From Smolder To Ash @kaealeah
Priceless Starlight

PRICELESS STARLIGHT

Dale was cold and isolating, scorched black from fires of long ago, and gently covered over with snow that crunched under their feet as the people of Lake-town entered the city to find shelter. The wind blew through the hollowed buildings with old voices whispering secrets of an ugly past. One in which told the story of a sky blotted out with the frame of a dragon, filling the world with fire in one single blow. Jeanne stopped in the middle of the town square and looked around at everything that was left behind, half expecting to see lost souls that were still roaming the area before it fell. Even if she couldn't see them, she knew this place was haunted.

Jeanne glanced at all the weathered faces of the townspeople and felt her stomach flare up tightly with knots as her heart throbbed too. She didn't know what to do with these emotions since they were all unfamiliar to her. She initially never experienced it before and it only started to occur months ago when she first began this long journey. She could simply just look at a person and understand what they were feeling and sometimes even thinking. She could look at Bilbo and feel his excitement. Or when she'd gaze up at Bard and understand his desire to do what's best for his people, and she would occasionally sneak a glance towards Thorin and sense his anxiety that he would never disclose to anyone. Like voices that carried through the wind, she could feel emotions such as fear, depression, sadness, and angst. It practically flowed out of them like a river going downstream. Perhaps she was just sensitive to these things, or maybe it was because she never had any prior interactions with people before and the struggles that they faced.

Jeanne kneeled down close to the ground and ran her hand across the snow, raking it back until she saw a black floor completely made of ash. "For years...these people would gain nothing but torment from the dragon. Now he's dead? Still feels like a blessed dream," she muttered in a soft voice before wincing and pulling back. The pain had barely subsided in the hours following Smaug's death and she could still taste the blood in her mouth. Her burns were even festering against the cooling air that still smelled of smoke.

Bard wandered the streets and search through all the faces in the crowd until he noticed that Jeanne was not among them. "Jeanne?" he called out, turning his head up towards the upper level and spotting bright flares of scarlet hair blowing softly against the smoky air. He walked up the steps where he found her staring out towards the mountain's front gate that looked like it was boarded up with large chunks of stone. It showed obvious signs of living because the braziers were lit too. "So the company of Thorin Oakenshield survived." He glanced at Jeanne and saw that she seemed nervous for some reason. "Will you not go to them."

Jeanne stared solemnly at the gates with this yearning look in her eyes that answered his question without any words to be spoken yet. She looked like she was trying to hold herself back for whatever reason. "No," she answered him sternly and dropped her head, balling her fists up until her skin turned white.

Bard didn't know what to say to this at first. He thought Jeanne would've been ecstatic to return to Thorin and his company. "Why not?" He doesn't understand why she's being so reluctant.

She took in a deep breath of the musty air the tickled the back of her throat. "Emotions carry through the wind like ghostly whispers..." Jeanne muttered to herself. "Something is amiss in the air...and I'm afraid to confront it. I'm sorry to be a burden to you, but would you allow me to stay here for the time being?" she asked, her voice cracking very subtly.

Bard felt momentarily overwhelmed by this sudden change in attitude but he also couldn't bring himself to deny the request. He wanted to ask more but he had a feeling Jeanne would've turned her words into riddles he wouldn't even imagine trying to decipher. "After everything you have done for us. You not need to ask," he said and saw her relax a little.

Jeanne's lips cracked up into a small smile of appreciation. "Thank you for your generosity." She bowed her head slightly before the smile vanished, turning serious all of a sudden. "And one more thing. If you do confront Thorin...would you not tell him of my survival. I'm sure he doesn't know yet."

"Why would you want to keep something like that from him?" he questioned the strange request, but as he predicted, Jeanne danced around the question and answered in an odd riddle.

"I don't," she said weakly, eyes turning to shimmering blue glass that looked so beautiful against the dull golden sky. "I wish to see them dearly, but...I can't. At least not right now."

Bard had not the slightest idea why she would go that far when it was obvious she cared about him deeply. It was clear though in his eyes that something was troubling Jeanne. Her smile wasn't fake or anything like that. Instead, it looked sad, like she was disappointed with the decision she had made.

Jeanne gave one last look towards the mountain before leaving and walking back down the stairs. What she was really afraid of is what Smaug had said to her, hours before his death. He said that the stone would corrupt Thorin's heart. She didn't know if this was true or if the dragon was playing games with her. If it was though... then she was afraid to confront him.

The majority of the day was spent tending to the injured and the grieving whos cries had turned into heartwrenching moans by the time twilight touched their backs. Most tried to sleep off the pain but others couldn't bear to close their eyes, fearing that the dragon might return from the dead and finish what he started. Jeanne tried to sleep too since her body felt close to collapsing from exhaustion but the night was anything but peaceful for her. Alone in the dark, her imagination went wild and she was afraid to dream up another cold nightmare like the one she had months ago, which still haunts her. Not to mention, her body was still aching from the pain, so it kept her awake most of the night. Much to her disapproval.

