The March of Time

46: The Silencing of the Beast

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

Quick A/N: I really wish I had an excuse for not updating sooner, but I don't. I was just...not feeling it until I woke up this morning and spit out this chapter; apparently I was blessed by the writing gods in my sleep last night for this to come forth in one day, so here we are!

HUGE thanks to all of my lovely reviewers: PK-chan12, mh21, Obi-wan's girl forever, Miriel Tolkien, Farahilde, KelseyBl, wickedgrl123, lovefanficfan, Guest, Alexa (Guest), Greenwood girl (Guest), and Its moi (Guest). Y'all are seriously the best!

Also, grand shoutout to the amazing MelissaWritesThings, who came up with possibly the greatest thing I have ever heard: #StopJohnathanAshburne2k14 (And this is totally becoming a thing don't argue with me)

Anyway, thank you all so much for your patience with this chapter, and to express my gratitude I threw in a little of our favorite J-Ash (seriously, you clamor for so much more of him despite him being a sadistic jerk and it's great; please don't stop)


Chapter Forty-Six: The Silencing of the Beast

"You can come out now," Johnathan said, his voice falling flat and final in the still night air as he watched the noisy, yet slow-moving water curl lazily beneath his feet. "I know you're there."

There was a rustle of reeds from beside him, and the footsteps of a figure with a wide berth trying to move quickly yet quietly could be heard, and he looked to his left to see a familiar, fierce-looking dwarf come to a stop at his shoulder a moment later, scowling behind his wild, unkempt beard that was so long it tucked easily into his belt, the rest of his face hidden within the folds of his tattered, fur-lined cloak.

"So, you got my message then?" The dwarf grunted, and Johnathan clasped his hands behind his back, looking out over the river again.

"Obviously; else I wouldn't be here," the warrior drawled. "Though I must give you some credit for the ingenious delivery of it; that cipher on the cairn was quite clever, very inconspicuous."

"As it was intended to be," the dwarf replied, crossing his stout arms over his barrel chest, and Johnathan smirked at the dwarf's gruffness; he had always admired the direct, no-nonsense attitude of their race; it was far from the scheming, unprincipled methods of Men, despite his preference for such tactics. "And it was damn hard to write, too, what with your little orcs stomping around during the daytime, and not to mention scaring off all the prey within the whole eastern region of Arda."

"I apologize for your hardships, Inod," Johnathan said, causing the dwarf to scowl deeper at the use of his name. "But I need to train my soldiers to march and fight during the day and rest at night, or they're never going to win the battle to come. I breed troops that will slay their enemies with the sun beating down on them, to see the terror of their opponents as they die with the light illuminating their blood; I have no time for cowards that strike in the night, where they can't appreciate their kills like they should."

Inod whistled under his breath, shaking his cowled head. "I knew there was something I liked about you, Ashburne. I almost forgot that you're not a complete and utter arse."

Johnathan's mouth quirked in a half-grin, but he didn't reply to the jibe, instead saying, "Your message said there was something urgent you needed to speak to me about."

"Aye," Inod said, throwing back his hood to where Johnathan could see his face clearly in the light from the moon, pitted and scarred and surrounded by a mane of tangled black hair, and his dark eyes glinting with the tattoo of the Khuzdûl rune branding him traitor marring the right side of his face.

"Before we begin, I'd like to point out that this was not easy information to acquire; I had to torture one of the Lord's own elite guards for this, so I expect the proper payment for my troubles." The dwarf grinned nastily, revealing blackened teeth, and Johnathan resisted the urge to snort, instead only digging into his cloak pocket and tossing the fat sack of coins he had been carrying into Inod's eagerly outstretched hand.

He knew Inod had not suffered any 'troubles' for this information. The former dwarf of the Iron Hills was as bloodthirsty as they came, and lusted for violence and torture of any kind, a trait that had been one of the many reasons for his banishment from Dáin Ironfoot's kingdom to begin with. But he opted not to point this out, only waving a hand for the dwarf to continue.

