The March of Time

33: A Ring for the Bearing

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

Quick A/N: So to my reviewers that I can't respond to by PM or if I have forgotten you in any way (to which I am so sorry), thank you all so much! I love your feedback and you are all so amazing!

Enjoy!

Chapter Thirty-Three: A Ring for the Bearing

The sharp smack on her ribcage from the flat of Glóin's practice sword and the stinging pain it brought was what snapped Alison back to her senses, and she involuntarily hissed out a breath as her long-ago troll injury twinged in response, glaring at the fiery-haired Dwarf as he stared back impassively.

"Um, ow?" she prompted, raising an eyebrow, but he let out only a little hrmph in return.

"Not my fault you weren't paying attention, lass," he said. "Just think; if I had been an Orc, you'd be dead right now."

"I think I got that part," she snapped, then sighed, rubbing her eyes. "Sorry, Glóin. I'm not trying to be a pain, but…it's been a weird week. And last night was the highlight of it all."

"You have been a lot more distracted since yesterday," he agreed. "And from what I heard, you hardly slept a wink."

Alison looked at him, confused. "Who—no, wait, don't tell me. Nori?"

Glóin gave her a roguish grin in response, and that was all the confirmation she needed. Ugh, Dwarves and their gossiping tendencies. Confound them all.

Alison felt the Dwarf's eyes on her as she sheathed her swords, but she kept her head down, not wanting to show him just how dark the bags under her eyes were and how tight her expression was, a look that was split between exhaustion and unease.

Ever since Bard took his leave early in the morning, Alison had been awake, sitting on her bed and staring down at the cover of the journal as she traced her fingers over it, burning with curiosity to know what was inside, but not being able to bring herself to read it just yet.

Bard said he had found it in an antique shop, underneath a pile of old tapestries; besides wanting to know what the bargeman had been doing in a pile of tapestries, Alison was more curious and puzzled about how Nadia Ashburne's journal had ended up there.

She thought that everything belonging to the Heroes was tucked safely away in Rivendell, under Elrond's care, so what was an Ashburne's journal doing in Lake-town, of all places? It didn't make any sense, and the only thing Alison found more confusing was who Nadia Ashburne actually was.

She knew there were mortal Heroes before her, six actually, considering she was the seventh, and she knew Eleon was the first and Johnathan the second, so obviously Nadia had to be somewhere in between; just how long or short ago, she didn't know. All she knew was that the journal made her fingertips tingle in an unpleasant way, and she was hesitant to read it.

Ever since Bard had given it to her, Alison had wondered what it would say. She didn't know Nadia, had never heard of her besides the fleeting mention Thranduil had given her in the Woodland Realm, and, deep down, ever since Johnathan's betrayal, Alison had begun to question the integrity of the other Heroes. What if Nadia was just as ruthless and self-serving as Johnathan, and this journal was the account of all of the horrible things she had done? What if she had fallen to the Shadow as well?

But Alison knew the only way she would be able to tell was if she actually read for herself what was inside, and as much as the thought left a sour taste in her mouth, she knew she would have to do this. Even if Nadia was some sadistic, axe-wielding maniac, there could be impertinent information within that journal that could benefit her quest, and at this point, Alison would take all the help she could get. So it was this thought that spurred her into action and made her grit her teeth and suck it up. She had to know what was in that journal.

"I think we're done for the day," Glóin said, trading in his wooden practice sword for a real, wickedly-sharp one, though Alison still noticed his slight disgruntlement over the loss of his axes, now somewhere within Thranduil's Halls when the Wood-Elves had taken their weapons.

Alison nodded, wiping a bead of sweat from her forehead despite the frosty air, and she was about to make for the house when she noticed the Dwarf staring at her with an unreadable expression.

Alison faltered in her steps, staring back at the fiery-haired Dwarf in some trepidation. Despite his recent kindness towards her, such as being one of the only ones to talk to her and willing to squeeze in some last-minute training with her, she knew that the Dwarf had never been exactly keen to seek out her company before.

He was more of a reserved person, scowling and mistrustful, quite like Dwalin and Thorin, but he had a certain air about him that Alison still didn't know what to make of, even after months of traveling with him, and she still didn't know all that much about him either; she knew he was a skilled warrior, maybe a blacksmith on the side, and that he was married and had a son named Gimli (a name that was alarmingly familiar to her), was fond of money (but what Dwarves weren't?), and had a quick, fiery temper, but other than that, she hadn't a clue of what to make of him, so she had no idea what to say as he continued to scrutinize her up and down before speaking.

"In truth, lass, I don't know what is to come," he said finally, and Alison started, surprised at his unexpected words. He fixed her with his squinting dark gaze, and for the first time, she saw a hint of honest emotion in the depths, and she was taken aback to see just how worried and concerned he looked.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"Tomorrow, we make for the Mountain," he said, and Alison swallowed uncomfortably, acutely aware of this fact as he went on. "There's no telling what we'll find inside, and though I know it is not my place to say this…"

He hesitated, and Alison raised her eyebrows in alarm; it wasn't like the older Dwarf to struggle for words or be reluctant about anything, and her concern mounted when he sighed and met her eyes again, looking tired but firm.

"There's no dishonor in walking away," he said, and Alison felt winded as her eyes widened, but he didn't back down. "This close, it seems so dangerous, so hare-brained of a task, but we are ready and willing to lay down our lives for this cause. But are you? You are a descendant of Eleon Ashburne, of the line of Heroes of Men; though the Valar have tasked you to help us, it doesn't seem fair to ask you to do this with us. This is not your quest, not your battle. You can walk away from this. You are young, and you are strong; you have a whole life to live. In my eyes, I do not see a reason for you to throw it all away in favor of retaking a kingdom that is not even yours and slaying a dragon that has the potential to kill us all. It seems an imbalance of fate to me."

