"Later, he [Smaug] used to crawl out of the great gate and come by night to Dale, and carry away people, especially maidens, to eat, until Dale was ruined, and all people dead or gone." J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Helena, daughter of Pelleas, grew up in the village of Dale, between the Lonely Mountain and the Long Lake. Her father was a hunter and she, the eldest in a family of girls, had learned to hunt along with him. She loved the feel of a bow in her hand, the crunch of pine needles beneath her feet, the patience and calculation it took to bring down a kill. After spending hours in the forest, little could scare her or rattle her nerves. But everything changed when the dragon came.
His name was Smaug and he was an enormous red worm with a wingspan that could enshroud an entire village. A greedy beast with a lust for gold and treasure, he had pillaged the halls of the dwarves who lived in the Lonely Mountain, destroying each and every one of them and keeping their jewels and riches for himself.
A dragon must eat, especially one the size of Smaug, and his food preference happened to be the residents of Dale. He had a strong partiality for young women and would swoop down out of nowhere and spirit them away. There was little to do about these attacks except keep an eye on the skies at all times. Several of the more courageous – and slightly foolish – warriors of Dale had climbed the Lonely Mountain, intending to do away with the worm once and for all, only to be instantly found by Smaug and devoured on the spot.
Dale was ridden with fear and despair over those who had been lost, but life stumbled on as best it could. On a cool morning, Helena was hunting with her fiancé, Damhán, and her sister Sìneag, near the lake, basking in the fresh breeze coming off the water and in the peace and calm of the surrounding forest. Helena and Damhán's wedding had meant to take place two weeks prior but the dragon attacks had thrown off their plans. It was just as well with Helena; Damhán was a changed man since the early days of their courtship and had seemed to have forgotten what he and Helena had shared. People often said that times of great trouble showed people for who they really were and Helena was not certain she liked who Damhàn appeared to be underneath.
"You sound like a herd of Mûmakil," he snapped at her as they prowled around the lake. If anything, Damhàn was the one who sounded like the enormous creatures known to hobbits as Oliphaunts. His large boots seemed to find every branch and twig to snap and he was stomping about rather than using the delicate steps Helena's father had learned from watching elves hunt. Helena had tried again and again to teach this same technique to Damhán, but he had completely ignored her advice. At this rate, there wouldn't be any prey left along the Celduin river.
"You'd think based on your size you'd be far quieter," he continued to jab. Damhán often criticized Helena's height. For being part of the race of Men, Helena wasn't even five feet tall. Her father had often teased her that she was half-hobbit and had nicknamed her Halfling as a child. With her curly tawny hair and slightly elfish features, she certainly carried a bit of their race about her.
However, Damhàn had never mentioned her height in anyway except to insult her. He was tall, broad, and athletic, the sort that many girls of Dale had swooned over. Helena had once been amongst them and had nearly died of happiness when Damhàn had chosen her to court. But now she envied the girls who had other suitors that didn't harshly critique them every moment of every day and was rude to both them and their family.
"Stop lagging behind," Damhàn had turned on Sìneag now, grown bored with Helena's dismissal of his insults. "We'll be out here until dark if you keep falling back."
Sìneag was the second youngest in Helena's family and was rather small for her age of ten, as Helena had once been. She continued to stumble over tree roots and vines, struggling to carry a bow too large for her size that was slung over her shoulder. She was far more sensitive to Damhàn's newfound harshness and tears began to form in her large blue eyes.
This was too much for Helena. Damhàn could say whatever he wanted about her, she was fair game for all it mattered. But he had no right to go after her own family.
"Stop it, Damhàn, or I'll throw you in the river," Helena spat.
"Oh, I'd like to see you try," Damhàn sneered. "Look at you. You could hardly climb on a pony. You know, I'm only marrying you to do a favor for your father. Because no man would really want to marry a woman who'll give birth to midgets."
Something inside Helena snapped and before she realized what she had done, she'd pinned Damhàn to the ground. "Not so little now, am I?" she seethed. "Listen to me once and for all, Damhàn, son of Faolán. Say what you will about me. But attack my sister, my lineage, and my family to come, and you will regret it. I may be little, but I am fierce."
