The March of Time

18: The Second Hero

I know, I know, but I couldn't resist it! I had to post this chapter today or else I would've gone insane! But I tried guys, I really did. I thought I could hold out until next weekend but we all know how this ended.

But anyway. Here is Chapter 18, and I hope y'all like!

Chapter Eighteen: The Second Hero

A steady breeze had begun to blow during the night, and as the sky was lightening, announcing the approach of dawn, it was kicking into a mild wind, a cool gust of summer air under-lied with a crisper note of autumn.

Thorin had relieved Dwalin of his watch a little more than an hour ago, leaving the Dwarf king alone to watch over the Company and sort his thoughts out, propped against the trunk of a wide tree in the clearing as a few scarce birds tweeted in the branches, their songs sharp and piercing after the near-dead silence of the night preceding them.

The birds' song reminded Thorin of the thrush they had seen yesterday morning, flying east to the Lonely Mountain, and the thought left a palpable taste of something that could only be described as hope on his tongue. The sight of the Mountain had filled Thorin with a feeling he could put no words to, a mixture of relief, unrestrained joy, and sheer terror. Erebor was in their sights; yet despite the overwhelming sense of elation he had felt when he laid eyes on the mountain again after nearly two hundred years, an old fear had begun to gnaw on him once more, and it festered in his mind like an infected wound that refused to heal.

It had been sixty years since Smaug was last seen, and though Thorin had heard people whisper of it in the back of pubs, swapping tales of the dragon's supposed demise, he knew that the wretched snake that was Smaug would not have wasted away so easily. No, the dragon was merely slumbering, biding his time as he slept on the mounds of gold that had drawn his wrath upon Erebor in the first place. Smaug was still alive, and Thorin was beginning to dread his inevitable confrontation with the dragon. He knew him and the others would give their last breath if it meant defeating the dragon, but he also knew that thirteen Dwarves, a Hobbit, a mortal Hero, and a Wizard (if Gandalf even opted to stay with them until then) were no match for the might of a dragon. Thorin had seen Smaug decimate his own kingdom and raze the city of Dale to the ground with his own eyes, and he was beginning to doubt his sanity a bit as he thought about what lay ahead.

But there was no use in worrying about it now. They still had a little more than two months at the most to make it to the Mountain by Durin's Day, and there was still plenty of time to work out a plan around the problem of Smaug. He wouldn't concern himself with the matter right then. But as he sat against the tree, another worry lay heavily on his mind, and this perhaps was the greatest one of them all.

Besides the menace of Smaug, another challenge he faced upon entering the Mountain was the threat of the gold-sickness. He had tried to put Elrond's words out of his head in the successive weeks since their departure from Rivendell, and while it had worked temporarily, the reminder of what awaited him at Erebor had come flooding back as he had seen the Lonely Mountain silhouetted against the horizon. "A strain of madness runs in that family. His grandfather lost his mind, his father succumbed to the same sickness. Can you swear Thorin Oakenshield will not also fall?"

The words had been difficult enough to swallow the first time, and they were no less intolerable now than they had been several weeks ago. Thorin knew he was not Thrór or Thráin, but he also knew that he shared the same blood as them, the same weakness that had clouded their minds and poisoned their souls. There was no guarantee that he was any stronger than them, and he was afraid of what would happen should he enter the Mountain and fall prey to the sickness.

Almost subconsciously, his hand drifted to his coat pocket as he sat, thinking, and he pulled out the key to the secret entrance, turning it in his hand so it caught the fading glimmers of starlight and the gathering sunlight of the dawn. He remembered his vow back in Rivendell, and as he held the comforting weight of the key, he let the words soothe down the frayed ends of his composure, allowing the truth of them to sedate the paralyzing fear he felt whenever he thought of the sickness and Erebor. After a few minutes of this, Thorin felt slightly better, and he replaced the key into his pocket just as there was a disturbance from across the clearing.

Thorin started, reaching for Orcrist, but he relaxed when he saw that it was just Gandalf, the Wizard pulling himself off the ground with the aid of his staff and sweeping back on his pointy grey hat with a flourish, all traces of sleep gone from the Wizard's tall and wiry frame as he pulled out his pipe and some Old Toby. Lighting it with a flame produced from his fingertip, Gandalf looked around the clearing and his bright blue eyes landed on Thorin. Seeing the Dwarf king watching him, the Wizard walked over to where Thorin sat, trailing smoke behind him as he went, which Thorin was vaguely envious of; his own pipe had been confiscated by the goblins a few nights ago, and he was still quite disgruntled over the loss.

Thorin stood as Gandalf approached, trying not to wince as his stiff muscles protested at his movements. Though the Wizard had healed most of the serious damage, parts of Thorin still ached from his fight with Azog, and he felt a flare of anger and shame at the reminder of how easily he had been beaten by the Orc, the same Orc that ought to have been dead the first time Thorin had faced him down. Yet Azog was still alive, and Thorin had no doubt that the Pale Orc was already hunting for him as he stood, and he felt a twinge of fierce anticipation run through him at the thought of having a rematch with the Defiler in the near future.

Gandalf stopped before Thorin, nodding his head in greeting, and Thorin inclined his own back, crossing his arms over his chest to cover the throbbing pain of the bruises on his upper torso as he faced the Wizard.