Alison barely registered when he had finished speaking, still staring at him blankly while her mind turned in circles. Everything he had said was right, down to the tiniest detail, and Lord knows Alison had thought these same things more than once, but still…

She had accepted the weight of responsibility for this task long ago, and she couldn't even count on her two hands how many vows she had made during the months that she would protect and aid the Company to the best of her ability and more, and as much as Glóin's words made sense and she knew he was only trying to spare her, she also knew that she could not back out now. She had become too invested, and even if the Valar came down and told her she was free to go, Alison knew that she could not leave them now, not on the eve of the culmination of their entire quest. Imbalance of fate or not, she was in too deep, in mind and heart, to back out now. This quest had become just as much as hers as theirs, and she would not give up, damn it.

"No," she said firmly, meeting the Dwarf's puzzled gaze. "This quest is not just yours, Glóin. Even if I had nothing at all to do with it, if I were nothing more than a simple girl with no obligation to any of you, I would still go with you. I know it is not my kingdom to retake, not my quest to complete, but…I feel as if it is now. I've seen many injustices in this world, but what you're doing takes loyalty and honor and valor beyond anything. Your quest is noble, and I was sent to help, and I will fight with you, even if it is not my fight. It is my choice, and like it or not, I'm here to help until we see this thing through, even if there is a scary fire-breathing lizard waiting for us at the end. You all have done so much for me, and I must do this for you; not because I have to, but because I want to. This is something worth fighting for, Glóin."

There was a wake of silence left after her words in which the Dwarf said nothing, and Alison was afraid he'd just push her further, until he spoke once more.

"Aye," he said, and Alison thought she detected a faint hint of scratchiness to his voice before it was replaced by his gruffer tones once more, though he did sound gentler than she had ever heard him speak to her. "That it is, lass. And if that is your choice…then we are glad to accept it."

He stepped forward then and gripped her shoulder, nearly knocking her to the ground, but she regained her balance when he dipped his head respectfully to her and said in a deep, rumbling voice, "Dolzekh menu, dayamu Khozoh."

Alison didn't know what he had said, but she understood the sentiment well enough, and so gripped his shoulder and bowed her head in return, feeling her heart warm at the gesture.

"Get inside out of the chill, lass," he said, giving her shoulder a squeeze before releasing her and stepping away, his beard twitching with a soft smile. "You'll need all the rest you can get; and tell those blockheads when you next see them to do the same. Mahal forbid we need lagging dogs tomorrow when we set out."

Alison snorted. "Easier said than done," she replied. "We have the feast tonight, remember? We'll be lucky enough to set out without everyone still drunk."

Glóin let out a guffaw of laughter. "We Dwarves know how to handle our ale, lassie. There's no need to worry about us."

"Uh-huh," she said sarcastically, and Glóin laughed again. "We'll see about that tonight."

She waved one last time at the chuckling Dwarf before making for the house, grinning to herself. Despite the enormity of her task lying ahead and the unease settled on her about the journal, it was still nice to have those lighter moments with the Dwarves before the hardships and fears sank in once more.

Alison entered back into the house, getting blasted in the face with the warmth emanating from the kitchen fireplace and stomping some leftover cold slush from her boots on the rug before closing the door and venturing deeper into the kitchen, following the newfound aroma of food that she hadn't noticed before until she came into the large kitchen and found Bombur stirring a huge pot of stew while Ori sat at the many-chaired kitchen table, scribbling furiously on some parchment with his head bent low as he wrote.

Both Dwarves looked up when she walked in, and when they both smiled shyly at her, she beamed back, taking stock of how it was only them two in the kitchen before asking, "Where's everybody else?"

"Still collecting supplies," Ori said, as Bombur went back to sitting the pot's contents, and Alison plopped down in a chair at the head of the table, on Ori's right, as she raised her eyebrows at the scribe.

"Still?" she echoed, and he shrugged. "I thought they finished that yesterday?"

"Yes, well, they seem to be getting a little…ah, distracted," Ori said, and he turned pink at the look on Alison's face.

"Distracted with what?" she asked incredulously, and she heard Bombur snort from behind her.

"They're Dwarves," he said simply. "Let's just say they have a knack for finding pubs within a thousand-league radius."

"Oh," Alison said, and she tried not to giggle at the sight of Bombur placing one of his meaty hands on his rotund hip as he continued to stir; though he was very shy and rarely spoke, she had learned soon enough that when Bombur did speak, he came across as sassy and sweet, something that appeared to be contradictory at first, but in actuality suited him quite well.

Ori nodded in agreement before going back to whatever he had been doing before her arrival, and Alison looked curiously at the scrolls and parchment surrounding him, seeing the Dwarvish runes of Khuzdûl, neat and orderly, on every one. She felt a small stab of pity when she remembered that Ori wouldn't have his journal anymore since Mirkwood, and she gingerly grabbed a corner of a paper, pulling it towards her as her stomach kicked at the thought of another journal lying somewhere in her room.

"What's this?" She asked carefully, keeping her voice light as the scholarly Dwarf looked at her, his expression half-wary, half-gentle, for Alison knew he was one of the ones that had been most bothered about her proclamation of their quest being a story.

