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The Becoming of Bilbo Baggins

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Bilbo looked upon the burning ruins of Lake-town and felt only hunger. It was a scary feeling, and it had been quietly haunting him since the first encounter with the Trolls, it had quickened with the Goblins and Orcs and now he felt it clawing at the dark pits of his belly, insistent and all devouring.

This was why Hobbits did not leave the shelter of the Shire, he thought in dismay. The world outside was a Dark place where you would only starve and starve until you broke, until it would be all that remained, like in the Wandering Days, like in the Dark Days.

Lake-town was burning in Smaug's wake and Bilbo knew, objectively, that he should feel sadness, horror, guilt. But no, he felt none of those things, he only knew that he'd been hungry for so long. It had been such a long journey, so scant of food, the meals bare and tasteless and increasingly thin of substance. He was so, so hungry, that he had been half tempted to eat Smaug's gold!

This, though, this was far worse.

"I'm, uh. I'm going down there," Bilbo heard himself say. "I'm going to Lake-town."

"There isn't much we can do for them now, lad," Balin said, patting his back consolingly. "And there's not much one Hobbit can do for them."

"We need to find the Arkenstone," Thorin agreed. "You'll serve us better here, searching for it."

Bilbo hesitated. A voice in the back of his increasingly hazy mind warned him of Thorin, of Gold Sickness, of Greed for Shiny Things… but the thrumming, gnawing ache of his belly beat it down. The Hunger was a living thing inside him now, whispering pleas and suggesting sweet satisfaction of having a full belly and oh all good and delicious things on Middle Earth how he wanted…

Tugging at the front of his coat, Bilbo dug out the Arkenstone and shoved it in an astonished Thorin's hands without even looking at him. "I'm going," Bilbo said, only hearing the beat of eat, eat, eat pounding in his heart. "I wish you all well but I'm… I'm going now."

It was the best he could manage – with it said, his words utterly escaped him. So he turned, leaving behind an in parts surprised and in parts dismayed Company of Dwarves, his eyes set on the ruins of Lake-town. They might have called after him. They probably did. Bilbo did not hear.

How he made his way down from the mountain, he wasn't sure, but eventually he was at the shore of Lake-town. He might have seen Bard there, he might have run into Alfrid – there were many people there. Someone tried to hold him back and Bilbo shook them off. Lake-town was smoking against the lightening sky, glimpses of fire still showing amidst the ruins and he yearned.

Bilbo took to the half burned causeway that connected Lake-town to the shore and then, with ever growing urgency, began looking for his Feast… his Doom.

He found Smaug bobbing on the waves, supported by the ruins of piers and husks of half collapsed boats. Smaug was still and lifeless, still glittering with gold stuck under his scales – and Bilbo thought he saw the bodies of Men in the water. He did not care. He only had eyes for Smaug's corpse.

Gasping for breath like a hobbit drowning Bilbo unsheathed his sword. Sting gleamed silver in the dawn light and the Ring in Bilbo's pocked burned golden as Bilbo turned to Smaug's chest, where the Black Arrow still sat, nestled amidst the scales.

If ever a Becoming comes upon you Bilbo, and may Valar stop that from ever happening, his Mother once said, you start with the Heart.

On the shore of Lake Esgaroth Bard the Bowman turned his people's eyes north and for Dale and in Lake-town Bilbo turned Sting in his hand and started hacking his way into Smaug's chest.

 


 

They'd decided to be Hobbits, long ago, when the War of the Last Alliance ended and those that were left were forced to pick their own bones clean for a meaning and purpose. They, whatever they had been then, whatever they had been called, had decided to become Hobbits. Something small and sweet and easily sated – something that would never know the gnawing, desperate Hunger of Becoming.

That was the beauty of a small body – it was easy to keep satisfied. Seven meals a day was enough to keep the Hunger at bay. And they could sate it with just normal food, with plants and the well cooked meat of animals they raised for the purpose and it was enough so that they need not feel the lust for bleeding wounds and beating hearts. That way, with feasts full of spices and meals laden heavy on their plates, they could forget.

They could just be something other than what the Hunger made of them, what Becoming created of them. They could be a race of people, rather than an array of blank slates for someone to carve curses on.

So they'd become Small and they'd became Simple and they made their own food and cooked it well and worshipped it on fine plates and it was good. They had almost became Good themselves and Kind and Fair. But above everything else, they became sated.

