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Dragon, Ghost, King and Bowman

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Lake-town

The Master of Lake-town’s office. The Master is at his desk. Bard stands before him, between several burly guards.

“The treasury of Lake-town,” the Master said, shaking his head sadly, “Is sadly much less full than we would all like it to be. Expenses have been terribly high. For the good of the town, I say, the good of the town, we need to top it up. It’s come to my attention that there’s a mountain full of gold very close at hand. A wonderful opportunity!” He beamed under his elaborate moustache. “And you, Bard, have been selected to help with this important mission!”

Bard stared at him incredulously. “I’m not going near the Mountain,” he said flatly. “It has a dragon in it. You can’t have forgotten that. You can still see what happened to Dale!”

The Master beamed. “That was over a hundred years ago! The dragon hasn’t been seen once since then. Probably it died long ago. A thing that size has got to eat. We’d have seen it if it was still about.”

“You can’t mean that. Dragons live for thousands of years, the legends say...”

“Ah well! Legends and fairy-tales, children’s stories. You can’t go taking them literally! It may even be that the dragon never existed. It might be a metaphor.”

“A metaphor.” Bard said blankly.

“Yes indeed! Economic turmoil, a volcanic eruption or an army carrying torches could do just as much damage and is far more likely. In fact... and I am an educated man... the more I think about it, the more likely that seems. There is no dragon. We need to take advantage of the resources available to us, and that means that mountain full of gold!”

“No.” Bard said, almost unable to believe he had to say it. “I won’t do it. It’s a fool idea and I have children to look after.”

The Master narrowed his eyes. “Yes, so I hear. Three delightful children. Your lovely wife dead of course, so sad. And you a bargeman out all day upon the lake. Really, not a good environment for them, left alone so much. And the eldest old enough to be at work.”

He shook his head, his long face a caricature of sympathy. “I think we had better arrange to place your children in a more suitable environment. The boy can be apprenticed out: that way he will be properly supervised and become a profitable member of society. As a chimney-sweep, perhaps, or pumping the bellows in the smithy. And the girls should go to the orphanage. We can’t have them all alone!”

“No!” Bard said frantically, stepping forward. One of the guards put out a hand and pulled him back. “No, they stay with me!”

“No?” The Master said thoughtfully. “Well, if you did agree to carry out this little mission to explore the mountain and begin the exploitation of its resources, that would be a great boon to the town. You’d be a benefactor, really. I’m sure we could make accommodations for a good citizen.” His voice went cold. “Do it or lose them.” He got up and stalked around the desk until he was standing right in front of Bard, leant forward and whispered delicately in his ear. “If I have to arrange for them to have a fatal accident, I will .”

Bard made a defeated gesture. “Fine,” he said. “But I’m taking weapons.”

“Excellent!” the Master of Lake-town said, stepping back and leaning on the desk, with his many-ringed hands resting on his velvet-clad paunch. “Making plans already. Good man, Bard. You leave tomorrow.”

The Gate of Erebor.

Bard stands before the gate, a tiny figure against the tall cliffs, still marked with carved figures. The dark main gate of Erebor looms above him.

There was no way into the mountain that Bard knew of, except for the great charred and blackened hole where once the Gates of Erebor had stood.

He adjusted his pack so that the black windlance arrow was convenient to his hand, and with trembling hands lit a small dark-lamp. The tales said that the Mountain had been filled with lamps and windows, bringing light into the heart of the Mountain, but now it was black, and smelt charred. He looked back over his shoulder for a moment, thought of Tilda, Sigrid, and Bain, and stepped forward into the darkness.

Deep Inside the Lonely Mountain

A great cave-hall, silent, and dark, floored with a vast mound of gold and jewels that sparkle in the faint light of Bard’s lantern.

The riches of the Lonely Mountain were beyond anything Bard had ever seen or imagined. He took one step forward, staring astonished, bent and picked up a small shining cup, elegantly worked with fine angular lines, that had rolled away from the hoard. Then he looked up at the hoard and as his eyes became used to it saw... saw the great curve of a back, the sweeping line of what was, surely, a monstrous tail winding amid the gold.

He set down the cup, carefully, so very carefully, so that it would not make the faintest sound, and pulled out the long black windlance arrow.

This was a terrible plan. How had he thought this could ever work? Walk into the mountain with a windlance arrow and just... kill the dragon that had slain so many? He cursed himself for an idiot.

And then the gold shifted, and just ahead of him, a monstrous eye opened, glowing, kaleidoscopic, with a hypnotic darkness at the centre.

Before he could stop himself, Bard looked straight into it.

“Welcome, thief!” The dragon’s voice was like molden gold. “One of the Lake-town rats, I see, come to wake me from my slumber.”

Bard’s hand on the long spear-like arrow could not move. “I didn’t intend to wake you,” he said. The dragon’s eye was hypnotic. He knew he should look away, but he could not do it.

“I’m sure you did not,” the dragon said, and laughed so that great echoes ran away around the chamber. “But as it happens, I was rousing anyway. My sleep has been uneasy of late, O ragged thief. What is your name and lineage?”

The darkness at the centre of the dragon’s eye, the shimmer of the treasure all around seemed to be whirling before Bard’s horrified eyes. His head was spinning and he could not focus his thoughts. “Bard...” he said weakly.

“Hmmmm?” the dragon said encouragingly.

“Bard of Esgaroth, of the line of Girion of Dale,” he said, knowing it was a mistake but unable to resist. The black arrow fell from his nerveless hand and clanged on the floor.

The dragon smiled vastly and exhaled, sending a breath of blazing hot air into Bard’s face. It smelled of sulphur, and stung his eyes, and yet he could barely blink.

“A ragged lordling!” it exclaimed, monstrously delighted. “Tempting though it is to simply eat you for breakfast, I think I shall have another use for you, Bard of Esgaroth, of the line of Girion. Fell deeds awake. Darkness stirs again in Middle-earth. I feel it in my bones; a darkness that is old and strong, but it may not command Me. Your petty forefather Girion was a leader of Men, but so was my great ancestor. I am of the line of Glaurung the Golden, Father of Dragons, Master of the Armies of Angband. I am Smaug the Magnificent, King under the Mountain, and I am now grown great and strong. When I was young, I descended on Men and Dwarves in flame, but now I have a mind to take command of my subjects. You shall begin your service to me by giving me news, Bard of Esgaroth. Speak .”

The questioning seemed to stretch on forever, and at the same time, was over far too quickly. Questions about Lake-town: how it was organised, how many people were there, how they were armed. Questions about the Dwarves of the Iron Hills to which Bard did not know the answers, could not answer even when the Dragon pressed him until his ears rang. Questions about the Elves of Mirkwood, about the Necromancer, about Gondor, which was to Bard no more than a name from old stories. Questions about Dorwinion, about the woodmen of Wilderland.

Bard had no wish to answer, but now, staring into the Dragon’s eyes, found he had no choice. He had never been grateful before for ignorance, but now he was, even though it hurt when the Dragon pressed him.

But at last and still all too soon, it was over.

“Enough!” Smaug declared, as Bard panted, terrified, exhausted and struggling to stay standing. “We go to Lake-town.”

Lake-town and the Dragon.

