The March of Time

3: Choosing a Path

Disclaimer: All rights go to JRR Tolkien and Peter Jackson, respectively. Anything you don't recognize is mine.

Quick A/N: Thank you all for reading, and here is the next chapter! Enjoy!

Chapter Three: Choosing a Path

Bilbo's hobbit-hole was chaos. As Alison entered through the front door—not even having to bend her head to get in, she was so short—it was like crossing an imaginary line. On one side, there was the peaceful, relaxing lifestyle of the Hobbits of Hobbiton, content and serene in their homes and pub. And on the other side was the ecstatic energy and madness of the dwarves as they sang, laughed, and head-butted each other merrily, not having noticed Alison yet.

Alison saw poor Bilbo flitting to and fro from his dining room to the pantry, where the dwarves were raiding it and beginning to set up an impressive feast in the hobbit's small dining room. He was attempting to tell the dwarves to put this back or stop doing that, but to no avail. The dwarves just continued on, until Bilbo finally gave up and sulked in the corner of his kitchen, glowering at them.

Alison hovered uncertainly in the entryway, not sure whether she should join them or not. She knew that there were more dwarves here that hadn't been with them in The Green Dragon after seeing a tall one with rippling muscles and tattoos on his bald head, and frankly, she was quite intimidated.

The dwarves at the pub had been kind and curious towards her (except for a few, who had just opted to sit and stare at her in silence), but she sensed their unease after Gandalf told them she was going on the quest with them.

Well, she thought, as she heard a particularly loud cheer from the dwarves in the dining room, I'm not going on the quest with them, anyway, so they have nothing to worry about.

"Are you all right, my dear?" Gandalf appeared in the hallway that led down to the kitchen, and Alison found it quite comical that the Wizard was bent almost double to avoid hitting his head on the ceiling.

"I'm fine," she said tightly, as the dwarves all guffawed loudly behind Gandalf. "Just…nervous."

"What is there to be nervous about?" he asked, frowning slightly.

"You told them I'm coming on the quest, Gandalf," she said. "And I'm not. I'm taking a map, and tomorrow morning when you all leave for the Lonely Mountain, I'll be leaving for Isengard. I'm going home, even if I have to beg and plead at Saruman's feet for him to send me back. I'm not a warrior, and we both know that; the Valar made a mistake in choosing me, so I'm just going to go home and pretend like none of this ever happened, no matter how amazing it is right now."

"Why do you doubt yourself so much?" Gandalf asked her, and she looked down at her feet uncomfortably. "You've only ever known the mundane side of you; there's no telling what being in Middle-earth will do to you, how much you will change and see the world differently, and discover who you truly are."

"But that's just it," she said, looking up from her shoes and meeting Gandalf's piercing gaze. "I could die here, Gandalf. I wasn't trained for this—this heroic life, or whatever it is. And as much as I want to help, I can't. I don't want to go off on a quest I may never come back from."

Gandalf just looked at her for a few minutes, his expression unreadable. She feared he was going to press her further, but instead he said, "Very well. I see that I cannot force you to do something you do not wish to do. I will give you a map and tomorrow morning you can make for Isengard." Alison felt relief rush through her, until Gandalf continued. "But know this: your arrival here in Middle-earth has set in motion a chain of events that may be too late to be stopped. There is no telling what the future may bring now, and I fear that if you turn back, there will be dire consequences for our two worlds at large."

"What are you saying?" she breathed, frightened at his grave words.

"That the March of Time goes on, just as every day begins with a dawn and ends with the moonlight; it is constant, and it is everlasting." He fixed his piercing gaze on her as she listened, her heart chattering nervously as he went on. "However, the moon can be darkened by a single spark, which rages into a fire, and the dawn can be shattered by the boiling of a storm. You are the spark and the storm, Alison Ashburne, and I believe that you are the catalyst that will change everything."

"I'm not," she protested weakly. "I'm not."

