The March of Time

39: Riddles and Games

Disclaimer: All rights go to JRR Tolkien and Peter Jackson, respectively. Anything you don't recognize is mine.

Quick A/N: So, I mean, this is new for me, but I thought I'd give a minor warning here for violence, I guess. It's nothing bad, just this one little part that was a tad graphic, but seriously, it's like a sentence. So just a heads up. Other than that, SURPRISE!

Chapter Thirty-Nine: Riddles and Games

Johnathan stood with his back to the crumbling door, gazing out over the vastness of the black and twisted Mirkwood while the poisonous grey clouds churned above him, drowning out all light and warping the shadows to where they bent and danced around him, as if urging him to join in with their hypnotic, venomous revelry.

But the shadow dance would have to wait. Right now, he had other important matters on his mind, matters that were far more pressing and colossal than the mere whims of his thoughts, such as how in the hell he was supposed get his hands on that Lesser Ring in Erebor when his "cousin" was too stupid to follow his plans for her. She was never meant to go after that sniveling poisoned dwarf; she was supposed to follow Oakenshield to the Mountain and find the Ring, but the bitch's bleeding heart had gotten in the way again, and now he had nothing left to do but wait until she set off for the Mountain and found that bloody Ring...

He was pulled out of his thoughts by the shuffling of iron- and leather-shod feet from behind him, and he turned away from the gutted window, raising an eyebrow coolly as a group of three orcs entered the hollowed-out room he was holed up in, their backs hunched and their faces ugly as they waddled bowlegged up to him, stopping a few feet away out of respect and fear, though Johnathan noticed immediately how the leader of the small party glared at him with shining black eyes, baring his teeth in a snarl when he met Johnathan's gaze before doing a sort of spastic salute as the other two copied him.

So, he thought in cold amusement. This one doesn't like me.

The orcs straightened as Johnathan watched them indifferently, and he wanted to laugh out loud at the poorly disguised look of fury and disdain on the lead orc's face. It was common knowledge to him that the majority of the orcs here in Dol Guldur despised him, but he found their hate quite endearing, especially when he knew that none of them were allowed to touch him for fear of what the Dark Lord would do to them; and if they tried, then their head would become a plaque on his wall and their bodies would be served on a rusty platter to the wargs.

As he said, it was endearing.

He waved a hand for the orcs to speak, and the one with the loathing eyes growled in his raspy, guttural voice, "Durbgu narg-du hakht go ki." The orc then leered at him and spat on the floor, barely missing his shoes, but Johnathan only watched as the orc lifted its head again and fixed him with a malevolent stare, adding nastily, "Maugoth."

Johnathan didn't react to the orc's maliciousness, instead replying evenly, "Ob-mod?"

"Shâz'liz, shorakh!" The orc snarled, and Johnathan's hand twitched toward Anddrilri at his waist.

"Obhakht-gi khobdu, dâg, nar-gi khurg obkhurg ru ghaamp," he said in a low, deadly voice, and he felt some satisfaction when the other two orcs quailed behind their leader, looking back and forth between the Hero and the orc fearfully as his face contorted in fury.

"Az hag-shâ abgur ki, ân-shrakh - " But the curse was suddenly morphed into a scream of pain and horror when Johnathan whipped his blade out and sliced the orc open, from one hip to the other, and a surge of oily black blood pooled onto the floor as the orc screamed again, using its gnarled, clawed hands to keep its intestines from splattering everywhere, also. In a few short minutes, it was over, and the orc lay face-down on the stone floor, twitching once before stilling in the puddle of its own blood and bowels.

Johnathan looked down in disinterest and mild disgust as he wiped his blade clean on the dead orc's leather jerkin, while the other two orcs watched him with slack jaws and wide, scared yet adoring eyes, which only made his temper flare higher.

Four hundred and forty-seven, the voice ticked in his head, soft and lilting and disapproving, but Johnathan forced it - forced her - away, refusing to be burdened by the voice today. He had things to do.

"Hurnash," he said aloud, and he took a step forward, ignoring the way the two orcs tripped and tumbled over each other to escape the room before he unleashed his wrath on them, leaving behind their dead companion as they fled back down to the leveled dungeons where the rest of their filth were.

Johnathan sheathed his blade as he walked along the ruined corridors, purposeful and determined but not hasty; though he served the Dark Lord humbly and unrestrainedly, his punctuality was one of the things he kept under his own control. He was a commander under orders, a servant under oath, yes, but that didn't make him anyone's bitch.

He walked for a few more minutes down the corridors until he reached a ledge that he assumed had once been a type of walkway or bridge, but now it opened out to the air, ending in a sharp edge that jutted over a chasm-like space, and far below, he could barely distinguish the sounds of barking and snapping wargs and roaring orcs from where they massed in their droves, and Johnathan was glad that Azog was on babysitting duty that day, because he really didn't want to know what was making the orcs sound so gleeful.

Johnathan looked out over the ledge, breathing in the sulfuric air as he called out into the void, "You summoned me, my Lord?"

He waited for only a few moments before there was a sudden sharp drop in temperature and the sky around him darkened, like someone pulling a veil over his face, and he barely kept the tremor in his hands in check before a moving shadow appeared out of the surrounding darkness, voracious and all-consuming as it leeched its way before him, reaching out with probing tendrils as he stood, waiting and watching patiently as his master came forth from the shadow.