On the shore of the Long Lake, the sky overhead is dark. The lights of Lake-town can be seen reflecting in the water, and the massive form of Smaug stands by the lake, wings raised. Before him is the tiny figure of Bard, head bowed. Beside him, cowering before the Dragon, is the huddled figure of the Master of Lake-town.

Bard could smell something that was probably piss, and suspected that the Master had wet himself. After the terrifying flight from Erebor to the lakeside, clutched in Smaug’s great talons, Bard almost felt some sympathy for the pathetic man.

Smaug, sailing in quietly on great wings, unlooked for, had ripped the roof off the Master’s house, and plucked him from it as neatly as a thrush plucking a snail from a broken shell, and carried him away before the guards had even begun to think about finding bows.

“Of course, my lord,” the Master said, bowing obsequiously.

Smaug let out a trickle of flame that washed around his nose and his great teeth.

“Your Majesty,” the Master hastily corrected himself. “I promise you Lake-town will do all we can to serve the King under the Mountain. Anything you ask for. Anything!”

“Pigs,” Smaug said thoughtfully. “You shall have the honour of bringing me a meal of fat pork.” He extended a long savage claw and poked the Master carefully in the stomach. “I like a fat pig. After that, I shall see my full force of Men lined up on the shore, where I can inspect them. My servant Bard here will take command of them.”

“But your Majesty...” the Master said weakly.

“Yes?” The Dragon fixed the Master with his flame-like gaze.

The Master of Lake-town was braver than Bard had imagined. “Well, if I can offer you just a helpful word in your ear, the town already has a perfectly good guard captain. This ragamuffin here... Well, he’s not exactly captain material, if you know what I mean. Not very obedient. I can offer you much better servants. Ones that will get the job done , if you know what I mean.”

The Master and Smaug regarded Bard together. Although their size and appearance was very different, to Bard’s eyes, the pair of them seemed to have rather too much in common. Both were merciless, and both were in love with gold.

“He is descended from the Lords of Dale,” Smaug hissed, after a long moment.

“We don’t put too much store on that sort of thing nowadays,” the Master said confidentially. “We’re practical people. Servants of the King under the Mountain don’t need Lords of Dale.”

Suddenly, Smaug roared with laughter and prodded the Master again with a long sharp claw. “I’ll take your counsel, pissy little Man,” he said. “He can fetch my pigs instead. A more fitting duty. Go, pigboy! Bring my pigs!”

The dark hold on his mind from the Dragon’s eyes pushed at him, and he stumbled, then, feeling like a horse cruelly spurred, set off across the causeway, running. There were people gathered at the other end of the causeway when he reached it, but he ignored their questions, and raced to the nearest pig pen, where he flung open the gates and urged the pigs out onto the causeway. “Shoo them across,” he said to the people huddled by the end of the causeway, eyes wide and faces pale. “The Master says Lake-town serves the Dragon now. It’s tribute.”

Some of them would have argued, but they looked across the causeway to the shore where the Master of Lake-town stood beside the dragon, and thought better of it.

From where he stood now, he could not see the Dragon’s compelling eyes, and nor could it see him. He leant against the nearest wall, taking long, sobbing breaths, unable to believe he was still alive.

A small warm hand was pushed into his. “Father?” a voice said, a little uncertainly. “Are you all right?”

He took a deep breath and swallowed. His mouth was filled with the sharp, sulphurous smell of dragon. But Tilda needed him. “Yes, I’m fine, Tilda. Don’t worry. But we’re going to have to leave home, I’m afraid. Come on, let’s get your things and get down to the boat. Hurry now!” He praised the stars silently that the barge was moored on the western side of the town. With luck, they would not be spotted as they sailed away.

Clear Sight in Mirkwood

The cave-palace of Thranduil, Elven-king of Mirkwood. A room walled with sculpted trees so finely made they seem almost to move in the wind is seemingly empty, but for a pile of delicious-looking cakes on a large platter. One cake lifts into the air.

“I can see you, spirit.” The Elven-king stepped from the shadowy seat among the carven trees where he had been sitting silently. Bilbo dropped the cake and stared at him. He had been living in the palace for some time now, trying to find a way out for his friends, and he knew the Elves could not see him when he was wearing his ring.

Apparently, the Elven-king could. He was looking right at Bilbo, as if the ring made no difference at all.

“Take some of my food, freely with my blessing, and leave,” the Elven-king said, and sighed. “I can see you are not a servant of evil, but I have enough problems without a petty thief about the place.”

Since there seemed to be no help for it, Bilbo put his hand in his pocket, slid the ring from his finger, and bowed low. The Elven-king arched one delicate eyebrow in mild surprise.

“Not a ghost then. I wondered what use one who was in the realm of ghosts would have for a cake. Why do you wander my halls?”

“I’m terribly sorry about this,” Bilbo said, embarrassed. “I didn’t mean to end up inside your home stealing your cakes! But I’m afraid I can’t leave, because I can’t open the gates, and I’m many hundreds of miles from my home and I don’t know how to find food in the forest, and anyway it’s full of spiders that want to eat me.” Also, he had not come all this way to leave his friends stuck in the Elven-king’s cells, but it was probably better not to mention that. “I stuck a few of them with Sting,” he patted his little sword rather proudly. “But it was all rather horrible, and I would rather not do it again, if that’s all right.”

Both of the Elven-king’s eyebrows were now raised, but he also looked amused, which was a great relief to Bilbo.

“Have a nut-cake,” the Elven-king said gesturing to the platter, “And then you can explain to me who you are, and what you are doing here, so far from your home, hunting the spiders of the Necromancer. You look like one of the Halfling folk, but I have not seen any of them in over a thousand years. To the best of my recollection, they did not hunt giant spiders, nor did they dodge in and out of the spirit realm at will.”

“It’s a knack,” Bilbo said modestly, picking up the cake he had dropped from the platter. He thought the Elven-king very impressive and wonderful, but he was also very grand and rather scary. Bilbo certainly was not inclined to tell him anything about his ring.

“My name is Bilbo Baggins. I came here from my country in the West,” he said cautiously. “It’s called the Shire. I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of it, but it’s on the borders of the Tower Hills that look out to the Sea.”

The Elven-king’s eyebrows went up. “You live near the Sea? In the lands of my kinsman Círdan?”

Bilbo frantically searched his memory for stories of Elves. “I think he probably lives a bit further West,” he said. Inspiration struck. “But I do know Elrond. In fact, I stayed in Rivendell for a while on my way here. A perfectly lovely chap.”

“You are a friend of Elrond of Imladris?” the Elven-king said thoughtfully, narrowing his eyes. “He too is my kinsman... in a remote way. But Elrond’s friends are not always mine. What are you doing here?”

Now this was a very difficult question, because Bilbo had no desire to get himself locked up with his friends, and he was not at all sure exactly why the Elven-king had imprisoned them, though he knew a little by now of the long and difficult history between the Elves and the Dwarves.

“I was travelling with Gandalf, but we were waylaid by goblins and wargs, then I got lost in the woods and became entangled with the spiders by accident,” he said.

The Elven-king looked disdainfully incredulous. “You were travelling with Mithrandir ? How can I be sure that this is true?”

