The March of Time

30: To Be Fearful of the Night

Disclaimer: I own nothing except for Alison and (as angry as I am with him right now) Johnathan Ashburne, and anything else you don't recognize.

Quick A/N: Welcome to Chapter Thirty! Or, as I like to call it, 'The Chapter That Made Me Want to Chuck My Laptop Out the Window in Frustration.' But anyway; 30. Wow, another milestone. Thank you guys for reading this as long as you are! This blows my mind!

Chapter Thirty: To Be Fearful of the Night

The journey to Bard's house was a blur. Sights, smells, sounds; they were all lost to Bilbo. The only thing he could think about, despite everything that had just happened, was the ring.

He already knew that Gandalf suspected what he carried with him, what he had found in the goblin-tunnels some months ago, but never would he have guessed that Alison and Johnathan would know about it, as well. Which of course begged the question of how exactly they did know.

Johnathan wasn't Bilbo's main concern, though he knew he ought to be; the Man was apparently working for a separate entity wholly different from the Valar, and though he had heard Alison say, with such horror, that he worked for Sauron, Bilbo wasn't as convinced as the female warrior. The Dark Lord, the Deceiver that had almost taken over the world of Arda in the Second Age, could not possibly be alive. It was preposterous! That darkness had long since passed, but it was obvious: Johnathan Ashburne was under the servitude of something much, much bigger than it seemed. And that unnerved Bilbo greatly.

What was Bilbo's concern was Alison, and how she knew of the ring. How could she know of its existence? He had not told one soul about the trinket he carried, the shiny gold object he had obtained from the underground lake, though his pride cheated him into thinking that he had rather won it from the creature Gollum after their game of riddles instead of slinking away with it in his pocket, thereafter having it slip onto his finger surreptitiously and helping him escape…

But how did she know? He had been careful, oh so careful, so as none would ask him awkward questions about what had happened in the goblin-tunnels, a tale that was far too dark and almost…cowardly to tell. But somehow Alison knew, even after he had taken all those precautions to avoid that very thing…

And then Bilbo felt vaguely sick with himself. They were a Company, a fellowship, and, though he knew the Dwarves would not see him as such, he considered them family almost. And though he had been alone for quite a while until Gandalf approached him that fateful spring day, Bilbo knew it was wrong of him to keep this secret from the Company; especially Alison, who fussed over him like a mother, talked and laughed with him like a dear friend, yet was still so young Bilbo often thought of her as a niece he was fond of, though she had grown much older since their first day upon meeting. But if he felt that way, felt all of those wonderful things for the Company, then why was he being so secretive, so…possessive?

At this thought, there was a strange, foreign presence lingering in Bilbo's subconscious, almost pressing against his mind, trying to tingle its way down his spine; it was an odd sensation, so faint yet almost certainly there, and as soon as it had come, it was gone, taking with it something that sounded distantly like a deep laugh, grazing his thoughts with the barest touch before it was gone entirely, and he shook his head, wondering what in the world that had been about as they neared the stall Bard had pointed out to Alison, where supposedly his son Bain was waiting for them—or rather, Bilbo guessed, his father.

"There's something you need to know." Alison's words still echoed in his thoughts the farther they went, and Bilbo nearly shivered as he recalled the serious, somber tone of her voice, and the mix of emotions in her eyes that were halfway between a steely determination and a crumbling resolve. Suffice to say, the words were now bothering him immensely, and he found himself unconsciously fingering the ring in his pocket, not even noticing how it seemed to warm at his touch, yet was still cool under his fingertips at the same time.

But she had said they would talk when they reached Bard's house, and Bilbo prayed it was not something as dreadful as the Hero had made it sound—but knowing their luck, and what had just transpired with Johnathan's betrayal, Bilbo had small hope.

Fortunately, the Company made it to the old, near-abandoned stall with little trouble, which seemed to be the only thing going right for them that day, though they had had to take cover behind various items and duck into alleyways many a time to avoid either the guards or the patrons of the city, who looked so beaten-down and worn that Bilbo's heart went out to them.

They crept cautiously from around the corner, approaching the stall from behind, which Bilbo noticed was dusty and empty, as if it had been out of commission for a long time, though there was no sign of any onions or carrots, having been picked clean, for it was no secret food was hard to come by in this place.

Standing nonchalantly a few paces away from the stall and leaning against one of the wooden walls of the house beside it in the alleyway, was a younger-looking Man, not quite an adolescent yet not quite an adult, either, with dark curls and frayed woolen clothes, nibbling on a meager piece of bread as he stared off into space.

Alison, the unofficial head of their group in that moment, approached the young Man—who Bilbo assumed to be Bain—warily, and as she got closer he finally seemed to notice her and started violently, dropping his bread and coughing on the bit in his mouth as Alison held up her hands in a show of no harm.

"Uh, excuse me?" Alison said lightly, as the Man spluttered and finally cleared his airway, blinking hard as his face returned to its normal color instead of being beet red like it had been. "Um, you wouldn't happen to be Bain by any chance, would you?"

The Man straightened, obviously trying to regain some of his dignity as he replied, in a would-be cool voice, "I'm sorry, but do I know you?"

"We're…acquaintances of your father, Bard," she said, sweeping a hand towards the Company in the peripheral behind her, and Bain's eyes widened at the sight of all the Dwarves and Bilbo, his mouth dropping open as he looked back to Alison.

