14: Over Hill
Hello, hello, and welcome to Chapter 14! So I guess I was possessed by some demon-induced frenzy of writing, because I definitely had NOT planned to finish this chapter so fast, which is why it's posted so early. But I will be getting back on track to posting once or twice every weekend after this (*universe laughs at how unrealistic that statement is*) so yeah.
So here is Chapter 14, and I hope y'all like it!
Chapter Fourteen: Over Hill…
Fili awoke to an uncomfortable clinging mist and stifling humidity, and he could literally feel his cheek peeling off of his bedroll as he sat up, looking around and popping his back from all the kinks he had obtained from sleeping on the rocky ground the night before.
A damp, thick blanket of fog lay over the Company as they all stirred as well, roused from their slumber by the annoying mist and the presence of Dwalin walking around and telling them to wake up. Fili watched as Alison pulled herself into a sitting position from her bedroll next to his, her loose hair frizzy and sticky from the humidity and looking visibly disgruntled.
"Oh, it's just the weather," she said, her green eyes taking in the dreary fog surrounding them. "And I thought somebody was just trying to smother me as I slept."
Fili cracked a grin at her sarcastic tone. "Sorry, that was me. I had to find some way to keep you from snoring my ear off."
She whacked him on the arm with her hand, a smile tugging on her lips. "Ladies don't snore."
"So what does that make you then?"
She rolled her eyes at his jibe and set to work on packing up her bedroll, pushing her lanky hair out of her face as Fili watched her carefully for a moment, his grin vanishing to be replaced by a frown.
They were nearing the end of their second week of travels, and the Misty Mountains were almost upon them. Barely discernible through the haze, Fili looked up and saw the towering peaks high above them, as dreary and formidable as their name suggested. He knew everyone was nervous about entering the mountains and taking the High Pass, and he couldn't blame them. The mountains were supposedly crawling with goblins and other creatures of their ilk, and Fili really wasn't looking forward to seeing if those rumors were true or not. But even though he knew the others were anxious, it was nothing compared to Alison.
Ever since they had left Rivendell, he had kept a watchful eye on her, and while she had seemed just fine their first week, Fili had slowly watched her deteriorate as this second week wore on, and her dramatic change in mood honestly scared him.
She had always been so happy and carefree, always quick with a comeback or lightening everyone's hard day with a couple of cheesy jokes, smiling and laughing and talking with the others as if she had known them all her life, and not just a couple short months. But now her jokes were few and far between, and though she tried to maintain her cheery attitude, Fili could tell she was strained and worried, her smiles tight, her eyes hard and dull and shadowed with stress. He was even beginning to notice how rarely she ate anymore; though her abnormally fast eating habits had once been a source of entertainment for the Dwarves, she only picked at her meals now, only choking down a few mouthfuls before leaving to go train.
It seemed that that was all she ever did anymore, was train. She threw herself headfirst into her lessons and practiced her various drills unceasingly, as if she expected to be attacked at any moment. Unfortunately, they did live in a world where that was always a possibility, and Fili admired her dedication and motivation for it, but it also worried him. She seemed possessed of a wild, almost manic energy over the last few days, and her unusual behavior was starting to unnerve him. But every time he tried to broach the subject with her, she shut down and switched topics, obviously not wanting to share whatever was bothering her.
Fili had become desperate over her situation, even resorting to asking Thorin if he noticed any changes in Alison's behavior. His uncle had only said that she wasn't very keen on scaling the mountains and was concerned about the presence of the goblins, and though that sounded like a reasonable answer, he was not convinced. Alison was braver than the threat of a few goblins; there must be something huge weighing on her mind for her to resort to this kind of anxiety level.
He shifted his eyes back to her as she shrugged on her hunting jacket and slid on her boots, and as she tugged on her last shoe a gleam caught his eye, and he had to do a double-take before his eyes convinced him of what he was actually seeing.
"You got your knife back," he said in surprise, wondering how the blade she had thrown at that Orc was somehow back in her ankle-sheath.
She gave him a weird look as she ran her fingers through her tangled, dirty hair, wincing as she caught on snags and snarls. "Of course I got it back. Did you think Dwalin was training me with a stick?"
"But…the Orc…I thought you lost it," he said in confusion, that day swirling back to him in a whirlpool of color and sound: Fili standing before the Orc and its Warg, one of his swords drawn as he tried to keep their attention on him, not the girl or the Dwarf behind him; cutting at the Warg as it lunged, succeeding in stopping it before it got past him, but the creature's weight knocking him off-balance as it charged by; and then, in slow-motion, he saw the Orc raising its spear for the killing blow as he staggered, and he met the beast's malicious black eyes defiantly as he prepared for the tip to enter his chest; and then, miraculously, the Orc rearing back as the knife—the knife Fili had given Alison—soared through the air and sliced it shallowly on the wrist, buying Fili enough time to get in one last slash before making for the rocks that had led them to Rivendell. He hadn't dwelt much on the aftermath of that day, but now, looking back on it, he suddenly realized that Alison had saved his life. She had saved him.
"Lord Elrond recovered it as a spoil of war," she said, now deftly braiding her hair over one shoulder and securing it with the black elastic on her wrist. "And he gave it back to me the same time he gave me my swords." She looked more closely at him, her icy-green eyes narrowed. "Are you okay? You look like you have something stuck in your throat."
"I—you saved my life," he spluttered, looking at her as if seeing her for the first time. "I just realized—you distracted the Orc so I could get away. It could've killed or injured me—"
"Yeah, well, someone had to save your ass," she said, not meeting his eyes as her suntanned cheeks took on a pinkish hue.
He placed a hand on her shoulder until she looked at him again, her cheeks still slightly flushed. "I never thanked you for that," he said, ignoring her attempt at a joke, and the faint tingle in his fingers from where they rested on the fabric of her jacket. "So…thank you, for saving my life."
