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Sharper Than A Serpent's Tooth  by Yeade

In a case of perhaps biting off more than I can chew, written for the Hobbit Big Bang. Being my very first time working on a schedule for any fandom challenge, it proved rather more stressful than anticipated. Had I a chance to do it all over again, I might have structured the story differently or even chosen another prompt, one that wouldn't breed an alternate universe's worth of plotbunnies. What's done is done, though, and while I intend to touch on the most glaring omissions in a future timestamp fic, this hopefully still makes for an enjoyable standalone read.

· · ·

And that was the end of Esgaroth, but not of Bard nor, stranger, of Smaug.

Not until he crawled ashore did Bard discover that he had a dragon caught in his hair.

The arcing flight of the black arrow he remembered with such perfect clarity that when he shut his eyes, he was again at the windlance—his blistered hands gripped the weather-worn wood painfully tight—Smaug banking in the dark sky above while below Esgaroth burned in a sea of smoke and flame. He had not mistrusted his aim, but even then Bard knew it was only by Smaug's own arrogance that the fatal blow had a chance to land. Were it not for the dragon's prideful cruelty, which demanded that it terrorize its fleeing prey by setting fire to the outskirts of town first to hinder escape, it might have destroyed the windlance before Bard could reach and arm the weapon.

What happened afterwards was far hazier in his memory. His relief at seeing the black arrow hit its mark had been so great his vision dimmed, blurred by tears as his earlier focus dulled into stunned inaction. Shortlived, too, his relief had been. It turned quickly to horror when he realized the dragon would fall upon the town in its death throes. Then there was a sliding scramble down the steep rooftop, wooden shingles shifting beneath his feet. The shock of cold water closing over his head. Surfacing for a gasping breath, diving and diving, deeper than he'd ever dared before, as a mass of burning wreckage collapsed into the lake behind him.

Bard frowned, raising a hand to his head to feel for wounds. Had he been struck? He couldn't remember much else, though the swim out from under the sinking ruins of Laketown would not have been easy. The night air sapped the warmth from his wet clothes. He shivered, then winced, countless bruises and sore muscles clamoring for attention.

Something bit his fingers. Hard. Bard yelped and sat up with a jerk from where he'd been sprawled on his back, the waters of the lake lapping at his sodden boots. A weight almost ripped his hair out by the roots as it was dislodged by his sudden movement. For a long moment, Bard gaped at the tiny, bleeding teeth marks on his fingers, hysterical laughter welling in his throat, before twisting to see what manner of creature had left them.

"Finally awake, are you?" the dragon said, its voice strangely resonant for all that it was the size of a large raven. Its wings were folded loosely against its sinuous body and its head rested atop the end of its coiled tail, as seemingly content as a cat napping in the sun. "I was beginning to fear you would deny me the honor"—its tone quite plainly suggested it thought otherwise—"of knowing my slayer."

No, it can't be... But now that he was looking intently, frantically, he recognized that face—with its jutting snout and glowing, slitted eyes, spiked ridges lining brows and jaw, a flaring crown of horns—and those scales—layer upon layer of burnished red-gold plates he knew to be as strong as iron. His breath hitched, and his heart turned over in his chest with a jarring thump. "Smaug?!"

"At your service," said the dragon—Smaug!—with a ghastly smile full of razor teeth. Bard couldn't help it. A sharp bark of laughter burst from his lips. Surely, some falling piece of debris had knocked him clear out of his mind. Or maybe I'm dreaming. He rubbed at his face with his hands, his skin raw from the blazing heat of the fires and his mad, scraping clamber across the rooftops to the windlance. Maybe I'm dead. The smell of ash clung to him, his hair, his clothes. Too heavy to be washed clean. Clogging nose and mouth until he could've choked on it.

Death would be less of a surprise than this, this queer apparition. He had been prepared to die. Ready as any man could be who did not seek it. With a remnant of bygone days his only weapon, there was naught but a fool's hope that he could distract Smaug long enough for more of his people to escape, for his children to. Bard did not doubt he lived, however. A thousand minor aches twinged as he wrapped his arms around himself to ward off the chill.

He stared, blinking, at the dragon. It stared back and failed utterly to vanish like a figment of his imagination ought to. "How...?" he asked at last in a rasping croak. A small part of him gibbered in confusion; the rest was numb with disbelief and exhaustion, dazed. Perhaps if he lay down again and slept... No. He needed to find his children, what other survivors there were, though he did not think he had the strength to stand just yet. His legs, splayed ungainly on the sand before him, felt by turns stiff and trembling weak.

"There is much about my kind," the dragon answered, smug satisfaction in the stretch of its neck, "not known to any who dwell still on this side of the Walls of Night." Smaug gazed, rapt, at the burning hulk of Esgaroth on the water, the guardtowers like torches as the flames spread unchecked, painting the waves in lurid reds and oranges. Reflected light danced in those serpent eyes, the town shrunk to a candle's point. A forked tongue flicked out to taste the air.

And suddenly Bard was seething with energy, shaking with it. His pulse pounded in his ears, his blood a rushing thrum under his paper-thin skin; a fever was gutting him, scorching his very bones black, and everything was limned in a fire-bright haze, red and orange and wavering. Pain bloomed where his hands clenched convulsively. But even the grinding pinch of muscle against ribs was a distant echo.

This beast had murdered hundreds. Men, women, children. Young and old. Cooked like so much meat in their beds, in their homes. Suffocated, buried and drowned, flash-seared as they ran, screaming, in terror of their lives, and all of it done with no mercy. Instead, with the pleasure of a cat toying lazily with vermin. Did it matter why the black arrow had failed? Bard needed no more than his hands—on that long neck, a sharp wrench and a crunch, easy as slaughtering a common fowl for the table—to kill Smaug now. He lunged and was viciously glad to see the dragon's head snap around, wings fanning.

Claws raked at his face, laying open his skin in a shallow, ragged gouge from temple to chin and another, slanting, over his brow and another across his cheek, a stinging whip of tail. But Smaug missed his eyes—too used to being the predator, to preying on the defenseless—and though a trickle of blood wended down the groove of his nose, the dragon twisting, writhing in his grasp as they scrabbled in the sand, Bard soon pinned one wing with a knee, the other with a hand, and closed his fingers around Smaug's throat in a strangling hold. Then, his breath a jumble of hot nails in his chest, he squeezed.

He hadn't expected Smaug to be soft to the touch. Warm scales molded to his grip. Not at all like iron in their flex and give. Or the way he could feel the flutter of a pulse within the hollow of his palm. Memory hit him, dizzyingly strong; he shuddered, swallowing bile.

Sigrid, Bain, and Tilda had been warm, too, their skin downy and as tender, when he cradled them in his arms as babes, their hearts pattering a tattoo against his shoulder that he was content to listen to for hours, learning the rhythms of sleep and wakefulness. Shaking his head with a jerk, Bard snarled and squeezed harder. And hated that he heard his children, as well, in this monster's whine.

A high and quiet, piteous sound it was, that plucked at his frayed nerves. The dragon struggled to breathe. Like it was stricken by some illness—he'd sat at sickbeds more times than he cared to count, wiping the sweat from brows knitted in distress and soothing childish fears, even when he couldn't banish his own—and not at all like it was being put to death. As it deserved, as it had done without compunction to so many innocents. He gritted his teeth and tried to force his hand to tighten in one final spasm.

But... he couldn't. To his shame, he couldn't. His fingers trembled on the smooth, dry hide. While he hesitated, unable to kill his foe, laid helplessly low, yet unwilling to release Smaug, a smoldering glow began to burn in the dragon's chest. It traced the joins between the dragon's scales, brightening and flowing in molten veins up Smaug's neck. And beneath Bard's hand, a growing heat.

He hissed. His grip reflexively loosened, his hand wanting to be snatched back as if he'd pressed it flat to the pan of a skillet cooking slowly on the hearth. Smaug sucked in a gasping breath and then another. It was quickly becoming uncomfortable, hot enough to scald. A fool, thought Bard, I'm a fool. Neither tooth nor claw was a dragon's greatest weapon.

The sizzle of meat was only a trick of his ears, he told himself, and better a lightly toasted hand than a face melted beyond recognition. He shoved Smaug's jaw up with a wince at the pull on skin that was red and blistering, his knuckles wedged under the dragon's chin. Remembering the streams of fire Smaug had poured upon Laketown, Bard didn't know whether he could muzzle the dragon entirely, but it shouldn't be difficult to tip the flames away from him. He hoped. Smaug's breast swelled as more air rushed in to feed the furnace in the dragon's belly.

Cursing his indecision, Bard braced for an attack and tried not to imagine his flesh splitting open like a roasted chestnut, boiling, charring. And what of after? He could not restrain Smaug so forever. Either he must risk setting the dragon free, unharmed—would such a creature honor such a debt?—or kill it, maim it, perhaps, to keep it from seeking revenge, now or later.

It was surely the height of stupidity to trust in Smaug's gratefulness, yet Bard's stomach lurched strangely at the thought of hurting the dragon, his earlier rage having spent much of its violence. Things had been easier—no, simpler—when Smaug was not the size of a bird, all long, thin bones that would break like matchsticks in his fist or if he even placed a knee wrong. Were it not for the sand, he might have succeeded in crippling Smaug already; the dragon's wings were fragile, translucent membranes stretched across spindly ribs. That, too, reminded Bard, damningly, of his children. Whose arms had been so slight at first that he'd dared not move at their curious touch, afraid to bend their tiny fingers crooked.

No more dragonfire flared in the night. Bard waited, tense, but instead of a blazing tantrum, Smaug calmed: Its breathing steadied, and the glow in its chest dimmed to a sullen rust-red. The end of its tail, pointed upwards, twitched, the rest pinned by Bard's leg. "Why," said Smaug, in a hoarse growl, "have you not finished the deed, Dragonslayer?"

Bard narrowed his eyes at the tone of supreme unconcern; his hand squeezed in warning. But Smaug merely turned its head, slitted gaze landing on him for a moment before rolling to fix on the sky, still dark above, though dawn was approaching somewhere over the hilly plains to the east. "Do not expect me to be thankful for your pity," the dragon spat. "What could you, a miserable tub-trading Lakeman, have to offer me, who laid waste to—"

Pity, if that was what Bard felt, did not stop him from choking Smaug into silence. He had no patience for insults or boasts, both made ridiculous coming from the mouth of a dragon he could've trapped in one of their larger, lidded cast iron pots. When he smiled, it was cold. "Why have you not tried to burn me?" he asked, the dig of his thumb into the soft underside of Smaug's jaw a demand.

The dragon's wings shifted almost nervously. And unconsciously, Bard guessed, for Smaug went rigid upon noticing his close look, the three claws of each forearm curling in on themselves. It is not so blind to its peril as it pretends. Bard's smile widened and widened again at how the dragon's crown of spikes rippled in a reaction it couldn't hide. "I owe you no explanations," Smaug answered stiffly, "I owe you noth—"

"Save for your life," Bard said mildly, and he didn't know himself whether he meant to threaten the dragon or... to stake a claim. On what? he wondered at the surge of emotion that smote him in the chest, only to slip away unnamed. Smaug hissed, lips peeling apart to bare teeth like a saw, but gave no protest, to Bard's surprise.

"I've had my fill of death," he continued, despite his wariness, "and there is no honor in killing you like this, however deserving I find you of that fate." Smaug's quietude worried him. His own, too, disturbed as it was by odd, fleeting sensations that passed through him without a trace before he could grasp them.

He sighed. I must be mad. Then he let go of Smaug, shuffled hurriedly back, and settled into a crouch, ready to duck a fiery show of ill temper. The dragon raised just its head and stared at him; the lazy droop of its eyelids, inner lids flickering in a sideways blink, spoke volumes about its disbelief. "Leave," Bard told it, "I will do you no harm." Still, Smaug did not move, so he bit out, "You have my word, and that is all you shall have of me."

Finally, Smaug drew in its wings and rolled, a little awkwardly—dragons were not suited to sprawling on the ground, bellies exposed, thought Bard, with a flash of cruel amusement—into a tight hunch reminiscent of a watchful cat, head held low. "Such mercy," it taunted, "How short are the memories of Men! Or have you forgotten those who died in the firestorm I unleashed?" Bard's hands fisted, sand stuck coarse to his skin. Yet, in that hateful voice, there was a note of... "Why the sudden change of heart?" Weary was how Smaug seemed, if his ears didn't play him false.

Long had Bard recognized in himself a certain streak of perverse stubbornness. That led him to bait the Master's underlings when it might have been wiser to cultivate friends, among the Laketown guard, for starters, and that pushed now to the fore. He shrugged, deliberately casual, and said, "I owe you no explanations." Smaug's rumble was distinctly disgruntled. Though the dragon's expression was too similar, for Bard's liking, to Bain's at biting into one of the sour yellow fruits shipped three summers ago up the Anduin from Gondor's southern fiefs.

Bain had declared the raw fruit inedible and worked tirelessly to keep the rest from Tilda, who'd pouted for days at being denied a taste, until Sigrid juiced their half a crate to steep meat in and season their supper of fish. The first rosy tendrils of dawn were unfurling across the eastern sky. And Bard wanted to see his children again, to feel their warm, living weight safe within the circle of his arms.

Enough. He had wasted too much time. "Call it mercy or pity," he said, "I care not. You were terrible before, aye, but you won't be destroying any more towns for a good while." Smaug dug its claws into the sand at the scornful edge on his words. "And should you think to pursue vengeance..." Bard smirked. There was justice in the world, after all. "Whatever magic granted you a second life has not mended the flaw by which I slew you, and I will ensure that secret is not lost."

Not only was Smaug's missing scale missing still, but the black arrow had chipped the surrounding ones, opening the chink in the dragon's armor further. It snarled, tail lashing and wings ruffling. Bard added with a considering hum, "It's quite a journey to the Withered Heath, too, for such a small creature. These lands are hunted by eagles and—"

Later, Bard supposed he should have anticipated what happened next. With a rather impressive roar, Smaug pounced on him, half leaping, half flying. Wings battered at his face as the dragon hooked a claw, tearing, on the collar of his tunic, and before Bard could truly panic, its head snaked out, its teeth sinking into his flesh where neck met shoulder. Bard yelped—though the wound could not be deep, it burned—and swatted his assailant away like he would a hungry, oversized midge. Unbalanced, he teetered and fell backwards in a graceless flop.

At least Smaug also made for a less than dignified sight. The dragon wheeled in a flail of wings and tail to the ground, planting snout first in a spray of sand, then had the gall to turn on Bard an infuriatingly pleased grin. His blood was dark on its lips. "You wretched beast!" cried Bard, jerking to his feet.

He gingerly touched the bite, but while it was a bit worryingly warm—two crescents of heat branded upon his skin, no worse than a day's scorching by the sun, really—it didn't pain him nor was it swollen. Soon, even the bleeding that smeared his fingers red slowed to nothing. Bard cursed, his heart slowing, as well. He had best hope the damnable thing wasn't diseased. Much as it acted like a feral, rabid dog, he thought unkindly.

To his disgust, he couldn't bring himself to kick the dragon into the lake either, regardless of how satisfying that would've been. He had given his word. And no miserable lizard was going to goad him into breaking it! Smaug studied him with tilted head and eyes that shone like dim lanterns, intent as a stalking cat. Behind it, its tail flicked, playfully.

Bard spun on his heel, another string of curses on his tongue, and stomped his way up the bank to the grassy verge. If he was not mistaken in his bearings, the sandy strand became a wider pebbled beach less than half a league north that the fishermen's wives used to dry their husbands' catches. Survivors must be gathered there in numbers enough that someone might know of his children. He swallowed the lump that wanted to lodge in his throat. No, he refused to believe that Sigrid, eminently sensible as his eldest was, had not bundled Bain, Tilda, and their Dwarven guests into their boat, packed with all the necessities she could fit, immediately after he left them.

So grimly determined was he—his children lived; he would find them—that Bard was nearly out of earshot when he caught the noise of whimpering. He frowned and stopped, realizing that he hadn't checked whether he and the dragon were alone in washing ashore here. But a quick, sweeping glance around revealed no one else, except Smaug.

