The March of Time

29: Shadow's Pawn

Disclaimer: I own nothing, except for Alison and Johnathan (who I might disown after this), and anything else you don't recognize.

Quick A/N: Well, I warned you.

Chapter Twenty-Nine: Shadow's Pawn

"I knew there was a reason I never liked seafood," Alison grumbled as she hauled herself out of the barrel, shivering as the chilly, slimy scales of the fish slid over her skin as the rest of the Dwarves and Bilbo around her emerged from their own barrels.

Bard and Johnathan watched them climb out of the barrels, Johnathan looking like he was trying not to burst out laughing as Bard went around trying to assist them. When he got to Dwalin, however, still in his barrel, the bald Dwarf snarled, "Get your hands off me!" and Bard obeyed, raising his hands in a placating gesture but deciding not to help the Dwarves anymore as he rejoined Johnathan on the dock.

As Alison clambered out of the barge, pulling a minnow sort of thing out of her shirt with a shudder, she saw a very confused old man watching their party, until Bard noticed and passed the man a silver coin.

"You didn't see them, they were never here," the bargeman said, and the other man nodded, though he still looked completely baffled as the Dwarves and Bilbo congregated on the dock, eyeing their surroundings warily. "The fish you can keep for nothing." Bard added. At this, the old man's eyes widened and he nodded vigorously, and Bard gestured them after him with a brisk, "Follow me."

He peeked his head around a corner before signaling for them to move, and the Company began to creep after the Lakeman, keeping their heads down and sticking to the shadows as they moved silently throughout the town, weaving under houses perched precariously on stilts and through abandoned, cramped alleyways reeking of fish and putrid lake water. Alison's nose twitched in disgust at the stench, though she felt a stab of pity for the poor living conditions of this run-down, dilapidated town and its people, who were as equally worn and frail as the houses around them, which looked like they could fall into the water at any moment.

As they continued to creep along the winding path Bard was setting for them, Alison wrapped her arms around herself and rubbed her hands over them to warm her up; despite it being almost noon, it was now mid-October, and this wasn't Texas; she wasn't used to it being so cold.

And then, she flashed back to an October day nearly a year ago, when she had been trekking through the rain to reach a desolate bus stop on the side of a lonely road, waiting for a bus as an old man who had introduced himself as Ian McKellen sat beside her, asking if she had ever gone on an adventure before…

The memory sent a flood of homesickness, nostalgia, and shock through her, all at once. It had officially been a year since Gandalf had first sought her out, and though she hadn't arrived in Middle-earth until April, the realization of it still made Alison's head reel that in one year, her life had changed so drastically and so finally. It was quite hard to imagine her having a normal life before all of this, and she shook her head, not even wanting to start down that path.

Alison shivered the farther they went on into Lake-town, and it wasn't until a few minutes later that she felt someone drop back to her side, and she looked up, seeing Fili beside her.

Though he was dressed simply in a brown tunic and trousers, his blonde hair disheveled and unadorned with his usual silver clasps, he still looked every bit the prince he was as he walked beside her, still calm and cool and collected, with a proud set to his shoulders and a certain gleam in his gray-blue eyes that added to his features, and Alison looked to him, raising a brow as he met her eyes.

"Cold?" he asked, and Alison huffed.

"Not at all," she said sarcastically. "It's just my automated vibration system at work."

He stared at her blankly, obviously not knowing what half of that meant, but he still grinned all the same, ducking beneath a shirt hanging from a clothesline in his path, and Alison realized then with a start that she was directly at eye-level with the Dwarf now; he had always been a couple inches taller than her (which had never made any sense to her), but it seemed that during the months, she had finally caught up to him, which excited and frightened her in equal measure, as she thought back to Johnathan's words about her having an extended life if she were to stay in Middle-earth, and she wondered if her sudden growth spurt had anything to do with that.

"So, how's Kili doing?" she asked, to break the slight silence between them and distract her from thoughts about living until she was over two hundred, but she kept her voice low as they continued to creep through the town.

Fili rolled his eyes as they both avoided another thin, damp shirt hanging in their path. "You know Kili," he said. "He could be missing an arm and he'd still assure you he was fine."

Alison snorted. "Are all Dwarves as stubborn as you guys?"