But at the heart they were still Fell Things, no amount of Hobbitish joviality and easy life could breed out the darkness that resided on the heart of all their kin. And the Hobbit-form itself was a reminder of it – it had been a Becoming too, one they'd all shared in. Their first joint communal meal – one the things they'd thrown into the pot to make it had never thanked them for.

Bilbo had been born a Hobbit thanks to those early meals, same as his parents and his parents' parents… but an inherited form wasn't the same as Becoming.

There had been Becomings since, and always when a Hobbit had left the Shire. A Brandybuck lass that had fallen on a fox – she still lived in the Old Forest, furry and ginger. A Proudfoot that had seen an Eagle of Manwë and never felt full again. There were Hobbits who'd fallen upon Men, Elves, and Dwarves – but those could still be Hobbits after, albeit bigger or fairer or hairier than before. The ones that fell in Hunger during the Fell Winter were a different story all together.

They were always lesser after and there was always dismal shame in it, in giving to the Dark Hunger. And the worse the creature you fell upon in your Hunger…

 


 

Smaug's heart was the first bloody flesh Bilbo had ever eaten and he devoured it in big, ravenous bites, uncaring if anyone saw. With each bite and each bloody chunk of meat his Hunger grew and the Becoming had him and by the time the heart was gone, Hunger was all he knew.

He hacked off chunks of Smaug's flesh and ate them on the spot, feeding his ever growing belly that in turn fed his ever growing body. Soon his sword was too small for the task and Bilbo tore into Smaug with his hands, then his claws, then his fangs and jaws. The more he ate the more he needed, the bigger he grew the bigger the hunger within him became.

He had to eat all of it, he had to, he could not stop, could not think of stopping, not while there was still something left to eat.

His clothes tore and soon he grew too heavy for the pier to hold him. Annoyed at this disturbance in his meal, Bilbo took Smaug's now far lesser form and dragged him up into the ruins of Esgaroth, its stones bearing both of them better. There he continued to eat, gnawing on bones and crunching them into bits and pieces in his jaws. He had talons on his feet to grasp the stone of the ruins with now and his tail wrapped around the crumbling spires for support as he crawled over Smaug and chewed on his scaly spine and horns and swallowed them too.

And when he ran out of meat to eat and bones to chew, he ate everything in sight. He ate bodies off the waves, he ate the burned wood, he ate the stones of Esgaroth – he ate a barge loaded high with gold and precious gems, licking every coin and jewel up greedily. So he ate until there was nothing left near, until his Hunger finally was satisfied that the meal was done and he could pronounce himself full, his plate well-polished.

A day and a night had passed so and when dawn broke on the second day of Erebor's reclaiming and Lake-town's destruction, it dawned on a dragon as big, if not bigger than Smaug the Firedrake – and oh so well fed.

Spreading out his massive wings, Bilbo Baggins of Shire looked down on himself – and saw what he'd Become. His scales weren't iron – they were gold that gleamed and shone, his plate mail of scales whole and unbroken. His talons weren't spears – they were swords and quietly he mourned for Sting and its sad fate. His wings were vast and long and they shone golden and bright and he knew that he could fly on them, that they'd carry him far.

But he was different from Smaug. He had a mane of hair behind his horns and he could see in his reflection on the waves that he had pointed ears on his head. He had bronze hair on his hind legs, thick and long like stocking on a Shire pony, very fine indeed. Truly, he was a very Hobbitish dragon…

But a dragon was what he'd Become all the same. In a land that was very vehemently against dragons, especially so as of late.

"Oh Bilbo," he sighed at himself in his vast draconian form and his voice resonated deep and mournful in his chest. "What have you gotten yourself into now? What have you Become now?"

His belly was full and he felt no hunger, but the shame that rolled over him was worse than any starvation he had ever felt. He had given in, he had broken like all those that had Become something else, fallen to their baser instincts that they'd fought for centuries and more. This was what his people had been created for and he knew, a vile dark thought, that was this an Age ago, he'd be the pride of the Dark Forces of all Things Fell. This was just the thing that they'd been made for – to devour things greater than themselves, and to Become those things.

For a moment Bilbo wondered if Smaug had once been like him – if he'd Hungered and Become too, if he'd been something else before. And if so, then would Bilbo become what Smaug had been, a dark beast of greed and desolation, lonesome in his terribleness? He thought longingly of the roiling hills of the Shire, the great feasts of his kin, and mourned the fact that never again could he join those tables and share in that plenty. Even if the Shire accepted him as he was now, which they might but they might not… he could not go back.