They were only glimpses of the Dark Lord, flickering images that faded in and out of the blackness, and Johnathan had trouble keeping up with the changing forms embedded deep within the shadow, though he knew almost all of them: the raven-haired and ebony-eyed Maia, fair and dangerous and beautiful and cunning; the black-armored Dark Lord, terrible and powerful; and his latest form, a red eye wreathed in flame that radiated such magnitude and power Johnathan felt his knees go weak, before the forms dissipated and the shadow closed in around him.

"We have tidings to discuss, my child," the shadow said, and it was a voice of many fell and beautiful things at once, a viper shrouded in fallen rose petals, a shadow touched by the edge of light, and Johnathan bowed his head as Sauron continued.

"Durin's Day rose and waned the day before," the shadow reminded him. "I have seen as far as I am able, and the runt Oakenshield has entered the Mountain while your precious Hero paces like a caged wolf in that filthy town of Men. The time is nigh upon us, my child, and still Alison Ashburne does not possess the Ring."

Johnathan swallowed, feeling a bead of sweat slide down his back as he said evenly, "I know, my Lord, and I will not apologize, for you see that as a sign of weakness and guilt, and I am neither of those things." The shadow sucked at him, hungry and cold, but he forced himself on. "I did not expect her to stay behind in Lake-town with the others, but I have confidence that she will make it to the Mountain regardless. Even now, fate unfolds, and undoubtedly as you grow stronger, her urgency will become greater and she will bring the Rings forth, and once you have them, then the One Ring - "

"I know my part and what is yet to be," the shadow rasped, and Johnathan snapped his mouth shut immediately. "But do you, my child? All you have done is planted dear Nadia Ashburne's journal in Esgaroth, and yet Alison Ashburne is still there, by your urging. What is it that is on your mind for such things to fall into place?"

"A plan that will be infallible, my Lord, once the Lesser Rings are located," Johnathan said, swallowing past the dryness of his throat as he eyed the moving shadow. "And I may have an idea about that." He began to pace on the ledge, speaking into the void as he clasped his hands behind his back.

"Alison Ashburne will make it to the Mountain, this I do not doubt. And of course she will find the Ring; it is bound to her line, the ancient family curse that none can escape." He gave a dry, mirthless laugh before continuing. "Once she finds the Ring, however, then things get interesting. For the Ring within the Lonely Mountain isn't just a normal Ring; it is Ondolissë, the Ring of Resolute, and the legends say that it has the power to find the other Rings. And once Alison has it, the other Rings will reveal themselves to her, and we can proceed on our merry way from there."

Johnathan smirked as the shadow churned, seeming to weigh his words. "Your plan has many faults and crevices, my child," the shadow said at last. "It seems folly."

But Johnathan was not deterred, and his smirk only grew wider as he said, "But it will work, my Lord. And when it does, the world will be burning, Alison Ashburne will be dead with her blood watering the earth of the New Age, and the Shadow will hold sway over all."

Bofur was not a warrior.

But that didn't mean that he wasn't brave. In his long years as a dwarf, he had seen many kinds of bravery, and it was in this time that he learned bravery was not just about noble deeds and a strong will; he had seen it in the kind smiles and dark eyes of his mother when she used to tuck him into bed as his father raged outside of the door, shattering bottles and yelling; he saw it in the children that came to him and Bifur for toys, the untarnished courage of young innocence where they believed they could climb the highest mountain if they were allowed. But most of all, he had seen the bravery of Thorin Oakenshield's Company, and he knew that there was a reason he had joined this quest other than the prospect of gold and riches: it was the Company themselves he had done this for.

He saw it in the way Thorin looked early in the morning, gazing out to the horizon with an expression on his face of such longing and hope, ready to lead them and die defending them if need be; he saw it in the way Dwalin always fingered his battleaxes with his left hand, and Balin always stroked his beard, contemplating in deep thought; when Dori always kept his eyes on Ori when he thought no one was looking, how Nori always did the same to him, and Ori himself stayed close by his brothers' sides, watching over his own older brothers unbeknownst to them; he heard it in Glóin's hearty laugh, and felt it in Óin's confident fingers when he tended his injuries, never faltering, never wavering; the small brotherly touches Fíli gave Kíli, and the brunet's willingness to always see what else was around the corner, and Bilbo's fondness for comfort and his dreams of home, and Alison's every footstep away from her world and further into their own; and, of course, Bifur's ability to forge his own path even after everything he had gone through, and Bombur's simple optimism that they would all make it through this journey alive. The Company of Thorin Oakenshield was brave in ways they barely knew, but that was all right, for Bofur knew it and that was enough for him.

And even though he wasn't a warrior, he was brave, for the sake of his friends and family, and it was times like these when that courage was more than enough as he watched Kíli moan and thrash on the bed before him, pale and sickly and heat rolling off of him in waves, and he was afraid, though what was courage without fear?

"Can you not do something?" Bofur asked Óin, wincing when the younger prince let out a sound like a wounded dog, and Óin shook his grey head, looking frustrated.

"I need to bring down his fever, but the herbs I have aren't working," he said agitatedly, and Bofur felt his gut pinch.

