The March of Time

35: And the Journey Begins (Again)

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

Quick A/N: Here ye be warned, there be much translations, angst, and some fluff (?) ahead...

Chapter Thirty-Five: And the Journey Begins (Again)

Tauriel's feet barely stirred the light smattering of snow upon the ground as her and Legolas came to a halt in a small, densely-treed clearing, pausing a moment in the white-and-brown landscape to take stock of their surroundings once more.

Dawn was just breaking over the horizon, but the Long Lake, slightly discernible through the trees on her left side, was still a sheet of unmoving silver glass, not yet glowing with the gold and red of the sun.

The cold morning air seemed to invigorate Tauriel as she stood in the clearing, one hand resting lightly on one of the daggers at her waist as Legolas scoured the ground, and their breath, hardly affected by their run through the forest, though they had started well before the sun's rise, was the only sound amongst the forest besides the lake water lapping at the shore further away and the faint stirrings of the creatures awakening with the light.

"I loss esgal ti rein," Legolas said, shattering the near-silence, and Tauriel looked to see him crouching in the icy slush, his fair brows drawn low and his nimble fingers hovering over the ground as he frowned, wrinkling his nose. "Mal ú-ti angol." He added disdainfully, and Tauriel cracked a faint smile.

"Náto," she replied, and once Legolas had said it, she did indeed smell the foul stench of the Orcs on the air, and her fingers tightened instinctively on the hilt of her blade. "Im-tangada ha thia lad ir-hain gwao."

Legolas nodded, rising smoothly back to his feet, his eyes hard as they perceived through the woods in front of them, and Tauriel knew that he was becoming increasingly frustrated that the Orcs had managed to get this far without being caught yet, for she felt the same way. She could only hope that the company of dwarves and the Ashburne girl were far away in Esgaroth already, though, as the scent of carrion and other unspeakable things tickled her sensitive nose again.

"Tolo, Legolas," she said, starting out of the clearing, but she halted at the edge of the tree-line when she realized that her friend's presence was not following her, and she looked back, puzzled, to see Legolas staring at her, an unreadable expression on his face.

"Legolas," Tauriel said slowly, slipping back into the Common Tongue as she stared at the prince. "Is something wrong?"

"Why are you doing this, Tauriel?" he said, copying her by dropping all pretense of Sindarin, and she noticed the faintly veiled suspicion and uncertainty in his voice as she raised her brows questioningly. "There is another reason behind all of this, is there not?"

He waved a vague hand around them, and Tauriel paused, blinking once, though she had understood Legolas' intent clearly; 'this' meaning the hunt for the Orcs, but, more importantly, why they were hunting them.

Tauriel stifled a sigh, knowing that this topic was going to be brought up again, but she had hoped it would be later rather than sooner, though she met her friend's eyes once more and resigned herself to speak.

"You heard that Orc-filth we questioned," she said, and Legolas grimaced at the reminder; he had told her what the Orc had said to him and Thranduil after she had been ordered out, about how his "Master" served "the One," and that the "flames of war" were upon them. She knew how much the words bothered him, for they lay heavy on her mind, as well; but Legolas had always been better at hiding emotions than her, though she had become adept at reading him over the years and knew when he was worried and troubled, like right now.

"Evil is rising," she continued. "I will not sit idle and wait for our world to be plunged into Darkness. And, besides that..." She hesitated, wondering how she could possibly explain her other reason, but it seemed Legolas already knew- or at least suspected -what she was about to say.

"The injured dwarf," he said, and she nodded slowly, meeting his gaze head-on. Tauriel had already made up her mind about this, and whether Legolas approved of it or not, she would go forth anyway, with or without him, and he knew that just as much as she.

"Morgul poison is not like regular venoms," she reminded him when he didn't press her. "Especially if even the tiniest sliver of the arrowhead was left behind in the wound. It will travel through his bloodstream, until it reaches his heart, and soon he will pass to the Shadow, and become either a horrid Dark creature or a wraith like the Úlairi. I cannot leave someone to suffer through that fate, and I most certainly will not leave his friends and loved ones to watch him become part of the Shadow. I know what resides in his blood now and what could happen to him, and I know how to heal him. It seems like an imbalance of fate to me if I leave him to suffer when I can save him."

