Astrid woke with three thoughts simultaneously. One, her head wasn't fuzzy anymore, which meant the insidious drug must have finally worn off. Two, she was ravenous. It was still impossible to tell how long it had been since she'd been captured, but it felt like she hadn't eaten in days. But most importantly, she could see again! Someone must have removed her blindfold while she was unconscious. Now, although the single torch in her windowless cavern cast only a very dim light, she could see well enough to tell…

…that she was no longer alone.

"Ryker!" she screeched, trying to throw herself at the broad shadow that leered at her from across the cell. Unfortunately her bound and stiff legs could not support her, and to her humiliation, she ended up on the floor again. Her cheeks burned with rage as Ryker laughed long and cruelly. At last, he stepped forward into the torchlight.

"Oh I'd love for you to have a go," he said in his gravelly, sneering voice. "We don' get a lot of entertainment aroun' here. It'd give the men somethin' fun to watch." Astrid seethed in anger and loathing. The worst part was that he was right; she couldn't possibly take on a warrior like Ryker in her current state, and he knew it. Ryker, seeing her come to this realization for herself, grinned menacingly. "But that'll have to wait until later. Viggo wants to see you now."

Adrenaline sparked by fury pushed Astrid to her feet. "Tell Viggo he can suck a locust-filled munge bucket!" she spat. "And if you so much as touch me, we'll see how 'entertaining' I can make it. For me."

Ryker laughed even harder. "Plucky, aren' ya?" he chuckled. "We'll fix that." He put two fingers to his mouth and whistled sharply, a sound that echoed shrilly around the cavern. Astrid couldn't even cover her ears as her hands were still bound behind her. A moment later, a squad of four hunters jangled through the door to the prison, which Astrid couldn't see from her position. Two of the hunters grabbed her arms tightly, while the remaining two took up position directly behind her. Ryker was in front, his arms crossed mockingly. "I hope you'll keep a civil tongue in your head with Viggo. Otherwise, well," he smiled, showing teeth. "I've told these lads to use their imagination."

Five to one odds while she was already injured and unarmed were pretty long, even for Astrid Hofferson. On the other hand, if there was any chance they would leave her alone with Viggo… She sent a last poisonous glare at Ryker and allowed herself to be towed none too gently out of the cell.

They emerged into sunlight that was agony on eyes that hadn't seen anything but the dull flickering of a torch in days. Astrid barely bit back a cry of pain as she squeezed her eyes shut and stumbled. The two guards restraining her jerked her back to her feet. One of them barked, "Keep walking, girl." She did, taking a couple of steps blindly until her streaming eyes adjusted to the brightly lit surroundings.

The camp was roughly built on the edge of a broad bay. It was clearly a temporary establishment, not the main base, although Astrid thought it might just be on the same island. All the structures in view were tents or lean-tos built against the side of a cliff about 30 yards back from the beach. If Astrid had dared to look behind her, she'd be willing to bet that the cell she'd been held in was a cave in the face of that same cliff. She counted roughly 25 hunters, with another 20 or so rowing a longboat out to one of the three large ships anchored in the bay. She had to admit that with the cliff at their backs and the ships blocking the bay entrance, it was a highly defensible position. It would be difficult to get ships or troops close enough to attack. From the air… she risked a glance up at the heights. A catapult appeared to be under construction at the top of the cliff. They hadn't been here long, then. That might work to her advantage if she managed to escape, since they wouldn't know the terrain as well as they would on their home ground.

And then there were the dragons.

Rows of cages lined the beach just past the last tent. Most were mid-sized Nadders and Gronkles, with one Monstrous Nightmare and one - Astrid blinked her eyes to make sure she wasn't seeing things - enormous Changewing. The Changewing was an unusual pale blue color, and in addition to being caged it was muzzled to prevent the dragon from shooting acid. Its feet appeared shackled to the cage floor. It was straining against the bonds with all its might but couldn't make any noise except for a few muffled grunts. As Astrid stared, two hunters walked over to the struggling creature and poked it in the side with spears. Two red spots appeared where the spears had struck. The Changewing flailed all the harder and backed as far away from the hunters as it could get. It was clearly terrified. Astrid was so angry at their treatment of the poor dragon that she hardly noticed that they had arrived at the entrance of the largest tent.

