The summer stars burned in the dark heavens. A shadow detached itself from the pilings of the new Laketown and glided across the water. The boat followed a glimmering trail of moonlight across the calm surface of the Long Lake. The only sound was the swish of a paddle cutting through the water and the patter of water droplets falling from the blade to the lake. These quiet noises were magnified in the still, midnight air and carried back to the homes and shops of Esgaroth.
The figure paddling the boat shot a quick, worried, glance in the direction of Laketown, as if expecting to see the good citizens leaning out of their windows demanding what business anyone had with the ruins of the Old Town.
The fear proved groundless; no alarm sounded. The good people of Laketown slept securely in their beds, oblivious to their uninvited guest.
The boat reached one of the shattered pilings of the ruined town that rested beneath the waves of the lake. Rotting fragments of wood pointed towards the night sky in weary accusation. Most of the year, the piling lay beneath the water, but the drought of late summer had lowered the surface and laid part of the sad ruins of Esgaroth open to the sky. The autumn rains would soon replenish the River Running and the piling would sink beneath the waves once more.
The boat stopped and the figure silently studied the aspect of the surrounding night: the brilliant fire of Varda's stars, Tilion's pale light, and the glass-calm waters of the Long Lake. The face tilted up towards the moon's light was revealed to be female and mortal. It could not be called young, even by the most generous of observers. Moonlight glinted on the silver strands in her sun-bleached, sandy hair. Wrinkles creased the corners of her eyes and mouth and furrows marred her brow, the product of years of squinting into the sun and a habitual expression of bitter resignation.
The soft, warm air held the faintest edge of chill, an early herald of the coming winter. It was cool, but the water was the warmest it would ever be; the traveller had timed her visit with some thought. She had not used her name in many years. It slept uneasily at the back of her memory, along with many other less pleasant things. On the rare occasions that she could not avoid communicating with others, she used the title given to her by one of the Exiles; the Finder.
Calloused but delicately shaped hands secured the boat to the piling. A second rope joined the first. It seemed to glow with a light of its own; a faint, silver shimmer led from the shattered wood to the bottom of the boat, where it lay in many coils.
The Finder pulled a small pouch from her pack and, after a moment's hesitation, removed her homespun tunic. The fabric fell to the bottom of the boat, revealing a lean, taut body, the result of many years of homeless wandering.
She uncorked the pouch. The harsh scent of musk assaulted her nostrils as she daubed half-rancid bear grease over her hands and generously applied it to her exposed skin. Then she slid over the side of the boat, took a deep breath and dove into the depths of the lake.
With the pressure steadily increasing on her ears, she swam over the sunken ruins of old Laketown. Moonlight dimly glittered upon the hundreds of water-polished diamonds that were Smaug's ruined armour, a path of riches that guided her to her goal. A strong, steady current pulled her towards the Long Falls. She fought against it with grim determination.
The frigid waters were already sapping her strength. The Finder kicked out with her bare feet, determined to retrieve her target or die in the attempt.
By the time she reached Smaug's crumbling waistcoat of gems her lungs were beginning to ache. Her hand swept over cold gems and sharp bone, desperately seeking something in the faint shadows that penetrated to the lake bottom.
At last her hand encountered a smooth, narrow haft, too narrow to be a rib and too large to be a gem. The Finder grasped the Black Arrow and attempted to draw it from the dragon's rotted carcass.
Whether because the cold had exhausted her strength or because of some ill chance of position, the arrow remained firmly embedded in Smaug's hollow chest. Lungs burning, the Finder stubbornly hooked her feet beneath the smooth whiteness of the dragon's ribs and pulled with all of her rapidly diminishing strength. Lights flickered behind her closed eyes. She was becoming certain that she would have to concede defeat when the Arrow abruptly came loose.
Caught off balance, she pitched backwards, the Black Arrow clutched in both hands. A stream of silvery bubbles escaped her lips as she crashed through the crumbling swath of diamond and bone. The moonlight was immediately gone, shrouded in a roiling murk of shattered bone and rotted flesh. Gemstones and other less pleasant things brushed her exposed skin on their way to a new, deeper resting place.
Clutching the Black Arrow to her chest, the Finder grasped the rope attached to her waist and pulled herself out of Smaug's chest. Jagged ends of fractured ribs tore at her skin as she emerged. Once in open water she launched herself towards
Tilion's pale light, her lungs urgently demanding air.
The water seemed to grow colder and the current, stronger. Her legs were lead weights and her free arm moved with unnatural slowness; the urge to inhale became almost overwhelming.
Her instinct for self-preservation shrieked for her to drop her prize. If she released the Arrow, she might manage to regain the surface. But that would only mean she would have to dive into the lake again and the next time the Arrow would not be so easy to find. Still grasping the arrow, she struck upwards with fresh determination.
