Chapter 2: Smaug
The stench of sulphur was overpowering, like marsh gas or rotten eggs. A low rumble that Thranduil thought at first came from the depths of the Mountain, and the heat made him glad that he had not worn mail or armour, for what good it would have done him? Instead he was dressed in the green hunting tunic and leather breeches of the Woodelves. But his hair was burnished gold like coins and his slate-green eyes intense and focused, like a hawk. Thranduil was always the Elvenking. And he would not cower unless it served his people.
So he strode cofidently along the high hall, glancing at the carved and sculpted walls as he passed with a flicker of sorrow for the Dwarves, but they had not been so merciful in Doriath, he reminded himself, and steeled his heart. He passed through wide, high passages and as back in the shadows, were gilded and silvered coats of mail standing empty, waiting for long dead dwarvish warriors. Tall spears lined up like a ghostly army stood somewhere in the shadows, their shafts inlaid with gold.
The rumbling had stopped but Thranduil did not. Boldly he stepped into the great Hall of Thráin. And he had to stop then.
Heat pressed against him like he stood in a furnace, a hot wind pulled his long hair back from his face and he narrowed his slate-green eyes against it. The light reflecting from the piled up gold was dazzling at first. Gems and jewels and silver washed red in the fiery light. Helms and axes, swords and spears, and great wooden chests were flung open and spilling over with jewels and necklaces of pearl and sapphire. It was said by others that the Elvenking lusted after treasure, after gold, and he liked emeralds best. It was true he liked emeralds best. But this dragon-gold, he wanted none of it. He wanted something else entirely and he thought of the heavy jewel given him by Mithrandir to use as he thought best. It nestled against his breast.
No, it was not dragon-gold or dwarf-treasure that made Thranduil stop.
It was as his dream.
Here at last, was Smaug.
The huge red-gold Dragon lay coiled upon a high bed of gold and gems. His tail stretched long, far down into the shadowed halls and out of sight. It twitched slightly somewhere in the shadows and there was the sound of shifting coins, metal, treasure beyond dreams. About Smaug’s claw was tangled a long string of emeralds, deepest green like the forest. Smaug breathed. Thin wisps of smoke blew out of his nostrils for his fires were low and sleepy. But he knew the smell of Elf, the touch of Elf...the taste of Elf flesh. He had come from the North, but no mere Worm of the Northern wastes, this. No, this was Smaug Uruloki, a fire -drake.
Thranduil dared not breathe for the slightest stir might awaken the slumbering Dragon.
But had he not come for a reason? So he steeled himself and stood tall and straight, like an arrow.
And Smaug cracked open an eye of molten fire, gold and flame, hunger. A great golden cup rolled from under the dragon when he shifted, two-handed, hammered and carven with birds and flowers whose eyes and petals were of mithril*.
‘Well...Thranduil Oropherion. It’s about time.’
Thranduil almost, almost looked the Dragon in the eye, so taken aback was he. But he remembered in time, his father, Oropher, glorious and golden as Smaug himself, telling him; Never look in the eye of the dragon. It will cast a glamour upon you, the glamour of gold and its horde and lead you into foolishness. He bowed low, and thus avoided its gaze.
‘Forgive my tardiness then, my lord. I had heard the tales,’ Thranduil went for the obvious, ‘but I had not imagined for a moment, the truth of your magnificence.’ For Smaug was, indeed, magnificent. Glorious. And terrifying.
‘One lord to another then it seems. I have heard of you also, King of the Wood.’ Smaug’s voice was rich and golden, deep. It was, thought Thranduil, a beautiful and powerful voice.
‘As brothers then, as Kings of our lands, my lord,’ Thranduil said and he gestured to a golden throne nearby as if asking for permission to sit.
Smoke whuffed from the Dragon’s flared nostrils, not flames for his fires were low and banked, and Thranduil took it as acceptance. He did not at first turn his back on the Dragon and then was amused at himself; what could he do if Smaug merely stretched out a colossal paw and pinned him whilst his back was turned? Nothing. He was unarmed and Galion was miles away.
