The March of Time

27: A Barge and a Bowman

Disclaimer: I own nothing of Tolkien's or Jackson's works (sadly). I only own Alison and J-Ash (who are angry with me for claiming ownership of them now).

Chapter Twenty-Seven: A Barge and a Bowman

It took only a second for Alison to zero in on the longbow the man was holding, and with her mind still pumped full of adrenaline, the memory came back to her so forcefully it felt like a firework had gone off in her head: Bard.

Tall and grim-faced, with dark curls pulled back from his solemn features and rough dark gaze, he aimed the large bow at them with such ease that she had little trouble convincing herself that this was him, the Man from Lake-town that would inevitably save them from the firestorm that was coming with Smaug.

The man raked his sharp gaze over the Company, taking them in quickly, efficiently, but Alison saw the infinitesimal widening of his eyes when he noticed her and Johnathan, distinctly human amongst the Dwarves and Bilbo, but before he could say anything, Balin stepped forward, and the bow was trained on him in a heartbeat.

Balin held up his hands in a show of peace, though he faltered in his steps when Bard fixed the arrow upon him, but the wise Dwarf wasn't entirely fazed. "Uh, excuse me," he said politely. "But you're from Lake-town, if I'm not mistaken?"

Bard said nothing, but his eyes narrowed suspiciously. Balin switched his stare to somewhere behind Bard, and Alison saw the Dwarf's eyes light with interest at whatever he saw.

"That barge over there," Balin said slyly, gesturing behind the man, and Alison snuck a glance over Bard's shoulder to indeed see a simple barge docked on the other side of the bank before returning her gaze back to Balin and Bard. "It wouldn't be available for hire, by any chance, would it?"

"Depends on the party in question," Bard answered, in that same grim voice. "Thirteen Dwarves, a Halfling, and two humans seem far too suspicious for my taste. What are you doing here, on the borders of the Woodland Realm?"

"Our path through Mirkwood led us here," Balin said easily. "We are journeying to visit our kin in the Iron Hills, and we ran into a spot of trouble here with the Forest River." Balin gave a light-hearted chuckle, but Bard still did not lower his bow.

"That may be true for you Dwarves, but I do not see how a Halfling of the West and two humans fit into that tale," the bowman said, and then to everyone's surprise, it was Johnathan who stepped forward, looking as unruffled and cool as ever even when the bow was trained upon him.

"My cousin and I are considered defenders of travelers on the Road," the Hero said, and there was no trace of a smirk or arrogant tone in his voice; in fact, if Alison hadn't known him better, she would have thought that his play of casual politeness was real. She tried to keep her face neutral, as if this wasn't news to her, as Bard's eyes flickered back and forth between her and Johnathan.

"These Dwarves paid us to defend them on the Road as they crossed from Ered Luin to the Iron Hills," the younger man continued, and Alison was amazed at how well the lies slid off his tongue. "They did not know if they would face dangers on their journey or not, so they requested our assistance as a precaution." He gave a dry chuckle. "Poor chaps, never stepped foot outside of the Blue Mountains before; they didn't know what to expect. And everything was going well up until this point; that spell over Mirkwood does know how to lead travelers astray, I can tell you."

Bard still stared at them, looking dubious, but Alison saw his bow waver, as if considering Johnathan's words, and she was suddenly glad that the other Hero was here, or else they probably would've been stuck with an arrow in their chest long ago.

"And what of the Halfling?" Bard demanded. "I doubt that he has kin in the Iron Hills or is a defender of travelers. What is his purpose of journeying with you?"

Johnathan hesitated, chancing a glance at Alison, and the Dwarves looked back and forth between the two apprehensively as a pause fell over the bank.

Think, Ashburne, think, she thought to herself, and then her eyes landed on Kili and his wound, and she hoped Óin had put up his medicine pouch before speaking up.

"The Halfling is a healer," she said, stepping forward until those dark eyes and the bow were on her, though she noticed the bowstring had slackened somewhat as Bard faced her. She swallowed down her nervousness, praying she could tell this one convincing lie, before settling her expression and voice into that casual blankness Johnathan had done so well. "We met him in Bree, and there he offered us assistance. We could not say no to having a healer on the Road, and especially a skilled one at that."

It was silent for a long moment, Bard raking his gaze over each and every person gathered on the bank, before finally he nodded once and replaced the arrow into his quiver on his back and slung his bow over his shoulder.

"Very well," he said, and though his voice had taken on a crisp politeness, it sounded flat, almost as if he couldn't care one way or another. He started down the bank, and the Dwarves tensed, but he moved past them swiftly, making for the barrels lined up on the shore instead and picking one up, beginning to climb back up the bank with it in his arms without a word.

As he passed back by them with the barrel, Balin cleared his throat politely and said, "So, about that barge being available for hire…"

"I said it depended on the party involved," Bard replied easily. "And yet I am a bargeman, Master Dwarf, not a ferryman to shuttle people across the lake."

