hiccup was a Viking, the son of Stoick the Vast, and would face his disgrace as best he could.
Gobber lifted him and wrapped his arms around him hard, holding Hiccup close. Something inside Hiccup broke, and he fell into Gobber, clung to his chest, and sobbed. He knew he wasn’t brave like Gobber or Stoick; Hiccup was a small boy in a job too big for him. He was ashamed of failing Gobber, failing his dad, of getting it all wrong again. In the back room, where no one could see, Hiccup gave up any hope of making them proud. He knew Gobber was right there, and he was too small and Gobber would hold him while he cried.
Hiccup was overwhelmed; he didn’t know anyone could hurt this much. He clutched Gobber. He shook and whimpered and cried a well full of tears. Gobber’s flesh hand wrapped around both shoulders and the hammer hand was solid and comforting around his waist. Hiccup’s head was under Gobber’s chin and he was safe.
Finally, it all stopped. The tears were almost gone, and the shaking was over. They were sitting down now, and Hiccup sat in Gobber’s lap. He loosened his grip on Gobber, took a deep breath, and accepted a rag from the large man. He wiped away the snot that ran down his face. Hiccup was tired but he felt better. He still had to leave; he had failed as an apprentice. But when he went home to his dad and told him what happened, he’d be all out of tears. He would be ashamed and unable to look at his father, but he wouldn’t cry. He would do the one thing he could do for his father before he went home.
Hiccup lifted his head and looked at the smith. “Please, Gobber, please.” He broke off, then continued, “Please don’t tell my dad I was crying.”
“All right, Hiccup, I won’t,” Gobber assured him. “But I need you to tell me something. It’s important, and I have to know.”
“You’ve not been yourself today. You asked to wear your apron, and apologized to me, and your heart hurts inside. Why? What’s troubling you, lad?”
“I don’t want to leave, Gobber. I liked being your apprentice.”
§ § §
Gobber was flabbergasted. Hiccup was leaving the forge and no one had told him. Why would that happen? It made no sense; Stoick would have said if Hiccup—his apprentice—was going anywhere. Small wonder the lad was upset.
He needed to ask questions.
“Hiccup, can you tell me who said this?”
Hiccup looked baffled.”You said it, Gobber.”
It was Gobber’s turn to be bewildered.“Hiccup, I never said that.”
“Yeah, Gobber, you did. You said it when I started, and you keep saying it.”
Hiccup’s certainty shone through the misery. This conversation looked as if it would keep going round in a circle. Gobber had no idea where this notion came from, but the lad believed it. He’d try a new question and hope it made more sense.
“Ah...alright, lad. Can you tell me what I said all those times? I’m having trouble remembering.”
“An apprentice has to do what he’s told, when he’s told, every time.”
Well, he had said that. It didn’t answer any of Gobber’s questions, but he had said it to the boy. “Did I tell you anything else?”
“You said I had to do my work, and you’d done it, and I had to do what you told me. You said all that on my first day, ‘cause those are the rules for being an apprentice.”
“Aye, Hiccup, that’s true—I said those things. But,” he added, “I didn’t say you were leaving. You’re my apprentice, and anyone who tells you that hasn’t spoken with me.” Gobber knew he was missing something, and wished he could peer inside the boy’s head. “So, Hiccup, who did say you were going away?”
“You didn’t say it, Gobber. But you asked me questions and told me to sit and think. So I did.” The boy looked pained. “It was a puzzle, but I figured it out. I broke the rules, and you went for coal, so I’m not your apprentice anymore.”
Gobber ran that last sentence through his mind. Hiccup offered an explanation, but it made no sense. The forge needed coal and he got some. He told Hiccup to sit there. But Hiccup thought he wasn’t an apprentice? Well, he could fix that.
“Pay attention, Hiccup. You’re still my apprentice until I say different.” Hiccup watched him, uncertain. “Now I expect you to tell me everything that happened today between you arriving and me coming back with coal. You’ll answer my questions, one at a time.”
§ § §
Thirty minutes later, Hiccup stopped talking. He’d told Gobber all the things he had to say; Gobber didn’t bring out another question, and the boy hoped it was finished. They were hard to hear and harder to answer, but Gobber made him keep explaining. One question was like three. “What did you do then, Hiccup? Tell me your thinking, lad. How did you feel? Why did you think that? What does it mean?” Over and over, the same things. He felt wrung out, as if all he knew was squeezed out of him. Gobber said to tell him everything, one answer at a time, in a clear voice. He had no way to hide; Hiccup wasn’t even allowed to whisper. Hiccup knew how much he’d done wrong, but Gobber made sure Hiccup said every mistake out loud. Hiccup relived the whole mess and knew after that, Gobber would make him leave.
Staring at the floor, Hiccup waited for Gobber. Whatever occurred next, it meant more pain, more soreness of heart, more awfulness. He wanted the interrogation to stop. Hiccup longed to leave and hated to go. Gobber still didn’t squeeze all his emotions out; he still hurt inside, and he might always hurt there.
“Hiccup.” Gobber’s voice was gentle. “Look at me, lad. Show me your face.”
“Please, Gobber, no, “ he whispered. Then in a clear voice, “Gobber, I can’t. Please don’t ask me...please.”
Still gentle, the smith said, “Laddie, I’m not letting you go. You’re working here with me.” Hiccup felt Gobber’s hand rest on his shoulder. “But, an apprentice has to...”