The dragon was burrowed into the sand; its head was tucked under a wing, its tail wrapped closely about its body. It could've passed for a ruddy, half-buried rock, albeit a queerly shaped one, were it not for how it huffed and puffed, wings shivering almost imperceptibly. A wispy line of smoke trailed from within its coils. Perhaps I do pity it. Faced with a petulant, brooding ball of dragon, dwarfed by water and sky, by reed, brush, and tree, it was hard to remember that this was Smaug and growing harder.

He hesitated, again, then shook his head until his straying thoughts rattled in his skull. That he had not killed Smaug a second time was already more mercy than it deserved. Conscience thus salved, he set his eyes firmly upon the road, little better than a collection of wagon ruts covered in grass, that followed the lake and river to the gates of Erebor. With several deep breaths of his own, Bard began walking.

Not once did he look back, resolved to ignore Smaug's continued existence. As far as the world was concerned, the dragon was dead, and the truth was not so very different, he reasoned. For it would likely be many generations of Men before Smaug attained its former size and power, if indeed it didn't fall prey to an eagle or some other hunter in its unaccustomed vulnerability.

Bard's stomach twisted, inexplicably, into a knot he couldn't unravel. Smaug was a monster. Evil. He glared at the grass beneath his boots, imagining it withered black by heat, as the minutes passed and he drew ever farther from the dragon. Its cruelty and malice should not be forgotten, no matter its guise. Nor should it be forgiven, when it did not repent, remorse an alien concept to the reptilian intelligence that lurked behind its eyes and a heart that may beat like his children's but held no love for anyone except self or anything except gold, the death and destruction it wreaked.

The day dawned sunny and unseasonably warm. A small mercy, for Laketown's dispossessed survivors, though Bard felt as if a cloud hung over his head, casting him in a gray, chilly shade. I am not responsible for Smaug's fate. Yet had he not been the one to loose the black arrow? To both take the dragon's life and now to spare it, with whatever consequences that entailed? His shoulders slumped, and the furrows across his brow deepened. His feet, fortunately, kept moving.

He eventually rounded a copse of trees, the sun half risen to its peak. Part of him sifted through the voices that carried from the beach ahead—his ears strained to hear whether three in particular, familiar and desperately missed, called for their Da—while another part of him cringed. Bard still had no answers. Was he right to leave Smaug as he did? Or a fool to stay his hand then?

Doubt gnawed at his nerves such that he only nodded absently at the men who greeted him, searching the faces of the gathered crowd but not truly seeing any of them. It was Bain's cry of "Da!" that finally woke him: sharp with relief and, blessedly, echoed by the girls. His children lived. They had found him.

A weight heavy as the Mountain itself lifted from his chest, and he marveled that he hadn't been crushed by it. Bard snapped back into his body with a jolt. His son was running towards him, elbowing people out of the way with nary an apology; Sigrid and Tilda nearly trampled Bain in their eagerness to reach their father first. And, laughing, he folded them all in his arms, clutched them tight, laid kisses atop their heads, on their cheeks, Bain sputtering in wordless protest, and thought no more of dragons.

· · ·


· · ·

Bard started awake to the vague suspicion that something, somewhere had gone awry. Mind still muzzy from sleep, he tried to take stock. His limbs felt stuffed with sand, his muscles sore and the blistered skin of his hands tender. But exhaustion did not sit so heavily in his bones as yesterday, and though the air was chill on his face with the morning's frost, Bain was warm against his back, Tilda's head tucked under his chin, and Sigrid breathing on her sister's other side, slow and steady.

They had not shared a bed like this, all of them together, since Sigrid flowered—that had led to a stilted conversation which ended with Bard awkwardly drinking honeyed tea in the herbalist's home as she instructed a nodding Sigrid in the secret rites of womanhood—and Bain decided he was a man grown. In the interest of fairness, or so she argued, a separate sleeping alcove was added for Tilda at the same time. Even if thunderstorms tended to find her sneaking into her father's bed and cold winter nights into Sigrid's, the latter accompanied by whispered girlish confidences Bard would carefully pretend not to hear.

He couldn't help smiling at the memory. Or the newer one of his children busily arranging blankets, coats, and themselves, by tacit agreement, to bed down pressed close to him. Sigrid had loaded their boat with more supplies than Bard thought possible, food that wouldn't spoil and a heap of thick bedding, woolen clothes, most in barrels Bain lashed to the sides; Tilda had guided two of their guests, the Dwarf who was brother to the sick one and a red-haired she-Elf who'd come after Bard left, door to door, warning as many of the neighbors to make preparations as they could. While he was bursting with pride at their resourcefulness, it reassured a part of him to know his presence could yet be a comfort to them in their sleep, as he'd been when their heads fit within the palm of his hand. That part of him, Bard admitted wryly, would probably never change.

Next to him, Bain shifted. His son was a restless sleeper and, according to the girls, prone to kicking. Bard was about to doze off again, ready to dismiss his unease as a half-remembered dream, when Bain jerked and inhaled sharply. "Da," he said, voice high and thin, "Don't move." In those words was a thread of fear that had Bard tensing, head instantly cleared of grogginess by the slam of his heart. "Y-Your hair," hissed Bain, incomprehensibly at first, "There's a, a... dragon caught in it."

A shock of horrified understanding nearly sent him flying from their bedroll before, hard on its heels, came the far more terrible realization that this time, if he made a wrong move, he would not be alone in risking the ire of a sleeping dragon rudely woken. Bard froze, breath hitching. No, it can't be...

Had Smaug followed him? Or simply flown along the shore until it spotted the crude camp they'd labored the day to build? But why? It must know that there was not a man, woman, or child here who would give it a warm welcome, unless it were in a pot over a cooking fire. A soft snuffling sounded behind his ear. A susurration of scales sliding against smooth scales, as the dragon coiled, stirring.

"Don't be silly, Bain," grumbled Sigrid, yawning. "It's too early for another of your jokes, and such a tasteless one at that." She stretched with a sigh, arms reaching above her head with hands interlaced, palms outwards, and turned onto her side, facing Bard. "The dragon's dead," she said firmly, "Da killed it. And good riddan—!" Her eyes widened, and she gasped. Out of the corner of his eye, Bard could see Smaug's head on its long, serpentine neck popping up and craning around curiously. Then Sigrid screamed.

Smaug reared back with a loud squawk that would've been comical were it not for the glow that began to burn, smoldering, in the dragon's chest. Bard had little time to act. He shoved a sleepily protesting Tilda towards Sigrid, who had scrambled away on hands and knees even as she screamed. She yanked her sister by the arm into hers, huddling to shield Tilda from the threat of dragonfire with her body. Her wary eyes never left Smaug.

Bain, meanwhile, rolled into a crouch, one hand groping blindly amongst their cookware for a large knife he brandished like he was going to gut the dragon with it, same as he would a fish. Bard spared a moment to be proud all over again of his children. Then, kicking free of the twisted blankets, he made a grab for Smaug.

Fanning wings buffeted him and claws pulled at his hair, ripping—he grimaced, tired of being mauled by an ill-tempered dragon smaller than a dog—before he finally managed to pin the wretched, writhing creature, a hand clamped on its snout. "Don't," he warned in a growl, and to his surprise, Smaug blinked and subsided, the fire in its belly cooling. It gazed at him, expectant and... strangely guileless. What is wrong with it? thought Bard, scowling.

A shadow fell across the entrance of their tent, the light that seeped through the oilcloth tarp brightening as the sun rose. Everyone, including Smaug, stilled. "Bard?" It was Percy. "Is all well? We heard a scream, odd noises..." Sigrid and Bain both shot panicked looks at Bard; Smaug squirmed in his grasp.

Clearing his throat, Bard said, "Nothing to worry about, Percy." He laughed and hoped it was convincing, fumbling for an excuse that would pass muster and didn't involve dragons. "Just a... spider. Gave Sigrid a bit of a fright crawling on the blankets."

At that, Sigrid's face scrunched. She hadn't been frightened of spiders since she was younger than Tilda and thus was not much impressed by her father's skill at lying. "We're not used to living as rough as this," Bard finished, with an amusement that was not entirely pretense, "and it's going to be uncomfortable learning how, I fear."

Percy chuckled, the shape of his head bobbing in a nod. "Ain't that the truth! My back surely didn't thank me this morning for sleepin' on the ground!" He paused, sobering. "The boats are loaded, and we'll be ready to break camp soon, at your word."

Irritation was an itch under his skin Bard couldn't scratch. Why didn't Percy wake him earlier? He should've been helping the men move supplies and the wounded onto the fishing scows that had escaped destruction by virtue of being moored at one of Laketown's four outlying docks-cum-guardposts.

When Percy chided, unprompted, "Listen here, Bard. Don't you be gettin' all riled up 'bout us leaving you to nap," he wondered ruefully whether he wasn't becoming predictable. Percy's tone was cheerful as he continued, "Hilda and me put it to the others, and most everybody agreed you'd done work enough killing the dragon"—Bard stared at Smaug, lazily pawing the air with its hind legs, and felt bizarrely guilty—"that we could do without you for a few more hours. But I 'pect you'll be wantin' breakfast now and us on the road, to make the river landing before dark." There was a hint of a question at the end.

"Yes," Bard said slowly, inwardly cursing. They must seek shelter for the winter in Dale, a hard two days' journey; that had not changed nor their need for haste. But... Mere minutes! That was all he would have to decide Smaug's fate. With none save for himself and his children to bear witness, instead of the hours and the counsel of a Wizard or two he sorely wished for. Magic was their province and that of the Elves, not of a bargeman who happened to have good aim and some luck.

"I'll let Hilda know you're up then," said Percy, oblivious to Bard's growing headache. Smaug pushed and butted at his hand until his fingers loosened. The muscles of his arm twitched; he had not meant to do that. Feeling again like he must have been hit over the head by a wooden beam, Bard dumbly allowed the dragon to nuzzle—there was simply no better word for it—his palm, a low rumble vibrating in its gullet. He barely heard Percy take his leave with a cheeky, "So don't be too long, Bard. Or she'll come lookin' for you next!" The other man's steps receded into a silence broken only by their breathing, the bustle of the waking camp muted.

The damnable beast was purring, he realized. Like it was a cat that wanted attention. From him? Bard squelched the rising urge to bury his face in his hands. Was this behavior... normal for a... young dragon? If that was what Smaug was now. Or this is a trick, he thought grimly. Sitting back on his heels, he folded his arms, before he could do anything so foolish as scratch an eye ridge. The Smaug he'd met on the shores of the lake would've been capable of such deception, though for what purpose he couldn't begin to guess.

"Da, is that...?" Bain whispered, trailing off with a choked hiccup when slitted eyes fixed on him quicker than a striking snake. But after Bain said and did nothing more beyond lifting his knife a little higher in front of him, his knuckles white around the handle, Smaug apparently lost interest and resumed watching Bard. It rolled up into a sitting position that, he noted uneasily, mirrored his with an awkward tangle of wings, resting on its haunches and tail flicking.

Odd, too, that it hasn't spoken yet. Smaug had impressed him as the sort that was enamored of its own voice. With a sigh and a stern admonishment to himself that this was no illusion, to vanish given time which he could ill afford to waste at the moment, Bard asked, tone clipped, "Why are you here, Smaug? I told you to go." Tilda peeked over Sigrid's shoulder, a fist rubbing at her eye.

At first, the dragon didn't seem to understand. It studied Bard, head cocked to one side, with a blank but intent expression that made his skin crawl. The nape of his neck prickled, and a sensation like claws skittering raked across his scalp, strain building behind his eyes; he had to clench his jaw not to groan. This was not how he'd hoped to spend his morning. "Smaug," it echoed at last, carefully, as if savoring the taste of each letter. "Is that my name, master?" At once eager and uncertain.

Bard frowned. Master? "Yes," he answered warily, not knowing what else to say. Murderous resentment almost would've been preferable to this new biddable trust, the cause of which he was wholly ignorant of. Is there magic at work? Would he even be able to tell? Smaug grinned, and were it not for the rows of jagged teeth on full display, Bard might have found its delight—unmistakable and somehow as unalloyed as any child's, ingenuous and harmless—laughable, it was so incongruous to all that the dragon had been and done.

"What are we going to do, Da?" said Bain, chewing on his lip. "Should we...?" Gaze darting nervously from Smaug to his father, he jabbed the air a couple times with his knife, then proceeded to look slightly queasy at the idea. Bard grimaced. He hadn't been able to kill the dragon when his rage burned hot as the fires that were consuming Esgaroth before his eyes; he doubted the deed would be any easier with that anger reduced to smoke and cooling ashes, the town's blackened bones left abandoned on the lake and winter closing in.

"Death is no less than it deserves." Sigrid's voice was ice over steel. The corners of her mouth were tight with the implacable, righteous fury she'd inherited from her mother, and a part of Bard, as always, ached in wistful memory of his wife. Who, like her daughter, wasn't one to suffer injustice or pity those who would willfully do harm to innocents, her slim loveliness belying her strength of conviction.

"People all think you slew the dragon," Sigrid added, brow crinkling in worry. "We can't let them see it. There'd be fear and a, a panic." Bard nodded curtly at Sigrid's questioning glance. Little as he liked lying, neither would he throw Smaug to the tender mercies of the masses. No more than he would've stood by as a lynch mob strung Alfrid from a tall tree or the Master, had he lived and dared to show his face again. A sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, Bard suspected there was only one choice he could make.

"But," said Tilda, "it's so... small." The four of them stared, Bard incredulous, as Smaug slithered over the bedroll to him and, yawning mightily, rested its head against his knee, body lolling in a splay of wings and eyes half lidded. "How did it get so small?" Tilda mused, sounding more fascinated than was good for Bard's peace of mind.

"I don't know, sweetling." While they might be forced to bring Smaug along with them—if they were fortunate, just until there was an opportunity to release the dragon into the wilds far enough away to stymie its ability to track them—it would be dangerous for him or his children to fall into the habit of treating Smaug as a stray they'd adopted for a pet. He'd have to explain why to Tilda later. "This is magic," he said, with a tiny, helpless smile at Tilda's excited gasp, "that only a Wizard or perhaps the Elvenking may know of."

The wanderer clad in gray who'd visited Laketown in Bard's youth was rumored to be a Wizard, but he had no clue as to the old man's whereabouts, assuming this wasn't in a grave, and though the woodsmen told of a sorcerer who dwelt in a tower in the forest's southern reaches, they were agreed that the power there was a dark one. King Thranduil it must be then. He itched. A fast messenger could be in the Elvenking's halls within a day and, in truth, he'd already decided to send for aid from the Elves after they'd settled in Dale. Sighing, he said, "Bain, go find something we can hide Smaug in." Mentally, he composed a suitably cryptic request for a private audience with the Elvenking, to discuss the dragon's death; they had no ink nor parchment, and this was not a matter he could trust to a runner.

Bain opened his mouth to protest but, at a hard look from Bard, thought better of it and reluctantly ducked out of the tent, shaking his head and sticking the knife in his belt with a carelessness Bard had to bite the inside of his cheek not to scold. Sigrid, however, was not so easily cowed by parental authority. His eldest was more mother to her siblings than sister and aged beyond her sixteen years by toil. The need for which Bard often regretted, futile as that was. "Da, you can't mean to, to keep it!" she sputtered, rounding on him with arms crossed, her lips thinned into a disapproving line.

"I will admit it seems... changed," she continued, begrudging every word, "and that it doesn't... feel quite right to kill it. Not when it's small and weak as, as a babe." His daughter stiffened her spine and squared her shoulders, meeting his eyes with a firmness he was proud of. "But it's not safe. To shelter a magical beast that could, would turn on us one day and turn others against us, too." Sigrid swallowed, hesitating. "Can we not... leave it here when we go to Dale?"

The dragon purred, not disturbed in the least by their conversation. How much does it understand? Bard wondered. What else could it have forgotten if its own name was a mystery to it? "I've already tried to, Sigrid," he said, smiling wanly at her to blunt the edge of his frustration. "Yet it still found its way here. Can we be sure that it won't follow us again to Dale?" Master, Smaug had called him. "We're lucky it didn't wake the whole camp nosing about from tent to—"

Suddenly, Bard was struck by a sense that Smaug didn't have to search at all, instead gliding swift and silent through the night, the waters of the lake a dark blur beneath his wings, to alight next to where his master slept guided by some unerring instinct. His mouth went dry. I can't know that. I can't possibly...