A flitting smile crossed her lips, a smile that did not quite reach her eyes as she held his gaze. "You would've done the same for me," she replied quietly, and stood up, brushing off the dust that had culminated on her clothes overnight.
Fili stood up as well, and suddenly Alison looked at him in horror, as if just realizing something. Fili looked back to her in alarm at her expression.
"Oh, God, this doesn't make me bonded to you or anything like that, right?" she asked, her eyes widening. "Like, you don't have one of those 'you-save-my-life-I-save-yours-so-give-up-your-firstborn-child' types of deals here?"
"What in Mahal's name are you talking about?" Fili asked, baffled. "No, we're not bonded. It's just mutual gratitude and respect for one another." She visibly relaxed, letting out a small sigh, and then Fili decided to have a little fun with this situation.
"However…" he said, and her eyes snapped back to him, wary, and he suppressed the urge to grin, instead pulling a thoughtful face. "If you save my life two more times, then by the ancient laws of the Dwarves, set down by Durin the Deathless himself, then we are obligated to wed."
"You're lying," she said, and he fought down a laugh at the stricken, wan look on her face, but he couldn't hold it together. He burst out laughing at her now outraged expression, and she picked up her bedroll and smacked it with him in the chest. "That's not funny, Fili. I almost had a heart attack!"
He couldn't respond, only laugh, and she rolled her eyes, putting her hands on her hips. "I swear, I'm surrounded by five-year-olds," she huffed, and Fili finally calmed down, though he was still grinning.
"Was that meant to be offensive?" he asked, with a slight smirk.
"Considering you're all a bunch of century-old Dwarves, yes, that was meant to be offensive," she replied sarcastically, and he chuckled at her annoyed glare before falling silent, holding each other's gazes for a long moment.
Fili had found himself doing that more and more ever since Rivendell whenever he talked to Alison. The most innocent conversation always seemed to lead to this now, a weighty silence that stretched between them with prolonged eye contact, where they would just stand and stare at each other, both of their expressions unreadable to the other person. But Fili wondered if Alison was beginning to learn how to read him better, as he held her eyes, so pale and bright, with an emotion he couldn't quite read that swirled deep down in the green depths.
Though he would never, ever say anything aloud about this to anyone, he began to suspect that there was some sort of chink in his armor whenever it came to the Ashburne girl. It was like she unintentionally aimed for it every time he even came near her, catching him off-guard with even the slightest thing she did, whether it be a look, a word, or a careful movement. He was staggered by it; for eighty-two years, he had built up a sturdy, impenetrable guard around himself, something all royals must learn to do if they are to be successful in their kingdoms, a lesson his mother and Thorin had drilled into him since day one. But in comes this short, plain-looking human girl with a mysterious lineage and a knack for sarcasm, and it's like everything he had built up, she had torn down, leaving him vulnerable for her to do whatever she pleased.
He always suspected that…something for her had been there since the very first time they met, when he knocked into her and sent her sprawling on Bilbo's floor, and he had helped her up, her unusual eyes and the unfamiliar feel of her hand ensnaring him right then and there. But now that she was accompanying them on the quest, he no longer suspected; he knew he felt something towards her now, something infinitesimally stronger than friendship…
Dwarf, he reminded himself forcefully. You are a Dwarf prince, she is a human warrior. Now get your head out of your arse, and forget about it.
"Fili!" Thorin's voice barked, and Fili turned abruptly, blinking and tearing his gaze away from Alison's as she started also, quickly leaving to go help Ori finish packing. Fili now met his uncle's stern blue gaze as he beckoned him over, and Fili did as instructed, hoping his uncle hadn't seen him so openly staring at Alison.
"Yes, Uncle?" Fili said as he approached, and that was when he noticed Kili by Thorin's side, as well, absent-mindedly stroking the bow in his hands as he grinned in greeting to his brother.
"I need you and Kili to scout ahead for awhile when we set out," Thorin said. "This fog is troublesome, and I don't want to walk into any nasty surprises later. You can trade places with Dwalin and Miss Ashburne mid-afternoon. Well," he paused, looking in disdain at the mist. "Whenever we assume its mid-afternoon. This accursed fog will make it impossible to tell what time of day it is, or where the sun is so we know which direction to take. We must be cautious."
Fili and Kili both nodded. "You're letting Alison scout?" Fili asked in surprise, still caught up on his uncle's earlier words.
"Aye," Thorin said. "I told her she would be expected to pull her own weight in this Company, and I meant it. Now she has a chance to do just that."
Fili nodded again, and Thorin clapped them both on the shoulder before moving away, presumably to now tell Dwalin and Alison about their later task.
"Come on, brother," Kili said, starting towards the place where Bombur was sitting handing out bowls of porridge. "We have a long day ahead of us, and I don't want to resort to eating you on the way if I don't get some food now."
Shaking his head, Fili followed him, and after their hurried meal of cold, soggy porridge (the mist was proving to be a great nuisance, especially to the food), the Company all shouldered their packs and moved out, Fili and Kili climbing to the front until everyone else behind them was almost lost in the fog, their weapons drawn and their eyes warily scanning the oppressing damp around them for signs of anything out of place.
The Company had not forgotten the Orc hunt by a long shot, and though they hadn't seen hide nor hair of them yet, Fili knew that they were still out there, searching for them, waiting to strike. Hopefully their trail would be lost in the mountains, and that would put a stop to the whole thing before it began again, but Fili wasn't so sure, and he kept his eyes peeled the whole time him and Kili were scouting.
As the day wore on, the Company traveled in silence, the fog taking its toll and making them sleepy and quiet; though, granted, they still managed to keep up their fast pace, and the mountains drew steadily closer and closer.