"But you are," he said, leaning in closer. "You have an immense power in your hands, Miss Ashburne, a power that the agents of this world have been searching for across thousands of years: the gift of changing the course of the future. I know you do not want it," he said, raising a hand before she could interrupt, "but it has been appointed to you, and now you must see it through until the end, whatever that end turns out to be."

Alison didn't say anything, too shaken to speak. She wanted to go home; she didn't want a part in any of this. But Gandalf's words tugged at her, and the memory of that past day filled her with an exhilarating sense of wonder she felt that she had been yearning for all her life. The truth was, she did want to go on an adventure. She always knew she was meant for greater things, and now here she was: descended from a special race of warriors that came from Middle-earth, having the opportunity to delve into one of her favorite childhood stories and rewrite the course of history. It was daunting and enormous, but somehow, she wanted this.

Think of your family, the rational part of her whispered. Your mom, your brother, your sister. Remember them.

"Think on it later tonight," Gandalf said, noticing her internal struggle. "Come to the dining room now; the rest of the Company is eager to meet you."

Feeling very tentative and shy again, Alison followed Gandalf into Bilbo's dining room. It was brightly lit with candles and very warm from the cheery fire in the hearth, and the small room was packed tightly with dwarves, all shuffling about with various items of food and drink in their arms as Bilbo again struggled to maintain order in his house.

Alison watched the scene unfold before her, torn between wanting to help the poor hobbit and watching the dwarves grate on his nerves with a small smile on her face. Alison recognized Bombur as he waddled past, laden down with three huge blocks of cheese. "A tad excessive, isn't it?" Bilbo said in defeat, watching the fat dwarf with a pained expression. "Have you got a cheese knife?"

"Cheese knife?" Bofur said, sweeping up behind Alison with a whole ham in his arms and grinning at Bilbo. "He eats it by the block." Bofur winked at Alison as he vanished into the dining room, and Bilbo looked like a wilted flower as the dwarves continued to pillage his pantry.

"Excuse me, Mr. Gandalf, Miss Ashburne?" Dori approached the two with a tray of tea cups, his eyes lingering on Alison with an unreadable look before he quickly flicked them away, more out of politeness than anything. "Could I interest you in a cup of chamomile?"

Alison accepted one of the cups gratefully, thanking the dwarf, while Gandalf declined, stating he would prefer a small glass of red wine instead. Dori nodded and disappeared back into the fray. Alison took a sip of the brew, feeling the warmth spread to her fingers and toes and visibly relaxing her frayed nerves as Gandalf stood next to her, counting off on his fingers and listing all the dwarves he saw.

One of the dwarves from the pub, a wild, fierce-looking fellow with an axe stuck in his head that still alarmed Alison every time she saw him, came to a stop in front of them and spoke in the grumbling Dwarf language, banging his arms together in what she assumed to be a sign of respect.

"Yes, you're quite right, Bifur." Gandalf said, and the dwarf smiled under his tangled beard before moving on. "We appear to be one dwarf short."

"He is late, is all," said a voice from behind them, and Alison spun around into the face of the intimidating dwarf she had seen earlier. He eyed her distrustfully before addressing Gandalf. "He traveled north, to a meeting of our kin. He will come." With a last glare at Alison the dwarf retreated back into the dining room.

"Which one is he?" Alison asked, as Dori reappeared with Gandalf's tiny glass of red wine and took her empty teacup with a small smile, obviously pleased she had drunk it all before giving her a slightly warmer nod and following the gruff-looking dwarf back into the dining room.

"That was Dwalin," the Wizard said, draining the wine in one gulp and staring forlornly into his now-empty glass. "Don't be fazed by him, he is like that to every stranger," he said, picking up on Alison's trepidation. "Now come; you should eat before everyone else beats you to it."

Alison's stomach growled in response, and she was shocked to recall that she hadn't eaten anything at all that day. The smell of the food lured her into the dining room, but before she could take more than a few steps, a heavy weight crashed into her side, and she was knocked to the floor with a small oof of surprise.