Legolas said nothing for several long minutes, and Tauriel stared at him almost defiantly; they had had a conversation similar to this before, on the banks of the Forest River, and he had agreed to come with her; so why was he being hesitant about it again?

"What is wrong, mellon?" She asked quietly, and Legolas opened his mouth to speak - then abruptly swung his bow up and pulled an arrow from his quiver, almost faster than Tauriel's eyes could follow, and the next second he shouted, "Tauriel, cenda!"

But Tauriel was already moving, bringing her blades up and spinning around, just as an Orc launched itself out of the trees with a terrible snarl, raising a crude pickaxe over its head as it leaped, its foul stench slamming into Tauriel as it neared, roaring and swinging its weapon down in an arc toward her skull.

But an arrow suddenly whistled over her head, ruffling her hair a bit, and the gleaming silver tip embedded itself in the Orc's heart just as Tauriel slashed her blades across its throat, removing its head clean from its body with a disgusting pop, and the Orc's lifeless body and decapitated head fell to the ground in a spurt of oily black blood.

Tauriel wrinkled her nose in distaste at the sight before her, bending down to wipe her blades off in the thin layer of snow on the ground, leaving black streaks against the white as Legolas ghosted to her side, looking down at the Orc with the same disgusted look on his face as she, his bowstring still vibrating slightly.

The whole ordeal had probably lasted about thirty seconds, but as Tauriel got back to her feet, her blades still unsheathed and her eyes raking the surrounding trees in case more were lurking on the edges of the clearing, she felt a pinch in her gut as the brunt of their situation hit her.

"This wasn't a straggler," Legolas said, voicing her thoughts exactly as he mimicked her in searching their surroundings warily. "This was a scout."

Tauriel nodded, breaking her eyes away from the trees and looking back down to the Orc, noting its leaner, smaller body and lighter, slightly arched feet, meaning that this Orc was bred for stealth rather than brawn.

"If they didn't know we were on their trail before, they know now," she said, and Legolas muttered in agreement. "Which means we must go forth, and swiftly."

She met Legolas' eyes at this last part, asking him her question silently as he stared back, his expression impassive: Will you continue with me?

There was a brief moment of silence, and then Legolas grinned, his blue eyes lighting up once more as he said, "After you, Captain."

Tauriel smiled in return, knowing that Legolas would have gone with her still, and she felt a small thrill of glee that she had been right - again.

"Try to keep pace then, my Prince," she said, giving him another wicked grin as he grimaced slightly, and then they were off, their footsteps barely making an impression in the snow and the trees hardly stirring from their passing as they ran on, the sun breaking the horizon as the two hunters raced through the forest, nothing more than blurs of flaming red and silvery gold.

"If you don't stop tapping my cheek in the next five seconds, you will lose your finger," Fíli mumbled in warning when he woke up to the feel of someone poking him in the face.

"I can always use ice water to get your lazy arse up instead," came the sarcastic reply, and Fíli cracked open his eyes to see Nori smirking down at him, his arms crossed and his grey eyes glinting with something shrewd and mischievous, as usual.

Fíli groaned, wanting nothing more than to go back to sleep, but he knew he couldn't do that; today was the day they were finally setting off for the Mountain, leaving Lake-town behind for Erebor, and for whatever awaited them within the halls of the kingdom.

At this thought, though, Fíli's stomach swooped, and his eyes snapped back open, looking up to Nori, who only cocked a braided eyebrow in return.

"Bombur's cooking breakfast and the rest of us are finishing up packing," he said, as Fíli kicked back the covers and sat up, blinking the leftover strands of sleep from his eyes and raking his hair out of his face, nodding. "Thorin said for you to be downstairs in five minutes, awake and dressed."

"All right," Fíli said around a yawn. "Tell him I'll be down soon, then."

Nori nodded and exited the room, shutting the door behind him, and Fíli got up from the bed, walking to the wardrobe on the far wall and extracting the box sitting at the bottom of it, carrying the package back over to his bed and setting it down.

