The March of Time

34: Allegiance

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

Quick A/N: Well, first off, apologies to everyone for the late update! But I got slammed with end-of-year coursework and AP testing this week, but the good news is that two more weeks of school left! Updates might be a little iffy from now until then, but once summer starts, updates will be frequent once again. But thank you for your patience with this chapter; it's a monster (literally; over 13,000 words), so hopefully this makes up for last week! And to reviewers MelissaMachine5000, The EarthSong, and Morrigu. Daae, I would like to thank you for your amazing reviews here since I did not have a chance to reply to you all by PM; your words meant a lot, and thank you! Thanks to everyone else, too, and enjoy!

Chapter Thirty-Four: Allegiance

"You know, lad, if you'd stop squirming this could go a whole lot faster," Óin said irritably as Kili's leg twitched out of his grip once again, and the dark-haired prince shot the healer a look.

"Sorry if I got shot by an arrow," Kili retorted good-naturedly, as the healer began to unwrap the bandages covering the wound. "My leg doesn't exactly feel like a stroll through the flowers at the moment."

Óin chuckled at this, muttering something along the lines of, "Stubborn mule," and Kili grinned, wincing as his wound was exposed to the fresh air.

Though he would never admit this out loud, the wound was bothering him more than he was letting on, and even though several days had passed since the incident with the Orc at the water-gate, Kili was beginning to feel like the wound was only becoming worse, not better.

He'd had arrow injuries many times (granted, they had not been as serious as this), but this wound did not feel remotely like any of the ones he had sustained before. He felt weak and shaky all the time, hot and cold, like he had a fever, and nightmares plagued him more often than usual, keeping him awake all night and exhausted for the rest of the time. He didn't know what was wrong with him; when Óin had checked him yesterday, the Dwarf had said that there was no sign of infection and he looked fine physically, but Kili was starting to wonder if something was wrong with him mentally.

He flashed back to the dream he had two nights ago, unable to recall it in exact detail, but the idea of it was still there, making him sick to his stomach every time he thought of it.

Thorin, his proud and fierce uncle, piled on top of bloody, rotting carcasses, a spear protruding from his chest as a great, winged beast lurked in the shadows at the edges of his vision—

Fili, heaving his last ragged breaths as blood pooled around him, staining Kili's hands red as he held his brother, begging him to stay with him, to not leave him alone—

His mother, sitting by a cold, grey hearth in their home in Ered Luin, holding a rune stone that was painfully familiar in one hand and a fine gold chain in another, tears dripping slowly down her face and into her dark beard—

And Alison, lying dead on a desolate battlefield, her pale green eyes wide with surprise and fear and glazed with the cover of lifelessness as a vivid red covered her front, and Kili looked down, seeing a bloodstained knife in his hand—

Kili wrenched his thoughts away from the nightmare, ignoring the way his stomach cramped and his throat burned as if he needed to be sick, and he took deep breaths to calm himself, blocking off those thoughts and casting around for something else to occupy his time.

He heard Óin discard of the bindings that had been around his leg, and then heard a sharp intake of breath from the Dwarf. Kili sat up at the sound, a wry grin tugging his lips as he said, "Oh, c'mon, Óin, it's not that ugly is it—"

"Lad," Óin interrupted, sounding strained, and Kili looked at him, feeling his grin slip off of his face as he noticed how white the healer looked, and he felt worry burgeon in his chest at the sight.

"Óin," he said slowly, meeting the Dwarf's wide brown gaze, and the healer didn't need his ear trumpet to hear the note of anxiety creeping into the younger Dwarf's voice. "What is it?"

Óin said nothing, but only gestured faintly to Kili's leg, and, swallowing hard, the prince leaned forward to look at his wound, feeling something painful coil around his heart like a vise at what he saw.

The gouge in his thigh was ragged and deep, puckered an angry red and swollen, and while at first glance it looked like a normal wound, Kili felt the blood drain from his face when he noticed the twisting tendrils of black edging the wound, seeping into his bloodstream, and he looked back to the healer with wide eyes.

"Is that—is—" he breathed, unable to choke all of the words out.

"The tip was poisoned," Óin said lowly. "It must've been slow-working venom…that's why we didn't notice it before…"

Kili swallowed, his throat feeling tight. "Can you—can you heal it?"

Óin looked troubled, staring down at the wound, and Kili listened anxiously as he said, "I can try snapdragon and more Aloe Vera, maybe some feverfew if you're feeling feverish, but other than that…" He took a deep breath, shaking his head. "I can't say, lad. I've never seen this kind of poison before. It is something sinister, and I do not know how to treat it. Kingsfoil would be best, but we are not in the Wild, and very few know of its properties…"

Kili stared at the wound, as well, his chest tight, but he nodded all the same. "Do what you can, Óin. Hopefully it is only something minor, not…" He swallowed, not wanting to say what he was thinking: fatal.

"Do what you can," he repeated, in a stronger voice, and the healer nodded, going about pulling herbs and dry leaves out of his medicine pouch, using the boiling water on the nightstand beside him and crushing the leaves and herbs to turn it to a paste. He put copious amounts of the poultice on Kili's wound, and the prince sucked in a sharp breath, but Óin never faltered, wiping off his hands before re-wrapping his wound with clean bandages, sprinkled with a bit more paste.

"We need to tell Thorin about this," Óin said, as Kili stood up and put his weight on the wound gingerly, ignoring the jabs of pain that went up his thigh as he did so. At the older Dwarf's words, however, Kili snapped his head up, fixing him with a slightly panicked look.

"No!" He said, a bit harshly, and Óin stared at him in confusion.

"Kili," he said slowly, holding his still-flattened trumpet to his ear. "This is a serious wound; you were shot by a poisoned arrow, and considering the circumstances—"

"Óin, you can't," Kili interrupted, suddenly seized by a feeling of dismay. "You know Thorin; he would never let me come if he thought I was too seriously injured, he'd leave me behind for fear of my health. Óin, please—" he said, when the healer opened his mouth to interrupt. "I can't stay behind. We went on this quest together, all of us, and I will be there with you all when we enter that mountain. You know how much this means to all of us."

Kili stressed the 'all' part, and Óin looked like he was about to argue before he shut his mouth, his expression conflicted. There was a heavy silence hanging over the bedroom they were in, and Kili watched, anxiety roiling in his gut as he waited for Óin to speak.

Finally, the healer let out a resigned breath, his shoulders slumping a bit as he said, "Fine. I will listen to you—for now. But if you show signs of weakening or if the…poison starts spreading, then I will not hesitate to tell Thorin and leave you behind to heal. You may be a Prince of Durin, but I am still a healer, and in such situations, my word does carry a bit more weight than yours."

Kili nodded, feeling some of the panic dissipate a bit, but the anxiety was still there over the wound and what could happen to him. Óin's features softened, as if he sensed Kili's apprehension, and he put a careful hand on the prince's shoulder, squeezing lightly.

"I know how much this quest means to you," he said gently. "And I wish you to be there with us tomorrow when we make for the Mountain. But all we can do now is pray to Mahal that this poison doesn't spread and you can be cured quickly and easily."

Kili smiled with some effort, gripping Óin's shoulder in return even as fear began to gnaw at his heart, though he tried to ignore it. He would overcome the poison and be fine; maybe not immediately, but he only hoped that he would still have the strength to carry on with the quest come dawn, or he felt as if his life would be forfeit, having come so far and faced so much, only to be stopped by a bloody tainted arrow.