But the images that flashed past eyes he couldn't remember closing carried the weight of memory: A view of the camp from high above the trees. The shapes of fruit and vegetables in baskets, the clutter of salvaged tools and faces of the drowsing sentries—all clear to vision that was keen as a hawk's. Around him, the solid, comforting press of air. The wind bore him aloft and wafted to him smells. Crisp water and grass. Earthier, more enticing, the scent of meat—livestock, dogs and horses, the tang of fire twining through like an exotic spice, men. He was hungry. And he itched. Bard fought not to gag, panic beating wildly at his ribcage. It was in his head!

Did the tales not warn that dragons could ensnare the mind? With gaze or voice, they cast spells upon their prey that sowed doubt and confusion, such that a mother would not know her child nor a brother his sister, a man the difference between friend and foe. So insidious was the power imbued in the greatest of Smaug's kind that their very presence poisoned. Their lingering touch on the treasure they hoarded was said to have driven those who sought to claim it to madness and evil.

Much of this Bard had dismissed as idle talk. Entertaining on a rainy night in the tavern, when gossip about one's neighbors was exhausted, but with whatever kernel of truth there might be buried under layers upon layers of fanciful embellishment. Far more likely, after all, that men contending for a mountain of gold would betray and murder out of common greed than because of a slain dragon's curse. The prominent featuring of comely young virgins stolen from their beds, for one, almost certainly revealed more about the storytellers and their listeners than anything else. Of what interest was a maiden to a giant lizard?

Now, though, an alien mind crowding his in brushes and taps that gave him a headache, he was trying, in vain, to recall whether he'd let slip his name to Smaug. How did he leave himself vulnerable to the dragon's influence? Or had he been lost to its spell the moment he heard its voice and answered, engaged it in conversation? His increasing reluctance to kill it, his willingness to shelter it, even temporarily—were they truly his? He could no longer trust his judgment.

"What are you doing?" Sigrid hissed, startling him badly. "Don't pet it!" Bard's denial died unspoken on his lips. He stared down at his traitorous hand, his fingers scratching the scaly hide of their own accord. Smaug's head was tilted obligingly against his knee. One eye was already shut, the brow soft but pebbled in texture under the pad of his thumb, and the lid of the other was drooping. When he snatched his hand back as if burnt, the dragon whined.

He drew that hand slowly, trembling, over his face and tried to steady his breathing, to focus inwards and root out the thoughts that didn't belong to him. "More, master?" said Smaug, tone hopeful. "I itch." And, yes, he could feel the irritating stretch of skin along his spine that he wanted to be rid of, though it'd be much nicer having those stubby claws of his master to get in between his ridges than to rub himself silly on some rock or tree. With a sniff, he decided he should always like to be petted and scratched, until he stopped growing bigger at least and maybe even after. Every breath was a harsh rasp in his throat. How quickly would it grow? He hadn't considered that at all and berated himself for the lapse. A bird-sized dragon they could hide, but if it were the size of a horse in a matter of weeks...

"Da? Say something," pleaded Sigrid, voice muffled. Bard wished he had words of comfort to offer, but his insides were twisted together like the branches in a thicket of wild briar, the thorns scraping him raw. Neither could he hold his daughter close, as he had when her mother passed; it was grief that rendered him mute then. His body was too clumsy. He kept expecting the fold of wings on his arms, claws curving sharp from the ends of his fingers. "Y-You're scaring me," she whispered, "and I need to know whether you— Tilda!"

The horror in Sigrid's cry brought his head up with a jerk—when had he closed his eyes again?—his heart pounding. No one was hurt, as Bard half feared. Instead, there was Tilda sitting cross-legged with Smaug draped bonelessly atop her ankles as she scratched its back. Her eyes were bright, though her mouth set into a pout at the glare Sigrid turned on her. "He's only itchy," she said, with a mulish assurance that was worrying. "Because his skin's too small for him. He doesn't mean us any harm."

Sigrid's brow creased deeply in a scowl. "I know that!" she snapped. "But you shouldn't encourage it, Tilda. It's a dragon. Not a, a cat!" There was a slightly hysterical note, rising, in Sigrid's voice. Smaug's pleasure wound through Bard like he'd drunk too much ale, his limbs warm and heavy. "You won't be so happy as him when he gets bigger than the town hall and still wants you to scratch his back because you've spoiled him rotten!" Tilda looked less chastised about Smaug than concerned for her usually more levelheaded sister.

Breathing hard, Sigrid pinched the bridge of her nose. Just, Bard thought, an ugly suspicion forming, as her mother once did to relieve the headaches that plagued her from time to time. "Sigrid?" he asked in a croak, afraid he knew the answer, "Do you feel... In your head?" He let his eyes fall to Smaug, blissfully unaware under Tilda's tender ministrations, before finding Sigrid's newly fearful ones.

His daughter paled, but her upper lip stayed stiff. Bard was so proud of her. Swallowing, she said, "Y-Yes... A, a little. I wasn't sure." Her gaze went hazy as she focused her attention inwards. "It's... a sort of tickle, at the back of my mind, telling me what he, it wants. It's quite hungry." Sigrid grimaced, no doubt remembering how Smaug had eaten the people of Dale like a wolf amongst sheep, while Bard could only gulp in air as he remembered how to breathe.

As dismayed as he was to hear that the dragon had mentally latched onto his children, he was also dizzyingly thankful its influence on them didn't seem to be as strong as on him. Sigrid's hand flew to her mouth, the latter rounded in an oh of realization. "Da, you, too?" Bard nodded grimly.

The two of them silently contemplated the purring Smaug. It's dangerous. He couldn't afford to forget that. Magic invariably was, whether dark sorcery that created abominations or the fey enchantments of the Elves, if the tales were to be believed, and its power was wedded in the dragon to an intelligence that may care for nothing besides having its itches scratched and a good meal at the moment but was, by its past deeds, capable of much more—greater things, greater evil.

Perhaps Smaug was raised to wickedness before, its childlike nature not an act or anomaly. Bard didn't know. Dragons lived many hundreds of generations of Men, their origins shrouded impenetrably in myth. Those garbled legends spoke of a war between the gods that rent the world asunder and ancient lands sunk beneath the distant western sea, of men sailing across the sky as did the sun and moon, women taking wing as birds, stars upon their breasts, and all manner of impossibilities. Here, of course, was an impossibility of their own, fit for that unfaded age but not the present. They were out of their depth and badly so.

"I hope this'll work. And I—" Bain ducked back into the tent, a large wicker basket under one arm and a wide, shallow bowl heaped with bloody ropes of intestines in his other hand. He stopped abruptly at seeing Bard and Sigrid's faces. Alarm crept into his expression. "What is it? What's wrong?" Then his searching eyes landed on Tilda, Smaug sprawled on her lap, and his tone sharpened, his words cracking whip-like in the quiet. "Tilda! Don't pet it!" Tilda showed Bain her tongue, as unimpressed as ever by his authority, and suddenly Bard couldn't help laughing at this entire ridiculous situation.

Sigrid eyed him like he'd lost his mind—and maybe I have, he mused, stifling his chuckles—but the barely noticeable curl of her lips, her cheeks beginning to dimple, betrayed her. Nodding primly at the bowl of raw meat, she asked Bain, "That's for Smaug, I take it?" Bain blinked at the bowl and its grisly contents as if he couldn't figure out why it was in his hand, before giving himself a little shake and putting the basket down.

"Right. Yes," he said, kneeling to cautiously slide the bowl towards Smaug. "It's hungry"—Bard caught Sigrid's eye, unsurprised—"isn't it? Svein was butchering a pig, and I, uh, I stole some of the scraps when he wasn't looking." Bain folded his arms defensively. "I couldn't very well tell him we have a dragon to feed, now could I? And we can't let it starve, or the next thing we know, it'll be biting off our fingers." His certainty deflated, and he stared at his fidgeting hands. "There was fish, too, and I thought about cooking the meat, 'cept I didn't want people to talk..."

Bard squeezed his son's shoulder. "You did fine, Bain, remembering to get food for it. We'll have learn what it likes to eat and how often with, with practice." Privately, Bard doubted Smaug's culinary standards were so exacting that it'd turn its snout up at raw pig entrails. By all accounts, the dragon had swallowed whole sheep, cattle, and horses, not to mention Dwarves and Men clad in full armor, without suffering any indigestion, poisoning, or other ill effects. Keeping it fed was among the least of their worries. But Bain seemed greatly relieved, and Bard was glad for that.

Further questions would have to wait; Smaug had noticed its meal. Its head popped up from its resting place on Tilda's knee and craned about like a dog on the trail of a scent, nostrils flaring. When it spotted the bowl, the dragon let out an excited roar Bard prayed nobody outside heard and, wings flapping, went scrabbling after it, slowing just enough not to knock its breakfast into a gory mess upon the grass. He breathed a quick sigh that he'd kicked the blankets clear, should Smaug prove lacking in table manners.

Instead of immediately gorging on the meat, however, it coiled around the bowl, claws hooked on the rim. Glancing from its food to Bard, Smaug said, "For me, master? Mine?" tone imploring. Teeth glinted a dull white as it smacked its lips.

He shifted uncomfortably—it would be easy to abuse the dragon's obedience, which was looking less and less like it was feigned—but finally nodded, knowing by the surge of anticipation not his, his mouth watering at the scent of blood, suddenly sharp, that Smaug understood him. Bard's stomach turned, though it was empty. At this rate, he wouldn't have much of an appetite for his own breakfast.

And then Smaug reared back and sent a jet of flame into the bowl, filling the tent with smells and sounds that made Bard want to gag even as he scrambled away, cursing: burnt meat and scorched wood, the crackling sizzle of fat and juices. They should have expected the dragon to cook its food, he thought numbly. Sigrid had herded Tilda towards the tent entrance at the first flash of dragonfire, and now the girls were huddled behind him to one side, Bain tense at his shoulder on the other, hand gripping the hilt of the knife still stuck in his belt. Breathing a ragged chorus, the four of them watched mutely as Smaug crisped its meal to its satisfaction with short, perfectly controlled bursts of heat, its claws delicately prodding and skewering.

Smaug was, apparently, a fastidious eater. Hysterical laughter welled in Bard's throat. It gobbled down the ropy intestines in bite-sized chunks, not unlike a chain of pork sausages, head tipped up as its gullet moved spasmodically; it paused only to lick clean its snout and claws with its long, forked tongue. All the while, the dragon rumbled with uncomplicated animal pleasure, completely engrossed in its food.

"I suppose," said Sigrid, voice shaky, "we ought to eat something, too. We've a long day ahead of us." By the greenish cast of her face, Sigrid had no more appetite left than did Bard, but food was scarce enough and meals sporadic that they shouldn't miss one, especially with a tiring march to make. "Come, Tilda. Let's go rustle up breakfast." Her forced cheer softened into genuine amusement at Tilda's put-upon grumbling, and when she added, "Any messages you want me to pass along, Da?" her smile was gentle.

Bard was not so fool as to assume Sigrid's misgivings about Smaug were at an end; he could hardly blame her for that when he shared many of her doubts. Yet she would support him in this, as in all else. "Tell Percy to see the boats off," he said, swallowing thickly, "and let Hilda know I'll be about to help break camp soon as I'm done eating." Soon as my dragon's done eating, he thought, eyeing Smaug as it lavished the bowl's remaining contents with another roasting, warbling happily to itself. The possessive slipped in like a rusty key into an old lock. With a painful scrape and final, too-loud snick, reluctant tumblers clicking into place. Sigrid studied him closely, lips pursed, before nodding and shooing Tilda out of the tent, then following herself.

The rest of the morning was a blur of hurried activity. He and Bain rolled up the blankets and gathered their supplies into four packs of varying size, one for each of them to sling over a shoulder. By the time Sigrid and Tilda returned with bowls of thin porridge and a plate of fried bait fish, only the oilcloth tarp of the tent needed to be secured for the two-day journey to Dale. And Smaug, concealed inside.

Fortunately, once Smaug emptied its bowl, it fell into a sated stupor. It curled around its distended belly and offered no resistance to Tilda's curious, poking fingers. Bard, Sigrid, and Bain watched, half horrified and half exasperated, as a crouching Tilda unfurled Smaug's wings to examine them and bent its tail this way and that; the dragon merely snuffled, not bothering to even squint open an eye, its body limp as a soggy sheet of parchment.

If this lethargy were the norm after a feeding—and Bard saw no reason why it couldn't be, given that Smaug's adult self would vanish for decades at a stretch, presumably napping atop its treasure hoard in the Mountain—the task of keeping the dragon was going to be far easier than he feared. The feeling that wound through his ribs, though, as his children argued about how deeply to layer the skeins of yarn so Smaug would be hidden from casual observation but not suffocated—his basket should be nice and cozy, Tilda insisted—the object of their heated discussion oblivious to it all, dozing snuggled in a pile of loose yarn, wingtips and hind legs twitching, was... It was too like endearment.

He berated himself for weakness as Sigrid and he took down the tent, wrapped the poles in the tarp, and tied the bundle up with the ropes. As they ate their porridge and fish, Bain glumly wishing there was salt and Tilda, sugar. As he made his rounds of the camp, rapidly being dismantled, after charging Sigrid with her siblings, Bain and Tilda with Smaug in its lidded basket of yarn. As he conferred with Hilda, Percy having left with the boats, and as he instructed a fleet-footed messenger on the tidings he would send to the Elvenking.

Over and over, he repeated to himself that Smaug was a dangerous magical beast with a history written in the blood of its countless victims. But while the dragon's magic was clearly intact, its memories were not, lost somehow between when he spared its life on the shores of the lake and when he awoke to discover it caught in his hair again, and it was damnably difficult to continue treating as a murderous threat this new creature that looked to him so trustingly, sleeping in his presence unconcerned that he would do it harm or allow anyone else to.

To Bard's utter dismay, Smaug had become a child to him first, a dragon second. He spent their midday rest unproductively scowling at Smaug's basket—from which the faintest sound of purring emanated on occasion, if you pressed your ear to the wicker sides—more disturbed by the direction of his thoughts now than he had been by the prospect of dying in Smaug's attack on Laketown.

Sensing their father's black mood, Sigrid, Bain, and Tilda let him be, save for bringing him water and a crust of cram. They were soon too busy with self-appointed chores to join Bard in his brooding. Children grow. He was ill-equipped to raise a dragon, and the consequences of failing to do so well, if indeed nurture could master the nature of what was at base a fire-breathing monster... Bard didn't like to dwell on them. Yet, if he released Smaug to the custody of the Elvenking or a Wizard, assuming the gray wanderer or his brethren were found, would he not simply be condemning the dragon to a summary execution for crimes it didn't recall and those it might commit in the future?

King Thranduil was famed and justly so for his power, his skill and knowledge, but not for his mercy, and Wizards were secretive beyond even the measure of the Elves. Though he had tried to deny it, he felt responsible for Smaug's fate. Strange that the idea of killing the dragon so disagreed with him. He who was hailed as Dragonshooter. This was not an irony Bard much appreciated at the moment.

When finally they arrived at the river landing, the lowering sun lengthening the shadows across their campsite, Bard was heartily sick of thinking. He had no answers to show for it. At least none that he wasn't already aware of. Like he'd been paddling upstream for hours against a current that was too strong. Or been stranded in the middle of the lake as the fog swept in, gray and blinding. So, he kept his hands and mind occupied with the mundane work of pitching tents, collecting firewood, supper—rashers of this morning's pork, more water, more cram—and sleep.

Ignoring Smaug's continued existence was not hard at all. The dragon was still napping, burrowed into its cozy, woolen bed, head tucked under a wing, when Tilda carefully lifted lid and covering skeins of yarn within the safety of their tent to check on it. As he and Bain spread their blankets on the ground, Bard could pretend that the basket set off to one side was no different than any of the others in camp. Filled with apples or carrots, perhaps, fabrics and tools salvaged yesterday from Esgaroth's fired shops. He did, however, lay himself apart from his children, between them and Smaug, to a raised eyebrow from Sigrid he met with a waggling of his own. The resulting giggle was a sweet victory, Bain shaking his head tiredly at their antics. Tilda was fast asleep by then, exhausted. Dale awaited them tomorrow.