Everyone in the Company had been given a box when they first settled into the house, including Bilbo and Alison, and they had found to their surprise enough decently warm clothes and cloaks to travel to the Mountain in inside, by courtesy of the Master, of course.

Fíli wasn't all too keen on that idea, for the Master seemed like nothing more than an oily, greedy Man, but he had given them provisions and lodging and arranged for their travel, so he knew he had to swallow his misgivings and just go with it for the time being, though he wondered what Balin and Thorin had had to offer him to get him to accept their quest so easily.

He opened the box and began to pull the clothes out, laying them out on the bed beside him. He decided to keep on the tunic he was already wearing and pulled the new one over his head as well, tugging the layers into place as he pulled on one more shirt and then secured it with a belt that had come in the box. After pulling on a thick pair of woolen socks and his boots and grabbing his cloak, making sure he had everything out of the room that he needed, he headed downstairs to where he could already hear the others moving about and talking lowly.

It was still dark outside when Fíli entered the living room to find the dwarves all milling around, stuffing some last minute things into their bags and satchels, and crowding around the center of the living room where an impressive array of weapons sat waiting for them, along with some pieces of scattered armor.

Fíli made his way over to the weapons first and picked up a sword in the midst of the pile as Bifur and Glóin conversed in Khuzdûl on either side of him, sounding disgruntled, but picking up weapons for themselves, nonetheless.

Fíli weighed the sword in his hand, noticing how it was lighter and a bit less balanced for his liking compared to dwarvish weapons, but he knew it was the best he would get until Erebor; and though it was certainly not of dwarvish make, it would still be useful and solid in a fight, so he grabbed its accompanying scabbard and sheathed it on his back, making for the small pile of daggers and knives next after grabbing one more sword for good measure.

When he got there, however, Alison was already standing by it, picking up a longish dagger in one hand and turning it over, studying it with her eyebrows creased. Seeing her standing there before him did not hurt as much as Fíli expected it to, though he still felt something tight in his chest as he approached her and the pile, giving her a small smile when she looked up and gave him a wan one in return.

He went about selecting various knives for himself as Alison hovered nearby, doing the same; and though there was nothing awkward between them that he sensed in that moment, he still felt compelled to say something to break the silence.

After sticking two daggers in his belt, he looked up to see Alison strapping two knives to the inside of her forearms, on the underside of some leather gauntlets she had found Mahal-knows-where, and then he noticed with wide eyes how many weapons she truly had the longer he looked at her.

Two long, slightly curved blades hung from the new belt at her waist, another shorter blade was strapped to her upper thigh, and, looking down, he could notice the butts of two hilts concealed in her boots; looking over her shoulder, he then noticed a black, fur-lined coat resting on an armchair that had to be hers, with her Twin Blades and a bow and a quiver of arrows beside it.

"Uh..." Fíli said, looking to her as she raised her eyebrows, strapping on the armor-bodice she had received at Beorn's.

"What?" she said, tugging the end of her braid out from under the shoulder of her bodice as he stared at her in bafflement.

He gestured to the array of weapons on her person, saying, "Do you, you even know how to use all of these?"

She gave him a sour look as she went over to the armchair, swinging on the new coat she had been given and buttoning it up, then strapping her swords onto her back and the quiver of arrows, where they laid between the two sword scabbards easily as he watched.

"I didn't spend all those months training with you, Dwalin, and Kíli for nothing," she said, sounding miffed, but Fíli only stared at her.

"Uh, right then," he said, turning back to the pile before him, but Alison came back over, crossing her arms awkwardly, and he had to bite back a grin as she huffed, unused to having so many weapons on her person that she didn't know exactly what to do with.

"I know what you're thinking," she said, and Fíli bit the inside of his cheek to refrain from laughing, keeping his eyes on the weapons as he felt Alison glaring at him. "But we talked about this last night, remember? I'm not the same little mortal girl who started out on this quest all those months ago; I'm a Hero now, and I know what I'm doing; it's like instinct at this point.