"Go get ready, laddie," Óin said, releasing his shoulder and packing up his supplies. "We still have this cursed feast to get through; and if any of us are still befuddled by drink tomorrow, then may Durin himself hound our footsteps to our graves. After all, we still have a dragon to face."

Kili blanched.

"Where are we?" Alison asked, choosing to come out with the most cliché and redundantly-used question first as she faced Galadriel, trying not to shiver at the she-Elf's radiating magic as her ancient blue eyes fastened on her again.

"That depends," she mused, her lips curling into a soft smile. "I was summoned here by your calling, along with a little help from myself, so I do not know. I could be seeing something very much different from you right now."

"I see trees," Alison said. "Very large trees, with smooth silver trunks and golden leaves, even though it is almost winter and their branches should be bare. It's like a forest, but with a layer of…magic over it; everything has magic in this place, even down to the deepest root, it feels like. But I don't know where 'here' is, much less if we're still even in Middle-earth."

"We are," Galadriel said, with a touch of amusement. "What you are seeing are the mallorn trees; in autumn and winter their leaves are of gold, but when spring comes the leaves fall, leaving the branches laden with yellow flowers and new leaves of green and silver while the floor is then coated with gold. It seems we are in Lothlórien, my home-realm."

Alison blinked, wanting to know how that was even possible, but she shoved those questions to the back of her mind, knowing it was futile and having more important matters to discuss instead; she didn't know how long she could stay in whatever dream-like condition she was in at the moment, and this may be her only chance to get some damn answers out of the she-Elf. So she launched straight to the point.

"Johnathan Ashburne," she said without preamble, watching Galadriel carefully as she spoke, but the she-Elf said nothing, only gazing at her with an indiscernible expression. "You knew of him, didn't you? 'Blood calls to blood.' You knew Johnathan was alive and that he was seeking me out."

When Galadriel said nothing still, Alison felt something inside of her rising up, and she realized that it was anger; though anger at what, she didn't know. "Did you also know that he would betray us, betray me? Did you know that he was the Necromancer's little pet, happily willing to serve the Shadow you warned me about—"

"Johnathan Ashburne deceived us all." Galadriel said calmly, unfazed by Alison's rising temper. "I admit; I knew he was alive, that he awaited you in the East, but none of us could have foreseen his true intentions." Galadriel shook her head slowly, her hair shimmering like stardust at the movement. "The Second Hero hid his treachery well."

"And no one realized this, even back in the Second Age?" Alison demanded, her anger flaring once more. "Not one person, in twelve years of war, thought: 'Hey, this guy seems really fishy. Maybe he's feeding information to the Dark Lord about out plans; after all, he could've been discovered by Sauron long before we ever heard rumor of him, and he definitely could have been turned to the side of Evil in that time.' No one realized this? At all?"

Alison knew she was being a brat and probably really disrespectful, but as her anger grew, she found that she didn't really care, and she clenched her fists in her skirts, breathing deeply to try and calm herself before she lost it completely.

"We had no way of knowing in those times," Galadriel said, and Alison vaguely wondered how the she-Elf could be so calm in light of all of this. "Sauron was at the height of his power; his taint covered all lands, his Evil delved deep in the hearts of all Free Folk of Middle-earth. Whatever was concocted between the Dark Lord and the Second Hero was done in absolute secrecy, and was carried out well, for none knew of this utmost betrayal to the Valar."

Alison swallowed, knowing she was right, but hating it all the same. Johnathan was a servant of Evil, and the fact that no one noticed, not even the Valar…

A sudden memory tugged at Alison, and she looked at Galadriel, noticing how the she-Elf hadn't moved an inch since appearing to her as she said, "Why was he put in a slumber, then? Why would the Valar have chosen him, of all the Heroes, to be put into a deep sleep, and only awaken him when I came of all people, if he had betrayed the Valar?"

When Galadriel did not immediately reply, Alison shook her head in frustration, trying to connect the dots, but to no avail. "He said it was because of the rise of the Necromancer—of Sauron—that summoned him to me. Is that true?"

"Yes," she answered. "But only partly." She went on as Alison gave her a puzzled look. "Ever since I heard the whispers in the wind, the rumors amongst the earth, that Johnathan Ashburne had betrayed you and fled to Dol Guldur to return to his true Master, I have taken it upon myself to seek answers for the very questions you are asking. I have not found much, but I think I can provide some answers."

At this, she began to pace around the clearing with liquid-like grace, and her eyes became thoughtful, distant, as Alison followed her movements, listening intently as she spoke again. "After the War, Johnathan disappeared, though as you know, there was never any mention of him returning to the mortal world. Some, like the Heroes after him, assumed that he had either died in the battle and was never recovered, or fled to live in secrecy and peace until he perished with age. But as he told you, he had been put into a sleep by the Valar; however, I learned that it was not the Valar who put him in such a state, but rather someone else."

"Sauron?" Alison guessed, but then she mentally rolled her eyes at herself. If Sauron had been vanquished after Isildur cut the Ring from his finger, she highly doubted preserving Johnathan would be the Dark Lord's first priority, and he would not have had the power to do so after suffering such a destructive blow, anyway.

"No," Galadriel said, echoing her thoughts. "I believe now that Johnathan coerced someone else to cast the enchantment upon him, and my reasoning also leads me to believe he used one of the Maiar to do this; how he managed this feat though, I do not know."

"Um…not to sound completely clueless and lost, but…what is a Maiar?" Alison asked, cringing at how stupid she must seem, but Galadriel only gave her a patient smile.

"The Maiar are the servants of the Valar," she said. "Though they are less in stature than the Valar, they are still very powerful, and they too helped to create the world of Arda. I think you may already know of a Maia, in fact."

"I do?" Alison said blankly, casting her mind around. She settled on an image of a pointy grey hat, and her eyes widened at Galadriel, who smiled as she had no doubt seen the image in Alison's head. "Wait—Gandalf's one of the Maiar? But I thought he was a Wizard, an Istar?"

"While here on this earth he is one of the Istari, he is truly Olórin, a Maia in service to Manwë and Varda of the Valar," Galadriel said, and Alison's eyebrows shot up, not quite knowing what to do with this information now, yet knowing it made sense. "But that is beside the point. As I said, I believe it was a Maia who put the spell on Johnathan, though if they had a name, it has long since been lost to us."

"Could it have been one of the Blue Wizards?" Alison said, a name in Nadia's journal coming back to her. "Like Alatar or something?"

Galadriel's expression did not change, but Alison sensed her surprise, as if she hadn't expected her to know of Alatar, but her guess crumbled to dust when Galadriel said, "It was not any of the Istari. The Five were sent many years after the fall of Sauron, and thus many years after Johnathan had already been put to sleep. It seems the Maia will remain a mystery to us, but I do know that that was what gave Johnathan the power to sustain himself for as long as he did, and that the enchantment of the Maia awoke him when it was clear the Dark Lord was stirring once again."

"So it's true, then?" Alison said, her heart skipping a beat. "Sauron's trying to come back, and he's posing as the Necromancer now?"

Galadriel nodded, still pacing, and her eyes grew solemn as she gazed at Alison. "Indeed. Mithrandir took it upon himself to see if the rumors were true, traveling to the High Fells of Rhudaur to seek answers; he has passed beyond my Sight, but it is clear what is stirring in the East. Sauron seeks to grasp Middle-earth with an iron fist once more. He is not as strong as he was before, but if he is not stopped, then he will return, and his revenge will be swift and it will consume all in its path."

