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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.
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