Damhàn stared at her. "Fierce enough to endure your entire family being destroyed by a soulless worm? That's what's going to happen, you know. We're all going to die."
Helena had had enough of his defeatism. She smacked him across the face. "With an attitude like that then yes, we are. You think this is easy for any of us? What gives you the right…"
"What was that?" Sìneag cried. Her keen ears had picked up on something that Helena and Damhàn had not heard amongst their arguing. Helena looked up, listening carefully. Slowly, carefully, she released Damhàn and stood up. Damhàn leapt off the ground, sweeping leaves and dirt from his clothes and making a tremendous racket whilst doing it.
"Hush!" Helena instructed. "What did you hear, Sìneag?"
"It sounded like wings," Sìneag said, her voice wavering.
The three of them stood still. In an instant, a large, dark form swept overhead, hovering above them. Sìneag screamed and Helena threw herself towards her sister, grabbing her in her arms.
"No!" Damhán was yelling. "No, not me! Do what you want with the girls but leave me alone!" He bolted into the forest.
"Damhán!" Helena screamed, outraged. "Damn it!" She looked up, facing a pair of mesmerizing red eyes. She gulped, trying to remain calm.
"Take me," she said. "Let my sister go but take me. I'm bigger, after all."
"So you are," the dragon said in a deep voice that made the branches of the near-by trees quiver. "Though not by much."
"Run, Sìneag," Helena prompted.
"Do it, please, and don't look back; it's alright." She swiftly kissed the top of her sister's head and pushed her towards the trees. "Go."
Sìneag bolted off and Smaug moved towards her, attempting to follow. But Helena threw herself in his line of sight.
"One is better than none, Dragon," she said, "and I'm giving myself to you. So take me."
"Very well then," Smaug said. "You needn't tell me twice." He swept down and slipped his claws into her twill bodice, sweeping her off the ground. Within moments they were airborne, the lake and river a faintly bluish-green line beneath them and the forest a thicket of green.
Despite the fact that Helena knew she was going to die in a matter of minutes, this was the most breathtakingly beautiful moment in her life, to see the sky in all its glory, with Middle Earth sprawled out below her in only a view the birds and the Great Eagles had.
They approached the Lonely Mountain, heading towards Smaug's lair in its side. He swept in through its cavernous entrance and, upon reaching its main chamber, dropped Helena down and landed in front of her. He folded his wings and stared at her steadily for a moment, then began circling her, eyeing her all the while and exhaling smoke from his nostrils. It was unnerving to say the least.
"What the hell are you doing? Just eat me already!" Helena cried, waving her arms about. "Eat me!"
"Well, not when you're leaping about like that," Smaug said distastefully. "It rather puts me off my appetite."
"Then hurry up and get it back."
"You seem rather eager to die, maiden."
"I'd just like to get this process over and done with, thanks."
Smaug snorted, a plum of smoke escaping from his reptilian nose. "You're not even going to beg or grovel? How dull!"
"What's the use? You're just going to eat me anyway."
If dragons could smile, it appeared Smaug was doing so. His sharp fangs gleamed between his thin lips and he gave a weird sort of rumbling sound Helena realized must have been laughter. "What is your name, maiden?"
Despite the fact Helena knew she was going to die, it was terribly stupid to tell a dragon one's real name under any circumstances. "Halfling," she replied. "They call me Halfling because I appear more hobbit than girl."
"You are quite small," Smaug sniffed. "Pity that other little one ran away – I could have carried the two of you in one claw." He flexed his talons before her face and Helena forced herself not to flinch.
The dragon's eyes narrowed at her lack of consternation. "You are absolutely no fun. Where is the screaming? The tears? The hysteria?"
"I am a woman of Dale. I have seen my fair share of hardship. I have battled with bears and brought down great beasts. I have had my share of screaming and tears and hysteria but not now. Not today."
Smaug sighed, sitting down on his clawed feet so that he was at eye-level with her. "Now that is more like it, nothing is more orexigenic than courage. But it seems rather a shame to consume you when things are starting to get interesting."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
Smaug blinked at her lazily, his heavy lids dropping down over his fiery eyes. "I enjoy playing with my food. So continue, Halfling. Why do you show such courage when men from your own town flee my shadow?"