"Notes," he said, and when Alison furrowed her brows, he decided to elaborate, his ears turning slightly pink. "I was recording our adventures in my journal before it was taken, and I'm just adding some things on these." He gestured to the scattered papers before them. "Hopefully I can get another journal soon, that way I can complete everything and have it in one place."

"That's a good idea, Ori," she said kindly. "And this?"

She reached for another paper, but stopped when Ori said, "No, wait! Not that one!"

The Dwarf was blushing furiously now, and Alison looked back and forth between him and Bombur, who had turned around in surprise at the outburst.

But the paper had already been uncovered amidst the pile of others, and Alison's guilty eyes flicked down at the paper before she met Ori's gaze again.

"Oh, c'mon, lad, she's bound to see it anyway," Bombur said, wagging his wooden spoon at the younger Dwarf, and Ori swallowed before nodding at her, gesturing for her to proceed, though his face was still quite red.

Alison looked down at the parchment once more, and she uttered a soft little gasp at what she saw. It was a simple sketch, incomplete because only one half of the face was done, but she was still pleasantly surprised as she stared down at the half-formed face of Bilbo Baggins, done in such detail she half-expected it to start talking to her in the Hobbit's voice.

"I know it's not finished," Ori said hastily, as Alison continued to stare at the drawing. "And I haven't the tools to make it look nicer at the moment, but I thought, with him being ill and all and for appreciation as him being our burglar—"

"It's amazing, Ori." Alison interrupted the Dwarf's yammering, and his mouth snapped closed, his cow-eyes going round as she looked up, smiling. "Seriously, this is wonderful. I'm sure Bilbo will love it and he'll appreciate you doing something so nice for him."

Ori blushed again, but this time he looked pleased, and Alison carefully slid it back under some other papers that way other wandering eyes wouldn't see it yet. The kitchen fell into amiable silence then, and Alison stared off into space, occasionally hearing the sounds of Ori's quill scratching on the parchment and Bombur humming as he cooked and Bilbo sneezing somewhere in his bedroom, but other than that, Alison idly traced her fingers on the tabletop and zoned out, her thoughts straying back to the journal soon enough.

She had come to the conclusion that she needed to read it, but when? So far all she had done all morning was stall for time by distracting herself, but she was quickly running out of time. Tonight was the feast the Master had stubbornly persisted them into going to, only after Thorin nearly ground his teeth to dust in annoyance and finally relented, and tomorrow at dawn they would begin their quest to the Lonely Mountain for the final endgame, whatever that turned out to be. It was now or never if she wanted to know about Nadia Ashburne and whatever she had written in her journal.

With a muttered excuse to Ori and Bombur, Alison sprinted up the stairs to the third floor of the house and made down the hallway, passing Thorin, Balin and Dwalin's empty rooms before she came to her own and went inside, her eyes immediately finding the journal where she had left it amongst her unmade sheets earlier in the morning.

She grabbed it up, ignoring her unease, and stared at it for a few seconds, wondering what she should do. It was something private that she didn't want to share with the Company yet, considering everything else she had piled on top of them lately, but she didn't want to keep herself in solitude, either. If the journal turned out to be…well, unpleasant, then she didn't want to be trapped alone with her thoughts and imaginings.

Bombur and Ori weren't overly nosy Dwarves, and they were both distracted while everyone else was gone, so Alison tucked the journal under her arm and descended back down to the kitchen.

She waited for Bombur and Ori to comment on the book under her arm when she re-entered, but the Dwarves barely noticed her, and she sat in her seat again, taking out the journal and staring at the worn leather cover for a few seconds more.

It's nothing more than paper and words, she reminded herself. Just do it.

And with that, Alison took a deep breath and opened the cover, bypassing the page that read Nadia Ashburne, T.A. 1409, and coming on another page—that Alison couldn't read.

It wasn't like there was nothing written; on the contrary, there were things scrawled in fading black ink up and down the dry, yellowing pages, but they were more like symbols and weird variations of letters than anything. Alison studied the symbols closer, realizing that they looked vaguely familiar; if she had to say, it looked like part of the Cyrillic alphabet, which was so startlingly familiar yet alien that she had to take a moment to process it before flipping through more pages, encountering the same thing.

Apparently Nadia had been Russian or Bulgarian or something, unless this was some other weird Middle-earth language, and she was about to give up, feeling some tension dissolve in her chest at the thought, but as she turned one last page, about a quarter of the way through the book, she felt something arc through her fingertips and spread through the rest of her body, putting her on the edge of her seat as she stared down at the journal.

She had finally found words that she could easily recognize, and she drank them in, feeling a sort of hot-cold feeling go through her body at the realization. The letters and words were in English, but they had weird accents and markings over them not seen in the mortal world, though as long as she could read it, she ignored it for now, feeling her heart thump as she read the heading at the top of the page: 8 March, T.A. 1409. Feeling her anxiety heighten, Alison swallowed and quickly began to read.

"It has been seven months to the day since my arrival in Middle-earth, and Alatar the Blue has departed. He says naught of where he is to go, but only says that he is needed, and that he shall return when the time calls for him. Sodding Wizard and his riddle answers.

But now that means I am stuck here, in this Godforsaken realm of Men that I still don't understand in the slightest. It is all so baffling, and though Alatar has explained it to me, I still don't know why I'm here. Mother always told me writing things down would help me to understand, but still I do not.

From what Arveleg has told me, there is war coming. It has been brewing for decades, ever since the division of Arnor, and this land to the east, Angmar, now seeks to destroy the Men living here while their sister-realm, Gondor, is still strong in the south and cannot be touched, though from what I've heard, war is brewing there, as well.