Gandalf's eyes took in the lightening sky above them, and he puffed a perfectly round smoke ring out of his mouth as he took in the rising morning, Thorin standing beside him. "A good day to travel," he observed, and Thorin looked up as well, seeing that the Wizard was right; not a cloud dotted the sky, and with the cooling temperatures, they wouldn't be too hot while traveling in the open under the sun.

"Indeed," Thorin replied. "I could do without the wind though," he added, as a particularly strong gust blew through the clearing, ruffling Thorin's hair and making the leaves on the tree branches rattle with the force of it.

Gandalf made a disgruntled noise in the back of his throat, and Thorin didn't know whether that was an agreement with his statement or not. They fell back into silence for a few moments, watching the sky grow steadily lighter, until Gandalf spoke once more.

"You've had a rough few days," the Wizard said, and Thorin stiffened uncomfortably at his words, not wanting to be reminded of how weak he had looked on the cliff-edge, unconscious and bloody, on the verge of being beheaded until Bilbo had surprised them all and saved Thorin's life. He had underestimated the Hobbit greatly, and Thorin was beginning to see why Gandalf had chosen him as their burglar, though he was still slightly chagrined that Bilbo had had to save him at all in the first place. "How are you holding up?"

Thorin lifted his sore shoulders in a non-committal shrug. "I've been better." He replied gruffly.

Gandalf nodded thoughtfully, his eyes scrutinizing Thorin with the penetrating way the Wizard possessed, as if he could read his mind and pick out the thoughts that troubled him most.

"I fear that this will not be the last time we see the Pale Orc," Gandalf mused. "It is troubling, how he revealed himself, and when he did. There is something I cannot quite understand about it."

"I thought I had seen that abomination for the last time after he slunk back into the hole he was spawned from," Thorin said angrily, clenching one of his hands into a fist. "And yet that scum still walks this earth, intent on cutting off my head much as he did to my grandfather. And you think you don't understand what is going on?"

Thorin didn't mean for his voice to come out so harsh, but all the emotions that had been culminating within him over the last few days were starting to get to him. He took a deep breath to calm himself, absent-mindedly rubbing his left forearm where he used to wear his oaken shield. Upon waking up the previous dawn, he had discovered that it had been lost on the burning cliff-side when the Eagles had rescued them, and its loss had struck a crippling blow to him. He had had that shield for nearly two centuries, had hewn it himself from the branch he had used to fend off Azog in the battle at the Moria Gates, and he had relied on it many a time. It was a part of his identity, a physical symbol of who he was, and where he had gotten his name from. But now it was gone, and he felt as if a piece of him was now missing.

Gandalf remained silent, and Thorin sighed, suddenly feeling overburdened with the weight of what they were doing, the enormity of their task looming above him like a mountain he could not see the top of.

"What are we doing, Gandalf?" he said, voicing aloud the thoughts that had been plaguing him for most of their journey. "Sometimes I believe that what we are doing is right, that we will manage to re-enter the Mountain and take back our homeland, but…there are times where I feel like our quest is deemed as impossible, and Smaug will continue to lie within Erebor until he rots out of his skin. I do not know how this will end for us."

"If there is one thing I know about you, Thorin Oakenshield, it is that you are stubborn and determined until the end," Gandalf said. His voice was solemn, but there was a twinkle in his eyes as he went on. "You will not be deterred from your path, and it is this endurance that will lend you the strength you need to complete this quest. And no one knows what the exact outcome of the future may be; it is constantly in motion, ever-changing, and that is why we are given the freedom to choose our own fate. This quest is no different; there can be many varying outcomes, but I believe you have the wits to choose the path for greatness."

Thorin did not respond, too wrapped up in his own mind to think of anything to say. Eventually, though, he stumbled on another thought, and he looked to Gandalf again, who blew out one last stream of smoke before tucking his pipe back into his cloak.

"Even if we do manage to make it to the Mountain by Durin's Day and enter the door, there is still the problem of the Arkenstone," he said, and Gandalf looked down his long nose at the Dwarf king, who began to pace agitatedly in one small spot of the clearing, keeping his voice down so he wouldn't disturb the sleeping Company. "I don't know what Smaug will have done with it in the years he has inhabited Erebor, and I fear that it is lost somewhere that will never be found within the halls."

"That is why we have Bilbo, my dear fellow," the Wizard replied, smiling slightly. "I believe it was stated very explicitly in the contract that the burglar would be the one to retrieve the King's Jewel, and I have the utmost confidence in Bilbo that he can see the task done."

Thorin nodded distractedly, still pacing, too absorbed in his thoughts to reply immediately to the Wizard. The prospect of the end of the quest still bothered him, but he figured it was time to stop dwelling on it too much and carry on with the task they were appointed. Firstly, they still had to make their way over the last of the Misty Mountains' borders, and there was still the problem of them trying to find a way to obtain supplies so they could actually survive their trek to the Mountain. Everything else—Smaug, the Arkenstone—could wait until later.

"I don't suppose you have any friends or allies nearby that owe you a favor and could lend us supplies, do you?" he asked Gandalf half-heartedly, doubting that there was such a thing this far into the Wild; but to his surprise, Gandalf nodded thoughtfully, sweeping his gaze over the rosy glow of the landscape.

"There could be someone who may be willing to help us," he said, and Thorin noted how he didn't say whether this 'someone' was a friend or not. "But his home is not close; it is at least three weeks' travel on foot from here, two and a half perhaps, depending on how fast our pace is. And there is no guarantee he will help."