There was no answer to this, so Bilbo took refuge in his best business manner. “Well, I’m afraid I am not carrying a letter of recommendation signed by seven witnesses in red ink. If I had only thought of it, I would certainly have secured one, but unfortunately this is my first journey to these parts, and I have found myself rather ill-prepared. But I assure you, O great King of Elves, that I am considered quite a respectable person in my own country. Indeed, I am the head of the Baggins family, and in the Shire, Gandalf is considered rather more respectable because of his association with me!”

The Elven-king looked down at Bilbo from his great height, and stared intently at him with piercing blue eyes. Then, unexpectedly, the corner of his mouth quirked up.

“I cannot imagine that you are a servant of the Necromancer in disguise, Bilbo Baggins of the Shire,” he said. “And if you were a trickster or a common criminal, you would be able to come up with a more likely story than that. So you are who you say you are. And though I would not count Mithrandir entirely a friend of mine, I need every blade I can get against the spiders that infest my Greenwood, and you are on the right side. You are a welcome guest in my home. I am Thranduil the King. Stars shine on the hour of our meeting.”

Bilbo Baggins bowed low. “At your service, and your family’s!” he said, much relieved. “May I ask, why is it that you can see me, even when I can't be seen by any of the other Elves?” he asked, feeling daring. He took a mouthful of nutcake.

Thranduil shrugged elegantly. “My mother learned her arts from Melian, Queen of Doriath long ago,” he said. “We are not bereft of strength or enchantment here in the Greenwood, no matter what your wizard out of the West may have told you.”

“Actually,” Bilbo said, “He didn’t tell me much at all about you, or Mirkwood. He can be a bit close about sharing information, I’ve found.”

Thranduil’s mouth pulled up at the side in an unwilling smile. “Yes. The servants of the West have their own ideas of what the rest of us need to know. Your friend Elrond included. He has forgotten who he is, I fear. But I have not. Our enemies press ever closer about us, Bilbo Baggins of the Shire. To the North, Mount Gundabad is filled with orcs that hate us. To the East lies the Dragon. To the South are spiders, the foul beasts of the Emyn-nu-Fuin, and the strange and terrible power of the Necromancer creeps closer every year, twisting the trees and hiding the stars. My people are too few, and I need every one of them to hold my own. And there are none that we can call on for aid. Your friend in Imladris looks to the West beyond the Sea, not to us.” There was a sharp bitterness in his voice.

“Oh dear,” Bilbo said inadequately.

“Yes,” the Elven-king said. “Oh dear. It has been some little time since a friend has come to us out of the West, even a small one. I shall hope that your coming is a good omen, Bilbo Baggins. Hope is something we still have left.”

Refugees from Lake-town

Sunset on the Forest River, on the outskirts of Mirkwood. Elves guarding the quay where the boats of traders from Lake-town put in look out on a line of small boats struggling upstream against the current. These are not all the boats of Lake-town. Many of the people of Lake-town chose not to flee their homes. After all, the Dragon has not actually killed anyone in Lake-town. Yet.

“Come on Neldorien,” Bard coaxed, from the barge. “You know me. I’ve brought goods here many a time. Let us at least land and find the children somewhere warm to shelter.”

Neldorien, standing on the quayside, looked away, looking deeply unhappy. “I’m under orders not to,” she said. She was holding her bow, but at least the arrow was not at the string. “It’s for the King to decide, Bard, you know that. I’ve sent him word.”

“We have nowhere else to go.” Bard said desperately, very aware of Sigrid beside him, quietly holding Tilda’s hand. They were being so brave.

There was a quiet step behind Neldorien, and Bard saw a taller elf, his golden hair caught back into fine braids. “Who are these people?”

Neldorien greeted him with a brief half-salute. This was someone important, apparently. “Men fleeing from Lake-town, my lord Legolas,” she said.“This is Bard, a barge-man of Lake-town who is known to me.”

“The Dragon has awoken and has taken over of our town,” Bard said. “We had no choice but to leave. Help us, please!”

“I’d like to let them land, but standing orders are that no Man or Dwarf should come beyond the quay without permission from the king.” Neldorien added unhappily.

“So let us land at the quay then!” Bard demanded. In the arms of a silent woman whose head was bowed, a baby began to wail.

The golden-haired elf looked at the child for a moment, and then along the ragtag line of small boats and frowned, but he did not look unkind. Bard dared to hope.

“My father will not want children left in the cold,” Legolas said at last, and Bard heaved a sigh of relief. “Neldorien, I will take responsibility. Bring your people ashore, Bard. You can shelter in the storehouses here for now. Neldorien, make sure they have a fire and blankets. I’ll arrange for people to bring something to eat.”

News from Lake-town

The throne-room of the Elven-king. Bard glances around wide-eyed at the finely-carved walls as he enters behind Legolas. Thranduil is sitting on his great horned throne. Bilbo Baggins is sitting in a corner, looking uncomfortable.

“This Man is Bard of Esgaroth,” Legolas said, his eyes darting briefly around the dimly-lit room, and then back to the king. “He brings news. Ill fortune has overtaken the Long Lake. The Dragon has awakened once more, and has won Lake-town to his cause.”

Thranduil stiffened and for a long moment he did not reply. “So now the circle of our enemies is complete. Men have fallen again into the service of evil,” he said, and sighed.

“Not all of us,” Bard said firmly. “I have led all that would follow me of the people of Lake-town here. It was the only place left that we could go.” He hesitated for a moment. “I ask your aid, in the name of the old alliance between the Woodland Realm and Dale. My forefather was Girion of Dale.”

Thranduil stood up. He seemed impossibly tall and shining, a being quite on a different level to any man. Bard felt himself very small and shabby, aware of his patched coat, stubble and his tangled hair. He gritted his teeth. This was the only ally he could hope to win, and they needed him desperately. “I have little to offer the Woodland Realm,” he said, looking up to meet the Elven-king’s clear piercing eyes. “But all that I have, I will offer you freely. Whatever I can do to fight your enemies, I offer you, and all that follow me too.”

Thranduil’s dark eyebrows shot up, and he stepped down from the throne to look hard into Bard’s eyes. Bard braced himself. He had had enough of staring into the eyes of beings vastly more powerful than he was. But the Elven-king only looked at him for a moment, then stepped back, looking a little puzzled, but not displeased.

“Are you offering me your allegiance?” Thranduil said coldly, as if that were an absurd idea.

Bard clenched his fist behind his back, and held his nerve. “No. I hope for friendship and alliance, freely given, as long ago Dale and the Greenwood were friends, as they stood together against the Dragons of the North.” He hoped desperately that he had got that right. The Elven-king would remember it himself, whereas Bard was relying on scraps of story, things that he had heard at his grandmother’s knee long ago.

The Elven-king stared at him for a long, worrying moment, and then he smiled, a smile as sudden and unexpected as a gleam of winter sun through the dark branches of an oak tree, ancient, hale and strong despite the centuries and the storms, and Bard knew that he had gambled and won.

“The Greenwood has few friends left alive,” Thranduil said. “The stars shine on the hour of our meeting.”

“Those who follow him include a good number of old men and women, babies and little children,” Legolas put in with a wry smile. “But I knew you would not wish the children to be unhappy.”

Thranduil smiled again, a slower smile like the first day of spring after a long cold winter. “No,” he said. “I would not wish the children to be unhappy. I remember your forefather Girion well, Bard, and many many fathers of Men before him too. You are welcome in my halls. I have none so many allies left, and so shall I not value those who are left, no matter how few they are?”