"Your father said we would find you here, and that you could lead us to your house?" the Hero continued, as Bain swallowed, still looking extremely flabbergasted and somewhat intimidated, but his eyes narrowed at Alison's words.

"Where is my father?" he questioned suspiciously, and Bilbo saw the slight flinch that seemed to go through the warrior's body, no doubt remembering the horrible sight of the dead man Johnathan had killed, for it was imprinted to Bilbo's memory, as well. "If you've done anything to him—"

"Nothing happened to him," she said hastily. "He's…taking care of something really important right now." When Bain still looked suspicious, she added desperately, "Please, you must trust me. I promise—I promise everything can be explained at your house. Please, we need help."

Alison's voice was strained, as if those few sentences had taken all of her strength to get out without screaming or breaking down again, and Bilbo's heart twisted for the girl, sympathy and anger simmering inside him, anger at Johnathan for betraying them—for betraying Alison. Bilbo glanced to his left, seeing Thorin trying hard not to scowl as he focused on the warrior's back, and he guessed that the Dwarf wasn't happy pleading for help, but luckily he held his tongue.

Bain teetered for a moment, but apparently something in Alison's face or voice seemed to capture his attention, and he nodded grudgingly, giving the Company one more sweeping glance before saying, "All right. This way."

He ducked around the corner quickly, Alison following close behind and the rest of the Company after her, and before Bilbo could slip back into the shadows with Ori close behind, he turned and saw a very puzzled woman watching after them with a slack jaw, and he hoped beyond anything that he and Ori had moved quickly enough so she could possibly think they were children, perhaps—anything but a Hobbit and Dwarf. The last thing they needed was for someone to report on Bard for smuggling them into the town.

They followed another winding path through the shadows, and Bilbo was beginning to get quite nauseous from the stench of fish oil and tar when they finally reached the sagging, clapboard house perched on stilts he assumed to be Bard's.

Bain ushered them up the stairs rapidly and opened the door, practically shoving them inside as he kept a watchful eye on their surroundings, and Bilbo almost collapsed with relief when he entered the house and was met with the heat from a small fireplace and the aroma of bread and herbs that filled the small home, which was downright cheery compared to the shoddiness of the rest of the town.

"Bain?" A female voice exclaimed, and Bilbo turned to see two human girls standing in the tiny kitchen, one young, about the size of Bilbo, staring at the Company with an almost delighted sparkle in her eyes, and the other older, closer to Alison's age, looking like she was trying not to faint at the sight of all the Dwarves standing in her home.

The older one, the one who had spoken first, looked back to Bain with wide brown eyes, not even bothering to hide her confusion and incredulity as she spoke again. "Why…why are there Dwarves in our house? And who is she?"

She pointed the wooden spoon in her hand to Alison, and Bain looked on, opening his mouth but obviously not knowing where to begin as the other girl piped up, looking excited as she said, "Will the Dwarves bring us luck?"

Bilbo felt a smile tug at his lips, a warmth filling his chest as he recalled the small Hobbit children back home in the Shire, as Alison stepped forward again, filling in for a very lost-looking Bain.

"I'm Alison Ashburne," she said, meeting the older girl's gaze intensely, and Bilbo thought he saw the other female shrink slightly under the fire in Alison's eyes as she gestured to the rest of the Company. "And these are my companions. Your father should be home shortly, and we can go from there."

"You know Da?" the younger girl asked, her light brown curls bouncing as she swiveled her head to Alison, and the warrior managed a small smile and nodded at the girl, making her beam.

"Why does your name sound so familiar?" The older girl asked, ignoring her sister's comment, and Alison's smile wavered, a weariness coming to her eyes.

"That can be answered later," she replied, and Bilbo was once again reminded of the ominous talk looming before them now, and he swallowed hard as Bard's oldest daughter nodded slowly, as if she were still dazed.

"Then we can wait until then," she said, placing the spoon on the kitchen table. "Um, we can probably spare a bit of supper when it's ready, but that won't be for a while, and we have some dry clothes and blankets if you want them. I'm Sigrid, by the way, and this is Tilda, and I think you've already met my brother, Bain." She said all of this very fast, first gesturing to herself, then her sister, and then Bain in turn, and the Company all nodded politely, while Alison smiled once more.

"Food and clothes sound great," she said. "And it is a pleasure to meet you all, despite the…weird circumstances."

Bilbo held in a snort as the two girls and boy went off to fetch clothes; "weird" was not the word he would use to describe the situation they were in, but he chose not to dwell on it when he realized Thorin and Alison were now standing very close to him and looking like they were on the verge of an argument.

"Why did you tell her things would be explained later?" Thorin was asking, a scowl beginning to creep over his face again. "These Lake-people have no need to know what is going on."

"They deserve to know the truth," Alison replied, not quite meeting the Dwarf's piercing gaze. "And because…they are a part of this, as well. More than you know, they are involved in this too, and I owe it to Bard to explain what just happened."

"And everything else?" Thorin demanded, his voice coming out as a harsh whisper. "If you tell them about Johnathan and who you really are, that will lead to more questions, questions we cannot answer unless we are to give our quest away."

Alison hesitated, and Thorin's eyes widened, his scowl seeming to set his face to stone as he stared at her, hard. "You mean to tell them," he whispered, and the anger in his voice was palpable as Alison finally met his eyes, unflinching and determined as pale green met jewel-blue.

"Not everything," she amended. "But just enough. You'll see why."