"We'll take our chances," Thorin said, trying to keep the suspicion in his voice at a low level; he didn't want a repeat of what had happened in the Trollshaws, when Gandalf had stormed off and left them alone with the trolls because Thorin had been too stubborn to listen to him. These weren't the borders of the Shire; they were on the edge of even more dangerous territory than the Wild borders of the western side of the Mountains, and Gandalf knew these paths better than Thorin did, so it was a good idea to keep the Wizard around without insulting him or raising his ire.

There was a rustle of movement from behind them, and the Dwarf king and the Wizard turned, seeing Bofur beginning to stir from his splayed out sleeping position on the ground, yawning and sitting up, re-adjusting his hat so it stayed in place on his head.

"I take that as our cue to get moving," Thorin said, and Gandalf chuckled lightly as they entered more fully into the clearing, beginning to wake the others so they could get started on their journey again.

After sharing a scanty breakfast of dried, leftover rabbit meat and a few berries each that Óin had determined safe to eat, the Company began to scatter the remains of their fire from last night, and Thorin sent a few Dwarves on patrol to look for a water source nearby. Thorin's mouth was already as dry as sand, and he didn't want to start losing his Company members to the effects of dehydration before they found whatever this place was that Gandalf had mentioned could help them.

As the sun came close to breaking over the jagged peaks of the Misty Mountains behind them, Nori came back from scouting and reported that they had found a stream close by, and the rest of the Company followed him out of the clearing and across a short stretch of brittle grass, until the sound of trickling water reached Thorin's ears and he indeed saw a slow-moving stream a little ways ahead of them.

Most of the Dwarves were already by the stream when Thorin came up, drinking their fair share of water and splashing their faces, rubbing off the culminated layers of dirt and sweat and, in some cases, blood, rinsing their hands as well in the sluggish current.

After Thorin drank enough water to the point where he thought he could hear it sloshing around in his stomach, he cupped some water in his hands and splashed his own face, the crisp coldness of it awakening his senses more fully and making him more alert, wiping away the last strands of sleep that still clung to him.

He stood up, shaking some of the excess droplets from his hands, and he watched in amusement as Bofur took off his boots and socks and rolled up his trouser legs, wading out into the middle of the stream until the water reached his knees, where he sighed exaggeratedly and closed his eyes in bliss.

"This is the life, lads," he said to the others on the bank. "I don't think my feet have felt this wonderful since last we bathed in Rivendell."

Thorin grinned at the Dwarf's words, shaking his head, as Alison's voice called from farther down the stream. "Hey, do you mind?" she said. "People drink from this, you know. I don't want to taste your nasty feet in my water."

She sat cross-legged on the bank by the water, smiling cheekily at Bofur as he sloshed over to her. "Well, I guess there's only one thing to say to that," he replied mischievously, and she raised her eyebrows.

"And that would be?"

"Drink up!" he crowed, and with that he took his hands and splashed her with the water, dousing her from her place on the bank as she shrieked and leaped to her feet, while the rest of the Company roared with laughter.

"You are so dead," Alison said menacingly, yanking off her boots and filthy socks as her loose hair dripped into her face. Bofur laughed as she waded into the water, and soon, Thorin was watching a water battle of epic proportions take place as the rest of the Company joined in, splashing and yelling as water flew everywhere, and Thorin thought that at least half of the stream's water content was being displaced as the Dwarves and Alison sloshed around, fighting a battle to the death with nothing but water.

Thorin stepped back to avoid getting drenched, noticing how Gandalf and Bilbo remained on the back with him, both chuckling and shaking their heads at the scene before them. Thorin felt a smile tug on his own face as the fight died down, the Company clambering back to shore and re-donning their shoes as they laughed and bantered with each other still, arguing on who the real winner was; after so many weeks of worrying and living in constant fear of attack or other dangers, it was good to see them have a moment of light-hearted peace, where they could just forget about their hardships for a moment and have a bit of fun. Mahal knew they needed a little laughter nowadays.

Once everyone was back in their shoes and had calmed down a bit, Thorin walked over to the group with Gandalf and Bilbo behind him. "Come on," he said as he neared, and they all looked to him expectantly. "We need to get a move on. We have a long day ahead of us, and I want to reach those last peaks soon so we can get over them as quickly as possible."

The Company all nodded, and they began to trek across the stunted plains of the mountain basin, making for the last set of peaks looming before them. After they had crossed those, they would be entering into the forestland of Mirkwood shortly after, what had once been known as the Greenwood, and Thorin felt a warning settle in his heart at the thought. He had heard the dark rumors of the now-dreaded forest, and he was not looking forward to seeing if those tales proved to be true or not. But they had no choice. Just like they had had to cross the Misty Mountains, they had to pass through Mirkwood if they wanted any chance of getting to the Lonely Mountain by Durin's Day, no matter how dangerous the forest was or not.

The Company all still laughed and joked around as they made their way across the plains, the sun climbing higher and higher into the sky and casting longer shadows upon the ground, and Thorin let them have their moment of fun. There was seldom opportunity for light-hearted moments like these on the road, and Thorin wanted them to enjoy their last bit of fun before they embarked on the next stage of their journey, and all of their worries and uncertainty came back. Because from here on out, the dark days were upon them, and soon there would be no cause for humor as their quest led them down an even more sinister path than they had already faced.