"Oh, Mahal, sorry lass," a voice said, and a warm, sturdy hand helped her to her feet. Alison was suddenly looking into the blue-grey eyes of an unfamiliar dwarf with blonde hair and a beard with two separate braids on either side of his mouth. He was slightly taller than her, but not by much, and she could tell that he was very muscular underneath his heavy pelts and leather armor, if her side had any say in the matter.

"It's fine," she said, slightly taken aback at how young the dwarf was. His face was unlined and smoother than the others from what she could see around his hair and beard, which were not nearly as long as the others', she noticed.

"You're Gandalf's companion?" he asked, releasing her hand. She just nodded as the young dwarf bowed, saying, "Fíli. At your service, Miss Ashburne."

"Oh, um, it's just Alison," she said, forcing a smile even as it suddenly hit her that Gandalf expected her to save this dwarf, so lively and smiling before her, with the fair hair and pretty eyes…

Stop it, she told herself firmly. Get it together. Now.

"Fíli, what are you doing? The food's ready." Another dwarf appeared in the hallway Alison and Fíli were standing in, and she felt another flicker of shock as she saw how young this dwarf was, too.

He was also taller than her, but about an inch shorter than Fíli, with dark hair, dark eyes, and only dark stubble on the lower half of his face, not a beard in sight. He was pleasant-looking, she decided, and Alison took comfort in the fact that it seemed not every person in Middle-earth had a beard as he came to a stop next to Fíli.

"Kíli," Fíli said, and Alison felt another flare of panic as she realized that the two dwarf princes stood before her, young and healthy with no idea about their fates. "This is Alison Ashburne, Gandalf's companion."

The dark-haired dwarf prince also bowed to her, repeating Fíli as he said, "Kíli, at your service."

"Are you hungry, Alison?" Fíli asked her, and Alison nodded. "Extremely."

"Right this way, then." He offered her his arm, and she took it politely as he led her into the dining room.

"So chivalrous, brother," Kíli said, linking arms on Alison's other side and shooting his brother a smug smile. "Though I'm slightly offended you didn't offer to escort me to the table."

"Shut up, Kíli," Fíli said, rolling his eyes playfully as he drew up another chair for Alison. She sat down at the table, Fíli on one side of her and Kíli on the other. Immediately, food and ale started passing around the table at top speed, and before she knew it, Alison's plate was piled high with meats, bread, cheeses, fruits, and vegetables, and she dug in, not even realizing how hungry she had been until the plate was clean five minutes later.

She looked up to find the two dwarf princes staring at her. "What?" she asked, raising a hand to cover her mouth. "I don't have anything on my face, do I?"

"No, nothing like that," Fíli said, his mustache braids twitching as he tried not to smile. "It's just that—"

"I don't even think Bombur could've eaten that fast," Kíli said, grinning at his brother. "Hey, Bombur!" he called down the table, and the great ginger dwarf looked up from his plate, his multiple chins wobbling as he chewed. "I think you have a challenger!"

"Uh, no, I just—" Alison said, as all eyes turned to her. "I was just, um, really hungry," she finished lamely, blushing as all the dwarves still stared at her.

"You need to liven up, lass," Bofur said bluntly, causing her to blush even more. "Fíli, get her an ale."

"Really, you don't have to, I'm fine," Alison tried to say as Fíli obliged, passing along ales up and down the table and trying to avoid stepping in food as he walked on the table top. He clunked down a tankard in front of Alison, the foamy drink slopping over the rim a little bit as he sat back down next to her.

"All right, on the count of three!" Dori said, and all the dwarves suddenly gripped their mugs. Alison had a bad feeling she knew what was coming next as Dori counted down—"Three, two, one!"

The dwarves were suddenly all downing their ale, throwing their heads back to chug it, the liquid dripping into their beards and onto their shirts. Not knowing what else to do, and also curious, Alison tossed back her mug and began to drink, not stopping until the last drops were drained from the bottom.