"Wait here," Ryker told his men as they jerked her to a stop. He disappeared into the tent. Astrid barely had time to contemplate how she might take the guards by surprise when Ryker returned, grinning. Grinning was probably a bad sign, Astrid decided.

"He'll see you now," Ryker said, holding the tent flap open. Well, I assumed he would, since he's the one who summoned me here, she thought, but didn't say. If she was going to bait a Grimborn brother, she wanted it to be the right one. Her two guards hustled her through the flap. Once her eyes adjusted to the darker surroundings, she was greeted with the most unwelcome sight of Viggo Grimborn, seated at a table filled with…

Food. There was fresh flatbread, apples, and a tantalizing roast chicken adorning the table where two places were set. Viggo sat at one, taking a dainty sip from a goblet. The other chair was empty. She nearly took an involuntary step toward it but stopped herself in time. Still, she knew there was no way Viggo had missed the way her eyes had lit hungrily on the spread. She could also tell that Viggo wasn't going to bribe her with the food. It was in the way he carefully patted his mouth dry with a napkin before looking her way. He planned to torment her. This conversation would be a battle of wills.

"Ah, there you are, Astrid," he said when he'd put his napkin down. "I trust you've been comfortable in our care?"

She spat at his feet. Immediately, one of the two henchmen holding her punched her in the stomach with one meaty fist. She gasped in pain, the edges of her vision going gray as the blow clipped one of her cracked ribs. With a colossal effort, she maintained consciousness, keeping her focus on Viggo. His placid expression had not changed.

"I'm glad to see your spirit is still intact," he remarked, unperturbed. "You are looking a bit peaky, however. Is our hospitality not agreeing with you?" He paused to cut and eat a tender bite of chicken. Astrid couldn't stop her mouth from watering as she watched him swallow. "Your stay here could of course be made more comfortable, provided you were to offer us some paltry assistance in our endeavors." He gestured to the empty seat in front of him.

She met his eyes with a steely glare. "You know better," she said icily. Viggo had the nerve to chuckle.

"My dear, I do," he agreed. "And it's not you we really need, in any case. We weren't even looking for you. Imagine my surprise when my hunters said they'd captured someone at our Berk observation post and it turned out to be you! I could hardly believe my luck."

Astrid had been trying to remain aloof, but she couldn't help reacting to these words. "Berk observation post?" she asked.

Viggo smiled. "Of course. Don't all good businessmen keep a close eye on their adversaries?" He took another bite of his meal. "It's been abandoned now, of course. But it was an excellent location. Those patrols of yours were always so delightfully predictable. So brief, so routine. We hardly needed to conceal our presence when that large one on the Nadder came along."

Fury burned in her eyes. The first thing Astrid would do when she got back would be to drill those auxiliary riders until they dropped. And she owed Spitelout a special pummeling.

"But as I said, that's all in the past," Viggo continued, waving his hand as if brushing away a fly. "You, my dear Astrid, are a far more valuable asset to me."

"You're going to be sorry you ever stepped foot on Berk," she spat, voice dangerous. "Hiccup will know I'm missing, and they'll come ready for you. Not even your half-troll mother will be able recognize you by the time they're through."

Ryker growled in rage and strode forward to strike her again. Just before he made contact, though, Viggo got up from the table and stayed his arm.

"Patience, big brother," he said to the other man. The insult to their mother didn't seem to have affected Viggo much. "Now is not the moment." Ryker, still fuming, jerked his arm out of Viggo's grasp but returned to his spot guarding the tent entrance. His brother now under control, Viggo turned back to Astrid. "I am counting on you being found. By Hiccup, at least," he said calmly. "He won't be bringing a rescue party, however."

