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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..."
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