They all cheered as she slammed her tankard on the table, and she smiled in spite of herself; she had never had alcohol in her life before, and she felt strangely light and giddy as the red-haired one—Glóin—began to belch across the table, making the dwarves laugh even harder. But most surprising of all was meek little Ori, who let out a burp so loud Alison thought she felt it rumble in her chest. She joined in laughing with the hysteric dwarves, finally beginning to loosen up and enjoy herself.

"So, is it true?" Dwalin spoke suddenly, meeting Alison's eyes directly from his place across the table as the laughter died down. "Are you really a descendant of Eleon Ashburne, as Gandalf would have us believe?"

The dwarves all turned to her once more interestedly, the mood taking on a more serious tone, and the four that had not been present at The Green Dragon earlier—Dwalin, Balin, Fíli, and Kíli—gazed at her with the most intense stares of them all.

"Eleon Ashburne?" Fíli echoed, his eyebrows crinkling in confusion. "Who's that?"

Alison looked helplessly to Gandalf. "I'm not sure I would be the best one to explain this," she said. "I didn't even believe in my family's history until this morning." Gandalf nodded, understanding her silent plea and taking the reins from there.

"Eleon Ashburne was one of the first great Heroes of Middle-earth," he began, and all eyes swiveled to him. "Descended from the House of Hador, one of the first three houses of Men that inhabited Beleriand in the First Age, Heroes were regarded as very elite and the strongest warriors. Eleon Ashburne was one of the First, and sometime during the First Age, he disappeared."

Alison listened, just as enraptured as the dwarves were. Her father had always told of her first ancestor crossing into their world from another, but now she was hearing it from the point of view of someone who actually lived in the world Eleon had come from. As much as Alison wanted to believe that this was just some elaborate hoax, she knew it wasn't, and she focused back in on what Gandalf was saying.

"No one knew what had happened to him. But many years later, they say that they found a man walking alone across the plains of Gondor, dressed in strange clothes and claiming to be named Johnathan Ashburne." At this, Gandalf looked at Alison, but she shrugged, her mind blank. She had never heard that name before. "It was foretold by the Valar that Johnathan would find the origins of his ancestor and journey back to Middle-earth, and to assist in one of the greatest struggles this world has ever faced: the War of the Last Alliance."

At this, there was a collective shudder around the table, and the room seemed to grow darker, heavier. Alison, who had never gotten around to reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy, was confused as she noticed the dwarves' behavior. She even noticed Bilbo, who had been lurking in the corner, jump a little as he heard the words. "Umm…" she said slowly. "Am I missing something?"

"A story for another time, Miss Ashburne," Gandalf said, and she nodded reluctantly, feeling out of the loop now. "Anyway, Johnathan Ashburne assisted the Last Alliance of Elves and Men against the forces of Sauron, and when the Dark Lord was defeated, Johnathan disappeared, as well, much as Eleon did centuries before, though this time there was no record of him entering back into the mortal world. But the significance of Johnathan's arrival and Eleon's disappearance was that they set the course for all of the Ashburne line; whenever there was strife or conflict in Middle-earth, the Valar called upon the most worthy of the line to advise and assist in our world's doings. There have only been five Ashburnes since Eleon the First, making Alison the seventh to cross over into our world."

"Then it's a sign!" The one with the ear trumpet—Óin—exclaimed suddenly. "The Valar have blessed our quest if they sent an Ashburne to help! We must go!"

"But why do we need her?" Dwalin challenged. "Gandalf said our Company could make it through the quest ourselves, he made no mention of an Ashburne before. If he has such faith in us then I say we don't need the human," he fixed her with another one of his glares. "Especially a woman, at that."

Alison felt her irritation rise; she was wondering when this point was going to crop up. "Just because I'm a woman, doesn't mean I can't help!" She said hotly, and all the dwarves looked at her in surprise over her outburst. "Women actually have a lot of power where I come from, and they're treated as equals to men. So before this goes any further, how about we just stop measuring dicks and assume I can take care of myself, okay?"