He disappeared over the ridge, heading back to his barge, and everyone looked to Balin, since he was obviously the diplomat in charge of this situation.

The old Dwarf looked stumped for a moment, before he looked to everyone and said, "Right, then. Grab a barrel and make for the barge. The least we can do is help."

Most of the Dwarves and Bilbo moved off down to the barrels, but some, like Glóin, Dori, Dwalin, and Thorin stayed where they were, looking at Balin incredulously.

"Its common courtesy," the white-haired Dwarf sighed at their looks. "And it could give us favor with the bargeman; he could want to help us if we show respect and a willing hand to lend."

He moved off down the bank to where the others were grabbing a barrel and beginning to haul it up the bank, and after exchanging a look with Johnathan, he and Alison made after him. After a slight hesitation, she heard the grudging footsteps of the other four Dwarves behind them as they followed.

Alison reached the bank and grabbed a barrel, half-shoving, half-rolling it up the rocks, until soon she had caught up to Kili, who carried his barrel with a clenched jaw and a slight limp, and Alison felt her heart twist when she spotted the bandage covering the wound on his right thigh.

"You all right?" she asked quietly as she gave her barrel another push, trying to keep her voice down so as not to draw too much unwanted attention to the younger prince, for she knew the stubborn pride of Dwarves and figured he wouldn't want to be seen being coddled or anything.

He gave her a sideways look out of the corner of his eye as they crested the small ridge, and she tried to not let her eyes linger on the sweat beading his pale face from the exertion of carrying the barrel.

"I'm fine," he replied tightly, as they neared the barge. "It's not an arrow in the hand, granted, but at least I'll live." He gave her a small grin, the one that made his eyes light up mischievously and never failed to make her smile in return despite how strained he looked. "What about you?" he continued, and he gestured to her cheek. "Are you all right?"

Alison stopped pushing the barrel for a moment, reaching up and brushing her fingers across the shallow slice on her cheek, which was now scabbing over with dried blood. She felt fine at the moment, but she knew she was going to be tremendously sore tomorrow from all of the fancy fighting she had done, and she was not looking forward to that.

"Yeah, I'm good, surprisingly," she said, returning to her task of rolling the barrel and wishing she was a Dwarf so she could just carry it normally without risking breaking her arms. "A few scratches and bruises, but, like you said, at least I'll live."

They watched Dwalin march by with his barrel for a moment before facing each other again, and Alison was reminded of their night in the cell for a brief moment before blocking off that train of thought quickly, feeling a slight stir of guilt and something else before the dark-haired Dwarf spoke again.

"I saw you, you know," he said quietly, and she raised her eyebrows. "Every now and then, I'd catch a glimpse of you fighting on the bank with Johnathan…" He shook his head, and her eyebrows rose higher at his pause. "I knew you could fight, but I didn't know you could fight like that, Alison. From what I saw, you were…incredible. It was like you've been doing it since you first learned to walk, not for only a few short months, and it was…quite fascinating, actually."

Alison felt her cheeks heat, but she didn't know why. It was a compliment, and a solid one at that, but somehow it didn't feel…right, really. She still thought of herself as a normal high school girl from a small town in Texas, and to be congratulated on something like killing…it didn't sit well with her. But she smiled gratefully nonetheless, and said, "Thanks. But I think you're forgetting who my teachers were; I wouldn't be anywhere without them."

She grinned cheekily, and he snorted at her look. "Of course," he said, as they came upon the barge with their barrels and deposited them on the bank for Bard to load. "Although my archery training seemed to have had no influence, since you've so obviously become a swordswoman."

She shrugged as they brought their barrels to a halt with the others. "At least I know how to use a bow; that's always beneficial."

He nodded. "That's true. And—" He suddenly winced as he stepped weirdly on a dislodged rock with his injured leg, and his breath hissed through his teeth as Alison looked up in alarm at his abrupt pain.

"Its fine," he said, waving her off. "Don't worry about me. I'll just, ah…" He limped over to a large rock where the rest of the Dwarves were starting to congregate, and Alison followed him in concern. He propped himself against the rock, taking pressure off of his wound, and Alison watched him carefully, aware of Fili and Johnathan coming to stand nearby as Balin continued his negotiations with Bard as the last of the barrels were lined up by the barge.

"What makes you think I would help you?" Bard asked of them as he began loading the barrels into his barge, methodically lining them up and keeping his eyes on his task rather than the Dwarves, Bilbo, and the Heroes.

"Those boots have seen better days, as has that coat," Balin replied, and Alison winced; she knew Balin wasn't saying it to be callous or spiteful, but it still made her feel uncomfortable that he had exploited Bard's low wealth, especially, when she took in his frayed coat and worn boots, because it was true.

Bard didn't reply immediately, continuing to move the barrels into the barge, but Alison saw the lines around his mouth deepen at the Dwarf's words as Balin continued on. "No doubt you have some hungry mouths to feed," he said, and a soft smile played around his bearded mouth. "How many bairns?"