Later, in the dead of the night, he started awake from a queer dream of being tangled in garishly colorful, hairy vines to the thump of a basket tipping over. He tensed, heart pounding, but relaxed again at the rather pathetic sight of Smaug the (Once) Terrible buried in a pile of yarn. It eventually clawed its way free with a soft hiss, though thankfully no flame, and tottered towards Bard, wings draped in trailing garlands of robin's egg blue, forest green and a creamy white, bright in the gloom.

Smaug stopped short of him. Bard frowned. What does it want? There was a wordless press against his mind that he was beginning to recognize as the dragon but had to grit his teeth not to rail at. His head was muzzy and his eyelids heavy, the tasty meat his master's son brought him sitting nicely in his belly. As nice as his lair of fuzzy ropes that smelled of faraway sheep. It was warm and dark and, when the sun was in the sky, he had been able to hear his master or his master's children close by, their voices ringing in his ears...

Bard stared. Was it lonely? Was he mad to read in the arch of Smaug's neck a shy hope? Sighing, he said, "Come here," peeling back his blankets. This was a routine he had performed with three children, shuffling in embarrassment to his and his wife's bedside when the rafters creaked in the wind or ghoulish shapes loomed in suddenly unfamiliar corners. He just never imagined he'd be playing the same role for a dragon.

And like a younger Sigrid or Bain, Tilda even nowadays, Smaug darted into his arms quick as an arrow in flight, wriggling until it settled in a loose coil at the crook of his neck. Its scales were smooth upon his skin, its breath a mildly tickling puff of air. The alien presence in his head gradually faded, as the dragon drifted off to whatever passed as dreams for its kind. Probably visions of itself swimming through mountains of gold, he thought with a wry smile. Resigned to his folly, Bard slept, too.

· · ·


· · ·
60 Years Later... On the Banks of the Redwater

The first they saw of the dragon was a dark speck high in the sky, though none knew it for what it was or paid it much mind at the time. Carrion birds had been gathering for days in anticipation of war such as had not come to these parts since the Battle of Five Armies, and another hungry crow, a straggler flown in from the north shortly after dawn, was nothing of note.

Not until the winged shadow began its lazy, spiraling descent did they realize this was no bird. Its height in the air had disguised its massive size—a body that dwarfed most houses, a wingspan wider than the largest barges that plied the waters of Long Lake placed end to end—and it was too long of neck and tail, shape sinuous in a fashion ascribed by legend to only one kind of beast. The keenest eyed of their archers caught the sheen of red-gold scales in the morning sun; the dragon stayed beyond the reach of their bows and the enemy's, circling, as fear beset both armies. Brand did not, in truth, see any of this.

He had been cooped in his tent since he woke, scowling at his maps, as if by the concentrated force of his glare he could make the line of the Redwater more defensible, and nursing a throbbing headache. On the table to one side was his untouched breakfast: a plate of bread, thankfully not cram, a generous chunk of the sharp cheese he liked, and cold slices of ham, prepared by his esquire. Who was a good lad and as promising a knight as Brand had ever patroned but prone to mothering his king.

Young Einar will not be pleased. He allowed himself an inward smile at the image of the lanky boy scolding him with all due deference, before his empty stomach cramped in complaint. No, it's too soon, Brand thought, staring dully at his food. Last night's dream was still too near. Blood gushing hot into his mouth and slick on his hands as his teeth tore into soft flesh, the gagging smell of burnt hair filling his nostrils. He had licked unidentifiable, gory bits from between his fingers, he remembered, and he could not eat now for fear of Einar's efforts going to waste. It was impossible not to take his dream as an ill portent. Because we cannot win this battle.

"Our scouts report that the last tribes arrived in the night," he told his silent companion, "bringing Easterling numbers up to more than thirty thousand." The Easterlings' main camp was in a hollow, out of view from across the Redwater, but they had not reckoned on the familiarity of Brand's men with the lay of the land or their daring and Dwarven ingenuity. His best outriders had forded the river a few leagues north under cover of darkness and climbed the trees on a slight ridge behind the camp, armed with the spy glasses that were the pride of Erebor's finest lenscrafter. At first light, they counted enemy heads and banners.

"I've underestimated them. I did not think the clans would be united in this." Brand's lip twisted bitterly. "Tomorrow or the next day, when they've completed construction on their bridges, they shall press their attack, and while we may hold the river crossings for an afternoon, in the end, we will be flanked." There were no fortifications between here and Dale. Only fields, pastures, and the occasional sleepy hamlet whose inhabitants had already fled to the refuge of the Mountain's arms, hopefully.

Dáin Ironfoot, King Under the Mountain, stroked his beard, expression grim. "Do they mean to join forces with Dol Guldur?" he mused aloud. Thranduil had warned them that a sleepless malice again stirred within the ruins of the ancient fortress, deserted for decades after the banishment of the Necromancer by the White Council. Sighing wearily, Dáin answered himself, "But they would never risk leaving us undefeated in their rear.

"This is the greatest war of our age. I can feel it in these heavy bones of mine, and I feared as much, with the troubled tidings Glóin heard in Rivendell." He smiled thinly. "Yet how I wished it were otherwise." Brand was surprised that Dáin had come in person, assuming he would send Prince Thorin in his stead, Lord Glóin or even Lord Dwalin, who was stout as an old stump. There was a new frailty to Dáin that pained Brand to see in the Dwarf he'd known as king since he was a boy not unlike Einar. He spent many a busy winter afternoon in Erebor at his father's request to be tutored in figures, geometry, and the customs of their closest allies. Dáin's beard was streaked with a bright, coppery red then, and his skin seemed to Brand tough as the leather of his iron-shod boots where it now had a papery quality, brittle and translucent.

Time wears at the mightiest of mountains, he reminded himself, saddened. Would that Dáin had been given the choice of abdicating his rule in peace, to live the rest of his days freed from the yoke of duty and surrounded by that which he loved, as Brand's grandfather did. His thoughts strayed to his wife and son, the latter a man grown, hard as it was for Brand to remember that, and to Dale. In another month, Bard would've ducked into his private study to beg leave of him for an extended visit to Great Aunt Tilda in Esgaroth, desperate as in the past three years to escape the brazen young women vying for the crown prince to escort them to the spring festival.

Brand had planned to refuse this year, not eager to have to flee himself on an impromptu royal progress of the outlying terraces, fresh-tilled, to escape his mother and wife when they learned their matchmaking schemes had again been foiled by him. In another two months, the fruit trees would've blossomed, filling the valley with sweet fragrance. The carefully tended fields would sprout in a riot of green, birdsong peal in the crisp air to the buzzing accompaniment of bees, and at the first warm, moonlit night, Dale would wake to find Grandfather's statue in the town square, heroically posed to slay Smaug with a drawn arrow that was decidedly not the harpoon-like black arrow, bedecked with dozens of rainbow streamers. A children's tradition, that his father had confided impressed his more than angered, as "he didn't care for that pretentious thing, its artistic merit be damned."

Fields of crops not long sown would fare poorly under an army's trampling feet, however. And much as Brand did not want to water Dale's orchards with blood or litter Dale's streets, paved in stones of many colors, with dead, he could see no alternative. Without the Mountain's defenses, both natural and of Dwarven make, there was little chance of defeating the Easterlings; they must lure the enemy into the valley.

So, when Dáin promised, a fierce glint in his eye, "The Dwarves of Erebor will fight with you," Brand only nodded mutely, grateful that Dáin offered no false reassurances—the Easterlings will march on the Mountain, will reach it with the main of their forces intact—and swallowing his grief that his city would come to harm no matter who proved the victor.

My people can be spared more harm. Homes could be rebuilt, crops replanted. That with enough willing hands and strong backs they would survive was a truth lodged deep in the marrow of every Barding whose ancestors had twice been left destitute by Smaug. And what are the squabbles of men to a dragon? thought Brand, the corners of his mouth itching to, inexplicably, pull upwards in a grin. His headache had receded gradually to a knot behind his eyes, but the nape of his neck prickled in warning.

"I would also ask shelter of you in the Mountain, my lord, for our women and children until this storm passes," he said, clearing his throat. "We shall empty Dale of provisions and, if you permit it, help secure Erebor against siege." Recalling his First Marshal's request, he knew just who to dispatch as messenger, too. Dáin quirked a bushy white eyebrow at him, the ghost of a smile tucked in his beard.

"No need for such formalities, laddie." Brand huffed reflexively. Sometimes it was a trial to be the only king in the Wilderland who hadn't marked a century. Though at least Thranduil, regal and Elven graceful, didn't attend the banquet where his cousin poured a cup of wine over his head in a fit of girlish pique. He grimaced. She was more like to feather him with arrows these days.

"We are together in this," Dáin continued, sobering in that quicksilver way of his, "and the Dwarves will honor our offer of refuge, as Dale has honored our alliance despite the threats and blandishments of the Enemy." His shoulders slumped. "Erebor could not have stood alone. Our strength is not what it once was."

Dáin's tone was soft and understanding, no veiled rebuke, but Brand hung his head. "Your mistrust of the black rider was wise," he said, shuddering at the memory of Mordor's fell emissary, "and I should have heeded it sooner, had I not allowed my fear to rule me."

Cloaked and hooded in black and astride a black horse, the rider returned thrice, each time appearing at Dale's eastern gates as the sun sank beneath the ridge of the Mountain's southern spur, like a herald of the gathering night. Its voice was a low, slithering hiss that wound scraping through his insides, and the chill it exuded was as the yawning hollow of a waiting grave, a breath not of wind crawling upon his skin and dimming the torches. The creature, for it was no longer a man, if ever it was, frightened Brand as he had not been since he was a child, certain monsters lurked in the dark under his bed.

Of great riches and power it spoke. Wealth beyond all the gold, silver, and gems in the Mountain. Dominion over the vast lands to the east and their peoples. While Brand held no aspirations of empire—he was quite content with his corner of Middle-earth, the folk prosperous and subjects of his crown by choice, not conquest—he demurred, letting the black rider go unanswered till the last. For unspoken was the peril of war with Rhûn. Rumors traveled up the Anduin of orcs and goblins, of Easterlings, Variags from distant Khand, and Haradrim massing on Gondor's borders in numbers uncountable.

Reaching out to Dale's trade contacts in Dorwinion and Rhûn brought furtive whispers of old grudges set aside and old alliances reforged in hatred of the West, fanned to a white-hot blaze, when their questions weren't met with silence or worse. Brand and his father had made inroads on treaties with the neighboring Easterling tribes through a tentative but regular exchange of envoys and goods, and he'd hoped their labor of near two decades would finally bear fruit. Yet it seemed the shadow in Mordor was stronger still. Was he a fool to believe there might be true friendship where there was none? His mother, he knew, would be harrowed by the news that her kin was among the army camped across the Redwater, though not as well represented as other clans and, from their scouting reports, relegated to the rearguard. A small mercy.

In the end, he had badgered and shamed his council into admitting there was precious little honor in sacrificing the Halflings, who with the exception of the esteemable Master Baggins were as innocent of war as babes in their secluded Shire, to the master of such a foul servant. More to the point, he argued until his throat was hoarse, the Dwarves would never betray their friend, one of Thorin Oakenshield's famed companions, nor bow to this blatant coercion, fashioned as they were of sterner stuff than Men. And Brand would not have Dale betray their friendship at the first whiff of danger.

His council, united, might have forced his hand, but when the black rider returned for the last time, they were deadlocked in bitter contention, and the decision was Brand's alone. Doubt that he had chosen wrong, judgment clouded by sentiment, would have gnawed at him like a starving rat, Brand imagined, were it not for Lord Glóin's fantastic tale of the ring of rings, won as a trinket in a riddling game. Upon which all their fates now hung.

Magic was beyond his ken, truthfully, and noble quests tended to go awry in his family's experience. He did wish, however, that he could again have the pleasure of meeting Master Baggins, who had turned out to be an even more remarkable character than was his impression when the Hobbit wandered back to Dale during his father's reign. Ordering musical crackers by the crateful, if Brand remembered correctly, to be delivered "on the occasion of my eleventy-first birthday, should I be lucky enough in living to see it!" No, he wouldn't regret denying the black rider the prey it sought, terrible as the Dark Lord's wrath was sure to be.

The hard jab of a blunt finger into his shoulder startled him. His head jerked up, and he blinked blearily at Dáin. Who, having gotten his attention, retreated to a respectful distance to squint at him in concern, arms folded, then asked, "How long since you slept?" Brand groaned, rubbed at his face with one hand, and wished fervently that he could slide off his stool to hide under the table until his cheeks felt less like they were burning.

While according to his mother, he'd always been thoughtful to the point of distraction, years of sitting in audience and council ought to have taught him better. "My pardons, Dáin," he said with a weak cough. What is the matter with me? "Would that I could blame a poor night's rest, but I'm afraid my focus is simply not where it should be this morning." There was a curious sensation of his mind unspooling, his recollections of people and events stretching as if threads plucked by an unseen hand. And all his dreams of late were queer.

Dale spread like a tapestry below him was a recurring one: the snaking line of the Redwater a silver gleam; blue hills and plains dotted with the darker shapes of trees, rocks, and villages. His kingdom raced past in the moonlight as he slept, enveloped in cloudy fingers—so familiar, yet strange, too. That his maps were not content with the study he devoted to them during the day had struck his cousin as a fine jest. Brand frowned. Some half-formed suspicion itched in his scalp, his ears ringing with her wry comment that tracking the Easterling raiders would've been easier had he sprouted wings earlier.

"My cousin shall accompany you back to Dale," he said, trying to shake loose of his reverie, which only left him lightheaded and craving the open air. Had he dreamed so before? The memory continued to elude him. A stubborn niggle in a mind that didn't feel... entirely his. He clenched his hands into fists upon his thighs to stop their trembling. Dáin looked as though he might press him further but, at Brand's glare, grunted and nodded curtly.

"Your doing or the idea of that husband of hers?" asked Dáin, usually pleasant burr grating. Disapproval, of him, radiated from the scowling Dwarf like heat from sun-baked stone. Brand bristled at the implications—I don't need the King Under the Mountain acting the nursemaid for the child I am not—even as his more rational self grudgingly conceded that Dáin's worry was not unfounded.

If he didn't keep his head about him, the Easterlings would gladly part it from his neck when battle was joined in the next couple days, and Gerda would never forgive him for dying after commanding her to abandon her post as captain of his personal guard. She was already going to strip the skin off him and Ragnar with her sharp tongue for conspiring to see her safe in Dale with her children, two spirited boys who were too young to risk losing father and mother both upon the same field. Dáin wasn't mistaken in his guess, but neither was he tactful.

"Captain Lagertha knows her duty, and I'll thank you not to ques—" The tent flap whipped open and in strode the topic of their conversation in a rush of air, cool and bracing, pale hair limned in gold by the sunshine. "Gerda, what are you doing here?" Brand snapped, the childhood name slipping out unbidden as it was wont to do whenever his headstrong cousin exasperated him. Which, he fumed, happened far more often than it should considering he was her king.

"Who commands at the river in your stead? Halvden or—" A belated thought occurred to him, and he stood abruptly, hand falling to the hilt of his sword. "Have the Easterlings attacked?" he demanded, then cursed. Dáin stiffened at his side. I've underestimated them. Again. But they could not expect to cross the Redwater by boat in broad daylight with the numbers needed to force a landing against Dale's longbows.

Knowing Lagertha's husband, the man was putting the greenest of the troops through their paces at the makeshift archery butts, other preparations finished. "Send for Marshal Ragnar. And my esquire, with my armor." It was missing from its rack; Einar was probably giving it one last polish. Gerda did not move, her face bloodlessly white, though a hasty glance revealed no wounds. What could have so unsettled her? Tension coiling like a nest of disturbed vipers in his chest, he barked, "Report, Captain!"