Thorin stifled a sigh as they trekked along, already not looking forward to the future challenges they were bound to face soon. Their journey was barely halfway over, and as they continued on into the wilderness, he couldn't help but think that this was just the beginning to another long and perilous chapter in the story of their quest, and he wondered what more they could possibly face before they reached their journey's end. Which, of course, in the Company of Thorin Oakenshield, was always a really bad thought to have.

After nearly a week of travel, the bordering peaks of the Misty Mountains were on them, and if Fili had to guess, he would say that they were roughly two days away from entering the peaks, which he took with a small sense of comfort. As Thorin had said, the quicker they were over the borders of the Misty Mountains, the quicker they could continue on to the Lonely Mountain. And as August loomed ever closer, their sense of urgency was increasing; they had a little more than two months to travel through Mirkwood and reach the Mountain by Durin's Day, and though they all kept it to themselves, Fili knew that everyone was beginning to worry about making the deadline on time, no matter how close the Mountain looked on the horizon.

They trekked on for the whole day, from dawn until dusk, the wind steady as it breezed across the plains, blowing from the northeast where the Lonely Mountain lay and whipping Fili's hair braids away from his face as he walked, enjoying the nice feel of the late summer air on his travel-weathered face. Around midday, however, the wind shifted directions, now coming up from the south, behind them, where the Misty Mountains were, and bringing with it the scent of rain.

Fili, who was walking at the rear, looked up to the sky, but there was no sign of any clouds yet, which meant that the rain was still some way off. He figured it would probably reach them two dawns from now, just before they crossed into the last stretch of peaks and began to climb.

Because that should be pleasant, he thought, bringing his gaze back down to earth. Almost unconsciously, his eyes strayed to the form of Alison walking a few places in front of him, in between Ori and Kili, the latter of who was telling them a story that involved much hand gestures and laughter from the other two.

Watching them, Fili felt a flicker of envy, particularly when Alison let out a bout of laughter at something Kili said, and even though her back was turned towards him, he could still imagine the look on her face she got whenever she found something amusing; the way her eyes would sparkle and crinkle at the edges, and the way her lips would curve into a half-smile, slightly open so the sound of her laughter would spill forth.

Hearing her laugh sent a tiny stab through him, and, almost against his will, he recalled their kiss on top of the Carrock. He still didn't know what had made him do it. It was like a sudden impulse had overcome him; just seeing her, injured but alive, had made a sort of fierceness jolt through his body, and he had realized with a wave of terror that he could have lost her. If he hadn't reached her in time, if that Orc had been a second quicker… He still shuddered just thinking about it. But seeing her life on the line like that had awakened something inside of him, something that he had been denying for too long, and after the threat of danger had passed, he had succumbed to the feeling burning in his chest, and he had just…kissed her.

Of course, looking back on it, what he had done was completely rash and unplanned, and he knew he probably should've thought things through a bit more before deciding to sate the beast roaring in his chest for her. But where Alison was concerned, all sense of logic and reason tended to leave him, which he realized now was a trait he could not afford to have.

A part of him felt guilty for what he had done; they both knew that what they felt for each other was something that could never be, and he felt like he had given her hope where there shouldn't have been any. After all, he was a Dwarf prince, and she was a human, who would most likely be sent back to her world when all of this was said and done. And even if she did stay, what would they do? Dwarf customs were exclusive to only their race, and he knew better than anyone that a relationship between a Dwarf and a human could never form. Alison would never be accepted, and even though he was a prince, there was only so much he could do.

The guilt that he felt after kissing her had been plaguing him all week, and he had tried to distance himself as best as he could from her so he would allow himself time to think things through without being distracted by her. He knew he was irritating her by his avoidance, but so far it was the only way he could learn how to cope with the struggle going on inside him. Half of him was defiant; why couldn't he have feelings for her? Just because she was a human meant nothing; even if she was of his race, she would still possess all of the qualities he liked about her; her bravery, her sarcasm, her honesty, her strength and intelligence. He had even come to accept her flaws; the way that she was reckless and somewhat impulsive, her occasional weakness and her excessive need to worry, and the mouth that could get her into trouble if she didn't restrain some of her comments. But everything about her was what made her her, and she was the person Fili had taken a liking for. But the other half of him knew that no matter what he wanted, or what she wanted, it would never work. And as much as it pained him, he knew that he had to end this before things got too serious and there was no going back.

As he brooded, the sun sank lower in the sky, and by the time dusk rolled around, they had reached a patch of woodland at the base of the first peaks, and as they walked through the dark, close-growing trees, Fili thought that the forest seemed endless, even though the bordering peaks were literally right behind it. But somehow, just the shadows of the peaks seemed to make it look a lot larger than it actually was, and Thorin led them only a few meters into the tree-line before stopping.

"We'll make camp here," he announced. "The stream is close by if we need any water and these branches will make for a suitable fire tonight. Kili, you're in charge of hunting for the night, and Óin, you can decide on what vegetation to gather. We will need all the food we can get to keep up our strength."

The Company all nodded in agreement at his words as Balin said, "You know, the stream seems to be much deeper here than it has been in the past. I think that this will be a good opportunity for us to, ah…freshen up a bit." He wrinkled his large nose as he said it, and Fili couldn't agree more. A little dirt or sweat had never bothered him, but going on a month without a bath was becoming a bit uncomfortable, and he wasn't the only one who was feeling the same way.

