32: The Only Right
Disclaimer: All rights go to JRR Tolkien and Peter Jackson. Anything you don't recognize is mine.
Quick A/N: Okay, kind of random, but what the heck? Why did they change the title of the last film? I mean, I understand their reasoning, but There and Back Again was perfect. The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies? That's like calling 'The Return of the King' "The Battle at Pelennor Fields." (I was personally hoping for 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug 2: Desolate Harder,' but oh well). Anyway, randomness aside, happy reading!
Chapter Thirty-Two: The Only Right
Sneaking through the dirty alleyways and side streets of Lake-town was quickly rising on the list of Things Alison Ashburne Really Dislikes as the Company and her crept along as silently as they could, though she still winced at how loud the Dwarves were walking on the rickety wood and the occasional sniffle from Bilbo, who Alison guessed had caught a slight chill after their barrel stunt in the river.
She still felt slightly guilty for leaving Bard's when it was clear the Lakeman wasn't ready for them to leave just yet, but as Thorin had said, their situation called for it. They didn't know how long it would take them to find the hidden door, and he had wanted to go immediately, and Alison silently agreed, though she had still felt that sense of guilt at Bain's feeble attempts to stop them from going despite it being quite easy to shake him off.
Night had fallen upon the town when they finally stumbled upon the city armory, and she couldn't help thinking that the sooner they were out of Lake-town, the better, though she tried to block off any thoughts about what would happen when they reached the Mountain after this as they stuck to the shadows, observing the armory.
They spent a few minutes scouting the perimeter and familiarizing themselves with the guards' rotations outside of the complex, and then Thorin divided them into two groups; one group would stay outside and keep watch, while helping the second group climb in through one of the upper windows of the building so they could get the weapons. Somehow Alison got roped into the second group, though she suspected that was more out of necessity for handling "Man" weapons than Thorin's personal decision, for it was no secret the Dwarf was livid with her.
It was the right thing to do, her mind chided as the first group—acting as a Dwarven ladder—took position outside of the building after a squadron of gangly, poorly-armored guards passed by, allowing them ten minutes to do what they had to do before they rounded the building once more. But she still felt a slight pang as she watched Nori go first for their group, putting his "shady" skills to good use as he jimmied open the window and pulled himself inside, being quickly followed by Bilbo.
Alison steeled herself before following after the Hobbit, hoping she wouldn't fall and look like an idiot as she began to scale the Dwarves' shoulders, apologizing in a whisper as Fili grunted when she stepped on his hair and Bofur groaned after her foot clipped the side of his head. Fortunately, she made it to the top before falling over, dragging herself in through the window and tripping inside before she caught herself and straightened, grinning at Bilbo and Nori despite her pounding heart, feeling as if someone was about to walk in and see them at any moment.
But their luck held as several more Dwarves joined them, among them Thorin, Bifur, Dwalin, and, to her astonishment and concern, Kili, who looked pale and sweaty in the light of the moon filtering in, though she hoped it was just her imagination that he looked so sickly.
Quickly and quietly, they turned to the weapons racks lining the walls, and Alison's eyebrows rose at the impressive array of iron swords, axes, spears, bows and arrows, and many other things she had no time to name as she joined in on the others' grabbing of anything in reach, though she noticed they tended to favor more swords and axes beyond anything.
Soon, her arms were beginning to ache from the strain of holding so many heavy weapons, but she ignored the discomfort as Dwalin stacked more and more weapons on her before he determined she would collapse should she have to hold any more.
"Please tell me we're not going back out the window with these," she panted to the half-bald warrior as he placed some six or so swords into Bifur's arms.
"Of course not," he grunted in reply, and she noticed with an uncomfortable twinge how he didn't meet her eyes as he said it and his tone was gruffer than usual. "Nori will open the door for us."
Alison mentally face-palmed herself, knowing how stupid she must've sounded when she was already well aware of Nori's expertise, so she started to head toward the stairs leading down to the first floor, struggling under the weight of so many weapons.
As she walked, she came to the place where Thorin was adding another axe to the heavy load Kili was already carrying, though she noticed with some disgruntlement how his load was significantly larger than hers.
"You all right?" Thorin asked his nephew, as he staggered a bit, and Kili nodded, though he looked strained and his jaw was clenched.
"Yeah, I can manage," he replied tightly. "Let's just get out of here." Thorin looked dubious, but he still nodded and sent Kili on his way, and Alison trailed after the dark-haired prince as he made for the stairs.
"Kili?" she said hesitantly, keeping her voice low, and she saw his shoulders stiffen at the sound of her voice, but he didn't turn around. "How long has it been since Óin last looked at your leg?"
"Don't worry, Alison," he said, and she felt herself relax at the fact that despite his physical discomfort, his voice was still gentle when he spoke to her. "He'll check it before we leave."
She nodded to his back as they approached the stairs, but almost immediately she sensed something wrong. Kili stepped with his injured leg first, about to descend the stairs, and Alison hissed, "Kili, wait—" but the damage was already done.
As soon as his foot touched the stair, the weight was too much for him and his injury, and his leg promptly gave out, causing him to collapse and topple down the stairs, a cascade of ringing, clanging weapons following him down with a cacophony equal to that of a death metal concert.
After the weapons finally settled, Alison looked down the stairs in horror where Kili was laying on the landing, luckily uninjured, but he gazed back at her, guilty and panicked, as rough, shouting voices could be heard outside the armory, coming closer every second.
"What in Durin's name—" Thorin snarled, but he never finished as suddenly the door downstairs crashed open and a stream of the Lake-town guards burst in, immediately making for the stairs as they caught sight of the group standing on the second floor with the weapons in their arms.
One guard grabbed Kili while the rest thundered up the stairs, and Alison barely had time to drop the weapons she was holding and whip out Maodus before a guard barreled into her and pushed her roughly against the wall, holding his own poorly-crafted sword to her throat as the Dwarves and Bilbo were apprehended in the same manner.
One of the guards, a round, tubby fellow with a curtain of ginger hair, who appeared to be the captain due to his more elaborate and ugly armor, swept his narrow gaze over them before ordering, "Take their weapons and escort them out, men. These ruffians can go see the Master."
Alison met Thorin's eyes briefly at this command, and though the Dwarf looked as if he were about to breathe fire, he handed over the spear he was holding nonetheless, knowing they were outnumbered and that they couldn't afford to put up resistance or else they would probably be killed on the spot.