"Can't you feel it, Brand?" she finally whispered, swallowing. Her hair straggled messily from her single thick braid, as if she'd ridden at a gallop the whole way from the river or run, and her eyes were wide, wild with shock and fear. "I was sure you..." She searched his face intently, biting her lip. And suddenly the kind gaze paring his flesh away belonged to Aunt Tilda, her dainty hands clasped tight around his shaking ones, Aunt Sigrid's profile lit flickering by the fire and his father's slow, pacing steps behind him. Brand's breath caught in his throat. He knew what Lagertha had to say. "It—he—has returned. Grandfather's folly."

The family had been traveling to the town at the foot of the Iron Hills, Brand remembered as he stumbled blindly outside, so newly established then, over twenty years ago when he was younger than Bard, that its name was still in hot dispute. Four days from Dale, his father ordered the rest of their party to make camp early before packing up son, sisters, and a passel of nephews and nieces for an unscheduled night's stay at Grandfather's cottage, expressly forbidding the presence of any guards or servants. Captain Erlendur had protested vehemently, but Father refused to budge, with the weight of kingly authority and precedent at his back.

Having visited their grandfather's other secret retreat—a sizable estate that was mostly lush meadow, where the family raised sheep—Brand and his cousins were eager to see the cottage. Their enthusiasm, however, was soon dampened by the jagged silhouette of the aptly named Grey Mountains, at the base of which lay a wood of aged pine and spruce cast in a perpetual chilly gloom. No tumbling chases in the grass here, said the towering trees, their branches knitted together overhead and a blanket of dried needles below that deadened all sound. No spring-fed pond to fish or swim in on blistering summer afternoons, the only water trailing tendrils of silvery mist. Gratefully huddled by the stone hearth in the cottage's common room, Brand couldn't understand why Grandfather would want to take his leisure in such a dismal place.

Now, that reason circled in the air above the Easterling camp, waiting. For me? It was a ridiculous notion, yet smug satisfaction suffused him from head to tail, an almost giddy excitement sizzling in his veins as his heart sped faster than the tiny, scurrying figures on the ground—he grinned at their cries of alarm, the stray arrows that fell uselessly short—his master's enemies. With a lazy snap of his wings, he banked so that his scales glittered in the sun. A shimmering ripple of red-gold armor molded to a form grown large, strong and sleek. He hoped his master was watching and dived.

A wrench that had him gasping, hands on his knees, and Brand pulled away from the dragon's mind, though there was a lingering touch at his temples that tasted of cinders. Beside him, Lagertha made a choked noise. His stomach flattening against the underside of his lungs, Brand stared half in horror, half in awe as the dragon—Smaug!—folded its forearms close about its body and plummeted from a height taller than the Dwarven guardpost atop Ravenhill, at the last moment spreading its wings to glide sweeping over the Easterlings. A stream of fire poured forth from its maw, vivid reds and oranges undimmed by the sun. Then, with a mighty beat, two, three of its wings, it was straining for the sky, before twisting impossibly in on itself to rake the Easterlings with flame again. And again. It means to kill them all.

How had Grandfather landed the arrow that slew this beast? Brand studied it with narrowed eyes. Smaug was quick and agile, wary of exposing its vulnerable belly for long and unpredictable in its darting turns. Could its memory of its past, its death...? No. He could not have explained what spurred his flash of insight, but he was certain the dragon had learned from them—a hiss in his ear: his master, merciful though grim in countenance; his master's children, with their gentle hands—to not be as it once was.

Smaller, its scales softer—not a child, not yet an adult, the part of him that was part of Smaug murmured—it was not nearly so consumed by pride or cruelty, perhaps. His shoulders ached dully, the burn of physical exertion that a few hours' rest would cure, and an echo of the dragon's exuberance fluttered in his breast like a pennant in the wind of its passage. Gerda and he shared a grimace of disbelief. So, Aunt Sigrid hadn't been ribbing them all those times she called it a monstrous cat.

Instead of the occasional dead mice, he thought darkly, dead Easterlings by the thousands. The battle was won, against the odds, and he could not help his relief that Dale had been spared the ravages of war. But while dragonfire was fit for orcs and goblins, the Easterlings were Men, his mother's kin among them, whom he would not have wished so painful a death upon, even if death by the sword was little cleaner.

Father, wearing the king's stern face, had told him that they vowed years ago not to command the dragon as a weapon against their enemies. It was too terrible a power for anyone to wield without succumbing in the end to the temptation of evil, and his grandfather feared repeating history, teaching it as its accursed creator had to love destruction. Smaug fanned the blaze it started, just visible above the rise of the riverbank, higher, swirls of smoke wreathing its wingtips; faint screams carried over the water. Was Aunt Tilda right also in claiming Smaug wouldn't be able to hide its purposes from him? Brand was prepared to stake his life on that. First, though, he needed to get closer.

"Gerda, you're the better archer." He held his cousin's gaze until comprehension set her mouth in a hard line. With a grim nod, she unslung the reverse curved bow she favored for scouting and thrust it into a stunned Einar's arms, dropping her quiver unceremoniously at his feet. She chose a heavier yew longbow from a weapons rack, of the type Grandfather used before King Thranduil gifted him one made by the Elves of Lórien, two quivers full of their longest arrows and, after a moment's hesitation, a rectangular shield half as tall as she plated in steel, which she handed wordlessly to Brand.

Hefting the shield, made by the Dwarves to be light for its size and strength, he judged with a pensive glance at Smaug, inscribing another arc of flame around the Easterling camp, that it might serve to at least deflect some of the dragon's ire should things go ill. A crowd had gathered, the silence of his men stifling.

Brand dared not look too intently at their faces. Shocked fear. Disgust and the more grievous hurt of a trust broken. He could guess what he would find, and there will be time enough later for his people to decide whether his family had erred unforgivably. To only one did Brand owe an immediate accounting, and he blocked the path to the river, leaning with deceptive casualness on his red ax.

Dáin was both slow to anger and quick. When slighted by strangers and in the heat of battle, in defense of his kin, his rage cracked like lightning splitting the night but would blow away as a storm on a blustery day, clouds rolling back to reveal the sun. In council and when wronged gravely by a friend, however, he was possessed of a patient fury that put Brand in mind of the lights in Erebor's old quarter, burning bright blue and trapped in cold, smooth glass. Seeing Dáin's bland mask of courtesy, Brand realized with a pang that this was definitely a case of the latter.

"Making amends for your grandfather's failure?" the King Under the Mountain asked flatly, eyes flickering to Lagertha's bow before pinning Brand with a stare so pointed he had to fight the urge to raise his shield. "Never did I think I would come to doubt the honor of Bard the Bowman," he continued, voice level, "but no Dwarf could mistake the Worm of Dread, Smaug"—this name was poison in Dáin's mouth, and he spat it out—"the last of the Enemy's great fire-drakes." A brief, violent twitch in his bearded cheek suggested that he maybe wouldn't have objected to spitting in Brand's face.

"Was King Bard's claim to the title of dragonslayer naught but a lie to cheat us of the Mountain's treasures?" Brand tensed. Thorin Oakenshield's agreement to exchange a fourteenth of Smaug's hoard for the Arkenstone was still binding, the Lords of Dale having spent their wealth sparingly beyond the initial recompense paid to Esgaroth and reconstruction efforts. He had, in fact, arranged to draw on this gold, stored in Erebor's vaults, to finance part of the new paved road to run from Dale to the Iron Hills before the black rider appeared. Contract violations were not treated lightly by the Dwarves. "Am I to suppose, too, that your house is in league with the Enemy? Else how have you grown so familiar with the beast?" Dáin's hands tightened on the eye of his ax, the blade glinting bloody.

Careful, thought Brand. "Three score years ago, on the night Smaug attacked Esgaroth," he said slowly, "my grandfather was resolved to kill the dragon or to die trying, for his children's sake. And when the black arrow he loosed hit its mark, he'd thought the deed done."

Across the river, Smaug roared in challenge. The dragon may not be mature, but its scales should be proof against the less powerful bows of Rhûn. Except for the weak spot in its armor. He swallowed. "Many were witness to Smaug's fall and the town's ruin. That was no lie, my lord Dáin." Ballistas would be a threat, had the Easterlings any wits left to arm theirs. Surely, he would've felt it, if Smaug were in pain?

He bit the inside of his cheek. Dáin's expression was unreadable as a sheer cliff. Brand would take the fact that the Dwarf was listening, as opposed to summarily renouncing their friendship or hewing him where he stood, as a good sign. "I assure you that my grandfather was as surprised as you are now to discover that was not the end of Smaug."

To hear Father tell of it, Smaug had an insatiable curiosity about their hair when it was no larger than a bird; it liked to sleep curled in the strands and washed ashore from its fatal plunge into Long Lake the same way. Once such stories were difficult to credit. "In the monster's place, there was a naive child, bereft of its memories." That was before he had the dragon in his head, puppyishly eager to show its prowess. By roasting men alive. "Mercy stayed my grandfather's hand then," Brand finished, "and pity moved him to shelter the beast he'd slain." If only he could ask Grandfather...

"King Bard... raised it?" Dáin's face was darkened by a fearsome scowl, his jutting brow creased in anger. "And released it?" he gritted out. At Brand's simple nod, Dáin's jaw clenched with enough force to grind stone into dust, and Brand braced himself for a withering stream of invective condemning him and his family for a pack of treacherous fools that they likely deserved. He cringed inwardly at what his mother and wife would have to say; Gerda, who had apologies of her own to make to Ragnar, shifted nervously on her feet. Some secrets are too dangerous to share, even with those we love and trust. Aunt Sigrid's voice had been firm, but Brand did not miss the regret that lined the corners of her eyes. It was blood and blood alone that bound Smaug to them.

To his amazement, Dáin reined in his temper, closing his eyes as though the sight of Brand pained him and breathing deep. "Smaug was a beast of great cunning," he observed at last, tone cool as the snow at the Mountain's peak, which never melted no matter the season. That the next generation knew nothing of Smaug as of yet and could perhaps regain the confidence of the Dwarves given time, Dale and Erebor too dependent on trade with the other to be long riven, seemed a poor consolation at the moment for the loss of Dáin's esteem. Brand fisted his hand, a phantom sensation of splintering wood in his palm. Smaug must have pounced on the ballistas or partly constructed bridges. "Why has it returned?" He almost flinched at Dáin's bluntness. "Since you've kept the rest of us blind, I'll thank you for a warning that your pet means to kill us at the Enemy's bidding and take the Mountain for its lair again."

Brand did wince at Dáin's harshness. And thought better of informing Dáin that the dragon had already taken up residence in his head, lest his defense of it appear to be the work of dark sorcery rather than his own madness, inherited. "I must bespeak it to be certain," he said, startling himself with how steady he sounded, "but it is not in league with the Enemy, whose Easterling allies have been routed." From Smaug, a swelling bubble of accomplishment and, more worryingly, hunger; Brand's stomach rumbled in sympathy. "Nor is it a threat to Erebor. Captain Lagertha and I will see that it remains on the far side of the Redwater."

"And whether your grandfather's pity was folly or not," came Dáin's sour reply. With a grunt of effort but a motion as artful as any of his warriors' in their prime, Dáin swung his ax up and walked deliberately to Brand's side, haft propped on his shoulder. His craggy profile, cut in stone, was sharper than the blade dividing them. "On the face of our friendship, do as you will and meet with the beast. Learn what it wants, if you can." A creak of wood as Dáin's knuckles whitened on the ax handle. "But should you prove unable to control it..."

Master, Smaug's mind had named him, though Brand suspected the distinction between him and his grandfather was a hazy one. "Tell me at least that Thranduil did not know of this," added Dáin with a quiet, aggrieved sigh. It was queerly comforting to hear the Dwarf snipe at the absent Elvenking, if half-heartedly, their neverending contest to determine the superior species a fixture in Brand's dealings with both. Even the frightfully daunting prospect of explaining himself to Thranduil couldn't smother his cheer at this glimpse of normalcy.

"No," he admitted easily, "None not of direct descent from Bard the Bowman are—were—privy to this secret." Then he realized that wasn't strictly true. "Save for the gray wanderer, Gandalf, and his brother Wizard, called the Brown, friend to birds and beasts." For all that they resembled Men in their form, Wizards were as unaging as the Elves. Gandalf had been so long gone from the Wilderland, however, since Grandfather's day, that Brand could not have said whether he lived still before the council in Rivendell, and of the other, only his epithet was remembered in Dale and a vague impression that he'd preferred the company of animals in his forest home, from which he seldom ventured.

"Tharkûn," grumbled Dáin, "I should have guessed. That meddling old man..." And without another word or glance at Brand, he strode off, headed towards where his escort was quartered and steps purposeful; his tread was heavy upon the grass, his shoulders a rigid line. He will send news of Smaug to Erebor, Brand thought.

A clawing panic clutched at his throat: the messenger shouting of Grandfather's folly as he rode clattering through the streets of Dale mounted on a ram nobody could fail to note. Then it passed, and Brand drew a hand over his face, berating himself for stupidity. Contrary to popular perception, Durin's folk were capable of discretion and Dáin more than most. Though he was clearly rattled, with his slip into Dwarvish, that guarded tongue.

So am I. Every muscle in Brand's body spasmed with a jerk when Lagertha laid a hand on his arm and said, softly, "Come, Brand. It awaits us." They reached the river with no further incident, silent as they jogged the distance except for their labored breathing—Brand was glad he'd foregone his armor, less so his horse, what little good either would do him against a fire-drake—and the near audible stares of the men. Who had abandoned all pretense of doing their assigned duties for the morning in favor of tarrying in knots to whisper and to watch the pall of smoke hanging over the Easterling camp for the sweep of wings.

· · ·


· · ·

Ragnar met them at the water's edge with a boat and a full company of archers. Dale's best, arrayed in two loose ranks along the river, bows at the ready. And Brand knew his First Marshal had grasped the true nature of the archery trials instituted by his grandfather. As he helped them into the boat, though, Ragnar said nothing, of that or of the dragon. His tall, lean frame was tense with coiled energy and his gait, angular, with none of the lolling grace Gerda, who studiously avoided her husband's pale eyes, often likened to a wolf on the prowl, a rather wolfish smile of her own curving her lips.

Not until they were far from the bank, Brand plying the single oar to drift them downstream to the other side, did Gerda look back, the corners of her mouth pinched. Ragnar had already turned away by then. His fingers tapped restlessly on the head of one of the axes at his belt. When Gerda ducked her head, a hand swiping quickly at her cheeks, Brand pretended not to see.

Either his cousin will be forgiven or... The lap of water brought to mind trips up and down the River Running aboard the ships owned by his wife's family. She'd spent a good part of her girlhood charming the captains of her father's merchant fleet into pleasure cruises around Long Lake and of her youth sailing to the Sea of Rhûn on the business of trade. In Dorwinion, she made the acquaintance of a rake whose mother hoped to curb his wanderlust with a diplomatic posting.

Perhaps he flattered himself unduly, but he did not feel he'd given her much cause to regret wedding him over the years. An eerie hush blanketed the area surrounding the Easterling camp. That may have changed today. Lagertha and he landed their boat on a narrow strand, the rasp of sand against hull scraping Brand's nerves raw. Flames crackling and a faint sound of broken wood being shifted. Snuffling, not unlike a dog rooting about in a pile of kitchen leavings. Despite its size and wings, the dragon moved on the ground as a predator would, its yet unseen presence barely heard, stirring the air, thickening it. No lumbering brute was Smaug and more cunning than any animal. Gerda, face grim, nocked an arrow to her bow.

When they topped the rise of the riverbank, the remains of the Easterling army finally came into view, and they froze, shocked into speechlessness. Bred for war, Brand remembered dimly. Smaug's kind had been created in ages gone as weapons by a Dark Lord whose name was long forgotten among Men, though his terror eclipsed that of Mordor and the western lands were rent asunder in his defeat. Or so the tale the two Wizards told to Grandfather went.

The Elves undoubtedly could have told them more—of dragonfire, its wrath and ruin—but none of his family were comfortable broaching the topic, knowing full well why it was of interest beyond historical curiosity. Brand wondered now whether they weren't simply squeamish. Learning of those ancient fell deeds from a people who had suffered them firsthand, immortal memory unfading, would've imbued them with an aching vividness, the destruction of Laketown, Dale, even Erebor scars not wholly healed, and made it impossible to justify allowing Smaug to live.