"Dáin is assembling an army," he said without preamble, and Johnathan raised his brows, turning to look at the dwarf in genuine, predatory interest. "How fast or how many, the weasel wouldn't say before I tossed his remains into the Redwater, but he said that Dáin was becoming aware of Thorin Oakenshield and his company's predicament at the Lonely Mountain, and that there was mounting concern over the fact that Thorin's end has been dead silent for the last three months, no letters, no signs, nothing."

"Then it is a precaution, nothing more," Johnathan said, though he could feel some unease settling in his gut as Inod shrugged, scratching his cheek just above his beard.

"Depends," the dwarf mused. "You're the one with the most information concerning the happenings of Erebor at the moment, so you can see it how you deem to."

Johnathan said nothing, anger simmering in his veins at this ill news; his army was prepared to crush the dwarves at the Lonely Mountain, and any Lakemen or Wood-Elves that stood in their way; having an army from the Iron Hills at the Mountain could complicate things.

But as soon as he thought it, he relaxed just as quickly; reinforcements would be joining them in two days' time as they passed through the Wilderland beneath the Misty Mountains. They would have more than enough troops for the assault, no matter Dáin's interference in the matter, and Thorin Oakenshield and his weakling allies would die.

"Thank you, Inod," Johnathan said coolly, regaining his icy indifference as he inclined his head slightly to the dwarf. "Your help has been invaluable these last months; my lord was grateful beyond nature when you procured news of Thorin Oakenshield's quest from one of the envoys of the meeting of the seven clans, and he has not forgotten this service to him."

"I'm glad the effort was worth your appreciation," the dwarf replied, his eyes roving uncomfortably around the landscape, as if he had just realized where they were. "Especially since you wanted to meet in this accursed place."

Johnathan knitted his brows in confusion, frowning as he faced the dwarf once more. "What, the Gladden River? What's wrong with this place?"

"Not the Ningul'án, Hero," he replied, his voice becoming softer, almost sacred, but still laced with that sadistic edge. "The Fields. The Gladden Fields."

"What the hell are you on about, dwarf?" Johnathan growled, his patience wearing thin, and Inod shook his head.

"This was the place where Isildur, son of Elendil and heir to the joint throne of Arnor and Gondor, was slain after the War of the Last Alliance. This was the place where he died, pierced through the throat and heart with arrows after trying to flee across the river to the Fields—"

His voice was abruptly cut off, however, when Johnathan shot out a hand and latched onto the dwarf's throat, crushing his windpipe under his fingers as Inod spluttered and choked, his ruddy face slowly turning blue as Johnathan's rage boiled to the surface, tinting his vision red.

"Don't—dare—to speak that name again," he snarled, beginning to shake with rage as Inod scrabbled fruitlessly at his pale hand, even his lips now turning blue from lack of air.

He shoved the dwarf away from him in disgust, where he landed on the ground with a heavy thud and immediately started gasping for air, shuddering and making horrible gagging noises as Johnathan stared at the river, the waters seeming to turn to blood right before his eyes as he imagined Isildur's body, stuck with arrows, floating face-down in the current, as he reached up and brushed the scar spanning his cheek…

"M-my Lord Ashburne," Inod wheezed. "I'm sorry—I didn't—"

"Get out of my sight, filth," Johnathan interrupted coldly, his voice as hard and flat as stone, and Inod turned and fled, crashing through the undergrowth and not stopping until the warrior couldn't hear him anymore, staring at the river as he tried to imagine him standing here two thousand years earlier.

This had been the place, then. This was where Isildur's life had been claimed, so many centuries ago.

Underneath his burning rage, Johnathan could feel his savage pleasure, the exaltation that the bastard prince had finally gotten what he deserved, had had to experience pain before his death—though he was disappointed that he had not been the one to draw out the agony, to watch him bleed before him…

Johnathan was sucked out of his thoughts as a sudden gust of wind blew around him, rippling the water below him and yanking at his hair and cloak, though it was not the sharp wintry wind he had become accustomed to on these long nights; this wind was hot, and dry, and carried with it the scent of ash and smoke, curling in his nostrils and tickling the back of his throat.