'Stay calm,' she told herself sternly as she twisted the slack of the rope to bind the arrow to her hand. 'You will be at the surface soon. Then you can breathe.' With her ears ringing and black spots dancing before her eyes, the Finder clawed her way towards the light. Her efforts grew more and more feeble and the world and its cares slipped away. A small part of her mind chuckled at the irony of death by drowning. It was an oddly fitting yet completely pointless end.
The current tugged her downwards. She dimly hoped that the Arrow would not break when the current took it and her body over the Long Falls. She also hoped that her successor, if there was one, would be more successful in retrieving it.
The world would go on without disturbance as though she had never been and that, too was more than fitting.
She watched Tilion's silvery light, determined to meet her lonely death with a modicum of grace. With an unfamiliar feeling of peace, she stopped fighting and allowed the current to carry her towards the falls.
'At least there is light,' she thought as her chest blazed with urgent fire. 'So long as there is light, there is hope.'
The illumination grew in size and brilliance as the blood roared in her ears.
Instead of receding, it seemed to be moving towards her as she sank deeper into the lake. She watched it with a detached interest.
As it grew nearer, it became of a being of light. Perhaps Tilion himself had come to save her? More likely it was a servant of Mandos, sent to make certain heeded the Judge's call.
The Finder regarded him with dull welcome as he floated directly before her.
'I give you my life,' she thought she said. And then last of her consciousness faded as she inhaled the icy waters of the lake.
'I give you my life.' The unspoken words ricocheted within the Elf's well-ordered mind. The exact instant after making this startling pronouncement, the mortal woman's eyes rolled back in her head. With horror and helpless to stop it, he watched her inhale water. It seemed an extremely inauspicious way to make someone's acquaintance.
Wrapping one arm around the unconscious diver, the Elf propelled them both to the water's surface. The woman was unresponsive and had somehow contrived to tangle an arrow in her hand with the rope that tied around her waist.
As their heads broke the water's surface, he quickly searched for the rope's other end. Its thin, ghostly glimmer led to a boat that was tethered to a broken piling. He wove one arm around the woman's shoulder and over her chest so that he could tow her. Then he swam towards the boat. In a moment they had reached the piling and the small craft. He climbed the slippery timbers with her unresponsive body in his arms.
At the last moment, the arrow contrived to slip from tangle of rope. For a brief instant, the Elf thought to leave it to sink to the bottom of the lake. But the woman had gone to some lengths to keep it. It had to be important and its loss would bring unhappiness. He wondered at the mortal tendency to become dangerously attached to insignificant objects. His own people were far from innocent of this, but they, at least, claimed treasures of surpassing beauty and splendour. The water-logged arrow seemed anything but splendid.
Shifting the woman so that she was draped over one arm, the Elf allowed his feet to slide down the rough edges of the piling. Just as his hand closed around the shaft of the arrow, a stray swell shoved him forwards. He attempted to simultaneously catch the arrow, hold the woman and not fall into the lake. He might have succeeded if another wave had not driven the boat into his legs.
Grunting in surprise, he swung off balance. The woman slipped from his grasp. Before he could catch her, her stomach slammed into the gunwale of the boat.
He tossed the arrow carelessly into the bottom of the craft and reached for the woman before she slid beneath the water. As his arm locked around her waist, she made a dreadful retching noise. A trickle of water flowed from her mouth.
It was immediately followed by a terrible, choking cough that came from the very bottom of her lungs. Water and stomach fluids poured from her nose and mouth.
The Elf held the woman as best he could as her body was wracked by wave after wave of violent tremors. It seemed impossible for so much water to have fit within her chest.
But when she finished, she drew breath for herself.
Carefully lifting her over the side, the Elf placed her gently into the boat. She immediately slid to the bottom with a dull thump. He lowered himself to her side, steadying the violently rocking boat. She reminded him of an imperfect sculpture, the sort that his less talented kinsmen might fashion. Her features were peaceful in the moonlight, the lines upon her face smoothed although her awkwardly splayed limbs spoiled the effect.
She coughed again and her eyes fluttered open. She noted him briefly and began to glance around.
"It is here," the Elf said, handing the arrow to her. Her fingers tightened convulsively around its shaft.
"You are safe," he murmured to reassure her. She may not understand his words, but his tone should calm her.
He was so focused on comforting her that he did not notice her fist until it connected with his jaw.
The effort of hitting him took the last of her strength. As the Elf gingerly rubbed his chin, the woman collapsed to the bottom of the boat and lay still. He had not realized mortal women could be so dangerous.
He found her shirt and covered her with it, as best he could. He was careful to watch her hands in case she became violent, but she did not move again.
Untying the boat, he paddled for the shore where half ruined huts huddled on the water's edge.
AN. I must thank my two beta readers for their outstanding help. It wasn't bad, but they made it shine. Any mistakes are my own. As always, constructive criticism is welcome. Yes, I really mean it.