"But he needs the Ring to come back, though, the One Ring. Without that, he can't really be strong again, can he?" Alison said, her brows furrowing.

"He needs the Ring only to achieve a full physical form once again," Galadriel corrected. "Even without the One Ring, he can become strong again, just not in true physical being. His spirit wanders houseless and his power is diminished, yes, but even a fraction of his power is a great force to contend with, and it will continue to grow with the more foul things that answer to his call."

Well, this keeps getting better and better, Alison thought sarcastically, and then she winced as she remembered Galadriel could still hear that, though the she-Elf gave her a faint smile.

"Do not forsake your hope, Maethor," she said in her mind. "The Shadow will not prevail. You still remember what I have said to you, yes?"

Alison nodded slowly, keeping her eyes fixed on the she-Elf as she answered, "Of course, my Lady. But I pray you're right, and that I can make it through this without failing the whole world."

"You are a Hero, Maethor," Galadriel said out loud. "You are a guardian of this world as much as your own. You are not alone in this. Do not feel as if this is just your burden, though it often will be yours solely to carry. You are strong and you have a brave heart; your courage is what will help you through this task."

Once, Galadriel's words would have terrified Alison, making her feel as if the fate of everything was in her hands, and that if she made one mistake she would ruin it all; and while that was still very true, Alison no longer felt incapable or weak; if anything, the words just made her resolve that much stronger, that much more unshakable and fierce. She would find a way to do this.

Alison nodded in gratitude at the she-Elf's words, showing her the words she couldn't find to say out loud in her head before pressing on; she likely could've stood there for hours focusing on her thoughts, but she still had so many questions that needed to be answered, and she could somehow sense herself running out of time.

"In Lake-town, I came across one of my ancestors' journals," she said, as Galadriel listened attentively. "Her name was Nadia Ashburne. I read it, and from what it said…" She took a deep breath before plunging straight in. "Nadia found a Ring. She called it a Magic Ring, or a Lesser Ring, and she said its name was 'Niquessë.' She…she wrote about how it was given to her by a man that killed himself after presenting it to her, and how Alatar warned her that it could corrupt her, but she didn't listen…until it did. She said she was going to kill herself before she became a servant of the Darkness, though, and I…" She paused, taking another breath before continuing. "Is this what you meant? When you said my ancestors had succumbed to the Darkness, is this what you meant? Were these Rings the cause of my ancestors' fall?"

Galadriel had stopped pacing when Alison was speaking, and a heavy silence settled on the air around them as the she-Elf faced away from the warrior, not speaking for several agonizing minutes as Alison watched her anxiously, biting her lip as a numb feeling crept into her fingertips. Finally, Galadriel spoke again, though she did not turn around immediately.

"How strange it seems, for so many lives to span across the centuries, yet all of them seem to be bound in one way or another to the fate of simple rings," she said, almost to herself, and if Alison wasn't mistaken, the she-Elf sounded the tiniest shred bitter as she turned around to face her again.

"What do you—oh," Alison said, as another memory from Nadia's journal came back to her. "You have a Ring, too, though yours is a Ring of Power, not just a magic one."

Galadriel nodded slowly, her features grave. "My Ring is called Nenya, or the Ring of Adamant. It was one of the Three that was crafted by the Elven-smith Celebrimbor alone, without the urging of Sauron, thus I never fell to the will of the One Ring when he attempted to control us by putting it on." She held up a pale, slender-fingered hand, gazing at it for a moment as she continued. "It is invisible to all except to those who wield a Ring of their own, which explains why you cannot see it, if that is what you were wondering."

She dropped her hand as Alison nodded, having been wondering exactly that, but she asked instead, "But what about Nadia and her Ring? Is her Ring the one Johnathan wants, that he thinks is in the Mountain? And why does he want the Ring, anyway? Shouldn't he be more focused on the One Ring and getting that? I mean…"

She shook her head, feeling so lost it was almost laughable. It was maddening, feeling as if she almost had all of the answers, and then something else was added to the already-huge pile and the tapestry she had created all came unraveling once more, leaving her in a mess she had no idea how to clean up.

Alison dropped her head into her hands, rubbing her eyes angrily as she felt tears starting to build up; she would not cry in front of Galadriel. She was done crying—but God, was she starting to feel so helpless.

There was a soft rustle before her, and the feeling of power sparked across her skin as soft, cool hands grasped her wrists and slowly lowered them away from her face. Alison looked up in astonishment to see Galadriel before her, gazing down at her from her significant height difference with a look of such gentleness and hope that Alison was strangely reminded of her mother, though the thought was so absurd she put it out of her mind instantly as Galadriel spoke, her voice soft and light, though still belied with her notes of wisdom and years.

"Do not fear the future, Maethor," she said. "It is yours to do with what you wish. I do not know why Johnathan has his sights set on this Ring within the Mountain, but whatever he plans, we will face it with bravery and hope." Alison looked back at the she-Elf, feeling something heavy lift off of her chest at the words as Galadriel whispered, "A si-Dhúath ú-orthor, Maethor. We must hold on to that hope which is given to us."

"I understand," Alison whispered; and she did. She knew going into this that Galadriel would not have all the answers, and despite the fear she felt for this quest, she also knew that no matter what, she would see this through; she had to.

Galadriel beamed at her, and it was like the dawn breaking over the horizon to give light and glory to a bleak and cold world, and Alison's spirits seemed to lift just at that simple expression before the she-Elf turned serious once more, glancing around them at the trees as she continued.

"I am afraid our time together is running thin," she said. "But know this before you return to your friends and quest, Alison Ashburne: you will have to make a decision very soon, after all of this is done, and know that this choice has the capability to alter your life forever, whether you choose one path or the other. It is entirely up to you when the time comes."

"What do you mean?" she asked, feeling her insides grow a bit colder once more at the she-Elf's somber expression.

"You know of what I speak," she replied, and Alison had a vague suspicion that she did indeed know what she was talking about as she elaborated. "You cannot live with a foot in two worlds, Maethor. Eventually you will have to choose: either to stay in Middle-earth and live a long life, full of trials and hardships, or to return to the mortal world, to your home and family, and keep your life a secret from everybody, even those dearest to you. The choice is closer than you think, and you must make your decision by then, for there is no reversing it once it is made."

Alison gulped, knowing that she was right, once again. She had been juggling two worlds, two families, for months, and she knew that one day soon, if she survived, that she would be forced to choose between the two, leaving one world behind for the other forever, though she had been treading carefully around that idea ever since arriving, afraid that if she thought about it for too long, she would make her decision for good and never want to look back, which terrified her more than it should. But Galadriel was right; sooner or later, she would have to choose.

"You have a long and weary road ahead of you to travel, Maethor," the she-Elf said, obviously picking up on the warrior's thoughts. "Do not make your decision until the time calls for it, and you will know then what is best for you."

"Does this mean that I'll live long enough to make that choice, then?" Alison said, half-bitterly, half-sardonically.

"Death is a possibility at the end of every road," the she-Elf said, doing that annoying thing all Elves seemed to do by evading a question with an answer of hidden meanings, though Alison listened all the same as she said, "But death is nothing to fear; all things must come to an end, and that is something to remember in the times ahead."

Alison said nothing, unsure of how she felt about that, but she was spared trying to answer when Galadriel glanced around at the trees once more, saying, "It seems our time together is over. I do not know if we will see each other again, Maethor, but I wish you the greatest of luck, and hope to see your triumph, whatever may happen."