On instinct of some sort, he turned his gaze to the northern horizon, and his eyes widened slightly as he took in the unnatural reddish glow, as if the sun was deciding to rise in the middle of the night, blotting out the stars above and melding with the inky blackness of high night.

Unsure of what to think of this new sight, Johnathan simply shrugged and turned away, heading back to the camp his army had set up a few hours prior. Before he entered the sparse tree-line entirely, though, he turned and looked over the Gladden Fields one last time, his rage clouding into other emotions he had no time to name as he stared.

Grey eyes, stormed over with anguish and grief, at death, at betrayal, seemed to bore straight back into Johnathan from the riverside, and his scar seared painfully, before he growled and clawed those thoughts from his mind, striding towards the camp as if he were fleeing Isildur's ghost himself.

He had a war to prepare for; memories from his past would not be a hindrance to him now.

And they never will be again, he thought, as he entered into the eerily, near-silent camp. Because everything Isildur stood for, everything Light in this world, will fall, just like him. I warned him that a Shadow was coming, and I always keep my word.

So here I am, Isildur, on the brink of everything. And the Shadow has come at last.

Dragon-fire could not burn nearly as much as this did, Alison thought hazily, as she stared at the white-hot flames tearing away at the wood of the pathway before her, eating greedily just like the fire in her chest, burning away everything until she thought she would go up in smoke herself, her eyes fixated on where Kíli had been moments before as a scream built in her strained throat.

"KÍLI! NO!" Fíli roared from beside her, struggling in Bofur's and Óin's strong grips as he attempted to fling himself out of the alley and into the flames before them, tears beginning to cleave clean paths down his soot-stained cheeks as above them, Smaug wheeled and turned back into the clouds, his tail smashing through the roof of a house and raining down splinters of wood and tar upon them.

"There's nothing you can do, Fíli!" Bofur said, though he sounded winded, as if he had been sucker punched right in the gut, and Alison saw for the first time a look of genuine fear on the hatted dwarf's face. "There's nothing any of us can do—"

His voice cracked, and at the same time, Alison felt something in her chest rip, as well, Kíli's name echoing cruelly in her head as she imagined him dead and charred, his arms wrapped protectively around the young woman he had so foolishly, so bravely, so recklessly and selflessly tried to save—

"Wait," Tauriel said sharply, breaking through everyone's fogs of shock and disbelief as they all turned to face her, white-faced and tense but staring wonderingly at the flames. "I—no, this is impossible—"

She suddenly sprinted in the direction of the fire, and after sharing an unreadable glance, they all followed the she-Elf, weaving around the hungry flames until they came to the edge of the pathway, where the street cut off at a small dock and beyond it stretched the icy black waters of the lake, shimmering gold from the light of the fire, and Alison watched, her chest heaving, as suddenly a hand shot out of the water, grasping for the edge of the dock as a head broke the surface—

"Mahal!" Fíli yelped. "Kíli!"

Tauriel swooped to a crouch and grabbed the dark-haired dwarf's hand, dragging him closer to the dock as another head popped up beside his, gasping and coughing, and Legolas reached down and plucked the young woman they had seen moments before on the street out of the water as if picking a flower, settling her on the dock as she retched up lake water and Tauriel pulled Kíli out of the water, as well.

Immediately the dwarves ran over, shouting and pounding Kíli on the back as he grinned weakly, accepting their praise with only nods of his head as Alison watched from a distance, feeling as if she were to take even one step toward him she would explode into a million pieces.

She had almost lost him—again—and she wasn't sure if she had anything left within her to process the whirlwind of emotions that entitled, feeling that every time she was on the edge of the void, he would miraculously bring her right back, and that all of these near misses were starting to take a toll on her mental health.

This dwarf is going to be the death of me if he doesn't kill himself first.

She had to laugh at this thought, some sort of strangled sound escaping her lips, just as Kíli lifted his eyes to meet hers, pushing through the joyous throng of dwarves and making his way over to her, limping heavily, she noticed, but that familiar half-smirk lighting up his features as his brown eyes danced despite their harrowing predicament and the events that happened in the last five minutes alone.

