Trumpets blared over Lake-Town.
Bell stared out at the rapidly approaching glow, her heart beating a rapid cadence against the brassy voices of the horns. If the dragon was coming, what had befallen Bilbo and the Dwarves? What had befallen Thorin? Her fingers went numb. Were they all lost?
She couldn't breathe. Couldn't move. But then Samford was tugging at her, his sharp little voice shouting, "Miss Goodchild? Miss Goodchild!"
Bell shook herself. No matter her fears, freezing here and now would help no one. "Go, Samford." She pushed him ahead of her.
The stairway was overrun with Men, some racing to the top, armed with bows, their quivers full with well-fletched arrows, others forcing their way to the pier below, against the tide of bowmen.
Samford slipped ahead of her and Bell found herself trapped between two Men. She stayed as close as she could to the guard in front of her, using his bulk to shield her from the rush of archers, but even so, she was frequently buffeted to the side and she clung to the rough bannister that stood at shoulder-height, barely keeping herself from being pushed over the edge.
When she emerged at the tower's base, Samford was waiting. Men swarmed from the guardhouse, and still the trumpets cried out their warning, rousting sleeping Lake-Folk from their beds. Men, women, and children thronged the piers and docks. A few dragged goats behind them, the beasts pulling at their ropes, unnerved at the clamor and commotion.
"Be calm!" Bell recognized Bard's voice, though she could not see him. "Gather as much water as you can. Fill any vessels! Douse the buildings!"
Bell hesitated. Bard had told her to return to the orphanage, but she didn't see what help she could be there, and very few people seemed to be obeying his commands to gather water. This was something she could do. Maybe leading by example would jar the milling crowds into action.
"Samford," she said, grabbing the boy by the shoulder. "Run back to Mistress Auda's. Spread the alarm."
"What about you?"
Bell spotted an empty bucket lying on its side beneath the eaves of the guardhouse. She grabbed it up. "I'm staying here."
He went, fleet as a deer and nimble as a minnow among the throng. Bell took her bucket and pushed toward where she'd heard Bard shout. "Find buckets!" she cried to those she passed. "Cooking pots, barrels, bowls, anything that will hold water!"
She did not pause to look behind, but heard a few take up her cry, passing it along the length of the pier, and on over the bridges. Her bare feet slapped on the planks, the bucket bouncing off her hip. A central pier stretched out over the lake, a line of boats tied along its length, the Great House on its far side. Bard stood halfway down it, ordering a ragtag band of men and women to set up a bucket line. Bell raced to join them. She dropped her bucket in a pile beside a tall, gray-bearded Man, his face lined and weathered, who stood on a dock just below the level of the pier, filling vessels and handing them up to the next in line.
Her empty bucket delivered, Bell scurried to the end of the line and took her place beside a red-haired woman wearing a low-cut scarlet bodice with a blue skirt hiked up over one knee. Bell felt sure this was one of those'not respectable' women Samford had alluded to earlier.
The woman turned toward Bell with a cast-iron pot full of lakewater. She glanced down, her brows tightening. "Children are to gather at the market-pool."
Bell looked up. "I'm not a child."
The woman pursed her lips, her gaze sweeping up and down Bell's body. "I suppose you're not. Well, if you want to help, I'll not say you nay. I'm Bea." She handed the heavy pot to Bell, who nearly staggered under its weight.
Bell turned to hand it on to whoever had joined the line after her and found a youth caught in the awkward phase between man and boy. Soft fluff covered his jaw, hardly enough to be called a beard. Bell offered him the pot and he bent to take it from her. As he rose, he caught a glimpse of Bea's amply displayed décolletage. His cheeks flared red.
Bard raced past, shouting encouragement. "All together now. Pass buckets up to the roofs. Douse the thatch!"
Then he was gone and Bell lost herself in the rhythm of passing water vessels to those who would use or collect them. Her back ached. These vessels were Man-sized, and while she was a healthy Hobbit-lass, there was a limit to her strength. Still, the effort helped to keep her from panicking. If she could concentrate only on one pail, one pot, she needn't consider the doom winging toward Esgaroth, nor the very real possibility that Thorin was dead.