With a last glare at the guard, Alison handed over Maodus and proceeded to un-strap the scabbard on her back, shoving Natrem and its sheath into his arms, and she had to conceal a smirk as he fumbled with the three weapons now in his arms.
Noticing her expression, the guard gave her a poisonous look and said, "I wouldn't be so snippy if I were ya, missy. Once yer brought before the Master—"
But he didn't finish as Captain Gingy walked over, having overheard the guard speaking to her, and the man's eyes widened at the sight of her, not having noticed her before.
"What's this, a lassie?" he said, and that got everyone's attention in the room, and Alison tried not to fidget as everyone looked at her.
"What? Never seen a woman before?" she said, regretting the words almost as soon as they were out, but Gingy didn't pay any attention, his flat mouth turning downwards in a frown as he took in her appearance, from her travel-worn, scuffed boots, odd clothes, and messily braided hair, looking so obviously foreign even though she was a human like them.
"You're not from these parts, are ya, lassie?" he asked, and Alison resisted the urge to snort and say, Wow, what gave you that idea?
But she was spared trying to answer, sarcasm or no, as another guard came up the stairs and stopped by Gingy's shoulder, saying, "We've cornered more of the thieves outside, Captain. They're ready to be brought before the Master."
Alison wanted to point out that it was nearly one in the morning, and that the Master of Lake-town probably did not want to be woken up for this, but she kept her mouth shut as Gingy ordered the guards to usher them out of the armory, the Dwarves jostling and cursing the entire time, but the guards created an impassable column around them so they couldn't break free.
They stepped back out into the bitterly cold night, and Alison got a glimpse of the others who had been outside struggling with their guards as well before she was pushed along by the procession, following a path through the main streets of Lake-town. The ruckus they were making caused lights to go on in homes and inhabitants to poke their heads out in curiosity, and soon they had a following as the people who had been awoken in their homes pressed after them, talking in anxious and excited whispers as they came to a rather large, only slightly nicer wooden home with grand doors that Alison assumed to be the Master's house, whoever the heck this guy was.
They stood in the square before the house, the empty space behind them being filled with the inhabitants of the town and the square growing brighter with golden light as many torches were lit by the townspeople, and with the added light, the whispers grew into talking, and soon they were nearly shouting, though Alison wasn't really paying attention to what they were saying, only focusing on the great doors before her as she saw Gingy knock and speak to someone she couldn't see.
Soon, the doors of the house were thrown open, and the most repulsive man Alison had ever seen stormed out, tugging on a thick fur coat while alternately smoothing down his thinning, combed-over hair, even more ginger than the captain's, as he growled, "What is the meaning of this? This had better be a damned good reason, Braga—"
But the man, obviously the Master of Lake-town, stopped abruptly as he finally noticed the surrounded Company and the congregated townsfolk, and Alison could literally sense the surprise that rolled off of him as he took them in with a watery, narrowed gaze.
"We caught 'em stealing weapons, Sire," the captain, Braga (Alison felt slightly disappointed she couldn't call him 'Gingy' anymore), said, and a nasty, appeased leer appeared on the Master's face.
"Enemies of the state then, hm?" He said, and then his eyes found Alison, and she braced herself as his mouth gaped slightly. "And who is this?" he asked. "I haven't seen the likes of you in this town, miss. Who are you?"
Alison stayed silent, staring down the Master and crossing her arms, and she was vividly reminded of the Great Goblin in the Misty Mountains, though she had been terrified back then, whereas this man looked almost comical as he glared down at her.
"Very well, then," he said. "Strange, however, for a human woman to be found fraternizing with Dwarves; though I should expect they pay you handsomely for your ah…services."
Alison just stared blankly at the man, not quite getting what he was hinting at, but the Dwarves hissed in outrage and shifted next to her, so she assumed it was something bad as the Master looked down at them from the top of the stairs leading to the house he was standing on.
"So, stealing weapons, eh?" the Master said, reiterating the previous topic. "And for what purpose?"
"A desperate bunch of mercenaries, if ever there was, Sire," a man Alison had not noticed before said from the Master's shoulder, but she recognized the oily voice well enough, remembering it from when Bard had smuggled them into Lake-town, and she glared at the equally horrid Alfrid as he simpered to the Master. "No doubt here to incite an uproar—"
Alison knew this was a mistake to say in the presence of the fiery-tempered Dwalin, especially when the jab was aimed at Thorin, however vague, so it didn't really surprise her when the warrior's gruff voice snapped, "Hold your tongue!" and he stepped forward, making the Master unconsciously take a step back even though the Dwarf was far shorter than him and quite some distance away.
"You do not know to whom you speak," Dwalin continued, looking quite dangerous in the torchlight as he addressed the Master, sweeping a large hand back toward the Company. "This is no common criminal. This is Thorin, son of Thráin, son of Thrór!"
The crowd broke into renewed mutters and exclamations as Thorin, looking quite reluctant but overly royal, stepped out from behind the Company and fixed the Master with a cold stare, his raven hair aglow with gold from the torches, and to complete the image of majesty, it started to snow, white flakes falling and dusting the Dwarf as he stepped further into the square.
"We are the Dwarves of Erebor," he announced, in a strong, clear voice that echoed around the square, and silence fell as everyone listened to him. "We have come to reclaim our homeland."
The murmurs started up again, spreading like wildfire, but Alison's attention was fixated on Thorin; she had never realized the kind of sway he held over people when he actually did act like royalty, and she was finally beginning to understand why people listened when he spoke. He was mesmerizing.
"I remember this town in the great days of old," he said, sweeping his gaze over the townsfolk. "Fleets of boats lay at harbor, filled with silks and fine gems. This was no forsaken town on a lake. This was the center of all trade in the north!"
This was met with many mutters and nods of agreement, and Thorin continued, his voice becoming deeper, more passionate as he went on. "I would see those days returned. I will relight the great forges of the Dwarves, and send wealth and riches flowing once more from the halls of Erebor!"
The crowd cheered at this, and Alison's hope started to rise. They could make it out of this. If Thorin kept this up, the townspeople would forget all about wanting to arrest them or try them for theft, but this hope was quashed as another voice rang out from the crowd, a voice that was all too familiar.
"Death!" The voice cried, and the crowd quieted, allowing Bard to push through them until he stood in the square with the Company and the guards, his dark gaze fixed solely on Thorin. "That is what you will bring upon us. Dragon-fire and ruin. If you waken that beast, it will destroy us all."
