The March of Time

21: Stronger Than Hope

Hey guys! So here is Chapter 21! Thank you for reading and I hope y'all like! See you at the bottom..

Chapter 21: Stronger Than Hope

Thorin could feel the first faint chills of autumn in the breeze as he walked along the path from Beorn's front doorstep, watching the tall trees wave in the wind above him and casting golden dapples of late afternoon sunlight upon the ground. Bees the size of his hand floated around the gated grounds of Beorn's house, and when Thorin looked behind him he saw stables at the back of the house with large oxen grazing and some reasonably-sized ponies ambling about, tossing their white manes and nickering softly to each other.

Beorn's house was peaceful; there were no other words for it. But Thorin knew that outside of these walls, an Orc pack was watching them, waiting for them to reveal themselves once more. Thorin clenched his fists so hard he could feel his fingernails digging into his palms as he thought of Azog out there, intent on Thorin and his demise more than anything else, and Thorin itched to step beyond the gate, to go into the woodlands where no doubt the Orcs were hiding, Orcrist in his hand, with nothing standing between him and the Pale Orc. Thorin would destroy him, and he would avenge his father and grandfather. But he knew he couldn't do that; he had to stay with the Company, no matter what urge of vengeance burned in his heart. It was his duty as their leader; it was his duty as King.

"You are troubled by the road ahead," a low, guttural voice said from behind him, and Thorin turned, seeing Beorn coming up from the path. For such a large Man, he moved with a surprising stealth and agility, and Thorin faced him as he approached, holding a large wicker basket in his hands that he had apparently just used to feed his horses and oxen.

Thorin inclined his head slightly at Beorn's words. "You said so yourself; autumn is nearly upon us, and we still have a dangerous path to take. I worry that we will not make it to the Mountain in time."

Beorn nodded slowly, his yellow eyes tracing the path of a bee as it soared lazily by. "Strange things are stirring," he said. "Powers so old I had nearly forgotten. This quest of yours is shaping into something very interesting, indeed." The skin-changer paused, turning his unblinking yellow gaze on Thorin again. "I noticed that you have tread carefully around saying anything to Johnathan about your journey. May I inquire as to why?"

Thorin stiffened at his words, wondering if he should tell him the truth; he had been honest with the skin-changer so far, about the nature of their quest and why Bilbo and Alison were there helping them, but that was only to enlist his help. He had an agreement with Johnathan, an agreement Thorin suspected was built on a lot of trust, and he wondered whether if he told Beorn the truth, if Beorn would then tell Johnathan what he had said about the quest.

But looking into Beorn's glowing eyes, Thorin found that he had to tell the truth. If Beorn was to trust him enough to give them supplies and lodging, Thorin knew he had to keep playing the part of an honest guest; and something about the skin-changer's gaze, something ancient and wise in the depths, compelled Thorin to be honest, as well. So he said, very bluntly, "I do not trust Johnathan Ashburne."

Beorn did not react, except for a small raise of his bushy eyebrows. "And why is that?"

"It is too perfect, the way in which he found us," Thorin said. "Call it coincidence, or the will of the Valar, but I think it is too coincidental. There is something about him that does not add up, and he has too much mystery about him that makes it difficult to know his true motives. And Gandalf did not know about him before; he said it was only to be Alison who would help us. There was no mention of another Hero."

Beorn stayed silent, and Thorin wondered if he had offended the skin-changer by openly admitting his distrust of Beorn's companion. But after a while, Beorn spoke again.

"Your mistrust is understandable," he said. "I was wary of Johnathan when I first met him, and I still am. He is a useful asset to me for whenever I am gone, but he is a strange man; more often than not, when I am here, he disappears frequently, sometimes even for days. He does not say where he goes, nor do I ask, for his business is his own. But I do believe in what you say. There are too many layers of mystery surrounding this warrior, and I understand your hesitation to not tell him about your quest."

"So…" Thorin said slowly. "Does this mean you will not tell him?"

Beorn shifted the basket in his arms to a better position before answering. "I will not," he said, and Thorin felt a rush of relief go through him. "This is your journey to tell who you wish, and I will not intrude on that right. But I assume that in not telling him, you mean to leave him behind?"

Thorin nodded reluctantly. "That is correct."

"Hmm," Beorn said, looking up to the trees, and Thorin watched with bated breath as the skin-changer seemed to be thinking deeply about Thorin's words.

"If it is the Valar's will that he should go with you, then I am hardly one to stand in the way of fate," he said finally. "But I can see it in your eyes; this quest means more to you than perhaps even your own life, and I know that you cannot afford to be hindered by mistrust if you are to reach the Mountain by Durin's Day."

"What are you saying?" Thorin asked, crossing his arms, though he tried not to give the impression that he was impatient. He knew Beorn would not take kindly to anything of that sort, and if Thorin had just won his trust, he didn't want to throw it all away.

"I will delay Johnathan," he replied, looking back to Thorin. "I will tell him you are staying one more night after today, and tonight I will send him to scout in the west. Tomorrow morning, when you leave for Mirkwood in the east, he will be out of your way for you to travel freely. Though he will not be fooled for long," Beorn shook his great, shaggy head. "He believes in what the Valar have told him about going on your quest, and he will not be left behind. He is also a highly skilled warrior and tracker; I cannot guarantee you will reach the forest before he catches up to you."

"A risk I can take," Thorin said. "Thank you, Master Beorn, for your hospitality to my Company, and your…understanding of what must be done." Thorin nodded his head respectfully at Beorn, but the skin-changer just stared at him with his impassive eyes.

"I still do not like Dwarves," he decided. "But you are proving to be an interesting one, Thorin Oakenshield." Thorin said nothing as Beorn continued. "I do not condemn your quest, but neither do I support it. I fear that there will be many complications, seen and unseen, that will come out of it—yet I bid you good fortune on it, nevertheless."