He stopped a reasonable distance away from her, dripping wet but the heat from the flames drying him quickly as steam seemed to curl from his body, and they held each other's gazes for a moment, before Alison broke the lengthening silence.

"So…you're not dead," she said brightly, wondering if she had finally lost it as Kíli snorted, both of them looking far too light for such an occasion.

"Indeed," he agreed, stretching out an arm to examine jokingly. "I mean, I still feel alive, and I somehow managed to retain my good looks at the same time—"

He cut off as Alison rolled her eyes and crushed him into a tight embrace, not even realizing that she had been trembling until Kíli wrapped his own arms around her, chuckling.

"Don't ever do something that reckless again," she gasped in relief. "You didn't cheat death just to come back and taunt it every chance you get."

"And now you're the one lecturing me on recklessness," he teased, and she smacked his arm before he lowered his voice and tilted his mouth towards her ear, saying, "As if I would go anywhere without you."

Alison suddenly stiffened, the moment shattering as reason suddenly rushed back to her along with his words, and she stepped away, Kíli looking at her strangely as she forced a smile before understanding and a glint of hurt appeared in his eyes, until they became unreadable and he only inclined his head, and Alison knew that she would have to deal with this later if they all survived the night; her feelings were still out there, hanging in the open, and she wanted nothing more than to grab them and crush them back into her heart, but now was not the time.

"We need a plan," she said at large to everyone on the dock, ignoring Bofur's knowing grin and Óin's exasperated head shake, Fíli and Kíli's identical closed expressions, and Tauriel's wickedly shining eyes as Legolas just look confused at it all, still hovering over the silent woman. "Smaug isn't done with this town by a long shot, and we need to figure out our next move."

"Legolas and I can continue with the evacuation process," Tauriel volunteered immediately. "There could be some stragglers still left in the town, and we are faster; we could find them quickly."

Alison nodded as Legolas did the same, gently ushering the still-shaking woman to her feet as Bofur handed over his coat to the freezing girl.

"All right," she acknowledged, before turning to the dwarves next. "Then you lot can make your way to the shore where the refugees are, and start helping there."

They gave her incredulous looks and started to protest, but she went on before they could. "Óin, you can help tend to the wounded there, and Bofur will help; you'll need the extra support. Fíli, you're the Crown Prince, and I'm pretty sure the Master isn't going to be the biggest symbol of hope to look to on this night; and, Kíli, you're injured. Do I really have to say more?"

The dwarves all looked sullen at her orders, but they still nodded grudgingly, knowing she had a good point.

"And what about you, Lady Ashburne?" Legolas said, gazing intently at her with his electric eyes. "You've said naught of what you are to do."

Alison hesitated, not wanting to get into the inevitable argument that was coming with the dwarves, but she sighed and said anyway, "I'm staying in the town."

"No," Fíli said instantly. "No way. You are not staying here with a bloody dragon on the loose."

"The lad's right," Bofur said, shaking his head and crossing his arms. "It's too dangerous."

Alison opened her mouth wearily to retort back, but Kíli beat her to it.

"Stop," he said forcefully to the other two, scowling as they turned and looked at him irritably. "Alison has proved herself time and again that she's a survivor; she's a signal fire for danger, aye, but she knows how to handle herself, and that danger is what keeps her alive in the face of it. Bard needs to be found, and Alison's staying behind so she can do exactly that, unless we all want to die."

There was a tense moment of silence, where only the rushing of wings from above and the voracious roar of the burning town could be heard, and Alison stared at Kíli, gratitude welling within as he met her eyes and his scowl softened slightly, though he still remained aloof.

What are you doing to me, you damned dwarf?

"Don't worry, guys," she said, faking a bravado she didn't feel. "I'll see you on the other side."

And I meant that metaphorically, not literally, she said in silent warning to the Valar as she swung her bow off her back, wondering if she'd have to use it. She hoped not.

And with that, she nodded to the group and took off, avoiding the flames racing along the wood as Smaug made another pass over the western side of the town, and Alison turned her feet in that direction, heading towards the central area of Lake-town where the Master's house had been, struggling to remember the way as her boots pounded on the planks and her breath wheezed in and out, feeling like it was blackening her lungs with every inhale.