This coming war is not something new to me. I was told this upon my arrival here by Alatar, yet for some reason the Wizard seems adamant and overly confident that I was chosen to come here because I was fated to help in this war, because I am an "Ashburne Hero." I often have heard the tales when Father used to tell them to me at night, but never would I have believed that it was true until now. But that still does not mean I have agreed to fight in a war that was never mine to begin with, yet it seems the Valar do not like to take "no" for an answer anyhow."

There was a break in the paper, as if she had stopped writing then, and Alison blinked, trying to process what she had read. So far, nothing was out of the ordinary; in fact, it all seemed pretty familiar to her: arriving in Middle-earth out of the mortal world, being accepted under the guidance of a Wizard—though where Alison had Gandalf, Nadia had had one of the Blue Wizards, "Alatar"—and then being roped into a quest that was not theirs to begin with, yet the Valar had tasked them to it. But Alison was curious now; a war with Angmar or whatever it was? That sounded interesting. But it was not really information she needed, so Alison grabbed a few pages and thumbed through them, skimming the pages until she caught sight of another entry:

16 April, T.A. 1409

"I can hear the drums of war. The host of Angmar and Rhudaur is drawing closer. Arveleg says they want to destroy Amon Sûl and take the palantír before laying siege to Fornost, but he says he will not allow it to pass, and I find within myself that I will not allow such a thing, either.

The drums are getting closer. The war is upon us."

Alison's fingertips were going numb, and she looked up for a brief second, checking to make sure Ori and Bombur were still immersed in their other activities before she flipped to the next page, noting that this one was dated 29 August, T.A. 1410.

"Arveleg has been slain by the Witch-king of Angmar, and our forces are scattered and divided. I fear that this war will destroy us all, just as the Witch-king razed Amon Sûl and cut down King Arveleg. The young prince Araphor, son of Arveleg, is making a futile attempt to rally our forces, but it is hopeless. We will perish."

Alison skimmed a few more pages, her eyes picking out words such as death, destruction, blood, and many more awful things she didn't want to stomach, and she found herself unconsciously thinking, Come on, come on. There has to be something here that's useful. Come on, anything.

She was flicking through the dry pages so fast that it didn't really surprise her when she cut her finger on the corner of one of the pages, and a tiny drop of blood seeped out of the scratch, stinging slightly.

"Damn," she muttered, sticking her finger in her mouth, and she was about to continue her perusal of the pages until one word caught her eye and her world stopped turning for a second, and she wondered how she could've missed it before. Feeling her heart rate pick up, Alison ran her eyes over the page so rapidly the words almost blurred.

1 February, T.A. 1419

"The war is won. I have neither the heart nor the mind to write of the deeds that have been done, but doubtless there will be many stories and songs written about these long years against the forces of Angmar, so it is needless here.

Alatar has returned, and he has brought with him tidings of conditions in Gondor that will be heard later, once the dead have been mourned and the weary reinvigorated to their best. But the Blue Wizard's arrival is not the only strange thing that has happened since our victory.

Of the surrendering army, a hill chieftain from the formerly known Rhudaur approached me on the battlefield instead of fleeing like the rest. I did not strike him down immediately, for he appeared to be unarmed, so I watched as he took a ring from his pocket and set it on the ground before us. He said a small incantation in a black-sounding tongue, and mere seconds later he took out a knife hidden on his person and slashed his own throat open.

It was horrible, really, and extremely frightening, yet I was compelled at the same time. I picked up the ring carefully, noticing how deathly cold it was, colder than the air around me, but it was so small, so plain, that I did not sense anything about it besides its chill.

It has been four days since that horrific incident, and I still have the ring. I do not know what to do with it; it seems so insignificant, nothing but a band of white-silver and unadorned with any jewel or gem, yet I feel that there is more to this. I have decided to ask Alatar what his thoughts about it are, but it will have to wait, because there is much to be done in the wake of the battle."

Alison paused, her mind whirring. Nadia had found a ring. But was her ring the one Johnathan was convinced was in the Mountain?

She didn't doubt that Nadia's ring was magical. After everything she had seen and heard about Bilbo's ring, she wasn't disbelieving of the notion. But the way Nadia had written of the ring, the way she had been presented with it…there was something extremely wrong about it, and it made the hair on the back of Alison's neck prickle uncomfortably as she flipped to the next page, now immersed in Nadia's recount.

17 February, T.A. 1419

"I have spoken to Alatar of the ring, and I realize now what I had been too mundane to notice before, despite me knowing the stories.

Alatar informed me that this was no mere ring, but a Magic Ring, a Lesser Ring forged as an essay of the great Elven-smith Celebrimbor in the Second Age. I had known that Celebrimbor had made the Rings of Power by the cunning urging of the Dark Lord Sauron, but I had never known there were other Rings, Rings with power, but they contained only a shred of the magic of the Great Rings, which was why they were carelessly disposed of by the Elves in light of their more superior crafts.

But Alatar said that what I have is indeed a Lesser Ring, and that it has a name: Niquessë. In the Common Tongue, it is known as either the 'Ring of Frost' or the 'Ring of Judgment.' It was apparently fashioned after both the Rings of Nenya and Vilya, in possession of the Lady Galadriel and Lord Elrond respectively, but as Alatar said, its power is but a fraction of theirs. Alatar reckons that the Ring has control over some variants of cold, hence one of the names, but he says that it also could have another power, the ability to tell if someone is lying or not, which makes sense for the Ring of Judgment, yet I would not know how to use it.