Alison looked around, as well, not sensing anything that would relay that their time was over, but she let it go, meeting Galadriel's eyes once more as the she-Elf smiled softly and said, "You are brave, so very brave, Alison Ashburne, and you are the true Hero Middle-earth has been waiting for. You will succeed for all of our fates, in this world and your own."

"Thank you, my Lady," Alison said, bowing at the waist to the she-Elf. "I don't know what to say, except that I will try."

"That is all that needs to be said," Galadriel replied, as she looked at the trees surrounding them with a soft gaze. "Go now, and remember what I have said to you."

And with that, Alison blinked, and suddenly the feel of the forest was gone; no breeze caressed her face, the smells of sweet earth and foliage and perfumed magic no longer filled her nostrils, and there was no sound or feel of her feet whispering over the ground anymore.

She opened her eyes, and found herself in the dim candlelight of her bedroom back in Lake-town, in the same position she had been before she left; she actually felt as if she had just plopped herself down on the mattress as she sat up, hearing the voices of the Dwarves drifting up to her from downstairs, ready to set out for the feast, not even aware that her consciousness had been somewhere else entirely for a while there. It was like she had never left at all.

Alison wanted nothing more than to just lie back down and process what all had just been discussed with Galadriel, but she knew that she didn't have enough time for that. But everything the she-Elf had said led Alison to a new thought, one that had been there for several nights now, ever since Johnathan's betrayal and her late-night conversation with Bard the night before. Johnathan was still out there, with Sauron, and if the Hero was preparing to strike…

"The longer you wait, the stronger he and his master will get." Bard had said, and the echo of the words resounded in her head. The bargeman was right; she couldn't sit back and watch Johnathan and Sauron cause world destruction and let the Darkness prevail, while she turned in the other direction and flounced off to Erebor, knowing what was to come. She had to do something; and though her new idea petrified her, she knew that it was one of her best options.

It would be hard, she knew, to go forth with her plan, with the seedling of the idea planted in her head, and it would likely be seen as a betrayal to the Company, but if it worked…

Alison braced herself before descending the stairs to where the Company waited below, and she only hoped as she entered the living room where they were congregated that they would be able to forgive her for what she was about to tell them.

Thorin was half-considering stabbing a fork into his eye to get out of going to the feast by the time Alison finally made her way down the stairs, holding her skirts awkwardly to avoid tripping on the hem and falling down the steps as she descended fully into the living room where they all stood, ready to depart for what Thorin was starting to think was the bane of his existence.

He had never been one for fancy dinners and parties much, preferring the company of only a few close companions and a good barrel of ale, if even that, so the prospect of going to a feast—especially one in his honor—did not appeal to him much; and considering he would be forced to play all nice smiles and grudging gratitude to the Master of the town for a whole evening while being ogled at once more by the townspeople made him want to just curl up under the covers of his bed like a child and forget about the whole ordeal. But of course, he couldn't do that. He was a royal, and he had a duty and a name to uphold, no matter how disgruntled it made him.

So it was then that he had bathed and dressed in nice but simple attire like the rest of the Company, and he thought with a wry grin of amusement how decent and semi-respectable they suddenly looked once more, though the fading bruises and scabbing cuts were still prominent on some of them as they stood and chatted, waiting for Thorin's signal to move out towards the Master's house.

When Thorin caught Alison's eye, taking in her fair appearance sparingly before nodding to her, he turned to the rest of the Company (minus the Hobbit, who was still feeling too sick to join them, though Óin had assured him he would be fine by tomorrow), and said, "Right, then. Let's go."

The Dwarves all started towards the front door after him, but they stopped in their tracks when Alison coughed from behind them and said, somewhat nervously, "Wait! Not yet."

Everyone turned and looked at her, and Thorin noticed then how she was absent-mindedly picking at her nail beds, a sign he had picked up on for whenever she was feeling nervous or apprehensive, and he eyed her more sharply when she bit her lip, as if hesitating to say something.

"What is it?" Thorin asked, watching her carefully as she met his eyes, and though they were hard and unflinching, he could still detect the reluctance in the depths, and he raised an eyebrow, crossing his arms as she seemed to swallow before speaking.

"I have something to tell you all," she said, as the Dwarves traded confused looks, though Thorin noticed how Bombur was the only one to not look surprised at this statement before he returned his attention back to the warrior.

"Well?" Thorin prompted, when she hesitated again, and he received a short look before she continued.

"Um, so, last night, Bard kind of came and…talked to me," she said, and Thorin's fists clenched involuntarily at the mention of the meddlesome Man. "And he gave me this journal that belonged to one of my ancestors, Nadia Ashburne…"

And Thorin listened, in growing shock and wonder and some resign, as Alison recounted what she had read in Nadia Ashburne's journal, about the war with Angmar and the finding of a Magic Ring, Niquessë, and how it had corrupted her to the point of suicide. And then, with a sense of cold creeping into his fingertips, he listened as Alison went on to explain how she had miraculously contacted the Lady Galadriel and spoken to her about how there were more Rings like Nadia Ashburne's apparently, since from her deductions she had concluded that there must be more if her line before her fell one by one to the magic of these "Lesser Rings," essays of the Elven-smiths' crafting of the Rings of Power that her ancestors had gotten a hold of.

The recount left an uneasy feeling in Thorin's chest, touched with the faint edges of dread; the story of Alison's line falling to the power of the Rings sounded so painfully familiar to him, reminding him of the sickness in his line that his own ancestors had succumbed to, and he found that he could not speak for several long minutes when she had finished her explanation, looking around at all of the Dwarves anxiously as they stared at her, as shocked and confused as Thorin was feeling.

Finally, he cleared his throat, trying to make sense of this new piece of information she had thrown at them without warning, and he met Alison's eyes again, speaking directly to her as he said, "So, what does this mean? This only reinforces our knowledge of there being another ring within the Mountain that Johnathan wants; granted, we didn't know until now that it was a Lesser Ring, an imitation if you will of the Great Rings, but still." He shook his head. "What does this change, if anything?"

Alison shrugged her bare shoulders, not yet having put on the cloak in her arms, and Thorin vaguely noticed the scar on her right shoulder from where one of the goblins in the Misty Mountains had bitten her during their fight, but he focused his attention back on her face as she said, "It doesn't change anything for you all, much. But it changes a lot for me."

"Why do you say that?" He asked, narrowing his eyes when Alison looked away, shifting her feet and biting her lip again.

The Company watched anxiously as she took a deep breath before facing them again, lifting her chin a bit and saying in a steady, detached voice, "Because I won't be going to the Mountain with you all anymore. When you leave for Erebor tomorrow morning, I'll be heading south to Dol Guldur. I'm going after Johnathan."

This was met with a stunned, deafening silence; Thorin was sure that if a pin dropped in that moment, it would sound like an avalanche within the unmoving room. The Dwarves all stared, dumbfounded, as Alison met their gazes calmly, though Thorin could still see her picking at her nails and the layer of fear in her eyes beneath the cool exterior.

It was seeing this that finally goaded Thorin into speech, but all he could do was say, "But—why?"

He inwardly cringed at how infantile he sounded, like a child trying to understand why they couldn't have sweets before bed, but Alison didn't seem to notice it, instead sighing and fixing him with a gaze that was equal parts tired and fiery.

"Johnathan needs to be stopped," she said. "I need to end this before it even starts. I can't risk him entering that mountain and taking that Ring, and I know for a fact that he will do it by force. He wants all of us dead by this point for thwarting his first plan, and I know that he's biding his time, waiting for events to play out and for us to enter the Mountain so he can stroll right in with his army when we do."