Kili walked beside Fili, his hands on his bow and an arrow already fitted to the string, prepared to fly at a moment's notice should anything happen. Fili was enjoying walking in silence, despite the smothering presence of the fog, and he stifled a sigh as Kili, per usual, decided to break the spell and start talking.
"Do you remember mornings like this back in Ered Luin, Fili?" he said wistfully, and Fili looked at his brother, slightly shocked he was talking about something serious for once. "When we'd wake up at the crack of dawn, the smell of baking bread and roasting meat already thick in the air, and everyone was just beginning to stir? And we'd sneak out of our rooms before Mother was awake and wander the halls until we found our way outside, then we'd scale the walls and find a suitable hiding place, watching the fog on the mountain-side disappear as the sun rose in the east?"
"Well, for starters, this fog isn't disappearing. And I'm sure you also remember how Thorin and half the guards would chase us down for scaring our poor mother out of her mind when she awoke to find our beds empty; though she did learn not to worry after about the tenth time or so." Fili smiled as he said this, feeling a sense of homesickness coiling around him. But it wasn't the sharp pang of homesickness he had felt once or twice since setting out on the quest; it was more like the warm, comforting feeling one gets when they've been away for a long time, and they finally step through the doorway of their home and see the bright and cheery fire in the hearth and remember the familiarity of everything as if they had never left.
Kili laughed at this, and Fili instinctively ruffled his brother's hair in an affectionate manner that he had been doing since they were lads. Though Kili usually hated this sort of display, he allowed his older brother this one slight pleasure in the world of hardship they had been thrust into.
"I hope Erebor is as great as our home," the younger prince said softly. "Though I wish to see the halls of our fathers, to reclaim our homeland, I feel like Ered Luin will always be considered my true home, you know?"
Fili nodded understandingly. "I feel the same way," he said. "But Erebor will be great, Kili. Though Ered Luin will always be our home, Erebor is now, too. We will have two homes soon, not just one."
Kili clasped his older brother's shoulder. "You're right," he said, grinning. "Homes for the Heirs of Durin."
Fili shared a smile with his brother, a warm glow spreading through his chest. Though him and Kili had grown up now, that brotherly affection was still there, and Fili knew that he would lay down his own life for Kili's if it meant keeping his younger brother safe. Fili would never dare admit it, or else he'd never hear the end of it from Kili, but he truly loved moments like these with his brother, when it was just them two talking about old memories from their childhood and not being afraid to show a little love for each other for a short while. It was nice, having his brother with him on this journey; it reminded him that he wasn't so alone.
Kili broke their brotherly bonding time and returned his attention to the front of them, but suddenly stopped walking, his mouth dropping open in amazement. "Fee…" he said, using the childhood nickname he had had for Fili before learning how to fully pronounce his brother's name.
"What? What is it?" Fili asked, but he stopped too as he looked ahead, where Kili's eyes were staring, and he felt a thrill of excitement and anxiety bolt through him as he realized what was before them.
"The first mountain," he breathed, taking in the slopes and gradual, naturally carved pathways slowly winding upwards, disappearing into the thick swaths of fog and mist and leading to more mountains, much bigger than this first one, behind it, where the High Pass was located to get over the mountain range.
"We've made it," he said, as the rest of the Company slowed to a halt behind them, taking in the first of the Misty Mountains with wide eyes and slack jaws. "We've reached the Misty Mountains."
After his initial awe upon seeing the first mountain, Kili's enthusiasm had dissipated quite rapidly after beginning the treacherous climb up the mountain-side. Walking over plains and valleys carrying supplies and weapons and armor roughly equal to about the weight of an ox had been difficult enough, but now trying to climb with all of that weight? Kili was about ready to pitch himself over the side; and he had come close, several times—by accident—to doing just exactly that.
The mountain-paths were dangerous enough, narrow and unstable, forcing the Company to move slowly and walk in single-file, hardly allowing anywhere for suitable camp and forcing them to sleep outside on the paths, trying to shelter themselves as best as they could with their blankets and the sheer cliff-faces lining the way on their left side. But to add to their troubles, the incessant mist that had been plaguing them on the ground only seemed to be getting worse the farther up they climbed the mountains.
It was their third day in the mountains already, and the mist showed no signs of clearing out yet, which was starting to seriously annoy Kili. There were times when it was so thick he could barely see his hand waving in front of his face, or he would lose sight of Alison, who was only walking a couple paces in front of him. It was extremely dangerous, slow-going and arduous, and Kili couldn't wait until they crossed the High Pass and left these Mahal-forsaken mountains behind. And he wasn't the only one wishing the same thing.
The Company was horribly subdued, and morality was running ever lower as their supplies they had gotten from the Elves were dwindling more and more each day. Now all their meals consisted of were stale bread and dry, bland cheese, and the measly portions were beginning to take a toll on the emotional well-beings of the Dwarves and Bilbo, and they all moaned and griped from dawn until dusk, used to hearty fares of good food and ale, not the small pickings they had to live with now.
The only person seemingly not bothered by the absence of food was Alison; and by "not bothered" he meant "indifferent." It was common knowledge now throughout the whole Company that Alison was beginning to act different; she hardly ever ate, she trained constantly (though she had had to stop briefly upon entering the mountains, for the paths were much too small to train on), and the tight, pinched look on her face and the dark shadows under her eyes were a dead giveaway that something was obviously worrying her. Everybody had tried to coax it out of her, but she stubbornly refused that anything was wrong and just started ignoring whoever was talking to her or changing the subject if they pressed her further.
Though she had been thoroughly anxious down on the ground, she had still tried to act normal; but ever since they had officially entered the mountains, it was like she was a walking, lifeless shell of the bright and witty Alison Ashburne who had become so endearing to him.