“I hope so,” Bard said, enormously relieved.

“I hope so too,” a small voice said from one of the woodland-dim corners of the strangely-shaped chamber, and a small strange figure came trotting out to join them. Bard stared. The small person looked at first sight like a child from his height, but you could not think that when you looked at his small face, which had clearly seen more years than Bard’s had. But he was not a Dwarf. He was slender and barefooted, though his feet were covered in a fine woolly hair.

Thranduil looked at the expression of surprise on his son’s face, and smiled. “Here is the Halfling Bilbo Baggins, who has come to us from the skirts of the Tower Hills, and has recently visited Elrond of Imladris. It is cheering to hear that here and there in the darkening world there are still those who are of good heart. Bilbo Baggins, this is my son, Legolas, and my new ally, Bard of Esgaroth.”

Bilbo bowed. “Delighted to meet you both, I’m sure,” he said. Bard was not entirely sure how to reply to that. Elaborate greetings had not been much called for when fishing on the Long Lake or delivering barrels along the Woodland River, and suddenly he had both ‘the stars shine on the hour of our meeting’ and ‘Delighted to meet you, I’m sure,” to contend with. Not to mention ‘Welcome, thief’, although he was trying to forget about that. The safety of his children and the people who had chosen to follow him from Lake-town might depend on getting it right. He returned the bow, and said “Delighted,” in return, wishing he could have something to eat and sit down quietly for a moment to collect his scattered thoughts.

“Take wine and food with me now, as my guest, Bard,” Thranduil said, “and we shall take counsel together against our enemies.”

Bard looked at him and decided that honesty would be best. “Could we leave the counsel till tomorrow?” he said wearily. “I have faced the Dragon, led my people from their homes, and I’m not even sure exactly how many of them there are here yet, or how they can be armed.”

“Arms, we have,” Thranduil said and gave him a look that, from a Man, might have been concerned. From an Elf though, who knew what it might mean. “But... you have faced the Dragon? That is not an easy thing for Elf or Man. I know it all too well. We shall take a meal, and then a bed-chamber shall be found for you.”

“I should go back to my children,” Bard said, and turned, wondering if Legolas would show him how to get out of this maze, and if not, if he would ever find his way out on his own.

Thranduil put a hand on his shoulder. “We will send for your children, and food and a chamber shall be made ready for them also,” he said firmly. “Your people will be cared for.” He called orders in elvish, and elves hurried to obey. “Men, even the greatest heroes, need to rest, this much I know! The counsel can wait.”

******

Sometime in the night, Bard awoke with a start, remembering whirling darkness and a great golden eye staring at him, with a darkness at the centre that reached out, horrifying, inescapable. He found that he was sweating, and felt a desperate need for air. He slipped from the bed.

“Da?” a sleepy voice said. “Is everything all right?”

“It’s nothing, Bain. Everything’s fine. Go back to sleep.”

The halls were long and quiet, lit at long intervals with golden lamps. Bard looked around, hoping to see a window, but there was none, so he wandered for a little way up winding steps that wove among what looked like tree-roots, looking for distraction from his dreams.

Then he turned a corner and saw Thranduil himself, tall and shining in the starlight. A breath of welcome breeze blew past him, fresh and cool with the night-scent of woodland.

“I’m sorry to disturb you” Bard said, “I woke and...”

“You needed air,” Thranduil said, turning. “I thought you might, this night. The Dragon-scent lingers, does it not, and troubles one’s dreams? Come, join me. The stars give a more wholesome light than the flames of the Worm. ”

Bard stepped forward to the window and took a long breath. He looked up at Thranduil, his face troubled. “There’s something I should tell you about that,” he said, with reluctance. “It was I who entered the Mountain.”

Thranduil stared at him with those pale and piercing eyes. “What? You awoke the Dragon? You fool! How dared you come here for aid, when you have brought this evil on us all?”

Bard rubbed his face unhappily, thinking that this diplomacy thing was harder than it seemed it should be. This was probably not something he should admit to, and yet he could not rest easy with the deception.

“I don’t want to lie to you,” he said plainly. “I don’t want to go hiding things that you might need to know. I’m not... I’m not Girion. Maybe I‘m just better suited to being a bargeman than a leader. But... I can’t possibly be a worse leader than the Master of the Town. And he... if he were here, he’d lie. So I’m not going to.”

Thranduil looked startled at such honesty. Bard forged onward. “Smaug was stirring when I got there. He said evil had awoken. That it had roused him from sleep. He... he was there, right in front of me. I had no chance to look away.”

“You looked into the eyes of the Dragon?”

“It... It was awful. Horrible. As if he took command of my mind and body. He questioned me... I couldn’t fight it. I told him everything he asked me that I knew.”

“Of course you could not fight,” Thranduil said contemptuously. “Few minds can resist the full power of a Dragon. What on earth possessed you to go there at all?”

Bard looked away miserably. “He wanted the gold of the Mountain. The Master of the Town, I mean. So he threatened my children, to force me to go into the Mountain for him. He was going to take my children, kill them, perhaps. There were guards around him, I was unarmed... I couldn’t fight him, there was nothing else I could do to protect them. I thought if I took a windlance black arrow with me, I might have a chance to kill it before it woke. But it was watching the gate. As soon as it heard me, I was caught.”

“But...” Thranduil’s hand went to his sword. “You have come into my home, bearing this taint with you! But... if you were still under his thrall, why would you tell me this?”

“I’m not,” Bard said. He was fairly sure he had wrecked everything, but at least it was not what the Master would have done. “He sent me off to get some pigs, and I took the chance and ran.”

Thranduil leant forward, put a hand on his shoulder and stared into his eyes. A shock ran through Bard, but it was not an unpleasant feeling. It was like the sudden shock of stepping out from an over-warm musty room into a cool starlit night. “I cannot see the Dragon’s spell upon you,” Thranduil said. “But it must be...”

“I shook it off, once he wasn’t looking at me. But I didn’t want to lie to you about it.”

Thranduil blinked, a swift flicker of surprise interrupting that brilliant and daunting gaze. “You shook it off ? You do not know what you are saying, Bard of the line of Girion of Dale! A Dragon’s spell is not a thing easily cast aside.”

He grabbed at Bard’s hand, swift as a hawk stooping, and stared at it for a moment, then dropped it, and looked again into Bard’s face, one long finger lifting Bard’s chin. Bard wanted to step back, but defiance woke in him. He had endured the Dragon: he would not retreat from this.

Thranduil’s silver eyes went wide and wondering, and his hand fell away. “Yet you have done it. There is no question. I see the shape of your mind. I know the coils of Dragon-spells, only too well... You are not under his spell, you are not obeying his command... and more than that, you chose to tell me, though I was careless enough not to ask!”

“It seemed that I had to take the chance when I had it. For my children,” Bard said, determined and enduring.

Thranduil laughed, a quicksilver laugh. “And these are the children that the Master of Lake-town threatened, so you walked alone into Erebor with a windlance arrow in your hand , to slay the Dragon that had defeated Girion, Dale, and a Kingdom of Dwarves.” He shook his head. “I almost believe you would have done it too, if the Dragon had not been waking already. And then you shook off his spell, and stole away your family and many of your people from beneath his very claws. It seems that I am fortunate indeed in my alliance. If you were one of the great heroes of Men; Turin, long remembered and lamented, if you were Beren himself, this would be a deed worthy of song.”