Bard hesitated before answering, his features softening for a moment as he said, "A boy and two girls."

"And your wife, I imagine, she's a beauty?" Balin said kindly, but Alison saw the bargeman's shoulders stiffen.

"Aye," he said lowly, facing out over the lake beyond the barge. "She was."

Balin's face immediately fell, and he began to apologize, clearly trying to salvage the situation as Alison's heart tugged in pity for the man. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to—"

"Oh, come on, come on, enough with the niceties," Dwalin cut in gruffly, and everyone turned to look at the scowling warrior Dwarf as he glared at Bard.

"What's your hurry?" Bard said to Dwalin, seemingly bemused by the Dwarf's attitude.

"What's it to you?" Dwalin retorted, and Alison rolled her eyes at his hostility, wondering why Dwalin had to be stubborn at this particular moment.

"I'm simply curious," Bard replied, shrugging his broad shoulders. "It is rare to see Dwarves in these parts this time of year, especially a party so large and with such…interesting companions."

"Well, as we've said, we are simple merchants journeying to see our kin in the Iron Hills, and our companions are hired to help us cross these lands," Balin said hastily, before Dwalin could say anything more.

"Simple merchants, you say?" Bard echoed, and as he moved the last barrel, he rubbed his fingers across a gouge in the wood, made by an arrow, and Alison felt her apprehension rise as she realized how plainly the arrow mark stood out on the barrel, a remnant from their crazy chase down the river with the Orcs.

"We need food, supplies, weapons," Thorin said impatiently, stepping forward; his tone was harder and brisker than normal, and Alison figured his temper was making him shorter than usual, which she felt a flicker of guilt about; she would have to talk to the Dwarf king soon and get him to see her reasoning about Johnathan, for she knew she was right, despite his own reservations. "Can you help us?"

"I know where these barrels came from," Bard said, ignoring Thorin's request as he continued to finger the arrow gouges thoughtfully.

"What of it?" Thorin demanded.

"I don't know what business you had with the Elves, but I don't think it ended well," the bargeman replied, looking back up to the Dwarf king. "No one enters Lake-town but by lead of the Master. All his wealth comes from trade with the Woodland Realm. He would see you in irons before risking the wrath of King Thranduil."

He climbed into the barge, swinging his bow and quiver off his back and placing them on a bench at the stern of the barge, where the tiller was located to direct the vessel instead of a wheel. He untied one of the ropes from the dock and tossed it to Balin, turning away to adjust the tiller before taking off.

While his back was turned, Thorin gestured for Balin to offer more, and the older Dwarf shot him a patronizing look that clearly read, What do you think I'm trying to do? Thorin only nodded sharply, and Alison figured Balin was the only person who could give Thorin such a look and get away with it unscathed as he turned back to Bard.

"I'll wager there's a way to enter that town unseen," he said pointedly, and he caught Bard's attention again as the man looked at the white-haired Dwarf, bending down to unite the last rope from the dock.

"Aye. But for that you'd need a smuggler," he said.

"For which we would pay double," Balin said, and this piqued Bard's interest greatly as he turned to look at the Dwarf, and then the rest of the Company, obviously considering his words as he looked out across the lake again.

After a bated hesitation, Bard turned back to them and threw the last rope on the ground. "We have a deal," he said, stepping into the barge and looking at the Company. "Get in; we'll reach Lake-town early tomorrow morning, and then you can continue on your journey from there."

"Early tomorrow morning?" Johnathan gasped, lifting his head back over the side of the barge from where he had previously finished vomiting—for the third time since they left the dock. "Forget that, I'm going to be dead by tonight at this rate. Why does it take so long to get across a bloody lake?"

"It's a barge," Alison pointed out, coming up beside him and trying not to look as amused as she felt. "It's a slow boat, especially combined with the weight of all of us and the barrels, and there aren't strong enough currents in lakes to help us along."

Alison watched as Johnathan groaned, clinging to the side of the barge like a life-line and shutting his eyes, and she was amazed to see that his face had taken on a greenish tinge as they sailed along the lake, dusk falling upon the Company in the barge as Bard led them ever closer to Lake-town.

The going had been mostly silent, punctuated only by the sounds of the rudder drifting through the water as Bard steered the tiller, the quiet mutterings of the Dwarves near the bow of the barge, and Johnathan's periodic complaints and retching sounds as the sea-sickness made itself known in the Hero. Alison hadn't talked much to anyone, preferring to stay in solitude as the barge floated on, and also half-afraid that if she were to speak Thorin would remember how angry he was at her and start yelling at her about how Johnathan couldn't be trusted again. And that was a conversation she would gladly put off for a while.

"You know, of all the things in the world, I find it kind of surprising that you suffer from sea-sickness," she remarked, leaning on the railing next to the other warrior as he spat into the water, and he glared at her nonchalance.

"We all have our flaws," he said. "Though I can say I'm blessed to not have as many as the average person."