A heavy silence settled upon the square, and Alison shivered, whether from the snowflakes brushing across her face and settling on her clothes, or from the sudden silence, she couldn't tell.
"You can listen to this naysayer," Thorin said, not at all fazed by the bargeman's words, and Bard's face tightened. "But I promise you this: if we succeed, all will share in the wealth of the Mountain. You will have enough gold to rebuild Esgaroth ten times over!"
Cheers sounded from the crowd again, but Bard turned to them, crying, "All of you! Listen, you must listen to me! Have you forgotten what happened to Dale? Have you forgotten what happened to those who died in the firestorm?" The crowd sobered at this, and, emboldened by this reaction, Bard pressed on, more urgently. "And for what purpose?" He turned to look at Thorin, who stared back, impassive as he listened. "The blind ambition of a Mountain King, so driven by greed, he could not see beyond his own desire!"
The crowd muttered, looking doubtful, until the Master spoke over the clamor once more. "Now, now! We must not, any of us, be too quick to lay blame! Let us not forget, that it was Girion, Lord of Dale, your ancestor, who failed to kill the beast!"
The crowd's murmurs turned darker at this, and Alison could feel the Company's shock as they stared at Bard, not having any clue about Bard's true heritage as she did, and she felt some apprehension as Thorin stared at the bargeman with an expression she didn't like, and Bard shifted uncomfortably, though he still looked angry and determined.
"It's true, Sire," Alfrid piped up. "We all know the story. Arrow after arrow, he shot, each one missing its mark."
Alison felt bad for Bard, and as much as she wanted to defend him, she knew now was not the time nor the place, and it seemed Bard was taking matters into his own hands, stepping closer to Thorin and speaking in a solemn voice that sent chills down Alison's spine.
"You have no right; no right to enter that Mountain," he said, shaking his head, and Thorin looked back to him indifferently, his jewel eyes blazing in the snowy, golden-lighted night.
"I have the only right," he said, and, despite the seriousness of the situation, Alison had an absurd image of Thorin doing a z-snap right in Bard's face as he turned and faced the Master, who looked down at him with an indiscernible expression.
"I speak to the Master of the Men of the Lake," Thorin said, his voice carrying over the silent square once more. "Will you see the prophecy fulfilled? Will you share in the great wealth of our people?"
Prophecy? What prophecy? Alison thought distractedly, simultaneously racking her brain for memories of the book and keeping an eye on the proceedings going on in front of her, watching the Master hesitate before speaking.
"What say you?" Thorin pressed, as the silence stretched on, and Alison could sense the square holding its collective breath, waiting for the Master's answer.
"I say unto you," the Master said, shaking a finger at Thorin, and then a wide leer plastered to his face and he threw his arms open in a gesture of grandeur. "Welcome!" he cried. "Welcome, and thrice welcome, King under the Mountain!"
The crowd's cheers renewed, and Alison felt some of the tension leave her shoulders, grinning down at Bilbo beside her as he took her hand and squeezed happily, relief evident in his gaze, as well.
The only person who looked unhappy at this turn of events was Bard, and after exchanging another unreadable glance with Thorin, the bargeman turned heel and disappeared into the shadowy streets as Thorin and the Master led their procession inside the house, the crowd's cheering echoing behind them as the snow fell in a tumble of white.
For as long as he could remember, Balin had always been the diplomat.
Growing up in a household with a headstrong father and younger brother and an unbendable mother, he had always seen himself as the mediator, and he had come to accept it, to take it unto himself such as a mother accepting responsibility of a newborn child; it was instinct, almost.
So when the Master of Lake-town had declared a meeting with Thorin the morning after their attempted raid on the armory, it was natural for Balin to be there, as well, acting as the advisor to the king-in-exile just as that foul, greasy-haired Man—Alfrid, was it?—was pretending to be for the Master, a Man Balin found equally…disparaging, to put it in the nicest way possible.
The four men had retreated to the Master's study while some of the guards set up cots in the entry hall for the other members of the Company, with promises of warm water for baths and food later.
It was clear no one trusted the Men of the Lake just yet, and Balin could sense the same will amongst the Men towards the Dwarves, but they had accepted the offer nonetheless, knowing that if they wanted any assistance from the Master, they would have to be respectful and courteous.
Balin could tell this idea didn't sit with Thorin very well, but he was far too reserved and tactful not to say so in front of the Master, and neither did it encourage the older Dwarf much either, especially after the outrageous jab he had made at Alison concerning her propriety.
But he swallowed down his qualms for the moment, following the other three into the Master's large, book-shelved study, though from the layers of dust upon the tomes, Balin could guess that they weren't used much.
The Master settled into his high-backed chair behind a large mahogany desk, gesturing for the two Dwarves to take the tall, worn seats across from him while his oily-voiced lackey lurked near his shoulder.
Balin sensed the unease and incredulity rolling off of the two Men, so he decided now would be the right time to smooth down their frayed nerves if they were to get to the Mountain in time with the Master's favor.
He cleared his throat, and the two Men's eyes swiveled from Thorin to him, and he smiled politely, saying, "Considering you are already familiar with my companion, allow me to introduce myself. I am Balin, son of Fundin, at your service."
Balin disliked giving them his name, and liked even less putting himself into their service, but it seemed to finally unfreeze the two Men's baffled expressions, and they nodded in return, saying, "Alfrid, son of Bastian, at yours," and "Lester, son of Wellen and Master of Esgaroth."
Balin wrinkled his nose at the Master's unfortunate given name, but inclined his head all the same as the Master went on to say, "Erm, fancy a brandy, gentlemen? Alfrid," he waved his hand and the other Man immediately crossed the room to another table where dirty glasses and a dusty decanter of amber liquid were, pouring four small glasses and bringing them back over hastily, slopping some of the drink on himself before handing off the glasses.
Thorin declined the brandy he was offered, opting to set it on the desk, still silent and brooding, as Alison called it, but Balin took a polite sip, instantly refraining from spitting it out as he too placed his glass on the desk, wondering what in all of Middle-earth could have produced a drink so vile.
After the Master had tossed back his head and drained the brandy in one large gulp, then did he deign to speak again, and Balin and Thorin listened as his watery eyes settled on them with a new purpose.
"So," he said. "Your 'company' as I take it, is for the sole purpose of entering the Lonely Mountain, eh? To reclaim the lost kingdom of Erebor and bring about the demise of that horrid beast?"
"That was implied," Thorin said emotionlessly before Balin could answer. "Do you doubt our true motives?"