Fili only grinned in reply, the impish smile eerily familiar since it was the same one his brother shared, and Alison jerked her head back over her shoulder to where Kili was walking somewhere behind them. "You should go check on him, at least. I don't know that much about arrow wounds, but I think it's hurting him a lot more than he's letting on."

"Is that a dismissal, Mother?" He said jokingly, and Alison grinned, her eyes catching a glimpse of movement from ahead of them.

"You should take it as such, unless you'd rather be in the company of one of your favorite people," she replied, giving a pointed glance up ahead to where Johnathan was dropping his way back towards them, and Fili grimaced.

"You're right," he said. "I'll go check on Kili."

Alison concealed a grin as the fair-haired Dwarf moved away from her, hiding her amusement of his detestation for Johnathan as said Hero began walking casually at her shoulder, his hands shoved deep into his jacket pockets and his numerous weapons clinking softly with his movements.

"Johnathan," she greeted cordially, keeping her eyes on Bard's back as they continued to weave under houses and through alleys.

"Cousin," he returned, just as formally, and there was a slight pause where they didn't speak for several moments. Alison said nothing, not knowing what exactly to say after their serious conversation the night before; she was still reeling from the bombshell he dropped on her, what with the extended life of a Hero and his own experiences in the war, and she felt quite…intimidated now. Like she was back to square one and didn't know what to make of this Hero who had seen and done so much more than her.

After a few minutes, Johnathan broke the silence again, his customary smirk returning to his pale face, now devoid of any green or sweat, as he said, "So, should I be curious about your choice in suitors at all?"

He lifted a brow, gazing at her, and it took a few moments until she realized what he meant and her face heated, whether from embarrassment or irritation she couldn't tell.

"There's nothing going on between Fili and me," she mumbled, trying not to let the others hear, and as the words came off her tongue she suddenly noticed how tired she was of saying that. "We're just companions on the same quest, and friends."

Johnathan shrugged. "Whatever you say," he replied coolly. "But remember, Alison: you are a Hero, descended from one of the greatest of Men in the history of this world: greater, dare I say it, than even the ancient Númenóreans. Our blood is the forerunner of all Men in this world, and because of that, we have a higher calling. Do not lose your heart to someone who could only hinder you and your true purpose as a Hero of Old. It will not bode well for either of you."

Alison felt stung, as if she had just been slapped across the face. Not only was that almost a veiled prejudicial remark, but he had no right to interfere in her life like that, anyway. It wasn't like they were better than anyone else just because some warrior guy was their ancestor. And all that "do not lose your heart" stuff made Alison want to gag.

"Trust me, I'm not losing my heart to anything," she hissed. "But you might lose a limb if you ever bring this up again."

Johnathan merely chortled. "I almost forgot how defensive women can be," he said amusedly. "Especially you, cousin; it's refreshing."

Alison felt something jump in her jaw. "Have I ever told you that sometimes I really want to punch you in the throat?"

"I don't think so."

"Well, I do."

He chuckled again as Bard suddenly stopped, whirling around and gesturing for them to hide. "Move!" He mouthed, and as the Dwarves ducked behind clotheslines and stilts and crates, Bard pulled Alison and Johnathan behind a rotting wooden door and crouched there, poking his head around the side of the decayed wood to get a better look ahead of them.

Alison copied him, watching as a few very unprofessional-looking guards strode past, and when they were gone, she met the Lakeman's gaze with a puzzled look.

"We could all be arrested if we were found," the Man said in reply to her look, straightening up and towering almost a good foot above her, despite her recent growth spurt. "You do not have permission from the Master to be within this town, and the guards take that law very seriously."

"I know that," she said, meeting his dark gaze steadily and trying not to feel like she should not speak unless spoken to. "But you didn't have to hide with us. What was that about?"

Bard looked uncomfortable as the Dwarves and Bilbo crept out from behind their hiding places, and he hefted his quiver higher upon his shoulder before answering. "I may not be in the Master's good books at the moment," he said, and Alison raised her brows as he grimaced. "And I may have spies tailing me now."

Alison nodded, choosing not to pester him further as he gestured for them to continue following after him, and she wondered where the heck this guy's house was and why it had to be so far from the docks as they pressed on.