Alison rolled her eyes. "You're insufferable," she said. "No wonder the Valar put you to sleep for a millennium."

Johnathan chuckled, then winced, his scar rippling with the movement of his face. "Ooh, that was a mistake. I think I feel lunch coming back up again."

Alison watched him for a moment, ignoring his humor and feeling her curiosity perk as the day's events wound down in her mind, generating questions she hadn't had the time for earlier with all that was going on, but now they came to the forefront of her mind again, no longer barricaded behind a wall of adrenaline.

"Why did you come back, Johnathan?" she said abruptly, and the warrior gave her a look from under heavy-lidded eyes.

"Isn't it obvious?" he said lowly, trying to refrain from the Dwarves and Bard overhearing their conversation. "I was sent to help you, cousin. The Valar brought me back for the sole purpose of aiding you, and I wasn't going to go against that. I don't care what your little friends say; I am here to help you, and only you."

"You keep saying that," she said. "That you're sent to help me. But what exactly are helping me with?" She met his eyes solemnly, pale green against fathomless black, and he shook his head, his face pale and wan.

"It's hard to say exactly," he said. "The Valar's purposes are never entirely clear. But I do have my own guesses." Alison raised her brows, urging him on; if she was going to trust him, she needed to know what was going on, but she also felt a sense of reluctance; what if he told her he was sent because the Valar didn't think she was worthy enough for the quest; that she would fail unless she had his help? Every fear and doubt she had felt at Johnathan's initial arrival had come rushing back with the reappearance of the other warrior, and she didn't know if she could handle it if he told her the Valar didn't trust in her capability anymore.

"You know I went to Dol Guldur to track those Orcs, while you lot went to Mirkwood," he said, giving her a pointed look, and she shifted slightly, feeling a small flicker of guilt at the reminder of having left him behind. "I did as Beorn instructed; I stayed away, I didn't engage them, and I only got their numbers." He snorted softly. "Or at least tried, I should say."

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"A spell of concealment lies over those ruins," he said. "It is impenetrable, and even a mortal like me could still tell how powerful it was just from being near it." His face seemed to grow paler as he swallowed, and Alison didn't know if it was from the sea-sickness or from something else. "But I knew then that it was true; that a Necromancer had indeed taken up residence there, for what else could have made an enchantment so strong besides the Istari?

"So I watched, and I waited for the Orcs to come out and make themselves known again. But nothing happened for several days, until…" He trailed off, suddenly looking very waxen in the light of the setting sun, his eyes becoming deeper, more shadowy. "I had a dream on the third night. It came to me, it spoke to me. It…" he swallowed again, raking a hand through his sweaty blonde hair, and he dropped his voice even lower so Alison had to lean in to hear him. "It told me war was coming, and that it could not be stopped. The way it spoke, the words it said…" He shivered, and Alison felt chills course down her own spine.

"Beorn was wrong, Alison," he said grimly. "That Necromancer is no human sorcerer; it is something far greater, far more powerful and…evil. And when I woke up, I saw that pack of Orcs coming out of the gates, and knew I had to follow them, for they were undoubtedly after you."

"That still doesn't explain why the Valar need you to help me," she said, and her throat had gone dry at his words, recalling her conversation with Lady Galadriel in Rivendell all those weeks ago and what she had been dreaming in these last few weeks alone.

"It's the Necromancer, Alison," he said, his hands tightening on the barge railing. "There's something going on at Dol Guldur, and I'm sure the Valar want us to work together to figure out what it is. It's the only explanation of why I was awoken for you."

"But I can't abandon the Company," she whispered. "The Valar called on me to help them, and I can't go off with you and leave them now. Not after how close we are—"

Alison stopped, shutting her mouth instantly. She had almost given away their quest, she had almost let it slip that they were going towards the Lonely Mountain—

"I'm not stupid, Alison," he said in exasperation. "I guessed your purpose some time ago of what you were doing in the Company of Thorin Oakenshield. Traveling to see kin in the Iron Hills, indeed."

She stared at him blankly as he smirked back, wondering how on earth he suddenly knew of their quest.

"Don't look so surprised," he said. "It wasn't that hard to figure out, really. I knew I had heard Thorin's name before, and going through Mirkwood was one of the only ways to get to the Lonely Mountain. Though I must say, I didn't expect you to have a death wish, cousin. This quest is practically suicidal."

Alison looked at him sharply. "I do not have a death wish, and neither does anyone in this Company," she hissed. "Their quest is noble, and it is done out of the greater good to give the Dwarves their homeland back, not out of greed or pride, and I will stand by them until the end until I see their quest finished and triumphant."

She tried to ignore the image of Thorin that popped up when she had said pride or greed as Johnathan held up his hands in surrender, still managing to smirk perfectly despite hanging halfway over a barge railing, his face still tinged with some green and looking like he was about to hurl again any second.

"All right, all right," he conceded. "I'll trust you that you can complete this quest. But I'm still here, too, Alison, and that Necromancer isn't going to disappear once you kill that dragon and take back the Mountain. We have to do something."