Anticipation churned in his gut. It was a squirming, determined thing that felt like trying to keep hold of Bard when his son wanted to toddle through the palace corridors, Brand in chase. He was suddenly glad for the hard gleam in Gerda's eyes and that she would be able to kill Smaug where he was beginning to think he, like his grandfather, could not. "You must trust your cousins," Aunt Tilda had said, "as I do Sigrid and Bain, to judge what is necessary." Her smile was rueful and, for reasons mysterious to Brand, touched by yearning. "We are bound too tightly to him, you and I and my father before us."

Blackened swaths of grass crisscrossed and ringed the Easterling camp, scorched to the roots, though only patches of denser growth and an expanding, broken circle at the edges were still on fire. The same could not be said of the tents, wagons and barrels, stands of arms—all the supplies by which an army lived and fought were being devoured by flame. Wood collapsed into heaps of tinder and cloth shriveled, the acrid sting of charred metal in his nostrils a testament to the heat rippling the air.

Yet far worse were the bodies. Dead horses and livestock. Dead men by the thousands. They lay scattered amongst the wreckage. Twisted lumps of flesh that the mind might have been able to ignore as once living were it not for the hand sticking stiffly out of a burning mass, skin peeling in flakes from half closed fingers, the melted shape of a face, strong jaw and high cheekbones hinting at young, handsome features... His lips tasted of grease, the smoke wafting from the razed field spread at his feet oily in a way he didn't want to linger on. Brand was grateful he hadn't eaten since last night.

His gaze was soon drawn, unconsciously but inevitably, to the dragon. Crouched in the smashed debris of a ballista, Smaug seemed not to have noticed Brand or Lagertha, eyes that glowed from within fixed on a nearby pile of wood like a ray of light cast by a dark lantern. Its tail flicked back and forth behind it. Playful, Brand decided. Smaug's expectant glee was a fizz in his veins, and he could smell the sweating terror, feel the shallow breaths of another fool who thought to hide from him. This one must have watched how the others died, their bellies slashed open or torn limb from limb—to his pride, he'd resisted the hunger in him, that writhed at the spray of fresh blood and bone crunching; his master never liked that men were prey to him—and this one would lose his nerve as the rest did and run. As if there were any chance of escape!

Oh, but what fun it was to chase! And when he was done here, he would catch those who fled during his attack. He bared his teeth. They had more sense than this one and some distance on him, but they did not have wings. Cloth rasping against wood, the planks jarred ever so slightly, and a stifled moan. Hunching a little lower, he readied himself to spring. It's hunting. Barely had Brand realized this than an Easterling broke from the rubble Smaug stalked and bolted.

The man was singed, face ashen under a layer of caked soot, and limped, right thigh wrapped in a bloodied strip of shirt. He was also mindless with fear; he had no destination that Brand could see, no cover and no plan, merely trying to get away from the monster his head whipped around to find. It was futile. Gerda bent her bow, tracking the man as he veered sharply towards them—what did he hope to gain by surrendering to two who were as likely as him to end up dragon fodder, or had the Easterlings already guessed the connection between him and Smaug?—and Brand choked on the words to tell her to let fly her arrow. Straight and true at an eye, now, before it was too late for mercy.

A stumble, then a short fall, and Smaug was upon its doomed quarry. The dragon vaulted the gap separating it from the Easterling in two almost dainty leaps, half gliding and fast as a pouncing cat. Its claws flashed dully, and there was a high, thin scream that didn't sound like any a man could make corkscrewing through Brand's insides until he was hollowed out, panting, a cold sweat dotting his brow.

He looked away, at his shaking hand. Which was not at all splattered to the wrist with the blood of the Easterling speared to the ground beneath him, the man's struggles weakening as his vitality leeched into the dirt and bubbled gurgling from his convulsing throat. At least the fool had stopped squealing, thought Brand, and that was not him.

Pulling at his lips was a smirk that was not his. Neither was the pleasure that coated his skin, viscous and oozing, his. Brand had no illusions that he would've tried his damnedest to cut down every Easterling who crossed swords with him in battle, as a matter of course, sparing little to no sympathy for his foe, but this man—scared, injured, and alone, unarmed—had been no danger to him, much less to a dragon. Isolated the Dwarves could abide in their mountain fortresses and the Elves in their forest havens; Men sprawled and needed on their borders friends who would never become such with atrocity breeding atrocity. Smaug, however... Had I truly believed its cruelty forsaken? Whatever affection the dragon bore for his grandfather's descendants, it didn't extend to the rest of humanity.

Smaug wrenched its bloodstained claws from the Easterling with a sickening squelch, the body jerking in an imitation of life before going limp. Sitting on its haunches, it licked clean each of its long fingers. Dozens of red handprints were smeared over its already red scales, left by its victim's scrabbling attempts to free himself. Then it cocked its head at Brand, and there was a wordless press against his mind, hungry and questioning.

Brand thought of the Easterlings who'd escaped the firestorm, a fist squeezing his heart, and was slow to recognize his mistake. Smaug arched its neck and side-eyed him in rather comical surprise, but its approval soon lapped at him in warm, brassy waves. A smile that showed rows of teeth like daggers spread its mouth, and its crown of spikes quivered. It bobbed its head low in a sinuous bow, said, "As you wish, master," voice a deep roll of amusement—Brand jolted, that the dragon would speak somehow unexpected, even without the distinctly fond note in its words—and took to the sky with a sweep of wings that flattened burnt wreckage, flames, and nearly him and Gerda, too. They gaped as the wind tugged at their clothes and hair, smoke streaming past in dizzying eddies.

When the dragon wheeled unhurriedly eastward, Gerda stiffened and, fumbling uncharacteristically with her bow, latched onto his shoulder with a grip that verged on painful. "You must call it back, Brand," she hissed. Head clearing in a rush, not least of chagrin, he nodded curtly, reaching for Smaug as she added, "I couldn't care less what led it to assume you want those survivors hunted and eaten—we'll have to practice guarding our thoughts, later—but you can do this. I know it." While her tone was the honey and steel she used to cow new recruits, she laced her fingers gently through his, the beat of his jumping pulse on the heel of her palm a focus tethering him to the earth and his flesh. "Don't you dare doubt." A whisper too fierce to be drowned by his roar.

He burst from the clinging trails of smoke into sunlight. For a moment, he swept idly to and fro upon the column of heated air rising from the fired camp of his master's enemies, basking in the silence of flight for its own sake. His wings fluttering in the breeze and the hollow reverberation of the high blue dome above, a sound that wasn't sound so much as a winnowing of it, were things he would never weary of, glad as he was to fight his master's wars with all the furor battle demanded.

This thought gave him pause. How strange that his master should desire him to utterly destroy the defeated army. His soft-hearted master, who before had ever been concerned about him not killing wantonly because of rules that seemed to him quite arbitrary. Why, he'd puzzled, was a child's life valued more than a man's or that of a woman when the latter were the better laborers and could together produce many children of like quality?

Perhaps, as the aggressor, the enemy had ceded any right to quarter? Yet what of the mercy offered him, if not his past self? With a huff, he dutifully committed this to memory as another of his master's mannerisms that it might be wiser to accept unexplained. And, besides, he really was very hungry.

Craning his neck, he surveyed the horizon and expanse of hilly grassland below for sign of movement. He ignored the lone stragglers, groups smaller than two score, both afoot and ahorse: scattered in every which direction and hardly a challenge, with only a single bow for each sorry lot of ten, so presently not worth his effort to chase. Of the remaining, there were two, three orderly companies of several hundred, maybe a thousand making all speed away. Their routes were littered with abandoned wagons and supplies but not, he observed carefully, weapons or the colorful banners he knew meant more to Men than to him. A muted pang of relief jabbed him at the sight of his mother's kin and, on its heels, glancing again at the Easterling devices, he understood that the rearguard must have deserted the field at the first opportunity.

Envoys bearing gifts and assurances; proper burials for the Easterling dead; fear, superstition leveraged into power and respect, stronger alliances, to splinter Mordor's regional influence for good; Dale's borders secured—his master's mind was suddenly, distractingly occupied with that least interesting of Mannish activities. That his master put so much stock in flowery talk and gestures when the world's ruling class was by and large populated with liars, cowards, and the mad was a constant source of frustration to him. Burn enough men, he figured, and there would be no need for tedious diplomatic niceties, but what appealed to common kings and princes was naught to his master. He snorted, a trickle of flame leaking from the corner of his mouth.

If his master insisted on playing politics with lesser men, he supposed he could spare some of the enemy to spread across the petty fiefdoms to the east word of the death that would be visited upon any who opposed his master. He didn't have to leave very many alive. The tamped coal of wrath that had smoldered in his breast since he heard war marched on the realm he still considered his home sparked brighter. A message could be delivered as well by one as by a crowd. Better, even, the others serving as a richly deserved lesson for the lucky.

Decided, he folded his wings smartly and dived to skim the trees, their branches bowing in his wake, after the nearest of the hastily retreating columns that yet possessed a modicum of soldierly discipline. Ring them with fire and cut off their escape. Men and horses would panic, then all would be as fish in a barrel for him to roast, to pluck screaming into the air and gobble up. His mouth watered, and he flexed his claws. Bony as the meat probably was, stringy with exhaustion, the shells of armor a bother to crack and taste of metal unpleasantly tart, he couldn't wait to—

NO. The word lashed about his throat like a whip, tightening and choking him. He cried in shock and flailed, wings flapping frantically to slip the invisible noose. But the more he thrashed, the less he could, as though he were entangling himself in... a long leash, and finally he remembered the feeling and landed with a few awkward hops, disgruntled. "My father used to say that while he lived, Smaug was his to train. Which, between you and me, was for the best, as your Aunt Tilda liked to spoil it silly." Once on the ground, the smothering pressure lifted a bit. Try as he did, however, he couldn't continue on his hunt, his limbs uncooperative and the pull west towards the river an unyielding command. "Its temper is childish and reining it in is not the same as riding an unruly horse. Da compared it to having the ends of a sail strung to your shoulders on a windy day." He pawed at the grass, claws raking furrows and spine arching. COME BACK. With a screech, he launched up and started to fly to his master, whose intent bound flesh to bone and mingled with his blood, his breath. NOW. There was no choice, except to obey. "Lose your footing, lose your balance, and you won't just be dragged to tatters over half of Dale. You'll be blown clear away. A leaf in a storm."

"I'm..." Brand swallowed, one hand rubbing at his neck. "He's coming back." His other hand was still clasped in Gerda's—he must have dropped his shield; he could not be bothered to open his eyes to look for it—his cousin giving his fingers a brief squeeze. For which he was pathetically grateful, her warm and callused palm an anchor.

The grass was springy beneath his knees and damp with the last of the morning's dew. He shivered, chilled by the rush of wind at great height without the dragon's natural heat. Wetting his chapped lips, he wanted nothing so much as a sip of water. And to sleep, undisturbed, for an hour.

Or an age, he amended, at the throbbing in his head, like old Lord Grimbeorn had taken the butt of a massive ax to his skull and smashed the contents into paste at the bottom. Dimly, he felt Gerda brush a kiss over his temple and heard her whispered, "You did good, Brand. Grandda would be proud." Yet it was Father's voice that rang loud in Brand's ears.

"Why, mine was the most important role of all," he'd answered, face lopsided in one of his grins that always made Aunt Sigrid narrow her eyes at him. "Keeping it fed. The only reason it didn't eat us out of house and home as it grew was that it would nap for days on a full belly." He chuckled softly. "Mutton was its favorite, but on special occasions, it liked pork. That was my doing, too."

Brand mentally braced against the dragon's will, though the effort had lessened to holding the string of a kite soaring high. If the kite could grumble incessantly about its course, dipping this way and that at random to spite him. At least he had a good idea of how to appease Smaug when it arrived. Thanks, Da. Trying to convey the happy prospect of sheep and pigs aplenty, he was greeted with a shrug of sorts, the impression of somebody determinedly not listening that was unfortunately familiar to him from his son's rebellious, gangling phase. It was difficult not to sigh. Who would've imagined that Smaug the (Once) Terrible could be so, for lack of a better word, petulant?

Time passed in a blur. It seemed to Brand that he waited both an eternity and a heartbeat before Smaug landed next to them with a graceless flop and the more customary gale. He stared, blinking, at the dragon. It was too large to fit on the ridge, instead resting its head on the crest while its body sprawled upon the slope; it was half as tall as a man from jaw to crown, and its slitted eye, under its jutting brow, was near the span of a dinner plate. Not only was it sulking and most unbecomingly, its spikes twitching with every irritated puff of smoke, up close, it was... Beautiful. Undeniably so.

Fine grooves etched its scales in a fanning pattern, like the rings of a tree broken by rayed spokes, and they glimmered with a fiery iridescence in the sun. Brand averted his eyes, standing, as his gaze began to tip into frank admiration, but not quickly enough to go unnoticed by Smaug. The dragon hummed and wriggled, stretching its wings in a languid wave that flaunted the deeper hues rippling across the membranes, preening shamelessly.

Vain thing, thought Brand, and it sounded fonder than he was comfortable with. Naturally, Smaug recalled then that it was not finished being peeved at him and hissed, baring its teeth. Long as his middle finger in the front, they were all of them quite sharp.

"I really hoped that you'd changed your mind, master," it mumbled, tone just shy of a whine. "About killing those who deserve to be killed. Death should be the due for the offense of daring to wage war on you, and there can be no surer deterrence against revenge." Gerda tensed beside him, rising slowly from her crouch with arrow again nocked to bow, though not drawn and pointed at the ground. Brand, for his part, was torn between being oddly touched by Smaug's protectiveness of him and horror at its blithe disregard for everyone else. "You were glad to see me destroy the enemy camp," it accused, indignation deflating into hurt. "Why is burning a pack of fleeing cowards any different?"

He knew already that the dragon was amoral, he berated himself. But it was as if it would never once occur to Smaug that he might be in the wrong, its notion of fitting punishment wildly disproportionate for even the crime of war, and that was dangerous. Chin falling to his chest, Brand folded his arms and considered how to explain to it that violence, unfettered, made of men beasts terrible as the dragons of yore, its corrupted kin. Such brutality could not be tamed to one's purposes, evil ultimately begetting evil.

"Yes," he finally said, meeting Smaug's eye, "I was glad that you defeated the Easterlings." The dragon shifted, tail coiling snug against its flank, then settled in a rustle of wings and turned on Brand a keen expression that reminded him of Gerda's boys anticipating their bedtime story. He paused at the ridiculous image of Grandfather tucking Smaug in, before grimacing. From the confluence of the rivers to Dale, the tales parents told their children were of dragonslayers.

When he was Ivar and Sigurd's age, in truth, he was frustrated that unlike other adults his father and aunts were so close-mouthed about Smaug. Engrossing as his younger self found the Battle of Five Armies, with the Elvenking riding an elk and King Dáin's war hog, a great black bear who was also a Man, the Eagles, and Thorin Oakenshield's stirring charge from the Mountain, Grandfather's exploits were the stuff of dreams and with none of that funny kissing business. As he grew wiser, he respected that the sorrow of Esgaroth's ruin cleaved more strongly to his family. The Dragonshooter's children knew his most celebrated deed for the act it was in reality: that of a desperate man faced with the end of all he loved.

Shaking his head, Brand eyed Smaug, patiently waiting for him to continue, and smiled wryly. Father had presided over the annual harvest festival stagings of the death of the dread worm with similar smiles, self-deprecating and secretive. He himself delegated many of his ceremonial duties in the lavish pageant, which included presenting a mock black arrow to the night's designated hero for battle against that year's fire-spouting mechanical marvel, to his son. The time for deception was over, and he couldn't help the smattering of relief.

"Killing is an inescapable part of war," he said, smile waning, "and had those who died not done so in your flames, others would have on the arrows of my men, on their blades and mine, with still more lost to wounds and sickness." It was too early to tell whether Smaug had done good or ill. Dale's future relations with Rhûn depended on how the Easterlings reacted to the unlooked-for cause of their rout today, though this demonstration of the dragon's power ought to sow doubt among even the most belligerent of the tribes. There was, however, one certainty that would comfort him in the fraught days to come. "And my people would have bled alongside the enemy. I cannot regret that you saved them from that fate."