She wouldn't think it. Couldn't think it. Thorin was as solid as the mountain, and stone could not be so easily broken.
"The dragon!" someone shrieked.
Bea paused halfway through turning towards Bell, and looked up at the sky. Her arms trembled and she pulled the bucket tight to her chest, water sloshing over the edge and soaking into her bodice.
Bell raised her eyes. From where they stood, the Great House blocked most of the view to the north, but the whole sky raged with orange-red flame. Steam roiled from the recently-drenched thatch. Fire kindled in the spots where the water hadn't reached.
Smaug's head speared into view, his vast body following behind. Oh, how his hide shone! Flames leapt up around him, glinting off his golden scales. His wings spread wide, his claws casting scimitar-curved shadows through the steam.
Bell took an involuntary step backward, her heart thudding so hard she could barely draw breath. The dragon curved its neck toward the line of bucket-bearers, his amber eyes gleaming.
Bell looked frantically for somewhere to hide, but everything on the pier was made of wood, and couldn't hope to repel dragonfire.
Hands pushed her from behind and Bell tumbled from the pier, landing hard in the ship moored just below. Bea fell beside her, her wild red hair spread over the planks. The youth leapt down beside them. "Into the hold," he gasped, lifting up a grate in the floor.
Bell scurried in, the others just behind her. The youth came last, and lifted an armful of drenched sailcloth overhead, wadded up between them and the latticed grate. Moments later, heat upon heat flared around them. Steam filled the tiny hold and Bell struggled to breathe in the super-heated muggy air. The far side of the ship's deck caught flame.
Then the rush of heat was gone. Screams rang through the night. "We are lost! Lost!"
The youth pushed up the grate and the three scrambled back onto the burning deck. Fires burned everywhere. Lake-folk swam desperately toward the shore.
Bea pulled on the mooring line, dragging the boat close to the pier. "Up and out," she said. "We've done what we can."
Bell didn't need to be told twice. She clambered up onto the pier. Men and women raced past, or huddled close against the walls of the building. Some lay motionless upon the planks.
A man lurched out of an open door. "Curse those Dwarves!" He spat on the ground. "Their greed will doom us all."
Bea pulled back her shoulders. "Don't tell me your own greed played no part in this, Alfrid," she said.
Bell startled. She hadn't recognized the Master's son in the midst of the mayhem.
"And what were you doing, cowering in the Great House?" Bea continued. "Men are fighting to protect this town. You should be among them." She grabbed the youth by the hand and pulled him back toward the guardhouse. "Come on. Let's see where we can be of best help."
A great roar filled the night. Bell flinched and pressed her hands to her ears.
The makeshift bucket brigade was gone. There was nothing more she could do here. She turned back along the pier to follow after Bea, but before she could move, her arm was trapped in a powerful grip. Alfrid spun her around. "I thought that was you," he said. His face was white under his dark stubble, but a slow flush spread over his cheeks. "You're coming with me, Missy."
He dragged her down the pier. Bell struggled in his grasp. "Where are you taking me? Let me go!"
With his free hand, Alfrid pointed to a gilded boat at the far end of the pier. "My father's ship," he said. "We'll escape before all is brought to ruin."
"But the battle isn't lost! Bard and his men still fight!"
"More fools, them. I'll not waste my life over some rotten planks and a few homey trinkets. Besides," he said, yanking her close, so that she stumbled and fell full against his side, "I'll have you. Pretty, pretty thing." He shivered. "And if your princeling yet lives, he'll pay handsomely for your return."
Bell's skin felt as if snakes crawled beneath it. Perhaps the Master's ship did offer some hope of escape, but though she had no illusions of being a hero, she would not abandon Lake-Town. Not when there was a chance she could help. And not with this worm of a man.
She dug in her heels, pulling back with all of her strength. "You're a coward," she said, "so flee if you will, but I will not go with you."
Her mind flashed back to that night-so long ago it felt like another life-when Thorin had shown her how to defend herself. At the time, she'd been frightened, sick at the thought of having to harm another, but now she blessed him for his lesson.