"I know," she sighed, suddenly feeling exhausted and strained, like she was being pulled in several different directions at once. "And I will help you with that if I can. But I have to do this quest first. It's what I was brought here for, and I must see it through. Even if it kills me."

The last part came out as a whisper, and as soon as it was out, Alison was hit with a crippling sense of fear and panic, the enormity of what she had to do clawing at her insides like some wild beast, filling her with both fiery determination and numbing fear.

They were on their way to Lake-town, and from there, they would be going to the Lonely Mountain. They were going to face Smaug, and if events followed the book, Smaug was going to go to Lake-town and destroy it, the Man behind her steering their barge was going to kill the dragon, and him and Thranduil were going to team up and demand a share of the treasure from Thorin, who would be so far gone already with the gold-sickness that he would risk open war—and open war was upon them.

The goblins and Orcs would march on the mountain, Alison could lose the line of Durin, and the Necromancer would flee, biding his time until he was Sauron once more, for Alison had no doubt now that what Gandalf had told her before he left was true; after her dreams and Galadriel's warning and Johnathan's arrival, she knew that she now had to counter on two fronts, and she was terrified. She could die in any one of these events. She had managed to stay alive so far because of luck and the greater actions of others. And she was afraid that now, as she stepped up to take control of fate, she would perish before she could save anyone, and she would be lost, never to return to her family or Middle-earth again.

It was all too much, and Alison felt tears threatening at the corners of her eyes, but she blinked several times, trying to dash them away before Johnathan saw. She didn't want to look weak in front of him; after all, he had faced more terrible things than her during his own quest, and though a dragon was a pretty impossible odd, a war against Sauron himself somehow seemed tenfold more dangerous and horrible.

Johnathan said nothing, no snide remarks about her tears or a comforting squeeze, either, but somehow that was better to Alison. This wasn't a movie or a fairy-tale, where the wise old mentor said a few inspiring words and gave the hero the courage they needed to continue on; this was real life, and Alison knew she had to find her own courage by herself. No one could magically give her the strength she needed to push on and complete her task. She had to do it herself, for this was her one chance to change fate, and if she didn't find a way, then no one would.

"I thought I was done with this," Johnathan said abruptly, and Alison looked to him, her thoughts dissipating as she detected a hint of bitterness in the other Hero's voice. He kept his eyes on the dark horizon, his scar rippling as he frowned. "I was summoned here a thousand years ago; I did what I had to do. I fought for Middle-earth, and if the Valar are right, then I'm going to have to do it again. I thought I was finished."

"Then why did you stay in Middle-earth after the war?" she asked softly, confused by his sudden bitterness. "There was no record of you going back to the mortal world…"

Johnathan chuckled harshly. "Like I had anything to go back to, anyway." At Alison's puzzled look he sighed, his face becoming a blank mask once more. "I was born in a small English village in 1346," he began. "When I was two years old, my father died from the Black Plague, and we moved towns, partly to escape the outbreak of the disease and partly because my mother couldn't bear to live there anymore after what had happened to my father. I had two siblings; an older sister named Isobel, and a younger brother named Will. When I was ten, Isobel died from fever, and when I was fourteen, Will died from starvation and dysentery. That same winter, my mother hung herself out of grief."

Alison's lips parted in shock, feeling something hollow open up in her stomach at Johnathan's words, and berating herself for being so blunt. Why did she always have to be so callous when asking questions? "I'm so sorry, Johnathan. I had no idea—"

"It was a long time ago," he said flatly, cutting her off. "I had to learn how to fend for myself when I was fifteen, and I took to the streets. I…did some things I'm not proud of. I vandalized, I got into fights at least twice a night, I stole…" He took a deep breath. "But when I was summoned to Middle-earth at sixteen, I saw an opportunity to start again. I could become a better person, and help people this time. I could save them. And that was what kept me here. Even after twelve years of war, I wanted to stay. I had nothing left in the mortal world, and this place became home to me. So that was why I stayed after my task was completed."

Alison nodded, not quite sure how to respond without sounding completely fake and sickeningly sympathetic, until a sudden thought jumped out at her.

"Wait," she said. "You said 'twelve years of war.' The War of the Last Alliance lasted twelve years?"

He nodded, confused by her shocked expression. "Two years were spent by King Elendil and the High King of the Noldor, Gil-galad, gathering their forces to prepare for the war. I had awoken in Gondor, so I was a part of the Númenórean forces and spent those two years in Minas Anor. Elendil and Isildur met Gil-galad at the watchtower of Amon Sûl at Weathertop, and from there we traveled to Rivendell, where we spent the next three years forging weapons, strategizing, and training our armies. Then we traveled over the Misty Mountains, where Durin VI and his Dwarven forces from Moria joined us in our march to Mordor. From there we went south down the River Anduin, recruiting the forces of Oropher and Amdir, the kings of the Greenwood and Lórien. We were then joined by Anárion, brother of Isildur, who led his own army of Númenóreans from Arnor. We fought many battles before we reached Mordor, and then we fought the Battle of Dagorlad, where we then lay siege to Barad-dûr for seven years, until Sauron eventually came out to fight, and, well, you know what happened next." He shrugged. "But yes, technically twelve years of war."