So he deliberately turned his back, heart pounding, and took the two steps to the throne. For all the Dragon had to do was to breathe and he would be incinerated. There was a smear of old blood on the throne. He did not think about it.
He sat and inclined his head slightly, so his long hair sifted and slid over his shoulder. For a moment, Smaug was distracted by the silk of gold, and then the Dragon’s eye settled back upon him and Thranduil fixed his own gaze at the point between the molten eyes. The nictitating membrane came up over the Dragon’s eye briefly and in that moment, Thranduil realised that he had been as distracted by Smaug as the Dragon had been by him. He clenched his fist and sharpened his focus. As if realising the same, the Dragon shifted slightly forwards and piles and piles of gold coins poured and slipped down, showered onto the rich heavy tapestries and silks scattered on the ground. Thranduil heard the heavy chains of gold fall but he did not look away, schooled his face to a mask of inscrutability. A wisp of thin smoke came from Smaug’s nostrils.
‘And how goes it in the...Wood,’ Smaug’s rich voice was urbane oddly and Thranduil was strangely reminded for a moment of Elrond, but for the intonation in the word wood, and the suggestion of its inflammability.
‘We survive,’ Thranduil said coolly.
‘It would be interesting to return the courtesy of your visit,’ said Smaug and there was a glint of amusement, a sharpness of intellect.
Thranduil smiled thinly. ‘I fear your magnificence would not be given its due regard,’ he countered and this time Smaug laughed, a deep laugh that began in his belly and rumbled outwards like distant thunder.
The Dragon moved slightly, merely extended a huge forearm and gold shifted and slid and poured from the great treasure heap. ‘It is long since I spoke with your kind,’ Smaug said and his voice was like the molten heart of the Mountain. It felt somehow right that he was here. ‘I have missed that. Mind you, the last Elf I spoke to was merely to warn him to run.’
If it amuses the Dragon, thought Thranduil, as politely in his mind as in his voice, then who was he to complain? For he had been the one to seek Smaug out and not the other way.
The Dragon licked a tooth and gave Thranduil a chance to see the hot red mouth, the ivory teeth like a mûmak’s tusk.
‘What was he called...?’ The Dragon swiveled his head round slightly to catch Thranduil in the glint of his golden eye. ‘Barafin I think. Was he not one of yours? He must have strayed into Dale. Usually Men all taste the same, but there is something different about Elf-flesh. It has a more piquant flavour.’
Thranduil did not move, not a finger, not a flicker of his eye. Ice to meet with Fire. Water quenches fire. Baraphion, whose child had wailed, sobbed inconsolably that his ada had not come home and Merdiel, his sweet wife, had stood at the edge of the Wood and gazed and gazed and would not eat or rest... They had not found him. Of course. But until now, no one had known his fate. And what would he tell Merdiel now?
‘But I am not hungry yet.’ Smaug’s eye roamed briefly over the hoard, the deep gold, the piles of treasure that Thranduil studiously avoided looking at in case the glamour of the dragon-hoard worked its way into his heart and fixed him there. ‘However I have missed good conversation.’ Smaug spoke as if he were weighing up the advantages of eating Thranduil.
Thranduil let a long breathe go and with it tension and fear. He had faced worse. He had faced the Nazgûl which had no such dilemma, who only sought his death in the worst way imaginable.
‘I do hope you will visit me again.’
Thranduil inclined his head slightly.
‘But I think you are here for something. A king does not visit a king merely to pass the time of day.’ Smaug’s tail twitched slightly and gold poured and slid from the great heaps and scattered at Thranduil’s feet. ‘Am I to fear another Elvish warrior who wishes to make his name? Will you send a hero to seek my death that his name is forever sung in your halls?’
‘Surely that is a Mannish deed, O Smaug the Magnificent?’ Thranduil said. ‘When have the Elves of the Woods and Dragons ever been enemies? When have my people ever sought your death?’ He looked hard at the Dragon’s gold scales, seeking a weakness. He could see none. ‘Yet Kings treat with Kings.’