Her behavior distressed him greatly, and he worried that their conversation a week and a half ago after her archery lesson was what was causing her to act in this manner. He had questioned her many times about it, concerned, but she had waved him away, stating that that had nothing to do with it, but he wasn't convinced. And every new time he tried to broach the subject, it was like talking to the mountain itself from all the response he got; it was maddening, wanting to help her, but knowing that he couldn't unless she wanted to be helped herself first.
Kili sighed, rubbing his nose where the condensation was clinging like a bramble thorn and causing him extreme discomfort and annoyance, wishing the stupid fog would just dissipate already. Out of curiosity, he wondered if he could still see his feet in the swirling mist, and he looked down to his boots, which was a big mistake.
The fog had slowly been thinning out as the day wore on, and now it was only a gauzy sheet wrapped around Kili's body as he looked down, feeling a slight flare of panic at what he saw. The valley below them had become visible, and from where Kili was walking on the mountain-path, he had to guess they were already halfway up the first mountain as he saw just how far away the valley floor was; from this distance, it was just like a shaggy green rug, dotted here and there with ant-sized trees and a small snaking river that looked like one long cut in the landscape. Kili wasn't afraid of heights, but the notion of falling off of the mountain to the valley below still made his stomach turn, and he looked away quickly, focusing instead on the now-visible green of Alison's hunting jacket.
With the sudden lift of the fog, Kili noticed then how dark it was becoming, the slate-gray of the twilight beginning to encroach on the Company as they continued on for several more leagues, not wasting any daylight so they would be over these mountains as soon as possible. Far out to the northern horizon, against the gray dusky sky, brewed a fierce-looking array of black clouds, and Kili felt his heart sink.
Glorious, he thought sulkily. Just another thing to brighten my already wonderful day. But he didn't complain all that much; the clouds still looked farther off, and he guessed they wouldn't break until late the next morning.
Kili suddenly skidded to a stop, dislodging some stones with his feet as he tried to avoid slamming into Alison's back as she came to an abrupt halt before him. "Are you trying to make me fall off the mountain, Alison?" he asked indignantly. "Why did you stop like that?"
He heard her snort from in front of him without turning around. "That wasn't my fault," she said. "Thorin was the one who ordered us to stop."
At her words, Kili realized that his uncle was shouting at them all from the front of the group, and he tuned in to what his uncle was saying.
"We camp here for the night!" he heard him shouting. "The High Pass will be on us tomorrow morning, and I want us all well-rested before crossing. Dwalin and I will take first watch up here, and Ori and Dori will take watch from the rear."
Behind Kili, he could hear his brother relaying Thorin's orders to the rest of the group who was out of earshot, and Kili smirked as he heard Dori's disgruntled complaints about having to take watch as he began to settle out his blanket and bedroll, Alison doing the same beside him.
Soon the whole Company was seated on their bedrolls, their backs propped against the mountain-face behind them as they chatted quietly, the smell of tobacco smoke hanging thick and cloying in the heavy air. Kili was tempted to take his own pipe out, but Alison had made it clear she detested such things, so he kept the urge to himself and instead sighed, tilting his head back against the rocks and closing his eyes, letting the familiar sounds of the Company's doings wash over him.
A few minutes later he opened his eyes as he felt something being pressed into his hands, and he looked down, startled, until he realized that Alison was trying to push some food into his hands.
"Take some and pass it down," she instructed, and he noticed she had her own small portion in her lap, a hunk of grainy brown bread and a small chunk of dried out golden cheese. Kili took some for himself and handed off the rations to Fili, who was fiddling with one of his daggers in his usual habit, silent and pondering beside him.
Kili took a bite out of the tasteless bread, feeling like he was swallowing bark, and he took a swig from his water-skin to get some of the staleness out of his mouth. He looked over at Alison, who took the tiniest nibble out of the corner of her cheese and then set it down, swallowing the small bite with difficulty, as if there was something already in her throat she couldn't quite choke down.
"You should eat, Alison," he said, as he took another unsavory bite out of his bread. "You need to keep up your strength."
"I'm not hungry," she said, beginning to peel and scrape at her nail-beds, which were already torn and raw from previous actions of this sort, and staring out over the darkening mountain range, her eyes shifting wildly around the gloom.
"All right, enough," Kili said angrily, tossing down his bread, and she turned to look at him in shock at his sudden change of tone. But Kili was tired of this; Alison was going to tell him what was wrong, once and for all, before he started tearing his hair out of his head from frustration. He missed the real Alison Ashburne, the one with the wry smile and the bright gleam in her pale eyes, the one who laughed readily and easily and spoke whatever came into her head first, whether he understood it or not. He wanted the old Alison back so much it hurt, which surprised him; he hadn't realized just how much her friendship had come to mean to him in these past two months. "Alison, please tell me what's wrong. I can't do this, I can't just stand by and watch you be miserable and put yourself through this. If you would just tell me—"
"Nothing's wrong, Kili," she said, and there was a hint of steel in her eyes as she said it. "Nothing has been wrong. I'm just—tired, and strained, from all this walking and climbing and training. In my world we never did anything as exhausting as this, and it's just starting to get to me, is all."
Kili leaned in close to her face, dropping his voice so he wouldn't catch anyone else's attention. "Alison, please stop lying to me. I want to help you, but if you won't talk to me…" he sighed in frustration, raking a hand through his hair. "Look, if this is about what we talked about all those nights ago—"
"It's not," she said, shaking her head. "Please, just drop it. It's nothing for you to worry about. I'm fine."
"Goodnight, Kili," she said, and without another word or glance at him, she turned her back and curled up on her bedroll, drawing her blanket tightly over herself and shielding her face with the fabric.
Kili stared at her for a few moments, blinking as if he'd been slapped. Her blatant refusal to talk to him about what was bothering her wasn't unexpected, but his frustration was becoming a palpable thing, leaving a bitter taste in his mouth. If she wouldn't talk, he wouldn't force her; but oh, how mad it drove him.
