Disclaimer: I don't own anything to do with this story or it's original canon (or it's more recent fandom, sorry, movie) and I make no money from this, only enjoyment.

AN: The last story of the year (and for quite a while, until I have a H:DOS script to work from for the next part of Musings on the Nature of Stories) and entirely to make my word count, so it's not a very long story either.

It was getting colder. There was no doubt that winter was around the corner. The recent snowfall had come later than usual, but the water had been chocked with ice for several weeks. Bard only hoped they would weather this winter as they had weathered all the others.

It would be better if he wasn't standing here waiting for empty barrels to come bobbing down the river. It wasn't great money, but it was money he needed and most of the year it was bearable. And it would probably still be had he been dressed for such cold temperatures, but his coat had definitely seen better years than the last one.

He bored of waiting fairly quickly and gone out to hunt, but there had been nothing to find. Even here on the borders of Mirkwood, still under the distant influence of the Elvenking's realm, where winter came later and left sooner, there was no game to be had. Bard spared a moment to find that odd, since even when the snows came he usually found a rabbit or two. Perhaps something had frightened them off. He would have another run to make next week with supplies to deliver to the elves and hopefully there would be something then. They hadn't had meat in far too long at home and Bain, at least, needed something if he was going to continue growing. The girls would be a bit better off without it, but not by much.

He heard voices before he realized it, too lost in thought to pay attention in an area previously uninhabited. He ducked behind a tree before they could see him, not that any of the large company seem to be paying attention.

Dwarves. Odd enough in these parts, especially so close to elf territory. They came to Laketown on occasion, but rarely and only ever when passing through between the Iron Hills in the east and somewhere to the west. Bard had the sense that the dwarves in the west were quite a ways away over the mountains and therefore travel between the two was occasional only. That year there had been no dwarves at all at the lake. No doubt to the Master's annoyance, as dwarves at least had good coin to pay, which was probably better than the trade in kind the elves engaged in. The Master cared more about money than anything else, and that was no secret.

Thirteen, no fourteen dwarves, although one of them didn't look very dwarf like and was he barefoot? None of them were particularly dressed, especially for the cold weather. They appeared to be clambering out of barrels too. Empty barrels. The Elvenking's empty barrels, specifically. Bard had a pretty good imagination of what had happened. Escaped from Thranduil's less than kind hospitality – no secret elves and dwarves hated each other – and found the only obvious way out. Even Bard knew the halls of the elves had few exists, contained in a mountain as they were. He spared a moment to be slightly impressed by the ingeniousness of the manner of escape, but the fact that they had escaped was more his problem. They were still trespassing on elven land, but in a few more meters they'd be Laketown's problem and therefore his.

They appeared unarmed, but Bard was ignorant enough to think that made them less dangerous. He could only take out so many with a bow if they attacked him and he didn't relish the idea of killing any of them, for any reason. But still, he needed those barrels and to get back to town and right now those dwarves were in his way.

Decisions, decisions.

He contemplates, afterwards when they are gliding across the lake, why he really said yes. Mostly, he knows, it was for the coin. It is winter and food is scarce and he has three children to feed. But he also knows that it is something more. The dwarves intrigue him. He has seen dwarves only in passing and never spoken to one. But these are dwarves in need of aid and despite the fact that he knows he places himself and his family in danger to help them, it is winter and cold and he can hardly leave them to fend for themselves on the borderlands. Besides, Bard knows they would head to Laketown anyways, and give another their coin, so he might as well benefit while the offer stands.

He doesn't, of course, have a plan as to how to get them in. Not until he reaches the fishing docks. Gurden owes him a favour and even if he didn't, silver coin is rare enough in these days that the head of the fishing docks accepts it anyways.

Bard - almost - feels sorry for them, that they have to suffer through another mile, cold and buried in fish. But it gets them into the city and that is what they paid him for. And despite the loss at letting the fish go for free, he still has coin left to buy food for a few weeks and that is all that really matters.

It really does not occur to him until later to question the declaration of the dwarves that they are merchants heading to the Iron Hills who ran afoul of the elven king. The story is, surprisingly, likely. The truth is surprisingly even more likely and he is sorry indeed he was enthralled by the promise of silver coins. Barb feels it is his fault that they are here in the city and he knows their coming will bring destruction on them all. Fire and death. And if the townspeople blame Bard already for the failings of Girion, they should blame him even more for this second failing.

But, mostly, he blames the dwarves for their dishonesty and their greed.