Thorin bowed his head once more as Beorn traveled his gaze around his land, as if he also sensed the Orcs' presence watching them. "I have set out your provisions for you inside," he said, his eyes narrowing slightly, though the glare wasn't directed at Thorin. "And I can loan you horses as well, so you do not have to go on foot, though you must not take them into Mirkwood; that is my only request." He gestured to the ponies behind him in the stables, and the Dwarf king nodded.

Beorn inclined his head in return, and made to go back into the house, when a sudden thought struck Thorin.

"What is the Necromancer?" he asked, and Beorn turned again, his bushy eyebrows contracting low over his eyes.

"Gandalf has not told you?" he said, and Thorin shook his head, feeling a flicker of anger; he would be having a very lengthy conversation with the Wizard about why he hadn't mentioned this before.

"But what is it?" he reiterated. "I have never heard of this so-called 'Necromancer' until now. What does this have to do with anything?"

"I do not know," Beorn replied, shaking his head. "But it is rumored that a Shadow has taken residence in the ruins of Dol Guldur, a human sorcerer with the power to summon the dead, and that he is gathering the foul things of this world to him; what he plans to do remains a mystery, but it is obvious something is brewing on the Hill of Sorcery."

"That is impossible," Thorin said. "No human sorcerer would be able to have that kind of power; not even the Valar themselves can do that."

"That is all I have heard," Beorn said, shrugging his huge shoulders. "It has been many years since last I ventured to Dol Guldur, and I cannot say myself of the happenings going on there."

Thorin didn't answer, instead glaring down at the simple stone path leading to Beorn's front door, lost deep in thought at the troubling news this so-called Necromancer brought.

"Do not worry too much, Thorin Oakenshield," Beorn said. "Beware the Necromancer, but do not be overly troubled by it. It is doubtful your journey will take you anywhere near Dol Guldur; but still, it does not hurt to be on your guard."

And with that, he turned and strode back to the house, placing the wicker basket he carried by the door before entering back inside.

Thorin stared at the closed door for several long minutes, his thoughts spinning. The news of this Necromancer did not sit easily with him, but then again, did anything anymore? He had grown so used to hearing dreadful things about their quest that he was rarely bothered by it anymore; he couldn't even bring himself to worry about individual things any longer. Everything had cumulated into a giant cloud of worry settling on his mind, pressing down on his chest, and now he could add the problem of the Necromancer to that heavy weight. It was starting to exhaust Thorin, carrying around so much anxiety and uncertainty about their quest, and he was beginning to feel stretched. All this relaxing at Beorn's was just making him think about the future more and more, and he yearned to be on the road again. It was now August, and Durin's Day was looming ever closer. They were drawing so near to the Lonely Mountain, and they had to push on. They could not stop now. They were so close.

A sudden rattling of Beorn's gate startled Thorin out of his thoughts, and he looked quickly to see the high gate creaking open. Thinking that the Orcs were somehow daring to attack them in broad daylight, Thorin unsheathed Orcrist and barreled to the gates, preparing to shout a warning to the others—and then abruptly stopped as a tall, dark figure slipped through the gates, shutting them quickly behind him and bolting them back so they were re-locked.

Thorin stopped running, lowering Orcrist as he realized that it was Johnathan who had entered into Beorn's land, his hood drawn low over his face once more and his black bow in his hand. Once he had stepped away from the gates he removed his hood, and Thorin was shocked to see dark flecks that looked suspiciously like Orc-blood spattered across one of his cheeks as he turned and noticed Thorin behind him.

Johnathan looked skeptically at Thorin's sword, his dark eyes narrowed. "What a pleasant welcoming committee," he drawled, and Thorin gritted his teeth at the warrior's sarcastic tone. "Though I must say, a tad too dark and dangerous for my taste."

Thorin sheathed Orcrist back into the scabbard at his waist, eyeing Johnathan distrustfully and picking out more black specks of blood on his clothes, though they were hard to see against the darkness of the cloth already.

"I could say the same about you," Thorin replied flatly, and Johnathan furrowed his pale brows in confusion. Thorin gestured to his cheek, and Johnathan raised a hand to swipe at his face, smearing the blood in the process as he took his hand away and registered the blackness on his fingers with vague surprise.

"Oh, how embarrassing," he said, wiping his hand on his coat in disgust, and Thorin refrained himself from snorting. "A fine mess for me to clean up now."

Thorin raised his eyebrows as Johnathan continued to rub at his face. "I thought Beorn had sent you to scout, not pick fights with the Orcs."

"And so I did scout," the warrior replied, scrubbing vigorously at his cheek, but the blood was beginning to dry and wasn't coming off so easily. "I was on my way back here when I realized a straggler was following me, but, as you can see, I handled it."

Thorin nodded grudgingly; though he did not trust him at all, from what he had seen of Johnathan's skills he had no doubt that the Orc had been dealt with quickly and efficiently.

"Did you find anything worth mentioning?" the Dwarf king asked. "Are they still out there?"

Johnathan looked up from his cleaning, abandoning the task altogether when it became clear that the blood had dried to his face. "No, they are no longer out there," he said. "But last night something strange happened."

"And what would that be?"

Johnathan shook his head. "I need to tell Beorn this, as well. Let's go inside and I'll report my findings."

For once, the warrior didn't sound sneering or arrogant at all, and Thorin followed him back into Beorn's house, keeping his eyes on a point under his shoulder blade, which was about as high as he could look without having to crane his neck fully.

They entered the house to find the Company all milling about, holding small conversations with each other as they smoked out of pipes Beorn had provided with some scrounged up tobacco, some of them lounging on the floor in the main room while some were still seated at the kitchen table, watching in amusement as Bombur continued to eat incessantly. The only person not to be seen was Alison, and Thorin raked his eyes around the house in confusion, wondering where she could've gone.

"Beorn," Johnathan said, striding into the kitchen where the great Man was, while Thorin crouched next to Fili and Kili, who were seated on the floor smoking and playing a game of chess with a comically large chessboard between them.