"Alison—" Thorin hissed, but he cut off as Bard's children walked over to them warily and began passing out blankets and clothes to the Dwarves. The younger girl walked up to Bilbo and smiled bashfully, giving him a dark blue shirt that looked like it had belonged to a younger Bain, but would fit himself almost like a tunic, and a scratchy green blanket that he accepted nevertheless, grateful for the extra warmth.

"Thank you very much," he told the girl sincerely, and she smiled widely at him.

"You don't look like a Dwarf," she remarked, as Bilbo put on the shirt and secured it with Sting's scabbard and wrapped the blanket around his shoulders. "You don't have a beard and you're shorter than the others—and you have weird feet."

Bilbo chuckled as Sigrid rushed over, saying, "Tilda, don't be rude—"

"Oh, no, it's quite all right," Bilbo said, waving her off good-naturedly. "It's natural to be curious. And you're correct, Tilda; I am not a Dwarf, but rather a Hobbit of the Shire."

"A Hobbit?" Tilda asked, her eyes sparkling. "I've heard about Hobbits; they come from very far away, near the Western shores. I've always wanted to go there, but Da says it's too far away…"

She looked quite put-out at this last bit, and Bilbo smiled gently, his first true smile in days, as he said, "Well, I'd be happy to tell you about it if you wish, Tilda, and if time permits."

Tilda nodded enthusiastically, and Sigrid flashed the Hobbit a quick smile before shooing Tilda ahead of her into the kitchen to help prepare tea for all of them as the Dwarves, Bilbo, and Alison made themselves as comfortable as they could, still wary and on-edge from the encounter with Johnathan and the tension that was steadily building as they all waited for Bard to get there.

After an hour or two and going through at least five kettles of tea, there was the sound of heavy footsteps on the stairs outside the house, and a moment later Bard stepped inside, letting in a blast of frigid air and a dreary twilight dim before shutting the door quickly and wiping his boots on the thin rug as everyone looked over at him.

"Da, where have you been?" Tilda squealed, running at the bargeman and flinging her arms around his middle, and the grim-faced Man smiled gently, the features of his face brightening tremendously as he tousled his youngest daughter's hair.

"Father, there you are! I was worried!" Sigrid said in relief, embracing her father as well as Bard removed a satchel from his shoulders and handed it to her, where she took it into the kitchen and began extracting various food items that he had apparently just bought with the newfound money from the Dwarves.

"It's all right," Bard reassured. "I'm back now." At that moment, his eyes landed on the Company, all huddled near the tiny fireplace in the center of the home that Bilbo figured was the living room, despite there not actually being any sitting furniture and it melding with the kitchen.

The three children turned to watch as Bard approached the Company, taking a chair from the kitchen table and planting it firmly in front of Alison, who was perched on the windowsill behind her, and sitting down, not breaking eye contact with her as the Company and his children watched them with baited breath, feeling the calm before the storm about to be unleashed.

"Your name is Alison, yes?" Bard asked, and the warrior nodded, her fingers fidgeting in her lap in a gesture Bilbo knew was one of apprehension. "Tell me, then, Miss Alison, what just happened, and why I should let you all go after what I just had to go through to keep your identities safe."

Alison winced at the bargeman's words, but she nodded nonetheless, taking a deep breath as everyone watched her anxiously. "Well, this is awkward," she began lamely. "I just…I don't know what to say now—"

"Starting at the beginning always helps," Bard said, and Alison grinned nervously, not knowing whether the bargeman was being light-hearted or not before clearing her throat and nodding again.

"The beginning," she said. "Right." She took another deep breath. "Well, um, a little history, but have you ever heard of the Ashburne warriors? The Heroes of Men, perhaps, and Eleon the First?"

"Aye," Bard said, his brows contracting. "I heard tales before, and that Johnathan character mentioned something about 'Heroes of Old.' You mean to say…you are an Ashburne?"

"Surprise," she said weakly, but Bard only stared, seeming to wrap his head around that thought before urging her on. "Well, anyway, the Ashburne line is only called upon in times when Middle-earth is in great need, and we are summoned from the mortal world, a world that has been separated from this one by a veil, and only certain people are allowed to cross it—like myself, for example. With the help of a Wizard," she added, at Bard's increasingly confused expression. "I know, it's a bizarre concept, but I swear it's true."

"So…you were summoned…by a Wizard?" Bard asked.

"By the Valar," she corrected, and Bilbo wondered if Bard's mind had stopped functioning as the bargeman only stared at her as if she were a dragon. "The Valar summoned me, but the Wizard, Gandalf the Grey, was the one who actually cast the spell that brought me here."

"And you said…Ashburnes are only called upon in great need…so why now…and here…" Bard muttered, until his eyes slid past Alison's and looked out the window, his far-off gaze seeming to fix on something as his dark eyes widened and his face drained of blood, looking around at them as if seeing them for the first time. "Dwarves…Ashburne…" he said, as if struggling to comprehend. "The Lonely Mountain…dragon…"

Alison was nodding, and Bilbo chanced a glance at Thorin as the bargeman tried to process this information, seeing the Dwarf king glaring darkly at a wall with his arms crossed, looking like he was refraining himself from shouting or strangling somebody, until Bilbo's attention was re-captured by Bard.

"So, you're going to the Lonely Mountain, to Erebor of Old," he said, and there was a guarded sort of look in his eyes that Bilbo didn't quite like as the Dwarves all looked on with varying degrees of resentment and resign. "Go on."