Dead silence greeted her words. Twelve Dwarves, a Hobbit, and a Wizard all stared at her in shock, as if she had just hit one of them. After several moments of quiet, Alison's temper vanished, being replaced by a sense of embarrassment and guilt. Why did she have to choose that particular moment to vent out her frustration? "Look, I'm sorry," she began awkwardly, but stopped as almost everyone began to cheer and shake her hand, howling with laughter.

Even Gandalf was chuckling, but some—like Bilbo, Dwalin, Balin, and Dori—were silent, their expressions ranging from scandalized to downright hostile from Dwalin. "Whew," Bofur said, wiping a tear from his eye. "Thorin's going to have a hard time taming this one!"

Once the laughter had died down and Alison's blush began to fade, Gandalf spoke directly to her, "But, Miss Ashburne, does this mean you have reconsidered coming on the quest?"

Alison opened her mouth to speak, but her voice gave out on the word "no". She wanted to go home; she had to, for her family's sake. Even though Gandalf's words of no time moving in the mortal world while she was here were in her mind, she still felt obligated to go back. Without her father there, she had to help her mom and take care of her siblings, and how could she do that if she were dead, stuck in Middle-earth forever? But Alison was suddenly conflicted.

She was in Middle-earth, doing something no one else from her world had, besides her own ancestors. She was in Bilbo Baggins' dining room, laughing and eating and interacting with the Dwarf Company, something she had always dreamed of. She wanted adventure, she wanted something unpredictable, something that would forever change her repetitive life. She needed this. But she couldn't have it. She felt something crush down heavily on her chest as she said her next words to Gandalf.

"I can't," she said quietly. "As much as I want to, I can't. I have a family, Gandalf. What would happen if I died? I would never come back to them, and even though time does not move the same here as it does there, I'm sure they would know if I just disappeared forever. I owe them that."

Alison looked around the room; some of the dwarves looked at her with respect and sympathy, while others looked relieved that she had declined the Wizard's offer. "Understood," Gandalf said, though she felt a pang of guilt at the disappointed look he was giving her. "Bilbo, my dear fellow, would you mind retrieving a map for Miss Ashburne for her separate journey?"

The hobbit nodded, startled out of his intense concentration of the wall opposite him, and disappeared deeper into the smial, though a little warily from leaving all of the strangers in his dining room unattended.

As the hobbit left, the rest of the Company began to scoot back their chairs and retrieve their pipes from under cloaks and out of pockets, dispersing around the house in small groups to talk and smoke.

Alison stayed seated at the table, gazing unseeingly at the table top as she traced her finger on it. She was dimly aware of Gandalf leaving into the living room along with the rest of the dwarves, except for Fíli and Kíli, who—much to her puzzlement—stayed beside her.

"That was a thoughtful thing you did," Fíli said, breaking the silence between them. Kíli nodded in agreement. "Declining the quest because of your family. Sometimes I wish that we had that option, but we're doing this because our family needs their home back, as much as we do."

"That's way more thoughtful than my reason," she said unhappily, laying her hand flat on the table. "Your reason is brave and noble, while mine's just…" she trailed off, not knowing what to say.

Fortunately, Bilbo reappeared at that moment, handing her a yellowed, folded up map. "Thank you," she told him, and he offered her a slight smile in return. Suddenly there was a crash from the living room, and it was as if someone had turned up the volume on the speakers: all the dwarves began shouting and laughing once more, and the little hobbit hurried away, already yelling for the dwarves to leave his things alone.

Alison didn't even open the map; looking at it, she felt a sense of wrongness, as if her gut knew her decision and was arguing against it. This isn't right! It screamed. Go on the quest! Change the story!

She stood up abruptly, her chair scraping loudly on the polished wooden floors and causing Fíli and Kíli to jump at her sudden movement. "Come on," she said, trying to make her voice light and happy again. "Let's go see what the others are doing."