At that moment, there was the distant rumble of thunder, and Kili sighed, finishing off his pathetic dinner and eventually lying down next to the still form of Alison, who was obviously not yet asleep but was trying to act like it. Not knowing what else to do, he closed his eyes, but it took him a long time to finally drift into sleep, his mind buzzing with images of ice-green eyes full of light and a smile he realized that he missed with a terrible ache.
Alison was at her wit's end. After fighting for a week against the all-consuming fear of the future prospects before her, she had finally accepted defeat and stopped defending herself against the anxiety that now knotted her stomach and held her captive in her own body as the Company had crossed into the Misty Mountains.
She didn't know what to do anymore except hope; hope that they wouldn't be captured by goblins, hope they wouldn't die on the High Pass; hope for anything really, that could ensure their survival.
And after her conversation with Kili the night before, she was now burdened with guilt along with her fear. She knew everyone else knew that there was something going on with her, and though they had asked about it, she refused to say anything, and they had let the subject drop. But not Kili. It pained her so much to see how concerned he was for her, and she couldn't alleviate his worries without telling him the truth, which she couldn't do, either. So she had to lie to his face and watch as his frustration and concern grew day by day, and it hurt her to know that she was also hurting him.
But it was for the best. None of them could know anything, and she would keep it that way until her task here in this world was done, no matter how much it pained her.
Thorin had awoken them at dawn to get started; if it could even be called dawn. Inky black clouds churned in the sky, and no sooner had they gotten up, repacked, and eaten, then the sky cracked open and the torrential rain and hurricane-force gale had started.
If there was anything that could make Alison feel worse than she already did, it was the presence of the storm that stayed on them all day as they painstakingly pressed forward, Thorin refusing to be deterred from the awful weather. She was cold, wet, and miserable as the rain pounded down and the wind tore at her hair and clothes, and she tried to avoid looking down whenever the lightning flashed, her stomach already queasy from the last time she had seen how far up the mountains they had gone and the valley floor far, far below them.
Alison guessed it was about mid-afternoon when she could barely distinguish Thorin's voice yelling from the front of the group, and she paused, listening, Kili behind her and Óin in front. "We have reached the Pass!" Thorin shouted over the shrieking wind. "Keep your guard up and be cautious!"
The announcement traveled all through the Company, and they pressed forward as the day wore on. If it was possible, the storm grew steadily worse as they continued into the Mountain Pass, and soon the rain and wind was lashing so hard that Alison could barely keep her eyes open, the vulnerable skin on her hands, face, and neck stinging with the force of the raindrops. The Company practically slowed to a crawl as they treaded the path, their boots sinking into puddles and slipping on stones as the unrelenting storm raged on around them.
Alison assumed it was nearing night as the oppressing darkness grew infinitesimally darker, and she knew they would have to stop soon before night truly fell and they were left stranded in the dangers of this weather.
As if reinforcing her thoughts, there was suddenly a cry from behind her, and she whirled around, her heart leaping to her throat as she saw Bilbo floundering for balance some places down from her, his arms flailing. For one horrible moment, Alison thought the Hobbit was going to fall over the edge, but at the last second Dwalin and Bofur managed to pull him back to safety against the mountain-side.
The close-call of their burglar had not escaped Thorin's attention, and much to her relief and dismay, he called, "We must find shelter!"
"I couldn't agree more," she heard Kili mutter from behind her, and Alison wished she could share the Dwarf prince's attitude. But stopping led to a greater chance of them being taken by the goblins, something she wasn't keen on happening. Though there had been no signs of any goblins or other creatures during their trek through the Mountains so far, Alison knew they were there, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. Her fear mounted higher at the thought, and her gut began to clench in warning; something bad was going to happen. And it was going to happen soon.
No sooner had she thought that then Dwalin's voice roared, "Look out!" Alison looked up, and she gasped, inhaling a bunch of raindrops as she saw what Dwalin was talking about. Barely silhouetted against the dark sky was the outline of a giant boulder, soaring through the air towards them as if it had been thrown from the mountains itself.
"Take cover!" Thorin bellowed, and a second later the boulder collided with the mountain they were standing on, and Alison felt a tremor that seemed to shake the very foundations of the earth as debris began to cascade around them.
"Get back!" Kili shouted, grabbing her waist and bodily shoving her into the cliff-face behind them as chunks of rock bigger than her head rained down around them. Watching them fall, she had no doubt that if Kili hadn't pushed her when he did, her skull would now be cracked open from the force of the falling rocks.
"This is no thunderstorm," Balin said from his place near the front. "It's a thunder-battle! Look!" And Alison looked to where the old Dwarf was pointing, and she was sure that if Kili hadn't been holding onto her she would've fainted right then and there.
Across the Pass, there was a bone-grinding rumble, louder than the thunder around them, and as Alison watched, a piece of the mountain came to life, and she felt her knees go weak as she realized that there was a humanoid-shape, hewn from the mountain itself, that peeled itself away from the stone and roared, the sound sending shock-waves around the mountain range, echoing ten times over around the peaks. There was another tremble from behind the Company and they turned, seeing another figure, thousands of feet tall, breaking away from the mountain behind them, ripping a huge chunk of stone from the peak it had just emerged from and pitching it to the giant in front of them.
"Well, bless me!" Bofur said in awe. "The legends are true! Giants! Stone giants!"
There was another ear-shattering roar as the hunk of rock the second giant threw slammed into the first one, and it staggered back, every one of its movements like its own miniature earthquake.
"Take cover, you fools!" Thorin roared, and Alison dimly wondered how they were supposed to do that if they were trapped on the open side of a freaking mountain. Suddenly there was another tremor from beneath her feet, and it was not coming from the two giants battling it out in front of them.