It was the evening after Durin's Day, and the small group of dwarves and Alison were still in place at Bard's house, watching in growing fear and concern as Kíli slipped deeper into the sickness of the poison. Óin had tried everything he could think of to heal the young prince, but either the herbs weren't strong enough to combat the poison anymore, or Kíli's body had simply given up trying to ward off the illness. Whatever the case, the lad was getting sicker and sicker by the hour, and Bofur was frightened, though he tried not to show it. Be brave.

"Well, what herbs don't you have that can help?" Bard piped up from behind the dwarves, and they turned to look at the Lake-man while he fumbled for a pouch a short distance away in the kitchen. "I have nightshade, feverfew - "

"They're no use to me," Óin said impatiently, waving a hand. "Have you got any kingsfoil around here?"

"Kingsfoil?" Bard repeated, trading a confused look with his daughter Sigrid. "No, that's a weed. We feed it to the pigs. Why? Do you think it'll help him?"

"No, he wants to add it to his bouquet of healing plants," Alison cut in sarcastically from where she sat in the living room with Bain and Tilda, but Bofur noticed how white and stiff she looked, gazing at Kíli with a sort of nauseous expression that he understood; she didn't know what to do, and seeing the young dwarf whimpering and crying out in pain as his body succumbed to the sickness was making her freeze up in uncertainty and fright.

Óin ignored her, but Bofur met Fíli's blue eyes from beside him and saw the shrouded exhaustion and crumbling strength within them, and it suddenly struck Bofur that he was watching his brother slowly waste away before him, and he felt as if a cold hand had reached in and twisted his insides at the older prince's expression. Be brave for your friends. You are not helpless.

"I'll get the kingsfoil," he volunteered to the house at large, and he could feel everyone's eyes on him, besides Kíli and Fíli, who had gone back to staring at his brother with haunted eyes. "I saw a pigpen near the armory when we snuck around that one night; I can get it."

"I'll come with you," Alison said suddenly, standing up from her seat and walking over to him, and Bofur gave her a brief smile that she did not return as she joined him.

No one said anything to them, and with a nod to Bard and Óin, he led the way out of the house with Alison behind him. They pattered down the stairs and then quickly stole their way through the side streets and alleys of the town, retracing their footsteps back to the armory and the pigpen Bofur distinctly remembered sneaking by, for he thought the smell would be forever imprinted in his memory.

They wound their way through the maze of streets in silence for a few minutes, passing by the darkened home fronts and closed down shops where no signs of life stirred, for night had fallen and the town's residents were tucked away safely in their beds for the time being.

After rounding a corner littered with rotting fish bones, Alison suddenly spoke up for the first time since leaving Bard's, saying into the silence, "Do you think the others made it into the Mountain?"

Bofur looked over at her, noting the way her hands kept clenching and unclenching at her sides and her face looked white in the moonlight, her eyes shadowed and tight in the corners, and he wondered if this was just her anxiety over Kíli or something else as he thought of an answer.

"I do," he said eventually, as they went on through the cold night. The smell of manure and more unpleasant things was beginning to permeate the air the farther they walked, and Bofur assumed they weren't that much farther away as he went on. "I mean, between your story's version of things and Thorin's own stubbornness, they had to have made it in, right?"

He gave her a crooked grin, but she didn't react, staring straight ahead and biting her lip anxiously. Bofur dropped the grin and sighed, rubbing his forehead under the brim of his hat.

"You're worried about the dragon, aren't ya?" he said bluntly, and Alison nodded, giving him a short glance. Bofur gripped her elbow bracingly, saying in a more encouraging tone, "We'll be fine, lass, you shouldn't wor - "

"Bofur, I love you and all, but I swear if you say I shouldn't worry I'm jamming that hat down your throat," she interrupted, and despite the grimness of her tone, Bofur still had to laugh as she gave him a withering look. "What? This isn't funny, Bofur - "

"I'm not saying it is, lass," he said, becoming more serious as they walked on, and the sounds of snuffing and snorting could begin to be heard on the air, along with a sound like pattering on wood, though he didn't pay much attention to that. "But by Mahal, you have got to stop being so hard on yourself. Yes, I know, you're the Hero destined to save the world or whatnot, but you're taking things too seriously all the time now, and it's not good. You may not think it, but you're letting all of this burrow into your head too much, and you've changed because of it. And, not to be cruel, but not entirely for the better, I might add."

"So what?" she shot back. "Would you rather me sit back and soak up some sunshine while Smaug burns this town to the ground and Johnathan does God-knows-what to destroy the world or whatever he's doing?" She shook her head angrily. "I can't lighten up, Bofur. Not when so much is at stake."

"I'm not saying you need to drop everything and take a break," he replied. "But my beard, Alison, at least understand that you're not alone in this, and that we're here to help you, too. Whatever comes will come, and when it does, we will stand with you until the end. But you can stop acting like you're the vigilante hero that works alone, like that Catman story you told us about - "

"Batman," she corrected automatically, and Bofur saw her lips twitch upwards before she sighed, looking on the verge of arguing until he cut her off, pointing ahead as they rounded a corner and saying, "Look, there's the pigs. And that..." He pointed to the green plant with the tiny white buds that was currently being chewed on by one of the pigs. "Looks like our kingsfoil."