Thorin nodded at the older Dwarf's words. "We'll take an hour to bathe," he decided. "Night will fall soon, and we still have to eat and organize tonight's watches—" He stopped abruptly, for the Company was already taking off towards the stream, stripping off their weapons and coats as they went, whooping and hollering as they faded into the dusky shadows.

Fili was left alone in the clearing with Gandalf, Bilbo, Thorin, Kili, and Alison, and he just shrugged as Thorin looked to him questioningly.

"Great," Kili said sarcastically from his place near Alison's shoulder. "Now they've probably scared off every single piece of prey within a hundred-meter radius."

Alison snickered as the younger prince hefted his bow. "I'll bathe early in the morning," he said to Thorin as he began to stride into the trees. "I need to try and scrounge up at least some food for tonight."

Thorin nodded as Kili disappeared into the trees, and shortly after Bilbo left as well, heading towards the direction of the stream, though Fili noticed how he went more upstream rather than towards where the Dwarves had run off to. With a cautious look into the trees where the Dwarves could be heard bathing, Alison headed in the opposite direction of them and Bilbo, and soon she was swallowed by the trees. When she had gone, Thorin jerked his head for Fili to follow him and they walked to where the Dwarves were in the stream.

Fili stared at the spot where Alison had been standing for a few seconds before following his uncle into the tree-line, and he realized with a prickle of embarrassment that Thorin had been watching him stare after Alison as he met his hard blue gaze through the gloom.

They walked in silence for a few moments until Thorin broke the quiet between them. "Is there something wrong? You've been…thoughtful lately."

Fili kept his eyes forward as he answered, not trusting himself to look Thorin in the eyes as he said, "It's nothing. I've just been trying to process all that has happened so far."

He saw Thorin nod slowly out of the corner of his eye, and he knew without even fully looking that the king wasn't entirely convinced with his words. Thorin looked like he was about to press him further, but he seemed to change his mind, instead sighing and saying, "You would come to me if something was troubling you, wouldn't you?"

Fili met his uncle's gaze again, wondering if he should tell him about Alison. But no; he hadn't approved of his attachment to her in the first place, and besides, he was going to make sure nothing happened between them again for both their sakes. There was no use dragging Thorin into it. So instead he only replied with, "Of course, Uncle."

And then their conversation ended as they approached the stream, and Fili bathed quickly in the crisp water, scrubbing off layers of dirt and grime before clambering back onto the bank and tugging on his trousers and tunic, leaving his boots, coat, and armor off for the time being.

Shaking his wet hair out of his eyes, Fili began to wander aimlessly downstream, listening as the Company's shouts of laughter faded somewhat into the distance as he walked slowly along the bank, staring into the water broodingly. He wasn't really thinking of anything particular, just letting his thoughts wander free, but when there was a sudden movement ahead of him, he looked up quickly and froze, feeling his cheeks flame instantly.

Alison was facing away from him a few yards ahead of him on the bank, and he had looked up just as she was re-donning her black undershirt. Knowing how incredibly intrusive and rude he was being, but not being able to look away, he watched in a sort of detached mortification as the black material stretched over the bare skin of her back, sliding down over her narrow hips until she was covered again. He swallowed uncomfortably, the image of her waist burning into his mind; despite how extremely awkward his situation was, he was also curious, and a little bit fascinated.

He had seen Elf-women and Dwarf-women before, but he had rarely seen a human woman up close, and he was a bit intrigued. Where Elves were tall and graceful and slender, and Dwarves stout, rotund, and curvy, Fili felt as if Alison fell into a category sort of in between those two; she was short and slim, with a hint of curves that he had only just noticed then, but she was more on the lean side, and toned from her weeks of training and traveling on their journey. The nature of her looks had never really concerned Fili before, but now he found himself interested by them, even with the way she moved; and while she certainly wasn't a Dwarf, he still found her nice-looking, which was something he would never have imagined himself thinking in a hundred years.

Figuring he had been standing creepily for long enough, he cleared his throat awkwardly as she bent down to pick up her boots, but at the sound of his voice she spun around quickly with a small jump.

"Oh my God, Fili," she said, her cheeks turning bright red in the light of the setting sun, and Fili felt his own face flush even more. "What the hell were you doing? How long were you standing there?"

"Don't worry, I didn't see anything," he said hastily, now finding it hard to meet her eyes. "I came up only a few seconds ago."

"Oh," she said, relaxing slightly, though her face was still red. "Uh…right, then."

There was a moment of tense silence between them, until Alison brushed a damp strand of loose brown hair from her face and fixed her eyes on him, a pale icy green in the falling twilight. "So, what made you decide to walk down here? Shouldn't you be off with the others?"

Her voice was normal enough as she said it, but Fili was beginning to know her well enough to hear the underlying note of irritation in her would-be casual tone. Her icy eyes bore into him, and he guessed that she had not missed the fact of his avoidance of her as she cocked an eyebrow, waiting for him to answer.

"I just…needed to think," he said, forcing himself to hold her gaze.

Her brow rose higher. "About?"

Fili took a deep breath, suddenly feeling his throat go dry. He had rehearsed what he was going to say to her all week, but now that she was here, standing in front of him, he found it hard, when all he wanted to do was just walk forward and brush his fingers across her skin, wanting to marvel at the softness of it, so smooth compared to his own, and press his lips against hers once more. But he kept himself from doing so, sucking in a deep breath and forcing those kinds of thoughts away. He had to be honest with her. She deserved the truth.

