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Sharper Than A Serpent's Tooth  by Yeade

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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.

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