She gave him a look, as if knowing he had spoken on purpose, but Bofur was not ashamed, bending down and reaching into the pen to grab the weed out of the pig's chomping mouth. The pig let out a noise of protest as Bofur took away its food, but he promised to bring it back some scraps later if they were all still alive before turning away back to Alison, who was gazing up at the rooftops in confusion.

Bofur shook the kingsfoil in her face, trying to get her attention, and she batted it away, blinking and looking back down again with a frown.

"What is it?" Bofur asked, raking his own eyes over the rooftops, but it was hard to see anything in the darkness.

"Nothing, I guess," she said slowly. "I just thought I saw something..."

But after a few more minutes of looking, she shrugged and turned away, and Bofur began walking back toward Bard's, Alison hesitating before falling into step beside him.

"Do you think Kíli will be all right?" she asked timidly after a while, looking at Bofur imploringly, and he chose not to answer immediately, not wanting to give her false hope in case something went wrong, and not wanting to think too far down that path himself. Be brave.

"I don't know," he said honestly. "It could go both ways right now, but... I don't know. Kíli's a strong lad, though; I'm sure he'll fight every step of the way, no matter what happens."

Alison nodded, as if expecting this sort of answer, and Bofur gave her a sideways look, a sudden thought coming to his mind.

"You know, I've been meaning to ask you this for quite a while," he said nonchalantly, and she looked to him questioningly as he grinned. "How are things with you and our devilishly handsome prince?"

Bofur was pleased to see her face go red in the moonlight, and he chuckled as she said, "If you're implying what I think you are - "

"Oh, I am," he replied cheekily. "I mean, you had us all fooled for a time, what with Fíli and everything - "

She groaned, and Bofur thought her face went a little redder. "Why are you all so interested in my love life?" she complained. "And that makes me sound like a terrible person, like I just moved on from one brother to the next - "

"So you did?" Bofur asked, his grin widening. "To be honest, lass, I want you to know that I've been on yours and his side for a while now - "

"Oh my God, Bofur, stop," she said, looking close to being sick. "There is no side. Fíli and me was a mistake that amounted to nothing, and going for Kíli would be such a... I don't know... bitch move. I'm serious," she snapped, when she caught him wagging his eyebrows at her. "Whatever weird little scenario you have in your head needs to stop. There is nothing between Kíli and me, nothing, and there definitely won't be if we don't get this weed to him soon."

She gestured to the kingsfoil in Bofur's hand, and that shut him up instantly, though he secretly gloated on the inside as they made to round the corner that would lead them to Bard's house - only they never made it.

Two things seemed to happen simultaneously then; the first was a sudden tremor through the ground, making the wooden boards rattle under their feet, and they stared at each other in bewilderment at the same time a sudden prickling on the back of his neck made Bofur snap to attention, and he saw Alison tense instinctively beside him, too, right before a howl pierced the night and a heavy weight crashed into his back, sending him sprawling as the kingsfoil flew from his hand.

Bofur rolled automatically, barely avoiding being impaled as a wickedly sharp and big hatchet tore into the wooden planks where he had been a second before, and he looked up to see a great, ugly orc snarl and tear the hatchet out of the wood, coming for him again as he glimpsed Alison fending off her own adversary with her swords from behind.

Not having any weapons on his person, Bofur ducked the giant blade and instead made for the kingsfoil lying a short ways away, only thinking about getting it back to Kíli before he felt the orc's hand grab the back of his coat and lift him off the ground, tossing him through the air like a rag-doll until he smashed into the wall of an abandoned shop and tumbled to the ground, shaking his head as stars exploded in his vision and his skull throbbed spectacularly.

Bofur looked up as the orc snarled once more, raising its hatchet for the kill, and he heard Alison's voice cry out his name and his own Be brave, before the blade swung down towards him -

But it never found its mark, and Bofur stared with wide eyes as Alison yanked one of her swords from her own orc's chest before meeting his eyes across the dock they were on, watching the orc in front of him grasp feebly at the arrow through its neck before it keened and toppled into the frigid lake water.

"What the - " Alison gasped, but just then there was the sound of a ghost of a footstep, and they turned in unison to see the pale-haired Elf prince melt out of the shadows, taking the dwarf and the Hero in with his shockingly blue eyes. "Legolas?"

The Elf gave them a short nod as Bofur scrambled to his feet, snatching the kingsfoil off the ground as the Elf stepped into the moonlight, turning his pale hair to silver as Alison gaped. "But - what are you doing here?"

"Tauriel and I have been tracking the orcs since the Woodland Realm," he replied in his crisp, melodic voice. "And, as you can see, they led us here. What are you doing here? You should be at the Lonely Mountain, if I am not mistaken."

"Yeah, well, you're not," she muttered, and the Elf raised a slender brow, but before he could comment a scream shattered the night, quickly followed by a gruesome snarl, and Bofur felt ice dump into his veins when he realized that the noises seemed to be coming from Bard's house up ahead.

"Come," Legolas said, starting forward with light but quick strides, and Alison and Bofur scrambled after him. "Tauriel may already be there, but she will need our help. We must hurry."

"What's taking them so long?" Bain said worriedly as another of Kíli's agonized moans rent the air, and Bard flinched at the pained noise, though it was not a new sound to him. "They should be back by now."