To Bard’s astonishment, Thranduil put an arm around his shoulder for a moment. His silken hair billowed as he moved, and smelled of woodsmoke and autumn leaves. “I am beset with creeping enemies,” Thranduil said. “Evil surrounds me on all sides, and my allies are few and distant, and care little for me or my woes. But you have come to me as a hero out of the Elder Days, and brought me both honesty and hope. For both, I thank you. I shall endeavour to match your courtesy. Will you allow me to set a word upon you to bring quiet sleep? For I am familiar with dreams of dragon-fire, and with dragon-spells. In this I can aid you.”

“Well, thank you!” Bard said. Apparently diplomacy was easier than he had feared, and the Elven-king more likeable than rumour had made him. “I accept willingly.”

Thranduil took his hand gravely in his own long cool hand, and said a few words in Elvish that Bard could not make out. Then he wished Bard a good night, and left him by the window. When Bard retired to bed, he slept soundly, and the only dreams that came to him were dreams of white birch-trees swaying in a gentle breeze, under a sky that was filled with stars.

The Gear of War

A wide gallery in the halls and corridors of the Elven-king’s palace. Tall Elves are showing wide-eyed men and women of Laketown to rooms pillared with fluted stone. Bard and a few men are holding long Elvish-styled swords, and trying a few practice cuts, looking doubtful.

There seemed to be a good deal of spare room in Thranduil’s halls. Elves, tall, quiet and disconcertingly swift, opened doors and lit lamps revealing long empty unpeopled halls for the ragtag group of fishermen and traders to occupy. Though Lake-town had always traded with the Woodland Realm, most of them were not used to seeing so many Elves, and nobody was used to being within their home.

There might have been more tension, if it had not been for the three babies and the twenty-three children of various ages that had come from Lake-town. There was something about the children that seemed to attract Elves. As the Lake-towners settled into the space allotted to them, Elves were constantly coming with gifts to give the children: toys and treats and small cunningly-woven clothes and beautifully wrought shoes patterned with flowers, leaves and stars, or lingering to sing them songs or tell them tales. It was hard to fear an Elf who was sitting on the floor to play pat-a-cake with a three-year old.

Bard could see that Bain found it all rather undignified, but Tilda was in her element, and kept running up to show her Da the latest gift. She was just showing him a snowdrop flower that rang like a small sweet bell when you shook it, when Thranduil came sweeping in, in that disconcertingly imposing manner that he had. Beside him a snow-white fallow-deer followed, as if she were a dog, and the King rested his hand upon her white head as she walked.

“May I see that sword?” the Elven-king said to Serapion, who was the Lake-man who happened to be nearest to him, and took the blade carefully once Serapion had got it out of the sheath. He looked around at the assembled Men and shook his head. “This will not do,” he said sternly.

“What’s wrong?” Bard asked him.

“Not one of you is used to this kind of weapon,” Thranduil said. Bard grimaced, and had to nod agreement.

“To be honest, most of us are more used to boat-hooks, bows and knives,” he admitted.

Thranduil looked around at them, taller than any of them, impossibly beautiful. He took a step back, lifted the blade, and waved Bard forward. Bard gritted his teeth, gently pushed Tilda out of the way towards Serapion, and stepped forward, observing how Thranduil was holding his sword, and trying to do the same.

Bard had expected to be outclassed, but Thranduil moved so slowly that Bard thought at first he must be joking. Then he tried to catch the King’s blade on his own, and found Thranduil’s sword had somehow flickered under his hand and was at his throat. He laughed and held his hands up.

Thranduil frowned at him for a long moment, and then almost as if he did not want to, he smiled back, reversed the sword and handed it carefully back to Serapion.

“We’ll get better,” Bard promised.

Thranduil shook his head, though he was still smiling. “Not fast enough,” he said. “You are not used to armour, either, and our armour is designed for speed, not merely for strength. It will not keep you alive if you cannot fight as we do... Tauriel!”

A red-haired elf-woman with a sword upon her belt gave a quick salute.

“Do we still have... that armour in store?”

Tauriel gave him a wary look. “We do, my lord.”

“Have it brought up here,” Thranduil said, with a grimace. “Also, spears and war-bows.”

“Yes, my lord!” Tauriel said smartly, and whirled away, leaving Bard to wonder again what he and his ragged band of refugees could possibly offer these swift, deadly immortals that they could not do more easily for themselves.

“Walk with me!” Thranduil commanded. Then his face softened unexpectedly, as his eyes lit on Tilda. “That is, if your daughter can spare you.”

Tilda looked up at the Elven-king, and smiled back with almost equal grace, the snowdrop-bell held carefully in her hands. “Thank you your majesty, I don’t mind if you borrow my Da for a while,” she said, and Bard was very proud of her.

“Thank you,” Thranduil said, and bowed impressively to her before he swept away. Bard hastily followed him.

Thranduil led him away along a long quiet hall, until the buzz of the Lake-towners talking was lost behind them. The white deer followed, drifting silent as a ghost. Bard looked around him as they walked, and wondered. In Lake-town, every scrap and inch of space was used, often for several different purposes at once. That was one reason that Bard loved his heavy old tar-stained barge. She might not be a swift and elegant Elven craft, but she was a way out into the peace and calm of the wide lake, a refuge from the crowded, oppressive atmosphere of Lake-town, not merely a way to make a living.

Here, the wide corridors and long stairs were still, only the sound of distant elven-song echoing from afar. A strange way to live.

“It was not always so empty and quiet,” Thranduil said, as if Bard had spoken aloud. “Once these halls were busy with song and hurrying feet. But war came. There are not so many of us as there were.”

Bard shook his head sympathetically. “Nor of us,” he said. “I grew up looking out on the ruins of Dale, and thinking: of all that great city and the villages, farmsteads, orchards and meadows all around it, Lake-town is all that is left. But perhaps my children, or their children will see the land renewed. I hope so.” He paused. “Different for you, of course. I suppose you must hope to see it yourself.”

“We are a fading people,” Thranduil said bitterly. “An Autumn that may not have a Spring. We have suffered in many wars, and from many enemies. In days of peace Elves may live long, but our people do not have the gift of replenishing themselves as swiftly and easily as yours do, in a world that is growing dark and terrible. We may linger for a while longer, but I am told with great authority that our only choice is to flee the woods of Middle-earth and go west, beyond the Sea.”

“You sound as though you don’t like the idea,” Bard ventured.

Thranduil’s face twisted in frustrated anger. “I do not. This forest is our forest. This land is our land, and has been the land of Elves since the Ages of Starlight. Yet the time of Men is coming, they tell me, the wizards, the obedient servants of the West. The time of Elves is nearly done.”

“That seems somewhat premature,” Bard said frowning. “Here you are, a great king in your palace, generously offering us aid and comfort. I don’t know how to thank you. We have nothing, and yet you welcomed us.”

Thranduil stopped walking and looked at him. “You have children,” he said. “That is a great thing. We have few: one or two in a thousand years, if the years are kind. You have brought us a rare treasure, and shared it freely. I had barely dared to hope that I would hear the sounds of children playing in my halls again.”

Bard smiled. “They all seem to be enjoying the attention very much,” he said.