"Well, during our time in the Wilderland, we came across Johnathan, who offered us assistance in our quest, though he did not know what we were to do at that time," Alison continued. "He said that the Valar had put him into a deep slumber almost two thousand years ago, and he was to be reawakened when an Ashburne warrior—myself, in particular—arrived in Middle-earth. That reason will be explained further in a minute," she said, holding up a hand as Bard opened his mouth to speak. He closed it reluctantly and nodded as Alison went on. "I…I decided to trust him, seeing as he was my ancestor, and considering the Valar…"

She trailed off for a moment, looking frustrated and scared, before she composed herself and pressed on once more. "So he traveled with us until he decided to go off to Dol Guldur. I should have known something was up with that then, but I trusted him, and he went south to the ruins while we traveled through Mirkwood. He rejoined us, though, as you saw, and after our spot of trouble with the Forest River, you found us, and…yeah."

It was silent for a moment, and Bilbo felt his fingers relax slightly on the teacup he was gripping; though Alison was telling the bargeman the truth, she was doing a good job of skirting around many things that would reveal too much of their quest, despite the Man having some suspicion already.

"And the reason for his betrayal to you would be…what?" Bard said, breaking the silence, and Alison met his eyes solemnly.

"It is rumored that a human sorcerer that goes by the name of the 'Necromancer' has taken up residence at Dol Guldur," she answered. "But I have reason to believe that the Necromancer is no human, and that Johnathan is now in the service of said Necromancer; but for what purpose leads to the next thing I have to say."

"Wait," Bard said. "Your ancestor is working for an entity that calls himself the 'Necromancer?' But…how? If he only went to Dol Guldur a short time ago…"

"Johnathan fought in the War of the Last Alliance in the Second Age," Alison said. "That was almost two and a half thousand years ago, if my timeline is correct. He's had centuries to be corrupted into what he turned out to be; it's no surprise that he should go back to that Darkness when he awoke."

Bard mouthed wordlessly, shocked, until Thorin unexpectedly spoke up, glowering at Alison as he said, "What are these other things you keep saying you need to speak of? What are you not telling us? And why did Johnathan decide to betray us now?"

"He betrayed us because he let slip where his true allegiances lie," Alison said.

"Let slip, or deliberately chose to say it?" Dwalin mused, and everyone turned to stare at him as he met all their gazes head-on. "This could be a ruse, a distraction from whatever he is planning to do with that Necromancer," he continued. "Mahal forbid it, but…what if he's trying to divert our attention away from our quest, so we look instead to him and the Necromancer, and away from the Mountain?"

An uneasy air settled on the room at this statement, until Balin broke it by saying, "But what does the Mountain have to do with anything? It's a Dwarven kingdom; what could he possibly want from that?"

"A dragon," Nori stated bluntly, and now everyone looked to the sly Dwarf, who was leaning casually against the wall, but Bilbo could see the glint in his eyes that always made him look shifty and up to no good as he eyed them shrewdly.

"What?" Dori spluttered, voicing everyone's thoughts in that moment, and Nori shrugged.

"Think about it," he said. "If Johnathan and the Necromancer teamed up and now they want something in that Mountain, which was why Johnathan came with us in the first place, what else is there besides a dragon? If they're planning to seduce Smaug to their side…"

He trailed off, and for a few long moments there was only the sound of the fire crackling until Alison spoke up again.

"That may be a reason," she said. "And if it is, then we have to reach Erebor, and fast. Having such a weapon at their disposal…" She shuddered before continuing."But I don't think Smaug is the only thing Johnathan is after. I think…that he wants a ring, and he believes that this ring is hidden somewhere in the Mountain; that's what he told me before disappearing, at least."

At the mention of a ring, Bilbo's hand jerked toward his waistcoat pocket, where he could feel the thin band of the trinket through the cloth, and his heart rate seemed to increase as he met Alison's knowing gaze.

"And he said something about a ring earlier," Fili piped up, his face set in a deep scowl that remarkably mirrored Thorin's. "And you kept asking him how he knew of Bilbo's ring, Alison."

At this, everyone's eyes swiveled to where the Hobbit was sitting, and Bilbo's mouth went dry and his heart stuttered, wondering how he was going to explain the ring he had found in the goblin-tunnels.

"What ring did Johnathan speak of?" Thorin demanded of Bilbo, his sapphire eyes boring into the Hobbit intently, and Bilbo swallowed, hard, before forcing his fingers to close around the ring.

"This one," Bilbo whispered hoarsely, pulling the ring from his pocket and opening his fingers, with some difficulty, to reveal the gold object lying on his palm, and another heavy silence fell upon the room as they all looked from the ring to Bilbo.

"Where did you get that?" Thorin asked, his eyes fixated on Bilbo's palm, and the Hobbit swallowed again, feeling as if his throat was shriveling up, though he could not explain why he felt so sick all of a sudden.

"In the goblin-tunnels," he said quietly. "When we were separated, I…I found it. It was what helped me escape."

"How could a ring help you escape?" Ori asked in bafflement, and Bilbo felt something twinge in his chest.

"Because it's no ordinary ring," Alison broke in, and everyone turned to look at her now as she met Bilbo's eyes, and it took him a moment to realize she was silently asking his permission to tell his secret. Despite every nerve in him seeming to scream no, Bilbo nodded imperceptibly, and Alison spoke to the room at large once more.

"Bilbo's ring is magic," she said. "It has the ability to turn him invisible; that's how he managed to escape the goblin-tunnels without being captured, and how he helped us with the Mirkwood spiders." She didn't mention anything about him freeing them from Thranduil's dungeons, which he was grateful for, but he figured it was more for Bard's sake of not knowing than anything.