"They don't know these streets as well as you or I, Bain," Bard reminded him gently, but he too felt his concern mounting with every passing minute. Kíli seemed to be getting worse even in the few minutes Alison and Bofur had been gone, and he found himself unconsciously turning and eyeing his front door every few seconds, expecting them to walk in with the kingsfoil at any moment.

"Sigrid," he said, to take his mind off of the dwarf and the Hero's long absence and focus on what was in front of him. His oldest daughter looked up at his voice, her face open and bright but her eyes weighed down with fear and tiredness, and Bard felt his heart twist at the look, for it was a look he had never seen on her features before. "Why don't you take Tilda and start getting her ready for bed? I'll tuck her in when she's ready."

Sigrid nodded. "Of course, Da," she said with a small smile, and she pecked him on the cheek before calling Tilda to her.

Bard's youngest daughter looked up from her place beside Kíli's bedside and came trotting over somewhat reluctantly, casting a glance back at the panting dwarf. She had taken a great liking to Kíli since he had first entered the house the previous week (though Bard felt as if it had something to do with his looks, for he was not as bearded or hairy as his companions nor as gruff or unlikeable), and now she felt it her duty to tell him stories and help out Óin as much as she could, and Bard felt a small glow of pride for her compassion as she approached Sigrid.

However, she marched right by her older sister and grabbed her favorite stuffed bear, Barry (a name Bard had come up with on the spot after being cornered by Tilda, and one that he regretted making up very much so), and turned around, fixing her siblings and father with a stern look only a child could pull off.

"I'm giving Kíli Barry tonight," she announced, looking around at the assembled people as if daring them to object. "Barry will help him feel good again."

Bard said nothing, only raising his hands in surrender as everyone looked on bemusedly, but the light-hearted moment was crumbled as a great shiver went through the earth, it seemed, rattling the stilted house and making dust cascade from the ceiling as everyone grabbed the nearest object in shock and fright.

"Da?" Sigrid said in a high voice at the same time Fíli said, "What in Durin's name was that?"

"It's coming from the Mountain!" Bain said nervously, looking out of the kitchen window, and Bard met Fíli's eyes from across the house, knowing the blonde dwarf was thinking the same thing he was.

"You should leave us," Fíli said to him as his brother whimpered pitifully, unaware of what was happening and what was coming. "Take your children and get out of here."

"And go where?" Bard said, recalling Alison's words of either staying and fighting or fleeing, leaving hundreds of people to their deaths and only delaying his a little longer. Fíli said nothing, but Bard met his solemn gaze as he went on. "There is nowhere else to go, and it is too late to evacuate the town. You know what must be done."

There was a tense moment of silence, until finally Fíli nodded, and Bard recognized the gesture, from one warrior to another, and he knew then that he would do what was required of him when the time came.

"Are we going to die, Da?" Tilda said fearfully from behind him, and Bard turned, taking in her small white face and the way she clutched her bear with a soft, sad smile he tried to make reassuring.

"No, darling," he said, but Tilda blinked back tears, hugging her bear tighter to her chest.

"The dragon," she said fearfully. "It's going to kill us!"

Something fiery, almost like adrenaline, shot through Bard's veins then, and, reaching up to the herb rack hanging from the ceiling, he grasped the cold metal rod he knew to be there and pulled, yanking the Black Arrow of Girion out of hiding and grasping it tightly in his hand as Bain's jaw dropped and his daughters' eyes widened.

"Not if I kill it first," he said, then he gestured to Bain, who was still standing with a slack expression. "Bain, get your coat. We have something to do."

As Bain fumbled to do as he said, he turned to face the two dwarves staring at him from Kíli's bedside, their eyes going back and forth between him and the arrow he was holding.

"Will you be able to manage while I'm gone?" he said, and they nodded, still staring at him and the arrow. "Right, then," he said, as Bain emerged from his room tugging on his coat. "Let's go."

He grabbed his own coat and swung it on as Bain followed him out of the house, and over the pounding of their feet on the stairs and the murmuring of the awakened townsfolk milling in the streets, they did not hear the sounds of thumping and clashing metal down the street as they turned in the opposite direction and headed deeper into the town, Bard clutching the arrow tightly by his side as Bain stood on the other, effectively blocking the weapon from view as they stuck to the shadows, avoiding the guards that would no doubt be on the prowl after that tremor, and Bard knew that if he were found he would be taken in for sure; it was no secret the Master was displeased with him at this point, and he really didn't want to find out why as him and Bain continued on.

"A Black Arrow," Bain said in awe as they left the townspeople behind and entered a quieter side street. "Why did you never tell me?"

"Because you did not need to know," he said, peering around a corner to check for guards. There were some in the distance, but he turned back to an awestruck Bain, ignoring them for the moment. "All right, listen to me: I need you to distract the guards while I get to the tower with the wind-lance. Once I'm there, I'll fit the arrow to the bow and - "

Suddenly the guards rounded the corner and noticed Bard, and they began shouting as they ran at him. He grabbed Bain by his coat collar and hauled him away down the docks as they raced through the alleys, the guards neither losing any ground or gaining it as they pursued the two.

Finally Bard pulled by Bain aside and shoved the arrow into his protesting hands. "Never mind; ignore what I just said," he panted, as Bain spluttered. "Keep it safe. Don't let anyone find it. I'll lead them off; just put this somewhere safe!"