If he went back as he was, he'd only trigger the Hunger in others, and he'd be devoured like he'd devoured.

He could not go back.

"Now what will you do, oh Barrel Rider, oh Dragon Riddler?" Bilbo murmured, lowering his head and looking at himself. He was very magnificent to look at, no doubt about it. And it was oh so easy to settle into his form – it was as natural as anything. Talons in place of toes, claws in place of fingers, fangs for teeth and scales for skin: he was truly a dragon now, and he felt perfect as he was. He felt like himself, truly, and he was rather glad that the stories of Becoming had left that out, the naturalness of it. It was all too easy, to leave behind the hobbit-form and Become, it turned out.

 But natural or not, it did not save him the sadness and the confusion and the knowledge that he had no place to go now, no place to be, no people he could safely claim his own. Bilbo Baggins of Bagend would die here, he knew, for there were secrets here that could not lead back to the Shire. That only made his fate lonelier still.

So Bilbo the Golden moped, nosing at his hide and flexing his wings, trying to come up with a plan and failing to do so, all through that day and into the early evening when, in the distance, he heard the horns of war.

Unbeknownst to him, while he'd been busy with Smaug and with his Becoming, elsewhere things were still turning and war was upon Erebor once more.

 


 

The Dwarves had had no explanations for Bilbo's absence – all they could tell Gandalf over the roughly piled wall that blocked Erebor's Gates was that, "He left and went to Lake-town and we haven't seen him since," and that was it and no matter what Gandalf asked, no further comments were given.

He could see the guilt there, though, in the faces of Balin and Bofur who'd known Bilbo the best and in the grim scowl on Thorin's face before he hid away. Bilbo had, Gandalf assumed, given up on the Dwarves when the Gold Sickness had claimed Thorin, and had left them their gold and their treasure, and alone he'd gone to help the people of Lake-town in their need, never mind how little he could do for them. It was a display of greater merit and honour than any Dwarf present had shown of late, that was for certain, and the Company felt it deeply, whether they liked to show it or not. There was guilt and shame in the air, and it made things far worse.

Thorin, the honourable idiot, remained firm in his belief that he had the only Right – and that it was his Right not to share. And now he was dragging not only the Company, but the people of Lake-town and of the Greenwood into war, and ignoring all of Gandalf's warnings at the same time.

"This is folly, all of this," Gandalf muttered as he paced along Thranduil's tent. "And it has not been worth the losses so far, let me tell you that."

"You mean the Halfling that stole the Dwarves from my dungeons," the Elvenking commented coolly.

Gandalf grit his teeth and cast a look at Bard the Bowman. "Have you no word of him?" he asked imploringly.

"There is nothing – he has not been seen since he came down from the mountain. Some say he went down the causeway and into Lake-town, while it was still burning, but I do not know how well I can trust those tales, coming from Alfrid as they do," Bard said darkly. "If I had the people to spare, I'd send them to look, but as it is –"

Gandalf paced a few steps down the length of the tent and then back. It had always been risky business, bringing Bilbo. Belladonna had been special among her people, restrained in her thirst for adventure, and Bilbo had shared a lot of her qualities as a young faunt, that he'd lost as grown Hobbit. He had seemed a good fit with the Dwarves, in the end, just enough give and resistance to deal with them. It was Smaug though, the reason why Gandalf had chosen Bilbo – had chosen a Hobbit. It was not as if Smaug could do much to a Hobbit.

And yet now Bilbo was missing, taken not by dragon fire but, by all likelihood, by the water of Lake Esgaroth. Oh, save him from foolish halflings – why had Bilbo gone into Lake-town as it still burned?

"Mithrandir," Thranduil interrupted his thoughts. "If Thorin Oakenshield will not see reason, there will be battle," he said. "And so far he is not honouring his word to the people of Lake-town – nor the promises his ancestors made to myself, or the people of Dale. And this region cannot stand a king so foolish."

"This region can't stand a lot of things, but foolish kings it's endured a plenty and with good grace, for the most part," Gandalf snapped at him and scowled. "Dain Ironfoot is coming from the north, no doubt, and the orcs approach from the south. The war that is coming is not between yourself and the Dwarves of Erebor – indeed such a struggle can't even be called a war at all!"