"B-but—you can't leave us," Ori protested, his cheeks flushing red as all eyes turned to him, but he didn't waver, pressing on. "You're supposed to help us reclaim the Mountain; that's what you were sent here for. If you leave now—"

He stopped, choosing not to go further, but everyone could hear the unspoken words: "If you leave now, what will happen to us?"

"I wouldn't do this unless I had to," Alison said, and Thorin thought he saw a shimmer of tears in her eyes before she blinked and they were gone. "And I have to do this, Ori. Please…please understand that I'm not abandoning you. But if there's even a chance that this can be stopped, that I can stop Johnathan from coming after all of you, then I'll take it. And, face it: having me there could be a huge risk now. If there is a Ring in there, and I find it…"

She shivered, a shadow passing over her face, and Thorin finally understood: Alison was afraid. She was afraid of going into the Mountain now, not because she was getting cold feet about Smaug, but because of the Ring. After everything she had said about Nadia Ashburne and her ancestors' descent into Darkness because of the Lesser Rings…she was afraid that the same thing could happen to her now, and Thorin understood. Mahal, did he understand. He felt the same way about the sickness lying over that treasure; but he had no choice. He would have to go in there no matter what path he chose, and he would have to confront the dragon and the disease, one way or the other, whereas Alison… Thorin saw this as her opportunity to avoid such a disastrous conflict; maybe it wasn't the whole reason of why she was making this decision, for he knew too that Johnathan had to be stopped before things got even worse, but he understood it.

And he accepted it.

"Very well," he said, and his voice put a stop to the sudden clamor of the Dwarves as they muttered to each other and asked Alison why she was doing this, and they turned to look at him incredulously, their mouths snapping closed as he fixed them all with his most authoritative stare.

He turned to Alison, who looked half-terrified, half-grateful, as he said, "If it is your wish to go after Johnathan, then you should do so. If your…story,"—he said the word tightly, feeling it grate on his tongue uncomfortably—"is true, then we will make it without your help, correct?" She nodded slightly, looking troubled, but Thorin pushed on, swallowing his qualms about how he didn't want their quest to be dictated by a pre-existing tale, continuing, "Then we will go to the Mountain while you go south, if this is the only way. The choice is entirely yours, and I will not hinder you, neither will anyone in this Company."

He said the last part to the Company at large, though he kept his eyes on Alison, who seemed to understand the acceptance he was conveying to her through his words, as the corners of her mouth twitched faintly upwards and she nodded imperceptibly to him.

"What? No!" Fili broke in, looking between the Hero and his uncle with a scowl and narrowed eyes. "Uncle, you cannot allow her to go off on her own like this—you're sending her to her death!"

"Okay, one: I'm standing right here, so don't talk about me like I'm not in the room," Alison said before Thorin could speak, fixing the older prince with an unreadable gaze. "And two: this is my choice, and if you have a better option, then by all means, please share."

"Here's an option: don't go," Fili said, glaring at the warrior. "Let Johnathan do as he pleases for now; when he comes, we'll be ready for him. But you're not going to do this alone, either, if you can't be dissuaded; half the Company could go to the Mountain, while the other half could go with you—"

"Not a chance in hell," she interrupted, glaring right back at the Dwarf. "If you think I'm taking half of you along with me to your very likely deaths, then you're delusional—"

"And what about you?" Fili demanded. "You are going to your own death if you go alone, Alison. You know what harbors in Dol Guldur—"

"You're right; I do," she said angrily. "But I'm the only one out of this Company who even stands a chance without being killed on the spot; I'm an Ashburne, a descendant of Johnathan and Eleon the First; I could get closer than any of you ever could, and you can't deny me the opportunity to do this after what Johnathan did to me, did to us—"

"This isn't about revenge, Alison!" Fili shouted, and Thorin blinked; he had rarely seen Fili so angry before, but all he could do was listen in shock as he went on. "This is about you and staying alive! If you think I'm going to let you go to your death—"

"Let me?" she nearly shrieked. "Let me? I'm doing this for you, you damn son of a—"

"Enough!" Thorin yelled, and immediately two pairs of furious eyes swung to him as he addressed them. "Fili; this is Alison's choice, and hers alone. This is her plan, and if she believes that she can do this, then let her. She is right; she is the only one who has a greater chance of getting to Johnathan than us, and we will not stand in her way of helping us fend off our enemies on two fronts. And Alison, you heard that. We will not stop you, but…Mahal above, girl, be safe."

Alison nodded, but Fili was seething, and Thorin knew that he was refraining from losing his temper completely, so he decided to push things along before his heir and the warrior got into another shouting match.

"Come on," he said gruffly, gesturing for the Dwarves to follow after him. "We have a feast to attend and a quest to see to. If you have anything to say on this matter, you will come to me. Now, let's go." And he stalked out without another word or backwards glance to see if anyone was following him.

But he couldn't help but wonder, as he heard the Dwarves fall into place behind him and they made their way towards the sounds of music and shouting and children laughing, if Fili's words were true, and he had just condemned Alison to her death.

It didn't take long for the Dwarves to become distracted by the plethora of ale and food around them when they got to the feast, and Alison used her moment of distraction to quietly slip out of the main hall of the Master's house to the courtyard outside, where glowing lanterns were strung around the square and a merry band played music on a raised makeshift pedestal as people danced around the courtyard, having ate their fill (which had still been very measly in Alison's eyes) and now enjoying themselves out in the open.

Despite the frigid wintry air, the square was actually quite warm, though Alison reasoned it was the heat of the lanterns and the teeming mass of people stomping, twirling, and running around her that was the source of the warmth.

She accepted a small tankard of ale from a passing, pleasant-looking man and took a sip, watching in amusement as the same man asked a lady for a dance and they were off, disappearing into the throng as Alison clutched the mug between her hands, staring off into space and wondering how long it would take until one of the Dwarves found her again.

They had been hovering around her all night; though not as obvious in their mother hen tendencies as Dori was, Alison could still tell they were watching her, casting her sidelong glances every now and then and gravitating to the edges of her peripheral whenever she moved—not that she blamed them. She had pretty much left all of them dangling off a cliff now after her proclamation, and she understood that they were worried; probably more than they should be, but oh well.

Then she immediately felt guilty for thinking of such a thing, and she clutched her mug tighter, wondering where such a thought had come from. She knew now that the Dwarves cared for her, thought of her as close to one of their own, and, despite all of her intentions not to, she had gotten more than attached to them, so it was unfair to think of them as being too clingy now, after everything they had done for her over the months. But they had to understand what she was trying to do; she was trying to save them, to stop Johnathan from coming after them with the full force of Hell behind him. They had to understand that, even if Alison didn't understand entirely why she was abandoning them at such an enormous moment in their quest, either.

Perhaps it was Nadia's words, or Bard's, or Galadriel's, or even because of Johnathan's and her own actions, but Alison suddenly knew that this was something she had to do, something she had to face; if she wanted any chance of saving the Line of Durin, of saving everyone she had grown to care for, then stopping Johnathan and Sauron and their armies before they attacked the Mountain was her only choice, no matter her personal fears on the matter. It had to be done.

Alison was so immersed in her thoughts that it took her several moments to realize that the pleasant-looking man from earlier was now standing before her, holding out a rough, leathery-skinned hand with the same kind smile on his face he had given her before, though it took her several more moments to register what he was asking her for.