"W - what? No!" Bain said wildly. "I'm not leaving you!"

"Hide it, and then get back to your sisters immediately!" he growled, and he gave Bain a little push just as the guards caught up to them. "Do as I say!"

And before he could argue any further, the guards thundered closer and Bain took off into the shadows, clutching the Black Arrow tightly. Bard watched him go before Braga, he recognized, came to a stop before him, his breath making his ginger mustache ruffle as he faced down Bard with another four guards behind him.

"Braga," Bard said civilly, but he noticed the guards looking at him with appeased grins as he stared back coolly. "What brings you out on this lovely night? Certainly not that little earthquake coming from the Mountain? After all, it's not like there's a live dragon within it or anything - "

"Enough lip, Bard," Braga growled. "You're out after curfew, and we have reason to believe you was up to something suspicious just now - "

"Everyone's out after curfew, in case you haven't noticed," Bard said drily. "And what evidence do you have that I was up to something?"

"Oh, I'm sure the Master will take any evidence s'long as it concerns you," Braga replied nastily. "Arrest him."

"You have no charge!" Bard said incredulously as the guards started forward, but when they kept coming, Bard saw only one option left if he were to make it out to defeat the dragon.

The first guard reached for him and he shoved him into the icy water, and when the second reached for his short blade he punched him in the nose and then ran, hearing Braga's yells and the splashing of the guard in the water behind him as the other two guards and Braga barreled after him.

Bard pushed his way past confused townsfolk in their nightclothes and empty stalls, not knowing where he was going, as long as it was away from the guards and he got them off his trail. He thought it was going to work, too, until fate took a nasty turn.

He didn't see it until the last second, and by then it was already too late; he passed by a shadowy alleyway, and suddenly something like a wooden post shot out unexpectedly, crashing into his temple, and then Bard was falling as blackness filled his vision. He was already unconscious when he hit the ground.

Well, it's been a good life, Bilbo thought as he was trapped in the crossfire of Smaug's paralyzing gaze, and a strange sort of strangled noise escaped from his throat as the dragon breathed his rancid air, like ash and roasted garbage, around him. Not quite what I expected, but a good life all the same.

Bilbo found himself staring into those yellow eyes in a sort of hopeless despair, and his brain had gone so addled that all he could do was finally stammer out, "I - I did not come to steal fro - from you, O Smaug, the inaccessibly wealthy. I merely wanted t-to gaze upon your magnificence." Smaug tilted his head, his yellow eyes narrowing, and Bilbo babbled on. "To see if you really were as great as the old tales say." He huffed a breathless laugh, faking a humor he did not feel. "I did not believe them."

Smaug suddenly moved, appearing around the pillar completely, making the ground tremble heartily and Bilbo clutch the pillar behind him tightly as coins and other treasures were flung into the air from Smaug's movements, and Bilbo's legs turned to jelly as he realized just how big Smaug truly was.

And that seemed to be the dragon's intent as he stopped some ways away from Bilbo, drawing himself up to his impressive height as he gleamed like a burning ember in the dark of a hollow fire, his yellow eyes burning as he said, "Well, do you believe them now, thief, these tales you say are about me, these legends?"

Bilbo nodded, swallowing. "Truly," he said, shaking his head so hard his curls flopped into his eyes, and he distantly wondered why he was not a pile of cinders yet. Perhaps the dragon liked praise? Well, then. "The songs and tales I have heard do fall utterly short of your enormity, O Smaug, the stupendous."

But as if he could read his mind, Smaug lowered himself until he slithered near the ground once again, keeping his eyes trained on Bilbo as he growled, "Do you think flattery will keep you alive, little thief?"

Bilbo shook his head, not trusting himself to speak as he eyed Smaug's teeth, only a few feet away from where he stood against the pillar still.

"No indeed," Smaug agreed, seemingly satisfied with this answer, but still he did not strike Bilbo. "You seem familiar with my name, though I do not recall smelling your kind before," he mused, eyeing him with what appeared to be grudging interest. "Who are you, and where do you come from, may I ask?"

Bilbo pushed his sweaty hair out of his eyes, sparing time to think of an answer. He figured it would be unwise to give his real name to a dragon, determined not to make that same mistake again as he had with Gollum - Gollum! The reminder of the riddles came to his memory, and Bilbo wondered if dragons liked riddles as much in that respect as Gollum had, and he decided to go for it, not having that much to lose if Smaug saw through him, anyway. What other option did he have?

He took a deep breath, about to begin, but his throat seemed to close up as he glimpsed something out of the corner of his eye - something white and glowing.

"Well, little thief?" Smaug said impatiently, and Bilbo focused his attention back on him, trying to pretend he didn't still see the light of what could only be the Arkenstone behind his eyelids.

"I - I come from Under the Hill," he began, and this seemed to pique Smaug's interest greatly, for he hissed, "Underhill?" Bilbo nodded, shifting slightly to his left whenever Smaug glanced away, trying to make for the white light. If he could grab the Arkenstone and make a run for it - "And over hills and under hills my path has led me. And... and through the air - " he took another step. "I am he who walks unseen."