"About us," he said eventually, gauging her expression. There was no hint of surprise in her angular features, and he guessed that she had seen something like this coming. He added that to the growing list of things he liked about her; how he often underestimated her ability to really see people, and pick up on their emotions and mold herself to fit with them, relating to their thoughts and expressions with a certain sort of ease.

Fili paused, unsure of what exactly to say. This was all so new to him, and he had no idea where to begin. Fortunately, Alison seemed to know what he was going to say, and she helped him along.

"You don't have to say anything," she said, dropping his gaze and fiddling with a strand of her long hair. "I know what you've been going through, and I have something to say about it, too." She lifted her head, meeting his eyes again. "I know that this can never work, this…whatever, that's going on between us. You have a duty to this world, and I have a duty to mine. And I'll probably have to leave once this quest is finished, so…I think it's best if we just accept that things will never work out, to spare any feeling that comes in the future when we have to take our own separate paths. So…yeah." She bit her lip, awaiting his reaction.

"I agree," he said, after a slight pause. "There would be many implications for us if we were to start…something, and I don't want you to get involved in any of that. So, you're right. We should remain friends, nothing more."

She nodded, and there was another long pause in which they stared at each other for several stretched out moments, before Alison dropped her gaze first and bent to pick up her boots and tattered hunting jacket off the ground. Fili watched her with a heavy feeling in his chest, as if someone had tied a large stone to his heart and was weighing it down.

"We should get back to the campsite," she said, starting past him up the bank, but she stopped, confused, when he grabbed her wrist.

He met her eyes in the twilight, seeing his reflection portrayed back to him as he searched the pale green depths, knowing that what they were doing was the right thing to do, but disliking it all the same. "I do have feelings for you, you know," he said quietly, voicing aloud something he had been wishing to say for days now. The weight on his heart lifted a bit as the words came out, taking off some of the heaviness that he had been carrying around inside for all this time. "Don't think that I don't care about you. I do, Alison."

She smiled gently, her eyes lightening slightly at his words. "I do, too," she said softly. "And if we were anywhere but here, know that I would choose you all the same."

And with that, she pulled her wrist lightly out of his loose grasp, brushing her fingertips against his before making her way back to the camp, and leaving Fili alone in the twilight shadows as the stars winked into existence above him.

Alison had never hated rain so much in her life. In Texas, they were usually under drought most of the time, and she had cherished the precipitation whenever it rarely came. But now that she had been trekking across all of Middle-earth for the past three months, where she had experienced more rain than she ever had in her lifetime in only a few weeks, she was just about ready to start sacrificing to some sun gods for the sake of just being dry and warm for once.

It had been two days since her conversation with Fili, and she was kind of ticked that after spending so much time trying to bathe herself in the stream without feeling like hundreds of eyes were on her, it just now decided to rain, making her bath completely unnecessary. Oh, the irony.

But despite the discomfort and chill the rain brought, Alison was actually in quite a positive mood. After their serious talk by the stream, her and Fili had returned to somewhat normal, talking and teasing as they usually did, though now with something unspoken lying between them, a heavy curtain of truth that they could not hide behind any longer. Even though they had agreed not to start anything between them, Alison still felt some happiness at the reminder that he had told her he had feelings for her, and the thought seemed to buoy her up, though she was more glad about the fact that he was no longer avoiding her more than anything.

They were approaching the last peaks of the Misty Mountains steadily, and Alison figured today would finally be the day they reached them as Thorin pushed them on, further through the trees at the base of the peaks. As they wound their way through the compacted woods, Alison began to notice huge, moss-covered boulders interspersing among the greenery, and she knew they had to be close now.

It was nearing another evening when Alison found herself straggling along beside Thorin at the head of the group, using Maodus to hack away the bushes in her path; while the Dwarves were burly enough to walk through the undergrowth without getting snagged, Alison was much smaller than them, and she had to clear away as much brush as she could to avoid getting her braid or clothes tangled in the scratchy branches, much to her annoyance. Thorin looked at her from his place beside her, his expression half-amused, half-stony as he watched her blunder along through the foliage, swinging her sword wildly.

"I'm beginning to wonder whether these trees have caused you a personal offense," he said, watching her as she hacked at a particularly stubborn branch.

Alison shot him a look. "Oh, no," she replied sarcastically. "I just hold a serious grudge against all inanimate objects that are in my way."

One corner of his mouth turned up in a smirk at her joke, which Alison found herself strangely excited about. Usually when she cracked a joke around the Dwarf king he just gave her an unamused look and walked away, but she felt as if she were finally making progress with him now if he wasn't moving away from her.

They fell into silence, and Alison was suddenly reminded of one morning last week, when she had woken up after their first night down from the Carrock and had heard Thorin and Gandalf's voices talking from the edge of the clearing, having a discussion about Bilbo and the Arkenstone. Though their conversation had been brief, the memory had stuck with her, because she had recognized the name from the book. Of course, like everything else though, she had forgotten what exactly the Arkenstone was, but she remembered that it seemed to play an important role in the story, and was now curious to re-learn about it.

"So…" she said nonchalantly, keeping her voice low so the others behind them wouldn't hear her. Thorin looked to her warily at her sudden change of tone. "What's this whole deal with the Arkenstone?"

Thorin's expression didn't change, but his eyes tightened slightly at her question. "How do you know of the Arkenstone?"

She shrugged, unperturbed by his reaction. "I heard you and Gandalf talking about it last week. So what is it?"