Alatar also warned me about the Ring, and he implored me to heed his words. He says that there is a reason why the Lesser Rings were disposed of, and he fears that the power within this Ring will affect me because I am mortal and not of this world. He warns me of the potential this Ring has to corrupt me, and urges me to get rid of it, but I think he is being a tad over-cautious, per usual. I have had the Ring in my possession for weeks now, and nothing has happened, yet he persists that I should discard it, for he says there is a Darkness upon it that could taint me.

But it is a mere trinket, nothing more, and I've grown quite fond of it, though I have never worn it. But each day the urging to put it on grows stronger, and I am curious about this Ring…"

A feeling of dread had settled in the pit of Alison's stomach after reading that entry, and it was with a numb feeling in her fingertips that she turned to the next page and began to read once more.

22 December, T.A. 1436

"Seventeen years. It is strange; it sounds like such a long time, but in hindsight it is not. Maybe that is how one feels when they age half as fast as normal humans, like they have been wandering in the dark for what seems like ages but find that they have only traveled a few steps.

I am trapped in that dark. Seventeen years since the war, seventeen years with Niquessë in my possession, and I can't escape it. I have worn the Ring everyday for seventeen years, and I find that I cannot part with it, even though I want to, beyond anything I have ever wanted.

The Ring has power, but it is corrupt and twisted, and I fear that it is bending me to its will. I hear things, dark mutterings, every time I am alone; something is calling me, is calling the Ring, and though I have fought against its will, I am afraid I cannot hold any longer. It is becoming too strong, threatening to drag me under, and I am ready to release myself to the sweet oblivion the voice promises to bring me.

I see him in my dreams, too, the voice, and an eye, and he makes promises, such promises that fall like soft dew on my ears, yet chill me to the core inside. I cannot bring myself to take off the Ring, for it is mine, my own, given to me freely, but there is something in my mind that whispers for me to take it off, to cut off my finger if need be, to escape whatever is happening to me.

The Shadow that whispers follows me everywhere, and I cannot escape it. Alatar has abandoned me, and I am terrified now, to have realized that he was right. This Ring is tainted with horror, blood and darkness and despair, and it threatens to consume me. I do not know how much longer I can hold out against the sway of the Shadow.

It offers me release, yet the only release I see is death. If I cannot part with this Ring, then it will depart with me as my soul leaves this earth forever and joins my ancestors, either in the heaven of the mortal world or the Halls of Mandos and beyond here in this world.

I am tired of fighting. I am not strong enough to hold out against this influence; I never was. My naivety was my downfall, and I can feel myself slipping closer to the Shadow with each passing day.

Death is my only salvation if I want to remain untainted, and it is Death, not the Shadow, that I will embrace soon, and it is Death that will offer me release from the twisted servant of Darkness I have become. Death is all I have left, and now, I do not fear."

The entry cut off abruptly, and with her heart pounding out a lopsided beat, Alison quickly flipped to the next page—and saw nothing. There was nothing there, only a blank yellow page, cracked with age, but devoid of any words or symbols or anything.

What? Alison thought in a panic. No, there's more, there has to be more, nonononono—

But as she rifled through the pages, nearly tearing them out she was going so fast, she realized that that was it. That entry had been Nadia Ashburne's last-ever entry, and from what it sounded like, it had been the last one for good.

Nadia Ashburne had killed herself. She was becoming corrupted by the Lesser Ring Niquessë, and so she had killed herself to save herself.

Alison's head was close to bursting with all of the new information she was trying to process; but in actuality, was she really that surprised? The Ring had of course been unexpected, and it led her to the conclusion that Johnathan had not been lying about a Ring, but now she wondered if it was Nadia's Ring in the Mountain. If she had killed herself, surely it would be with her, unless a grave-robber had sent the Ring back into human hands or something, but that thought was so disturbing she put it out of her mind instantly.

But besides the Ring, Alison had already guessed her ancestors had been corrupted in one way or another, if Galadriel's words were any indication: "A Shadow watches you, Maethor, a Shadow that will try to consume you. Do not succumb to it as your ancestors did."

Even though Alison was done reciting those words in her head every time she had a new revelation, the she-Elf was right—again. It all made so much sense, and Alison was terrified because of it. All of the strings were slowly coming together to weave an ultimate tapestry of everything she had been through and everything that was to come, and Alison was suddenly afraid of what these things would lead to in the end. This had become so much more than a quest to reclaim a homeland, and Alison suddenly felt nauseous at what all of this could mean for all of them.

"Alison?" Ori's voice questioned softly, and Alison started, slamming the journal shut so sharply she caused Ori and Bombur to actually jump as she looked to the younger Dwarf.

"What?" she said, her voice coming out weird, and Ori looked at her in concern as she coughed slightly to change her tone.

"Um, I was wondering if you were all right," Ori said, as Alison stared at him with what probably looked like a very alarmed expression. "You look like you're about to be sick. Did you catch Bilbo's chill?"

Alison shook her head, forcing a smile onto her features despite every nerve in her telling her to scream and run around in circles trying to process what all was blundering through her head at that moment, but she maintained herself as best as she could.

"I'm fine," she said, brushing a loose piece of hair behind her ear nonchalantly as she noticed Bombur staring at her, as well. "It's nothing to worry about. I'm fine."

Ori and Bombur traded a skeptical glance as Alison nodded again, trying to appear earnest.