“I’m pleased to hear it. The thought has come to me today, that there may be a way to defy the doom of Elves. To mingle my people of the forest with the strength of Men, and so go forward into the Ages that lie ahead, here in our own land.”

Bard blinked in surprise. “How do you think that might be done?”

Thranduil gave him a sideways grin that was, quite unexpectedly, almost mischievous. “I have no idea,” he said. “But the new Age will be the Age of Men, they say, and so I thought I’d mention it to you. If any of us survive, that is, of course. Think on it.”

“I will,” Bard said. “I’m hardly likely to turn the notion away, since the Dragon has taken Lake-town with barely a shot fired, and you have saved us! But even if things were different, I would be sorry to see the Elves pass away into memory and be lost. I can’t imagine Rhovanion without you.”

“And I cannot imagine going away to some strange land beyond the Sea and beyond the world,” Thranduil said. “But that’s for the future. We have a more immediate problem.”

“The Dragon.”

“Yes. I did not wish to alarm your people or your children. But you should know: the Dragon has begun burning the woods along the West of the Long Lake. I don’t know if he will dare our arrows, yet. But we may not have much longer.”

Bard inhaled sharply through his teeth. “That’s why you said we didn’t have enough time to learn to use the swords.”

“Yes. I am hoping your people will be more comfortable with spears and bows. And a... different kind of armour.”

Bard looked quizzically at him. “What’s wrong with it?” he asked. “I could see by your face you didn’t like the idea of it. You could at least tell me why!”

Thranduil grimaced and looked away. “Very well,” he said, after a moment. “You have spoken honestly to me, and I shall do the same. I spoke of war. You may know that once, the Elves of the West rode to war against the dark land of Mordor, and beside them marched the armies of Gondor and Arnor, the Men of the West.”

“I’ve heard something of that,” Bard said. “A long age ago, wasn’t it?”

“As Men count time, yes. My father Oropher was King then, and he led out our army against the Enemy. As independent allies, serving neither Elendil, King of Men, nor the High King of the Noldor, Gil-galad. We saw terrible losses in that war. My father and mother were slain, and far too many of our people, before Sauron was brought down.”

“I am sorry,” Bard said, for the grief in Thranduil’s voice was as sharp and aching as if the battle had been yesterday. His eyes were unfocussed, looking into the past as though he could see something that was quite invisible to Bard. After a moment, Bard touched him gently on the shoulder, and Thranduil shuddered, and his eyes came back into focus and fixed on Bard’s face. He laid one hand over Bard’s for a moment. Then he took a deep breath.

“The Noldor looked down their noses at us, at our arms and armour. They said, afterwards, that we had been rash and foolhardy, for all that they had lost their King, and so had we. It was a bitter time, full of grief, even though the war was won.

“So. I led my people home, those that were left, and we tried to rebuild. But a little while after that— a few hundred years, perhaps it was — I received a gift from my kinsman. Elrond of Imladris. He who was Gil-galad’s herald. His mother was Queen of my people, the Sindar, though it sometimes seems he has forgotten it. The gift was many suits of battle-armour. Armour made by the Noldor, and by the Dwarves of Khazâd Dum, carrying their marks. At the time, it seemed a deliberate insult. I sent a sharp reply, had the armour stored in a cellar and thought no more of it.”

“And that’s why this armour displeases you?”

“I wonder now, if Elrond meant it as the insult that seemed so clear then.” Thranduil said, and sighed. “He is a strange person in many ways. At any rate, I still have the armour, and I think it will suit you and your people better than mine. It is designed for heavy troops that stand their ground. You have the strength to wear it, but are less swift than we. Greater protection, where you pay the price of a little more weight should suit you well. No-one has ever said the Dwarves do not make good armour, whatever else may be said of them.”

“We’ll wear it, if you want us to,” Bard said. “I wish we had more skill with swords.”

Thranduil waved a hand, dismissing the problem. “I should have thought better of that before. If you come close enough to Smaug to use a sword, it is already too late. Archery will be our best hope.”

“If it’s only Smaug we face,” Bard said unhappily. “There are these orcs you mentioned, and also the people who stayed behind in Lake-town. Smaug said he planned to build an army. We may end up facing our own kin.”

Thranduil winced. “There is nothing more evil than kin slaying kin,” he said. “I am not eager to make war on Men, but if it comes to it, my people should face them, not yours.”

“Surely it won’t come to that,” Bard said. He scrubbed at his forehead with one hand. “But I don’t think that there’s much chance of killing Smaug with bows. He is vast; armoured with scales as smooth as glass. I saw only one flaw in his armour, when I faced him. My people have a tale about it, how Girion of Dale fired his arrows, and broke the beast’s armour, but did not have time to make the final shot. I was unsure it was true until I saw it myself. In the hollow of his left breast, there is a scale missing.”

“Is there?” Thranduil exclaimed. “I will ensure that all my people are aware of it. As to the bows... well, all we can do is use what we have. My halls are not equipped with windlances.”

“A pity we have lost the windlance of Lake-town,” Bard said frowning. “I brought one black arrow with me; an heirloom of my family. But without a windlance with the power to fire it, I would have to be almost on top of the beast to use it. And it seems unlikely now that we will have another chance to catch him sleeping.”

“No. Still, we can but try,” Thranduil said. He looked sideways at Bard and quirked a wry smile. “Are you ready to return to your people and sound confident, reassuring, and as if we have come up with a foolproof plan as we prepare for war?”

“No,” Bard said, and laughed grimly. “Shall we do it anyway?”

As they walked away, side by side, a small figure stepped from the shadow of an archway, looked after them thoughtfully, and then trotted away.

Thorin Oakenshield

The cells under the palace of the Elven-king, lit by lamps. An Elf is sitting beside one of the cell doors, talking quietly, but at last she stands and leaves.

Bilbo looked around cautiously, then, seeing no sign of Elves, he took off his ring and came pattering quietly down the steps. He had not been forbidden to visit the Dwarves; in fact, nobody had mentioned them at all. But he did not wish to be overheard.

“Thorin!” he whispered, at the door of the deepest and darkest cell.

Thorin strode to the door. “Bilbo? Have you made any progress with the keys?”

“I’ve found out where they are kept now, but I can’t get at them,” Bilbo said softly, very aware of the sharp ears of Elves and the echoes that ran away along the walls. “But we have a much bigger problem than that. I don’t have the first idea what to do about it, if anything. Perhaps you will. ”

Alliances

The throne-room. Thranduil sits carelessly on his throne, talking to Bard, who is now wearing clothes of elven make, with a long leaf-dagger on his belt. Legolas enters hurriedly, with Bilbo trotting beside him.

“A messenger has come from Lothlorien,” Legolas said urgently. “She was found, badly hurt, on the forest path by our scouts. She is too badly hurt to be moved yet, but I have the message.”

“From Lothlorien?” Thranduil made a face. “What does Celeborn want now? Or is it the Noldorin wife this time?”

“Celeborn of Lothlorien sends warning. Dol Guldur prepares to strike against us. An army of orcs is travelling secretly north through the Mountains of Mirkwood.”

Thranduil looked pained. “So. The Dragon is not enough. Dol Guldur too will be in at the death. I suppose we can thank Celeborn for the warning, though I fear it will do us little good if he sends no other aid. Still, at least we will not fall to a knife in the back.”