"Why do you ask?" he replied, his brows lowering over his eyes suspiciously.

"Curiosity?" she offered, knowing she couldn't reveal her real reason for wanting to know about it; to help her fill in the gaps of the story, so she knew what was coming and could prepare them for it as best as she could, and maybe find a solution to the problem they would be faced with.

Thorin didn't respond for a moment, but eventually he spoke, seeming to choose his words carefully before speaking. "The Arkenstone is the King's Jewel," he said reluctantly. "The heart of the Lonely Mountain that was seen as a right to rule by my grandfather, Thrór. It was lost within the halls of the kingdom when Erebor fell, and now it lies unprotected there, either lost among the vast wealth or kept secret by Smaug."

Alison nodded interestedly, the stone still not ringing any bells in her head. "Does it, you know, do anything? Besides symbol the right to rule for the king?"

He hesitated, seeming to struggle with himself before continuing, as if he shouldn't be telling her this. "The Arkenstone is not only a sign of rule. There is an oath upon it, an oath that the seven Dwarf kingdoms took when it was first discovered. The oath was that it would be the uniting symbol of the Dwarves, and whoever wielded the King's Jewel could call upon the aid of the seven kingdoms, and they would be sworn to uphold their vow and come to the aid of the one who wields it should there be cause to."

"That's why you need Bilbo," Alison realized suddenly, comprehension dawning on her. "You need him to retrieve the Arkenstone. You plan to unite the seven Dwarf armies of the kingdoms and march on Erebor to reclaim it and kill the dragon. We're just the prelude to all of this; our quest isn't even really the big picture yet."

Alison was suddenly confused; she knew the Arkenstone was a part of the book, but the whole purpose behind it now seemed like something much, much larger. But she had to admit; Thorin's plan was pretty smart, and was definitely subtle so far.

Thorin nodded grudgingly at her words. "Yes, that is our purpose," he said. "Did you really believe thirteen Dwarves and a Hobbit could take on a dragon by ourselves?" he chuckled humorlessly. "Not even the warrior skills you possess would be much help against the might of Smaug, Miss Ashburne."

Alison shook her head, wondering how she did not see this bombshell coming; had she really forgotten the book that much in the time she had been here? But she chose not to go any further with that topic, instead saying, "Alison."

Thorin looked at her weirdly. "What?"

"It's 'Alison', not 'Miss Ashburne,'" she said. "I think we've known each other long enough now to stop using such formalities."

"But it's your name, isn't it?" he said, confused.

"Yeah, but it's my title," she replied. "My name is Alison. I call you by Thorin, not 'O Blessed King under the Mountain' or whatever; see how formal that is? It's weird, especially since we've known each other way more than only a few days now."

"I guess you're right…Alison," he said hesitantly, as if testing the word on his tongue, and she smiled.

"See? Much better!"

He shook his head at her words, smiling slightly, but Alison didn't mind. Finally, she had managed to get through to Thorin! She felt like marking this day down in history and making it a national holiday or something: 'The Day Thorin Oakenshield Got the Stick Out of His Arse' day, or something along the lines of that.

They stayed in amiable silence for the rest of the day as the rain pattered on, and when the light was close to failing, Alison noticed that the trees were beginning to space out again, allowing them small glimpses of the peaks that were practically on top of them through the trunks.

"We'll stop here for the night," Thorin called once they reached a somewhat sheltered clearing. "Glóin, try to find some dry twigs for a fire—" Thorin cut off abruptly, and suddenly he shouted something in Khuzdûl that made Alison nearly jump out of her skin.

He drew Orcrist quickly, staring ahead with a fierce scowl she recognized as his battle face, but she was confused as the rest of the Company drew their weapons behind them; Orcrist wasn't glowing, so it couldn't be Orcs, so what was…

Alison followed their gazes and started, raising Maodus instinctively as her eyes took in the scene before her. Through the rain, on the other side of the clearing, stood a figure, perched atop a medium-sized boulder, and Alison instantly recognized the profile of a man.

This by far was the most bizarre thing she had seen so far in Middle-earth; she had encountered Wizards, Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves, Goblins, Orcs, Wargs, practically any magical creature she could think of. But she suddenly realized with an odd twist in her gut that she had never, not once, laid eyes on another human like her upon her arrival in Middle-earth, and that freaked her out more than anything as she took in the distinctly human form before her.

He was tall, with broad shoulders but a lean torso, and he was shrouded in a black sort of cloak, which looked like a cross between a coat and a modern jacket that hung down to his knees and completely covered his arms, with the hood drawn low over the face, giving the appearance of a faceless shadow watching them. Everything Alison could see about the man was black, except for the pale skin of the hands she saw through the holes of his fingerless gloves; but besides that light flash of skin, everything else about him was dark, from his coat, gloves, pants, boots, and even the vast array of weapons on his belt she could make out from underneath the opening of his coat. A quiver of black-feathered arrows was strapped to his back, a black and silver-hilted sword at his waist, and he held a black wooden bow loosely in his hands in front of him, though it wasn't raised or loaded with an arrow. It just simply hung there, in his hands, as the hood tilted slightly, as if the face underneath was regarding them interestedly.

There was a tense moment of silence, where there was only the sound of the drumming rain on the leaves, until Alison heard a rustle from behind and Gandalf appeared in front of her and Thorin, Glamdring unsheathed and his staff raised threateningly.