Johnathan fell into step beside her again, and she braced herself for more snide comments about her love life or advice from the "Golden Fountain of All Things Hero and Warrior" that always seemed to spout from his mouth, but what he said instead was quite different.

"You know, it's times like this when I wish I had a fancy little ring like your Hobbit friend so we wouldn't have to sneak around," he sighed, and Alison opened her mouth to answer, except nothing came out.

A sudden feeling in her chest flared a warning, and after months of experiencing this sensation, Alison finally knew what it meant: that something wasn't right. Alison met Johnathan's fathomless gaze before her eyes roved backwards, and landed on Bilbo trailing after the group, looking around thoughtfully with keen brown eyes, and Alison's eyes then strayed to his waistcoat pocket…

It happened in a blur. One second they were walking side by side, and the next Alison had swung around, whipping out Natrem in one smooth movement and holding the blade to Johnathan's throat, just as she became aware of the dagger at her gut, poised to pierce her abdomen as Johnathan held it, meeting her eyes and smirking.

Alison's heart was pounding, the blood pulsing loudly in her ears, as everything crashed down on her at once. Johnathan's arrival, Galadriel's warning, Bilbo's ring, her dreams of Dol Guldur and the figure she had seen meeting Azog, the awful voice that hadn't been speaking to her, but rather…

"It was you," Alison breathed, and she was aware of the Company, standing stock-still and open-mouthed around her, watching as she did not lower her sword from Johnathan's throat, nor did his dagger waver from her gut, but she could only stare at Johnathan, feeling a horrible sense of dread flooding her body. "You were the one she warned me about…"

And as if her thoughts had conjured her, Alison heard Galadriel's voice whispering in her head: "Blood calls to blood. A Shadow watches you, Maethor, a Shadow that will try to consume you. You must not succumb to it as your ancestors did." Blood calls to blood…the Shadow…her ancestors…

Alison could not form coherent sentences, but her mind was screaming that she was right, that she was so foolish to have missed it. There was no possible way Johnathan could know about Bilbo's ring; he hadn't been with them when the Hobbit had found it, he didn't know the story like her and Gandalf did, and Bilbo hadn't told anyone what he carried in his possession…

Johnathan watched her almost predatorily, his black eyes alight with a fire she had seen when he had been fighting the Orcs on the riverbank. It was a manic, almost mad fire, consuming the black depths and giving him a savage look.

"You don't believe that the Valar could have told me what your little friend was to find before they awoke me?" He said, and his voice was silky smooth and low, almost like a purr. "You don't think they could have known about it, and passed that information on to me?"

Alison's sword wavered, but she held firm. It all made so much sense; she had to be right. Johnathan was lying now, just as he had lied this whole time…

"I would believe you," she said, and she was surprised to hear her voice come out steadily, despite how shaken her sudden revelation was making her feel. "I would have, except I know now it's you who I've been seeing in my dreams. Tracking Orcs to Dol Guldur, indeed."

Johnathan's smirk grew wider at the echo of his own words, except now it wasn't sarcastic and sneering; it was something colder, much more deadly, and it unnerved Alison greatly.

"What a clever girl," he drawled, and every word dripped with poison as they continued to stand the way they were, the Company and Bard watching them with growing alarm, unease, and fright, not knowing what else to do. "I had my doubts when I first met you, but I see now. You do use that brain of yours sometimes."

Alison bristled at his words, and the arm holding her sword shook slightly before she stopped it. A distant part of her screamed that what she was doing was disgusting, that it was wrong to threaten a person's life at sword-point; but if it would make him talk, she would do it.

"How did you know of Bilbo's ring?" she demanded.

Johnathan seemed to ponder his words before speaking in that same cold, smooth voice. "I guess there's no point in denying it anymore," he said, almost regretfully, and he stepped forward suddenly, smiling when Alison gasped and stumbled back, her eyes transfixed on the bright bead of blood trailing down his neck now from where the blade had stung his skin, and the same voice in her head became louder, telling her that she shouldn't be doing this; he was a human being, not an Orc or a goblin or a Warg, and even with the blade at her gut, she was still seeing the Hero who had helped her, the Man that was her blood, her family, that could not possibly be the one to betray them…

Taking advantage of her startled hesitation, Johnathan moved with the speed of a striking cobra, bringing his other hand up and grabbing her wrist, twisting it until she cried out, dropping her sword as he darted forward, clamping down on her throat and smashing her head back into a stilt as stars exploded in her vision from the force of the impact. As her vision cleared, she became aware of the wooden post digging into her back and Johnathan's cold hand wrapped around her throat, squeezing lightly, and she looked up, his black eyes alive and burning as they bored into her, only a few inches away.