"Magic?" Bard scoffed weakly. "Surely not—"

But he choked on his words quite abruptly after Bilbo rolled his eyes and slid on the ring quickly, just enough to where everyone could see him disappear and gasp before he slipped it off and stowed it away again, wondering what on earth had compelled him to do such a thing as the Company all stared at him like he was a ghost.

"Durin's beard," Glóin whispered hoarsely. "What does this mean then?"

"It means there's another magic ring in the Lonely Mountain," Alison reiterated from her window seat. "And Johnathan wants it."

"Then we can't let him have it," Kili said, and Bilbo looked over to the injured Dwarf; despite the grimace on his face and his clenched fists, and the way he favored his left leg for his right as he was standing, he still looked strong and determined, and Bilbo suppressed a small smile; how far the enthusiastic, care-free Dwarf prince had come since the start of their journey.

Alison nodded in agreement along with the rest of the Dwarves, but Bard said, "Even if you were to gain entrance to that Mountain—which is a far shot in Valinor, by any chance—there is no way you can find that ring without risking the arousal of Smaug. The dragon will wake, as sure as daylight if you enter that kingdom."

"You're right," Alison said, and though she sounded nervous, Bilbo could detect the underlying note of steel in her voice as she spoke directly to the bargeman. "Which is why we will kill him."

Bard snorted derisively. "Yes, thirteen Dwarves, a Halfling, and a mortal warrior can defeat a dragon single-handedly. Silly me; of course that's entirely possible." Bard said, shaking his head. "Not even the ancient skills you claim to possess would be much use against a devil like Smaug, Miss Alison."

"Oh, I'm sorry, did I say 'we?'" Alison said, furrowing her brows. "I meant to say you would be the one to kill the dragon, Master Bard."

Everyone froze, looking back and forth between the Hero and the bargeman to see which one would speak first as they stared at each other, Alison imploringly and Bard stricken and panicked.

"Da's…going to kill a dragon?" Bain echoed, dumbfounded, and Alison nodded gravely. "But…how?"

"I think your father knows how," Alison said, and Bilbo saw her eyes drift vaguely to the longbow of yew where it now hung on one of the walls by the front door.

The look did not go unnoticed by Bard, either, who sounded like an old man on his deathbed as he wheezed out, "You sound so sure of this. How…how do you know?"

"That's where my other thing comes in," she replied, and though her tone was causal, Bilbo could see her muscles coiled and stiff as she crossed her arms, looking around at the Company and meeting everyone's eyes, as if she were drawing strength from them to herself. When Bilbo locked gazes with her, the icy-green depths seemed to soften a bit, and Bilbo's heart began to flutter against his rib cage at what she would say.

"I know this because…in my world, the mortal world, this whole quest, what's happening right now…it's all just a story."

The most prolonged and utter silence yet fell upon them, until finally Fili choked out, "We're—we're in a story?"

"Preposterous!" Balin exclaimed. "It's—it's inconceivable, such a thing—"

"But it's true," Alison insisted, speaking over the sudden building of clamor amongst the Dwarves while Bilbo could only sit, watching her blankly. "It's a book, called 'The Hobbit,' and all of you are in it—Bilbo, Thorin, Bard the Bowman, Smaug. And everything that has happened so far, like the trolls, the goblin-tunnels, Mirkwood, the barrels—all of that happens in the book, too. That's how I know you'll be the one to kill Smaug, Bard; because you slay him in the story."

"You lie." Thorin stated bluntly, glaring at the Hero with an expression Bilbo couldn't easily identify on his face; it seemed to be a mix of shock, fear, dread, anger, and a deep, echoing exhaustion all at once as he stared at Alison.

She shook her head wearily. "I'm not lying, Thorin," she said lowly. "You can look in my eyes all you want, but you will find no lies there. I'm telling you the truth; and when Gandalf comes back, you can ask him, because he will assure you the same thing."

"The Misty Mountains," Kili cut in suddenly, looking at Alison with wide, conflicted eyes. "You were—you were so scared to cross them, and you tried to convince Thorin to go around. Did you—did you know what would happen with the goblins?"

Alison nodded reluctantly, biting her lower lip. "I did," she replied. "And I know what's going to happen in the future, also, because it was written down in the story."

Bilbo felt as if he were being sucked under a very strong current as he listened to Alison; what in the name of the Valar was happening? They were in a story? No, they couldn't be—it was completely irrational and far-fetched, there was no possible way—

And then he felt the heavy weight of the ring in his pocket again, the feelings of warmth and chill it seemed to bring as it settled against his side, and Bilbo felt something akin to dread fill him, prickling down to his fingertips as the clamor of the Dwarves around him wore on; Alison knew of the ring. She had known of its existence since he had obtained it—possibly even before then, if what she said about their quest being a story in her world was true. Maybe there was an inkling of truth to what she said after all…

Bilbo was jarred back to his senses when he realized that all of the Dwarves had begun to argue amongst themselves while Bard and his children looked on helplessly, everyone trying to figure out what was now going on.

And as Bilbo looked back to Alison's still and silent form, where she watched the Dwarves argue with a shadowed look in her eyes, it was as if a sudden flame had struck to light in his mind, illuminating everything for him to see clearly. The rawness, the vulnerability in the Hero's eyes seemed to scream at him, and Bilbo finally understood: Alison was terrified.