A split second before it happened, Alison realized what was going on, and she clutched at Kili wildly, her breath rasping in her throat as she said, "We have to move! Kili, we have to go now—"
But it was too late. With a force equal to that of the earth splitting apart, the mountain they were standing on began to tear down the middle as another stone giant emerged, shedding stones and rocks as it awoke. With a thrill of terror, Alison realized that they were literally standing on the giant's legs, and a wide fissure began to appear between Fili and Kili behind her, and the two brothers shuffled away from it, eyes wide as they too realized what was happening.
"Kili!" Fili said in panic. "Grab my hand!" He held out his hand to his brother, but the crevice was too wide; Kili couldn't reach him, and he looked at his brother with fear in his eyes, which sank into Alison like a dagger. She had never seen Kili look so afraid before.
The third giant got to its feet, and now half the Company was on one of its legs, while the other half was on the other leg. As their giant surged forward, the first giant that had awoken came forward to meet it, not even hesitating before promptly smashing its rocky skull into their giants' head, causing it to stagger back towards the mountains behind them.
The leg Alison was standing on swung back at an awkward angle, and through the blinding rain she could see a ledge below them that they would be able to jump to. Apparently Thorin had the same idea, and he shouted, "Come on! Jump!" before leaping into space and landing precariously on the ledge. Without question, Glóin followed, and then everyone else, Kili leading Alison by her hand until they reached the end of the giant's leg, the ledge right below them.
"Go, Alison! Jump!" he said, and without even pausing to think of how insane it was, Alison launched herself into empty air, her stomach swooping until she collided painfully with solid ground again, a sharp needle of pain lacing up her ankles. A few seconds later, Kili clattered to a landing behind her, and their half of the Company was safe. Now their only problem was the other half of the Company, still stranded on the stone giants' other leg.
Alison watched in fear as the other half of the Company, consisting of Bilbo, Bofur, Dwalin, Bombur, Ori, Dori, Balin and Fili, swung by, clinging on to the rocks for dear life as the giant went in for retaliation against the giant that had attacked it. Her heart was pounding so hard she thought it might burst from her chest as she watched the first giant swing a vicious, rocky punch to the giant carrying the Dwarves and Bilbo, and this time, the giant wasn't so lucky.
With a crunching sound that made the hair on Alison's arms stand straight up, the giant carrying the Company's head came clean off from the force of the blow, and she heard Kili's sharp intake of breath from beside her even over the sound of the storm. She gripped his arm tightly, feeling his tense muscles under her fingers, a clear sign that he was as scared as she was for the people still on the giant.
The third giant's head fell down to the valley below, and a few seconds later, its headless body began to crumble, as well, folding in on itself as it too began to fall. With a sickening jolt, Alison saw the knee-ledge the Company was standing on speed towards the side of the mountain a little bit ahead from where she and the others were, and she stared in horror as the other half of the Company were smashed into the cliff-face before them.
"NO!" she screamed, the word tearing from her throat. "No no no no!" As if in slow-motion, she saw the headless giant fall to the valley floor below, and her desperate eyes scanned the length of the giant, but there was no sign of life upon the rocky surfaces.
The whole half of the Company standing with her let out cries and shouts of dismay, and above the din of the storm and the two remaining stone giants, who had taken their battle farther down the Pass, she could hear Thorin's anguished voice, yelling, "No! Fili! No!"
The Dwarf king surged forward, farther down the path where the collision had happened, everyone else stampeding behind him. Alison could feel Kili's hot, panicked breath on the back of her neck as they ran, and Alison could swear she had never run so fast in her life, despite the danger the path presented.
No, she thought as she ran. Oh, God, no, please, no, no, no. Bilbo, Bofur, Fili—no, no, please let them be alive, please let them be—
As they rounded a bend in the pathway, Alison skidded to a stop, and she let out a sob of relief at what she saw before her. The other half of the Company that had smashed into the wall had miraculously managed to not be squashed like bugs, all of them lying in a squirming, groaning pile, though none of them seemed to be injured, thank the Lord—or the Valar. Whoever, really, as long as they were safe.
Kili pushed past Alison, hurrying to help his brother to his feet, and Alison sagged against the cliff-face behind her, drinking in the Dwarf prince's appearance as if she had never seen him before. He looked dazed, as if he didn't quite know what had just happened, his wet blonde hair disheveled and sticking to his ashy face as Kili pulled him into a tight hug, Thorin resting a hand on his back, his face as lined as ever but with a palpable look of genuine relief on his features as well.
However, his smile vanished quickly as Bofur struggled to his feet frantically, crying, "Where's Bilbo? Where's the Hobbit?"
Alison's moment of relief was shattered as she straightened bolt upright, looking around and realizing that Bilbo was, in fact, not there.
"There!" Dori shouted, pointing to Alison's right, where a pair of small, pale hands were just visible clinging onto the ledge. "Grab him!"
Dwalin dived for Bilbo's hands, along with Bofur, and Alison scrambled to the edge of the pathway, looking down to see Bilbo's white, terrified face as he flailed in empty air, his hands clinging desperately to the ledge. But Dwalin and Bofur's efforts only succeeded in knocking the Hobbit down further from the ledge, until he clutched a protruding rock with only one hand. "Bilbo!" Alison cried.
"Bilbo, grab my hand!" Bofur encouraged, but Bilbo was too far away, and his arms were too short to reach up that far. "Come on, take it!"
And suddenly Thorin was there, swinging down the cliff with one hand gripped on the ledge, while his other hauled Bilbo into reach of Dwalin and Bofur's clambering hands, where they promptly pulled him to safety. Alison rushed over to where Bilbo collapsed on the ledge, panting, his face drained of all color, and knelt down beside him just as a shout rent the air behind her.