She knew the Master's house was located just under the wind-lance tower, the place where Bard would most likely be heading with the Black Arrow, and she prayed that the bargeman wasn't lying dead in an alley somewhere, incinerated or suffocated from smoke inhalation, and that he was still trying to make it to the tower; though why he would be taking so long—

"Oh, shit," she swore, skidding to a stop as she reached the main square. "Oh, this is not happening."

She stepped over the decapitated head of the Master's statue that had once been erected in the square, taking in the smashed and burning house before her, and, beyond that, the wind-lance tower, completely obliterated with the lance bent at odd angles and ruined beyond repair, as if Smaug had struck it down and stomped on it—which, in all honesty, he probably had.

"That son of a bitch," she said, her mind spinning to generate a conclusion for where else Bard would be, since the tower and the wind-lance were both destroyed; because she knew then that Bard was alive. The obvious reason for him not being able to kill the dragon was right before her, and she would have felt it if he had died. No, Bard was very much alive.

But where the hell he was now was a whole different question.

She knew he would still be fighting, trying to kill the dragon even without the wind-lance as she flashed back to his longbow of yew hanging on the wall in his house. He would've gone back there to retrieve it, desperate for any means of saving the town and his children; but Smaug was being smart, hiding in the clouds and striking quickly before disappearing, probably to avoid getting attacked, so it would be impossible for Bard to determine the dragon's next move and race towards that end of the town, especially if Smaug finally got bored of wreaking death and destruction and just flew back to the Mountain—

"Bard, you brilliant, genius man!" she shouted, as a jolt of realization flared in her fingertips and she took off running in the other direction, towards the eastern end of town where all of this had begun.

She was thrumming with adrenaline and an expectant sort of energy and excitement now as she sprinted east, twisting and turning through unaffected alleys and streets as the silhouette of the Lonely Mountain rose out of the smoke smothering the town, barely discernible, but undoubtedly there.

Smaug had nowhere else to go after his attack except back to the Mountain, and there was only one way to get there—by going east. And Alison knew that Bard had had the same thought as she, which was why he was positioning himself in the eastern part of town; he would kill Smaug when the dragon was least expecting it, basking in his supposed victory as he returned to the Mountain—

If he wasn't old enough to be her dad, Alison could've kissed the man out of joy.

She reached the easternmost boardwalk of the town, a strip of unharmed planks that jutted out into the lake farther than the rest of the town and hedged on parallel sides by seldom used watchtowers and decrepit boathouses, and she guessed that this side of town was too feared to live in underneath the shadow of the Mountain anymore as she raced along the boardwalk, wondering if Bard was up on one of the watchtowers—

So intent and focused on finding Bard, Alison was quite surprised when a shadow darker than all the others around her seemed to capture her in its circumference, and she looked up just in time to see Smaug bearing down on her from out of the clouds, swooping low as he let loose a jet of liquid fire that caught all the watchtowers and boathouses around her ablaze as she slid to a stop, the ice on the boardwalks melting from the heat and making the wood slippery.

She caught her balance at the last second, gaping as Smaug's yellow eyes seemed to lock on her, and she could've sworn the dragon grinned as the huge, scaled beast made straight for her, the flames around her surging as if wishing to rejoin their master as Smaug's belly skimmed the tops of the towers, his molten maw opening into an abyss of fire as Alison watched the dragon's descent upon her.

Bard had never liked fire.

Strangers had often observed this as stemming from his rearing in Lake-town, a civilization whose roots were embedded in the water and whose everyday life was dependent on all possible water-related activities, which made sense, and Bard often accepted this.

Yet everyone in the town who knew Bard also knew of his story, of the tragedy that had struck his family when he was but a boy, and the real reason why he disliked fire; because his mother and father had perished in an inferno, caused, so they say, by his own father in a drunken rage.

Bard never figured out how he had escaped when his parents had not; all he remembered of that night were snatches of images from above him; the thatched ceiling of his childhood bedroom, a black cloud of smoke, and then the stars twinkling innocently in the sky, stained red and gold and orange and shining brilliantly from the fire that had stolen his younger days away from him.