"Impressive," Smaug hissed, his coppery skin shimmering before Bilbo's eyes as he moved closer to him. "What else do you claim to be?"

"I am... Luck-wearer, Riddle-maker..." Another step.

"Lovely titles," Smaug sneered. "Go on, little thief; I find I am enjoying these, however creditable they may or may not be."

"I am the Clue-finder, the Web-cutter, and the stinging fly," he continued. "And... Barrel-rider."

Out of everything he had so far said, this was what seemed to catch Smaug's attention the most, for he repeated, "Barrels? Now that is interesting." The dragon's sneer seemed to twist darker, though, and Bilbo's heart plummeted as he said, "And what about your little Dwarf friends? Where are they hiding?"

Lie, Bilbo thought immediately, as his heart crashed against his ribs. Lielielielie -

"D...dwarves?" he repeated incredulously, as if even the notion was ridiculous. "No - no, you've got that all wrong, it seems, for there are certainly no dwarves here, that I am very sure of - "

"Oh, I don't think so, Barrel-rider," Smaug almost purred, his smooth reptilian voice rumbling deep within his scaled chest, and Bilbo's heart seemed to stop entirely before picking up again, faster and louder than before. "They sent you in here to do their dirty work, while they skulk around outside like the lost dogs they are, pining for a kingdom they will never have, not again."

Bilbo's heart was beating so loudly he wouldn't be surprised if Smaug heard it, and he swallowed again, his saliva grating down his parched throat as he croaked, "Truly, you are mistaken, O Smaug, Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities."

"You have nice manners, for a thief and a liar," Smaug hissed, and a great breeze of hot, dry air ruffled across him as Smaug's jowls quivered with suppressed rage. Bilbo took another step towards the white light. "I know the smell and taste of Dwarf, no one better! It is the gold; they are drawn to it like flies to dead flesh!"

Smaug lashed his tail on the treasure mounds close to Bilbo, and he inwardly groaned as what was definitely starting to look like the Arkenstone took to the air and sailed away, and he went after it while Smaug's back was turned, hardly caring about the dragon anymore as his certainty of death loomed closer; but by the Valar, he would try and get that stone!

"Did you think I would not know that this day would come?" Smaug roared, wrapped up in his own rage too much to notice - or care - about Bilbo's plight as he chased after the Arkenstone. "Did you think I would not notice that a pack of canting dwarves would come crawling back to the Mountain?"

In a fit of rage, Smaug reached out a clawed hand and tore down the pillar Bilbo had been standing beneath earlier, the heavy basalt and marble structure hitting the ground with enough force to knock Bilbo off his feet and send him skidding down the treasure piles, the chamber trembling with the brunt of the impact as he landed beneath an old platform of stone, an island in a sea of gold, and Bilbo was quite sure that that impact could have been felt even outside if he were standing out there and not in here, trapped with an angry dragon. Oh, why did I do this again?

"The King under the Mountain is dead!" Smaug crowed, just as Bilbo caught another glimpse of the Arkenstone, lying away from out underneath the platform, and he started towards it, stopping when there was a sudden whooshing and a gust of wind, and then the awful noise of claws screeching against stone from above him where he guessed Smaug had landed on the platform.

"I took his throne, I ate his people like a wolf among sheep!" He continued, as Bilbo inched towards the Arkenstone, knowing that he was not as safe as he would like to think he was under the platform Smaug now stood upon. "I kill where I wish, when I wish. My armor is iron; no blade can pierce me!"

Bilbo said nothing, now too focused on getting to the Arkenstone and trying to come up with a plan of obtaining it, but so far all he had was Run and grab, which didn't seem very helpful.

"It's Oakenshield," Smaug hissed suddenly, and Bilbo felt as if he had been plunged into an icy river, his fingertips going numb as Smaug let out a snarl of laughter from above him. "That filthy Dwarvish usurper! He sent you in here for the Arkenstone, didn't he, little thief? The Coward King, sending other, lesser beings to achieve his ends."

"No!" Bilbo found himself saying, shaking his head as if to dispel the words like a dog shaking water from its ears. "I don't know what you're talking about!"

"Don't bother denying it," Smaug drawled, in his rich, volcanic voice. "I guessed his foul purpose some time ago. But it matters not." Bilbo saw the coppery tail flick in and out of view and heard the dragon shift above him on the platform, scraping his talons against the rock once more. "A Darkness is coming," Smaug crooned, and Bilbo's stomach seemed to drop to somewhere below the earth itself as he flashed back to Alison and Johnathan Ashburne, the Lesser Ring and the Necromancer, and now, the own ring in his pocket and the great flaming eye, the suspicion he was beginning to feel, the dread...

"It will spread to every corner of the land," Smaug continued in a low, lilting voice. "A Shadow that will vanquish all Light."

Bilbo had now reached the edge of the platform, and the Arkenstone now lay only a few feet away upon what bit of bare floor was still left in the chamber, but he was prevented from going anywhere when Smaug's muzzle suddenly appeared next to him, and he threw himself back sharply, jarring his back against the stone leg of the platform as Smaug went on.

"You are being used, thief in the shadows," he said silkily. "You were only ever a means to an end - a very bitter and unhappy end." Bilbo suddenly felt as if someone was jabbing a very hot poker into his chest, but he swallowed back the feeling, shaking his head even though the dragon couldn't see him. "The coward Oakenshield has weighed the value of your life and found it worth nothing. You are nothing to him, little thief."