Thorin thought this was strange, for he was fairly certain Fili and Kili had never played chess in their lives before, but he ignored it, figuring they must've stooped to new levels of boredom if they were desperate enough to resort to chess.

"Where is Alison?" he asked them, and they both looked to him.

"Beorn let her use his bath," Fili replied, and Thorin could detect a faint note of disgruntlement in his voice, as if he disapproved of the idea. "He says there's a small stream around the back if we want to wash up later, though it's pretty shallow."

Thorin nodded, already having seen it upon his inspection of the grounds earlier. "C'mon," he said, standing back up and gesturing to them with his head. "Johnathan is back, and he says he has news of his scouting mission."

The two princes stood up and followed him into the kitchen, where Johnathan had taken a seat at the head of the table next to Beorn in his great wood-carven chair, biting into some bread and cheese as the rest of the Company congregated around them, anxious to hear what the Ashburne had to say.

"What news do you bring, Johnathan?" Beorn said as he lounged against the back of his chair, which Thorin realized was fashioned into the gaping maw of a bear as the skin-changer's yellow eyes fixed on the warrior.

Johnathan swallowed as the Dwarves pressed in close, and he gave them all a disdainful look as he took a swig from his tankard. "Is it possible for me to eat without you lot breathing down my neck?" he said, but the Dwarves ignored him, and he sighed, facing Beorn.

"The Orcs left have gone from your land. They had been hiding in the woodlands a couple hundred meters away from here," he said, and Thorin noticed how brusque and respectable his demeanor had become as he addressed the skin-changer, and he felt a stab of annoyance that he couldn't be this way with him. "But before they left, more of them had arrived from the south last night; I expect they were sent from Dol Guldur."

The Company all muttered uneasily to each other at this, and Thorin guessed Gandalf must've finally told them about the Necromancer as well while Thorin had been outside. He focused back in on what Johnathan was saying with new intensity.

"But a smaller party also left shortly after the new Orcs arrived," he continued. "Including the one, from what I gathered, was the leader—the one with the missing arm and the pale skin."

Thorin felt his breath catch in his throat. So Azog was gone? He felt a flicker of relief in his chest, but also a slight stirring of anger that he had not been able to fight the coward before he had slunk away back into the shadows. Squashing this feeling down, he listened as Johnathan went on.

"Early this morning, however, the remaining Orcs had left the woodlands, as well, heading south along the trail of the ones who had left earlier. None remained behind—well, except for one," he said, gesturing to the blood on his face. "But from what I have seen, there is no more of them left in this area. They have gone."

"Good," Beorn said, nodding curtly. "That means they will no longer be a threat for now; but undoubtedly they will be back." He gave Thorin a slight glance at this, and Thorin realized that with the threat of the Orcs past, Johnathan would have no more reason to go scout—which meant that the Company couldn't leave without him noticing.

Anxiety started to settle upon Thorin, and worry, but it was cut off abruptly as Johnathan leaned forward to Beorn, his expression imploring as the skin-changer looked back to him with his predatory eyes.

"Do I have your permission to pursue them, Beorn?" the warrior asked, and Beorn blinked, surprise flitting across his wild features before they became impassive once more. Thorin also felt shocked at the warrior's request; he had not been expecting this, that was for sure.

"Why do you wish to go after them?" Beorn said. "You know they have retreated to Dol Guldur. Why would you want to follow them there?"

"Because," Johnathan said, leaning in closer to Beorn. "Those Orcs are massing in greater and greater numbers, and I want to know why. I want to see their numbers for myself, and see just how many are concealed in the ruins."

Beorn hesitated, his eyes flicking to Thorin, and Thorin held his breath; this was a perfect opportunity for them to go on without Johnathan—surely he must realize that?

Beorn searched Thorin's face, and obviously there had been something there that convinced him this was a good choice, as he turned back to Johnathan and said, "I give you my permission. I will give you but five days; on the fifth, if you do not return, I will come after you." Johnathan nodded, his black eyes gleaming, but Beorn went on. "But heed this carefully: you are only to gather their numbers. I forbid you to enter those ruins, and I certainly forbid any contact with the Orcs. You are not to engage them under any circumstance, unless you wish to bring their wrath upon your head. And if I find that you disobeyed my orders, I will leave you there to your own fate, and you can take your chances then without my help."

"Understood," Johnathan said, bowing his head, but Thorin saw his lips twitching in an amused smile at the skin-changer's words.

"When will you leave?" Beorn asked.

"Tonight," he said. "And I will be back on the fifth night, no later." He suddenly turned to Thorin, and Thorin met his gaze warily.

"Do I have your word you will stay here until I return?" the warrior asked, his depthless eyes boring into Thorin's. "Five days is all I need, and then I will come back and we can be on our way, our merry band all together."

But Thorin was already shaking his head, and he watched Johnathan's eyes widen infinitesimally. "We are leaving on the third day," he said, and technically it wasn't a lie; he did plan on leaving, but on tomorrow, the second day of their stay, instead of the third. "If you are not back by then, we must leave you behind."

Johnathan's jaw worked, and Thorin could see him struggling with himself; it was apparent he was extremely intent on hunting these Orcs, but the Dwarf king knew he wished to impose himself on their quest, as well, under the Valar's bidding.

Finally, Johnathan exhaled, not breaking eye contact with Thorin. "Three days," he said. "I can manage that. I will be back here before you leave, you can bet on it."

"If you can make it," Thorin said, but he doubted it very much. He wasn't familiar with the exact location of Dol Guldur, except it was in the very south of Mirkwood, but he knew for certain that Johnathan could not move that fast, ancient Hero or not.

"I take that as a challenge," he said, his dark eyes glittering, and Thorin held his gaze, trying to ignore the uncomfortable prickle on the back of his neck as the warrior finally turned away, back to Beorn. "I'll start packing now, and I'll be gone by sundown."