"Oh, no," Alison stuttered, her face going red. "Um, I don't, I don't mean to be rude, but I-I really don't dance—"

"Trust me, miss," he said with a slight chuckle. "I was born with two left feet and not a sense of direction; you'll look like an expert compared to me."

Alison grinned in spite of herself, taking in his disheveled sandy hair and nice smile, noticing how he was only a few years older than her, but she still tried to politely refuse his hand, not exactly keen on making a total fool out of herself.

"I don't even know your name," she protested weakly, but even to her own ears her argument was lacking in any conviction, and this only made his grin grow wider.

"Neither do I know yours," he countered. "But I'm Elijah; now, may I have a dance, Miss Stranger, or should I wait until you've had a couple more drinks before you look my way again?"

"You're cheeky," Alison said, laughing and vaguely wondering if he was trying to hit on her, while simultaneously being reminded of another particular person she knew with the same cheek as Elijah before her. "But I still don't think this is a good idea-"

"Oh, c'mon, lass, give the poor lad a break!" Another man said as he swooped in and plucked the mug from her hands, and Alison didn't even have time to protest before the chortling, red-faced man gave her a little push in Elijah's direction, and the younger man grasped her hand and lightly settled his other on her waist as they whirled away, Alison trying not to trip on her dress as they entered the fray of dancing people.

Once she got over her initial response to scream and break away from Elijah, Alison decided to go with it and instead let Elijah take the lead; despite his assurances that he was no dancer, he was doing far better than she ever could, leading her through the twirling and stomping couples in such a way that she could start to pick up on the steps without looking like a complete idiot; granted, she was still pretty bad, and she had to apologize numerous times after stepping on her partner's feet and running into his chest, but he took it all in stride, showing her where to put her feet and how to twirl when he spun her, and soon, Alison found herself laughing much too hard to care what she was doing anymore, deciding to let go of her misgivings and just follow Elijah as they flew around the square in a frenzy of music and dancing.

"You know," Elijah said after reeling her back in from another spin, and Alison looked at him questioningly, a little breathless from laughter as he grinned at her again. "We've danced for a song and a half already, and I still don't know your name."

"Alison Ashburne," she said automatically, and Elijah stumbled, his eyes going wide as he seemed to take her in for the first time.

"Wait," he said in shock. "You-you're the one going on the quest to the Lonely Mountain with the Dwarves? That's you?"

"Yep," she said, ignoring the slight twinge in her gut as she said it. She was aware that he had ground to an almost-stand-still and they were now shuffling awkwardly around the square, and she cleared her throat as he continued to stare at her, his mouth slightly agape. "Is that surprising to you?"

"Well, a little bit, yes," he said, blinking and shaking his head as she raised a brow. "I just expected you to be...older, is all."

"Oh," she said, wondering if her unfortunate size had anything to do with that assumption; despite her recent growth spurt, she was still pretty short, barely topping Thorin's head, though she had started to outgrow the other Dwarves.

She was spared trying to answer him, though, when she caught sight of a familiar little girl on the outskirts of the dancing mass of people in the square, and when the young girl's eyes locked with hers, she knew who it was immediately; and by the way the other girl's eyes lit up, she reckoned that she was recognized, as well.

"If you'll excuse me, Elijah," Alison said, navigating her partner to the edges of the square as the song came to a close behind them. "But, uh, there's someone I need to talk to. Thank you for the dance, though; it was fun."

"I'm glad you thought so," he said, regaining his former charm and smile as he released her. "Maybe you'll spare me another one for your return feast?"

"Count on it," she said, grinning, even though a horrible thought struck her within that moment as he moved away; Smaug is going to decimate this town. I'm leaving these people to their deaths.

But then she shook her head, refusing to be dragged down by despair; she had told Bard what he needed to do in order to keep this town safe, and he had agreed with his own life. Lake-town would be safe, even if only slightly better prepared than they were in the book. And speaking of Bard...

"Ali!" Tilda cried, rushing up to the Hero and hugging her around the middle; though they had been there for only a night and a day, Bard's youngest daughter had taken a strong liking to the older girl, and Alison smiled as she hugged Tilda back; the little girl reminded her so much of Katie it made her feel homesick to her core, but she shrugged off the feeling as Tilda took her hand, beaming up at her.

"Hi, Tilda," Alison said, ruffling her pretty, honey-blonde curls. "Is your father anywhere nearby?"

Alison doubted it as she said it, though; Bard had made his feelings about their quest very clear, so it wouldn't be surprising if he decided not to show up. But she was taken aback, however, when Tilda nodded eagerly, pulling on her hand and leading her further away from the dancers. "He's right over here!" she chirped. "Da! Da, look, it's Ali!"

"I see that," Bard said amusedly, stepping out of the shadows as Tilda led Alison over to him, and the bargeman nodded in greeting to her as Alison returned the gesture. "Tilda, dear, go find Sigrid; I'm sure she'll take you for a spin if you ask nicely; and make sure Bain stays away from those pints!"

This last part was shouted after her as she gave Alison's hand one last squeeze and took off in search of her older siblings, and Alison turned back to Bard with a brow cocked wryly as the older man shook his head, grimacing slightly.

"Children," he said in response to her look, and Alison snorted.

"Trust me, I know," she said. There was a slight silence before Alison broke it again, turning back to face Bard. "So, was this little meeting coincidence, or do you always send your children to hunt down people you want to talk to?"

Bard chuckled, shaking his head. "A little of both," he said. "I only came here because Tilda was begging me to take her, and I decided to come, hoping it would be a pleasant experience before..."

He trailed off, shrugging, but Alison understood what he didn't say out loud. "That's something I wanted to talk to you about," she said, as he turned to face her. "Oh?"

Alison nodded, crossing her arms as she said bluntly, "I'm not going to the Lonely Mountain anymore; I'm going to Dol Guldur to stop Johnathan."

Though his eyes widened slightly, Bard didn't look all that surprised, only nodding thoughtfully as he said, "And I'm assuming you're going to say I can't come with you?"

"Correct," she said, smirking slightly.

"And I'm also assuming that this idea was brought on by what you read in Nadia Ashburne's journal?"

"Wow, you're good at this."

Bard gave her a dry look, but he didn't protest, only shrugging as he said, "Very well, then. It's your choice, and, thanks to you, I know that I'm possibly needed here, but I hope you journey with speed and safety, nonetheless. I may not be able to come with you, but I can still wish you good luck, as well. You'll need it."

"Thank you, Bard," Alison said sincerely, and then she muttered under her breath, "If only other people could be as accepting as you."

Unfortunately, Bard had heard, even over the raucousness of the party, and he looked at her with understanding, and even a little pity, "Ah."

Alison waved him off, returning her attention to the party-goers. "It's nothing," she said. "They'll get over it."

"Maybe," he said. "Maybe not." Something in his voice made her turn back to him, and she found him eyeing her shrewdly, a quirk to his mouth and an unreadable look in his eyes. At her puzzled expression, he went on, focusing his own attention on the dancing throng of townspeople, his features softening somewhat as he caught sight of Sigrid dancing with Tilda before he spoke to Alison.

"I may not know much about Dwarves, but I do know some things about family," he said. "And it's clear to me that these Dwarves consider you family, Alison. It may not seem like it to you, but as a father, I know the signs. Their watchfulness of you isn't to make you feel weak or like some woman that needs to be coddled; it is like the protection of a loved one. I don't know how, or why, and I'm not going to question it, but somehow you have become very dear to these Dwarves, indeed. It is only natural that they wouldn't want you to risk your life in such a way."