Alison stared, uncomprehending; besides not knowing half of the words he just said (to which she then made a silent vow to read all of Tolkien's works when she got back home), it didn't add up.

"That makes no sense," she said, her mind spinning, and he raised a fair brow. "You said you were sixteen when you were summoned here, and after twelve years of war, you would be almost thirty right now, and you don't look a day over twenty! How is that even possible?"

"Wait, you don't know why?" he said, looking at her in confusion, and she just stared back as his eyes widened at her expression. "Good Lord, you really don't."

"I think we established that already," she said irritably. "What don't I know, Johnathan? Are you some sort of Elf or something?"

"Far from that," he said, cracking a grin. "Are you familiar with the Dúnedain of the North?" He waved her off, just as she opened her mouth to say something sarcastic. "Never mind, stupid question. Anyway, the Dúnedain Rangers are descendants of the Númenóreans, and long story short, but they had unusually long life for Men, living from somewhere between two hundred and forty to two hundred and fifty years. The Ashburne Heroes are indirectly related to the Númenóreans and the Dúnedain, and because of that relationship…"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Alison said, holding up her hands. "Are you saying that you're still young because you live longer than a normal human? You're going to live for two hundred years?"

"Correct," he said. "And if you stay in Middle-earth, so will you."

"Excuse me?" Alison said. "That's—no—there's no way. That's impossible—"

Johnathan sighed theatrically. "Again, you're being too mundane. It's not impossible. The First Heroes lived far longer than us, at least four hundred to five hundred years, and they passed that on to us, though the years whittled down as time went on. If we choose to stay in Middle-earth, we will be granted that same gift, that same lifespan. I'm living proof of that." Then a crease formed between his eyebrows. "Well, kind of. I have been sleeping for a thousand years also, so…"

Alison ignored him, feeling her stomach churn. He was going to live for over two hundred years. And if what he said was true, she would too, if she chose to stay in Middle-earth. She looked down at her hands, tanned and spotted with a few fading sun-freckles, but smooth and young-looking. She could be like this for another hundred years; strong, young, healthy, vibrant. She wouldn't have to bow to death so soon. And it gave her time. She wouldn't have to be pressured to end the threat of the Necromancer immediately after finishing the quest for the Lonely Mountain. She could take a break, and train, and regroup before embarking on the second task the Valar appointed to her, for she knew what she had to do now; Johnathan had helped her to see that this wouldn't end with the death of Smaug or the Battle of the Five Armies; Sauron would still be out there, and her and Johnathan would have to stop him.

Despite the new surge of hope this news brought to her, though, Alison felt something else swirling inside of her. It wasn't natural, for the Heroes to have that long of a lifespan; they were Men, too, and to be granted an extra hundred, two hundred years of life, when mortals in her own world and Men like Bard did not—something about it made her feel guilty, and oddly disgusted with herself.

Alison took a deep breath, leaning against the side of the barge. She had just been hit with a myriad of information, and a barrage of emotions roiled inside of her like a stormy sea, rendering her incapable of knowing what she felt and what she should do now.

"How did all of this get so damn complicated?" She whispered, and she was horrified to feel tears welling up again, thought this time she didn't care if Johnathan saw. "I don't know what to do anymore, and I'm…" Her voice cracked, but she swallowed past the lump in her throat. "I'm so afraid, Johnathan. I'm afraid that I'm going to fail, and that I'm going to lose everything. I'm so afraid."

The tears were falling now, and Alison pressed a hand to her mouth, not wanting to let the Dwarves, Bilbo, or Bard see her in such a vulnerable state. But everything she had said to Johnathan was true. And for the first time since her arrival in Middle-earth, Alison just wanted to go home, and leave this task to somebody else. She didn't volunteer for this, and now the weight of two worlds was on her shoulders. Why her?

"Everyone is afraid, Alison," Johnathan said quietly, placing a hand over her own on the railing. It was cold and clammy, but somehow it seemed to anchor her in place, to keep her from spiraling out of control. "Hell, even I'm afraid, and I've done this sort of thing before. But fear can inspire us to do a great many things, if given the chance. And you have a chance, Alison. The Valar believe it, your friends believe it, and so do I."

Alison brushed some of the tears from her face, cursing herself for breaking down. "I didn't think you'd believe in anything of that sort." She said, her voice coming out croaky.

"I didn't," he said. "Until I got my own second chance."

They fell into silence then, staring out at the darkened lake, and Alison could imagine the shadows lightening just a bit, to something not so dark and depthless anymore, and that gave her some small hope as the barge continued on into the night.