There were cries and shouts from the Company, but Alison felt the iron of his blade kiss the hollow of her throat, just above where his hand was as he said, in a low and terrifying voice, "Don't try anything, or else you can watch her blood flow out of her throat and stain the ground beneath us. I only wish to have a pleasant little chat with my dear cousin."

His fingers twitched on her windpipe at this, and though he wasn't outright choking her, the pressure of his hand was making her increasingly panicked as her adrenaline rose up to meet it, and she tried to force herself to calm down. I can't lose my head. Be calm, get the answers you need. Do not be afraid.

"Bilbo's ring," she choked out around the lump in her throat and his hand, and Johnathan focused his attention back on her. "How did you know?"

He smirked again, and Alison could see his gleaming white teeth perfectly from this distance, as if bared in a snarl, and the line of red across his pale neck from her sword. "Its presence draws me," he said softly, meeting her gaze head-on as he spoke. "Though it does not call me over great distances like the Servants, when it is near, I can feel it. The same shadows of that ring also lie within me, and right now, it is calling to me. It knows that I have seen."

"Seen what?" Alison said, her veins becoming sluggish and vapid with despair at his words.

Johnathan's eyes truly blazed now, like the look of a madman, and Alison's heart stuttered at the intensity of the gaze. "The Darkness," he said, and the way he said it, almost reverently…

"The Necromancer," she whispered. "You didn't track those Orcs to Dol Guldur. You went there because he was there. The one whom you serve." It was all making sense now, the pieces were starting to form; but they weren't connecting yet. They were there, but the whole picture was clouded and disjointed; how did it all add up?

"Your deduction skills are truly astounding," Johnathan said sarcastically. "I shudder to imagine what I would've been like had the Valar got to me in the beginning."

Alison stared, until it hit her what he meant. "Sauron found you first," she said. "When you arrived in Middle-earth, Sauron found you first…"

Johnathan said nothing, neither confirming nor denying what she had said, but still nothing was making any sense. What was going on? What was happening with Johnathan? Was he actually betraying them?

"I was hoping you wouldn't have noticed that comment about the ring," he said instead, shrugging. "We were getting along so nicely. I was starting to believe I could have made it into that Mountain with you, after all."

"You work for Sauron," Alison spat, her temper flaring again at his words. How could she have been so stupid? How could she have believed him all this time? "What could you possibly have gained from coming on this quest with us?"

He looked genuinely surprised at her question as he answered her. "Everything, cousin," he said. "I would have stood to gain everything on this quest."

"What do you mean?" she snapped, and Johnathan's hand squeezed a little bit tighter around her throat, constricting her airway until her breath was a rasp of air sliding down the back of her throat, and the coldness of the blade became more pronounced on her skin as her pulse guttered from the decrease in oxygen.

"Play nice, cousin," Johnathan said in a warning tone, and Alison could practically taste the waves of fear and distress rolling off of the Company by this point, but luckily none of them did anything, or else she would be bleeding out on the ground; or worse, one of them could be hurt by Johnathan.

It was this thought that kept Alison upright and talking, focusing all of the warrior's attention on her until she could think of a way to….what? Kill him? The thought made Alison's stomach churn, but she forced the feeling down, focusing on what she needed. And what she needed was information, an explanation, to why Johnathan was doing this, why he was betraying them. He had made it obvious that he was no longer hiding anything; but what had he been hiding? And what point was he trying to get across now? It made no sense, and Alison felt like screaming.

"There are things much more precious than gold and jewels beneath that Mountain," he continued, and Alison started, only being able to think of the Arkenstone at his words. Johnathan read the look in her eyes and laughed, the sound as harsh and cold as the bitterest winter night. "Oh, no, not that pathetic King's Jewel," he said. "I couldn't use that even if I wanted to." His eyes continued to bore into hers, and Alison felt that if she stared any longer she would plunge into the madness corroding the depths, but she could not force herself to look away. "No, what I seek is far more favorable than a mere rock."

