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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.
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