"No one said it was," Thranduil said peacefully and smiled. "It will be hardly a fight."

Gandalf cast him a disgusted look.

Bard looked between them. "I don't want any sort of strife between us and the Dwarves of Erebor," he said. "But they are not honouring their agreements, and if this marks the path they will lead as they re-settle Erebor…" he shook his head. "If there is to be a battle over Erebor, it cannot be fought with hostile Dwarves at our back. Nor will we fight it for those who think us their enemies."

Gandalf turned his scowl at him. "Then fight for Dale, for if Erebor falls, Dale will never rise and there will be no place here for your people," he said.

"We will fight," Bard said, frowning right back at him. "There was never a question of that. But we cannot fight with the Dwarves at our back."

The Wizard scoffed at that and turned to Thranduil. "And what of you, Thranduil, King of the Woodland Realm?" he asked. "Will your people fight for Dale?"

The Elvenking arched an eyebrow at him. "We will fight for the Woodland Realm," he said coolly and rose from his seat. "But make no mistake, Mithrandir. I will have my Gems at the end of this."

Gandalf eyed him and then nodded in grim agreement, turning his eyes away. That he could not do much about – it was a quarrel between Thranduil and Thorin's house, they'd settle it as they did. But for now, he had this much at least – Men and Elves would fight the oncoming force of orcs. Dwarves were still unaccounted for and they would remain so until Dain Ironfoot arrived with his force and hopefully with better sense than what Thorin Oakenshield currently possessed. By then the orcs may very well force their hand. By then –

"My lord!" a elven warrior gasped, entering the tent with a bow. "We have spotted the force of orcs. There are many."

"How far off, then?" Thranduil asked, shaking of his cloak to reveal the gleaming armour he wore beneath.

"An hour, my lord, maybe less – many of them are running – but my lord," the elven warrior said and glanced at Gandalf. "They are not coming from the south as Mithrandir said – they've been spotted north of the mountain."

"North," Thranduil repeated, pausing in the midst of belting on his sword. "North, you say."

"Two forces, then – one from Gundabad, and another from Dol Guldur," Gandalf said darkly, sharing a look with Bard, who looked grim and nervous. "They are aiming to pin us between them and the mountain."

Thranduil frowned at that, deep in thought. "Well then," he mused and finished belting his sword on. "It's time we plan for the battle."

 


 

When the forces of Men and Elves met the orcs of Gundabad, there was little plan to it – they met on the field between Dale and Erebor and for a moment the forces looked evenly matched… until the forces of Dol Guldur joined their brethren from the north. Then the forces of the Elves were utterly outmatched, and those amidst the Men of Lake-town that could wield a weapon could do very little to aid the better trained Elves in battle – the best they could do was in defending the ruins of Dale, and even in that they failed fast.

From the battlements of Erebor, Thorin and the Company watched this battle take place, and even through the haze of Gold Sickness and shame they could see how outmatched the Elves and Men were against the tide of orcs.

"Should we not go out there and help?" Fíli demanded of his uncle. "They are fighting for Erebor!"

"They are fighting for riches and greed, all of them," Thorin growled, his hand clasped over his chest where, under his mail, the Arkenstone sat against his heart. "They are fighting only for what they think they can gain from the mountain."

"And they are losing," Balin said darkly, looking at him. "Which will be worse, do you think – that Thranduil and his people win this struggle… or that Azog and his ilk win it? Which outcome would be preferable, oh King Under the Mountain?"

Thorin grit his teeth and didn't answer. He thought instead back to that moment on the field under Erebor's gates and below Dale, when Bilbo Baggins had shoved the Arkenstone in his hands and turned his back to them. Betrayer, traitor, burglar, said one half of Thorin, while the other squirmed in guilt. To see one small Hobbit turn what they could not, what he could not, what he would not…

No, Baggins had kept the Arkenstone until the very last, he had kept it, he would've kept it were it not for his foolish sentimentality –

But he hadn't, he'd given it to Thorin before he'd gone when he might have easily carried it with him and never let them have it –

Thorin hesitated and lingered, glaring at the clash of Men and Elves and orcs. "Dain," he said, and nodded. "Dain will be here soon and the tide of the battle will turn."

"Do you think there will be many of Dale's forces left, by then?" Dwalin asked darkly, while the rest of the company watched the battle.

"What would you have me do – we number only in thirteen!" Thorin snapped.