"What was that you were reading?" Bombur asked, eyeing the journal. "You were very interested in it; you even missed my joke about the one-eyed Dwarf with the wooden leg walking into a tavern—"

"Did I?" Alison said. "I'm sorry, Bombur, you'll have to tell it again after I put this up in my room."

Alison got up, and she was about to grab the journal when Ori got to it first, pulling it across the table towards him. "What is it?" he asked. "A story?"

He made to open it, but panic seized Alison and she said, "No!" a bit more loudly than she meant to, startling Ori to where he nearly dropped the journal.

Both the Dwarves looked at her as if she had gone mad, and maybe she had. Alison didn't know how much longer she could do this sort of thing without wanting to crack underneath the pressure, and, ignoring the two Dwarves' stares, she snatched the journal back from Ori and thundered up the stairs, tossing it into an empty dresser drawer and shutting it as if the book had some contagious disease.

Alison then began to pace for a moment, running her fingers through her hair agitatedly as she tried to figure out what to do.

What she really needed was Gandalf; though the Wizard could speak in riddles and oftentimes generated more questions than provided answers, Alison could use his counsel just about now. He would know what to make of Nadia's journal, he would know about the Lesser Rings just as Alatar the Blue Wizard had known; he could help her. But the Wizard was far, far away, seeking out mysteries of his own, and Alison had no way of communicating with him, seeing as there weren't any phones or anything and the Wizard didn't have some telepathic mind-reading abilities—

Alison was brought up so short she almost smashed into the wardrobe, and she felt like a thousand light bulbs had just lit up in her head as a seed of a thought planted itself inside her brain. Gandalf didn't have mind-reading abilities, but Alison did know of someone else with that power… The only question was, would she be able to get a hold of them from so far away?

It was a crazy idea, but an idea, and Alison didn't have any better options; she would just have to try. But the sound of the front door opening and many laughing, booming voices drifting up to her put the idea in the back of her mind for a second, and Alison suddenly wondered about the Company.

She couldn't not tell them what she knew; she had promised herself no more secrets after telling them about her foresight (though she tried not to think about the Line of Durin secret she was still holding on to), and this was something too big to keep to herself. They knew about Bilbo's ring and the ring in the Mountain already, and this was their problem as much as hers; after all, they were in this together, as she had so rightly said. She would tell them, and soon, though she would prefer to wait and see if her idea worked first…

With a plan set firmly in place and a little more grounded now, Alison ventured back down to the kitchen, noticing how Ori and his papers were gone, leaving her alone with Bombur as she heard the loud voices of the others in the living room, apparently doling out supplies and putting their packs in order.

"Can I help you with anything, Bombur?" She asked, not wanting to sit still or silent just yet, and the rotund Dwarf looked at her, his round features softening when he realized she didn't look so manic or unstable anymore.

"Aye, if you could get out enough bowls and utensils for all of us you'd be a dear," he said, and Alison nodded, moving to do as he said.

They worked without speaking for a few seconds, Bombur finishing up the last of the stew while she set out bowls and spoons, and when a loud collective laugh rent the air, she heard Bombur say, "So, what about that book got you so riled up?"

Alison fumbled with the spoon she was holding, looking to the ginger Dwarf with some alarm and resign as he waited for her to answer. Alison cleared her throat, setting down the spoon she was holding carefully before saying, "It was a journal, from one of my ancestors. It…said some things, and I will tell all of you, I swear, but…not right now. I need a little more time to think."

She met the Dwarf's eyes with a hint of pleading, and after searching her face, he nodded, going back to stirring. "All right, lass, I believe you," he said. "Now, come help me start serving. I don't want this kitchen to turn into a war zone with Dwarves pushing each other and starting brawls to get in line first."

Alison laughed, shooting the Dwarf a grateful glance as she helped him ladle stew into bowls, and she had just sat down with her own portion when the rest of the Dwarves piled into the kitchen, no doubt drawn to the scent of food, though she noticed with some amusement how they seemed to be much louder than usual, and she recalled Bombur's pub statement with a wry grin.

She was about to take a bite from her stew when she heard footsteps next to her, and she looked up just in time to be yanked out of her chair and wrapped in a crushing embrace, making a strangled noise as the arms tightened around her middle.

"Bofur," she gasped out around the braid of hair and the undeniable hat in her mouth. "What are you doing?"

The Dwarf laughed, and Alison wondered just how much Bofur had had to drink at the local pub as he answered, "Just showing my affection and gratitude for my dear sister. Is there something wrong with that?"

Alison felt a pleased blush creep up her cheeks at the word 'sister,' but her eyes sought out Glóin in the center of the pack watching them, and he gave her the barest trace of a wink and smile before turning away, and Alison guessed that her conversation with the Dwarf earlier had now found its way to the ears of the others as Bofur hugged her impossibly tighter.

"Of course there's nothing wrong with that," she wheezed. "Except I think you're deflating my lungs."

"Oh, sorry," he said, immediately letting go, and Alison gave him a grimace as she rubbed her torso, looking around at the others.

They all gave her nods and grins as she met their eyes, and she smiled in relief, thanking Glóin with all of her heart that he had managed to dissipate the tense and awkward air she had been feeling with the Company for the past several days as everyone went about their business of getting food. She didn't know what all the fiery-haired Dwarf had said, but it had been enough to break the icy air between them all and her, and her heart felt considerably lighter at this fact, though none of the Dwarves were as vocal about their apologies and forgiveness as Bofur had been with his, but Alison was okay with that; she knew Dwarves didn't openly express their sentimentality so easily, but having their silent encouragement was more than enough for her.