Lagertha made a queer noise that, at Brand's concerned glance, she waved off with a hand that went immediately to her mouth. Where he suspected it was needed to conceal the beginnings of an unwilling smile. Smaug arched its neck, eyelids drooping, and bobbed its head at the praise, reserved as his words were, in a remarkably credible imitation of an abashed child.

He cleared his throat, bemused, and added in as reproving a voice as he could manage, "But I do not go to war to kill." A low rumble at that, and the dragon suddenly brought its snout to nudge at Brand's hip, movement so fluid that he jumped, reaching for his sword, despite his sense that it only wanted its eye ridge scratched, if his master was set on discussing weighty issues with him at length, on an empty stomach.

Is it humoring me? Brand glared at it. It was unrepentant, sniffing haughtily, before blowing a breath of air at him that smelled like a whole keg of the mineral powders the Dwarves experimented with thrown into a lit forge and then almost bowling him over with another, more insistent bump. Sighing, he surrendered. And, he admitted, now that it'd proved itself no threat, at least to him and his, the boy in Brand itched to touch those bright, shifting scales. He quashed a grin. Not so mad an idea as Da's. Who, according to Aunt Sigrid in one of her wicked, teasing moods, had wasted several summers arguing to their father the strategic benefits of dragonriding.

Smaug's hide was smooth and dry, the pebbled texture beneath his fingers the only hint at the otherwise seamless joins of its famously impenetrable armor. He felt along its eye ridge guided half by the tickling echo upon his own brow, half by ear, a mixed assortment of purring whines, until he hit a slightly softer patch tucked into the folds atop the eye and barely evaded being crushed by a limp dragon. Annoyed, he watched it loll about in the grass at his feet, hind legs pawing. It was definitely humoring him.

Eventually, it realized no more scratches were forthcoming and, with a contrite look at Brand, assumed an attentive crouch that didn't fool him for a moment. He shook his head a bit ruefully. Arrogant of him to believe he could teach in one brief encounter with Smaug this lesson of mercy where his grandfather, whose ties to it were tempered by time and trial, had failed. "What I seek is a lasting peace for my children, my children's children," he said, sighing again, "and revenge, whether theirs or mine, is a poison that spreads in the blood."

The dragon, long-lived and a rare beast, would likely never know children of its own, if a creation of magic such as it could breed at all. His traitorous hand stroked the ridge of its snout, glumly aware that the radiant, balmy heat under his fingers was the flame, damped down, that had turned the Easterlings and countless others to ash. "I... misthought," Brand apologized. Smaug butted at his palm, agreeably pliant. "I did not mean to confuse you."

It said, "I do not understand why you won't simply subjugate these troublesome people," contemplative. And Brand could see in his mind's eye how easy it would be, no fortress in Rhûn a match for Erebor, which had fallen to Smaug at the height of its power, and the steppes bare for leagues of any shelter from a flying hunter. None would dare stand before them, with him at the head of his master's armies. "The strong ought to rule the weak, and I have no doubt that with my aid, you would be victorious." But Brand was recoiling, shuddering. The Dark Lord, too, had once sought an alliance with the dragon, to raze his enemies.

Studying him closely, it grumbled, "I see that your heart is yet too soft, master." Then it blinked, once, twice, and Brand felt a curious prodding in his head—not quite painful tingling pinpricks, like he'd fallen asleep on his arm. "Though you... are not the same." It made a confused noise. This man was his master but not. While the man's head was dark and his face grim, he was not as tall and thicker around the waist, hair curling more like that of his master's son. And the eyes were wrong, slanted and light brown where they should be a changeable green, the skin shading a richer brown than his master had ever tanned during the summers. No, the pull was so achingly familiar...

About time, he couldn't help thinking, a bit miffed that it'd taken the dragon this long. Granted, he hadn't been too eager himself to inform it that he was not his grandfather until he tested his hold on it. "I am Brand, son of Bain," he said now. And so there could be no mistake, he pushed at it an image of Father as a young man and his Easterling bride, with her nut-brown skin and almond-shaped eyes. "Bard the Bowman was my grandfather, Smaug." It reared back and glanced questioningly at Gerda. Another image formed in his mind, of Aunt Sigrid as it would've known her. "No, this is Lagertha, my cousin."

He expected anger, betrayal perhaps, but instead Smaug was deathly still. Brand had not realized how expressive—how very human—the dragon's face was, and abruptly a pang of regret stabbed through him that he was not gentler. As his father had sat by his side, arm draped warm over his shoulders, till a spray of stars glimmered in the calm pond where Grandfather spent many a sunny afternoon pretending to fish before he passed. Really, what he'd enjoyed was watching Dale's children at play in the water gardens and, to most of his family's exasperation, convincing them to spy for him with bribes of treats and stories about "kinging."

The dragon's grief was both softer, more muted, and deeper than Brand's as a boy or later when his father died. He bit the inside of his cheek, hard, that loss somehow keener than it'd been for ten years. Stop! he wanted to yell, but it would be futile as wishing for the waves to pause in their eternal march from the open sea to beat upon the shore.

"I'd forgotten how short the lives of Men are," Smaug said quietly, sounding tired and mournful. Of course, thought Brand. Its was the sadness of the Elves, to whom the world itself must seem fleeting. Disgust rose in its voice like foam cresting a swell and washed over him. "Foolish of me!" It finally raged, teeth gnashing, tail lashing.

Why did he stay away all this time? He was not afraid of the Men or Dwarves or Elves taking up arms against him, no matter his master's horror at that prospect, and he wouldn't let his master or his master's children come to harm. So what if his master lost a crown? There were plenty of other kingdoms to conquer and then maybe he could have seen his master to the end and not unwittingly cast himself as the thankless child, abandoned now in turn. A denial lodged in Brand's throat when it eyed him, fiercely possessive. He would do better by his master.

Brand could imagine the clamor that would be raised were Smaug to perch itself above Dale, on a bell tower or the Mountain's spurs, like a hulking, winged guard dog. It can't stay. The Dwarves would sooner empty Erebor's treasury into Long Lake than have the dragon within fifty leagues of the Mountain. The Master of Esgaroth, the Elvenking, King Théoden, the Easterling chieftains—all would feel threatened, and Brand could not fault them. For who could swear to them that Smaug and its power would not tempt him to evil or his son, his son's sons?

Smaug must have sensed his refusal. It snarled wordlessly, claws digging into the earth, and a sullen rust-red glow began to burn in its breast, seeping in molten veins between its scales. Let it try me. Brand would not yield. Mind and body braced for the strain of fighting the dragon for dominance, he nearly stumbled when Lagertha stepped forward, drawing its serpent gaze.

"My mother, Tilda, lives still," she said, inexplicably, "as does her sister Sigrid, our aunt." She had replaced her arrow in its quiver and slung her bow over a shoulder. He hissed her name, but her only reply was a hand held behind her back, out of Smaug's view, in an advance scout's signal for wait. Gerda flashed it a winsome smile, her tone soothing. "And we all have families." A slight tremble in her fingers, quickly mastered. "Would you like to meet them?"

Its interest was immediately diverted, spikes perking up and the fire in its belly cooling. While it contemplated his master's descendants—how many were there, and were they all such curious mixes of the familiar and strange, his master but not?—Gerda leaned in to whisper, "Pick your fights, cousin mine." Aunt Sigrid's words. "It'll kick at you like a mule, hungry and in a temper about Grandfather." And she was right. Brand nodded, forcibly relaxing muscles drawn taut. It was not like him to lose his composure so. Baiting a dragon! What was the matter with him?

He needed to distance himself from it. Can I? With it distracted and pleased, his heightened aggression was fast leveling. They were locked in a gyre, contracting, then widening and contracting again, a treacherous undertow of shared thoughts and feelings molding him to it or it to him, and he couldn't say which. He would have to cope with the consequences later. Already, its humors were affecting him, his worry slipping from his grasp.

"Oh, that would be sweet, indeed!" it cried. Smaug grinned, and it was a rather ghastly sight, lips peeling back from teeth that left not a sliver of doubt about its predatory nature. Then again, Brand mused, were dogs and cats not hunters, too, that men named friend? Loyal the dragon was and—he stifled a chuckle as it nuzzled at Gerda's shoulder until she swatted it across the snout, glaring unjustly at him—affectionate after its own fashion. "Come! Tell me of them!" It hummed in unvarnished excitement, cocking its head. "I've not had a nice long chat since I laired in the eastern sea stacks."

That caught Brand's attention. How exactly had Smaug met someone else willing to talk with a dragon? Several someones, even, from its mental suggestion of a routine. A frisson of alarm shot up his spine. And what became of them, when it bored of them? Bilbo Baggins braving Smaug in its den for a contest of wits, flattering it into revealing its fatal weakness, was a well-worn tale, but their conversation ended violently. He pinched the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes. Every time he fell to treating Smaug as a family pet or a sort of knavish younger cousin... Brand didn't know whether he could stand to hear of it cornering hapless adventurers for murderous chats.

As if prompted, images unfurled in his mind like a scroll: Towering slabs of black rock in a turquoise sea, carved with ledges to nap in the sun on and shelter under in the rain. A broad strip of white sand across the water. A wall of green—buzzing with insects, filled with birdsong, the rustle of leaves and smell of flowers that made his nostrils itch, rot and damp soil. Men that threw spears at him. Wood and bone, they bounced harmlessly off. He fired the men's long, narrow boats and amused himself watching them swim frantically for shore. "The people there were kind enough to provide me company," said Smaug. It was surprising when they returned bearing gifts. Brand groaned, not needing to see the dragon's self-satisfied smirk to guess what happened next. "Many fair maidens."

Gerda and he traded uneasy glances. Hesitantly, she asked, "You didn't...?" It was rumored that, in the weeks after Smaug sacked Erebor but before Men learned it would not tolerate their presence in Dale, it had crept into the city at night to steal comely young virgins from their beds. Brand figured such tavern gossip for embellishments to suit the listeners' conception of a monster, having it on good authority from his father that age, sex, and virtue were of no object to the dragon. Could it have developed a taste, though, for tender human flesh?

Sniffing, it looked vaguely insulted. "No," it scoffed, "they were skinny little things—rather unappetizing, you understand—so I set them free, in time." While not the adamant denial he was hoping for, that Smaug remembered more of the wild boar it'd eaten (succulent, gamey, tusks too large to swallow, crashing hunts in the forest) than the women it hadn't was encouraging and comforting. "And for the price of a tale not known to me."

Voices blending into the muted roar of the surf on the rocks below, language not an obstacle to magic that touched the mind. Strings of shells gleaming white against bare skin and red blossoms in dark hair. The dragon was wistful as it said, "I could share with you some and other stories of distant lands?" Brand stared. Was it lonely? "Do you think your children would like that, too?" His master's younger daughter had woven him silly crowns of spring blooms, white and yellow with sprigs of purple, chattering at him about nonsense, and he missed the sound, the absent scratch of stubby claws on his flank. Its eyes searched his face, unsure.

Brand nodded, his jaw too tight to speak. His son loved the cartographer's craft and an evening's drink by the fire with merchants and envoys from afar. None of whom could by their mere words spirit him away to exotic lands so completely as Smaug, who had explored so much more of the world than any of the travelers Dale usually hosted. Maybe it'd even flown to the shores of the fabled southern continent, beyond the eastern sea. Bard wouldn't be able to resist it.

With a muttered promise of food, he left Smaug to Gerda. Sighing, she seated herself cross-legged in the grass and obligingly petted the dragon until its head lolled beside her, eyes half lidded. Of her husband and sons she spoke, her soft voice interspersed with its low, rumbling purr. Brand took one last look at the burning wreckage it had made of the Easterling army, then returned to their boat, feet heavy. It's dangerous. He couldn't afford to forget that. Body going through the familiar motions of pushing off from shore and rowing, he wished Father had warned him of its peculiar charm.

Ragnar was waiting for him, feet spread and hands clasped behind his spear straight back as if he were presenting the companies for review on the parade grounds. His eyes flickered to the shape of Smaug's head atop the far riverbank, Gerda's smaller figure close next to it, before remarking, tone chilling, "Captain Lagertha?" Brand swallowed the urge to cough, glad for the excuse of stowing boat and oar so he could, for the moment, avoid Ragnar's accusing scowl.

One of her husband's least attractive qualities, Gerda had confided to Brand at a feast where they'd both drunk more than was their wont, was his overbearing possessiveness. It was, Brand gathered, the most common cause of their very public bouts in the training ring. Which fueled gossip among the ranks about their married life that he frankly could have done without, though Gerda and Ragnar took it in stride easily enough with their typical immodesty. "Keeping our guest company," he said lightly, motioning for Ragnar to walk with him.

Shooting the dragon and his wife a final dark stare, Ragnar fell in beside Brand, his steps angry. Deciding it would be prudent to occupy his First Marshal's mind with thoughts other than Smaug's messy death, Brand ordered, "Detail a few of your steadiest men to ferry the sheep and pigs across the river—all of them." Ragnar's pale eyes snapped to attention, and he nodded briskly, all trace of Gerda's husband vanished under the ruthless efficiency of Brand's chief general. The army would be left without fresh meat, but the men could certainly subsist on cram, cheese, and pickled fish, however much they groused, until supplies were replenished by wagon or water, and that was infinitely preferable to loosing a hungry dragon on the unsuspecting countryfolk.

His brow knitting in a frown, Brand added, "No weapons nor armor. The dragon is not hostile, but neither is it fond of strange soldiers, and I do not want to risk provoking it." In truth, he didn't know how Smaug would react to being attacked by some excitable green boy, perhaps, with delusions of gaining fame for himself as a dragonslayer or finishing what Grandfather could not. It might kill the fool for an upstart as Brand would swat a fly. It might ignore everyone else entirely with Gerda entertaining it with stories of their family, and admittedly it was unlikely to come to harm by any bow or sword a lone man could wield while crouched on its belly. There was no sense in taking chances. "None cross the river except by my leave, yours or Lagertha's. Keep the company of archers on guard. You have the command on this bank."

They walked through camp now, and Brand was relieved to see that things had returned to a semblance of normalcy in his absence: The men congregated at cookfires, stirring pots and handing around loaves of bread, cram, skins of water and the occasional metal flask of stiffer libations that the drinkers cheekily raised in toast to Brand. Whetstones had been abandoned for brushes, needle and thread, as many used the reprieve from battle preparations to care for their mounts and mend their clothing. Though he spotted, too, more than a dozen archers still fletching arrows with grim determination.

Brand meant to speak some words of reassurance—the Easterlings routed, the dragon mastered!—but was forestalled by the solemn nods, knuckles touched to foreheads, and quiet, awed greetings of "Your Majesty," even from the wags. He was not Bard the Bargeman, who till the end of his days wore his titles like a man nonplussed at his good fortune; Brand was a prince by birth, heir to a kingdom that reached far south and east, wealthy in gold, trade, and alliances. But for the first time since he received the crown from his father's hands, frail with age, he felt unworthy of it and of his people's trust. Had his lie weighed so heavily on Grandfather, wondered Brand, when he was hailed as savior by the survivors of Laketown, leadership thrust upon him?

A noise from Ragnar startled him; Brand half expected the man to have already rushed off on his orders, not being one for needless delay. It was clear from Ragnar's crooked smile, however, his eyes sliding from the gestures of homage to Brand's face, that he was well aware of the men's mood and had a word or two to say about it.

"Should we have been calling King Bard Dragontamer," he asked cheerfully, "instead of Dragonshooter all these years?" Brand winced. Ragnar's cheer was honed sharp as the blades of his axes. But before Brand could offer any excuse, he shook his head and said, "No, no need to explain." His expression was pensive as he sought the right words.

Finally, Ragnar continued, voice low and thick, "I won't pretend that I could understand what magic binds you to the beast. I have but one question, my lord." Nodding gravely, Brand vowed to himself that he would answer to the fullest—no more deception. "Who else has your power?" And with a jolt, Brand realized that Ragnar, not a political innocent or untutored in the control of sensitive knowledge, feared for his family.