They followed her out into the living room, passing Bofur, who was leaning casually in the doorway with his pipe, watching as Bilbo snatched a knitted cloth of some sort from Nori's hand and snapping, "Excuse me! That is a doily, not a dishcloth!"

"But it's full of holes," Bofur stated in confusion.

"It's supposed to look like that; it's crochet."

"Oh, and a wonderful game it is, too," Bofur's eyes twinkled mischievously. "If you got the balls for it."

"Bebother and confusticate these dwarves!" Alison heard Bilbo mutter angrily before walking out of earshot. She ventured deeper into the living room, coming to an empty armchair and plopping herself down in it, all the excitement and shock of that day beginning to creep up on her, making her eyes droop with exhaustion. She had lost Fíli and Kíli to another group of dwarves, but she didn't mind; she wanted to be alone for a while.

She was holding Bilbo's map in her hand still, and she shoved it into her pocket, still not wanting to look at it yet. It would just make it harder for her to accept the fact that she was going to venture out on her own around Middle-earth with no guide and no experience. But no matter. She would make it home, she told herself, even if it took everything she had.

Her thoughts were interrupted as she heard Bilbo suddenly exclaim behind her: "I just don't understand what they're doing in my house!" And then Ori's innocent little voice: "Excuse me, I'm sorry to interrupt, but what should I do with my plate?" Alison turned, thinking the dwarf was talking to her, but instead she saw Bilbo and Gandalf standing in the entryway with Ori before them.

Before Bilbo could answer, though, Fíli came over and took the plate from Ori's hands. "Here you go, Ori, give it to me." He threw it down the hallway like a Frisbee, where Kíli caught it with one hand and in turn tossed it back into the kitchen. Instantly, all the dwarves were involved in the game of throwing plates and silverware to each other, cleaning it as they did so. Alison got to her feet, watching in awe as the dwarves effortlessly tossed dishes to each other, Bilbo squeaking "Excuse me! That's my mother's Westfarthing pottery; it's over a hundred years old!"

Alison walked into the kitchen, trying to avoid the cutlery and plates whizzing past her, listening as a group of dwarves began to create a beat with some knives and their feet. Bilbo pushed by her, his voice indignant as he said, "Can you please not do that? You'll blunt them!"

"Ooh, d'you hear that lads?" Bofur said. "He says we'll blunt the knives!"

Behind her, Kíli began to sing, his voice deep and full of laughter: "Blunt the knives, bend the forks!"

And then from farther down the hallway, Fíli's voice: "Smash the bottles and burn the corks!"

All the dwarves joined in singing, still cleaning and juggling with the dishes, and Alison was amazed as she recognized the lyrics.

"Chip the glasses and crack the plates,

That's what Bilbo Baggins hates!

Cut the cloth and tread on the fat,

Leave the bones on the bedroom-mat,

Pour the milk on the pantry floor!

Splash the wine on every door,

Dump the crocks in a boiling bowl,

Pound them up with a thumping-pole.

When you've finished, if any are whole,

Send them down the hall to roll!"

Alison joined in with the last verse of the song as the hobbit came barreling into the kitchen "That's what Bilbo Baggins hates!" and laughed at the stupefied look on his face as he realized that all of his dishes were stacked and clean on his dining table, all fortunately unbroken. But the laughter died shortly as there was a sudden pounding on the door down the hall, loud and booming.

Gandalf spoke ominously into the silence that had befallen the Company, three simple words that managed to send a chill down Alison's spine: "He is here."

Author's Note

And we all know who has arrived...

The House of Hador and the Ashburne history will be explained later on in the story, if any of you got those references this chapter; after all, there is still a ways to go, and much more to happen.

Thank you for all the reviews/favorites/follows! Please don't forget to review: anything you liked, disliked, are looking forward to? Let me know!

Thanks again, lovelies! Until next chapter...

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