The March of Time

19: Across the Wilderness

Hello, hello, and welcome back! I feel like it's been forever since I last posted, but it's only been a week...

But Chapter 19 is here, and I'm happy to say that this is the last "filler" chapter! DoS, here we come.

Anyway, here is Chapter 19! Hope y'all like!

Chapter Nineteen: Across the Wilderness

There was a moment of ringing silence, in which only the pattering rain could be heard on the leaves around them, continuing on unawares to the staggering situation the Company sheltering in the sparse woodlands had suddenly been thrust in to.

Alison could only stare, gaping, as the man, the guy claiming to be her ancestor, stood casually with his bow, grinning in an indulgent way, as if it was his job to run around telling people he was their supposedly long-dead family relation.

Finally, after several agonizing minutes of shocked silence, in which Alison could still not find her voice, Gandalf blinked, hard, and said, "That is impossible. Johnathan Ashburne is long departed from this world. He returned across the veil a thousand years ago."

The guy—Johnathan—merely grinned even more, seeming utterly relaxed after dropping this enormous bombshell on them. "That is true, Istari. But you know better than I do the mysterious workings of the Valar. After all, if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be here, and neither would my little descendant."

He fixed his fathomless eyes on Alison at this, and his eye contact was finally what goaded her into speech.

"You're lying," she said, trying not to reveal how unnerved she was from his proclamation. He raised a pale brow, still eyeing her with those dark eyes. "Hero or not, Johnathan Ashburne was a mortal. He would be dead by now; there's no way you can be him."

"I see you're still new to this world in some ways, little warrior," he said, smirking, and she bristled at his nickname and arrogant tone. "There are forces at work here you do not yet fully understand, that can do things beyond your mundane reasoning. The Valar are the prime example of this." He inclined his head to Gandalf slightly, a shred more respect coming into his look. "Your Wizard companion knows this as well as I."

Gandalf narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "Be that as it may, only a Dark power would be able to summon the dead back to life. As Alison so rightly said, Johnathan Ashburne was mortal, and he would be long dead…unless a force of Darkness had brought you back from a side of shadows that is not seen to us in life."

Johnathan continued to smirk, as if this were a highly amusing story he found engaging. "You think me a force of Evil, do you not, Istari? You believe that only a darker power can summon the dead, and that is true. But I was never dead. The Valar put me into a slumber, you see, a sleep that has lasted for generations. When I awoke, they told me that they had kept me alive so I may help the next Ashburne warrior that would need my assistance, and that person has to be Alison." He opened his arms widely in a gesture of bravado. "And here I am, at your humble service, my Lady."

There was a glint in his eyes as he said it, and Alison felt her irritation rise as she realized he seemed to be mocking her. "Why me, though?" she demanded, refusing to be deterred by this mysterious, albeit cocky guy that was barely a few years older than her. He raised his eyebrows questioningly as she went on. "Johnathan was the Second Hero; I'm the Seventh. Did you just skip everyone else in the middle or something?"

He cocked his head slightly, as if he were thinking. "That I do not know," he said eventually, fixing her with his dark gaze again, and she felt another tingle of familiarity she couldn't understand run through her. "Perhaps the Valar deemed the other Heroes' tasks as too unimportant to awaken me. But yours…" his lips curled in a smile again. "You must be doing something of great importance if the Valar called on me to assist you. So, once again, I offer you my service, Alison. As one blood relation to another."

His words stirred something in Alison, and she stayed silent, her throat suddenly going dry as Galadriel's words, which had been stuck in her head for days now, echoed once more in her mind. "Blood calls to blood."

For the second time that day, she was shaken to her core, and she looked at the man—Johnathan—with wide eyes, suddenly realizing what Galadriel's words meant. Blood calls to blood…she had to have meant Johnathan. She had to! And now here he was, standing before her, her own blood ancestor. It was true; what he said had to be true, if Galadriel's words confirmed it. He really was Johnathan Ashburne.

But a nagging suspicion crept into the back of her mind, and she tried to keep her expression neutral as she said, "If you're an Ashburne, what proof do you have? How do we know you're not some random human telling us lies?"

His smile grew wider at this. "You're wary of me," he stated, and Alison resisted the urge to roll her eyes and say Well no shit, Sherlock. Johnathan looked thoughtful for a second as he went on. "With good reason, I believe. This must be different for you, despite all of the things you have seen and done so far."

Suddenly a knowing look came to his face and he stepped forward, drawing the sword at his waist with a flash of movement Alison wouldn't have noticed at all unless Gandalf hadn't swept her behind him, Glamdring poised in his hand. The Dwarves behind Alison lurched threateningly at Johnathan as he stopped, holding his sword loosely in his hand and giving them all a disdainful look.

"Honestly, if I wanted to kill any of you, I would've done it by this point," he said, sniffing haughtily. He turned his gaze back to Alison, holding out his sword, and it took her a moment to process what she was seeing.

"Is that…a Hero blade?" she asked, moving out from behind Gandalf, clutching her own sword in her hand still. She could feel Gandalf and the Dwarves' tension behind her, but she ignored it, stepping closer to Johnathan and examining his sword.

"It is," he said as she neared. "This blade is named 'Anddrilri', and it was owned by Sendan Ashburne, one of the First."

Alison studied it, aware of the man before her and the Company at her back, all of their eyes on her as she hesitantly took the blade he offered out to her. The sword was heavier than hers, but still had that light, nice balance to it that didn't make it hard to handle. It was almost a mirror image of the Twin Blades, made of the same fine, silvery iron, curving to a sharp point at the end with the same style hilt of black and inlaid silver. The only differences were that his sword was longer and slightly broader than her own, the razor edges engrained with some sort of black steel that made it look even deadlier than the Twin Blades, and the hilt indeed read 'Anddrilri' instead of Natrem or Maodus.