Beorn nodded. "I wish you haste and safety, then," he said, and Johnathan bowed his head, before whisking away into the main room of the house and making his way to a secluded corner where Thorin could make out a chest, half-hidden underneath piles of hay.

He tore his eyes away from Johnathan as he opened the chest and began to rifle through it, and he saw from across the table Beorn's eyes boring into his. Thorin inclined his head imperceptibly, and Beorn nodded back, his yellow eyes glowing in the gathering shadows of the room.

Thorin looked away, feeling a nagging thought persist his mind, and though he tried to ignore it, it only worked slightly. He couldn't explain why he suddenly felt the way he did, but he felt…troubled. As if by leaving Johnathan behind, he was bending against the will of fate, upsetting some sort of natural balance in the world. But he shoved the thoughts away; they still had Alison as their Hero, and they did not need this one. And with or without Johnathan, they were going to make it to the Mountain. He would see it done.

After weeks in the wilderness crossing mountains and trying to avoid being killed every two feet, submerging herself in Beorn's bath was probably about the most welcome thing Alison had experienced since leaving Rivendell so long ago.

She hadn't quite believed Beorn when he offered to draw her a bath; for such a wild and untamable man, she had assumed he showered in rivers in the moonlight or whatever, not having any use for something as domesticated as a bath. But when he had led her into his bedroom (not like that), she had found to her intense surprise that he had been honest, and there stood the largest bath she had ever seen in her life.

Forget the Jacuzzi tubs of Rivendell; this bath was like a freaking swimming pool. But she guessed that for a man of Beorn's height and stature, this was probably perfect for him. So when the skin-changer had left her alone, returning to the main house and shutting the door behind him, Alison had marveled at the size of everything in his room, feeling like a doll compared to it all.

The bed was humongous, a huge canopied monstrosity carved with animals on the bedposts and thick sheets that were still made neatly, as if he didn't sleep there often. As Alison crossed the stone floors, devoid of any straw thankfully, she could hear the scurrying of tiny creatures in the corners of the vast room, but she tried not to be bothered by it that much. She came to a closed-off section of the room, hidden behind a thick curtain of something like browned leather, and she pushed it aside, seeing the tub beyond and the curling wisps of steam coming from the hot water inside it.

Alison took in the secluded bathroom, noticing the huge mahogany and stone tub and the clawed feet supporting it, the little claws resembling the snarling faces of bears. Thick, fluffy towels were perched on the edge of the tub, along with something that looked suspiciously like a fur-pelted bathrobe that looked like it would swallow her whole, and Alison did not hesitate before peeling off her nasty, smelly clothes and practically throwing herself into the water, letting the warmth seep into her bones and relieve all the aches and pains she had.

She could only sit for a few moments, trying not to drown in the vastness of the tub while she closed her eyes in bliss and just drifted, enjoying this far too much. The cloying scents of woodlands and streams and wildflowers filled her nostrils, and she found it a much more intriguing scent than that of the perfumed flowers and magical air of the Elves.

After submerging her head for a few seconds, she came back and grabbed the bar of lye soap resting on the edge of the tub and began to scrub herself down, peeling away layers upon layers of dirt and sweat and grime, and rinsing her hair until she got all of the snarls out and it returned to the lanky smoothness it usually was. After making sure every part of her was clean and a few more minutes of relaxation, Alison finally dragged herself out of the bath and wrapped herself in a couple of the towels, choosing to abandon the bathrobe as it was so big.

She noticed a mirror on the other side of the room, a gilded frame of wood around it, and Alison walked over to it curiously. It was propped on the ground, instead of hanging on the wall like she supposed it was intended to, but it was so big it was like a full-body mirror anyway.

Alison stopped before it, and she stared into the surface of it intently, almost hungrily, having gone so long without seeing her reflection it was like staring at a ghost. The last time she had seen herself, she had been in Rivendell, and it was just before they had departed for the Misty Mountains. She had seemed so small then, short and slight in her plain attire, with her brown hair pulled back from her thin face and giving the impression that she was just a small child with wide, pale green eyes and a fragile expression, as if she was trying to be brave but the mask was completely see through. This time, Alison saw none of those things.

While still short and slim, she had become lean and muscular, most prominently in her legs, which she realized then were covered in a downy layer of dark hair, though she found herself not minding so much. Her skin was mostly a light tan, despite the areas of bronze on her face, neck, chest and the backs of her hands from sun exposure, and her sun-freckles were more prominent than ever across the bridge of her nose. Her hair had grown long, almost hanging to her waist, which she hadn't noticed until then for it was always up, and it had become a lighter shade of brown from the outdoors, highlighting her eyes, which now appeared sharper and brighter, a more intense green, and contouring her face, which she had seemed to grow into since last time, giving her the impression of someone older, more mature. Another example of this was the ragged-looking scar embedded into her right shoulder where the goblin had bit her, still slightly pink from healing, thought the slash she had received from one of the goblin's blades on her forearm was barely noticeable, only a thin white scar to show that it was ever there.

But it was not her physical changes that bothered her so much; it was the mental differences that caught her attention. She no longer looked like the scared little girl about to go on a quest she had no idea how to survive on, unsure in her abilities and frightened at every tiny thing; the woman standing before her now was more confident, more serious, more aware of the harshness of the world, though she could still see glimpses of her old self in her sarcastic smile and the bright gleam in her eyes. She was still the same, she realized. She had just grown up a bit, and it seemed she had finally begun to find herself.

However, this hair was definitely not going to work anymore. Alison retrieved Natrem from its scabbard and went back over to the mirror, gathering all of her hair over one shoulder. She raised the blade, putting it to about the middle of her hair, and took a deep breath, hoping she wouldn't screw this up so tremendously, as in one fluent movement, totally Mulan-style, she sliced the blade across her hair.