Astrid frowned. Was Viggo really that naive? "Hiccup would never come here without backup. And a plan," she said.

"Ah, yes, but passion does make fools of us all," Viggo replied with a smile. He took a few steps closer to Astrid and her captors. "We've made it clear to him what happens to you if he doesn't arrive alone."

Astrid scoffed. Maybe he was that naive. "Hiccup will never fall for that," she said.

"Perhaps not ordinarily," he agreed pleasantly. He lowered his face an inch to look directly into her eyes. "But you're no ordinary Viking to him, are you, my dear?"

In spite of herself, Astrid felt her face pale. She saw Viggo notice her reaction and cursed him with every bone in her body. He smiled maliciously.

"Then again," he began lightly, inspecting a fingernail, "perhaps my strategy was a bit ill-timed." Astrid narrowed her eyes, not sure where he was going with this. "You may soon be just an ordinary Viking to Hiccup after all." Poison dripped from his words. "He is preparing for his nuptials to another tribal heir, is he not?"

Astrid's blood turned to ice. "H-how did you-?" she stammered, losing her composure for once.

Viggo's smile had the merciless quality of a viper. "The world knows by now, surely. Invitations have gone out all over the archipelago." He took one more step closer, his eyes locked on hers. His voice lost whatever warmth it had kept before. "You must be very happy for him on such a felicitous occasion. I'm told it's a match made in Valhalla."

Astrid had had enough. In a split-second decision, she suddenly swung all of her weight onto the arms of the hunters restraining her. Startled by the increase in pressure, they tightened their grip on her until they ended up holding her aloft, allowing her to swing her legs up and kick Viggo hard in the chest. The momentum wasn't the best, but her legs were powerful and Viggo hadn't been expecting an attack. He was knocked back into the table with a hard crash. The impact knocked over his goblet, spilling mead over the carefully prepared meal.

Even as this pleasant sight unfolded, however, Ryker was on her in an instant. He struck her hard on the back of the head, making stars swim in her vision. For a moment or two, her ears rang so loudly that she couldn't quite make out what he bellowed. Next thing she knew, though, she was being hustled toward the tent flap.

"Wait a moment, brother," she heard Viggo say. She was happy to hear a note of pain in his voice, and when her captors turned her to face him, she saw that he was sitting again and his face had paled. Good. She hoped she'd kicked something important.

"I hope you enjoy what remains of our hospitality, Astrid," Viggo said coldly. He turned to address his brother. "She is to have at least two guards on her at all times," he instructed. Ryker nodded his agreement.

"You see, my dear, I do not underestimate you," Viggo told Astrid. "And you had best hope that Hiccup does not underestimate me. Should he fail to appear by the time the sun sets tomorrow, you will never see it rise again." He smiled chillingly and shrugged. "And it seems likely that he may be, shall we say, preoccupied, with another?"

With this last sally, Viggo flapped a hand at the tent flap. Dimly, she recognized that Ryker was hustling her out of the tent, but her brain was still partially reeling from the blow and from the idea of Hiccup being… preoccupied… with Camicazi. Her feet stumbled when they reached the sand of the beach again, earning her another cuff from one of the hunters holding her, but for once escape was the last thing on her mind. She barely noticed when they reached the cave and threw her unceremoniously back into her prison.

With a final bang, the cell door locked again with echoing finality. She heard her guards take up their positions outside as the last echo died away. As if on cue, the single guttering torch finally sputtered out, leaving Astrid in utter darkness. The situation mirrored her mood exactly. She gingerly felt her new bruises as bits of conversations rang through her head.

A match made in Valhalla. Seems like tha' part o' the deal is goin' ta work ou' fine, doesn' it, Chief? Invitations have been sent out all over the archipelago. That's why we went ahead and signed the contract this morning.