"And, besides," she said, as Fíli completed his own array of weapons and turned back to look at her, now sobered from the mention of their conversation the night before. "I'm going to need more than just my swords if I want to beat an adversary like Johnathan. You were the one who told me to always use what felt right in a fight, and all of these feel right to me, Fíli, and as stupid as it sounds, they make me feel safer. So don't go back on that and laugh at me and ask me if I know what I'm doing. If I didn't, I would be dead by now."

She didn't look or sound angry when she said it, just...worried, her brows drawn low over her pale eyes and her mouth pressed into a firm, flat line, and Fíli felt guilt and a bit of shame wash over him at the expression, wincing slightly as he imagined what his mother would say to him about his respect and chivalry if she were there to witness the situation.

"You're right, Alison," he said, clearing his throat. "It was wrong of me to judge you like that, and I apologize for doubting you, however brief. I don't wish to fight again."

There was a pause, until finally Alison nodded; though she still looked troubled, her eyes were lighter, and the corners of her mouth twitched upward.

Fíli smiled back, relieved to know that their last few moments together would not be spent in discomfort and silent arguing, and he was about to say something- anything - to her, but he was interrupted by Bombur's voice calling everyone into the kitchen to eat.

Once everyone had eaten and cleaned up, Thorin ordered them back into the living room to collect their supplies and weapons, for they would be leaving at the sun's rise. Everyone obeyed and collected their things, while Fíli, already having everything he needed, helped out Óin with his supplies, until Thorin said, "Fíli, Dwalin, grab the extra packs and weapons and start heading to the docks. Everyone else, follow when you're ready, but be quick. I want to set out as soon as possible."

Fíli and Dwalin went to grab up the extra packs and weapons, and they were then led out of the house by Thorin and Balin, with Bilbo and Dori close behind and the rest after them.

As they made their way through the small, cramped streets to the docks, pale dawn sunlight beginning to paint the sky in hues of pink and gold, the townsfolk started to line the streets, calling out greetings and good wishes to the Company as they passed, and the closer to the docks they got, the more people there were, which was starting to unnerve Fíli a bit as he waded through the crowd with the others.

When they got to the docks, an icy breeze was blowing steadily from the lake, making Fíli shiver and his breath come out in little wisps that dissipated quickly when they billowed into the air. They dodged around several more townspeople that were cheering and clapping, coming up on a makeshift platform that looked as if it had been hastily erected about ten minutes before their arrival, and Fíli marveled at the fact that it was actually holding up as he noticed the several guards standing upon it.

"Uh, wait, you do know that we're one short, right?" Bilbo suddenly spoke up from behind them, and everyone turned to look at him as he stumbled along in his over-sized cloak, looking distinctly ruffled as he asked, "Where's Bofur?"

Fíli looked around, noticing with a slight shock that Bilbo was right, and the hatted dwarf was nowhere to be seen, but Thorin only said, "If he's not here, then we leave him behind."

As he marched away, toward the barge that sat in the water waiting for them, Balin added, "We'll have to, if we're to find the door before the next nightfall. We can risk no more delays."

And with that, he turned and followed Thorin, and there was a slight hesitation until Fíli and everyone else followed them to the barge, as well.

They began to load the barge, and Fíli tried to block out the sounds of the cheering crowd while he worked, feeling uncomfortable at the scrutiny of so many eyes upon him, though he should be used to it, being a dwarf prince and all. But these weren't the stares of his own people; they were the stares of Men who he had never seen before or spoken to, the stares of people who couldn't care less should he die, as long as Thorin's promise to them was fulfilled.

Pushing those thoughts away before his skin could prickle anymore than it already had, Fíli looked around for Kíli, and he began to feel a slight panic when at first he couldn't find him. Then he looked over the heads of most of the Company, standing outside of the barge, and his eyes finally landed on Kíli, though his relief battled with confusion when he noticed that he appeared to be limping away from Alison, who stood on the peripheral of the crowd, her cheeks stained red with either the cold or a blush, and one of her fists clenched tightly at her side, as if she were holding something as she watched Kíli make his way to the barge.