The lower chunk of it came apart in her hand as the rest that was on her head now hung to about her shoulder blades; it was probably reasonable to have cut it shorter, but she had never been able to cope with short hair, so this seemed better to her. She crossed back into the bedroom and went over to the window on the far wall that was letting in late afternoon sunlight, and after some slight difficulty, she managed to open it and throw the hunk of her hair outside, hoping some creatures would be able to use it for their nests or something. It felt oddly symbolic as she let the hair go and shut the window; it was like she had cut loose tight bindings around her, and she felt strangely…free now. Less weighed down by the brunt of what she was doing, and what she had to do in the future.

She went back to the bathroom and picked up her soiled clothes, bringing them over to the tub and having to stand on her tip-toes as she dunked them into the water, trying to wash them as best as she could. The water began to turn brownish as she scrubbed at the clothes, all the culminated dirt and sweat and blood leaking out of the fabric and into the water. After a few minutes of vigorous scrubbing, she deemed them clean enough and laid them out on the floor to dry, taking stock of just how travel-stained and worn her clothes really were, even her bra and underwear, which she was just grateful she still had after all this time.

Suddenly there was a knock on the bedroom door, and Alison crossed into the bedroom, wrapping herself more securely in her towel in case anyone decided to barge in unannounced. "What's up?" she called to the person who had knocked, and she was taken aback when it was Johnathan who answered her.

"Are you done with your bath?" he called through the door. "I need to speak with you."

"Uh, almost," she said, wondering what he wanted to talk about. "I have to wait for my clothes to dry first."

"Oh, speaking of which," he said. "I have something to give you. Open the door."

"What part of 'I have to wait for my clothes to dry first' did you not understand?"

"Trust me, Alison," he said irritably. "You have nothing that I would be interested in seeing, anyway."

Alison glared at the door, not sure whether she should be offended or relieved since they were, after all, family.

"Fine," she grumbled, opening the door just a crack to where he could slip in, trying not to let her face heat as she quickly shut the door, clutching her towel even tighter.

She turned to face Johnathan, and she saw with surprise that he had some sort of smeared black substance on his face that looked suspiciously like Orc-blood.

"It is Orc-blood, by the way, in case you were wondering," he said in response to her puzzled look. "And you missed the whole exciting conversation in the kitchen just now, so I'll give you the gist: the Orcs have retreated to Dol Guldur, I'm going after them tonight, and I'll be back in three days, in which time we will all depart for Mirkwood to continue on this journey no one will still tell me what the hell is for. Got it? Great!"

Well, shit. They work fast. She thought to herself, but she nodded and said, "Got it." She didn't ask anything about the third day, knowing that it was probably Thorin just trying to get rid of Johnathan, which she felt slightly annoyed by.

"So what is it you have to give me?" she asked, wanting him out of there as he was making her increasingly uncomfortable. True to his word, though, he kept his eyes only on her face or the room around them, not even paying attention to the fact that she was half-naked.

"This," he said, and he tossed a mass of black material to her, which she caught in confusion before realizing it was a jacket. She unfolded it and held it up, seeing it looked kind of like the one Johnathan was wearing, though not quite as long and with fewer pockets. "I found it among my belongings when I was packing just now; I think Beorn had obtained it for me a while ago, but I never got around to wearing it. You might have to roll the sleeves a bit, but other than that I think it should fit."

"Thank you," she said, genuinely startled that he had actually seemed to be thoughtful of her needs for once. "Why give it to me, though? If you're traveling to Dol Guldur, surely it'd be smart to have an extra coat?"

"Ah, you need it more than I," he said, shrugging his shoulders, and Alison noticed that he held something else in his hands as well, something black and leathery almost. "The road will begin to get colder from here on out, and your old jacket was beginning to look a little frayed, so…"

Alison stared at him weirdly. "Who are you and what have you done to Johnathan Ashburne?" she demanded, only half-joking, and he smirked, his dark eyes glinting.

"Contrary to popular belief, I do have a heart somewhere, Alison," he said, and she grinned, gesturing to the other thing in his arms. "What's that?"

"Armor," he said, and she looked at him skeptically. "Here," he tossed her this new thing, as well, and she stared at it in bewilderment as she took it. It was a sturdy yet flexible material, soft like leather but harder, and it strapped on the sides like a bodice, thin enough to go under clothing but still a solid piece of gear. "Granted, it's not iron-forged armor or chainmail," he continued. "But it will serve you better than none."

"I…um, thank you, Johnathan," she said, suddenly flustered. "I—I really don't know what to say—"

"Don't mention it," he said, waving her off. "Think of it as thousand years' worth of birthday presents, or something of the sort."

"Weird analogy, but I'll take it," she said, and he quirked a grin, his angular features softening for a moment, not looking so harsh or arrogant for once.

"I will see you in three days, cousin," he said, striding back to the door. "Try not to have too much fun without me."

She turned and watched him leave, a bit surprised at his sudden departure, but inclining her head back to him as he bowed to her all the same. "Goodbye, Johnathan."

"Goodbye, cousin," he said. "I'll see you again soon, I expect." And with a cocky wink, he backed out of the room and shut the door behind him, leaving Alison standing alone in Beorn's huge room, trying not to feel too guilty as she thought about leaving him behind tomorrow morning, possibly to never see him again. But it was for the quest, she reminded herself. And if Thorin didn't want to share this quest with the Hero, then she would let that decision rest with him alone.

After staring for a few more moments at the door, Alison shook her head and went back to the bathroom to see if her clothes were dry. Johnathan's behavior had been a side of him she hadn't seen before, and she realized that that was a side she could get used to, if only they weren't leaving him behind…

She squashed that feeling out of her mind, trying to ignore the strains of guilt tugging at her. She would see him again, she decided. Maybe soon, or maybe not until after all of this was over. And maybe by then he would forgive her for what she was about to do.