"Of course not, of course not!" The Master said, flapping a hand and going red in the face. "I meant no offense to you, my Lord, none at all. All I meant, pray tell, was how you expected to come about this outcome with such small a party?"
"An army failed before to kill the dragon, and it will do so again," Thorin said. "With a smaller number, we can sneak in and obtain what we need for the eventual demise of that snake."
The Master's eyes widened, and his lackey choked on his brandy, spluttering out nonsense as the Master said, "S-sneak in? You mean…you mean to steal something? You mean—the Arkenstone?"
The Man's voice dropped to a whisper at the end, and Thorin nodded stiffly, his eyes carefully guarded as he said, "Yes, that is our intent. With the King's Jewel safely in the hands of Dwarves, the Dwarven armies of the seven kingdoms will be called upon to uphold their oath and fight alongside the Dwarven wielder of the jewel, and we will march upon the Mountain and destroy Smaug once and for all. With the might of the Dwarves, the Mountain will be restored, and the trade and riches of the north will flourish beside it."
Balin did not miss the emphasis Thorin had placed on whoever wields the Arkenstone, for the Master was failing to keep the light of greed out of his eyes as he listened to the Dwarf, his expression growing brighter and more covetous with every word spoken.
"Never would I have thought I would live to see such days," the Master whispered hoarsely, and Balin shifted uncomfortably in his seat, wary of the avariciousness presenting itself in the Man, and feeling slightly miffed that he was taking all of this so well, having no need for Balin to step in and calm things down—yet.
Balin glanced to Thorin at this, and when he saw the flat line Thorin's mouth had become and the protective gleam in his eyes, he knew that the time had come for him to speak up before Thorin said something offensive regarding the Arkenstone or anything of the sort.
"As you know, Master, the front gate to the Mountain is sealed shut," Balin said, and the Man's eyes turned to him. "We have found another way into the Mountain, though, yet it requires for us to be there at a certain date, this date being the nineteenth, which is only a few short days away. By your generosity, we require weapons to go forth towards the Mountain, which I am sure you understand the reasoning behind the necessity. We will also require transportation to the Mountain, seeing as the Long Lake and the River Running lie between us and our destination."
The Master nodded thoughtfully, but his eyes weren't really seeing Balin as he replied, "Of course, Master Dwarf. I am sure we can arrange something suitable for your journey. However, I feel there must be some terms that should be put into place regarding this venture."
Balin raised his eyebrows, knowing something like this was bound to pop up, but disliking it all the same. The growing rapaciousness of the Master was starting to disconcert him, but he nodded all the same, knowing that a good negotiator always listened to the other party's terms first and then worked their way into and around them, and that was precisely what he would do.
"I will provide you with transportation, supplies, weapons, and the like to aid you on your quest," the Master began, gesturing for Alfrid to get him another brandy, and the sullen-looking fellow complied, whisking away immediately. "But I do not want you to leave immediately. I will provide you with lodgings today and tomorrow, and then the next dawn, the eighteenth, I will allow you to leave. I will even arrange for a feast in your honor before you go. That is my first term."
"Why?" Thorin cut in, looking at the Master incredulously. "If you seek the same goal that we do—"
"I am not saying I don't, my Lord," the Master said, as Alfrid returned with the brandy and he tossed it back quickly, setting down the glass on the desk. The drink seemed to be bolstering the Master's confidence, for he was no longer cringing away from Thorin obediently, but rather meeting his stare head-on, and Thorin cocked a brow as he went on. "But there is, ah, talk circulating, talk of an election or some other damned thing of the sort. Anyway, having you and your company stay, just for a few days, would be immensely beneficial to my position, and it would give the people some morality in these troubling times, you understand."
"You want us to be morale boosters?" Thorin said, frowning, and the Master smiled indulgently.
"Only for a few days," he said. "As I said, I will allow you to leave on the dawn of the eighteenth so you have plenty of time to reach the Mountain and find your secret way in, and from there, I leave the rest to you."
Thorin mulled over his words for a few moments, and Balin did the same. He could not find any double-meaning or hidden loopholes in the words, and when he met Thorin's eyes, he could see the younger lad found no such thing, either. Balin gave an imperceptible nod, and though Thorin's eyes tightened, he turned back to the Master with a nod of his own.
"We agree to the first term," he said. "We will stay until the dawn of the eighteenth, on the condition you provide us with lodging until that time, weapons, supplies, and transportation, but we will stay no later, and we will use force if necessary should anyone try to stop us from leaving. But what is this other term you seem to be keeping behind your teeth?"
The Master nodded, unfazed by the underlying note of suspicion and warning in the Dwarf's voice as Balin watched his eyes light up further, as if enjoying a fantastic spectacle. "It will be done, my Lord. Now, my other term is a favor to be called upon at a later time. It is nothing more than a simple vow; a vow that when the Mountain is reclaimed and Erebor under crown rule once more, that you will remember the generosity of Esgaroth and, hem, repay them in kind."
"You mean you want gold," Balin said, and it wasn't a question. The Master nodded again, but he kept his eyes on Thorin, who had stiffened in his seat, his eyes fixed on something unseen as he answered.
"Esgaroth will be pregnant with bounties beyond measure when the Mountain is restored," he said slowly, carefully. "You and your people will be prosperous and wealthy once more; I see no reason to give away a hefty sum when it will be meaningless to the newfound riches you will see within months."
"Be that as it may," the Master said, spreading his hands. "But it will take time to reach that point, and I don't know how much longer my people have. We could use the money to rebuild Esgaroth, to turn it into a center of trade and wealth, a town of luxury and glory, as you so rightly said. Surely it is a small favor to repay in light of the vast, brimming halls of Erebor?"
"Your favor will be repaid tenfold without such a sum," Thorin said, and his voice had gone flat and low, a sure sign that there would be trouble ahead if someone did not intervene soon. And Balin, ever the mediator, knew that that task fell to him.
"Your assistance is welcomed and gracious, Master," Balin said, choosing his words tactfully as the Master turned to look at him, his eyes glittering with that light he found so unnerving. "And the Dwarves will sing of your generosity for decades to come. But you must understand that we cannot think of such things now, when we are as unsure of the exact outcome of the future as it is. We will speak of this again, but in less ambiguous times, as it is called for."
The Master only stared for several long moments, his eyes shifting back and forth between the two Dwarves as Balin held his breath, praying his words would be enough to sate the Master for the time being.