Perhaps that was why he was so grim; a life of hardship and toil, growing up without a family and struggling to make a living without an inheritance (it was whispered that his father had died penniless, coins wasted away on drink), and then finding love in a young barmaid named Clara and starting a new family, before she too had passed.

But Bard never blamed anything or anyone for his difficult life, not even his father, save for one thing: fire.

And as he thundered alongside his son as Smaug made his initial attack, flames sprouting upwards from burning houses like blossoms in spring, and seeing the frightened yet determined expression on Bain's face, a solid will such as he had never experienced consolidated at his core, seeming to turn his spine and heart into iron, and he finally understood Alison's words of knowing when the time was right for him to act.

"Here, it's in here!" Bain panted, pointing to a small dinghy bobbing in the water before jumping down into it and shoving aside ropes and tarps before pulling out the Black Arrow and tossing it to Bard, who caught it deftly while helping Bain back onto the dock with his other hand.

"You did well, Bain," Bard said, before casting a quick glance over his shoulder to where the wind-lance tower loomed above the town as Smaug went for another pass some distance away.

Bain nodded, smiling gratefully, and Bard squeezed his shoulder. "Now, I want you to find your way to the edges of the Woodland Realm and wait for me there. Look for Sigrid and Tilda; they will be arriving with Alison Ashburne and the dwarves. Do not argue with me, and do not disobey me and come back; do you understand me, Bain?"

Bain opened his mouth, looking indignant, but one look from Bard quelled him instantly, and he nodded stiffly.

Bard smiled tightly, gripping his son in a quick but heartfelt embrace, kissing his curls as he said, "You and your sisters will be fine. I am so very proud of all of you, and we will meet again soon."

"Yes, we will, Da," Bain said assuredly, and Bard was slightly amazed at how grown up Bain had become that night—or maybe he had already been this way, and he wasn't noticing it until just now. "I love you, and good luck."

"And I love you, Bain, and your sisters," he replied, his heart warming at the words. "Give my best to them. Now go."

And he did, sprinting south towards the bridge, and Bard watched him disappear into a throng of fleeing townsfolk before gripping the Black Arrow and taking off in the opposite direction, heading deeper into town where the main square was and trying to calm his madly hammering heart.

Everything had been going as well as it could be until Bard reached the base of the wind-lance tower, having to shove his shoulder repeatedly into the locked door to open it, and he was one shove away from busting the damned thing down when there was a sudden heart-stopping noise from above him, and he looked up just in time to see Smaug breaking free of the clouds, streaming smoke as he speared straight for the wind-lance tower.

Bard threw himself out of the way just as Smaug collided with the tower, rubble raining around him as he landed flat on the ground and covered his head with the hand that wasn't clutching the Black Arrow, a broken beam digging painfully into his stomach as he heard the screeching of metal from behind him and the ground rocked like an earthquake, Smaug's roars threatening to blow his eardrums before Bard was buffeted by a gale of wind, and the roars grew fainter—or maybe he had just gone deaf.

He shifted a pile of rubble off of him and sat up cautiously, looking over his shoulder to see that Smaug had gone (meaning that he wasn't deaf, despite his ringing ears), but he was suddenly aghast as he took in the obliterated tower before him, and the mauled wind-lance that would serve no use to him now.

It's over, he thought dazedly. I failed. I'm not going to kill the dragon.

What do you call yourself a bowman for, you idiot! A voice that sounded annoyingly like Alison's shouted in his head, just as he remembered his longbow, and he mentally slapped himself, shaking his head and getting to his feet before taking off in the direction of his house.

The journey was a blur, alternating between running, ducking from attacks, and steering stragglers in the right direction to evacuate before he finally reached his house, out of breath and exhausted yet strangely exhilarated as he pounded up the stairs and entered the untouched household, not yet afire but would soon be as he heard the crackling of approaching flames from one of his neighboring houses, though he took some relief from the fact that his daughters and the dwarves and Alison were gone as he made for the wall where his longbow hung.