His eyes drifted to where Bilbo was standing, white-faced and wide-eyed, one hand on his sword hilt and the other in his pocket, as if he didn't know whether to fight or flee, and he seemed to turn even paler when Alison's and Johnathan's eyes sought his pocket.

Alison turned back to Johnathan, feeling her heart drop down to somewhere beyond even her toes, to somewhere underground to join the riches of the earth. "There's a ring in that Mountain," she breathed, so quietly that only she and Johnathan could hear it. "There's another ring in that Mountain that you want."

Despite her lack of knowledge when it came to The Lord of the Rings, Alison had always guessed that there was more than one ring due to the plural in the title, and from what Bilbo had told her about the War of the Last Alliance in Rivendell so long ago, she figured so, but she had no idea what the significance of another ring meant. Why was none of this adding up?

"Right on the money, cousin," Johnathan said, sounding faintly impressed as his eyebrows rose high. "And you were going to help me get it, but now…" He sighed theatrically, shaking his head so his overlong bangs fell into his eyes.

There were so many questions, so many thoughts that Alison needed to articulate, but the only thing she could force out was "Why? Why are you doing this, Johnathan?"

Their gazes were locked, burning black as depthless as the night against anguished green; at her words, though, Johnathan's face pulled into a horrid mask, his scar rippling and standing out even whiter as his eyes glowed with anger and something else, something far more ancient and sinister.

"Because you are a pawn, Alison—I was a pawn," he said, and the rage palpable in his voice sent shivers of fear down her spine. "The Valar are using you for their own means. They would have you believe that there is only ever Light and Dark, Good and Evil, and they are wrong. There is only ever One; both the dawn and the night, and both the beings of the light and the creatures who lurk in the shadows. There is One, and if you follow the Valar, you follow them to your ruin, just as I learned so long ago. There is a new power rising, Alison, an old but wholly new power, and much is going to be different. A Shadow encroaches upon the land, but it is not what you think; and in time, you will see what your—what our—true purpose for being in this world will be."

And before Alison could say anything, Johnathan stepped away from her, the manic glint still in his eyes as they suddenly shifted to his left, as if he sensed something. And then, in a flash of light, the dagger in his hand was hurled in that direction, and then there was a ripping sound, a soft utter of pain and fear, and then a man toppled into view, the dagger embedded in his chest and blood beginning to stain the front of his frayed shirt and coat as he collapsed, dead, to the ground.

What little breath Alison had regained left her lungs in a strangled gasp, and she would've screamed had she not been so paralyzed with fear and dread as she stared, horror-stricken, at the red puddle seeping from the man's chest onto the wooden boards beneath their feet, and, with difficulty, she tore her eyes away from the blood, knowing in her gut that the man was already gone and they could do nothing, as she looked back to Johnathan.

The other Hero stared at the man for a second more with something akin to a feral sort of grin on his face before meeting her eyes, and he said into the dead silence, "I do not take kindly to people who linger in the shadows. It is a show of cowardice, and we, Alison, are above that."

The Company, Bard, and Alison all stared at him, white-faced and horrified, as he gave one last impassive look to the lifeless man at his feet, who was dead because of him. This was what snapped Alison back to her senses, and she grasped Maodus and pulled the blade out of its sheath, suddenly feeling as if the water sickness had taken hold of her again, the fever of anger licking flames of red-hot fury at her as she stepped toward Johnathan.

She had believed him when he said he wanted to help her, that the Valar had sent him to aid her in her quest; she had trusted him. She had been blind, blind and stupid; all of the signs had pointed to him whenever something was askew; Thorin had told her as such, and she hadn't listened to him, trusting in the Valar and herself to make the right choices, and that angered her more than anything. He had played her like she was nothing, not blood, not family, not anything; and he had lied, pretending he was on her side when all along, she was just the pawn, the little plaything he had been sent to look at under Sauron's bidding. He was an agent of Sauron. And he had betrayed her, and now an innocent man was dead because of her and her easy trust.