Fíli stepped closer to the edge of the boat to help Nori put in more weapons and supplies as the rest of the Company hauled themselves into the vessel, and he looked back up just in time to see Kíli walk over, his face pale, his eyes shadowed, and his gait unsteady, until Thorin stopped him with a hand on his chest, simultaneously handing off weapons to Bifur as he said, "Not you."

Kíli looked to their uncle incredulously as Fíli watched, wondering what was happening as Kíli grinned weakly, like Thorin was making a joke, until he said, "We must travel at speed, and you will only slow us down. We can't afford this, Kíli, and your wound won't be able to handle the journey."

Kíli's grin had slipped off of his face, and he only stared at Thorin, his brows creased in confusion, as he said, "What are you talking about? I'm coming with you."

Fíli recognized the stubborn scowl on Kíli's face, and Thorin must have too, for he only shook his head, saying, "No. It's a risk I can't take, Kíli."

"I'm going to be there when that door is opened," Kíli said, a note of desperation tingeing his voice. "When we first look upon the halls of our fathers, Thorin..."

"Kíli," Thorin said, turning and placing a comforting hand on the younger prince's shoulder, his blue eyes scrutinizing him up and down gently, but firmly. "Stay here, rest. Join us when you're healed."

And he turned away, climbing into the barge as Kíli watched, his mouth slightly agape, and Fíli turned, shocked at what Thorin had told him. Kíli was to stay behind?

"I'll stay with the lad," Óin piped up, climbing out of the barge with his medicine pouch as Kíli stepped back from the barge, still staring at Thorin who appeared to be dutifully ignoring him, probably for fear of letting his resolve crumble, if Fíli knew anything about how his uncle was affected by his brother. "My duty lies with the wounded."

Fíli watched as Óin coaxed Kíli away from the barge, and after a few tries, he finally allowed himself to be steered away by the healer to the edges of the crowd. His dark eyes fastened on Fíli, and the complete and utter devastation in his face was so raw, so torn, that Fíli felt as if a giant hole had just been punched through his chest.

"Uncle," Fíli said desperately, turning to Thorin while the rest of the Company watched in silence. Thorin turned to look at him, and though his expression remained aloof and distant, Fíli could see the slight pain in his eyes as their gazes locked. "We grew up on tales of the Mountain, tales you told us. You cannot take that away from him!"

"Fíli-" Thorin said warningly, but Fíli shrugged him off, not even caring if he was causing a scene. Kíli was his brother, Thorin's nephew; if anyone deserved to be there when the door was opened and they entered Erebor, it was him. He had given up so much for this quest, had literally taken an arrow for this quest, and Fíli wasn't going to leave Kíli alone after all they had been through together. He had promised his amadinh he would stay with Kíli and look after him, protect him, and by Mahal and Durin and all of the Valar, he was going to keep his word.

"I will carry him if I must!" He protested, and Thorin looked pained, though he grit his teeth.

"One day you will be King, and you will understand," he said, and the words brought Fíli up short as he went on. "I cannot risk the fate of this quest for the life of one dwarf. Not even my own kin."

The last part came out as a near whisper, and Fíli only stared, feeling as if he were being cleaved in two, and his mind mocked him, chanting, The quest or your brother? You can only choose one...

Looking over at Kíli, huddled mournfully by the crowd as Óin tried to check on him, jerking away when the healer reached for him, Fíli made his decision, and he tried to climb back out of the barge, only to be stopped by Thorin's strong grip on his arm.

"Fíli, don't be a fool," Thorin said, his blue eyes hard yet conflicted as Fíli looked back to him, scowling. "You belong with the Company."

"I belong with my brother," Fíli replied stonily, and with that, he tugged his arm out of Thorin's grasp and climbed off of the barge, walking over to where Kíli and Óin sat, and away from Erebor and his future kingdom.

What I would give for some hot chocolate right now, Alison thought forlornly as she stood in the bitterly cold morning, shoving her hands deeper into her new coat pockets and hunching down to fend off the chill rolling off of the lake, but to no avail. Even the heat that had flooded into her cheeks earlier had worn off as she watched the Company board the barge with a hollow feeling in her chest.