Astrid buried her head in her arms. Normally she'd never give into despair like this, but it's not like there was anyone to see her now, was there? Not that anyone ever saw her. She was Astrid Hofferson, shieldmaiden, the perfect soldier in every way. Soldiers didn't have bad days, or complicated emotions, or feel conflicted. Soldiers put the good of the tribe above their own needs, and that's all anyone ever expected of them.

Except Hiccup. Hiccup didn't just see Astrid the Soldier. Hiccup saw her, a person, with flaws and desires and personal strife. Hiccup could always tell when she was down, and Hiccup was always there to be exactly what she needed, and Hiccup…

Hiccup was with Camicazi now.

He'd told her he'd fix it, but really? There was already a signed marriage contract. If Hiccup broke the agreement now he'd be outcast as a traitor. And face it, would he really want to? He clearly enjoyed spending time with Camicazi, she would clearly be good to him, and in time, Astrid thought they'd probably be pretty happy together. Plus she was an heir, and the alliances she could offer Berk were way more valuable to the tribe than anything Astrid's family could provide. They couldn't afford to pay a decent dowry in any case, let alone one to the heir of a chief. It had been foolish to ever let herself think otherwise.

But Hiccup wouldn't care about that, a little voice in her head protested. If he could, he'd choose you.

But he couldn't, Stoick had made sure of that. He needed the allies and trade partners that the marriage to Camicazi would secure. Astrid wondered how Stoick's own marriage had come about. Everyone in Berk knew how devoted the chief had been to his late wife, so clearly he'd married for love, hadn't he? Or had it been some sort of advantage to the village, and they'd grown to love each other later?

Would Hiccup come to love Camicazi, in time? She knew they were good friends, and loyal to one another. He seemed to like her exuberant attitude and boundless energy, and she clearly admired his intelligence and quick wit. They definitely enjoyed one another's company. Plus, there was one other thing.

Astrid had gone over Hiccup's recounting of his life before Toothless over and over again, and it broke her heart more each time. He'd never once brought up the subject to her or the other Riders, had never complained or even mentioned how it had felt to grow up friendless, ignored, and, yes, bullied. He'd told Camicazi that it hadn't been the fault of the other kids that they'd picked on him, but it was just like Hiccup to try to put the blame back on himself. No, he'd been in great need of a friend back then, and Astrid had dismissed him just like everyone else.

Everyone except Camicazi. It was clear that the Bog-Burglar girl had stood by him from the beginning, and her support of him had never wavered. Astrid could hardly say the same of herself. She'd never apologized, or even considered if those memories still caused her friend pain. So even if the thought of Hiccup and Camicazi together made her fight the urge to punch the cavern wall in despair, she had to admit one thing: Camicazi deserved him more than Astrid ever would.

She knew that Hiccup would still come to rescue her if he could. He'd never give up on any tribemate; it was the sort of man he was. But even if he came, and even if they managed to pull off an escape, things would never be the same between them. He belonged to someone else now.

Astrid couldn't ignore the sick, sinking feeling in her heart as she came to her conclusions. But even as she mulled over her dark thoughts, she took note of when the guard outside changed shifts and the beginnings of an escape plan started to take shape in her mind. No matter how things ended up once she got home, Viggo was going to be sorry he had ever even laid eyes on Astrid Hofferson. She would make sure of it.


A/N: So Viggo has finally made his entrance! I hope he knows what he signed up for... *evil grin*. We are rapidly approaching the climax of our story, but I really wanted to give Astrid a little more screen time. Even though I needed her to get captured for the plot, I didn't want to make her into a damsel in distress (because come on, she's Astrid Hofferson!). How did I do?

Hope you all enjoyed! I can't tell you how happy I am every time someone reviews, follows, or favorites, so please let me know that you're enjoying the story with all your comments! Remember, I also take plot suggestions if anyone wants to chime in on how to wrap all this up. Thank you all!