Finally, the Master nodded slowly, and Balin quietly released his breath in relief as the Man said, "Very well. We already have one condition settled, and this second one is unpredictable at the moment. We will speak of this matter later." He waved a pudgy hand at Alfrid, who snapped upright instantly. "See to it that our guests' lodgings are ready for them and that their supplies, weapons, and boats are arranged for their journey." Alfrid nodded and left the study, leaving Thorin and Balin fixed in the hungry stare of the Master. "I hope you will enjoy your stay in Esgaroth, Master Dwarf and Lord Prince, and I bid you good fortune on your journey. I look forward to seeing your triumph over the beast."
And with that, they were dismissed, and Balin followed Thorin out of the study, shutting the door behind him and half-jogging to reach the king-in-exile's side as Thorin marched along the hallway back towards the entry hall where the Company was, his steps stiff and his jaw clenched.
Once they were safely out of earshot, Balin looked to Thorin and said, very low, "Is there something you want to talk about?"
"No," Thorin growled, and Balin had to hide a smile at the reminder of another situation quite like this, but instead of politics and quests, this had to do with a favorite tapestry of Thrór's and an unfortunate dagger-throwing incident that Thorin had initially refused to talk about after it happened. But Balin had gotten the story out of him, and this time was no different.
This point was driven home when they rounded a corner into a different hallway, and Thorin let out an angry breath, slowing his steps until he was walking side by side with his friend.
"You saw that Man, Balin," he said tiredly. "He is the definition of a penny-pincher, and he is greedy for that treasure. I don't care how many times he says it is for Esgaroth or his people's benefit; I would still not allow him within a league of it."
"I agree," Balin said hesitantly. "But, Thorin…it does seem fair."
Thorin stopped in his tracks and turned to look at Balin as if he had grown a third arm. "What?"
"Think about it," Balin said, stopping as well. "I don't like it anymore than you do, and that Man is not to be lightly trusted, but he has a point. If he offers us all of these things in aid, and all we give him back is "morality," then we have already lost an ally. I'm not saying we need to give him an excessive sum, but extending our hand is a show of good faith, and the Lakemen will stand with us long after the Mountain is reclaimed."
"I do not trust him," Thorin repeated. "There is no reason to give him a sum of gold. When Erebor prospers once more, they will prosper along with it; all races will trade and invest in the north, and they are at an advantageous position. They will be overwhelmed with wealth, I can guarantee it."
"But how long will it take them to reach that height?" he pointed out, trying to keep his voice reasonable, but sometimes it was hard when his king had such a bull's head. "In the meantime, a decent sum should be able to help them along—"
"No," Thorin snapped, and Balin blinked at the sudden vehemence in his voice. "Right now, that option does not appeal to me. I may think more on this later, but at this time I will hear no more of it. We have a quest to finish."
"This is more than just the Master's greed, Thorin." The words came out of him without his volition, and Thorin turned to face him again, his blue eyes hard. Balin swallowed, but he figured once he had started, he couldn't stop. "You see the treasure in that Mountain as Thrór's, as yours. You do not want to share it—"
"I am not Thrór," Thorin ground out. "But I have a right to that gold, more so than any Lakeman; you cannot deny that—"
"I'm not denying it," Balin said hotly. "But as your friend, Thorin, your kin, I have my own right to remind you of the sickness lying within that Mountain, and that you must not succumb to it." Thorin froze at these words, his eyes going icy, and Balin took a step forward, placing a gentle hand on Thorin's shoulder.
When Thorin did not respond, Balin touched his forehead to the other Dwarf's and sighed. He was forcefully reminded of the conversation he had had with him before the start of their quest, all those months ago, standing in Bilbo's Hobbit-hole and gazing around at the Company assembled for their prince, their king.
"You don't have to do this," he had said. "You have a choice. You've done honorably by our people. You have built a new life for us in the Blue Mountains, a life of peace and plenty; a life that is worth more than all the gold in Erebor."
"From my grandfather to my father, this has come to me," Thorin had said, holding up the key Gandalf had given him earlier. "They dreamt of the day when the Dwarves of Erebor would reclaim their homeland. There is no choice. Not for me."
And Balin had let it go, knowing that if Thorin didn't do this, didn't try for their people, then something inside of him would go out. There was a guttering flame within him that would be extinguished if he did not try for their people's sake, and that spoke volumes to Balin, no matter how afraid he was that he would have to watch his dearest friend descend into madness over gold. But he understood Thorin's motivations beyond anything, perhaps even more than he wanted to, and he would protect him with his life, he would be by him through it all, for better or worse. They would see it done.
Alison kicked off her boots and unstrapped her returned swords from her back, placing them on the floor before collapsing into her new bed, not even bothering to change out of the clothes the Lakemen had provided for her while her own things were washed.
After Thorin and Balin's negotiations with the Master of Lake-town earlier (and by earlier she meant at the crack of dawn, after they had been provided cots in the entry hall to sleep on), they had been given a house all to their own, by courtesy of the Master, which Alison hadn't been surprised by, considering he nearly groveled at Thorin's feet after his majestic speech.
But she was certainly grateful to be able to sleep in an actual bed instead of the floor, the ground, a dungeon, a hay pile…anything other than what she had been sleeping on of late, and especially within a room that she didn't have to share with fourteen other men.
It was the evening of the sixteenth and, according to what Bofur (one of the only ones that didn't flinch or talk in a weird tone in her presence) had said earlier, Durin's Day fell on the nineteenth, which had plopped a large stone in her gut that was hard to stomach. Soon, they would be inside the Mountain, and she would see Smaug…
Ignoring the way her fingertips chilled at that thought, Alison told herself to just take it day by day instead of worrying incessantly over the future, a new policy she was attempting to instill in herself because she was so sick of being anxious all the damn time.
Like right now, for instance. She had gotten through the day, eating and bathing, only to be dragged out to an open area behind the house by Glóin, another Dwarf who surprisingly wasn't being odd with her, to cram in some last-minute training.
"But I already know how to fight," she had protested, after the red-haired Dwarf had ordered her to get out her swords—returned from the guards first thing that morning—and get into a battle stance. "I mean, sort of. I think so—"
"You're a good fighter, lass," he had said, giving her such a warning look that she had sunk into position, albeit grumbling under her breath. "Looks like you being a warrior is true, in some respect, but warriors train, no matter if they're the best or not. It's what keeps them the best."