He grabbed his bow and swung on his quiver of arrows for good measure, before pausing on the threshold as a sudden thought came to him; how he was going to kill the dragon, what with the evading tactics Smaug was using to execute his assault?

That question was easily answered, however, as his eyes drifted to the left and took in the faintly glowing form of the Lonely Mountain, and a small grin crept over his face before he practically threw himself down the stairs and sprinted for the far eastern docks, his veins thrumming and his heart crashing almost painfully against his ribs.

Bard came to the end of the eastern boardwalk, his eyes raking over the watchtowers before him, deciding which one would be the best place strategically to have an advantage over a flying dragon, just as he caught sight of another figure sprinting away from him down the boardwalk.

"Oh, n—" Bard breathed, just as Smaug descended from the clouds and let loose another storm of fire, causing Bard to involuntarily shrink away, though he turned back when the brunt of the flames had subsided, only to feel a thrill of fear when he saw the dragon bearing down on the figure he recognized to be Alison.

He started forward, just as Smaug came to a rattling stop before the Hero, flattening several buildings as he landed and gazed down at her from his impressive height, causing Bard to stop abruptly in his tracks and almost fall as he slipped in the steaming puddles beneath him, within shouting distance of both Alison and Smaug, though he could not find his voice as suddenly the dragon started speaking.

"Well, well," Smaug purred, and his voice was even worse than his roar, serpentine and scintillating, and Bard shivered despite the sudden blast of heat. "You must be the little warrior I have been told about, the Heroine to Johnathan Ashburne's Hero."

"Actually, I'm pretty sure 'Hero' is a unisex term," came Alison's shaky voice from below the dragon, though Bard had to marvel at her boldness, something Smaug seemed to find equally amusing.

"Forgive me, little one," he crooned, though his eyes glowed with a murderous fever as he looked down at Alison. "I have only seen the mortal Heroes in my dreams; never until now have I met one in the flesh."

Bard did not miss the emphasis on the word 'flesh,' but Alison spoke as if she hadn't noticed it.

"Though I imagine that you've seen far more interesting things than just me in your dreams, as well, Smaug," she said, and Smaug's eyes seemed to gleam brighter.

"My dreams go far beyond your mundane imagination, little one," he said silkily. "You'd die of fright from some of the things that I have seen."

When Alison did not answer, Bard gripped his bow and the Black Arrow so tightly he thought his fingers would snap, taking several steps closer down the boardwalk before Smaug continued talking and he stopped, hoping the dragon had not seen him and sighing out a strained breath as the dragon paid no heed to him.

"There is a plague coming, little one, a plague of war and death," Smaug hissed, wrapping one of his clawed feet around a watchtower that was rapidly burning. "You think this battle coming is just one terrible storm, but there are a thousand others behind it; you stand on the edge of extinction. I have seen it. The Shadow will soon consume you all."

"Then I'd like to see the Shadow's face when he realizes one of his key pieces has been removed from the board," Alison said, and then she suddenly shouted, "BARD, NOW!" as she whipped an arrow out of her quiver and shot it at Smaug with deadly speed, the shaft sinking into the dragon's eye before the beast had time to react.

Not having time to wonder how Alison knew he was there, Bard charged over with his bow and the Black Arrow, coming to the Hero's side as Smaug shrieked and stomped around, his tail collapsing towers and his feet crushing boathouses as his eye dripped a thick, sickening yellow ooze, lifting his wings in fury, and giving Bard a chance to see the missing scale on his chest, under the left wing, and he fit his Arrow to the bowstring.

"Arrow!" He found himself crying as he took aim, not even caring that Alison was beside him to hear as he prayed, more to himself than anything. "Black Arrow! I have saved you to the last. You have never failed me and always I have recovered you. I had you from my father and he from of old. If ever you came from the forges of the true King under the Mountain, go now and speed well!"

And with that, Bard let the Arrow fly, the black projectile flying straight and true and hitting the spot under the missing scale, the shaft piercing through the unprotected hide and ripping all the way into the dragon's heart.