It dawned on him that she had been carrying around this secret since they first met, since she had first been sucked into Middle-earth, and that spoke volumes to him. For six long months she had been weighed down by this burden, of knowing what was coming, coveting a secret of such enormity that it must've taken every ounce of her courage to come out with it and tell the Company; and now here they were, arguing in her face over whether she was lying or not—Alison, who had agreed to come on this quest because she didn't leave people behind, stranger or not, as he recalled her passionate argument to Thorin in the forest after the Warg attack so long ago. Alison, who had risked her life time and again for the sake of a quest that was not even hers, despite knowing what could happen to her based on her knowledge of the story, despite knowing that she could die.

This realization made Bilbo's stomach swoop, and before he knew it, he was on his feet, his mouth opened, and he cried, "Enough! Listen to me, all of you!"

It took several tries, but after a few moments the Dwarves quieted, staring at the now-standing Hobbit as he met each and every one of their gazes. "Does it really matter this much if we're a story in the mortal world or not? We're still here, still going, and we should not let something like this affect us so. Alison has done nothing wrong; why are you all arguing, then?"

The Dwarves looked between themselves, the Hobbit, and Alison at this, and Bilbo felt a fierce sort of pride that they seemed to be looking slightly abashed as Alison met Bilbo's gaze and smiled softly, her eyes seeming to clear a bit at his words.

"Why did you not tell us before now?" Thorin demanded of Alison, ignoring Bilbo completely as he faced the girl. "You have kept something so large, so momentous, to yourself all this time, when we could have used this information. Why?"

"Because I feared the repercussions!" Alison snapped suddenly, catching the Dwarf king off-guard at the spark in her voice. "I feared the consequences of my actions; Gandalf and the Lady Galadriel warned me not to tell anyone, because they feared it would alter the fate of this world too much, and that history would be rewritten if I should tell. I was scared, Thorin; I didn't want to upset the balance in this world anymore than I already have."

"But you're telling us now," Thorin pointed out, sounding as if he was trying extremely hard to not start shouting at her. "Why now? What made you change your mind?"

"Johnathan," she replied, more quietly than before. "I realized that with his betrayal and his service to the Darkness, he was already rewriting history, and he is continuing to do so even as we sit here talking. His betrayal and now his…mission to steal that ring from the Mountain and turn Smaug to the Shadow as well will change everything, and I wanted to counter that. Now was the time for you to know."

"And this…story," he said, as if the word was poison in his mouth. "You said you would know what was going to happen; so, enlighten me. How does this journey end?"

Bilbo saw the barely concealed desperation in the Dwarf king's eyes, and he realized that no matter how shaken he was at this news, Thorin was brave enough to ask what would happen, despite very well knowing that Alison could say they would all die. And then the force of that thought hit Bilbo like a hammer, and he lost all the breath in his lungs for a minute; they could die. For all he knew, this story could end in tragedy for all of them—

"If events stay true to the book," Alison stressed, and Bilbo noticed that her face had become slightly paler. "If things don't change, then the dragon will be defeated, and Erebor will be reclaimed. But—" She hesitated, and Bilbo's heart was pounding out a sharp staccato, wondering what more the warrior would say.

"But?" Thorin prompted, and Alison's eyes met his again.

"There will a battle," she said softly, and Bilbo found himself leaning in to hear her words better. "A great and terrible battle before the end, before the peace and glory of Erebor is truly restored."

"And do we survive this battle?" Thorin whispered intently, stepping closer to Alison, and it was as if everyone was holding their breath as she swallowed and said "…Yes."

"All of us?" Thorin pressed, and Alison tried for a smile, replying, "It's a children's story in my world, Thorin. Of course everyone lives."

The Dwarf king didn't look convinced, and Bilbo wasn't sure he was, either, but the subject dropped as Bard said dazedly from behind them, "I don't think I've ever been more confused in my life than I am right now."

Bilbo resisted the urge to snort and say I know the feeling, as Alison shrugged and stood up from her seat. "You can believe it or you can choose not to. But either way, you'll know the truth for yourself soon enough."

And with those ominous words, she excused herself and went out the front door, banging it a bit harder shut behind her as the darkening violet sky could be seen before the door closed, and leaving the rest of them in silence.

Bilbo's head felt as if it were stuffed with cotton, restricting his thoughts as everything tumbled so fast he could barely even keep track of what he was thinking. He found himself subconsciously rolling the ring in his fingers, and he jerked slightly as he realized that Alison had barely said anything about his ring—had almost skirted around it entirely.

All she had said was that it was magic, and that Johnathan wanted a ring like his now, to…do something. All Bilbo's ring could do was turn him invisible; and while that was supremely helpful in most cases, he failed to see why Johnathan needed one; he had a pretty good idea on how to disappear already, as he had proved earlier…

And the longer Bilbo sat and mulled it over, fiddling with the ring in his fingers and enjoying its smooth, unblemished surface, the more it muddled his thoughts and confused him. What would a Hero need with a magic ring; and yet more, what did a force of Evil want with a magic ring?

Bilbo suddenly flashed back to a lovely summer day some weeks ago now, seeing himself wandering the pristine, open halls of Rivendell as the sweet air of the valley and the soft sunshine blessed the House of Elrond, and he saw himself approaching a statue with a velvet-clothed pedestal with shards of a broken sword upon it; and from there, he watched himself turn and admire a painting of Isildur and Sauron from the War; and there, on one of Sauron's black fingers, a thin strip of glimmering gold…

Bilbo could feel his world come to a crashing stop around him, seeming to fall from the sky with a roar as the blood rushed in his ears and his fingertips went cold like the nips of frostbite. As no one paid any attention to him, too absorbed in their own thoughts and muttered conversations, Bilbo slowly looked down at the ring in his hands, gleaming innocently in the light of the fire…

It cannot be, his mind whispered. It was lost centuries ago…it is nothing more than a special trinket…it cannot be true.