"And with those thirteen you were willing to face all the forces of the Greenwood," Balin said, shaking his head. "But perhaps you are right, perhaps there isn't anything we can do, but watch and see and hope that Dain gets here quicker."

Thorin squeezed his hands into fists and battled furiously against himself. Below Erebor's gates, Elves fought orcs and there wasn't a single Dwarf fighting, not a single Dwarf out there, defending the mountain. It was… a disgrace. And they all knew it. They all felt it. Was that what Bilbo Baggins had felt, when he'd given them up, when he'd dropped the Arkenstone in his hands as if it was so much worthless shale, and left them behind? Had he seen the disgrace they had been about to become?

"Uncle," Kíli said. "I cannot do this – I cannot sit here and hide while others fight our battles for us."

Thorin took a breath and released it slowly and the world felt a little steadier under his feet. They had the mountain now, they had Erebor, they had their home back. And perhaps Master Baggins had been right to abandon him for the disgrace he'd become, but he had the mountain. They had Erebor.

All they needed to do now was defend it.

"Then let us join the fray," Thorin said and the relief on the faces of his company was almost painful to look at, so he did not look at it. "Bombur," he called instead and motioned at the great horn that lay not far from them, abandoned. "Sound the horn. Who knows, maybe Dain will hear it and hurry, but for now… Let us join the fight."

And for the first time in over a century, the great horn of Erebor sounded, announcing the Dwarves of Erebor to their allies and enemies both. On the battlefield the orcs froze and though the Dwarves numbered only thirteen, the sound was so great that it stilled them in their places, just for a moment. But the true effect of the sound was felt elsewhere, heard by something that was an ally and enemy both.

On Lake-town, a dragon heard the horn of Erebor and lifted his head. He listened, confusion and alarm rising over his grim grief, and then fear. He knew the sound of a Dwarven horn, and he knew the sound of battle, and though it was so distant that he could ignore it before… he heard it now. And though he did not know what it meant, he feared the implications.

The sounds were coming from Erebor. From the direction of the Company – and though he doubted they counted him among their number, he counted them as his friends still.

And so Bilbo the Golden spread out his wings for the first time, with a powerful leap upwards he rose from the charred ruins of Lake-town, and into the air. For a moment he was tempted to answer the challenge of the horn with a dragon roar – but he was not Smaug, he was a Dragon of the Shire if he was anything, and Hobbits weren't so dramatic, draconic or not. Instead he simply turned and flew as fast as he could, to meet whatever ailed his Company.

 


 

"DRAGON!"

The cry was universal and universally understood and all eyes, of Elves, Men, orcs and Dwarves, turned upwards as the massive winged shadow rose over the battlefield. They stared in horror and amazement at the gleaming form in the air, against the sunlit sky, wings outspread to catch the wind as it circled the battlefield, inspecting it like a child inspects a cluster of ants beneath his heel.

"The dragon was supposed to have been slain!" Thorin bellowed and turned. "Bard claimed he'd slain the dragon!"

There were many cries in the air and the few Lake-men amidst the combatants turned to flee, wild in their terror, the burning of Lake-town still far too fresh in their minds. The Elves grasped their bows and aimed their arrows upwards, but they did not reach, and when they did, they returned to the ground, shattered against dragon hide. And over the tide of horrified Elves and Men, there were the orcs.

There was Azog, standing astride his war mount, shouting upwards in Black Speech. Cajoling the dragon to join him, Thorin thought wildly. But Smaug would not, surely he would not, Smaug was not a dragon that endured enemies or allies, or people in general – Smaug would not

"Join me, Smaug the Terrible!" Azog shouted at last in Westron, when the dragon did not answer his Black Speech. "Feast on Elf and Man and Dwarf and have the mountain back, but for now join us in battle, and share our glory!"

The dragon circled once and then rumbled. "That's a pretty offer to be sure," he answered from aloft and his voice… "There is only one problem with it."

Suddenly the dragon snapped his wings shut and dived down and in a split of a second Azog was gone, crushed under the dragon's great talons and greater bulk, him and his war mount both. The earth still rumbled with the impact as the dragon looked down at the crushed War Chief beneath his claws, and then at the orcs around him. "I'm not Smaug," the dragon said.

Thorin stared wide eyed and horror struck at the golden dragon with his great mane of hair and horns, as he spun in place and ploughed into the orcs with his spike riddled tail, sending them flying in droves. The Elves gripped their bows again but hesitated, uneasy – because just then the dragon reached over an Elven warrior to grab a charging War Troll instead. A moment later the dragon flung the beast against Erebor's battlements before, with a gentle shove, pushing the Elven warrior aside so that he could launch itself at the orcs.