She turned the blade over gently in her hand, looking at the butt of the hilt and feeling her breath catch in her throat; just like her swords, there was the imprint of the Ashburne crest on it—the same bare-branched ash tree, outlined by the sun behind it.

"This still doesn't prove anything," she said weakly, and she distantly wondered why she was being so stubborn; all of the signs were there, that he was in fact Johnathan Ashburne. But that same nagging feeling persisted, and a part of her still had some reservations about what exactly was going on as Johnathan took back the blade. "You could have stolen it for all I know."

"Is there anything that can be disproved, either?" he countered, sheathing his sword, and she stared at him, stumped by the question, for he was right; there was nothing to prove or disprove right now. As much as she hated to admit it, he had a point. There was nothing to argue against. She would just have to trust his word on this one, and believe that he was really Johnathan Ashburne. "And as for stealing, I am far from being a thief. Much like you I am guessing, this sword was given to me by Lord Elrond of Rivendell, some centuries ago."

"And 'Anddrilri,'" she said. "What does that mean?"

"It means 'from the fire of stars,'" he replied, touching the hilt lightly at his waist. "Fitting for a warrior, if I do say so myself."

Alison opened her mouth to reply, but before she could say anything, Thorin's voice cut across hers, and the Dwarf king marched to her side, Orcrist still in his hand.

"Enough of this," he said, his eyes hard and his face set into his trademark scowl. Johnathan raised his eyebrows as the Dwarf king stalked over, looking down at him, for he was several inches taller than the Dwarf and Alison, at least six foot.

"I beg your pardon, Master Dwarf?" Johnathan said, with an air of someone speaking to a small child, and Thorin's glare deepened at his condescending tone. Alison winced in pity, knowing that Johnathan had no idea who he was speaking to and just waiting for Thorin to get all high and mighty with him. But to her surprise, it never came, though Thorin did speak more harshly as he answered Johnathan.

"I don't know what is compelling you to play this charade, nor do I particularly care at this moment," Thorin said, his eyes boring into Johnathan's. "Ashburne or not, what I want to know is what you are doing in these parts, and how of all the land around us you seemed to know exactly where we'd be and sought us out. Do not think of us as daft, thick-headed fools, son of Man. I want to know what your purpose is in these lands, and how you came to be by us."

Johnathan's expression grew increasingly amused as Thorin went on, and when the Dwarf king finished his little tirade he chuckled humorlessly. "I have not come by many Dwarves during my travels here," he said. "But I never knew just how stubborn and suspicious your folk were until now."

"Spare me your comments," Thorin snapped. "Just answer the question."

Alison saw Johnathan's smirk widen, and the man lifted one of his broad shoulders in a shrug. "Fate? Coincidence? Take your pick. I am merely here as a guardian, as well; a protector of the protector, if you wish." His dark eyes slid to Gandalf as he said this, and Alison looked back and forth between the two in confusion, wondering what that look was about; Gandalf remained expressionless, but she saw the Wizard's eyes narrow infinitesimally at Johnathan's words, his frown deepening.

The clearing fell into a tense silence once more, and Alison vaguely noticed that the rain was beginning to let up as she looked around in the near-darkness, seeing the Company trading anxious and suspicious looks with each other. This did not go unnoticed by Johnathan, either, as he said, "You still do not trust my words. I cannot blame you; I would feel the same way if I were in your position. But it is the truth. If you wish to think things through with one another, then do so. I'll wait here."

He went back to the boulder he had been perched on earlier and lounged against it, flicking his pale hair out of his face and extracting a small knife from his belt, which he then used to pick dirt out from underneath his fingernails as the Company stared at him warily.

He looked up from underneath his dripping bangs as the Company made no signs of moving yet, and he waved his knife at them in a shooing motion. "Go on. Have your little council discussion. I'll be in this exact spot when you return. Promise."

Alison's mind was reeling so much her head was beginning to throb, but she managed to say, "He's right. Come on, we need to talk about this…whatever this is."

And with a last look at Johnathan's smirking face, she turned and made her way back into the shelter of the trees, hearing the heavy sounds of the Dwarves' footfalls following after her. She walked until she thought they were a safe distance away from being overheard and stopped, waiting for the rest of the Company to join her as her thoughts tumbled and swirled out of control.

She hadn't been this disoriented or staggered since her arrival in Middle-earth and learning that she was meant to join the quest to Erebor, and it was not a pleasant feeling at all. As much as she didn't want to believe it, she had a bad feeling that Johnathan was telling the truth; Galadriel's words and his sword were two very big indicators that this wasn't a lie, and after all she had done in Middle-earth—being summoned by the Valar, joining a Company of Dwarves, a Hobbit, and a Wizard, almost getting eaten by trolls, being hunted by a pack of Orcs, meeting Elves, fighting goblins, flying on Eagles—and knowing all that she was going to do in the future, his story didn't seem all that implausible, which just made her head hurt even worse.

When all the Company had reached where she was standing, Thorin stormed in after them, his expression harder than the mountain range looming in front of them. "What in Durin's name is going on?" he demanded, his icy eyes looking from Alison to Gandalf. "Do you actually believe what this Man is saying?"

"It is not entirely unfathomable," Gandalf said uncertainly, and Alison noticed that the Wizard had sheathed his sword, which she took as a good sign. "The Valar's plans are shrouded from the eyes of those of us in this world, and who knows what their intentions really are?" The Wizard sighed, shaking his head wearily. "I believe that Johnathan Ashburne is who he says he is; as for the manner of how he got here, and his true purpose of his reveal to us, I cannot say."