The next day was a slow start and began with the cries of hungry children and the groans of suffering men and women. Food was scarce and the medical supplies were near to nothing, having to have used most of it the night before. It wasn't nearly enough though to take care of even half the injured. It was a miracle in itself that they all survived the night but it was doubtful that they would hold for the next couple of days.

Bard was deep in his worries but kept up his strong authority-like figure to keep everyone's spirits in check. He spotted Jeanne sitting against the wall with her legs up to her knees, looking worse than ever before. Her body was still covered in dirty bandages but now there were dark circles under her eyes. "Jeanne, how are you holding up?" he asked but already knew the answer.

"I'm alive...if that counts for anything," she muttered, rubbing her eyes with the back of her sleeves. Bard helped her off the ground and guided her towards the outside. "I hate to be the one to bring this up but...these people. I'm not sure they will last much longer." Jeanne said with a roughly dehydrated voice.

"You're not the only one who's thinking that," he whispered just low enough for her to hear. "But we have to do what we can."

"I understand."

They walked outside into the early morning light that had a mixed smell of smoke and dew. Alfrid had taken the first night's watch and to both of their surprise, the man was still awake when they saw him.

"Morning, Alfrid," Bard slapped his hand on his shoulder and startled the man. "What news from the night watch?"

Alfrid opened his mouth wide and yawned, revealing all his rotten teeth stuck inside his mouth that had ceased to fall out yet. "All quiet, Sire. Not much to report. Nothing gets past me."

Bard stepped down the stairs but stopped when he saw that his path was blocked. "Except an army of Elves, it would seem." he sighed.

Standing in the middle of the town square was an army by the thousands. Elves dressed in elegant, gold plated armor that glimmered against the sunlight. It was intimidating because they were all dressed as if a war was just around the corner. Jeanne didn't seem surprised to see them here and kept her head high as the sound of hoves against cobblestone got closer. With the light of morning at his back, Thranduil road up to them, dressed in silver armor, and since the days they had first met, he hadn't changed at all. This man was still very beautiful and had an enchanting atmosphere about him that made Jeanne stare and awe but also silently nerves when his eyes fell on her. He looked a bit astonished to see her before turning his chin up and scoffing.

"Well...I should say this is quite a surprise. I would have thought you'd fallen with the dragon." Thranduil's words weren't friendly but he wasn't as harsh as she imagined him to be. Scorn was still present in his voice though, so memories of the day she burned him hadn't dissipated in the years.

Bard stepped up to him, still completely bewildered that he was here. "My Lord Thranduil, we did not look to see you here."

"I heard you needed aid," he spoke with a voice made of expensive silk. Thranduil motioned his head towards the entrance just as a carriage pulled in, stored high with food, fresh jugs of water, and medical supplies. The people of Lake-town looked upon it with awe and couldn't believe what they were seeing. In their eyes, it looked as if the gods had taken pity on them. They gathered around the carriage and started to take things down and pass them around to the injured and starving.

Bard felt a weight being lifted off his chest as he took in a deep breath, one that was long overdue. "You have saved us. I do not know how to thank you."

Jeanne was able to finally gather the courage to speak about what's been troubling her about his arrival. "Forgive me but...this is not the reason why you're here, is it. You're not here for me. Nor are you really here for the people of Lake-town." Her eyes slowly narrowed. "You ride with an army at your back, a shadow for war. Is there something in the mountain that you wish to take?" she said quite sternly as Thranduil's eyes burned her just as Smaug's flames did.

"Your perception is quite sharp, but you are correct. I come to reclaim something of mine," he insisted strongly. "There are gems in the Mountain that I too desire. White gems of pure starlight."

Jeanne immediately felt her stomach drop and mouth go dry. "You mean to tell me...you aim to go to war for just a handful of gems?" she almost shouted if she wasn't aware of her tone. Her concern directly fell towards her company that was still inside the mountain. Thorin, Bilbo, and everyone else.

"The heirlooms of my people are not lightly forsaken," Thranduil said and didn't look at all bothered. He spoke as if putting people in harm's way was the easiest thing to do.

Jeanne was outraged about this and was seconds away from snapping at him. Bard was quick to act though and grabbed her by her shoulder, pulling her back so he could speak to him. "We are allies in this. My people also have a claim upon the riches in that Mountain. Let me speak with Thorin." he bargained since he knew this would directly affect his people too.

Thranduil looked puzzled. "You would try to reason with the Dwarf?"

"To avoid war? Yes."

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