What she really wanted to do was to run for the barge and jump on, to sail off down the canal and out into the lake and then to continue on their journey to the Lonely Mountain, the journey she had been thrust into by Gandalf and the Valar, the journey she was ultimately turning her back on - at least for the time being.

Or that was what she kept telling herself, at any rate. She would rejoin the Company as soon as she was done kicking Johnathan's bony little ass back into oblivion along with his Master, and then they would reclaim the kingdom, stop the Battle of Five Armies, and everyone would live happily ever after while she returned to the mortal world. But, as Gandalf and Galadriel seemed so keen on reminding her every five seconds, that was one possibility out of a thousand others. There was always the chance that she could die, and Johnathan and Sauron would take over the world and let their armies march on the Mountain, take back the Lesser Rings, and create a reign of terror and darkness. Or, even more worse, in her eyes, Smaug would kill all of her friends and join Sauron and Johnathan, and then they would create a reign of terror and darkness. Either option pretty much sucked, though.

Alison then snorted derisively to herself at those thoughts. She knew the only reason why she was being so sarcastic and morbidly humorous was to forget about how petrified and desperate she was truly feeling in that moment; she was about to go off on her own, to a place where an evil Dark Lord had taken up residence and her traitorous ancestor awaited her, no doubt already knowing she was coming and preparing something horrible for her arrival, and she knew that she might not come back. But as Bilbo had said to her the night before, "If this quest has taught me anything, it's that you have to be willing to use your courage and make sacrifices others might not make in their lifetime." And she would do just that.

Thinking of Bilbo sent something sharp through her chest, and she looked back to the barge, trying not to think too much to the point where she would break down and cry, begging for the Company to stay here and far, far away from that mountain. They were her friends, and in some odd way, they had become her family along this journey, as well, and she did not want to see them get hurt, did not want to see Thorin succumb to the gold-sickness or him and Fíli and Kíli lying dead on a bloody battlefield...

Alison blinked back the tears that sprung to her eyes and swallowed past the hot, painful lump in her throat as the townspeople cheered and clapped around her, oblivious to what would happen to them in the next few days...

But she forced those thoughts from her mind, attempting to regain her composure. She would see the Company again, all of them, and they would be fine. The moments she had spent with Fíli and Bilbo last night, with the rest of the Company and Kíli this morning, would not be her last time with them. They would all meet again someday soon, when all of this was over and done with.

She clenched her hands instinctively in her coat pockets, starting when her right hand pressed against something solid and sharp until she recalled what it was and pulled it out, opening her palm to reveal a rectangular clasp, made of silver with black leather in a pattern of three overlapping diamonds. She stared at it for a few seconds, a warm glow spreading through her chest to cover her icy fear as she reflected back to how she had gotten it, only a few minutes before.

She had said her goodbyes to everyone that morning, and though no tears were shed (Ori was a close-call), she had still felt an ache inside of her at going their separate ways, and when they were about to leave the house, she realized that she had never gotten to Kíli or Bofur yet, so on their walk to the docks she had dropped to the back of the column where Kíli had been walking (or, attempting to, at least), since Bofur had mysteriously disappeared.

"Hey, are you okay?" she had said, noticing his unsteady gait and tight jaw, but he only nodded, keeping his eyes ahead of them as they followed the others.

There was a slightly awkward silence, until she said, "All right, let's hear it."

He gave her a strange look, his brows scrunched and his mouth pouting, giving him the impression of a cute puppy whenever he looked at her like that. "Hear what?"

"Whatever you have to say about me going after Johnathan," she said, holding his dark eyes and silently hoping she wouldn't trip and fall as she took her eyes off her feet.

He frowned, turning back to face in front of him, and Alison worried she was about to have another Fíli argument with him until he said, "There's nothing to say, not really." When she gave him an incredulous look, he shrugged, saying, "I'm not going to argue with you, but I'm not going to encourage you, either. I know sometimes the others don't see it, but I do; you're strong enough to do this, Alison, and as dangerous as it is, I think you have a chance. We've all had to make enormous decisions on this quest, and we've always accepted the choice and the outcome; I don't see this any differently, so..." He shrugged, still looking ahead, and Alison blinked, feeling a mix of confusion and gratitude at what he had said.