"It seems like a load of rubbish to me," Dwalin growled. "We already have one Ashburne warrior, why would we need a second one?"

"Does this mean our quest is too dangerous for just one Hero?" Ori asked worriedly, and Alison felt a flicker of irritation and worry as a new thought occurred to her.

Why did they need a second Hero? Was she not good enough? Did the Valar not trust her to save the quest, or the line of Durin? Did they think she was going to fail—or worse, die—which is why they called upon Johnathan to help them? And why was he merely slumbering in Middle-earth in the first place? Why not send him back to the mortal world after his quest was over?

The thoughts kept coming, faster and faster, making her feel panicked and queasy, and she couldn't speak, her throat squeezing painfully as the panic threatened to overtake her again.

"Of course not," Fili said. "The Valar trust in Alison to help us, and she will. I don't see a reason for another Ashburne to join the quest. I think he's just a normal Man, deluded into believing that he's a long-lost warrior meant to help us."

"That doesn't explain how he knew where to find us," Balin said. "Or how he knew Alison on sight or his sword. I think he's telling the truth."

"But he didn't recognize Alison on sight," Kili pointed out. "He only knew it was her after he heard Thorin say her name. I agree with Fili; he's probably just some crazy old coot lost in the mountains and he decided to have some fun with the first people he stumbled upon, which unfortunately, is us."

"No," Alison piped up, trying not to let her voice sound so squeaky from panic, and all eyes turned to her, seeming to have forgotten she was standing with them. "I think Johnathan is really an Ashburne. As for how he found us, or if what he says about him slumbering is true, I don't know. But he's an Ashburne. I know he is."

She couldn't say what made her conviction so strong that it was him; what Galadriel had said, surely, but there was something else, an internal feeling in her gut, almost, that told her it was true, that he was her ancestor. Then she wondered if that made him like her great-great-great-great grandfather or something, which was so creepy to think about she put it out of her mind instantly.

"How can you be so sure?" Thorin asked her, his eyes boring into hers; a few months ago, she would've quailed under the ferocity of his gaze, but now she faced him straight-forward, refusing to be daunted; he may be the king, but she knew that she was right. That man was Johnathan Ashburne.

She opened her mouth, ready to argue that she just was, but she knew Thorin was never going to take her seriously if she just made up a lame excuse. This was far too serious for that, and it suddenly hit her why Thorin was being so distrustful and harsh; he was afraid.

She had always known he had some reservations about allowing her to join the Company, and that he feared what her presence meant for them and their quest. But now he seemed to be thinking along the lines of Ori, though he would never say it aloud; allowing a second warrior to join the quest meant that this was far more dangerous than he would have imagined, and he was frightened at what the end would be for all of them if the Valar kept trying to interfere. He was afraid, and Alison knew that she had to be honest with him. She had to tell him what Galadriel had said; not all of it, but just enough to convince him that Johnathan had to come with them, for all their sakes, no matter if he liked it or not.

She took a deep breath, meeting the Dwarf king's gaze head-on. "I'm sure…because it was foretold to me, by the Lady Galadriel."

Thorin blinked, taken aback by her proclamation, while the Company looked on with varying degrees of wonder and bafflement. Gandalf had looked to her sharply at the mention of Galadriel, and it was to him and Thorin she directed her next words, trying not to feel like she was in a spotlight.

"It happened in Rivendell," she said, pulling at the cuffs of her jacket nervously. "She…she came to me, when I was alone, and she said…'Blood calls to blood.' I didn't know what she meant at the time, but now…I think she was talking about Johnathan. He came here because of me, because we're…blood relations or something, and he was meant to find me. That's why I know how he found us, and why."

"And you kept this to yourself?" Thorin said sharply, but then shook his head as she opened her mouth, holding up a hand. "Never mind; it doesn't matter right now. Are you sure this is what she meant? Did she say anything else?"

"I…no," she said, swallowing back her former words. She didn't want to share anything else the she-Elf had told her, feeling like it was her burden, and hers alone, though Thorin's eyes narrowed, as if he knew what she had been about to say. "She told me nothing else of importance. But I know now this is what she meant. Who else in Middle-earth could have the same blood as me if not Johnathan? It makes sense."

"Alison is right," Gandalf said, fixing his piercing gaze on her shrewdly, as if he too suspected she was keeping some of Galadriel's words to herself. "He is Johnathan Ashburne, the Second Hero. There is no other explanation, though this problem still troubles me greatly."

"So what do we do?" Bofur asked. "He says he's meant to help Alison, but if she's meant to help us…"

He trailed off, and the Company all looked at each other anxiously, thinking the same thing Alison was.

"Then he's supposed to come on the quest with us," she finished, but the words were barely out of her mouth before Thorin was already shaking his head.

"No," he said. "I will not allow it. There is something about that Man I do not trust, and I am not bringing him on a quest with us, a quest that is sacred to our people. I have already allowed you to come, Alison, but not him. Something tells me it is not right, and I will not jeopardize this quest for the sake of some ancestor of yours claiming he is working under the Valar with no proof."

"That is so hypocritical," Alison shot back, not believing what she was hearing. Thorin raised his eyebrows as she continued. "You let me join the quest without a shred of proof I was who I said I was, and now you're using that argument to not let Johnathan join us?"

"I did have proof when you joined us," Thorin replied stonily. "Even though you chose your own path, fate reasserted itself until you had joined us once more. That was all the proof I needed to know that you had some role to play in this."

"But isn't that what Johnathan is doing, too?" Alison didn't know why she was arguing so forcefully about this, but there was…something inside of her, telling her that this had to be done. Johnathan had to come on the quest with them. She believed it. "I mean, of all the land in this world, he ends up exactly where we are. That's pretty coincidental, don't you think? Something almost like fate."