Alison said nothing, not really knowing what to say; part of her was filled with a warm feeling, of knowing that in their own way, she meant something to these stubborn creatures she had been living with for months, but the other part of her was still defiant that they couldn't trust her to do this on her own.

Bard patted her shoulder gently, giving her a small, comforting smile that seemed to take years off of his grim demeanor. "You will be fine, Alison, and so will your friends," he said. "I'll speak to a friend of mine later to see if he'd be willing to lend you one of the few horses we have here; it won't be fast or sleek, but it will be hardy and steadfast for a long journey, I grant."

Alison nodded, smiling gratefully. "Thank you, Bard," she said again. "You'll be fine, too, you know; but still, good luck, and...aim straight, I guess."

Bard shook his head, snorting. "You are an odd one, Miss Ashburne," he said. "But I wish you all the luck in the world, as well, and hope our paths cross again one day soon."

And with that, he gave her shoulder one last squeeze and moved off through the crowd, keeping close to the edges of the square as the lanterns cast his tall silhouette in moving shadows before he disappeared from her sight entirely, and Alison wondered if she would ever see him again before she sighed and turned away from the square, making her way back to the house to prepare for her own journey ahead.

When Alison entered back into the house, the first thing she noticed was how blissfully quiet it was. With Dwarves trampling in and out all day and talking, laughing, and banging stuff around in the kitchen at any hour, having the house to herself was a welcome change, though after a few minutes, it kind of made her uncomfortable of how too quiet it was; it was strange, how accustomed she had become to having so many people around her in only a few months, and then not having those people around made her feel almost...lonely.

But she'd take the silence for however long it lasted, and, shrugging off her cloak and leaving her shoes by the front door, she walked down the first-floor hallway until she came to a stop at the second door on the right and rapped on the wood quietly, hearing a muffled, "Come in," at her knock.

"Hey, Bilbo," she said as she opened the door and stepped inside, crossing the room to sit on the edge of the Hobbit's bed as he smiled at her, looking up from the small book he was reading.

"Hello, Alison," he replied, closing the book and setting it on his nightstand, and Alison was glad to see in the light of the candle he looked much better than he had been of late; though his nose was still red and he sniffed quite a lot, he no longer looked like he was being knocked flat from his chill, which Alison was grateful for; he'd need his strength for when he set out with the others tomorrow...

Before Bilbo could ask her how she was or how the feast went, Alison opened her mouth and blurted out, "I'm not going to the Mountain with you anymore."

Bilbo said nothing, just looked at her calmly, as Alison congratulated herself sarcastically on her tact yet again, and she wondered why Bilbo wasn't freaking out about her news until he answered her unspoken question by saying, "I know. Fili just told me a few minutes ago."

"He's here?" Alison said in surprise, and Bilbo nodded.

"He came in about ten minutes before you did," he confirmed, and Alison wondered why the older prince was here while everyone else was still at the feast, though she had a sneaking suspicion it had something to do with her.

As if sensing what she was thinking, Bilbo took her hand in both of his, giving her a small, understanding smile as she looked into his sharp brown eyes. "I do not argue with your choice, Alison," he said kindly. "I've always known you were brave and noble, and if this quest has taught me anything, it's that you have to be willing to use your courage and make sacrifices others may not make in their lifetime. But I believe you can do this, Alison."

Alison felt something hot stinging the back of her eyes, and before she melted down entirely, she leaned forward and drew the Hobbit into a tight hug, planting a small kiss amidst his unruly curls as he patted her back, chuckling softly.

"You're an absolutely wonderful Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins," she said, keeping the small man wrapped in her embrace. "And I'm so glad I had the opportunity to be your friend. You'll be fine, too; I believe in you just as I have from the start."

Bilbo pulled away from her, smiling gently and reaching up to brush the tears threatening at the corners of her eyes with light fingers. "Don't get all sentimental on me, Alison," he said. "You'll see me again." She nodded, smiling back, as he held her hands again. "But I'm glad I met you along this journey, as well. The others are all wonderful, too, but somehow it's nicer having someone who understands the importance of doilies along."

They both laughed at that, and then hugged again, and Alison conveyed all of her unspoken words of friendship and love in that embrace before releasing him and standing up, smoothing her dress out.

"You should talk to him," Bilbo said, and it didn't take a rocket scientist to know who he was speaking about.

But Alison only nodded, saying, "Goodnight, Bilbo," before walking back to the door and exiting the room, hearing Bilbo's slightly stuffy, "Goodnight," in return before she shut the door and began to climb the stairs to the second floor, where she knew Fili to have his room.

She was spared having to look through all the rooms, though, when a door at the end of the hall opened and a familiar blonde head peered out, and Alison met the prince's blue eyes warily when he caught sight of her.

"Oh, Alison," he said, and though he sounded normal enough, Alison could still detect the faint tightness to his tone as they stared at each other from opposite ends of the hallway. "I didn't know it was you who had entered."

" was me," she said, holding out her arms in an awkward show of bravado, but he didn't react, just kept staring at her until she sighed and dropped her arms. "Look, can we talk? Whatever the hell this is between us right now, I don't want it to be there when we both go our separate ways, so let's, okay?"

He didn't say anything, but when he stepped back into his room and gestured for her to follow, she did, entering the bedroom as he shut the door behind her and leaned against it, crossing his arms as she gave the room a cursory glance before returning her attention back to him.

He had changed out of the simple blue tunic he had been wearing earlier, and he now looked like he was about to go to sleep, only wearing a thin brown undershirt and breeches, though she did notice he was still wearing his boots as he looked at her silently yet expectantly, waiting for her to speak.

But now that she was here, alone with him, she found that she had no idea what to say. Things had been shaky and confusing between them for a while now, and with not having any chances to talk, Alison now knew nothing about where they stood with each other.

The night in Beorn's yard seemed lifetimes away now, and Alison wondered if it was possible for two people to change so much in only the month or so it had been since then; because Alison knew, that when looking at Fili right now, with no one else around them, that she did not feel the same as she had on that night. Whatever had been between them then now seemed...lost. And she didn't know why she felt like that, only that it was an accurate description of what she was feeling in that moment.

"So," he said, to break the lengthening silence between them, and Alison ripped herself out of her thoughts, focusing back on what was before her as Fili went on, meeting her gaze indifferently. "You're going, then?"

Alison bit back a scathing remark and just nodded, crossing her arms like he was doing but reaching up to fiddle with a piece if her hair at the same time while he nodded, as well, his expression still unreadable.

When the silence started stretching again, Alison figured it was time to take Bilbo's advice and just talk to him, so she cleared her throat, focusing on a point just above his shoulder as she started. "I'm not going to argue with you, or beg you to forgive me and understand my choices," she said, keeping her voice neutral as he gazed back at her, unmoving. "But this is my choice, and I know that what I'm doing is right. I know that you see it differently, that you think I'm just going off to my death needlessly, but you're forgetting, Fili; I'm not the same person I was when we met in the Shire all those months ago. I'm a warrior, and whatever Hero blood is in my veins has made itself known; I've been in the same dangerous situations as the rest of you, and I've come out alive, too. I've killed things, I've witnessed death-but I'm not weak or scared anymore. I don't need to be protected by you; I can fight, I can survive, and I know that I can do this, Fili. I don't know what will happen, but I at least have some faith in myself that I can help you all. Don't you?"