Swinging around, she saw that Thorin had almost fallen himself down the mountain-side, but Dwalin had caught him and hauled him to safety while all the Dwarves clambered around, their sudden fear turning into relief as they saw that Thorin was all right.
Alison turned back to Bilbo, grasping his hand so tightly he winced. "Bilbo Baggins, don't you dare ever do that to me again," she said, her eyes burning. "Are you all right? Are you hurt?"
He nodded faintly, his face starting to regain some color. "I'm fine," he said weakly. "And trust me, I will most definitely not be doing that again."
Alison laughed hoarsely, pulling the Hobbit into a bone-crushing hug. She had been so scared, so scared to see how close she had come to losing Bilbo. But he was safe now. They were all safe.
"I thought we had lost our burglar," Dwalin said, watching the exchange between Alison and Bilbo as he helped Thorin to his feet.
"He's been lost, ever since he left home," Thorin snapped, taking everyone by surprise at his sudden harsh tone as he glared at Bilbo, who only looked shocked. "He should never have come. He has no place amongst us."
"That's not fair, Thorin!" Alison protested, as Bilbo looked down, his hurt at the Dwarf king's words visible on his face. "It wasn't Bilbo's fault he almost fell off the cliff! It was that stupid giant's!"
"Hold your tongue, Miss Ashburne," Thorin said, his eyes flashing. "I will not deal with your comments right now."
Alison shot to her feet, suddenly gripped by a reckless sense of anger and the leftover fear and adrenaline still coursing through her veins, goading her into heated speech as she eyed Thorin, her hands shaking.
"Just because he's not some great warrior like you doesn't mean he's useless or weak!" she snarled, and everyone stared at her in shock; they had never heard her so furious before. She knew she was being disrespectful and uncontrollable, but she didn't care; it seemed like she had finally snapped. "He may not be a Dwarf, only obsessed with fighting and riches, but he deserves just as much respect as you command—"
"Miss Ashburne, hold your tongue," Thorin positively growled, and Alison choked on her words at the venomous tone in his voice. "Do not forget who is still the leader of this Company, and if it is my wish to send you back to Rivendell right this instant, then remember that I can the next time you think to step out of line like that again."
There was a heavy, uncomfortable silence left in his wake, until he jerked his head and said, "Dwalin." The battle-scarred Dwarf followed him around another bend in the path, leaving Alison alone with the still-stricken Bilbo and the wide-eyed Dwarves.
"What?" she snapped into the ringing silence. "Stop looking at me like I just murdered somebody. He's had it coming for awhile now."
No one answered, and a few seconds later she heard Thorin's voice say from around the corner, "All of you, come on. We've found shelter."
They all trekked to where his voice had issued from, and they found to their intense surprise and relief that they had found a wide and spacious cave to camp for the night, and Alison stalked in, her chin raised as she passed Thorin, who glowered at her as she swept by.
"It looks safe enough," Dwalin commented.
"Search to the back," he ordered. "Caves in the mountains are seldom unoccupied."
Glóin took out some branches and twigs from his pack that had miraculously managed to stay dry, and he lit some torches for Dwalin and Thorin to take as they examined the back of the cave, determining it to be safe, and the rest of the Company moved further in, beginning to set up camp.
Alison found a place near the very back of the cave, wanting to be as far away from Thorin as possible and settling down her bedroll on a sandy patch of ground, unwinding her dripping hair and shaking it out, sending water droplets flying everywhere. Out of precaution, she kept her clothes and swords on, a new habit she had picked up from the Dwarves so she could be prepared to fight or flee at any time. She looked up from combing through her hair with her fingers as Fili dropped his stuff down beside her, making up his bedroll silently and then sitting down, refusing to look at her.
There was the sound of branches thudding against the ground, and Alison looked over to see Glóin rubbing his hands together, saying, "Right then. Let's get a fire started."
"No, no fires," Thorin objected. "Not in this place. Everyone, get some sleep. We start at first light."
"We were to wait in the Mountains until Gandalf joined us," Balin piped up. "That was the plan."
"Plans change," Thorin replied, and Alison rolled her eyes. "Bofur, take the first watch." he ordered the cheerful Dwarf, and Bofur nodded, the flaps on his hat bobbing up and down with the motion of his head as he set up a post near the opening of the cave mouth.
The cave fell into quiet muttering and the sound of shuffling as everybody prepared for bed, and Alison laid down, watching as Fili did the same beside her, though still refusing to look at her.
"You're mad at me," she stated bluntly, looking him up and down, from his drenched blonde hair to his wet, scuffed up boots.
"I'm not mad," he replied, staring up at the cave ceiling. "You just shouldn't have said that to Thorin. It was very disrespectful."
Alison sighed angrily. "Did you hear the way he was talking to Bilbo? Somebody had to say something—"
"I'm not agreeing with what he said." He turned to look at her then, and she felt her breath hitch slightly at the gray-blue depths that captivated her every time she met his eyes. "But you could have used a different approach instead of jumping down his throat with everyone watching."
She opened her mouth, then closed it, swallowing her argument. She had no desire to fight with Fili, and he was right; she shouldn't have lost her temper like that.
But then she remembered why she had lost her cool, and she felt cold and shaky all over from the reminder of what was yet to come. They weren't out of the Misty Mountains yet, and that same gut feeling she had gotten earlier on the mountain-side took hold of her again, warning her that something was about to happen, something much, much worse than the stone giants, and she felt ice coating her skin, her mind going numb with fear at the thought of the goblins again. What if they didn't make it, what if they couldn't escape the goblins, what if—
"Alison, are you all right?" Fili asked, and she met his eyes again as he propped himself up on one elbow to look closer at her, concern filling his gaze.
She couldn't speak, only shaking her head mutely, her panic clamping down on her tongue.