He was speaking of Damhán. "The man you saw is a fool. He was once courteous and kind, but your presence in our village has changed him. He is callous and cynical and cares nothing about those he once loved."
"Ah," Smaug realized. "You are his bride. I suppose I will have his wrath to face for destroying his wedlock."
"Unlikely," Helena considered. "He cares little for me now. You might be doing some good by eating me. Now he is free to chose another."
"Then he shall have to chose quickly before I devour your entire village."
The violent sincerity of his words struck her. "You are serious," she said. "Why would you do this? Do you find some happiness, some joy in ruining our home?"
Smaug rose up, eyes flashing. "Are you accusing me of wickedness, Halfling?"
"I… perhaps," she said softly.
Smaug chuckled again. "You would not be the first and you shall not be the last. But it is not I who am wicked but the world that surrounds me. Look how your people treat my kind, as a vile vermin to be persecuted. See how they desire us to be murdered, to be slain so that Men can believe they are more powerful than they truly are. Many of my kind are gone, murdered by the hands of your people. I am but a wolf among sheep, hunting as I must, turned into a monster by your lore and legends."
His voice was hypnotic, alluring, far too convincing. For a brief moment, Helena felt the faintest bit of sympathy for him. He was a hunter as she was, fighting to survive. But he was a creature of the extreme, giving into his cruelty as Damhán had, rather than fighting against it. "Be that as it may, Lord Smaug, you have no reason for razing Dale as you have. We have not fought you as many others did. You have eaten our warriors before they caused you even the slightest harm. You have passed a boundary into maliciousness that we are not responsible for."
"You have a bold mouth, little one," Smaug said, his eyes darkening. "I would watch it if I were you."
"Why should I mince my words?" Helena cried. "You will eat me no matter what I say. It is more worthwhile to be honest with you in my last moments than to lie and beg and plead and make promises I do not intend to keep. I could tell you that if you let me go, I would see to it that you would be fed and respected rather than hunted and feared. I could promise to bring you fifty other maidens if you spared my life. I could swear that the people of Dale would leave our homeland and move elsewhere on the Celduin if only you'd let me live. But they would all be false, hollow, pointless. No matter what I say, you would eat me anyway. You are far too clever to believe my lies. There is simply no point in arguing with dragons."
There was a strange sort of gleam in the dragon's eyes that had not been there before – a sense of respect. "I wish there were more like you among your people, maiden of Dale," Smaug declared. "Perhaps the two of us would never have found ourselves at the point if that were the case."
"Perhaps it doesn't matter. You are the hunter. I am the hunted. This is the way it is, and nothing can change that now," Helena said.
"You are right," Smaug said. "There is nothing to be done. For I am still going to eat you."
"I know," Helena murmured. "May I have one last request?"
Smaug cocked his head on the side. "It depends. What is it?"
"When you eat my family – which I know you shall – be easy on them. Please. Especially upon my sisters. Make it painless and quick."
Helena thought that perhaps for a second, a flicker of sympathy flashed through the worm's eyes. "You do not ask me to spare them," he mused, inquisitive.
"I know you will not. You are a hunter, as I am. You do not let a kill escape, not when you need it. When I am dead and gone, you would break your promise anyway. So I only ask that you kill them quickly. As I would you, if I could."
"If you could? You haven't even tried."
"I have only a small dagger," Helena said, gesturing to the weapon sheathed in her belt around her waist. "My bow is back in the forest, and I know my limits. Taking down a bear is one thing. A dragon is another case entirely. No, Lord Smaug, I see you and I know you are more powerful than me. I cannot kill you. You would smite me before I could even try. I will meddle not in the affairs of dragons."
Smaug shook his scaled head. "You are an enigma, Halfling of Dale. I hope others of your kind are as interesting."
"I don't think it likely that you will be disappointed," Helena smiled. "The people of Dale are full of surprises."
The dragon bowed his head to her. "I am hungry, little one."
Helena cautiously stretched out her hand, touching the smooth scales of his nose. It seemed odd to her that a dragon respected her more than her would-be husband had. "So you must be, Smaug the Magnificent. I am yours for the taking. I would rather die at your hands than in whatever miseries now await me in the village. It is an honorable death and I do not fear it."
"Then embrace it you shall," Smaug hissed and in one fell swoop, he swallowed her up.