So she had sucked it up and run through spars and drills with Glóin, who turned out to be an even more intensive and grueling trainer than Dwalin even, and they had kept going all day until he had deemed her well enough to "How do you say it in your world? 'Kick some arse?'"
Alison had given him a thumbs-up, too winded to laugh, though she thought she had cracked a rib from suppressing it at hearing the Dwarf use slang from her own world. After that had been dinner, which was a scattered affair, considering half the Company was still running around collecting supplies and things and Bilbo was down with a dreadful cold in his room, being tended to by Óin, who Alison had noticed had not checked Kili's leg yet, and she wondered if the prince was avoiding treatment since he was nowhere to be found.
But telling herself she'd find Kili and smack him for it later, she had bid the Company in the dining room with her goodnight, checked on Bilbo, who had sneezed violently by way of greeting, and then went to her bedroom on the third floor of the house, where she was now lying in her bed, sore and somewhat smelly from her training session with Glóin, but too tired to take another bath.
Alison watched the twilight shadows grow deeper on the walls in her room, keeping her mind busy from wonderings of the future with thoughts of the Company, particularly Bilbo, Fili, and Kili, the people she had grown most close to on their journey. She avoided anything having to do with Johnathan and the Necromancer—Sauron—but she did let her mind wander to where Gandalf was and what he was possibly doing at this moment.
He had said he would be waiting for them at the overlook, before the slopes of Erebor, and Alison prayed the Wizard would stay true to his word, though she knew it was a small chance. The Wizard would return, but she didn't know exactly when, though she did know that it was definitely after the Dwarves entered the Mountain, which was real comforting. She just hoped he was doing something about the Sauron-rising situation before things possibly got any more out of hand.
After a couple of hours staring at nothing, Alison's eyelids finally drooped and closed, and she slipped under the cover of sleep, floating in darkness before a dream formed in her mind, and she found herself looking into the face of her mother, a sight that she hadn't seen in weeks, ever since leaving Mirkwood.
Emily was seated in a chair while Alison knelt before her, one of her mother's hands clasped in hers, and the touch was so familiar yet so alien at the same time. Compared to the roughness and warmth and size of her companions' hands, her mother's hands were small and fragile, unblemished and smooth, and slightly cold, but they were still her mother's hands, all the same, and Alison felt something catch in her throat at the sensation.
"Mom?" she whispered, watching Emily's face as she stared off into the distance, her deep brown eyes, ringed with a beautiful caramel color and thick lashes, unfocused and unseeing upon her, and Alison shook her hand slightly to gain her attention.
"Mom," she said, more insistently, but she still did not respond, her angular face, so similar to her own, still facing away from her, still not budging. "Mom, please, it's me, Ali. It's Alison, Mom."
But Emily still did nothing, and something desperate seized at Alison, and she shook her mom's hand more urgently, more panicked. "Mom, listen to me, I'm right here, can't you see me? Mom, look at me! Look at me, it's Alison!"
In a sudden move, Alison gripped her mom's face between her hands and tried to focus her eyes on her, but to no avail. Alison realized then that she was still dreaming, that this was just a nightmare, and her mom wasn't really forgetting her, couldn't be forgetting her, but she couldn't help it, couldn't stop the tears streaming down her face as she screamed, "Mom, look at me! Don't forget me, I'm right here, listen to me—why aren't you listening?"
The last part tore out of her throat as an anguished wail, and when her mother still failed to see her, to acknowledge her, Alison stepped back, her throat and eyes burning. One more step back and her mom faded from sight, and suddenly Alison found herself in a hauntingly familiar setting, gazing up at a cloud-choked sky and breathing in a whiff of sulfuric air, though with the ruined walls rising up around her, she found herself to be inside of Dol Guldur instead of simply gazing at it from afar.
The same two voices she always heard appeared to be speaking again, but this time, Alison recognized one of the voices, so meek and small compared to the abyss-like voice commanding it, and her blood boiled beneath her skin as she recognized Johnathan.
Even though she was in a dream and could do no harm to him, Alison's rationality evaporated as she followed the sounds of the voices, her hand coming to rest on a dagger that did not belong to her that was strapped to her hip. She wandered through the haunted echoes of Dol Guldur, ignoring everything save for the voices as she walked through crumbling, labyrinthine corridors, occasionally seeing the gloom of Mirkwood forest outside of a hole in the wall or a gaping maw of a window long since devoid of any glass, and still she pressed on, Johnathan's voice pulling her closer and the other voice rasping like a cold wind over a frozen-over hell.
But soon, the voices had stopped speaking in their harsh black tongue, and Alison paused, straining her ears, just as all light was vanquished, leaving her in utter darkness.
She spun around blindly, unsheathing the dagger at her waist and beginning to slash wildly, her breath coming in short, ragged gasps that were far too loud in the darkness—
Out of nowhere, two hands clamped down on the sides of her head, and Alison whirled around, her scream dying in her throat as she saw Johnathan standing behind her, bathed in an ethereal glow, the only bright spot in the endless darkness, his hands on either side of her head, holding her in place as his fathomless ebony eyes bored into her own.
"Burzum-ishi obguryash, Mau," he snarled, and his voice was so dark that Alison felt as if a shadow had passed over her as she stared at him, too petrified to speak. "Gimb-izish nazg shir dûmpuga-lat ghash."
And with that, he gave her head a squeeze, his grip so strong she thought her skull was about to split, as an image of a silver ring flashed through her mind so quickly she thought it was her mind playing tricks on her, and in the next second her eyes had flown open and she bolted upright in her bed, clutching the sheets to her mouth to keep from either screaming or retching, though both options were pretty bad.
Alison looked around her room frantically, sure there was something in the shadows, but after a few moments she calmed down enough to where she could bring the sheets away from her face and take a few rattling breaths, feeling cold sweat sliding between her shoulder blades as she realized nothing was with her, that she was alone.
Her dreams had been awful these last couple of weeks, she knew, but none of them could even compare to this one as she pushed her damp hair out of her eyes, slight tremors going through her fingers as she pressed her hands to her face, waiting until her heart rate had calmed and she no longer felt like she needed to throw up.
Alison didn't even know anymore whether that last part of the dream had been real or not, but at this point, she didn't care. Anything concerning Johnathan she now considered a threat, especially from what he had said to her in her dream and the image of the ring now in her mind—silver, plain, and unadorned, but she had no doubt that this was the ring Johnathan wanted from the Lonely Mountain. She hadn't understood a word he had said to her, but his meaning was clear enough: Find me this ring, or you will all die.