Above all else, though, her eyes sought Thorin's the most, and she finally found him lurking near the back of the Company, meeting his jewel gaze somewhat warily and wondering if he would be as quick to forgive her for her secret as his comrades were.

"We have packed your supplies for you," was all he said, and Alison's shoulders relaxed; Thorin had refused to speak or look at her for days, and though his voice was far from gentle, she still understood the hidden apology in the way he spoke and looked at her. "There is also a package for you in the living room from a seamstress we ran across. She wishes for you to wear it to the feast tonight."

Thorin said the last part with an air of someone speaking of something disgusting, but Alison nodded, feeling a faint flicker of surprise. It was no secret the townsfolk were practically celebrating the Dwarves' arrival, particularly Thorin's, but she was shocked that any of them even remembered her presence amongst the Company, let alone thought to give her something. It was touching, in an odd sort of way. She was about to go off and slay a dragon, and someone had decided to give her a dress or something of the sort as a gift. Odd, but touching.

Alison sat back down after Thorin turned away to get his bowl, and she ate a merry lunch with the Dwarves, keeping part of her attention on what was going on in front of her as she ate and another part on her plan and wonderings of when she would tell the Dwarves of Nadia's journal. But they were having such fun, and Alison didn't want to spoil it yet, especially after she had just earned their forgiveness, so she talked and laughed and ate with the rest as normally as she could, even earning a roar of approval from the Dwarves when she turned around to find Kili sneaking a bite out of her bowl while she had been talking to Dori and rapping him hard on the head with her spoon for it.

It was late afternoon by the time they finished and cleaned up, and Nori directed her where to find the package from the seamstress before she took it up to her room with some trepidation of what she might find.

But to her surprise when she opened the box, she found a very lovely dress inside, plain and simple, with a silvery long-sleeved bodice that appeared to go off the shoulders and a swirling black skirt, complete with a fine black cloak, shoes, and a braided silver headband. It was nothing special, yet nothing she would ever wear at home, either, though it was admittedly better than the long, gauzy and trailing gowns she had been subjected to in Rivendell.

Knowing she didn't have a lot of time until the feast, especially if she wanted to work on her plan beforehand, Alison rushed to get a bath started and quickly stripped, scrubbing herself hurriedly but thoroughly in the tub before drying herself off and coming back to the dress, wondering how in all of Middle-earth she was going to do this.

Even though the dresses in Rivendell had been a bit much, they had been made in such a way that she needn't have bothered with a corset-type back that needed to be laced up, while this one did. Alison had never seen a corset in real life before, but she had seen Pirates of the Caribbean and was not exactly keen on wearing one, but unfortunately, the dress kind of called for it.

Okay, one step at a time, she thought, discarding her towel and pulling on the underskirts first, making sure they settled on her body correctly before trying to tackle the dress.

It was probably the most embarrassing struggle of her life. Getting it on was easy; though a little tight across her chest and a bit loose at the waist, the dress fit her well enough and it was easy to slip on, but trying to tie the back so it would stay on…that was a whole different story. After about twenty minutes of trying to do it herself and probably only succeeding in knotting it, she knew it was time to admit defeat.

She let out a frustrated groan and picked up her clothes from off the floor, submitting herself to wearing those to the feast, when a light rap sounded on her door and she crossed the room, opening it a crack and peering out to meet the kind dark eyes of Balin.

"Balin," she said. "Um, hi."

"Is everything all right, lass?" he asked. "I heard your, ah, displeasure, and I came to check on you."

"Everything would be dandy if I just knew how to tie a damn dress," she muttered, and Balin's eyes lit with some understanding. "Ah."

Alison nodded, biting her lip as a thought came to her. "Uh, Balin…um, would you mind, I mean, could you—"

"You want help," he stated, and she nodded, chuckling awkwardly as a look of discomfort flitted across his features before it was gone.

"I mean, you don't have to, I'm perfectly fine with wearing my own clothes—" she said, but the white-haired Dwarf waved her off, his beard twitching with a smile. "No, no, it's not a problem, of course I'll help."

"You're a lifesaver, Balin," Alison said, opening the door to allow the Dwarf in, and he chuckled as he entered the room.

"Hardly," he replied, motioning for her to turn around, and she did, pulling her hair over one shoulder as she felt him begin to tighten and pull the strings, and she marveled at how fast he worked as his fingers moved in sure, deft motions.

"Do you have a wife, Balin?" she blurted out, and she could feel the Dwarf's fingers jerk in surprise.

"I do not," he said. "Why do you ask?"

Alison shrugged. "I don't know. You're just really good at this, so I assumed, you know…"

"It doesn't take an excessive amount of skill to tie a dress, Alison," he said wryly, and Alison grinned.

"Sorry," she said. "That was a stupid question." There were a few heartbeats of silence until Alison decided to break it again, and she outwardly cringed at how nosy she was being. "Have you ever, well, liked someone though?"

Balin didn't immediately answer, and she was afraid she'd offended or embarrassed him until he said, "I have, actually. Her name was Ruvna." He hesitated before continuing, and Alison sensed a sad story behind this as he went on. "She was the sweetest lass you'd ever meet. Always cheerful, always smiling; and she had a very lovely smile. That was one of the first things that drew me to her."

"We met in the days of Erebor. Her father was a wealthy merchant, as was mine, and they were good friends, which was how we met, since we would always have them over for supper. She was kind, and smart, and very pretty; but she had a tongue that could give lashings to those who raised her ire and a steely determination; Mahal knows I'd been reprimanded for my foolishness more from her than my own mother." He chuckled at that, and Alison smiled as he finished tying off her dress.