Gripping Ragnar's shoulder in a burst of sympathy, Brand said, kindly, "While it is not an exact art, there seems to be one like me among every set of siblings." This they had discovered on that long ago stay at Grandfather's cottage, the Withered Heath near over the fence of the Grey Mountains, though it was impossible to tell whether the ability to form a deeper connection with the dragon was limited to a select few or potential born into all, woken at random and jealous of being shared. "My grandfather, of course, Dame Tilda, and not Gerda, but Helga." He was inclined to believe the latter, that his parents or he and his wife were destined to have only one child not an implication that sat well with him.

"And my sons?" Ragnar gritted out, face a little paler. Whipcord hard muscle bunched under Brand's palm in a shrugging dismissal, and he let his hand fall away with a sigh. He couldn't help thinking again of Bard, who so resembled his namesake, and of how Father had gone still at seeing the birthmark red on his grandson's skin, where neck met shoulder: a delicate ring of evenly spaced dots, smooth to the touch, that never distorted from the shape of a bite.

It was Helga, Brand remembered, who suggested, part in jest, that the babe be named after Grandfather in the fashion of the Dwarves and their Durin the Deathless, and to this day, Brand was torn between wanting to laugh at her sheer audacity and strangle her for putting the idea in his wife's head. "They are young yet," he told Ragnar, "but... Sigurd, perhaps." The younger boy had in common with his grandmother and Aunt Helga, even Brand, a certain dreaminess, mind prone to wandering the labyrinth of his own thoughts or far afield, as if seeking something, someone.

Cautiously, Brand ventured, "If you wish to learn for sure, Ragnar, it has shown an interest in meeting the rest of the family." Aunt Tilda would come, tiring as she found travel these days, and probably sail down the River Running so she could cajole Aunt Sigrid from the comforts of her home for the trip up the Redwater. It'd be weeks before they were gathered, from his mother, wife, and son in Dale to Aunt Sigrid's eldest and his brood of six, counting Brand's newest great-nephew, on Grandfather's estate. Yet that Smaug would wait as long as need be—what was a month or three to a creature that lived millennia?—he had no doubt. He may have to reimburse the local herders for the loss of their flocks, after all.

Ragnar wanted to refuse, Brand could tell from the pinched line of his mouth, his wary stance. In the end, he agreed haltingly, "I shall consider it, sire," shoulders rounding. Brand almost felt compelled to apologize, on his cousin's behalf, for the trouble the man had unwittingly courted by marrying into their house, unappreciated though he knew the sentiment would be, coming from him.

Luckily, they were spared his ill-conceived attempts at consolation when Ragnar abruptly straightened, then bowed his head and reported, tones clipped, "King Dáin awaits you in your tent, with an Elven rider from King Thranduil." He must have been less than successful in disguising his dismay because Ragnar softened a bit. One corner of his lips quirked upwards, and Brand noted with a sinking feeling the glint in his eye.

"Brand," he said, "I'm wroth that you and Lagertha and your whole damn family have kept such a dangerous secret—a dragon, gods be good!—from the rest of the world, and I expect I'll be so for a stint." Pausing, he bowed again, this time at the waist. "But you are my king and friend, my brother. You have my support and Dale's, for the many years you, your father and grandfather ruled wisely." He grinned. "Couldn't hurt to grovel some, though. If it is forgiveness you want." And with that parting advice and a jaunty wave, Ragnar took his leave, striding purposely in the direction of the livestock pens.

Thranduil's messenger awaited Brand outside his tent, the familiar, dark-haired Elf seemingly absorbed in adjusting his horse's tack and unhappy by the stiff curve of his spine, turned to the camp. "Gilvagor," Brand greeted him, "what news from the Elvenking?"

Horse and master both bore signs not only of a hard ride from Mirkwood, Brand saw with rising alarm, but of battle. Gilvagor's arm was in a sling crude by Elven standards, his mount's dun coat stained with dried blood beneath a saddle that usually he eschewed. Dol Guldur. Thranduil's borders were tested earlier this summer by orcs to free a prisoner whose identity and importance Brand was not privy to until Rivendell; the woodland guard had been on high alert ever since.

Gilvagor's smile was drawn tight at the edges, the Elf having guessed the path of Brand's thoughts. "Tidings of war, King Brand," he confirmed with the barest tilt of his head. "Dol Guldur marches in force upon our lands and our kin to the south."

Merry as children the Wood Elves could be, their joy sparkling like sunlight on water. It was oft easy to forget that most of them, despite their youthful faces and unmarred hands, had slain more orcs than Brand had encountered in his life, before the very gates of Mordor generations of Men ago. Not so now, Brand marked warily. "My lord sent me with word that the Elves cannot spare you any of our warriors to drive back the Easterlings from your borders," Gilvagor continued, "lest we be overwhelmed ourselves.

"He sent also his apologies." While his voice was airy, Gilvagor burned with the cold gleam of naked steel, as if a veil had been lifted from Brand's eyes and the Elf's profile thrown into blinding relief. He cocked his head at Brand, not a ripple disturbing his polite mien. "Yet I see that you do not require our aid." Under his collar, Brand's neck itched furiously.

"No," he said simply. Gilvagor arched an eyebrow, but Brand stoutly refused to elaborate, adding instead, "But we offer you ours." He would answer for Smaug to Thranduil and Dáin, to his kin and his people—no one else. Still, it was a struggle to keep his voice steady at the cool Elven appraisal, emotion stirring in Gilvagor's eyes like a submerged swimmer in dark waters that might have been anger or amusement, contempt or perhaps the most surprising of Elven traits in its zeal, curiosity. "We will march for Mirkwood today and push on through the night."

"Dáin Ironfoot has pledged likewise," Gilvagor informed him, following a rather discomfiting pause during which his gaze flicked over Brand from head to toe. Then he vaulted onto his horse in a deft leap no Man could hope to imitate, much less with an injured arm. "Once the Woodland Realm has been rid of the Enemy's filth," he said, looking westward, "my lord Thranduil intends to join his kinsman, Lord Celeborn, in destroying Dol Guldur."

Brand breathed a sigh of relief that Dale's alliance with the Elves, though shaken, would stand at least until the present threat was vanquished. Gilvagor's parting words, however, were ominous. "With your leave, I shall return to tell my lord of... your victory here." He watched as Gilvagor rode away between the tents at a breakneck pace, men scattering before him, and continued to stare unseeing after the Elf for long minutes.

There was Dáin to confer with and an army to ready, but he couldn't face the Dwarf, the only thought, besides how Thranduil could cut a man down to size literally as well as figuratively, that penetrated his haze of exhaustion a plaintive whine that it was midday and he'd eaten neither breakfast nor lunch. What he wouldn't give for a mutton chop! Fat and juices sizzling as he seared the carcass to tasty perfection, blood hot in his mouth from the kill. Groaning, he mentally hurried Ragnar about the duty of feeding Smaug and, steeling himself, ducked into his tent to do his.

"Sit," Dáin said from where he leant against the table, one boot crossed casually over the other and arms folded. As Brand obeyed, trying not to shuffle or hang his head like an errant schoolboy called to task, Dáin poured a generous helping of mead into a cup, one of two, from an intricately engraved metal flask he capped and tucked into his tunic when done. He pushed the cup towards Brand with a low grunt, then a plate upon which Brand's abandoned breakfast had been joined by a whole fish. No roast mutton, thought Brand, weirdly disappointed. Grabbing his own already filled cup and tipping it at Brand, Dáin commented, "You look like you could use the drink."

Mead sweet and spiced on his tongue, the knots in Brand's shoulders loosened, gradually. He inhaled deeply the scent of apples. Fresh from Dale's orchards, he knew, brewed by the Dwarves with rich honey from the Beornings and aged in the Mountain's cellars. It was redolent of grass and flowers, and he wanted to stretch his wings and roll about as he had in the meadows of his childhood, scales warmed by the sun.

With an effort, he disentangled himself from the dragon, its memories gossamer threads, and said, lips numb, "King Dáin, ask of me what you will about Sma—"

"There never was any wild cat," interrupted Dáin. It was not a question. Brand blinked at him, uncomprehending, until he continued with a snort, "And the sudden interest in sheepherding!" For the first three years, Brand remembered, the family had raised Smaug in their townhouse, the dragon thankfully not growing as fast as Grandfather feared or even as a human child did.

Percy or Hilda or another of Grandfather's old friends from Laketown had stopped by unannounced and caught Aunt Sigrid in the middle of dealing with one of Smaug's more destructive temper tantrums. It flew to hide—to sulk, Aunt Sigrid maintained—in the rafters at the knock on the door, just as they'd taught it to, but there was no hiding the mess of shredded curtains and blankets, the floor and furniture dusted with feathers from the gutted pillows. Thus began the story of King Bard's monstrous cat, that could score wood with its claws and whose existence nobody seemed to have actually witnessed, though several visitors swore to the feeling of being watched by a malicious presence.

Smaug, Father told him, had treated it as a stalking game, its hunter's instincts more than a match for the unaware townsfolk. And Dáin would have heard the jokes when members of the family appeared in market or council with scratched hands, arms, and faces.

"I thought that a flimsy and unnecessary excuse to escape his petitioners in Dale every few months, most of the rebuilding completed," Dáin was saying, "and to allow his children a life away from the public eye, as they'd once enjoyed. But it was the dragon all along, wasn't it?" Brand nodded, and Dáin... laughed. A full belly rumble.

"Your family are awful liars," he decided at last, his chuckle still lining the edges of his voice, "and would have been found out decades ago, had anyone gotten in his head the daft idea that the dragon wasn't dead." Brand supposed he might have felt insulted on his family's behalf, since they were clearly not so terrible at lying as to fail in deceiving three realms, but at the moment he settled for being grateful that Dáin's anger had mellowed. "Tell me everything, laddie," said the King Under the Mountain.

Where to begin? Smaug had been an unspoken secret for so long now that, without the driving urgency of battle, the words of its tale and his grandfather's crowded behind his teeth, reluctant to pass. Every person in the world who was blood kin to him and dear—they were all of them bound to it and its strange fate. How had Aunt Tilda done it? He smiled wryly.

"It is an unpleasant thing to wake to a dragon in your hair," Brand said, "but in the days leading to the Battle of Five Armies, this became a sadly common experience for my grandfather..."

· · ·


Author's Notes

Tolkien doesn't have a whole lot to say about the Battle of Dale or the events leading up to it, but there's enough canon to get a sense of the timeline and general troop movements as well as make an educated guess as to the sizes of the armies involved. First, the borders of Brand's kingdom have to be drawn.

[Glóin:] 'Nowhere are there any men so friendly to us as the Men of Dale. They are good folk, the Bardings. The grandson of Bard the Bowman rules them, Brand son of Bain son of Bard. He is a strong king, and his realm now reaches far south and east of Esgaroth.' (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II, Chapter I, "Many Meetings")

To the Great Hall of Thráin, Thrór brought back the Arkenstone, and he and his folk prospered and became rich, and they had the friendship of all Men that dwelt near. For they made not only things of wonder and beauty but weapons and armour of great worth; and there was great traffic of ore between them and their kin in the Iron Hills. Thus the Northmen who lived between Celduin (River Running) and Carnen (Redwater) became strong and drove back all enemies from the East; and the Dwarves lived in plenty, and there was feasting and song in the Halls of Erebor. (The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A, "Durin's Folk")

Assuming then that the Northmen are as strong or more so, united under Brand's crown (Esgaroth excluded, perhaps), as when Thrór ruled as King Under the Mountain, the greater realm of Dale likely consists of all the land between the River Running in the west and the Redwater in the east, which takes its name from the ore in the Iron Hills. This is an area roughly comparable to Rohan, and the Bardings, who are kin to the Rohirrim, probably live in much the same way, in scattered farming and fishing villages. Dale is, of course, the largest city but, strategically, I'd expect there to be another fortified town where the Celduin and Carnen meet at the kingdom's southernmost point.

In military terms and, again, using Rohan as a model, I feel an army of no more than 10,000 is plausible for the whole of Dale, with the town of Dale supplying a good half of this force—not only infantry and cavalry, but a small fleet to patrol and defend the rivers. Brand's problem, like Théoden's on the eve of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, is that his is not primarily a standing army and mustering soldiers who are usually busy being farmers and fishermen takes time on the order of weeks. The Easterlings are not so accomodating as that. When the Council of Elrond convenes on October 25 (The Lord of the Rings, Appendix B: The Tale of Years), they're already posturing threateningly on their side of the Redwater.

[Glóin:] 'We discover that messengers [from Mordor] have come also to King Brand in Dale and that he is afraid. We fear that he may yield. Already war is gathering on his eastern borders. If we make no answer, the Enemy may move Men of his rule to assail King Brand and Dáin also.' (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II, Chapter II, "The Council of Elrond")

From Appendix B, some relevant dates:


11 | First assault on Lórien.
14 | Minas Tirith is besieged.
15 | Battle under the trees in Mirkwood; Thranduil repels the forces of Dol Guldur. Second assault on Lórien.
17 | Battle of Dale. King Brand and King Dáin Ironfoot fall. Many Dwarves and Men take refuge in Erebor and are besieged.
22 | Third assault on Lórien.
25 | Downfall of Barad-dûr and passing of Sauron.
27 | Bard II and Thorin III Stonehelm drive the enemy from Dale.
28 | Celeborn crosses Anduin; destruction of Dol Guldur begun.


6 | Meeting of Celeborn and Thranduil.

Lastly, the account of the battle and siege, also from Appendix B:

At the same time as the great armies besieged Minas Tirith, a host of the allies of Sauron that had long threatened the borders of King Brand crossed the River Carnen, and Brand was driven back to Dale. There he had the aid of the Dwarves of Erebor; and there was a great battle at the Mountain's feet. It lasted three days, but in the end both King Brand and King Dáin Ironfoot were slain, and the Easterlings had the victory. But they could not take the gate, and many, both Dwarves and Men, took refuge in Erebor and there withstood a siege.

When news came of the great victories in the South, then Sauron's northern army was filled with dismay; and the besieged came forth and routed them, and the remnant fled into the East and troubled Dale no more. Then Bard II, Brand's son, became King in Dale, and Thorin III Stonehelm, Dáin's son, became King Under the Mountain.

Note that the Easterlings cross the Carnen on March 14, but the battle at the Mountain's feet doesn't begin until three days later and then lasts three days in what, if I'm not mistaken, is the longest single engagement during the War of the Ring. My guess is that, owing to the difficulties of mustering his forces quickly and defending the entire length of his eastern border, Brand doesn't have the numbers to do more than harry the enemy after he fails to stop them at the river. Once he retreats to Dale, he's joined by Dáin and probably several thousand Dwarven warriors, and together with the advantages of better weapons and armor, whatever fortifications had been raised, they slow the enemy to a crawl, such that it takes the Easterlings three bloody days to press down the valley between the Mountain's eastern and southern spurs, as described in The Hobbit, to reach the gates of Erebor. That is where Brand and Dáin finally fall, as night gathers on March 19/20.

While the Easterlings have the victory in the Battle of Dale, it costs them so severely that they can only besiege the Mountain, for a full week, rather than overwhelming its defenses by storm. Not to mention, they almost kind of give up and go home or the military equivalent. Besides low morale upon hearing word of Sauron's fall (the Eagles!), I've speculated that the Easterlings suffer from a lack of command unity—possibly because they were intended to join the forces of Dol Guldur or vice versa with the three Nazgûl, led by Khamûl, himself once an Easterling, originally in command there as their generals; possibly because their best fighting units were deployed in the south against Gondor—and are attacked by levies from Dale's outlying villages come to break the siege. Helm's Deep and Minas Tirith are similarly relieved by the defenders sallying forth when new reinforcements arrive on the field.

Here Smaug routs the Easterlings on the morning of March 12, leaving Brand and Dáin time enough to gather their forces and march to Thranduil's aid in Mirkwood. The Battle of Dale never happens, and neither does the third assault on Lórien. Instead, with the Men and Dwarves lending his enemies unexpected numbers, Sauron's orc army is not only defeated in short order but driven south to Dol Guldur, which is besieged and destroyed before the Ring is cast into the fires of Mount Doom. News of victory in the north is brought by the Eagles to the Captains of the West at the Black Gate, heartening the allied host for the final effort. Emissaries from Dale and Erebor, with a strange tale to tell, follow down the Anduin for King Elessar's coronation on May 1.

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