And only the orcs. He avoided Men and Elves and even crushed one orc under his tail when the orc went to stab a Man, and though Thorin could see smoke rising from the dragon's jaws, he did not breathe the fire. Nor did the golden dragon use his jaws, no, he struck with his talons and tail alone, breaking orcs under his weight sending them flying in wild swipes, but he did not bite, he did not eat.

Space was opening on the battlefield, around the dragon, with Elves and Men and Dwarves at the dragon's back, and orcs in front, and the dragon was chasing them away with his wild attacks. The orc forces, already broken by Azog's sudden death, began to scatter and run and the dragon let them, only sending them running faster by throwing those that lingered too long after them.

And then there was just them, the forces of Erebor and Dale and Greenwood, and the Golden Dragon that had, for some Mahal Forsaken Reason, defended them.

"Well, that's that, then," the dragon said with some satisfaction and looked at them over his scaly shoulder, tucking his wings in. "Oh," he then said, and his wings drooped a little with disappointment.

The Elves had their bows up and every single one of them was aiming an arrow at the golden dragon. And Thorin wished dearly that they'd all released their arrows before the dragon did something – and yet, and yet… it had fought for them, it had ended the battle with a negligent ease – it had killed Azog right before his eyes!

"Wait, wait!" a familiar voice shouted. "Stand down, wait!" Gandalf hurried over to them, grabbing his staff as he all but dashed for the dragon. "It's not Smaug!"

"We can see that, Mithrandir, clear as day," Thranduil said coolly. And true enough, the dragon looked very little like Smaug. He was golden where Smaug was red and bloody, and there was something soft about him while Smaug had only had sharp edges and sharper spikes. This dragon's scales were rounder, his horns weren't quite so jagged, and there was the hair too that softened his crown of horns into a mane – and, Thorin noted with some disbelief, he had ears.

And then, strangest of all, the dragon's eyes brightened. "Gandalf," he said, with obvious relief.

"You know my name," the wizard said, leaning on his staff, peering at the dragon with interest. "And you fought for our forces, for which you have our thanks. But I don't remember meeting a dragon like you before."

"Well, I've only just Become, so I imagine you wouldn't have," the dragon said and turned to face them, to face Gandalf. Thorin swallowed, staring up and up at him – he was vaster than Smaug, thicker of shoulder and chest, and far better fed than the lean firedrake that Bard had, it seemed, slain after all. Even the smoothness of his scales and the softness of his mane could not take away from the sheer vastness of his form.

And yet he was more awe striking than terrifying.

"Become," Gandalf repeated slowly, and then his expression turned lax with shock and understanding before twisting with grief. "Oh. Oh, my dear boy," the wizard said and walked towards the dragon, without fear or hesitation. "So that is where you went. I am so very sorry," the wizard said, and as the dragon leaned his head down, Gandalf rested a hand on his golden scales.

The dragon rumbled in sad agreement and then looked up, at the Elves and their bows. "Am I going to be killed?" he questioned quietly – or as quiet as a dragon could which was not at all. He didn't sound fearful or worried or even angry, more resigned, and for some reason it made Thorin's skin crawl.

"Gandalf," Thorin said, stepping forward, ignoring Dwalin who tried to stop him.  "What is this?" he demanded to know. "What is this dragon? Where did he come from? And why did he…"

The wizard cast him a look and then shook his head. "Lay down your bows," he said, turning to Thranduil. "He will not hurt anyone here and he poses no danger to you."

"I do beg to differ – it's a dragon. Hurting is all they can do, danger is all they can offer," Thranduil spat, though there was a suspicious look about his face as he looked between Gandalf and the dragon, so easy in each other's presence. When neither moved, the Elvenking waved a hand abruptly, and though the Elves did not put their bows or arrows away, they aimed them down and away from the dragon.

The dragon eyed them for a moment and then turned to Gandalf, the expression on his long, draconic face uneasy and yet somehow… familiar. "Now what?" he asked. "Also, what was with the orcs?" he asked, turning to look where the orc forces had fled. "Where did they even come from?"

"Never you mind that now," Gandalf barked out a laugh and shook his head. "Because now, my dear friend, now come very interesting times indeed.