Smaug screamed, the sound worse than anything Bard had ever heard, and flame appeared to issue out of every scale in his body now, blasting Bard and Alison with blazing heat as Smaug continued to thrash and scream, convulsing violently.

He attempted to stretch out his snapping wings, trying to push off from the surrounding boardwalks to get back to the sky, but they would not carry his weight, and he sank back down, his scales beginning to blacken and crack as his wings shriveled from fire.

With one last hell-resounding shriek, Smaug launched himself into the sky, but it seemed suddenly as if he curled in on himself, and hurtled back toward the lake like a fireball, appearing to extinguish just as he hit the surface.

A wave of icy water surged up, steaming from the sudden heat, and doused Bard and Alison from where they still stood on the boardwalk, Bard gripping Alison's arm to keep them from being swept into the lake, and when the water receded, they both turned and gaped as Smaug's hulking form began to slowly sink towards the bottom of the lake, jets of steam still issuing from his scales until the entire charred dragon sank beneath the waves.

"By the Valar," Bard whispered hoarsely as the last of Smaug disappeared from sight. "We did it."

He looked up to Alison, wide-eyed, and was surprised to see her grinning broadly. "What?"

"You mean you did it, Bard," she said, and he raised a brow, conceding that point but wondering what there was to smile about, especially since her eyes gleamed as if she were enjoying some private joke.

"Am I missing something?" he asked slowly, and she only shrugged, facing back out to the water where Smaug had vanished.

"So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings," she said, and Bard gazed at her quizzically, though a faint smile appeared on his lips, as if he felt a certain significant draw to the words.

"Fitting," he remarked, and then they both shared a grin before gazing back out to the turbulent waters, watching the waves calm down and the currents disappear until the lake was still once more, a sheet of glass reflecting the pinpricks of the stars above and the towering flames behind them.

At length, Bard was the one to break their moment of victory, saying into the muffled silence, "We should get back to the others on the shore. They should hear the news of the dragon's death from us."

Alison nodded. "Yeah, you're right. Lead on, dragon-slayer."

Bard made a face at the title, looking down at his longbow as another thought occurred to him.

"What did Smaug mean, when he said a plague of war and death was coming?" he asked, and Alison met his eyes warily.

"You heard that?"

Bard shrugged at her slightly accusing tone. "I wasn't going to let you die or anything," he said hastily when she raised her brows, but he went on. "And, yes, I heard. But what did he mean? The battle at the Mountain?"

Bard watched her pale eyes darken, becoming chips of green ice as she frowned, looking to where the Mountain loomed above them on the other side of the lake.

"It means exactly what it means," she said grimly. "The war is coming, whether we want it or not, and Sauron is rising."

Bard's hopes sank, knowing she would say something like this, but also knowing that it was true; the days were darkening, and this Shadow's taint could be felt in everything. Every beat of his heart now seemed to whisper danger as he met Alison's eyes again.

"Now the real battle begins."

Long Author's Note

Ningul'án - (Khuzdûl); "Gladden River"

An interesting Johnathan dynamic introduced in this chapter involving a person from his own original time in Middle-earth; the story behind Johnathan and Isildur will be told in a maybe-possibly-might-happen companion fic to this story, but the foundations of Johnathan's feelings toward the heir of Elendil were laid out in this chapter. I haven't decided yet whether Inod will appear in the story again; maybe in the sequel...? (Oh, yeah, I was busy while I was gone :) )

Alison, if you don't sort out your feelings soon, I, as the author, will seriously be so angry. (And I also have readers hounding my heels so if you could come to a decision before I'm bound and gagged that'd be, erm, preferable). And I'm sorry, but that line before Alison shoots Smaug in the eye is probably one of my top favorite moments in this story; it felt so great and empowering to write.

I literally have no idea where Bard's backstory came from; it just came out, in all honesty. But I had to give him his famous quote, and I always loved the "so comes snow after fire..." one, so those were a must for this chapter.

Anyway, thank you all so much for the reviews/favorites/follows! It makes me so happy to know I have such amazing readers! Keep being the best, and don't forget to review: anything you liked, disliked, are looking forward to? Let me know!

Thanks again, lovelies! Until next chapter...

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