Too bad I don't owe you anything, bastard, she thought, feeling something hard consolidate in her chest at her own words, a shield to protect her from the other Hero and his twisted desires. You don't control me.
Suddenly thirsting for fresh air, no matter how cold, Alison got up shakily from her bed and tugged back on her boots, re-strapping her swords to her back and wrapping a blanket around her shoulders before tip-toeing out of her room and down the stairs, making sure none of the other members of the Company had heard her and that they were all in bed before she crept down the stairs to the first floor, entering the living room and making for the front door until a voice sounded to her left and she didn't think, just acted as she drew Natrem and raised the blade, before stopping when she realized it was Nori who had spoken.
The Dwarf swore in Khuzdûl, taking a step back, and Alison probably would've laughed at the expression on his face had she been in a better mood.
"Shit, sorry, Nori!" she whispered, replacing Natrem back into the scabbard quickly and holding up one of her hands in peace as she bent down to retrieve the blanket that had fallen off her shoulders and onto the floor during her little movement.
"Mahal above, lass!" Nori whispered back furiously, clutching a hand over his heart. "What are you trying to do, kill me?"
"I said I was sorry," she said hastily, feeling her face burn as she realized she had overreacted quite a bit.
Nori just shook his head, his intricately styled and braided hair miraculously staying in place with the movement. "It's fine," he said. "I was just asking what you were doing up still before you tried to take my head off."
Alison ignored the jibe, barely registering that Nori didn't sound strange around her at all and met her eyes quite easily as she sighed. "I could ask you the same thing," she retorted half-heartedly, but she couldn't bring herself to use sarcasm in that moment, still too shaken from her dream.
Nori shrugged, sinking into an armchair by the low-burning fire and gazing into it as Alison shifted on her feet, not sure whether to sit or stand. "Couldn't sleep," the Dwarf admitted, and Alison nodded.
He turned away from the embers and instead looked at her, his gaze raking her up and down, but it was more of a thoughtful look than an uncomfortable one.
"Come sit down," he said, gesturing to the armchair beside him, and after a slight hesitation, Alison obeyed, settling next to the Dwarf and allowing the remnants of the fire to warm her hands, still clammy and trembling a bit.
The two sat in silence for a while, just watching the ashes in the hearth go cold one by one until Nori poked it again, rekindling a small flame among the embers that cast dancing shadows around the spacious yet drafty living room, a feature that seemed unavoidable in every house in Lake-town. It was then that Alison noticed how she had never had a one-on-one moment with Nori before, and that sudden realization startled her; she had only ever spoken to the Dwarf on a handful of occasions, and always in the presence of other members of the Company, and whenever she had been on watch with him there had always been someone else, and they opted not to speak in those times.
She was about to remark on this until Nori spoke up first, saying bluntly, "Bad dream, was it?"
Alison's mouth gaped open for a second, before she realized how stupid she probably looked and closed it again, her mouth feeling quite dry all of a sudden. When she didn't answer immediately, Nori turned and looked at her with clear grey eyes, a feature she had never noticed on him before, and she found they were quite nice as he raised a braided eyebrow that disappeared into his hair.
"How did you know?" she asked quietly, meeting his eyes, and he quirked a wry grin that hinted at something much sadder.
"The way you look right now," he said. "Scared, uncertain, but trying to shake it off as nothing. Ori used to have them when he was younger, just a lad, right after our ma died; I'm accustomed to it by now."
Alison swallowed, clutching the blanket more tightly around herself to fend off the chill despite the small fire. "I dreamed of Johnathan," she found herself whispering, and she saw Nori stiffen slightly, a flash of anger crossing his features before they became blank once more. "Oh?"
She nodded, turning her eyes to the smoldering ashes. "He was in Dol Guldur, and he found me, I guess, in the dream. He grabbed my face, and he said something in this awful language, and this image of a ring came into my head. I think it was the ring he's looking for, and that he showed it to me because he still expects me to get it for him."
"Well, he's not going to get it," Nori said confidently, but Alison could sense his worry and unease. "He's not coming within a thousand leagues of that Mountain; he'd be dead if he tried."
"Unless he uses something else to get the ring," Alison said, voicing aloud the fear she had had ever since Johnathan had hinted of the ring. "There could be any number of ways to obtain it; he doesn't have to limit himself to me or him, though I hope he does."
She sighed, rubbing her forehead, suddenly feeling exhausted yet too awake to sleep, only looking up when she felt Nori's large hand patting her back gently.
He didn't offer any words of comfort or encouragement, but somehow Alison found it better this way, and they sat in amiable silence for a time, watching the flames die in the hearth until she stood up, not wanting to sit still any longer.
"I think I'm going to go get some air," she said, and Nori nodded, offering her a kind smile.
"All right, but be careful," he said. "And try not to take anyone's head off with those swords of yours."
Alison cracked a smile, and then, on impulse, she leaned down and pecked the Dwarf on his cheek, just above his beard, and he looked at her with wide eyes when she straightened, still smiling at his reaction.
"You're a good person, Nori," she said. "Don't let anyone tell you differently."
She was referring to how the Company sometimes looked down at him or frowned because of his not-so-respectable intentions, and the Dwarf seemed to understand that, smiling widely at her even though his face had turned a delightful shade of red.
With a last smile, Alison walked outside, shutting the door softly behind her, and venturing out into the tiny sliver of front yard the house boasted, a small patch of garden that was dead and cold for the winter, and dusted with fat, wet flakes of snow.
Alison bent down, ignoring the frigid chill, and picked up a handful of snow, ginning to herself happily as the cold fluffiness melted in her warm hands. She had never seen snow before in real life, only on television or online, and seeing it, if only a tiny bit of it, excited her and distracted her from thoughts of darker things.
She was wondering if enough snow would build up overnight to where she could attempt to build a snowman tomorrow, when a small cough sounded behind her and she turned around, more calmly this time, expecting to see Nori, but found to her surprise Bard standing behind her instead.
"And they say New York is the city that never sleeps," she quipped, getting to her feet and using one hand to brush off her pants while the other held tight to her blanket.
Bard looked at her weirdly but shrugged off the comment, looking to her with his arms crossed tightly across his chest and his hands shoved deep into his coat, his nose and cheeks nipped red and snowflakes adorning his hair as if he had been outside for a long time, and she wondered if he had slept at all since yesterday.
"I was looking for you," he said without preamble, and she quirked a brow.