Alison stumbled, hot tears pricking her eyes, and the movement caught Johnathan's attention, looking back up from the dead man to her with no hint of remorse or guilt; and suddenly Alison wanted to hurt him, to make him bleed like the man on the ground—

But the sword in her hand dipped, and she knew that she couldn't do it. As much of a monster as he turned out to be, Johnathan was still human, and she knew that she would not be able to take his life. She was afraid that if she were to kill another human being, she would lose herself completely, and she could not do that. She could never live with herself, not even after witnessing Johnathan kill in cold blood; she could not do it.

Weak, a part of her chastised. You are weak.

But her legs would not carry her any further, and her arms shook so badly she probably wouldn't even be able to use her sword if she tried. Johnathan stared at her for a moment more, until there was the sound of a bow being drawn, and both Heroes turned to look as Bard drew an arrow, aiming it straight at Johnathan's heart.

"Going to kill me, bargeman?" Johnathan said, and Bard's fingers twitched, a crease appearing between his brows as he continued to aim at Johnathan, and the Hero laughed, flatly and emotionlessly. "You wouldn't do it. Grim though you may be, bargeman, you have a gentle heart. You could not kill me."

Bard said nothing, but his grip on the bow wavered as Johnathan turned to look at Alison again. She could only watch as he took a step closer, and the fire in her veins was going out, flickering into nothing as a black wall of despair closed in, weighing down her arms as she watched him approach.

He came so close she could see the fine details of his scar, with the ragged, puckered white skin shifting and moving along with the motion of his mouth as he leaned in and whispered, so lowly and so chillingly that Alison's blood turned to ice.

"I regret to say our alliance has come to an end, Alison Ashburne," he said, and she shivered involuntarily as his breath dusted her cheek, as cold and curling as his voice. "The next time we will meet, it will be on a field of blood and fire, with Hell itself raining upon us."

Alison stayed silent, and as the spell over the Company seemed to break and they started forward, there was a blast of darkness, a rasp of wind, and Johnathan was gone, leaving nothing behind but shadows as cold as the dark side of the moon in his wake.

Alison blinked, the tears that had been building up in the corners of her eyes now streaming down her cheeks, tracing lines of fire down her face, and her knees buckled as she let out a ragged breath, dropping her other sword, and she would've collapsed onto the floor entirely had Fili not been by her side in an instant and caught her, propping her up as more hoarse breaths rattled out of her, soon turning into choking sobs as the full brunt of what had just happened settled upon her like the hand of a giant, squeezing her flat into the ground.

She was dimly aware of many raised and alarmed voices around her, but they seemed to be coming from underwater, and Alison was beginning to shake violently, though it wasn't from the cold. A figure crouched down before her, and Alison's heart twisted painfully as she recognized Thorin through her blurred vision, kneeling in front of her and meeting her eyes, though there was no trace of rage or disgust like she had imagined would be in his gaze as she brought herself to look into the blue depths.

"Thorin," she gasped out. "I'm—I'm so sorry. You were—you were right. I shouldn't have trusted—" Alison's voice broke, and she was vaguely ashamed of herself for breaking down like this, for looking weak—

And then, to her surprise, Thorin took one of her hands into his own, and though his face was stark white and he looked close to breaking something, his voice was gentler than she had ever heard it as he said, "You are blood with him, Alison. It was easy to trust him. I cannot blame the bonds of kin for this."

"But you were right," she insisted, suddenly angry that no one was disgusted with her, that all of the Company were gathered around her like she had not done anything wrong, like she had not been so blind as to let a traitor walk in their midst and kill an innocent man. Why did no one hate her like she hated herself in that moment? "I didn't listen to you, and all the signs were there. I was too blind, too stupid to notice, and he—" She took a deep breath, trying to compose herself. "Johnathan and the Necromancer and Azog, Thorin. All of them. It's them. They're the ones we've been warned about, and we have to do something—"

"I know," Thorin said, and though his voice was still gentle, his rough hand still lightly holding hers, his eyes had gone hard and stony, like she had seen them when facing down the Pale Orc on the cliff-side, and the look, once so intimidating and unnerving to her, seemed now to fill her with fire, an unquenchable flame that did not add to her fear as it usually did, but suppressed it, shaping it and crystallizing it into something harder and stronger, like tempered iron, something that was far too strong to break now.

"I know," Thorin repeated. "And we will deal with it when the time comes. But do not let the mind focus on that alone. We still have a goal we need to reach, and right now that goal is to get off these streets and get supplies so we can continue on with our journey. Do you understand, Alison? We cannot linger here and dwell on choices that were out of our hands to make. We need to keep going."