Thorin said nothing, only glowered, and Alison knew she had him cornered. "He comes with us," she said. "As weird as this is, he's my family, Thorin. He's like me, and the Valar sent him to find me for a reason. I'm not going to ignore that."

"Alison—"

"Thorin, why are you so against this—"

"I agree with Alison," Dwalin interrupted, and Thorin and Alison turned to face him, along with the rest of the Company.

"Thank you, Dwalin," she said in exasperation. "Good to know someone sees any sense around here—"

"To an extent," the burly Dwarf continued, cutting her off, and she stopped abruptly, staring at him in confusion. "If this Johnathan fellow thinks he is to come with us, then we'll let him. But he doesn't know about the quest, and I see no reason to tell him. And we need someone to lead us over these mountains, someone who is knowledgeable about these lands and can lead us to supplies. Er, no offense, Mr. Gandalf," he said, glancing at the Wizard, but Gandalf merely waved his hand, urging him on. "But once we are over the mountains…"

He looked pointedly around at them all, and Alison knew what he was implying with a spark of anger. "You mean we'll give him the slip," Balin said, sounding thoroughly impressed and shocked, as if he were surprised that Dwalin of all people should come up with that plan. Dwalin nodded as the others grumbled in agreement.

"I like it," Thorin said, and Alison turned on him, suddenly outraged.

"Are you serious?" she said. "Thorin, this is low. We can't just stab him in the back if he's trying to help us—"

"I don't want to do it anymore than you do, Alison," Thorin said, meeting her gaze calmly. "But it must be done if we are to keep our quest a secret. You know now what's at stake. We can't afford to trust anyone we know nothing about, and unfortunately, Johnathan falls into that category."

Alison shook her head, completely incredulous by the notion of the Dwarves even thinking of such a low blow. But the rational part of her, the part that still held some doubt about Johnathan's purpose, agreed with him; this quest was theirs, and theirs alone. There was no mention of Johnathan joining their quest before, and she knew for sure he wasn't in the book. So why was he there?

When she didn't say anything, Thorin looked around at the Dwarves, Bilbo, and Gandalf seriously. "I agree to Dwalin's plan. We'll have to figure out the rest of it once we are out of the mountains, for I suspect he's getting suspicious of how long we've been gone now. Are we all in agreement?"

The Company all nodded, even Bilbo and Gandalf, though grudgingly, as if they didn't entirely approve of the plan, either. Thorin met Alison's eyes again. "What about you, Alison?" he said. "Will you agree to not tell him anything, and will you agree to leave him behind when the time calls for it?"

Alison nodded stiffly, feeling her gut clench at the prospect. She felt like she was suddenly being stretched between the Company and Johnathan; she would remain with the Company when the time came, but now knowing that Johnathan, her ancestor, was meant to help her, she felt guilty for what she would have to do. But it had to be done; for the sake of the quest, it had to be done.

"Good," Thorin said, though he still eyed her carefully. "Then let's get back."

He led the way back through the trees, and night had truly fallen by this point, making it hard to see through the woods, though the rain had finally stopped, leaving only wet foliage behind as they trekked back to the clearing.

When they re-entered the clearing, it was to find Johnathan lounging in the exact place they had left him, trying to balance his knife on his palm and looking utterly bored.

"There you are," he drawled, not looking up from his task as they stepped out of the tree-line, the knife tip balanced precariously on his hand. "I was beginning to wonder if you had left without me. I'm glad you didn't; my poor little heart probably would've broken."

Hearing how cold and arrogant his voice was again made Alison start to wonder why she had stood up for him, but there was no time to dwell on it as he stood up from the boulder, twirling his knife with a flourish and replacing it back into his belt. "So, what all did you decide?"

"We have agreed to let you come with us," Thorin said, meeting Johnathan's gaze. "As long as you help us cross these lands and lead us somewhere we can find provisions."

Johnathan nodded. "I can do that," he said, his dark eyes nearly being swallowed by the gloom around them. "Though I think your Wizard companion should be able to help, as well."

Thorin said nothing to this last part, only nodded. "Very well," he said stiffly, and even though they had a plan now, Alison knew the Dwarf king didn't like the Second Hero or the role he would play one bit. Thorin made to move away, but Johnathan's voice stopped him in his tracks.

"You know, you still haven't told me what it is you are doing." Thorin turned to face Johnathan slowly, his face carefully blank as he said, "Oh?"

Johnathan scrutinized him with unreadable eyes. "Obviously you're the leader of this merry little band of Dwarves, yet you still haven't said what it is you're doing traveling with my descendant, a Hobbit, and a Wizard. This must be something of great importance for such a strange company to embark on."

"Indeed," Thorin replied flatly. Johnathan waited for the Dwarf king to continue, but when it was obvious that he wasn't going to talk, he only sighed dramatically.

"All right then," he said. "I see I'll be kept in the dark on this one. But don't expect me to play oblivious forever…uh…what's your name?" he said, looking at Thorin questioningly, and Alison remembered that Johnathan had not yet met the Dwarves.

"Thorin," Thorin said cautiously, obviously waiting for some spark of recognition from the man, but Johnathan only nodded, seeming to not know Thorin's name, much to their relief. Thorin quickly went through the rest of the Company, rattling off their names at such a speed that Johnathan looked quite lost once he had finished.

"Well, excellent." Johnathan said after the rushed introduction, regaining his wits, and he clapped his hands together, the sharp sound snapping in the heavy, quiet air around them. "Now that we can all pretend to be friends, let's get a fire started and find some food, then we'll sleep for the night and begin our climb first thing in the morning."