‘And you would treat with me?’
‘What would’st thou have, King of the Wood?’
‘I would have your word that you will not seek the destruction of my folk.’
‘Ah. Now we come to it. Like your father you are, Oropherion. He was ever to the point.’ Smaug’s laugh, if it could be described, was a deep rumble that made Thranduil want to look about to see if the Mountain was coming down. But he did not, he held his gaze steady.
One great claw slowly stretched, flexed and stayed spread, the great talons gleamed like scimitars amongst the shifting piles of gold coins. A necklace was caught between Smaug’s talons, a lovely delicate string of mithril and emeralds. Thranduil though, barely noticed it for the power and elegance of the Dragon’s claw.
The claws had the colour and rich iridescence of pearls, and the scales of the dragon, richer than the gold on which he lay. Within each scale were swirls and patterns that seemed to echo the dragon’s shape, discernible one moment and gone the next, lost in the gleam of bronze and gold, copper. In the claw alone, Thranduil found the Song, rare in its power and resonance and suddenly his heart lurched; this was one of the last of the firedrakes, the last great Dragon. He found that he was moved, not only by the power and richness of the Dragon, but by a deep compassion.
‘You are one of the last,’ Thranduil said slowly. ‘Your magnificence is beyond anything I have ever seen.’ He found himself wishing he had seen the battles where Dragons had come roaring over the plains, fire scorching the Earth and their great wings whumping down on the wind... He did not think he could have stood his ground as did those First Age warriors - he thought he would have run.
Smaug half-closed his eyes, as if he read Thranduil’s thoughts. ‘We ruled the Earth.’ His voice was a whisper, low, rich. Full of yearning. ‘Moringhotto was nothing without us.’
Thranduil thought of the old tales that he had heard of the First Age, although they were Noldorin of course and heard fourth or fifth hand. But he thought that Smaug spoke true.
‘And now, my lord, you rule Erebor.’
‘Indeed. And I have gold enough to furnish you with the army you need...’ Smaug’s eye flashed over him. ‘Or I could blaze over your Wood...’
‘I seek neither your riches nor your enmity, my lord.’ Thranduil waited. Awed he was, impressed, moved even. But his beloved Wood was still threatened. And Smaug knew his power. So he let the game play out. ‘I have no love for the Dwarves. My father, you know was from Doriath and we remember their betrayal. But I did not wish for their destruction either.’ He paused, let Smaug think about that. ‘I come to offer peace between you and my folk. I wish only to pay my homage to you.’ He bowed his head and said quietly and sincerely, ‘My lord Smaug, I come to pay tribute to you if you would have it.’
‘Tribute?’ It caught the dragon’s interest as he knew it would.
‘I have brought tribute if you will bind to this peace.’
‘Tribute?’ Smaug laughed richly then, and lifted his head and then shoulders, his pinions. ‘Do you think I need more gold?’ The hoard shifted around him and the mountain of gold cascaded down over his hide and Thranduil saw with astonishment and awe, that Smaug was indeed huge. He realised now that he had only seen the dragon’s head, its forearm but now it moved its lithe and sinuous body and what he had thought was gold and jewels was in fact, the Dragon himself. It seemed to keep on coming, its huge wings were folded back, bat-like against its body. The long, narrow head snaked out and reared above him as the dragon emerged, full length indeed, a monster. Gold poured from him, around him. Cascaded over the Dragon’s hide, spilling over the ground, pooling at Thranduil’s feet. And there! A black arrow slid down the river of gold and was jammed agains the throne in which he sat.
Almost Thranduil lost his nerve but he kept himself still, let his heart slow and his breath slow and deep; it may be my last, he told himself. Carefully he raised his eyes again to the colossal Dragon. He bowed this time.
‘Yes. One King to another. In fealty. You will never have to fear the Wood. No Elf of the Wood will fire an arrow against you. Nor lift a sword. This, I swear.’
For he had seen it..a town ablaze. Not Dale, for it was already ruined. A Man standing tall. A Black Arrow.