She had no idea how to respond to that, so they stayed in silence until they reached the docks, and when Kíli slowed down, wincing, she stopped beside him, her concern coming back as she realized just how drawn and pale he looked in the light, a sheen of sweat coating his forehead as he rubbed his thigh just above his wound, sucking in a sharp breath between his teeth.

"You're an awful liar," Alison remarked, hiding her alarm behind a joke, but her eyes scanned the crowd in front of them urgently, wondering where the hell Óin was when she needed him. "I'm getting Óin, stay here-"

"No," Kíli said, shaking his head and grabbing her wrist. "I'm fine, I-I just stepped on it wrong."

"I don't even think a kitten would believe that."

"Alison, please, I'm fine," he repeated, still grasping her wrist as she tried to move away, and she scowled at him as he looked back at her, giving her his innocent puppy eyes despite the layer of pain glazing the dark depths, and Alison sighed out her nose, the air billowing up in a cloud before it disappeared.

"Fine," she said grudgingly, cursing herself for giving in to the eyes once again (which he usually reserved for trying to wheedle food out of her). "But when you get on that barge, the first thing you're doing is going to Óin and getting that wound checked out, all right?"

He nodded, his mouth quirking in a half-grin, and Alison wondered if his face had gone whiter after she said that, until a sudden force from behind her pushed her forward, and she stumbled over her feet and knocked against Kíli's chest, turning around and seeing a tall man weaving away from her; apparently he had pushed her aside to get to the front of the crowd, and Alison huffed, muttering, "Jerk."

She stepped back, away from where she had plowed into Kíli's torso, her cheeks heating a bit as she realized that she had practically been up on him, even if it was by accident. She looked up to find him staring at her, an odd expression on his face, and even though they were standing a good couple of feet from each other now, she suddenly flashed back to a night in the Woodland Realm, when they had been locked in one of Thranduil's dungeons together and gotten in a wrestling match, only to stop and realize that their faces were literally inches apart. And then, to her utter bewilderment and embarrassment (still), she had reached up and brushed a piece of his hair away from his face. He had given her the same look he was giving her now back then, too, and Alison inwardly cringed, guessing it meant she was creepy and she should probably stop doing things to invade his personal space.

There was a tense silence, and then they both spoke at the same time, their words jumbling together and coming out like a foreign language as they blended.

"Look, I'm sorry, that was weird-"

"Alison, I - there's something-"

They stopped at the same time, and Alison's cheeks heated once more, and if Kíli hadn't been so sweaty and pale, he probably would've been blushing, too. But Alison grinned, giving a weak chuckle, and gestured for him to go on, saying, "Um, you first."

His demeanor had changed since their sentence-jumbling, and now he looked serious, his half-grin gone, and Alison watched him warily as he said, "I...just wanted to tell you to be safe, Alison. And to, you know, come back to me - to us - alive."

Alison nodded, but her fingertips had gone numb with dread as the full-force of what she was about to do and what they were about to do hit her like a tidal wave. But as soon as the terror tried to steal her breath, every hope, every vow, every resolve and determination she had ever felt came rushing back in, filling her up until the dread had been pushed to the corners of her mind and she could breathe again.

"You say that as if I have a death wish," she replied, half-jokingly, half-seriously, but it was enough to make him smirk again.

"There are times I doubt your sanity," he admitted, shrugging, and she looked at him in mock offense as he chuckled.

"I can't promise you anything, Kíli," she said when he had stopped laughing, and he only watched her as she continued, sighing. "I don't know whether I can be safe or come back alive, and neither do you or any of the others. All I can say is that I will try, and you'll have to take my word for it."

"I can handle that, " he said, nodding, and then they stared at each other for a few more moments, each wondering if there was more to be said to each other or if they should just leave it at that.

Those thoughts were rendered useless, however, when on sudden impulse, Alison stepped forward again and brought her arms up around Kíli's neck, hugging him to her as he hesitated a moment, then she felt his arms wrap around her waist and they stood, holding each other in the midst of the crowd.