"Who are you?" the Wizard demanded. "Declare yourself!"

The man stood motionless, and Alison found herself holding her breath anxiously as the man answered.

"And what concern of it is a Wizard, a Hobbit, thirteen Dwarves, and a woman's?" the man countered, and Alison felt a tingle down her spine. The voice certainly belonged to a man, though it was less deep than she expected, and it sounded vaguely British, underlined with something…older, almost ancient, his tone cold and arrogant.

Gandalf took a step forward. "It is my concern whether you want it to be or not," the Wizard said clearly. "These borders from the Carrock to Mirkwood are under the protection of a guardian already, and I can tell you now, son of Man, that he does not take kindly to poachers."

"I know this, Istari," the man said, almost in a bored tone, but his stiff posture showed him otherwise. "But I have been given permission to traverse these lands, while you have not. What are you doing in this territory?"

"Our business is our own," Gandalf replied, ejecting a note of steel into his voice. "You would be wise to move on, archer, and go about your own way. We have no need for trouble."

In a movement faster than Alison could follow, there was a sudden twang of a bow-string, and she felt something whizz past her ear, so close she could feel the air from it going past, and in the next second there was a startled yelp from behind her, and she spun around, seeing an arrow embedded into a tree trunk only a few inches away from Bilbo's white face. As Alison looked back to the man with wide eyes, she had the feeling that he could've made that shot go straight into the Hobbit's eye if he wanted, which terrified her and enthralled her in equal measure; how had he moved like that?

"I take orders from no one, Istari," the man said coldly, his bow-string still vibrating slightly from his shot. "Not even from great Wizards such as yourself."

Gandalf took another step forward, opening his mouth menacingly to respond, but in a split second another arrow was fitted to the bow-string, aiming at Bilbo again.

"Stay where you are," he ordered. "Or this next shot goes through your little companion's throat."

Alison felt her anger rise at the man's threat; nobody threatened Bilbo like that unless they wanted to be impaled on the end of her swords, and she was more than happy to demonstrate on this arrogant bastard.

She took an angry step forward, but Thorin pulled her back roughly. "Alison, no!" he hissed, trying to keep his voice down so the man wouldn't hear, but it didn't work.

"Alison?" the man repeated, his cold voice coloring with shock. "Alison Ashburne?" He lowered his bow slightly, and the hood turned to face Alison, still hidden in shadow. "You are Alison Ashburne?"

"Yeah, I am," she said defiantly, knowing that her attitude probably wasn't going to help their case much, but she couldn't force it down. "Why do you want to know?"

The man chuckled, and to her intense surprise, he replaced his arrow back into his quiver and lowered his bow again. "Interesting," he mused. "It was rumored that another Ashburne warrior had been summoned to Middle-earth, but, truly, this is too coincidental."

"What do you mean?" she demanded, breaking free from Thorin's grip and stepping up to Gandalf's side. "Who are you?"

The man didn't respond, only chuckled again, raising his pale hands and pushing back his hood. Alison felt a prickle of shock go through her at the man's appearance, because he didn't even look like a man at all.

He had to be only a few years older than her, maybe in his early twenties, and she felt a rush of familiarity at his face. She felt like she should know who this was, but it was a stubborn memory, flitting just out of her reach, and she wondered if she actually did recognize him at all, for she knew for certain she had never seen him before in her life, yet he was so familiar.

Like his hands, his skin was pale, and even from where she stood it looked smoother than anything, except for the puckered scar running from his right ear to the corner of his mouth, though even that looked pale in the fading light. Other than the scar, he was actually quite good-looking, with high cheekbones, an angular jaw, and blonde hair as fair as his skin tumbling down into his eyes, which were the most unusual part of his appearance, for they were the color of ebony; perhaps a shade lighter than his pupils, but the darkest pair of eyes she had ever seen nonetheless. She felt like screaming in frustration; she knew him, she did.

So why couldn't she remember him?

"Oh, come now, Alison," he said, his pale lips curling into a smile. "Surely you can recognize your own family? After all, we are ancestors."

Alison felt a sudden blow to her stomach, and she stared at him with wide eyes, wondering what he was talking about. Ancestors? What the hell was he—

"What do you mean?" Gandalf demanded, looking back and forth between him and Alison in confusion. "What are you saying?"

The man opened his mouth to respond, and before the words even came out of his mouth, it hit her like a lightning bolt, and a sense of dread and wonder shot through her with the force of a thousand volts. Oh, God, how—?

He smiled, the scar on his face rippling and revealing teeth that seemed to flash in the shadows of the night, his obsidian eyes glittering with an amused, almost eager sort of gleam as he answered.

"I am Johnathan Ashburne."



WHAT JUST HAPPENED. JOHNATHAN ASHBURNE?! Well, I did say there were some surprises coming up...;) And trust me, there are a lot more coming soon too, so just hold steady readers!

So, I kind of realized that all of what's been going on in the last several chapters was all pretty dramatic, so what better way to alleviate the tension than with a splash war? And I know everyone probably wants to throw a rock at my window now or something, because just after Alison and Fili kiss I make them not be together! Sorry bout that guys, but you know, Fili does have a point... Mwahahaha and now Johnathan Ashburne has joined the story! Oh, just wait until later lovelies, just you wait...

Anyway, thank you for reading another chapter! Y'all are the best readers ever, and your reviews are splendid! Please keep them coming:)

Thanks again, lovelies. Until next chapter...

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