Here it was at his feet. His dream was foretelling, no dream. Slowly he drew the pouch from his breast. The soft suede against his fingers and he drew open the drawstring and reached within. Its glow immediately lit up his face, and when he opened his hand, Thrain’s Arkenstone lay upon his palm.
‘I return this to its rightful place,’ Thranduil said slowly, for he was buying peace for the Wood. He was showing faith. He was returning the Arkenstone to the Mountain.
Even Smaug’s old eyes, gorged with treasure and jewels, widened and for a moment, Thranduil was reflected in the narrow slit of his pupil, obsidian, darkness. He moved his hand slightly so the Arkenstone broke into ten thousand sparks of bright radiance then, shot with glints of the rainbow.* It caught the reflected light of the dragon-hoard and glowed, as if the dwarvish gold recognised its heart for the glimmer of gold coins seemed to intensify and leap so both Dragon and Elven-King were caught in the brilliance of the Arkenstone.
‘I would bind you to this Peace,’ he said.
Smaug’s eyes glittered greedily and he seemed to drink in the light. For a moment, Thranduil regretted it. For a moment he thought of the old tale of the Silmarils and wondered. But his Wood was more important and his people’s lives.
‘What stops me from simply killing you now and taking it for myself?’ Smaug lifted his head and looked down upon the King. Who did not look up but remained motionless.
Thranduil smiled slightly. ‘There would be War. You would never rest peacefully upon your fabulous treasure. And always would you fear the Wood.’
‘I could burn your Wood.’
‘Why would you when you can have this?’ He opened his hand and let the golden glow of Dragon-fire sparkle and dance within the facets of the Arkenstone, cut the light into rainbows, capture the greedy heart of the Dragon. ‘You know what this is? It is the Arkenstone of Erebor. It belongs here.’
‘You would give this willingly, O King?’ Smaug slithered forwards slightly and bent his great head towards the light. ‘And for Peace?’
Thranduil looked at the Arkenstone for a moment and without a trace of regret, he proffered it. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I would. I cannot eat stone or gold, and I cannot love it, nor it love me.’
The sigh that escaped from the Dragon’s mouth was a thin trail of grey smoke. A sigh of desire. ‘You bring a great gift, Thranduil Oropherion.’ The Dragon was ensnared, gazing at the Arkenstone, caught in its gleam and radiance as a man would be caught in Smaug’s own gaze should he dare to look into his eyes.
Thranduil bowed his head respectfully and placed the heavy jewel between Smaug’s great paws. The great claws bony-knuckled, long-fingered, talons flexed like new-forged scimitars
‘It is done.’ Smaug said, not moving his eyes from the Arkenstone, ‘for this is worth all the the gold under the Mountain.’
Thranduil breathed. It was done indeed. Now one last thing.
He spared a brief glance that took in everything. The cavernous emptiness stretched behind and around him. The rows and rows of mail and tall spears stood in the silence and above him, the tiers and arches and terraces of the Dwarf kingdom rose until the darkness and shadows cloaked them. It was empty. A dead city. Over everything lay a fine layer of ash. And lying near his feet in a pool of gold coins and gemstones, was the black arrow.
He felt the scorch of Smaug’s gaze settle briefly upon the arrow and then away, back to the Arkenstone that lay between his great paws. ‘I find myself curious about your kingdom. So you will send me tribute every ten years. Not one of your hoary old warriors. A young one.They are more tender.You have three sons.’
Thranduil felt ice in his veins and he tore his attention away from the arrow and back to the Dragon, which he saw regarded him with those golden molten eyes. He felt himself falling into the obsidian space and wrenched his gaze back before it was too late.
Smaug laughed, a deep rumble that reverberated through the air, through Thranduil’s own bones and chest. ‘I do not wish to eat them. But you will send someone to me as mark of faith. Every ten years.’
‘I will come myself,’ he said quickly. Too quickly, he thought and indeed, the Dragon’s gaze raked over him.