Alison was glad for the warmth of her new jacket as she stood outside Beorn's house, her hands shoved into the pockets as the chilly night air swept her hair back from her face, soothing fingers brushing across her skin as she gazed up at the dark sky, inky black save for the light of the stars and the full moon shining above her.

After Alison had redressed in Beorn's bathroom, successfully figuring out how to put the armor-bodice on correctly and putting on the new jacket (which was surprisingly fitting, considering it had been made for the larger stature of Johnathan; though she had had to roll the sleeves several times until her hands weren't covered by the cuffs), she had walked back out into the main house to discover that Johnathan had left almost immediately after exiting Beorn's room and saying good-bye to her.

The Dwarves had all seemed happy that he was finally gone, but Alison found that she could not share in their gladness. The thoughtful side, the kinder side that she had seen in Johnathan earlier refused to leave her brain, and she could not get rid of the clinging strands of guilt that knowing when he returned, he would not find her there like he thought…

She had approached Beorn's fireplace with her tattered green hunting jacket in her arms, watching the flames in the hearth as they heated the soup for that night's dinner, and after saying a brief, silent eulogy in her head for her jacket, she had tossed it into the fire, watching it burn and wondering why in the hell she was getting sentimental over a jacket. But they had been through a lot together, and it seemed fitting, and shortly after she had wandered outside, now finding herself standing in the dark and looking up to the sky.

For the first time in a long time, she felt calm, and centered, and she wanted to enjoy the peace while it lasted. They would begin their journey to Mirkwood tomorrow, and, knowing what was coming, having one more night of relaxation seemed like a really good idea.

She didn't know how long she had been standing there, but suddenly she became aware of footsteps behind her, and she turned, seeing Fili walking down the pathway towards her. Her heart did an annoying little leap in her chest when he neared, and he stopped beside her, crossing his arms in a relaxed manner and looking up to the sky along with her.

"Well, howdy, stranger," she said, turning her gaze to him. "Long time, no speak." And it was true; she had rarely spoken to Fili since Johnathan's arrival, but now that he was here, and it was just the two of them alone, she realized she had missed him—probably more than she should, but hey. She was a normal clingy teenage girl at heart, no matter how much warrior blood flowed through her veins.

"We've had quite the hectic couple of weeks," he agreed, smiling at her, and she was suddenly very aware of how hard her heart was beating now. She swallowed, looking back up to the sky as he commented, "It's a beautiful night."

She nodded. "It is," she agreed. She gazed up at the moon, wondering how it could look so big and bright compared to the one she had known back home. "Did you come out to tell me something?"

"I was going to tell you dinner was ready," he said. "But…"

Alison turned to look at him as he trailed off. "But?"

"I didn't realize just how nice it was out here," he said, turning to grin at her, his eyes like quicksilver in the moonlight. She smiled back, and he suddenly reached out a hand, touching the newly cut, slightly uneven ends of her loose hair.

"You cut your hair," he said in surprise, rubbing one of the strands interestedly.

"I did," she said. "It was beginning to be a bit too much, to be honest."

"It looks good," he said. "And, uh, I mean, it's also good that you cut it—it would've gotten in the way in a fight." He looked slightly awkward as he said it, and Alison shook her head in amusement; it wasn't like they were uncertain of their feelings anymore, and though they had both agreed not to start anything, she didn't see why he was being all cautious again.

"That was why I cut it," she replied, and when he didn't speak, she looked back to him, catching him watching her thoughtfully. "What?" she said. "Did I miss a spot while bathing or something?"

"No," he said, shaking his head, his blonde hair glowing pale gold. "I'm just thinking…you seem different tonight. Less worried, less serious. You seem more like…"

She raised her eyebrows at him. "Like what?"

"Like your old self," he said, and her eyebrows rose higher. "I mean, you're still the same person, of course, but this last month or so…you've been a lot more serious, and stressed. You haven't looked as…open as you do right now. And I missed that about you."

She blushed at his words, suddenly realizing that he was right. It had seemed like a lifetime since she had felt so light, but she didn't know why. They were on the brink of a monumental moment in the story, and she wasn't freaking out like she normally would before something major, like the goblin-tunnels back in the Misty Mountains. She just felt calm, and she didn't have an answer for him as to why she did.

Instead of answering, she looked back up to the stars, letting their remote light wash over her as Fili still stood beside her, gazing up to the heavens as well.

"You know, I always wondered about constellations," she said, breaking the silence between them. "I mean, I don't know if you would have the same ones here as we do in the mortal world, or if you do and you just call them different names." She sighed, as another gust of wind tickled across her face. "It's hard to imagine being under the same sky when you're in an entirely different world."

She didn't know where this sudden feeling of homesickness was coming from, but apparently Fili was picking up on it, for he squeezed her shoulder reassuringly, his hand steady and comforting as she looked to him gratefully.

His lips curled in a ghost of a smile as he turned his gaze upwards, removing his hand and instead pointing it to the sky. "There's one constellation there," he said, and Alison looked up, watching his finger trace an idle shape in the stars. "I don't know if they have a name for it in your world, but here it is known as 'the Anvil of Aulë.'"

She tried to follow his finger's movements, but she couldn't make it out yet. "Who is Aulë?"

"He is one of the Valar who watch over Middle-earth," he said, and Alison looked to him in interest at 'Valar'. He quirked a grin at her sudden interest, and continued. "For us Dwarves, we call him 'Mahal', or 'the Maker'. He was the one who created our race, and he represents invention and craftsmanship, hence the 'Anvil.'"

"Makes sense," she said. "I still can't see it though, so I can't really appreciate your history lesson."

"It's right there, to the left of the moon," he said, coming up behind her and pointing over her shoulder. She tried not to shiver as his warm breath tickled the back of her neck, and she suddenly found it hard to focus on what he was saying as he was so close to her now.

"Um, I still don't see it," she said, trying not to wear on his patience, but he merely chuckled, grabbing her hand and pointing it up with his own, beginning to trace a pattern in the air as she stood, hardly daring to breathe as her heart stuttered embarrassingly.