"Such is the nature of Evil." Thranduil's emotionless voice echoed around the halls of the throne room, cold and smooth and deadly, the silver tongue of a serpent, made even more pronounced as he glided around the platform beneath his throne, his rich red robes trailing him like a rippling artery of blood as he circled around the Orc centered on its knees in the middle of the platform.

Tauriel watched Thranduil pace around the platform, his silvery hair lighting to fair gold in the light from the lamps and archways above, as Legolas took charge of the Orc, as fierce and biting as a harsh winter morning as he held one of his curved knives to the throat of the Orc, a particularly vile one Legolas had told her to spare in order to question it after the attack at the water-gate yesterday afternoon.

Legolas and Tauriel had brought the Orc back, fighting and cursing in its black tongue, locking it in the dungeons the escaped Dwarves had previously occupied until Thranduil was ready to question it after getting detailed accounts of what had transpired at the water-gate, what with the mysterious liberation of the Dwarves and the Ashburne warrior and the sudden attack from the Orcs. Needless to say, Thranduil had not been pleased, and Tauriel knew this Orc prisoner was probably going to take the brunt of the Woodland King's frozen temper.

Not that she minded. This Orc had attacked the borders she was in charge of, had caused the deaths of some of her most trusted guards, and had attempted to kill their prisoners. They were nothing more than mindless savages, and Tauriel despised their disregard for all living things. She considered it cowardice, and the longer she faced this Orc, the more she felt her anger threatening to rise.

"Out there in the vast ignorance of the world it festers and spreads," Thranduil continued, and Tauriel saw him place a light hand on the curved sword at his waist, an adornment he rarely carried with him anymore unless serious times called for it, times when the relative peace of Mirkwood was stirred. "A shadow that grows in the dark. A sleepless malice as black as the oncoming wall of night. So it ever was. So it will always be. In time, all foul things come forth."

Thranduil stopped pacing, standing behind the Orc and boring his ice-blue eyes into the back of its head as the Orc leered, unaffected by the Elven-king's ominous words. Tauriel began to pace in front of the Orc, aware of its eyes upon her, but she only listened as Legolas said, "You were tracking a Company of thirteen Dwarves and a human girl. Why?"

The Orc barked out a rusty laugh, and the sound grated on Tauriel's eardrums, setting her teeth on edge at the horrid noise. "Not thirteen," it rasped, and Tauriel turned, amazed to hear that the Orc was amused, bordering on a malicious glee. "Not anymore."

Tauriel looked at the Orc, her muscles instinctively tensing as the creature snapped its jaw in a grotesque imitation of laughter, its yellow eyes boring into her with a hatred and twisted, malevolent humor. "The young one," it hissed. "The black-haired archer. We stuck him with a Morgul shaft."

Tauriel's fingertips went cold, recalling in vivid detail how she had watched the younger Dwarf, the one she had spoken to that night in the dungeons, rush to save his friends atop the water-gate, and she saw, in slow, detailed motion, the arrow pierce the Dwarf's thigh, heard his cry of pain.

The anger was rising in Tauriel again as the Orc snarled a rasp of laughter, still leering at her with the same sickly smile. "The poison's in his blood," the Orc said, almost cooing. "He'll be choking on it soon."

Cowardice. Tauriel thought vehemently. Nothing but cowardice.

"Answer the question, filth," she said lowly, dangerously, and the Orc's face contorted at her tone.

"Sha hakhtiz khunai-go, Golgi!" The Orc spat, and something inside Tauriel snapped.

She grabbed for one of the blades on her waist, unsheathing it with a flourish, watching as the Orc's eyes followed its movement before snapping back to her, snarling.

"I would not antagonize her," Legolas warned coldly, pressing his blade more firmly against the Orc's throat as it shifted violently, still eyeing her with grim satisfaction at her reaction, but Tauriel could not force herself to calm down, not when this thing was goading her so relentlessly. Cowardice.

"You like killing things, Orc?" She asked, and she was faintly surprised to hear her voice come out steadily, despite how shaken her anger was making her inside. "You like death?" The Orc snarled at her once more, and Tauriel's temper flared. "Then let me give it to you!"

In a blur, she lunged for the Orc; a distant part of her screamed that this wasn't right, that she should not stoop so low as to the level of the creature before her, but Tauriel was furious; cowards didn't deserve such mercy, cowards—

But something in Tauriel stopped her just as her blade moved to cut the Orc's head from its shoulders, and she froze instantly, only a few inches away from the foul-smelling Orc as it glared balefully at her, just as Thranduil's voice ordered sharply, "Farn! Tauriel, ego!"

Tauriel tore her eyes away from the Orc before her, meeting Thranduil's flat gaze that burned ever so slightly with a fire that could equally scorch her and freeze her at the same time. "Gwao hi." He commanded, and Tauriel got to her feet as if in a daze, blinking hard as the anger that had risen so suddenly in her dissipated, leaving her confused and oddly blank.