Bell dug her thumb into the fleshy spot on the back of Alfrid's hand. He cried out, his fingers releasing, and she twisted his hand up and back. The dark-haired Man fell to his knees.
Her body sang with adrenaline. She pulled back her leg and swung her foot hard at Alfrid's chest. He grunted and collapsed forward.
Bell turned and sprinted down the pier. Flames had spread, nearly blocking the way. She dodged around them, wincing at the heat, not daring to look behind to see if Alfrid followed. All she could think to do was run for the orphanage, the one place here that might have been home.
Smaug reappeared, this time from the west, high in the sky and heading for the guardhouse tower. Arrows flew, bouncing harmlessly off the dragon's hide and raining down over Lake-Town. Smaug drew in his wings and dove, picking up speed. A gout of flames burst from his jaws.
Men leapt from the tower, some diving straight into the Long Lake's black waters, others crashing hard onto the pier. The tower went up like a torch. Bell hesitated. She had to pass that bonfire to get back to Mistress Auda's. Pass the Men that lay unmoving, dead and dying beneath the wyrm's assault.
Was this her fault?
She'd never questioned Thorin's right to claim his kingdom, but if Smaug's wrath was raised by his quest . . . had she helped to doom those Men? Had Alfrid actually been right?
Somewhere to her left, the dragon roared again, the sound drawing nearer.
Bell couldn't stay where she was, alone and without so much as a wall for shelter. She ran. Past the tower, over the bridge, back along the path Samford had led her over less than an hour ago. How could so much have changed in such a short time? How many Lake-folk had breathed their last?
She reached the pier that held the orphanage. To her surprise, it had remained mostly unscathed. A great number of folk crowded onto its length, huddling close together, clinging to children and loved ones. Many sat on the planks sobbing. A goat bleated nearby.
"Have you seen Mistress Auda and the children?" Bell asked an elderly fishwife.
She shook her white head. "But I ain't been down to the far end."
Bell thanked her and pushed her way through the crowd. It was slow going. There was little room to spare, even for a person as small as herself. Wriggling her way northward, Bell edged toward the side of the pier. The waters were thick with debris-fallen pieces of roof, boats loosed from their moorings. A young girl's body drifted past, her eyes as unseeing as the button eyes on the doll to which she still clung.
Bell's heart lurched. When she saw that it was not one of the orphanage girls, a rush of relief swept over her, followed by a wave of sick revulsion that she should find any flicker of happiness in the loss of an innocent life. She stumbled and fell against a sturdy body. Strong hands grabbed her under the shoulders and righted her. "Careful now, Missy."
Stuttering thanks mixed with an apology, Bell moved on, finally reaching the orphanage's entry. She raced inside. A candle burned in a wall sconce, illuminating the large downstairs room. No one was there. She hurried up the stairs and pulled open the girls' dormitory door. The beds were empty. Mistress Auda's room was empty, and the boys' dormitory as well.
A shriek came in through the open window on the far wall. "The dragon's coming back!"
Bell raced across the dormitory and looked down. Mistress Auda, her helpers, and the children crowded together in that tiny space. The adults and older children carried the smallest. Bell looked frantically among them until she spotted Samford's curly head. She released a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding.
The dragon roared. Bell looked up just in time to see flames roil toward her. She dropped to her knees and covered her head with her hands. Heat rolled over her back in waves. A terrible tearing sound made her look up. Smaug's talons pierced the roof. With great whoosh of air, the roof tore up and away. The far side of the dormitory blazed.
Bell cowered against the wall, hardly able to think, let alone move, and then Smaug was past, streaking down the long pier where so many Lake-folk had taken refuge.
Was there no hope at all? Did all the world end in fire and steam?
Bell ached to curl up in a ball-to hide her head and surrender to the inevitable-but Thorin would have expected better of her. She could almost hear his voice. Buy us time to save you.
She knew better than to hope for him to come to her rescue, but the principle remained. Bell forced herself to her feet. The stairway was a twisting wall of flame. There would be no escape that way. She turned instead to the window.
Mistress Auda stood below, sawing at a rope that lashed the deck to the building's wall. For a moment, Bell wondered what she was about, but soon realized that the deck was more than a place to take the air. It was also an escape raft.