Though the tears still leaked from her eyes and her blood still sang with the fever of her anger, Alison nodded, and, with the assistance of Fili and Thorin, she got shakily to her feet, but she almost collapsed again as her eyes landed on the still form of the man from the shadows, and bile rose to her throat at the reminder as Bard crouched beside him, feeling for a pulse, but from the somber expression on his face, she knew it was no use.

The tears stung again, and Fili tried to gently turn her away, but she shrugged him off, making for Bard and crouching beside him, feeling guilt such as she had never felt in her life burning at her heart as she looked from the man's open, glassy gaze to the weariness of Bard's expression, and she remembered Johnathan's words to him as the Lakeman continued to stare at the dead man before him.

"Rufus was a good man," he said eventually, breaking the strained silence, and Alison's heart squeezed painfully again. "He must've been spying on me for an extra coin from the Master, but I cannot blame him." He sighed, closing his eyes. "He did not deserve such an end."

"I am so sorry," Alison whispered. "I didn't know that Johnathan was—" She took another deep breath to calm herself. "I never meant for any of this to happen. It's all my fault, and now your friend…"

Bard turned to look at her steadily for a long moment, and she waited for his final verdict, not surprised if he were to grab her and turn her in to the authorities of the town immediately, but he did no such thing.

Instead he said, very heavily, "A few more blocks down, there is an old stall that used to sell carrots and onions on the left corner. There, you should find my son Bain waiting for me; tell him I sent you ahead and he should lead you to our house. Wait for me there, and then I will get you what you need so you can continue on your way and get out of this place."

Alison stared, shocked that the bargeman was not screaming for her arrest, but before she could say anything he gripped her upper arm in a vise-like grip, and dropped his voice, saying grimly, "But know that I am not letting you go immediately. That 'cousin' of yours killed a man I knew, and I am expecting answers to whatever just transpired, or I will turn you over to the law and let you handle trial by the Master. Are we clear, miss?"

Alison nodded, her throat going dry. "Yes," she said, and after one last, searching look from the grim-faced Man, he released her arm and stood up, as she did the same beside him, albeit a tad unsteadily. "I will take care of Rufus before I join you. He had no family, and he deserves fair treatment on his way to the afterlife."

"What about the, uh…" Alison gestured to the knife, swallowing hard. "Won't that be suspicious?" She felt awful for saying it, but she knew that Bard could not give away their presence, or else the Dwarves would never reach the Lonely Mountain in time, and despite everything, that still remained Alison's top priority, besides saving the line of Durin; the Dwarves had to reach the Mountain.

"I will tell the truth," Bard answered, and at her dismayed look he added, "I will not mention you or the Dwarves and the Halfling. But that other man, Johnathan, was the one who killed Rufus, and if he comes back for any reason, the people of this town must know in case he can be apprehended."

Alison nodded, relaxing slightly, though she still felt awful, like someone was drowning her in acid and letting it consume her entirely, adding to that feeling when she realized that Johnathan was long gone, a fleeting shadow that had returned to its master, and that the Lakemen would probably never catch the man who had murdered one of their own. "Thank you, Bard," she whispered, nevertheless. "After everything that has happened, and for all you have done for us…I am so sorry, and I owe you something I can never repay."

Bard nodded curtly, though the deep lines etched into his roughly handsome features seemed to lessen just a little bit at her words.

"Go, now," he said. "I will meet you at sundown at my house. Find Bain, and have him lead you there."

Alison nodded once again, and after one last look at the grim bargeman, she made her way back over to the Company, who were all looking at her with varying levels of worry, pity, wariness and, from some, like Dwalin and Dori and Glóin, a hint of anger, but that seemed to comfort her as she rejoined them; though it still made her feel terrible for bringing this mess upon them, it made her feel better that they knew she wasn't some little girl who had simply made a mistake. This event could have repercussions on Middle-earth and life-altering consequences as a whole, and it was strangely nice to know that some of them knew she had screwed up so tremendously and terribly.

"Come on," she said, not making eye contact for longer than a few seconds and gesturing them after her. "We need to get to Bard's house. And we can…talk when we get there."