“...do what he’s told, when he’s told, every time.” Hiccup raised his chin and looked at the man who called him an apprentice. The man who had taught him about trolls, who acted like an extra dad when his dad needed to be Chief, who been a hero to Hiccup all his life, and who wouldn’t let him refuse this task. He could do this, because it was Gobber expecting it. He watched Gobber, staring right at him, and saw a smile break through his face.
Hiccup startled, then heard the thumps coming from outside. Someone wanted Gobber to open the forge, even with the board in place. The smithy always opened early in the day, but Gobber closed it because of Hiccup. The boy listened.
Gobber looked annoyed, but left to open for today. “Gobber! Open up! Are you asleep in there?” It sounded like Hoark.
“Hold up, hold up, I’m coming.” Hiccup heard Gobber leave the forge. “What is it, man?”
“You’re not open, Gobber.”
“I know that, Hoark. Can you explain why you’re banging and shouting at me? I’m not deaf, y’know.”
“The smithy is always open early. I came by and you hadn’t opened, so I came back and you’re still closed. Look at the hour, Gobber!” Hoark indicated the sun’s angle. “It’s well past time to start your work, and I’m out here, waiting to hand over my axe.”
Hiccup heard Gobber snort. Hiccup knew that snort; Gobber made different kinds, and that one meant Gobber really wasn’t happy. It had his I’m-fed-up, and-done-with-this sound. That was worse than a glare, and a glare was the worst thing Hiccup had ever got from Gobber. He hoped they’d keep yelling; Hiccup wanted to hear this.
“I run this forge and I decide when to open, not you, Hoark. I’ve got other things to do, and I’m not interrupting that.” Wow, thought Hiccup. I’ve just heard Gobber get angry with a customer. “Now get going whilst I’m still willing to fix that fool axe today.”
The board thunked back into place. Hiccup listened to Gobber open the door and leave. A few minutes later, he returned to the room, looking satisfied. “No one’s interrupting us now,” Gobber told him. “Well, not anyone with sense.”
Hiccup forgot everything then. Gobber had done something more than putting the board back, and he wanted to know what it was. Gobber looked like a cat in a basket of fish. All he could was stare at Gobber and hope he’d share the secret.
Gobber’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “You heard Hoark shout at me, Hiccup?”
Hiccup nodded. “I didn’t want him shouting at me. The man’s an arse to think I’d open just for him.”
“I heard you snort, Gobber.”
“Aye, lad. A good snort can replace a scowl if you know how to use it.” Gobber told Hiccup, “I have something to show you. Come with me.” Puzzled, Hiccup followed the big man outside. Gobber pointed to the board, and said “I know you learned your runes. Now read that, Hiccup, and tell me what you see.”
Most of the words were easier, and Hiccup could sound out the others. About three sentences in, Hiccup’s eyes grew big. He kept reading, grinning. By the time Hiccup finished, he was holding in giggles. Hiccup heard him say, more than once, “never upset the blacksmith.” Now he realized what that meant. This was rude, but Gobber could get away with it.
Gobber’s list of rules:
Rule one: If the forge is closed, go away.
Rule two: If you yell or bang for Gobber when the forge is closed,
he will ignore you.
Rule three: If you yell or bang more than once, Gobber will refuse to fix, make, or sharpen anything of yours in a hurry.
Rule four: If you don’t like this, see another smith.
Rule five: Remember Gobber is the only blacksmith on Berk.
Rule six: If you think you can fix it yourself, go ahead.
Rule seven: Gobber will not let you in to fix anything. Get your own tools.
Rule eight: Complaining to Gobber won’t work.
Rule nine: Complaining to Stoick will piss him off. But you can try.
Rule ten: Learn these rules.
“Inside quickly, lad, before you explode. You can’t laugh at this. Other grown folk won’t like that, even if I told you to read it.” Gobber reminded him, “You must always respect the adults, Hiccup. They need to be taken seriously. Even,” Gobber added, “when they haven’t the brains of a chicken.”
He couldn’t hold the laughter in anymore. Hiccup raced inside, best over, and laughed harder than he could remember. Once Gobber said that about the adults, it all came bursting out out his gut, laughter that kept going until neither of them could breathe. Gobber didn’t laugh like Hiccup; he had deep, rumbling noises, hilarious snorting, and no hesitation to give over to the hysteria. Hiccup only stopped after he was gasping and his stomach hurt.
When Gobber stopped roaring and joined Hiccup, the boy was drained. He didn’t have any emotions left, not after this morning. Hiccup remained an apprentice somehow, and he had tasks to finish. Gobber might send him home now, or tomorrow, or in a few days. He rested a moment before saying, “I need to get to work. We’re low on water, and the quench tubs need to be topped up.”
Slowly, Gobber said, “ We never finished talking, laddie. We need to do that, but not now. Things have been too confusing today, for both of us. Tomorrow,” Gobber continued, “we can talk again. For now, we do our jobs. I’m not upset, you’re my apprentice, and we can talk about rules later.” Gobber studied his face. “We need that water. The forge needs to be ready to start the day.”
Hiccup surprised himself with a smile. He could go to work now. Gobber said everything was okay for today. They could pretend this morning never happened, and tonight could be ordinary. Hiccup didn’t need to explain anything to his dad. He retied his apron, collected two buckets, and left for the well, content.