She had to reach it before they floated away.
Bell studied the wall. Samford had climbed this often enough. Surely she could manage. But from above, the wall looked every bit as unclimbable as it had from below.
Mistress Auda's blade sliced through the rope. With all her strength, the orphanage mistress pushed away from the wall.
"Wait!" Bell cried.
The old woman looked up and gasped. "Bell Goodchild? What are you doing up there?"
Samford, who had been holding one of the babies, gave the girl over to another child. "Get out of the way," he said, pushing his way toward Bell. "Wait there, Miss!" he shouted. "I'm coming!"
The deck continued to drift away from the building, the gap widening. Not even Samford could make that leap. Not and hope to catch a handhold.
But he did. The boy clung to the wall like a burr. His face furrowed in concentration, he clambered up the shingles.
The fire drew closer, and Bell edged as close to the window as she could. "Be careful, Samford."
In moments he was there, lifting himself up and in. "It's all right, Miss," he said. "You'll be all right now."
Bell glanced below. The deck had drifted so far away, they had no hope of jumping to it.
"I'll go out first," Samford said. "I'll show you where to put your feet. And if you fall, it'll be all right. It's just the lake below us now."
An uncontrollable shiver raced through Bell. Just the lake was far from comforting.
A great snap sounded behind her and she looked back just in time to see a large section of floor crash down in a shower of sparks. The building was collapsing. There was no other choice.
"All right, Samford. Go on."
The boy slid back out the window and vanished from sight. A moment later he called out, "Your turn."
Trembling in every limb, Bell stretched first one leg and then the other out the window, the ledge wedged into her belly. Samford's fingers curled around her right foot, guiding it until her toes felt a miniscule protrusion. She curled her toes, as if she could grab the shingle like a hand.
"That's right, Miss. Now if you lower yourself a bit further . . ."
Painfully slowly, Bell lowered herself out onto the wall. Samford kept up a litany of directions and praise, as if she were a small child. She didn't care. Keeping all her attention on the boy, she fought to forget the long drop below, and the cold, dark waters waiting at the bottom.
Bell's toes touched a spot that felt hot. She yelped. "Do you feel that?"
"The fire's up against the inside wall. I'm going to slide sideways a bit. Just hold on for a moment."
Bell's teeth dug into her lower lip. Her forearms ached from supporting her weight. Splinters dug into her fingertips. Her eyes lifted skyward. A bird flitted past overhead, the smoldering orphanage illuminating its plumage. A thrush.
She watched it go, hardly comprehending. Why would a bird fly into the path of a dragon?
Then it was gone, but moments later, Smaug reappeared, his voice a thundering rumble. His tail lashed as he banked in a steep turn, smashing into the remains of the roof. A large piece broke away and tumbled down the wall. Bell shrieked and turned her head. The roof-piece slid past, the wind of its passing billowing her skirts.
A thud sounded below. Bell glanced back in time to see Samford plummet from the wall, splashing down into the water. The chunk of roof crashed down over his legs.
"Samford!" Bell screamed. "Sam!"
But the boy did not respond. His eyes were closed, a dark stain spreading from his brow. He slipped beneath the lake's surface.
Bell didn't pause to think. She sucked in a deep breath and leapt, aiming her jump for the spot where the boy had vanished. Almost before she could begin to fear, the freezing water raced up to meet her. The cold nearly forced the air from her lungs. She struggled to kick in her heavy skirts.
Desperately afraid, she waved her hands below the water's surface, but found nothing. Her sodden clothes dragged at her. She could barely keep her face above the water. No wonder Thorin had asked her to wear her Elven clothes for her swimming lesson. This was worse than she could have imagined, but Samford was somewhere below.
Taking all her courage in hand, Bell dove awkwardly under the surface. Instinct nearly forced her back to the air, but she fought ahead. Her lungs burned with the need to breathe, but if she came up now, she'd lose any chance of finding the child.