But the longer Bilbo sat, the more the thought persisted him, until he thought he was going mad, the echo of a voice that was not his own cooing in his ear, and he felt shivers course down his spine, a breath of laughter that tickled the back of his neck as more and more thoughts that were not entirely his own came to him…

Something old, the alien voice purred. Something beautiful, something powerful. Something far more…precious…

It was bitterly cold when Alison stepped outside, letting the front door of Bard's house slam shut behind her as she practically collapsed against the railing of his porch, hanging almost two stories above the narrow canal below her as tears threatened to spill out of her eyes again.

She had done it. She had told the Company that their quest was nothing more than a fairy-tale in her world, that she knew what was in store for them. Of course, she hadn't mentioned the fact that she could barely remember anything besides what she had told them, but what hurt her most was having to lie to their faces about their fates.

She had barely kept it together in front of Thorin when she said they all survived in the story, and she hadn't even been able to look at Fili and Kili; she had wanted to tell them, she really had, but something in her told her not to as she had thought, I will save all of them in that battle, I swear it. They will live, and they need never know the fate that awaits them at journey's end. They will live.

Feeling more comforted at this thought, but knowing she would have to tell the line of Durin eventually, she straightened up and looked out over Lake-town, hidden in shadows save for the oil lamps lining people's home fronts as the clouds blocked out the sky above her.

Despite feeling as if the world was trying its hardest to break her at the moment, Alison found some peace in the quiet atmosphere of the settling-down town and the gentle sound of the water lulling at the wooden boards below her. Though it still hurt like hell to know that Johnathan had betrayed her and killed an innocent man before her eyes, and that they still had so much more of their journey to face and even more threats than before now, Alison was sick of crying and berating herself over things she couldn't change. Yes, the fate of the world now rested in her hands, and history would probably be rewritten because of her choices, but it was her life, her part in the quest, and she would no longer allow herself to be dictated by others' actions. It was time for her to step up and create a legacy for herself, the Seventh Hero. She would not become a mere pawn like Johnathan.

Alison didn't know how long she stood outside, but when the door opened behind her and bathed her in the golden light of the house and a gust of warmth tingled on her back, she figured it must've been a good hour or two when the door closed softly and a slow gait could be heard crossing the porch to where she stood by the railing.

She didn't even need to look up to know it was Kili as the dark-haired Dwarf propped himself beside her, staying in silence at her shoulder as she wondered what had brought him out here, and trying not to think of his fate if she should fail. She said nothing, as well, waiting for the undoubted tirade that was about to come out of his mouth about how she had kept this secret from them, how she had chosen not to share her knowledge, but it never came.

He simply stood there beside her, and Alison stifled a sigh, knowing what he was trying to do; he was going to make her talk just by being there, for he knew that she would say what was on her mind, anyway; she always did. Then she wondered when the younger prince had become so adept at knowing her, how he had become accustomed to her actions, before pushing that thought away and resigning herself to speak; this was Kili, and if she couldn't talk to him, one of her closest friends on this journey, she couldn't talk to anybody.

"You shouldn't be out here," she said, looking out over the canal. "You're injured, and someone could see you."

Kili still said nothing, and Alison sighed out loud this time, exhaling her breath in a cloud of air that turned to wisps from the cold and dissipated quickly.

"No, I'm not okay," she said in response to his silent question. "But I will be. Happy now?"

"Not necessarily," he finally said, and Alison traced her finger on the railing, not quite ready to meet his eyes for fear of what she would find there. "You've gone through a lot today, Alison, and I'm not trying to be a hovering mother, but I'm worried about you, and so is everyone else."

"Yet you're the only one out here," she said, then shook her head quickly. "Never mind, forget I said that. I know the others' hearts are in the right place, but I understand them not really wanting to be around me right now after Johnathan and what I told them."

"No one blames you for Johnathan," he said gently, and Alison finally looked up and met his gaze, seeing only concern and gentleness reflected back at her, no sign of anger or disgust like she had expected. "We all know what it's like to see beyond the faults of our kin, and no one can hold that against you; we're all used to doing the same for our own family."

"Though I bet Thorin and Fili never tried to strangle you or threatened to slit your throat in front of your friends or kill an innocent man," she said bitterly, and Kili winced at the bluntness of her tone.

"Well, no," he amended. "But Fili did threaten to tie my hair to a pony's tail and slap it on the rump to send it running once for breaking one of his favorite swords."

Alison grinned in spite of herself, imagining two small Dwarf boys getting in a tussle before the image vanished, leaving her with her much darker thoughts instead.

She sighed again and covered her face with her hands, leaning against the railing with her elbows. "I'm just starting to wish that none of this ever happened," she whispered, saying something that had been on her mind a lot lately, and she found it was easier to confess in the darkness, with only Kili around to hear her, instead of keeping it bottled up or announcing it in front of the entire Company. "I miss my family, and my home, and my old life; as much as I love it here and as much as thinking of leaving you all behind hurts me like nothing else, I just…don't want to be the Hero everyone expects me to be anymore. I just want to be me, the old Alison Ashburne who only worried about school grades and scrounging up enough gas money for the week. I don't know who the Valar or I were kidding; with every passing day, the more the end of our journey seems both so far and so close in equal measure, and…I don't know if I can go through with it. It's beginning to be too much."