“His message speaks of other aid,” Legolas said, and his eyes were bright with hope. “Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman the White will strike against Dol Guldur and the Necromancer. We only have to hold the orcs off. They will have nowhere to retreat to.”

Thranduil’s eyes widened. “Elrond will cross the mountains to come to our aid? Perhaps after all he has not forgotten everything...”

“I think so,” Legolas said. “And perhaps Celeborn too has remembered his Sindar kin too at last.”

“But still there is the Dragon. And the Dragon together with an army of orcs, not to mention whatever Men he has at his command... That will be more than enough to end us.”

Bilbo stepped forward, tucking his thumbs into his pockets with an expression of determination on his small face.. “O king, I have a suggestion about this awkward Dragon problem.”

“You, Bilbo Baggins of the Shire? I was not aware that Halflings had any knowledge of Dragons. “ Thranduil paused, then said more thoughtfully. “But then, I was not aware that Halflings ever fought goblins or giant spiders, or that Elrond had befriended any Halflings.”

“Well,” Bilbo said modestly. “I feel I am picking up a few ideas about this adventuring lark, you know. But this one isn’t entirely my own idea. As I understand it, Mr Bard here has a black arrow, suitable for use in a windlance, and the skill to fire it, but lacks the equipment. And the Woodland Realm is beset by a quite remarkable number of enemies, and is desperately short of allies. Now, I happen to know that in the tunnels below this very hall, you are detaining a number of people from the very place that used to be the centre of windlance manufacture in these parts. And furthermore, they would be entirely willing to assist in the slaying of the Dragon, having a considerable score to settle against him themselves.”

“Dwarves!” Thranduil almost spat. “Never trust a Dwarf!”

“Interesting you put it that way,” Bilbo observed. “Did you know they have a very similar saying about the Elves? It’s fascinating how these things go. I can see that you might have reservations about disturbing the Dragon if he were still asleep. But the Dragon is out of the bag, as you might say. You can’t avoid him. The Dwarves hate him even more than you do.”

“You know,” Bard said quietly to Thranduil. “Lake-town has traded with the Dwarves of the Iron Hills for many years. I’ve carried them as passengers, and taken their cargoes. They negotiate hard, but I can tell you that I’ve never once known them to break a bargain, once made.”

Thranduil gave him a sceptical frown. “You think the Halfling’s plan has merit?”

Bard shrugged. “I think it’s worth a try.  We need a wind-lance! I can’t see how it can make things worse.”

A brief smile flickered across the Elven-king’s face. “Truth, alas! Legolas. What do you say?”

Legolas looked deeply uneasy, but none the less he said “I can’t say I have much time for the Dwarves any more than you do, Father. But we have to do something .  Or we shall all burn together and the woods will be no shelter.”

Thranduil sighed. “I would rather ride out sword in hand, if the end cannot be avoided. Alas that kingship is not so easy as war! Very well then. I will speak with these Dwarves.”

“Their leader is Thorin Oakenshield,” Bilbo said. “He’s the person you need to win over. And if I may be so bold as to offer advice to a King of Elves, he’s proud as sin and twice as stubborn, and he’s been in your cells for some time. He’s probably going to shout and stomp about a bit.  Well, a lot, probably. ”

“I have spoken to him before,” Thranduil said, looking pained. “He was loud and unreasonable then. No doubt the cells have not improved his temper.”

“Would you like me to talk to him?” Bard and Legolas said, almost at the same moment.  

Thranduil looked between them, and laughed sharply. “Both my son and my new ally feel that... what was it? ‘ Proud as sin and twice as stubborn ’ seems to be another fascinating saying shared by Elves and Dwarves, Bilbo Baggins. Legolas, guard your mind, you are as transparent as a pool of clear water.  Bard, I thank you for your courteous offer, but I have dwelt in this land since long before there were Kings beneath the Mountain. I am not unaccustomed to the pride and stubbornness of Dwarves. I should be a poor king indeed if I could not speak fair in the face of anger if I must.  In the end, we have the same enemy. He has lost a good deal to the Dragon.” Thranduil paused for a moment and looked at his son. “I know how that feels,” he added quietly.

....

 

Bard never knew exactly what the Elven-king had said to Thorin Oakenshield, but whatever it was, it worked.  The thirteen Dwarves, now housed in rooms near those occupied by the Lake-towners, began to work with furious, focussed speed in the workshops and smithies of the Elves.  They were not very happy with them. Bard, practicing with the new spears and armour alongside the other Lake-towners who were of an age to fight, overheard a number of loud complaints about the tools, the space, the lighting, the materials and the ventilation.  And the Elves, too. But most of all, complaints about the Dragon. At least everyone could agree with those.

Smaug had been seen winging monstrously across the Long Lake and around the peak of the Lonely Mountain, and he had flown up and down the lakeshore and along the Forest River, pouring flame into the trees.   

Beasts and birds fled in terror from the flames.  Many of them came to the halls of the Elven-king for refuge, and the gate-elves let them in: deer went flickering in nervous herds along the stairways, hares running down the hallways, nightingales were singing from the sculpted stone archways.  One evening, Bard turned a corner to see a pair of wolves with pale silver-grey coats look back at him with shining amber eyes before they vanished into the shadows. He took a deep breath and resolved to make doubly sure that Tilda, Sigrid and Bain were remembering to make sure the door of their room was closed and bolted at night.

“Why aren’t they afraid?” he asked Legolas, who happened to be passing.  “The forest creatures would never come to a town of Men for refuge.”

Legolas raised an elegant eyebrow and gave him an amused look. “Most Men make enough noise to deafen even a weasel,”he said. “But more than that, there are the times for hunting, and the time for not hunting, and we have shared this forest with them for a very long time.  Were you afraid, to come to us?”

“Yes,” Bard admitted ruefully. “But we had no other choice.”

“Yet your people have traded with ours since the city of Dale was founded long ago. There then is your answer,” Legolas said, and laughed. “Deer, men, bears and wolves: are they so different? All of them pass like ripples in the forest river beneath the trees.”  

And with that he went away, leaving Bard to wonder if that had been intended as a joke, or if Elves truly saw little difference between Men and the deer of the forest.

Coming back to the Lake-towners quarters, along the great high-arched hallway, he saw two small figures ahead of him, one broad and bearded, the other slight as a child.

“Thorin Oakenshield, Mr Baggins,” he said and nodded.

Thorin gave him a darkly proud look. “Bard of Esgaroth,” he said.  

“Hello Bard!” Bilbo said.  “Thorin’s just been introducing me to his new friend.”

“Not so much a new friend, as a very old one,” Thorin said, indicating the huge raven that sat upon his shoulder and caressing the feathers of its chest with a surprisingly gentle touch.  “This is Roäc son of Carc, of Ravenhill, one of the great and ancient ravens of Erebor.”

The raven ducked its dark head, and rather to Bard’s surprise, croaked, “At your service, Bard of the line of Girion.”

“You know who I am?” Bard asked, startled.

“I am the Raven of Ravenhill,” Roäc croaked proudly.  “I remember the King under the Mountain, and Girion Lord of Dale.  We have seen you, Bard, though you may not have noticed us. And now we bring tidings of hope once more to the rightful King under the Mountain.”  

“Tidings of hope would certainly be very welcome,” Bard said.