"You're shaking like a leaf," he remarked, scrutinizing her carefully. "Are you cold? Is it shock?"
She nodded, not being able to say why she was so cold inside, why dread clawed so harshly into her skin…
Fili looked as if he was struggling with himself for a moment, then after a long hesitation, he finally sighed as if steeling himself. "I can—you should—um, here." He said awkwardly, and then he did something so unexpected it wrenched her momentarily from her haze of panic, and she stared in surprise as he held out his arms to her.
It took Alison a moment to register what he was doing, but when she caught on, she suddenly felt her face burning and her stomach filled with butterflies, keeping the fear at bay for the moment. "Oh, um…"
"You don't have to," he said quickly, retracting his arms immediately. "I mean, it was just a suggestion—"
"No, no," she said, faintly amused by how flustered he looked all of a sudden. "I mean, um, yeah. I want to."
"Oh," he said, his expression half-relieved, half-alarmed. "All right. Um, here."
And he held his arms out to her again, and she scooted closer, trying to ignore the quickened pace of her heart as she pressed close. His arms went around her stiffly, as if unsure of what to do, and she silently snickered at his awkwardness.
Even though he was as equally soaked as her and provided little warmth, his touch soothed her nerves, and with a shock, Alison realized that she hadn't been held like this since arriving in Middle-earth. There had been the occasional pat on the back or clap to the shoulder, but nothing that was as comforting and secure as this. She felt tears well in her eyes, not even knowing just how much she had been craving another person's touch until Fili was embracing her.
They didn't speak for several long moments, and Alison inhaled deeply, the smells of tobacco, trees and earth, the stale scent of sweat and vaguely of wet dog clogging her nose, underlined with a musky, rich scent that could only be described as the smell of Fili. To her surprise, it wasn't a bad smell at all, and unconsciously, she shifted closer, feeling his warm, steady breath tickling the top of her head, where it was just tucked under his chin.
The silence stretched on for a few more minutes, until finally her jangling thoughts couldn't handle it anymore. "Um…thank you, by the way," she said, lifting her head up a few inches until she met his gaze. Their faces were extremely close, and she could see a faint scar running up into his right eyebrow that she had never noticed before. "For, you know, this."
"You're welcome," he replied quietly, the cold metal bead on one of his mustache braids dancing across her forehead with the movement of his mouth. They did the customary thing where they held gazes for a long moment, and Alison was dimly aware of the snoring and breathing of the now-sleeping Dwarves, and maybe what sounded like two voices coming from the front of the cave, but she wasn't sure. She was too focused on Fili's arms wrapped around her, and the proximity of his face to hers, his stormy eyes boring into hers like nothing else was around them.
As if on impulse, Alison blurted out the next thing on her mind without thinking, then mentally kicked herself afterwards at how lame she sounded. "I'm glad you didn't die tonight," she said, and he quirked a grin, much to her embarrassment.
"Me too," he replied. "It would've been quite depressing, and it might've put a slight damper on the quest."
She cracked a grin, silently marveling at how better she felt as she talked to him and he held her, her fear and worry subsiding to rest in a place she had no use for right now.
They fell into silence once more, and maybe it was from her nerves, clouding her judgment and her senses, or maybe it was just that wild streak of recklessness she possessed, but either way, she didn't stop and think about her actions before reaching her hand up, and slowly brushing the braid of hair that always fell into his face away from his eyes, holding his gaze as she did so.
He went rigid under her touch, his eyes widening fractionally, and she moved her hand away quickly, her fingertips dusting lightly across his cheek, stubbly with his beard. But before she could remove her hand, he raised his own, capturing it in his fingers and holding it in place as his eyes did the same to her body.
Her breath hitched, and her heart thudded wildly as if she had run a thousand miles, her nerves pulsing, and every thought of what was coming, every worry and every fear of the future stopped racing through her head, until all she could focus on was right here, right now.
Fili moved her hand from his cheek, sliding it down until the inside of her wrist was pressed against his lips, and her heart fluttered even more as he spoke against her skin, his lips moving softly over her wrist and his breath making lightning spark across her skin.
"What are you doing to me, Alison Ashburne?" he asked softly, but it sounded like he was questioning himself rather than her. He fleetingly pressed his lips more into her skin. "What is happening?"
She said something really intelligent, like "Ad-gah," but his touch was short-circuiting her brain processes, and he grinned into the curve of her wrist.
She couldn't think anymore, couldn't breathe, as he moved her wrist out of the way, and she stared openly at his lips. They were so close, just a few more inches…
She leaned in, her lips just brushing his and sending every sensation in her body into a frenzy, and she wasn't even paying attention, didn't notice anything as his palm cupped her face, didn't hear the sand slipping through the crack that was forming in the cave floor, didn't listen to her gut screaming a warning as there was a sudden loud groan from beneath them—
"Wake up. Wake up!" Thorin said sharply, and Alison and Fili jerked apart as the ground underneath them lurched, bucking them into the air as the Company bolted upright around them, eyes wide.
Then suddenly, with a groan that reverberated in Alison's chest, the cave floor underneath them dropped away, and they all tumbled into empty space, the ground opening like a great black maw and swallowing them whole into darkness.
BET ALL OF YOU THOUGHT THIS WAS "THE MOMENT"
But I'm afraid you'll have to wait a tad bit longer, lovelies...;)
(Okay, it was a 'moment' but it wasn't 'THE moment')
Wow. A bunch of stuff went down in this chapter, eh? And what a pleasant cliff-hanger! Mwahaha!
Anyway. Thank you for reading, and especially a SUPER big thank-you to all of my reviewers! I was practically glowing when I read y'all's last ones, y'all are too sweet! So, as usual, please keep them coming! Feedback is greatly appreciated!
Thank you again, lovelies!:) Until next chapter...