This was almost worse than any physical pain the dragon could have done to him. Thorin was not like that. He was stoic and emotionless in the best of times, calculating and brooding, but he was not callous or manipulative or cruel. He was not.

"You're lying," Bilbo said, but even to his own ears he sounded unconvincing, as if his tongue had frozen up around the words.

"What did he promise you?" Smaug taunted. "A share of the treasure?" There came the sound of many ringing coins raining upon the platform. "As if it was his to give. I will not part with a single coin in this hall!"

Do stones count? Bilbo wanted to say, for at that moment, he suddenly sprinted out from his cover and made a mad dash for the King's Jewel, but Smaug had been anticipating this, for he swept in front of Bilbo and drew himself up to his full height again, making Bilbo stop dead in his tracks as he forced himself to meet Smaug's lantern-like gaze once more.

"My teeth are swords! My claws are spears!" Smaug roared, leaning over Bilbo ominously. "My wings are a hurricane!"

But Bilbo had nothing to reply with, for at that moment he noticed something very peculiar, a chink in the scales of Smaug's burnished armor just under the left wing, and right over the dragon's heart, and Bilbo recalled the day in Bard's house and Bain's voice telling them of the dragon's one weakness...

"So it is true," he thought. "The Black Arrow found its mark."

But too late, he realized that he had spoken this out loud, and it took all of his will not to cower as Smaug swelled with fury and indignation, his voice coming out as a horrendous snarl. "What did you say?"

"N - nothing!" He blurted quickly. "I - I was just saying how your reputation precedes you, O Smaug, the tyrannical! Truly, you have no equal on this earth!"

He took an involuntary step back as Smaug's eyes bored into him, but his gaze was torn away as a shining white light bathed his feet in a pure glow, and he looked down to see the Arkenstone lying only a few feet away from him, a molten-looking stone of such brilliance he was instantly captivated, and he could suddenly understand why it was the Heart of the Mountain, and why Thorin wanted it so badly - it was invaluable beyond measure.

"I am almost tempted to let you take it," Smaug suddenly said, and Bilbo started, looking back up to the great dragon with wide eyes as Smaug glanced back and forth between him and the Arkenstone, his maw curling into a grotesque smile as his eyes gleamed hungrily. "Oh, yes, if only to see it corrupt Oakenshield. Watch it destroy him, watch it corrupt his heart and drive him mad." This last word was spat out with contempt, and against his will, Bilbo shivered against the blatant loathing in the dragon's voice as he went on, in a much smoother tone.

"But I think not," Smaug said, now sounding almost disappointed. "I regret to say that our little game ends here."

Bilbo could only watch as Smaug's lips pulled back again, revealing his razor-sharp teeth as his chest began to glow like the embers of a fire, as if he had a furnace built within him that was ready to blow any second and consume everything in dragon-fire - and that, Bilbo realized, was exactly what Smaug intended to do.

"So tell me, little thief," Smaug said, his chest swelling and the air around him rising like the Sun hurtling towards the earth. "How do you choose to die?"

And he lunged for him, then, his maw opening into a void of flame and darkness, and Bilbo closed his eyes.

Author's Note

Yes, the surprise was Johnathan's POV! I don't know where that came from, but I felt as if it was necessary. And now I am making that a challenge question: Would you, my dear readers, be interested in reading more J-Ash POVs? I'm probably going to do it anyway, for the sake of the plot, but I would also like your input, too, to see what your thoughts are.

Ah, yes, translations (all of it is Black Speech/Orkish, by the way, in case you couldn't tell):

Durbgu narg-du hakht go ki - The Orc; "The Master wishes to speak with you"

Maugoth - The Orc; *Commander* **specifically a commander with a force of 2000+**

Ob-mod? - Johnathan; "What of?"

Shâz'liz, shorakh!" - The Orc; "I don't know, scum!;" Shâz'liz lit. meaning "Any, whatever" (basically 'I don't know')

Obhakht-gi khobdu, dâg, nar-gi khurg obkhurg ru ghaamp - Johnathan; "Mind your tongue, runt, before your guts spill out on the floor;" lit. meaning 'Excuse your head, child, until? your guts/bowels disembowel on/upon the earth/ground' (I tried)

Az hag-shâ abgur ki, ân-shrakh - The Orc; "I do not obey you, Man-filth"

Hurnash - Johnathan; "So it is;" (basically 'so be it')

*Laughs because Black Speech is hard*

Well, we're getting somewhat back on track! Now the action begins... Fair warning that I won't be here to update until after July 19th, though, so sorry! Don't think I'm abandoning this story or anything; I'm way too invested and I have every intention of finishing it! It'll just be a while :) But things will definitely get more intense from then on out.

Anyway, thank you for all of your lovely reviews/favorites/follows! Hopefully I've gotten this chapter out of the short and not-so-eventful rut I've been stuck in lately, and I'd appreciate your reviews if you have the comments to spare: anything you liked, disliked, are looking forward to? Let me know!

So, next time when I'm back, we'll get a Thorin POV and a lot of action in Lake-town with the Orcs! Until then!

Thanks again, lovelies! Until next chapter...

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