He brushed past Thorin, who looked highly affronted that Johnathan had given orders when he was the leader, but the Dwarf king only set his jaw and glowered after him, shooting a pointed glare at Alison as if saying Your ancestor, your problem. Deal with it.

Sighing, she walked after Johnathan, wondering why of all the Heroes of her line, the Valar had to stick her with the cocky, puffed up one that walked around like he owned the place and had more mystery to him than she liked. As she passed the Company, she could hear Thorin relaying Johnathan's orders in a grudging tone, as if he were trying to swallow a mouse, and she felt a faint flicker of amusement as she continued on to Johnathan.

She came up behind him as he dug around for some dry twigs and joined him in his search, clearing her throat as she did so.

"Ah, the little warrior," he said, examining a twig before dropping it back to the damp ground again and sparing her a cursory glance. "You know, I was thinking earlier that we should just call each other cousins. Seeing as you're technically my great-great—"

"Yeah, cousins sounds fine," she said hastily, not wanting to be reminded of that weirdness again, and he chuckled under his breath as he picked up another twig and held onto it for the fire.

A heavy silence settled between them, and Alison began to feel increasingly pressured and awkward as it carried on. But what was she supposed to say? Oh, hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but we're ancestors a thousand years apart from each other stuck in a world that is not our own, so what's up? How was your centuries-long slumber by the way? Any cool dreams? Because that would lead to a great conversation.

"Your Dwarf friend, Thorin," he said, breaking the silence, and Alison looked over to him as she picked up a usable stick. He poked at the ground, his damp fair hair falling into his face, and she watched the scar on his right cheek ripple with the movement of his mouth in interest. "He doesn't like me much."

He looked over at her, his shadowy eyes blending perfectly into the night, and she tore her own eyes away from his scar, not wanting to be rude. "To be honest, he doesn't really like anybody he first meets," she said awkwardly, trying not to be intimidated by him, but it was hard. It was obvious he was a highly skilled warrior, and he had been in Middle-earth far longer than she had; compared to him, she was beginning to feel like a blundering fool.

Johnathan smirked dryly. "Obviously," he agreed. There was a slight pause, then he said, "And what about you, Alison? Do you share the same attitude as Thorin when it comes to me?"

Alison continued her search for twigs, choosing not to answer straight away. She could sense him staring at her expectantly, and she sighed, suddenly feeling mentally drained and exhausted from all that had happened that day.

"I don't know," she answered honestly, not meeting his eyes. "This is just all…too much for me right now. I have no idea what to think anymore, about you, about this situation…just everything, really."

She looked at him then to see his reaction, but he only looked thoughtful, nodding his head slowly as he twirled a twig absent-mindedly in his long, pale fingers. "Understandable," he said. "I felt the same way you are right now when I first landed in Middle-earth. Though I must say," he looked to her with a slight grin. "You seem to handle strange things a lot better than I could."

She grinned slightly back, though she doubted that very much; she had spent her first day in Middle-earth running away from Gandalf and crying about how she wasn't a warrior and wanted to go home. That didn't seem like she could handle things very well.

His words and her thoughts about her arrival struck a memory within her, though, and she looked back to Johnathan curiously. "You were the Hero that fought in the War of the Last Alliance, right?" she asked. "You were the one that fought against the forces of Sauron, because of those rings he made. That's why you were called to Middle-earth."

"Brushing up on a little history, I see?" he replied casually, but Alison saw a shadow pass over his face, and his scar stood out even whiter against his skin as his jaw clenched. Wondering if she had crossed some sort of line, she could only stare as he stood up, holding his bundle of dry sticks for the fire and regaining his composure a bit before he answered her.

"Yes, I was the one who was called upon for the War," he said. "I fought alongside the Elves and Men in battle against the Dark Lord over a thousand years ago." He looked haunted as he said it, his dark eyes cast into deep shadow and a muscle twitching in his jaw, making his scar jump out vividly in the dark. "That's how I got this," he pointed to the scar, and Alison stared at it in fascination despite herself. "From a particularly nasty Orc, I might add. If the King of Gondor's son, Isildur, had not been there…"

Another shadow passed over his face, and Alison instantly felt guilty; it was obvious this topic still pained him to talk about, and she felt awful for bringing it up now. "I'm sorry," she started. "I shouldn't have—"

He waved his hand dismissively, cutting her off. "Don't worry," he said. "I don't care anymore. It's all in the past, and there's no changing it."

She nodded, biting her lip and straightening up as well; she could hear the Dwarves behind her issuing out watches and squabbling over who gets the driest patches of ground to sleep on, and she inwardly sighed, feeling like a babysitter as she heard Dwalin and Dori get into it. She knew the lack of supplies and the increasingly tough terrain were getting to them, and she hoped they could find provisions soon before they all started strangling each other.

"We should get back," she said, jerking her head towards the Dwarves, and he nodded. She began to make her way over to the arguing Company when Johnathan's words held her back.

"You seem like an interesting girl, Alison Ashburne," he said, and she looked at him, expecting to see another mocking gleam in his eye, but to her surprise she couldn't find it. His face looked more genuine than she would've thought capable as he went on. "I'm curious to see what your quest will do to you when it ends."

And with that, his smirk was back in place, and he moved past her back to the campsite with long, languid strides.

Alison stood alone for a few moments, wondering what he could've meant. The way he had said it…it sounded so ominous, as if he thought something bad was going to happen to her. But she shook her head, trying to squash that thought down. Of course he wasn't being all cryptic; he was just expressing curiosity.

But as Alison made after him towards the Company, she couldn't deny the warning feeling building in her chest, and she wondered if inviting him along would cost her after all.