"Do you see it now?" he asked, and she nodded, beginning to connect the dots of the stars until it did indeed form into a constellation of an anvil.

"I can see it!" she said excitedly. "That is so cool. All we have is like, the Big Dipper, and that's so lame compared to this. Oh, my gosh, this is so exciting, Fili—"

She didn't know why she was getting all worked up, but she turned around anyway, smiling like an idiot—and abruptly stopped, as she realized how close their faces were.

They went still for several heartbeats, just staring at each other, and Alison's smile slowly faded away as she heard the blood pulsing in her ears, Fili's silvery eyes meeting hers with a light in them she had thought was gone for good after he told her things would never work between them.

She was aware of his hand, still covering her own, but after a slight hesitation, he trailed it up her arm, brushing it across her back as he held her, and she felt tingles course down her spine as she brought one of her own up, warily placing it on his cheek, but he didn't pull away.

"Alison…" he said, and his voice was soft and low as she traced her thumb across his cheekbone, knowing she should stop before things went too far, but not being able to bring herself to step away.

She said nothing, only meeting his eyes, and he inhaled deeply, closing them briefly as if he were struggling with himself; which she totally understood, since she was doing the same thing.

"We agreed not to further things," he said, but he sounded conflicted as he met her eyes again. "We told each other there was no place in the quest for this, that our lives couldn't be entwined in this way."

She nodded slowly, her hand still cupping his cheek as his arm circled her waist. "You're right," she agreed.

He took another deep breath, though he drew her closer, almost as if against his will. "This isn't smart," he said, and Alison grinned.

"Whoever said I was smart?" she joked, and his lips twitched in a smile. "I'm reckless and stupid, remember?"

He shook his head, and her grin faded away again as she held his eyes.

"So let me be stupid," she whispered, and pressed her mouth to his.

Fili went rigid for a moment, shocked, but after a couple seconds he drew her in, his other arm reaching up and pressing into her back as she held his face, moving her lips against his, and she dimly wondered what her mother would think if she saw her daughter kissing a Dwarf prince outside of a skin-changer's house smack-dab in the middle of a fictional world. The thought made her smile under Fili's lips, and she tangled her fingers in his hair, pulling him closer.

It was a long, sweet, lingering kiss, nothing desperate or hungry about it, or pressured under the scrutiny of other people; it was just them two alone, in Beorn's front yard, with the creatures rustling in the foliage around them, and the wind blowing gently and the moon shining along with the stars, like something out of a cheesy Nicholas Sparks novel. But it was sweet, and it was perfect in that moment.

Fili was the one to break the kiss first, and he pulled back, his eyes wide and surprised. "I…um—"

"Yeah," she finished lamely, and he removed his hands from her back, stepping away from her, though not far enough away to be considered offensive.

He cleared his throat. "We need to be serious about this, Alison," he said, not meeting her eyes. "We can't say one thing and end up doing another."

"I know," she said softly, though her chest felt tight at the words.

"I still stand by what I said before," he continued. "We have separate duties, and they are not to each other, not in that sense. So…please, for the sake of our own sanity, let's just try and be friends, and only friends."

"Okay," she said, nodding. "We can do that. We've been friends before, and we can do it again. I understand that…this thing can never work, so…I guess this is our official-but-not-so-official break-up. For real this time."

He gave her a confused look, but nodded all the same, apparently getting the context of what she had said. "All right, then," he said, and he cleared his throat once more. "We should get back inside. The others are probably wondering where we are, and it's starting to get chillier."

She nodded again. "Go ahead," she told him. "I'll catch up."

He hesitated, then nodded once, turning and entering back into Beorn's house.

Alison looked up to the night sky again, feeling a warm glow spreading to her fingertips despite the dropping temperature. Fili had been right, she thought, as she gazed at the stars. She did feel different from her worried self, the anxious girl she had been ever since she had landed in Middle-earth; her head felt clearer, and she herself was more hopeful—though as she thought about it, it wasn't exactly hope: it was something stronger than hope, something she had no words for, but it was a good feeling, all the same.

Her eyes sought the Anvil of Aulë again, and she gazed at the stars for another moment before finally sighing, and following Fili into the house to prepare for their journey to Mirkwood.

Bilbo's dreams were full of whispers that night, strange mutterings in harsh tones that probed at his mind, circling in his thoughts as the words continued, insistent and dark as he twitched in his sleep, his subconscious shying away from the voice, until he was jerked from his sleep suddenly, his heart fluttering rapidly in his chest.

He stared up at the high wooden ceiling of Beorn's house, trying to settle his pounding heart as he listened to the slow, deep breaths of the sleeping Company around him and Bombur's familiar snores, waiting until his heart rate had slowed before rolling from his side and onto his back, stretching the kinks out of his spine from sleeping on the floor, no matter how much hay was there in between.

The house was still very dark, and Bilbo guessed that it was still a few hours until dawn. Everyone was still asleep, and over the Company's dreaming noises and the sounds of the animals within the house, Bilbo could hear Beorn's grunting snores from the next room, and he knew he was the only one awake in the house.

Almost on impulse, his hand reached for his waistcoat pocket, his fingers disappearing into the fold until they touched upon the cold, smooth surface of the ring. Making sure no one else was lying awake, he slipped the ring from his pocket and held it up, turning it in his fingers and admiring it. Despite the dim light of the room, the ring still glowed like the brightest golden ember, beautiful and as untouched by wear or dirt as ever. It was truly an invaluable thing, and Bilbo was beginning to understand why the creature Gollum had coveted it so much—despite its power to make the wearer invisible, it was just simply a lovely and strangely captivating trinket.

After a while, Bilbo's eyelids began to droop again, and he tucked the ring away securely into his pocket before rolling back over and letting sleep take him once more, this time his slumber uninterrupted by any harsh whispers or dark mutterings.