The last words came out of their own volition and were a mere whisper, and Alison looked back to Fili to gauge his reaction, and was surprised to see him staring back at her with an almost pained, conflicted expression on his face.

"I know you're not the same person anymore, Alison," he said lowly. "You've changed a lot since the beginning of this quest, and I'd be an idiot if I said you hadn't." He paused, seeming to swallow, before he met her eyes again and continued. "I don't doubt that you can do this; you've become a Hero in your own right along the way, and I'm not faithless; I believe that you can do this. But," he stopped again, and Alison saw his muscles coil under his shirt, as if what he was about to say would be hard for him. "I'm only afraid that you're never going to come back."

The words were like a blow in her chest, and even though Alison had been thinking the same thing for days, weeks, months now-hearing them from someone else hurt ten times worse.

"Fili-" she began, her voice choked a bit, but she was cut off when he suddenly moved forward and pulled her into a tight embrace, his arms snaking across her back and his nose skimming her exposed collarbone, making her shiver as she reached her own arms up automatically and held him.

They stayed like this for quite a few moments, not speaking, and even though having Fili this close usually set off her heartbeat and made her breath hitch, she felt none of that now. It was a warm, solid, and comforting embrace, but it held none of the meaning it once seemed to, and Alison was shocked to find herself perfectly okay with that. She knew that she had changed, but never until that moment did she realize that her feelings may have evolved with that, too.

"I know you can't promise to come back unharmed," he said into her shoulder, his breath warm yet steady on her skin, and Alison only listened as he went on. "And I'm not going to promise you the same thing about us. least promise me you will try and make it safely back to all of us?"

Alison gave a weak little laugh into his shoulder. "Of course I'm going to try and come back, you moron," she said. "It's not like I'm shopping for a vacation home in the lovely area surrounding Dol Guldur."

He chuckled a little bit at that, and pulled away, and Alison dropped her hands, giving him a small grin. "But I'll promise you that much, if only you promise me the same thing."

Fili nodded, his blue eyes liquid pools of sapphire in the candlelight, and it gave him the impression of Thorin some as he placed both hands on her shoulders and touched his forehead to hers, and all Alison could do was hold his arms back as he said, in a low, throaty voice of Khuzdûl, "Men gandind, Alison Ashburne. My word is all I can give you, but I swear to try my hardest."

"Then that is enough," she said as he pulled away again, and she was relieved to see that his features didn't look so carven anymore as he grinned slightly back at her. Then, knowing it had to be done before they parted, Alison gathered up her courage and blurted out what she had to say before she could stop herself, watching Fili carefully as she said, "So, where does this leave us? You know, as a..."

She trailed off, knowing that Fili understood what she was trying to say by the sudden understanding in his eyes and how he averted his gaze quickly, and she felt kind of bad for springing this on him, but she had to know.

"Alison..." he said, looking around the room as if he expected the bed sheets to provide him with answers, but when nothing came to him, he sighed, looking back at her with a torn look to his face. "We've been through this before; our allegiances lie elsewhere besides each other, and nothing will ever change that."

He paused, searching her face, but Alison said nothing, knowing where this was going, but not having any power to stop it as he sighed once more and pressed on. "I am the heir to the throne of Durin, and you are a mortal Hero. I am a prince, and one day, I will be king, and I have realized now what I should have before any of this started; I will always love my people and my kingdom more than you. It has taken me too long to understand this, and I am sorry for whatever false hope I have given you, but duty and honor come before...lesser affections of the heart." He reached his hand up then and slowly traced his thumb across her cheek, but she only stared as he said, "I care for you, Alison, but I do not love you, and I probably never will. As of right now, I see no future with us together, but..."

"Don't," Alison said softly, taking his hand and setting it back down by his side; his eyes widened a little bit in shock, but she kept speaking, not taking her eyes from his face. "Don't say something that will never have the potential to happen, because everything you've said was right. I see now what you mean, and I agree with you. I care more for my world and my family, and for keeping all of you safe, than this; and, I'm sorry, Fili, but you don't have a place in all of that for something greater to form between us. Duty pulls us in two different directions, and who are we to fight against it?"

"Then it is done?" he said quietly, and Alison nodded.

"It's done," she said, and then there was only silence, until the sound of the front door crashing open made both of them jump violently and the sudden voices of the talking, laughing, and, in Bombur's and Glóin's cases, singing, Dwarves could be heard from the first floor.

"I should go," Alison said, after clearing her throat, and Fili nodded, opening the door to the sound of Bilbo apparently coming out of his own room to chastise the Dwarves for waking him, and the two shared a quick grin at the Hobbit's stuffy, angry voice as they stepped out into the hallway and made their way to the landing of the stairs.

"I guess I should see what's going on and stop it before it escalates," Fili said, wrinkling his nose as they heard Bombur begin to retort something back to the Hobbit somewhat drunkenly, and Alison grinned, though they both winced as something then crashed downstairs and the Dwarves roared with laughter as Bilbo squeaked something unintelligible.

"Yeah, I'll leave this one up to you," Alison said, clapping him on the shoulder, and he grimaced at her as she laughed. It was almost like they were back to normal. Almost.

But as Fili descended the stairs with a last, "I'll see you in the morning before we set out," and Alison bade him goodnight and went in the opposite direction to her room, she could feel something widening between them with every step, like a gaping rift, and she wondered if the sudden empty feeling in her chest had anything to do with turning away from what they had, before she closed the door to her room behind her, and began to prepare for the darker days to come.

Long Author's Note

A si-Dhúath ú-orthor, Maethor - Sindarin; "The Shadow does not hold sway yet, warrior" (sound familiar?)

Men gandind - Khuzdûl; "I promise/I swear"

All right, so not my best chapter, but I do have some notes to share on the two major topics.

Regarding Alison's Decision: I won't go into this one much, but a while back I came up with an idea, but I dropped it, thinking, "Nah, I'll just stick to the original story." But when I started writing this chapter, that idea came back to haunt me (along with some others you'll see in the future), thus Alison's decision came forth (and come on; J-Ash is begging to be followed right now). But I hope I conveyed well enough why Alison made this choice, because this was my greatest hurtle on this chapter, along with the Company's reactions; but again, hopefully Thorin's reasoning for letting her go makes sense.

Regarding Fili and Alison: Firstly, Filison, shippers, I'm really sorry! But in all honesty, Filison never felt genuine to me, and the reason I felt that was because of Fili himself. Don't get me wrong, I love him to death, but Fili/OC stories never sat well with me; there are many amazing ones out there, so don't think I'm bashing or anything, but I've always thought Fili was a little more reserved when it came to romantic love, seeing as he is the crown prince (not the King, who can do as he pleases yet, not the younger Prince with less responsibility, but the Crown Prince), so I don't think he's really in need of that desire for romance, especially with a human woman. Again, I am perfectly accepting of Fili/OC stories, but Fili/Alison wasn't working; not for me, but because of the characters themselves. That's all I'm saying on that for now, but if you still have questions or just want to chew me out, reviews are always welcome or you can just shoot me a PM!

Anyway, thank you for your patience again, and welcome to all of my new favorites/followers as well! It's crazy that I'm almost at 200 followers; I never thought this story was going to come this far! Thank you to everyone who reviewed too; your words are so kind and amazing! So, please review: anything you liked, disliked, are looking forward to? Let me know!

Next time, we get the Quest rolling again, Kili gives Alison something to think about, and an unexpected complication arises that makes Alison question her choice...

Thanks again, lovelies! Until next chapter...

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