"You know, this is a pretty strange thing for a Dwarf to say," Kili said as he hugged the rock wall beside him, trying to walk on the ledge they were currently on without falling off. "But I'm really sick of mountains at the moment."

"Technically it's not a mountain, it's a canyon," Alison said from behind him, making her voice sarcastic and drawling to mimic Johnathan's, and Kili snickered as they continued along the canyon ledge.

It was their third day in the last of the Misty Mountains, and if Alison had to guess, she figured they would be out of the bordering mountain range by tomorrow, and then they would be making their way to Mirkwood. Johnathan had been leading them steadily over the mountains in that time, and if Alison had thought Thorin was a complicated person to handle, it was nothing compared to Johnathan.

The guy was completely maddening; where Thorin would just opt to walk in silence and brood most of the time, Johnathan never shut up. And with his snide comments and arrogant attitude, Alison was seriously considering just pushing him off the ledge and letting Gandalf lead the rest of the way. It was completely infuriating, and it angered her even more because she knew that this was her fault; she was the one who had pushed for Johnathan to come, and she wondered, not for the first time, what had made her choose that stupid decision as Johnathan's drawling voice came floating back to her from his position at the head of the Company, where he seemed to be talking about the best way to catch fish in the mountain streams to Dwalin, who looked about ready to punch the man's lights out even though he was a good half-foot shorter than the Ashburne.

Though Alison's moral instincts told her that severing ties with Johnathan was wrong, that she shouldn't do it, a part of her had to admit that she would not be sorry to see him gone. She had never had a tolerance for arrogant people, and Johnathan was the epitome for everything pretentious. And with the swathing layers of mystery around him, Alison was beginning to feel uneasy, as well; something about this didn't add up, though she didn't know what, and that same nagging feeling in her gut had started up again as he led them on.

But she had to admit, he made a good guide. Whereas Thorin had estimated it would take them a week to cross the last of the mountain range, Johnathan had cut that time down in half by leading them through the mountains, instead of over them, which is how they came to be walking in a canyon rather than struggling up the steep slopes themselves. And another perk was that he knew exactly where to find food and water and shelter. Though it was nothing near to the now-luxuries of what they had before, they still had a sheltered place to sleep every night and some food and water to keep them going the next day, which was more than they could've hoped for.

As the day wore on, the wind throughout the canyon began to pick up considerably, and it brought with it the crisp smell of autumn and a sharp chill that hinted summer was very nearly over, which did not sit with Alison well at all. Texas was always hot and humid no matter what, and the cold was something she hated even more than the rain.

But now that autumn was for sure on the horizon, her gut began to twist as they trekked on through the canyon, her mind straying to thoughts of the Durin's Day deadline, and all they would have to go through until they reached the Lonely Mountain. And then, when they made it to Erebor, there was still the problem of Smaug and the Battle of Five Armies and everything, which just made her feel worse. So far, she hadn't come up with anything yet that could help them avoid the brunt of those challenges, and she was beginning to think that maybe there was just no way around them, and they would have to take their chances and hope they came out alive.

Which was real reassuring.

By the time dusk was settling, thick clouds had covered the twilight sky, but they were fluffy and light, nothing like rain clouds, which Alison took some comfort in. She vaguely noticed that she had begun to tear at her nail-beds again throughout the day, and now her fingers were raw and sore from the constant picking, a bad habit she had found herself doing every time she was nervous or stressed.

They climbed out of the canyon just as the sun sank behind the clouds, and they made their way up a small slope until they reached a little shelf tucked into the side of it. Behind them was the canyon, and to their sides was the bare rock of the slope, though to their left was more of a treacherous stretch of stone spotted with boulders that they would have to go through tomorrow. On the other side of the small canyon they had just crossed was the first ridge-line they had climbed over when they had entered, blocking the view of the Carrock and the larger Misty Mountains behind it from where they were standing. It was a pretty bleak place, but hopefully they would be out of it by tomorrow, for Alison was beyond done with mountains and climbing by this point.

"We'll camp here," Thorin said, once everyone had joined him on the ledge, and they nodded wearily, exhausted from their arduous trek that day.

"I'll go get some food," Johnathan said. "I saw some tracks on the way up here, though it's hard to say what it was without the light. You two," he pointed at Óin and Glóin, who looked disgruntled as the man spoke to them. "Get a fire going for the food. I'll be back within the hour."

Thorin looked up to the sky as Johnathan ordered the two Dwarves, and he looked like he was uttering a silent prayer to his forefathers to lend him the strength to not murder Johnathan on the spot as the warrior gave orders for the rest of the Company to get some rest and whatnot, which Alison found highly amusing.

A few minutes later Johnathan had taken his bow and disappeared down the slope, his movements as lithe and quiet as a jungle cat. Alison felt a flicker of envy as she watched him go, wondering how he could move so quickly and gracefully, like a true warrior. She had been comparing herself to Johnathan a lot lately, and even though she knew she was being self-deprecating, she was still jealous of just how…confident and heroic he was. It was like everything she wasn't, he was, and though it was stupid and petty, she disliked him for it, and she couldn't help wondering if the Valar had seen she was weak and useless and instead called on Johnathan, which was why he was here.

The thought left a bitter taste in her mouth, and she turned away from the spot where she had watched Johnathan disappear and walked back to the others, seeing Óin and Glóin already starting a fire with some spare twigs they had scrounged up in the canyon and a couple flint stones.

When the fire was ablaze, the Company all sat around it in silence, warming their hands from the flames as the night grew steadily cooler around them. After a few minutes though, Dwalin spoke up from his place on the ground, looking around at them all.