When he awoke again, it was to find the pink light of dawn now streaming through the high windows, and he looked up to find Thorin already making his rounds and waking everybody up.

Bilbo vaguely wondered if the Dwarf king ever slept as he sat up and rubbed his eyes, beginning to fold up the blanket Beorn had told him to keep for the journey and stowing it away in the pack the skin-changer had also supplied him with, along with provisions for the rest of the Company.

As Bilbo meandered into the kitchen, he noticed that Beorn was not up yet, but that wasn't stopping the Dwarves from going ahead and eating breakfast at the table. Bilbo joined them, and he was halfway through eating a fine piece of bread with raspberry jam on top when Beorn emerged from his room, as daunting and large as ever.

He made small talk with Gandalf and Thorin as the Company finished eating, and once everyone had cleaned up their mess and finished readying their new packs, Beorn led them outside and disappeared behind his house for a few moments, reemerging a few minutes later and herding some beautiful black and white ponies towards the Company, where they stopped and deigned the Dwarves, Bilbo, Alison and Gandalf to saddle them up with their supplies and climb on, ready for their journey to Mirkwood.

Once, the prospect of traveling through Mirkwood would have appalled Bilbo; but now, while certainly still having some trepidation, he wasn't nearly as frightened as he would have been at the start of their quest, which surprised him. His hand drifted to his pocket, and he felt the comforting band of the ring through the fabric as he thought about what lay ahead, and yet he still couldn't bring himself to be that worried. Maybe Alison had been right after all; maybe he was meant to come on this quest.

"The Elven Path is not one to take lightly," Beorn said, as the Company all situated themselves on their horses and looked back to the skin-changer. His yellow eyes roved over all of them slowly, imploringly, and Bilbo resisted the urge to gulp as the glowing eyes settled on him before moving on. "Your road will be dangerous, but if you stick to the path you may come out alive. Do not drink from or bathe in the water, either; foul and unnatural things clog that forest, and it would be extremely unpleasant should you die there."

Bilbo refrained from snorting at his words, wanting to point out that it would be unpleasant dying anywhere along this journey, but he kept his mouth shut as Gandalf said, "Thank you, Master Beorn, for your hospitality in this difficult time. I hope to see you soon again, my dear friend."

Beorn inclined his head as the rest of the Company chimed in with many thanks and farewells, and he raised his hand as Gandalf turned and spurred his horse to the high gate of the house, which now stood open to the outside world.

"Go now, while you have the light," Beorn said as Bilbo swung his own pony around, and he glanced back one last time at the skin-changer as he trotted out of the gates, wondering if he would ever see the Man again. "May you journey well and safe."

And with that, Bilbo left Beorn's house behind completely, and he followed the rest of the Company as they galloped away across the plains, towards the dark forest of Mirkwood in the distance.

The Company rode hard through the day, and there was no talk or laughter as they traversed the plains, trying to get to the forest as soon as possible. They paused briefly that night for a short rest, and there was still seldom any conversation before they retired and woke up early the next morning, continuing on as slate-grey clouds began to roll in from the east, the direction in which they were heading.

As they rode through the morning, Bilbo began to notice subtle differences in the landscape the nearer to Mirkwood they got. It started out as small things; how he noticed he could not hear the birds singing anymore, nor hear or see any other creature nearby as they pressed on, the discrepancies growing until finally they culminated outside of Mirkwood as they reached the forest.

Bilbo knew immediately when they had reached Mirkwood; if the looming wall of stunted and dark trees hadn't been enough to tell them, the very aura around the place proved Beorn's words of the foul forest true.

There was no sound at all, not a whisper of the wind or a breath of a woodland creature, and the air was heavy and stifling, hanging over the Company like the oppressing rain clouds above them. Bilbo stared at the tree-line, thinking he had never seen a place as uninviting as this; the trees were rotting and slimy, dark and grey with a few tattered leaves clinging to the branches, and the smells the forest gave off were one of decay and mold and many more unpleasant things.

In the middle of the tree-line stood a different sight, however, and upon closer inspection Bilbo could make it out as a stone path carving into the trees, surrounded at the opening by smooth, polished ivory structures he assumed were made to resemble an elk's antlers. But the encroaching forest around it gave off the impression of something sinister; the light stones were cracked and choked with poisonous roots, and the antler-like structures seemed to twist into the sky like a skeleton's fingers, clawing the air as if begging for release from this oppressing forest.

All in all, the place made Bilbo extremely uncomfortable and distraught; how could they expect to go into this place and come out alive? The very air reeked of death and illusion, and whatever confidence Bilbo had possessed earlier was slowly draining out of him the longer he looked at the forest.

Gandalf rode up beside him then, and Bilbo looked to see the Wizard gazing upon the forest warily, his piercing blue eyes coming to rest on the stone pathway.

"The Elven Road," he announced, as the Company spread out beside them, gazing at the dark forest with worry and fear. Gandalf made a disgruntled noise in the back of his throat, his eyes tight as he said: "Here lies our path through Mirkwood."

Aww did you guys think that because I broke the relationship off there wouldn't be any more fluff? Weeeelllll, let me tell you something!

And omg, J-Ash is going to Dol Guldur?! I wonder what is going to happen, and if he'll ever meet up with Alison and the Co. again? Guess we'll have to wait...

Anyway, we are finally set up for Mirkwood, and considering these are my favorite parts in the movie and book, I'm really excited to start working on them! Oh, it'll be soo much fun!

Oh, and to answer an anon question I received, the Hero Blade names (Natrem, Maodus, and Anddrilri) are actually names I sort-of came up with on my own (helped along by the study of other fantasy-lore dialects and many hours of playing around with words), so just in case anyone was curious as to where I got those names...there you go!

Any who, thank you for reading and reviewing! Please keep it up; y'all's support astounds me, and I appreciate it so much!

Thanks again, lovelies! Until next chapter...

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