Thorin regarded him with narrowed eyes for a moment, and then seemed to come to a conclusion. “Very well,” he said.  “You can tell that Elf of yours the news. It will save me having to speak to him.”

“You mean King Thranduil?” Bard said, resisting the urge to laugh. “Of course.”

“Two things,” Thorin said.  “The first is of direct concern to you, too.  We have completed the wind-lance. Now we just have to get it to the Dragon. But the tidings that Roäc has brought are also full of hope.  My cousin Dain is on his way from the Iron Hills, with five hundred dwarves, armed, armoured and ready for war.”

“That is glad tidings indeed!” Bard said.  “Even if we can slay the Dragon, we will still have a great number of orcs to deal with.  Thranduil expects their attack at any time. But I thought we had little hope of any help from the Iron Hills?”

Thorin laughed suddenly, an unexpected expression on his usually grave wary face. “I have told my cousin Dain that I, as Durin’s Heir, have made an alliance with Men and with Thranduil of Mirkwood, in the absence of any Dwarves prepared to hear the call of their King. That we would make war on both Dragon and orcs without him.”

“What did he answer to that?” Bard asked.  Dain of the Iron Hills had a reputation as both proud and hot-tempered.

Thorin laughed shortly. “The reply came back, ‘That pointy-eared pillock’s what you call an ally now?  I’ll be there Tuesday.’ If I had realised that an alliance with the Elves would be what it took to force my people past their caution, I would have done it years ago. ”

The Dragon

The quay on the Forest River, early morning, a cloudy day with the smell of smoke on the cold breeze.  A huddle of armoured Men and Elves upon the quayside The small boats from Laketown are still tied up along the river, empty now.  Bard’s barge now has a windlance mounted in the bows.

Bard turned to the Elven-king, the precious Black Arrow in his hand.  “Time to go, I suppose,” he said reluctantly.

Thranduil, having made up his mind to war, seemed untroubled by the doubts that were plaguing Bard.  “Go with good fortune to a swift victory,” he said smiling. “And if we meet again by light of moon or star, we will drink to Girion’s memory, and Dale renewed as it was of old.”

Bard nodded.  “Fingers crossed,” he said. “No word yet of the orcs?”

“My scouts are still reporting movement from the South,” Thranduil said.  “There is no word yet from Dain. I hope this Thorin’s allies can be trusted. We may have another two days, with luck,”  He hesitated, looking at Bard with those strange light elf-eyes.

“What now?” Bard said wearily.

“I heard this morning that my guards on the northern border have caught an orc-spy from the North, from Mount Gundabad,” Thranduil said with a grimace. “There’s a chance that we may be facing invasion from all sides.”

“Oh no,” Bard said, and rubbed his eyes, as if somehow that would help him see a way through this.

“I have left Legolas and three of my people with your children,” Thranduil said.  “If all our hopes fail, they will get them to my kinsman Elrond in Imladris. So we can both hope to save something from the wreck.”

Bard took his hand and held it for a moment. “Thank you.”

Thranduil smiled. “And my thanks to you also, for Legolas would not have consented to remain behind if I had not had an important task to set him.”

He turned to the great elk waiting patiently beside him, and vaulted lithely onto its back. “Fingers crossed, as you say, Bard!”

Bard smiled, and jumped down onto the black-tarred deck of the barge.

******

The familiar waters of the Long Lake shone grey and silver under a heavy grey sky.  The Lonely Mountain could barely be seen far away. The cloud and mists would hide the boat, but it would also hide the dragon.

No help for it.  They could not afford to delay any longer.  Bard quietly breathed a prayer.

Serapion had volunteered to come and help with the sails and the steering-oar while Bard worked the wind-lance.  Now he pulled the worn sail up and a faint breath of wind let them ease quietly across the wide grey waters towards Lake-town.  Somewhere out there, Thorin and his dwarves were making their way towards Erebor to meet with Dain coming out of the East. Closer to the shore, Thranduil and most of his Elves, with the Lake-towners who had followed Bard were making their way past the marshes towards the causeway.

Was that the Dragon?  A shadow flitted across the edge of his vision, and he saw Serapion’s brown face freeze in wide-eyed terror beside the sail.

No. Only a cormorant, black and snake-necked, and much closer than it had looked at first. Why was the barge so slow?  The journey felt as if it had taken at least a year already...

A little more breeze, and the water was bubbling quietly at the sedate old barge's prow as her sail caught it and she moved faster, heeling just a little. She was not the swiftest boat on the lake by any measure, but she was quiet and nimble, built to drift past listening ears unnoticed, carrying a full cargo. A smuggler's craft to be proud of, not to mention that she was the only craft available with the deck space and stability to mount the windlance...

Almost to the place where the River Running joined the lake, now, not far from the Laketown causeway.  Still all was quiet. He signalled to Serapion, handed over the tiller and went to the windlance, settling the long black arrow into place with careful hands that almost were not shaking at all.

Close enough.  Serapion was quietly easing the sail down, and Bard turned from the windlance to ease the anchor into the water, gently, gently not to make even a faint splash.  

The afternoon was dimming, but the mists were sweeping away, so that first Laketown and then the distant Lonely Mountain came into sight.  

And on the slopes above the Laketown causeway, an army of Elves was arrayed, with Thranduil at their head on his great elk.

As the sun dipped below the low cloud, they sent up a great cry that could be heard far across the Lake, and advanced to the Lake-town causeway.  In the town, Bard could see alarmed guards hurrying to the other end of it, spears in their hands, and wondered what the Master was doing now. Trying to escape, very likely; the idea of him facing the Elvenking in battle came to Bard's mind, and despite the situation, he almost laughed. He glanced left, and saw the elven-boats, low and swift, built for speed and elegance rather than stability, the very opposite of Bard’s sturdy barge, flying up the lake with the last of the sunlight gleaming on the water and lighting the green sails to a glowing shade with the brilliance of new beech-leaves in spring.   

Nobody would be looking at a round black tub of a barge moored quietly near the causeway, when the lake was scattered with such emeralds, and before the causeway stood the Elvenking, glittering and armed for war, facing the sunset like something out of a song.

And from the purple-grey heights of the mountain, vast wings swept out, and Smaug the Magnificent leapt into the air bellowing.

Thranduil laughed, and brandished his sword, as the elven archers around him released their arrows, which leaped high in the air and were defeated by Smaug's armour. Bard’s breath caught in his throat. They had gambled everything on this chance.  He must make no mistake.

He could hear the thunder of Smaug’s great wings approaching.  The falling sun in the west lit the Dragon brilliantly as it approached, dyeing every shining scale a brilliant sunset gold.

Every scale, except for one.

Thranduil called out something in Elvish, his voice defiant, words that Bard did not recognise, but the Dragon clearly did.  He opened his gaping mouth, ready to breathe flame and put an end to the impudent Elves that dared to defy him, but Bard could see it clearly now, the hollow of the left breast near the foreleg, the missing scale. The windlance, oiled and deadly, built with all the skill of the Dwarves for this one moment, moved with precision as Bard took aim.

'O King to whom all birds are dear, speed now this feathered shaft,” he muttered; words out of a legend so old that perhaps even Thranduil did not remember the truth of it, and he sent the black arrow speeding true into the Dragon’s heart.

END.