To her horror, Alison found tears stinging the corners of her eyes again, and she sniffed angrily, brushing them away fiercely; she was sick of crying, damn it.

Kili said nothing for a long moment, and then, to her utter surprise, he reached over and pulled her into his arms, wrapping them around her shoulders and bringing her close to his chest so he could hold her.

After stiffening for a few moments, Alison finally relaxed against him and wrapped her own arms around his middle, burying her face in his shoulder as she tried to stem the flow of her tears, his tangled dark hair brushing comfortingly against her cheek.

They stood in silence as Alison reigned in her emotions, and she focused on Kili's heartbeat, fast but strong against her chest, and the smells of pipe smoke, leather, woods, and a distinct scent that could only be described as Kili filling her nose, along with the other scents of river water and, less comfortingly, blood, but she ignored it, just enjoying his solidity and warmth for as long as she could.

Eventually, he broke the silence, and his words were so off topic that Alison was momentarily distracted from her thoughts as he said, "Tell me something inspiring, Alison."

"What do you mean?" She asked into his shoulder, her tears beginning to dry as the cold night air dashed them away, and she felt him shrug slightly.

"Tell me something inspiring," he repeated. "Something that kept you strong in the mortal world; something beautiful and lifting."

"Uh…" Alison cast her mind around for a moment, struggling to think; nothing had consciously kept her strong in the mortal world, but something beautiful and lifting was one thing she could manage. "I mean, there's this quote that I love, and I was thinking of having it tattooed on me one day, but…"

"What is it?" he asked, and Alison decided to just go for it.

"'Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light; I have loved the stars too fondly, to be fearful of the night.'" She recited from the Sarah Williams poem she had read so long ago, yet that quote had stuck with her ever since then, and she truly thought it one of the most beautiful things she had ever read.

"You're right," Kili said, sounding wistful. "That really was beautiful. Now, it's my turn." He shifted away from her slightly, until they were looking at each other directly in the eyes, for Alison had now reached his height as well, and he reached down to take her hands into his own, holding them up between them so they could both see.

"See your hands in mine?" he said, and Alison nodded, watching her palms float on top of Kili's as she wondered where he was going with this. "See how small they look, how delicate?" And it was true; compared to his large, sturdy hands, hers looked like a doll's, and she nodded again as he continued. "But these hands are stronger than they look; they've shot arrows, they've thrown punches and knives, and they've held swords. These are not gentle hands. They have blood on them, yours and others, and they always will. That blood is a part of you, but it is a strong part; strong hands that will carry you up the highest mountain, or push you to the depths of the sea. But they will carry you, nonetheless, and it is up to you to believe if they can or not, just as you have to believe whether you can carry on this journey."

Alison met Kili's eyes again, suddenly choked as his words registered in her mind; he believed in her, he believed that she could go on, when she had started to doubt herself. Touched, she listened as he went on. "Life is hard, and death, and love, and all those things; but I believe you are brave enough to carry yourself with these hands, and see this quest through. Do you?"

She swallowed past the lump in her throat, looking into his dark eyes; still cheeky, still glinting, but now layered with a veil of strain and exhaustion, of someone who has had to grow up so fast in such a short time, and Alison wondered if her eyes looked the same as she searched beyond that and saw the gentle light, the soft strength Kili was lending her, and without even thinking, but knowing it to be true, somehow, she answered, "Yes, I believe it."

"Of course you do," he said, grinning wryly. "You're Alison Ashburne; you've never had any reason to doubt yourself in the first place."

Alison grinned back, and with that, Kili leaned forward and pressed his lips to her forehead, enticing a tingle of warmth to burgeon in Alison's chest and spread throughout her body as he pulled away, gave her one last, cheeky half-grin, and walked slowly back into the house, keeping weight off his injury as he closed the door behind him.

Alison stayed by herself for a moment more before deciding it was time for her to stop moping and beating herself up, and she turned to enter back into Bard's house and face the Company again.

As she went, the clouds shifted and suddenly bathed her in the silvery light from the moon, and, with Kili's words still echoing in her head, this seemed to strengthen her resolve more than anything as she rejoined the Company once more and shut the door behind her.

Author's Note: Well, she told them. I know there was a lack of serious reaction in this chapter, but next chapter there will be more insight on what the Dwarves' actually think of Alison's bombshell, and maybe even some Bard thoughts too.

This chapter made me want to scream, multiple times, but I'm hoping it didn't come out as weird as I think it did. I wanted to focus more on Bilbo in this chapter, since he is a major part in the story, and I also wanted to show the faint stirrings of the Ring's control over him, for that is something most notably seen in LOTR, so I wanted to start establishing that, though it will be little by little as the story goes on.

And some Kilison fluff moments, anyone? Yay? Nay? If you're freaking out by the lack of Filison, though, never fear; there will be a pretty major moment in the upcoming chapters, and I'm personally excited to see how that will all play out...

And the mystery of Johnathan and the Necromancer begins...I wonder what it could possibly be, and how all of this will play out? Hmm...

Anyway, as I said above, thank you for the follows/favorites and especially the reviews! Your last ones were amazing, and I'm glad that you don't hate me now! So feel free to drop a few words in that white box down there...

Thanks again, lovelies! Until next chapter...

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