Without a word, the Company began to follow her as she started to trek to the old stall Bard told her about where Bain would be waiting for them, but she stopped abruptly as she realized Bilbo stood in front of her, looking very shaken and clammy, but he stood straight and firm, and Alison was reminded once again of how much Bilbo had changed since leaving the Shire so long ago when she noticed he held both of her swords in his arms, and she mustered a small smile of gratitude.

"Thank you, Bilbo," she said quietly, taking the swords from him and replacing them on her back, and the Hobbit nodded, biting his lip.

He rocked nervously on his heels for a moment and wrung his hands, tell-tale signs that he was anxious, before he sucked in a deep breath and gestured Alison down to eye-level.

She stooped only a little bit, just enough to where the Hobbit could whisper into her ear, "How did…how did you and Johnathan know about the ring?"

He sounded a little breathless and a little frightened, and Alison turned her head until she was looking into his brown eyes, so soft and gentle and kind yet hardened by their journey, and, Alison realized for the first time, layered with a veil of exhaustion, and it seemed to hit her just how much this ring was possibly a burden to Bilbo, how much it seemed to weigh him down, and her gut pinched at the prospect of Bilbo suffering through all of this alone. But…

A sudden thought occurred to Alison, a thought she had not had since before entering the Misty Mountains, and she felt as if she had been punched in the stomach. That same tantalizing idea she had had so long ago came to the forefront of her mind again, and this time, Alison listened more carefully to it.

Gandalf had said that their path was unavoidable, that their journey was keeping almost strictly to the guidelines of the book, and, though there had been many mishaps, such as Kili being shot with an arrow, the Orc pack hunting them ruthlessly across Middle-earth, and Johnathan Ashburne, she agreed that events were staying almost the same as in the book. And though she had been warned not to share her foresight, that it could have dire consequences if she chose to share it, the idea of telling the Company what was coming shined and beckoned for her again, urging her to share all she knew…

After all, as she had said to King Thranduil, they were in this together, and they were all going to enter that Mountain and fight that battle together. So why keep all of this to herself? Johnathan had betrayed them, and if Alison was right, and the Second Hero had indeed fallen to Darkness and now served Sauron, she knew without a shadow of a doubt that he would be back, and that Sauron would strike hard and fast against them, and that Bilbo carried a magic ring whose history was starting to come back to her…

The fate of the world had been shifted already, and was in the process of being changed even as she stood there, meeting Bilbo's frightened gaze in a dingy small town on a lake, on the doorstep of their journey's end. History was already rewritten, and Alison suddenly knew that there was no way she could keep all of this to herself anymore. It was time to tell the Company everything she knew. They needed to know the truth of what they would face now, for nothing was going to be the same now. Though they might still follow the book's main events, the underlying threat would grow and fester, and they were all at risk now. It was time.

Alison took a deep breath, meeting Bilbo's anxious gaze once more before she said, as steadily as she could, "There's something you need to know."

Long A/N

Question One: WHAT THE FRICKETY-FRACK JUST HAPPENED?! Well, I hinted there was something fishy going on with Johnathan...

Question Two: Well, no shit. But that didn't make any sense right now?! All will be revealed in time, young Padawan. Of course I'm not going to have him sit there and lecture them for two hours about why he did what he did. J-Ash is way too smart for all that "evil lecture" crap. Suspense is key.

Question Three: But how did he disappear?! Chapter Seventeen has a pretty good hint...

Question Four: But him and the Ring?! You'll have to wait for that explanation too.

Question Five: BUT WHY?! YOU'LL SEE. MY GOSH.

Last Question: So Alison's going to tell the Company about their fates now?! We established this, but yes.

Anyway. Well this chapter is not as long as I wanted it to be, but I've had a lot of school stuff going on and I like short(er) chapters better. And because this one's kind of like a punch in the face and I like making you guys wait ;) No but really, from here on out things kind of get tossed out the window and the rules will be shattered by those Ashburnes and the rest of the Company (but it'll take a while to get there. There's still SO much of this story to write).

Thank you for your reviews/favorites/follows! Keep those reviews coming; especially for this chapter! Even if you just want to curse me in Sindarin for doing this chapter, anything is appreciated, and I love hearing your thoughts! You guys are all amazing!

Thanks again, lovelies! Until next chapter... *please don't hate me*

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