Tauriel looked back down to the Orc, and it snarled at her as she met its hateful eyes, and something in her seemed to harden as she looked back to Thranduil. The Elven-king raised a brow dangerously, and Tauriel decided to take her leave, refusing to meet Legolas' eyes as she bowed once, stiffly, and walked towards the far doors of the throne room.

She heard Thranduil's voice behind her as if coming from underwater as Tauriel moved away from the platform and the Orc, and when she reached the doors of the throne room and stepped out, it took her a moment to realize that the hardening in her chest had begun to burn, sending flames of…something throughout her body.

As if her feet had a mind of their own, she found herself heading towards the guard room, and when she entered, she noticed with relief that no one else was in it. She sat down in a chair, trying to reign in her emotions.

Tauriel was frightened by the behavior she had exhibited in the throne room, and now she couldn't help but to wonder what she would have done to the Orc had Thranduil not stopped her. But she had stopped herself, hadn't she? She had regained her senses at the last moment. She would not have killed that Orc in such a way, when it was defenseless and at her mercy; she was not one of those creatures, and she never would be.

But oh, how it had antagonized her. Orcs cared nothing for the lives of others, and that blatant disregard had gotten under Tauriel's skin, especially when it had relished in the fact that one of the Dwarves had been poisoned, and would soon be dead…

Kili, she thought distantly. The Dwarf's name is Kili.

She wondered if the others had found out about the true extent of their companion's wound by now, and something akin to worry settled in Tauriel's gut at the thought. She remembered how lively and innocent Kili had been, and she recalled his words as her mind strayed once again to the image of him being shot with the arrow, "She thinks I'm reckless." And then, unbidden, another image came to Tauriel's mind, of him lying deathly still, the pallor of lifelessness coating his skin…

Another flare coursed through Tauriel, and she realized then that the flames she was feeling from within her chest to her fingertips was determination, and the resolve came to her that she knew what she had to do.

Tauriel got up and moved to her captain's quarters, donning an armor-bodice of thick green material, re-strapping her blades to her waist, and grabbing her bow and quiver and slinging them on her back before moving swiftly out of the room and back down to the main front gates.

Cowardice was one thing she could not tolerate, and Tauriel thought that hunting Dwarves down like a pack of savage dogs brought the Orcs to new levels of gutlessness and cruelty, and she would not, could not stand for it. And knowing that one of the Dwarves was mortally wounded, while his companions may not know, seemed like an imbalance of fate to Tauriel, and she couldn't sit back and do nothing. These Orcs were part of something much greater than just a simple hunting party tracking a Company of Dwarves and an Ashburne Hero, and while Thranduil may be content to turn a blind eye to the happenings of the outside world, she was not.

Tauriel emerged from the halls and into the bright sunlight of the late morning, nodding to the guards posted outside of the front gates. She saw a dark-haired sentry making for the doors behind her as he crossed the bridge, and Tauriel inclined her head as the sentry nodded respectfully to her.

"Captain," he said briskly as Tauriel walked past him on the bridge. "Where are you off to, if I may ask?"

"Out, Feren," she answered shortly, not in the mood for questions as she quickly crossed the bridge and entered the tree-line, turning east to the direction of the water-gate.

As Tauriel trekked through the trampled undergrowth and snapped branches of the path the Orcs had made the day before, she felt the first pangs of guilt go through her as she pressed on. What she was doing could be considered treasonous; she was defying Thranduil and going off on her own without his express permission, leaving behind her position as Captain of the Guard temporarily to hunt down a pack of Orcs, who were in turn hunting down a Company of their prisoners. But Tauriel had to shove those feelings away, knowing that what she was doing was right. Though Thranduil chose not to believe it, the Wood-Elves were a part of Arda as a whole, and sitting back and doing nothing as darkness fell was not something she was keen on doing.

Swallowing her qualms, Tauriel pushed on after the path the Orcs had left, leaving the Halls of the Woodland Realm behind as she began a hunt of her own.

Author's Note: Everything in here is kind of already translated in the movie, so I won't be providing any translations. Though I'm just happy I could get my hands on that dabble of Black Speech.

Ah, yes, I know. The dreaded filler chapter. But I'm splitting this next part into three different chapters, and hopefully by the last one you'll understand my reasoning for it. A pretty uneventful chapter, but wow what a lot of character stuff! I don't know, guys, J-Ash is kind of starting to grow on me... Hopefully I was able to give him more background and flesh out his own time in Middle-earth during his own quest, and I researched the War of the Last Alliance to the best of my ability to help that. But now the question is: can he be trusted? The Necromancer and everything seems like a good reason, but I sense something else our dear J-Ash isn't telling Alison...hmm. And I love writing from Tauriel's POV so much, because it gives so much more reasoning for her actions and everything, which I adore, so yeah.

Anyway, thank you all for your lovely reviews last time, and for the new favorites and followers on this story! And for all the oldies, a massive thank you to you all, as well! Feel free to drop a review for this chapter, I love hearing from you all, and I will see y'all next time!

Thanks again, lovelies. Until next chapter...

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