"All right, I've had enough," he said. "That mouthy whelp of a warrior is getting on my last nerve. First thing we do once we get out of the mountains is knock him out, tie him to a tree, and make a run for it. I'll even be the one to do the honors if no one else wants to."

"I don't think that will be necessary," Thorin said, though he looked faintly amused. "But I agree; there is something I do not trust about this man, and this quest is ours alone. We need to sever all ties with him and continue on. We have entered August, and Durin's Day is now not that much farther away. We need to keep moving."

He looked at Alison as he said this, as if expecting her to start arguing again, but she stayed silent, only nodding. By this point, as she thought about what lay ahead, she found herself not really caring about the whole Johnathan-situation anymore. All she wanted to do was focus on her own goals, and those goals consisted of her trying to find a way that would keep all of them alive until the end of their journey. Whether Johnathan came with them or not, she would find a way to save them all, even if the Valar didn't trust in her abilities anymore; she would save them, and she would prove herself once more.

She tuned out of the rest of the Company's hushed conversation, tracing a finger through the rocky sediment on the ground as she let her thoughts wander. She wondered when everything had become so confusing for her. After their escape from the Orcs on the cliff-side, she had felt surer of herself, and she had found a new confidence within her that had given her the courage she needed to believe that she could change the outcome of the story, that she could help them complete this quest with no tragic ending. But Johnathan's arrival had thrown all of that out the window, and now she was back to square one: confused, uncertain, doubtful, and lost in this great world that she didn't even come from. She felt like the Valar were playing some sort of cosmic joke on her, laughing at her for ever thinking she would be the one to aid the Company in victory. She was nothing more than a mortal girl, pretending to be a warrior until the true Hero would awaken.

She was pulled out of her self-wallowing when she heard crunching footsteps from below the ledge they were seated on, and the Company all shot to their feet instantly, drawing their weapons as someone stomped out the fire with their boot, plunging them into darkness as the sound of scattering rocks came closer.

A few seconds later, Johnathan hurtled out of the shadows and clattered to a stop on the ledge, his bow in one hand and Anddrilri in the other, his dark eyes wide and his chest heaving from the exertion of running uphill.

"We need to move," he said, and all traces of arrogance or sarcasm were gone from his voice; his tone was sharp and commanding and serious, and his face was graver than she had seen it yet. "Now, come on!"

"What are you talking about?" Thorin said suspiciously, but as Alison watched, Orcrist, unsheathed and in his hand, was starting to glow faintly blue, as were Glamdring and Bilbo's sword.

"Thorin!" Alison said, pointing to his sword with Natrem's tip, and the Dwarf king looked down, his eyes widening slightly.

He cursed in Khuzdûl as Johnathan said, "There's an Orc pack scouting on the ridge across from us, astride Wargs. And they don't look very happy."

Thorin nodded curtly, just as a Warg howl tore through the night, echoing around the mountain canyon and sending a shiver of fear down Alison's spine as she gripped her swords, remembering the last time she had faced down the Orcs just a few weeks ago.

"Move!" Thorin commanded, and they did, sprinting across the slope towards the boulders on their left as more Wargs joined in with the first, creating a cacophony of snarls and howls. They had caught the scent.

Bilbo Baggins, what have you gotten yourself into? Bilbo thought to himself as he crouched behind a particularly large boulder, shivering slightly from the chilly wind and the thrills of fear running through him.

Behind the cloud cover, the moon shone full and bright, providing some light for Bilbo to see by as his eyes scanned the canyon and the ridge across from them warily, searching for any signs of the Orcs pursuing them. He had no doubt that it was Azog, who had obviously followed them since their escape from the Misty Mountains and now sought revenge with a steely determination, and Bilbo knew that the Pale Orc would not stop hunting them until they were all dead; which was why, much to his disliking, he had been voted to scout for any signs of the hunting party.

Of course, it had been Johnathan Ashburne's idea that Bilbo should go, and to his intense shock and displeasure, Gandalf had agreed with the human warrior, and so Bilbo had gone to scout. He was quite irritated that Gandalf had listened to Johnathan; the Man had been with them for not more than a week, and he already acted like he was the new leader of the Company. He could understand why the Dwarves wanted him gone so badly; he was arrogant and too mysterious, and there was something about him Bilbo could not bring himself to trust, which surprised him greatly. Usually he always tried to see the best in people, but with Johnathan Ashburne…there was no best, to put it bluntly. And that bothered him greatly.

Suddenly, on the ridge before him, Bilbo saw a powerful Warg lunge into view, its muscles rippling under its snow-white pelt, and Bilbo could imagine the glowing, feral eyes and rancid breath even from where he was crouched, and he shivered even more as he instantly recognized the figure atop the Warg.

Azog was crouched low over his steed, his pale skin glowing silver in the moonlight and bringing to light his deep scars, his mace-arm glinting wickedly as the Orc bent low, as if searching for a track. As Bilbo watched, more Orcs joined Azog on top of the ridge, astride their own Wargs, and Bilbo crouched down even lower as one of the beasts turned its head toward him, sniffing.

Subconsciously, Bilbo's hand strayed to his waistcoat pocket, where he could feel the light weight of the ring pressing into his side as he slunk down even further. He thought about taking it out and putting it on, to use its incredible powers to make himself invisible so he could slip away, unseen, but suddenly the Orc pack snarled excitedly and took off down the ridge, away from Bilbo.

He took his hand from his pocket, feeling vaguely disappointed that he didn't get to use his ring, the magical trinket he had won from the creature Gollum deep in the heart of the Misty Mountains all those days ago. It had proved quite useful in the past, and it was an extraordinary feeling, to be invisible to the world and know that he could do almost anything if the ring was on. How extraordinary…

Bilbo peeped his head back over the boulder, checking to make sure all of the Orcs were gone before going back to the others. As he poked his head up, he noticed with relief that the Orcs had gone, though his limbs suddenly felt seized as he saw something immensely worse before him.