‘No,’ said Smaug and his rich voice was laced with amusement. ‘Much as I have enjoyed your company, King of the Wood. This is your mark of faith. If I break it, you may come after me with all your armies...But I will not.’
Thranduil’s mind leapt suddenly back to the Wood. To send his children, any children into this lair, this dead world to the Dragon, was too much.
‘Oh come now, King of the Wood.’ Smaug’s voice was a breath of warmth . ‘Surely you trust me as I trust you. I invite one of your warriors into my kingdom to renew our treaty and you baulk.’ His voice lowered, his breath now a whisper of heat. ‘Is it that you do not trust me?’
And here it was; the moment for the Peace to be sealed and no, he did not trust the Dragon.
‘O Smaug, you are rightly named the Magnificent, but you are also called Smaug the Terrible for the destruction you can wreak. You would have me send my child to you?’
Smaug leaned down and caught Thranduil in his gaze. The King could do no more than look, transfixed. The eye of the Dragon was multi-facetted, iridescent, shot with a thousand lights, molten fire. He could not look away.
‘You have sworn you will not raise bow or blade against me, Thranduil Oropherion. I would have the children of the Wood do the same. Send them. Every ten years. You will have your Peace.’
A nictitating membrane came up, shockingly, the wrong way from a man’s, from the bottom up, and Thranduil was released from the Dragon’s gaze. A thin wisp of smoke breathed from Smaug for his fires were low and merely smouldered. ‘This I swear, on the Flame of Udun, on the Flame of Arnor.’ The Dragon bowed its great golden head then and said, ‘I swear upon the Secret Fire of Eru.’
Thranduil suddenly realised he was standing, staring up at the Dragon which was huge, and could have at the merest suggestion incinerated him, sliced him in two with the smallest of its claws, and yet it bowed to him. He bowed low himself.
‘Then let it be so, my lord. Every ten years will I send some child of the Wood to bear testament to your magnificence and remind us of our Peace.’ He bowed and as he did, something seemed to nudge against his foot then. Slowly, carefully, Thranduil looked down. He reached out and his fingers brushed against the Black Arrow and it seemed to leap into his hand.
‘This is a strange and base thing to have in such a magnificent hoard,’ he said slowly, so carefully now. ‘Surely this coarse thing of no beauty has no place next to the glory that is Smaug?’
Smaug shifted and the sound of thousands, millions of gold coins pouring, sliding, clinking, but to Thranduil they sounded like chains. The Dragon’s huge, reptilian head flashed close and away, lifted above him and Thranduil thought he would be blasted.
Smaug tilted his head and a slow warmth came from him that seemed to bathe Thranduil in light and he felt an unbearable loneliness, a hunger that could not be sated, and something utterly alien. Cold fire. Deep darkness. A far song. He listened...
...Wind under great bat-like wings, soaring high, higher than cloud, higher than the Moon, above the World, seeking the Great Flame beyond the Circles of the World...and falling back, falling back into darkness...
He thought of a moth fluttering round a candle-flame. His was not the gift of Song though and he knew he had not fully understood.
‘Something fitting for an archer of the Wood.’ Smaug said softly. ‘You may take it if you wish. A gift for an archer. You are right. It has no value to me.’
Thranduil almost stumbled back but he kept his feet and his head. He inclined his head as graciously as he could muster and lifted the arrow. ‘This token will I take to remind me of our bargain. You have the Arkenstone of Thrain. It will grieve all his descendants to know of this. I have broken any peace between the Elves of the Wood and the Dwarves of Erebor.’
‘Yes,’ said the Dragon sleepily. ‘That may be. But you never know.’
He laid his great angular head down on one of his huge paws and sighed, deeply and settled his chest over the Arkenstone. The Heart of Smaug’s Hoard now, the heart of the Mountain, thought Thranduil as he clutched the Black Arrow tightly and backed silently away.
‘Ten years,’ Smaug’s voice followed him, echoed down the empty halls, reached up into the silent tiers and drifted through the dark arches, ‘And you will send me your son.’