With the last of her breath, she reached ahead and her hand tangled in fabric. She bunched her hand into a fist and kicked toward the surface. She broke free, gasping in deep lungsful of air. The fallen piece of roof bobbed nearby. Bell grabbed hold with her free hand and pulled hard with the other. Samford's sodden curls broke from the black water.
From a well of strength Bell hadn't known she possessed, she dragged the boy up until he lay free of the water's grasp, then pulled herself up beside him. She shook his shoulder. "Samford?"
No response. Not even a subtle rise and fall of his ribs. Blue tinged the corners of his lips.
Bell rose up on her knees. There were other refugees on the lake. Surely someone was close. "Help!" she cried. "Someone help us!"
"We hear you," came a voice across the water. "Call again."
"Over here. Please, he's not breathing!"
A shallow-bottomed rowboat drew into view, full to overflowing. Bell waved her hands madly. Tears slid down her cheeks. "Please," she gasped. "Please help him."
A middle-aged man with a patch over one eye leaned over the side of the boat and frowned. "No room in here to pump his lungs. I'll have to try it there. You'll have to give me room, Miss."
Bell shivered uncontrollably at the thought of leaving her precarious raft, but it was the only chance to save Samford. She scooted off the back, clinging to the edge with both hands.
The man dove from the boat and within moments had taken Bell's place atop the floating piece of debris. It sank down under his weight, water sloshing over the edges.
"Miss, it can't support all three of us," he said, rolling Samford's lifeless body onto its back.
With a shuddering breath, Bell released the roof-piece. The lake's frigid chill slipped through her skin as if it were made of cheesecloth. Her legs tangled in her skirts. She kicked frantically, paddling like a dog to keep her head above water. Her frenzied struggles drew her steadily away from safety.
Her breath came in shallow gasps. Panic blurred her vision. The shore was too far away. Desperately, she tried to remember Thorin's instructions. First, find something to cling to.
The inferno that was Lake-Town illuminated much of the lake's surface. Debris floated everywhere. Bell spotted a small barrel not far away. She could reach that. Surely she could reach that.
Awkward as a half-drowned baby bird, Bell splashed toward the barrel. She couldn't feel her feet or legs, could barely feel her hands, but slowly, so slowly, she crossed the space between them. When her hand closed on the rim, an exhausted sob burst from her lips. She dragged her arm over the barrel's girth. It wasn't large, and her weight pulled it down, but not so far that she floated too low.
She looked back to where she'd left Samford. The roof-piece had drifted farther away, but not so far that she couldn't see Samford sitting upright, coughing and gagging, but alive.
Relief flooded through Bell, but her strength was fast failing. She had to get out of the water before she lost the ability to cling to the barrel. How far was the shore? Her barrel bobbed close enough to the edge of the city that ash and smoke clogged the air, and still Smaug raged, a living inferno.
Whether the shore was closest through the city or not, Bell didn't dare try to pass through it. She began to kick again, keeping parallel to the shoreline. Once she was past the ruined city, she would turn for safety. She only had to keep breathing. Keep moving.
It was so hard.
Blackness seeped into the corners of her eyes, tunneling her vision. Her teeth chattered painfully. Muscles cramped in her legs.
The barrel rolled, tipping her onto her back. High overhead, the dragon rose up, wings buffeting smoke in black and crimson swirls. A dark arrow shot through the night, and buried itself in the wyrm's breast.
Smaug's neck whipped from side to side, a bellow reverberating from his throat. The great wings drew him up and up, then the roar became a whimper, and the dragon pinwheeled down, fire glinting off his hide as if off of diamonds.
He hit Lake-Town with a terrible splash. Buildings splintered. Boards and flaming embers rained down on every side. Steam erupted where the dragon had fallen.
Bell saw everything filtered through a haze of gray. She tried to pull herself back atop the barrel, but her hands felt nothing at all, and her efforts only pushed the barrel farther away.
She had nothing left to give.
She supposed she should feel fear or sorrow, but the cold would not grant her even that. Only a dim relief that Samford lived and Smaug had fallen, and the sinking emptiness that she would die without the chance of seeing Thorin one last time.
Through her torpor, Bell thought she heard someone calling her name, but she couldn't muster the energy to reply.
Her eyes slipped shut and she knew no more.