Across the ridge, where the Orcs had just disappeared down, there was another creature, and Bilbo knew he had never seen such a beast in all his life. It was an enormous bear-like monstrosity, with bristled black fur and huge paws the size of dinner platters that stomped the ground as it lumbered around, sniffing the spot where the Orcs had just been. The bear lifted its muzzle into the air and stared off to where the Orcs had gone, and its lips curled back in a growl, a deep-throated sound that Bilbo could hear from across the small canyon as he saw its finger-length fangs gleam bone-white.

Not daring to breathe, Bilbo slowly crept down from his spot behind the boulder as quietly as he could, not even wanting to risk pausing to take the ring out of his pocket but making sure the giant creature wouldn't see him all the same.

Once he was in the clear, he stopped and looked back, seeing the bear lumber along the ridge-line, presumably looking for the Orcs, and Bilbo did not wait around any longer. He turned and sprinted back down to the clearing the Company was sheltered in, below the boulders on one of the secluded mountain-paths Johnathan had found.

The Company looked up anxiously as Bilbo tumbled into the clearing, his breaths coming in short, sharp bursts from the exertion and the fear pulsing through him.

"How close is the pack?" Thorin demanded, stepping close to Bilbo as the Hobbit attempted to catch his breath.

Bilbo shook his head, feeling a trickle of sweat run down the back of his neck. "Too close. A couple leagues, no more." He sucked in a breath, urging his heart to stop pounding so hard. "But that's not the worst of it."

"Have the Orcs picked up our scent?" Dwalin asked, gripping the handle of one of his battle-axes tightly.

Bilbo shook his head quickly. "Not yet, but they will. We have another problem."

"Did they see you?" Gandalf broke in, and Bilbo looked to him, still trying to recover his breath. Gandalf misinterpreted Bilbo's silence and the Wizard's eyes widened. "They saw you."

"No, that's not it—"

"Oh, good," Gandalf said in relief. He turned to the Company at large. "See, what did I tell you? Quiet as a mouse. Excellent burglar material."

The Dwarves all started grumbling in agreement, but Bilbo saw Johnathan, standing near the back of the group, stare at him intently at the Wizard's words, his dark eyes sparking with interest. Choosing to ignore this, but feeling uneasy now, Bilbo spoke over the Dwarves, trying to make them understand what was going on.

"Will you just listen?" he said over the clamor, and the Dwarves stopped talking immediately at his sharp tone, staring at him in surprise; Bilbo rarely ever raised his voice, but their lack of listening skills was making his temper short. "I'm trying to tell you there is something else out there!"

The Dwarves froze, and Bilbo looked to Gandalf, seeing the Wizard's face pinch into a grave expression. "What form did it take?" Gandalf asked seriously. "Like a bear?"

Bilbo stared at the Wizard, wondering how he could possibly know that. "Ye—yes. But bigger, much bigger."

All the Dwarves, Alison, and Johnathan turned to look at Gandalf as well. "You knew about this beast?" Bofur asked, but Gandalf didn't reply. Bilbo watched as Gandalf and Johnathan shared a significant look, but before Bilbo could ask about it, Bofur said, "I think we should double-back."

"We'll be run down by a pack of Orcs," Thorin pointed out, his face stony in the nighttime gloom.

"There is a house," Gandalf said. "It's not far from here, where we might take refuge."

"Whose house?" Thorin asked, but Bilbo wondered if this wasn't the first time the Dwarf king had asked this question. "Are they friend or foe?"

"Neither," Gandalf said, meeting Johnathan's gaze again. "He will help us…or he will kill us."

Johnathan nodded his head slightly, his mouth pursed, but Bilbo figured he was the only one seeing this strange exchange since no one else voiced their concerns about it.

"What choice do we have?" Thorin asked the Wizard, his eyes narrowed suspiciously.

Suddenly an echoing roar sounded close by them, and Bilbo knew that that was no Warg or Orc cry; that was the sound of something much, much larger and dangerous.

As the roar faded away and the Company stood, paralyzed, Gandalf swept his gaze over all of them and spoke into the ominous silence, one word that sent a chill down Bilbo's spine: "None."

*Be prepared for a long A/N*

Well, as I said above, I'm happy to be moving on from these filler chapters. I have a great many things planned for you all for DoS, and I'm excited to put those plans into action (extra stress on the word 'action'). I'm also curious to see where Alison and Johnathan's relationship goes, because they're pretty wary of each other right now... and poor Alison, thinking the Valar don't want her anymore and feeling that Johnathan is better than her:( Don't worry, Al, things will get better.

But man, J-Ash (don't hate on the nickname). Do I have MANY surprises planned for you, you mouthy whelp of a warrior;) But y'all will have to wait until later before all that happens!

Anyway, I want to round off this A/N with a shoutout to the amazing and fantastic KeepingThemAtBay! She's been an avid reader/reviewer for a while, and her support means so much! She's recently taken it upon herself to do some fan art for this story by drawing Alison, and it's literally the most amazing thing I have ever seen! If y'all want to check it out (which I highly recommend because it's so good) you can go find it at (keepingthematbay .wordpress.com Seriously, do it. It's beautiful. She's been an incredible support to me for the past few weeks, and this is my way of showing my gratitude for this fantastic person! So check it out! Thanks!

But thank you to all of my readers/reviewers/followers as well. Y'all are amazing, so please continue with your reviews and things and just being awesome!

Thank you so much, lovelies! Until next chapter...

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