"She sounds wonderful," she said earnestly, and she saw Balin nod slowly out of the corner of her eye.

"She was," he agreed. "I was planning to court her, and I would have, except for the dragon." He took a deep breath as he finished tying the dress, and Alison turned to face him, seeing a look of wistfulness and sorrow on his face that tugged at her heart as he went on. "I never knew what became of her. All I knew was that she had fallen in the attack, for she was never there when we left in exile and traveled the wilderness."

"I'm so sorry, Balin," she whispered, and the old Dwarf gave her a small, sad smile.

"All things happen for a reason," he replied simply, and then he patted her shoulder. "You look lovely, lass. I'll see you in a few hours."

And with a last fatherly look, Balin took his leave, shutting the door behind him, and Alison was reminded, not for the first time, of just how much these Dwarves had lost before this quest.

Abracadabra! Legilimens! Damn it… Expecto Patronum?

The sun was dipping low in the wintry sky, and Alison was becoming increasingly frustrated and panicked as she realized just how soon the feast would be upon her. Of course, she could just always not go, but she was already dressed, and if the others were going, then she felt obligated to, as well. But she didn't know the next time would be when she could try to work on her so-far-failed plan, or if she even got a next time; she had to do this now.

But she should've known it was a dumb and impossible plan to begin with; she was a mortal girl, the definition of a mundane with zero magical ability, and here she was, trying to work a magic power that could, in no possible way, ever exist for her. She wasn't a superhero or a witch or anything; what had possessed her of the notion that she could do this again?

Alison flopped onto her bed, refraining from messing up her recently-brushed hair and knocking off her headband as she huffed out an irritated breath, deciding to give it one last shot before giving up.

She closed her eyes and slowed her breath until it was steady and deep, her heartbeat resounding and solid in her chest as she reached deep inside of her for something that didn't exist.

Hear me, she thought, putting as much force and command into the words as she could. Hear me, please…come on, hear me…HEAR ME.

With every last fiber of being and willpower she possessed, Alison sent this last thought out with a deep, echoing vibration in her mind, and then, with a sudden whooshing sound in her ears and a tug in her gut, she opened her eyes to find herself not in her Lake-town bedroom anymore, but rather a forest.

For one wild moment, Alison thought she had been transported back to the park outside of her house where she had fallen into Middle-earth, but she quickly realized that that wasn't the case.

This forest was much different, not just in looks, but in how it felt. The air was cool and sweet, but seemed to breathe the air of enchantment into her lungs when she inhaled, and the soft, grassy ground underneath her and the trees above exuded power and something so ancient, so sacred, that she felt it reverberate deep within her chest.

Alison got to her feet, looking around in amazement as she drank in the sight before her. Trees surrounded her on every side, but they were not ordinary trees; they were taller than any she had ever seen and impossibly wider, their roots going deep into the ground and their canopies flourishing far, far above her, and though from the air Alison could tell it was autumn such as it was in Lake-town, the trees were not bare, but instead burgeoned with beautiful golden leaves of such finery it was like the branches blossomed with the pale rays of a dawn sunrise.

The place was something Alison had never seen or felt before, and she knew that even Rivendell and the Woodland Realm combined paled utterly in comparison to this forest. Yet the more Alison stood there and looked around, her skirts swishing softly over the pale grass of the clearing she was in, the more she felt as if she recognized it. The power in this place…was a power she had felt only once before, and it was a power she was not likely to ever forget—the same power that she sought at this moment.

No sooner had the thought entered her mind then a voice, as great as a mountain ringed with snow and frost, and touched with notes of such splendid melody and glory, said from behind her, "Welcome, Maethor. I had a feeling I would be seeing you again soon."

Alison whirled around, and immediately dropped into a clumsy curtsy as she noticed the figure before her, clad in all white with golden hair such as that of the leaves on the trees tumbling down her back to rest gently on her waist, a braided circlet of equally heavenly gold upon her fair brow that gave light to her ancient blue eyes as they bored into Alison.

"Galadriel," she breathed, and the she-Elf smiled at her, though her tone was grave and her eyes turned darker when next she spoke.

"The Shadow is ascending, Maethor. There is much to discuss."

Author's Note

Dolzekh menu, dayamu Khozoh - Khuzdûl; "Thank you, blessed Hero."

Niquessë - Quenyan; literal translation "frost-patterns."

I told you guys there would be a surprise guest in this chapter! And all that with Nadia, eh? A little foreshadowing there (actually a lot) that we get to see later on... And the era Nadia was in was about mid-Third Age, around the time of the Wars with Angmar, the division of Arnor, and the destruction of Amon Sûl, so if you want to know more about it, Wikipedia is a good source, because it was actually a thing.

And come on, the Dwarves and Alison needed their bonding time. I had to give them that. I went completely on my own about Balin and Ruvna, but I always wondered what else Balin had lost in the fall of Erebor, so there's that.

So, next chapter there is the feast, a lovely little talk with Galadriel, and the moment of truth for Filison; everything gets laid out for those two (finally). And then we will start back on the quest again, though I have a lot of surprises in store now...

Anyway, thank you for all of your lovely reviews last time, and thank you for all the favorites/follows as well! Feel free to drop a review for this chapter; I love hearing your thoughts! Anything you liked, disliked, are looking forward to? Let me know!

Thanks again, lovelies! Until next chapter...

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