"And you just couldn't wait until morning?" she asked.
He shook his head. "It couldn't wait," he said. "I had to give it to you before you left on this quest of madness you seem intent on pursuing."
His voice was hard and sharp when he said it, and Alison inwardly sighed. She knew that the Lakeman didn't approve of their quest, but she hadn't realized how firmly opposed to it he was until last night outside of the Master's house.
"You already know my reasoning for going on this quest," she said. "I don't have to defend myself to you."
"I'm not asking you to," he replied. "But you know the story, Alison; you know they will awaken that beast, and you expect me to somehow kill it, all while putting hundreds of lives in danger, putting my children's lives at risk—"
"Yes, I do know the story," she shot back, getting fed up with everyone arguing with her over this. "And I told you already; you're going to kill Smaug with one of your fancy Black Arrows—oh, don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about, you're Girion's descendant for Christ's sake, of course you have it—and your children are going to live."
"And you expect me to blindly trust your word?" He demanded, and his whole face was red now as he glared at her. "You said so yourself you don't know if things will stay the same anymore, and you can understand how reassuring that is to me—"
"Okay, okay!" she snapped. "I don't know how this thing will turn out anymore; this whole story has basically gone to hell in a hand basket, and I'm not exactly having the time of my life trying to figure out how to keep everyone I love alive, either, all right? So either trust your gut and do what's right, or take your kids and run far, far away from this place and leave others to suffer. It's your choice, Bard. But I'm tired of playing the part of advisor; either man up, or go."
This was met with a stunned expression from Bard, and Alison waited, watching as his face slowly leeched back to its normal color, and when he looked back to her, she saw a fire in his eyes that hadn't been there before, and with the grim set of determination on his face, she felt her own shield rise in response. They could do this.
"If worst comes to worst, I will stand and defend this town if need be," he said. "I will not try and stop you in your task, though I do not approve of it."
"Like I ever asked for your permission, anyway," she joked, and he cracked a faint smile.
"I stand by my word, Lady Hero," he said, and Alison vaguely hoped that wasn't some sort of binding oath as the bargeman went on. "And if we ever come out of this firestorm alive, I will follow you to the depths of Mordor itself if it means stopping Johnathan from causing harm to us or others."
"Wait, what?" Alison said. "No, no, don't say something like that. I mean—I—"
"You don't mean to follow him?" he asked, crinkling his brows, and Alison spluttered.
"Of course I mean to follow him," she all but squeaked. "But I didn't mean immediately—"
"And why not?" Bard challenged. "The longer you wait, the stronger he and his master will get, and we still don't know what they plan on doing. We need to act soon if we want to stop them from doing…whatever it is they want to do."
Alison nodded slowly, choosing not to say she hadn't considered going so soon before because of her extended lifespan, but she figured she'd make the poor man pass out. So instead she said, "You're right. But…let's just focus on one thing at a time, all right? I mean, we still have a dragon to slay, a kingdom to reclaim, and a possible battle to fight. Let's not rush things."
They shared a tight smile, Bard nodding, and then something he said earlier came back to her. "Wait, didn't you say you had something to give me?"
"Oh, right," Bard said, and he uncrossed his arms, bringing out a small, leather-bound book from underneath his coat and handing it to Alison, who took it cautiously. "What is this?"
"I was hoping you could tell me," he said, shrugging. "I found it underneath a pile of old tapestries in an antique shop, and, well…open it and you'll see."
Alison flipped open the cover of the book, the worn leather soft and supple in her freezing hands, and she noticed the yellowed, crinkly paper, clearly depicting the old age of the book and the wear and tear it had sustained as she ran her fingers over splotches and tears, but she halted her musings when she noticed the four words scrawled at the top of the page, and her breath caught in her throat, the book almost slipping from her grasp.
"By the Valar," she whispered, the words rolling off of her tongue easily despite her never actually saying them before, and she looked back up at Bard in wonder and some fear. "It's a journal."
The bargeman said nothing, just looked at her grimly, and she stared back down at the words, her eyes going blurry from strain, but the image was already imprinted to her brain:
Nadia Ashburne, T.A. 1409
Ridiculously Long Author's Note: I apologize in advance for this really grueling translation section. You have no idea how hard it is writing Black Speech, especially when so much of it is missing and you have to cross-reference and interpret everything, so I'm sorry if my linguistic skills suck.
So, basically, what Johnathan says to Alison in her dream roughly translates to: "The Darkness is descending, Hero. Find me the ring before you die in flames."
Burzum-ishi *obguryash* - 'Burzum' means 'darkness' in the Black Speech (Orkish in some cases), while 'Burzum-ishi means 'in the darkness' as seen in the inscription of the One Ring, though for purposes here it means 'the darkness is' *Obguryash does not mean 'descending.' It means 'escape,' I believe, so don't go throwing that around like its canon. It's not*
Mau - Means 'warrior'; my translation I used 'hero.'
Gimb-izish nazg - 'Gimb-izish' is 'find me'; 'nazg' is 'ring'
*shir* dûmpuga-lat ghash - *'shir' is 'were,' I believe, but in my translation I used it as 'before'*; 'dûmpuga-lat' means 'die-you' so 'you die'; and 'ghash' means 'fire,' so 'flames'
So I'm hoping you didn't die from boredom during that translation, but I've always been fascinated with the languages Tolkien created and if any of you are interested then I do it for y'all (along with my own pain-staking torture).
Anyway, so Balin's POV anyone? I'm going to try and incorporate all the Dwarves' POVs by the end of the story, but no promises! I just felt like this chapter really called for a fresh tone. And that goes with the Nori/Alison scene, too; it just worked (please don't start shipping them though lol; Alison's love life is already complicated enough as it is). Ughh, there's so much to talk about in this chapter, so I'm squishing it together from here: I had fun with the Master's real name; actually I had fun with this whole chapter; Thorin: you okay there?; Alison's dream: woah; Bard I love you so much be mine; and what the frick-frack is Nadia Ashburne's journal doing in Lake-town?
*deep breath* Sorry for the overload on this chapter, but it all adds up eventually, right? Right. And I'm SUPER EXCITED for the reappearance of a special character next chapter (any guesses?;) ) and to get this journey to the Mountain going again.
To round this off, thank you for all the reviews'favorites/follows, you guys rock! Please keep up the amazing support, you have no idea how much it inspires me! As always, feedback and constructive criticism are welcome, so please review!
Thanks again, lovelies. Until next chapter...