His skin was feverish and clammy, and Alison could feel his heat drilling into her, but it was almost welcome in the cold air, and she was reminded of another moment like this, on Bard's porch, not even a week ago, before she told herself to stop comparing every moment with Kíli with a moment they had had before.

His hair brushed her cheek as she patted his back and tilted her head up from his shoulder, saying softly, "I'll miss you."

The words came out of their own volition, but once they were spoken, Alison found them to be true; Kíli had become one of her closest friends on this journey, and his loyalty, cheek, and courage had helped her more than he would ever know, more than she had ever realized until this moment. He was one of the only people who had completely accepted her in the beginning, and though he could be inappropriate, slightly annoying, and too mischievous for his own good, he had allowed her to be her own person and do what she wanted without feeling abashed for it or like she was some little girl who needed protecting. And Alison never realized until then how much his friendship and faith in her had truly helped her on this journey.

She thought he hadn't heard her, what with the crowd and everything, but she was surprised when she felt his lips, sticky and too warm, by her ear, and he said, "And I you, Alison Ashburne."

A tingle of warmth shot down Alison's spine when she pulled away, smiling sadly, and she met Kíli's eyes, dark and intense, from pain and something else, before he lifted one of his hands and, slowly, hesitantly, brushed his knuckles across her cheek.

Alison started, but she didn't pull away, only standing there in shock and confusion as his fingers dusted across her cheekbone, and heat flooded her cheeks as she held his gaze, seeing herself, wide-eyed and blushing, reflected in his eyes.

She was so intent on staring at him that she barely noticed his other hand grasping her own until he dropped the one that had trailed along her cheek, and she looked down, seeing his large hands press something into her palm. On closer inspection, it looked like a clasp, and it took her a few moments to realize why it looked so familiar as his hands pulled away from her own.

"This is yours," she said in surprise, staring down at the clasp in her hand and recognizing the dwarfish style and pattern, for she had become accustomed to the design of it after seeing it for months on end in Kíli's hair, and she distinctly remembered questioning him as to why he had a clasp in his hair at the beginning of the quest, wondering if he was gender-confused or something until he had explained to her that it was his personal emblem as a Prince of Durin's Line.

"Aye," he said, and when he didn't elaborate, Alison prompted him. "Well...why do I have it, then?"

He snorted, cocking a skeptical eyebrow at her. "I should think that was obvious," he said, and when Alison still looked blank, he shook his head exasperatedly. "I'm giving it to you, Alison."

"Um...why?" she said, still not seeing where he was going with this, and he rolled his eyes in mock irritation.

"Because I want you to poke Johnathan in the eye with it," he said sarcastically. "I don't know, just...think of it as a good luck token, or something of the sort, I guess. Something to hold on to."

"No, I-I can't take this," she said, feeling her face flush even more as she tried to hand it back. "The sentiment behind it means a lot, but... This is yours, Kíli. It's yours, and it signifies who you are, and I can't take something of such importance to you."

"Alison," he said sternly, pushing her hands back to her chest. "Keep it. It is mine to give to who I wish, and I want you to take it with you. And if you argue with me-" he said, holding up a hand as she tried to interrupt- "then I'll push you into the lake."

She glowered at him, but at the same time she was touched. Instead of pushing it further, then, she closed her hand around it and lowered it to her side, saying earnestly, "Thank you, Kíli. Seriously, this is-"

She cut off, unsure of what to say, but he only smiled, nodding to her, as suddenly the crowd around them began to part, and Alison saw Alfrid leading the Master of Lake-town through the throng further off, and she knew that the time had come for them to part ways.

Seized by a sudden feeling of panic, Alison gripped Kíli's arm tightly and said in a rush, "Kíli, please be safe. You and all the others, everyone, remember the story, don't do anything stupid, Kíli, please-"

"Alison," he said, grasping her shoulders, and he met her eyes gently despite the obvious pain he was in. "We'll be fine. You must believe that. I promise to my best that no harm will befall us if I can help it, all right? We're fine."

Alison nodded, not trusting herself to speak, but Kíli's features softened, and he leaned forward and briefly pressed his lips to her forehead, before he pulled back, gave her his signature half-smirk and a wink, and then he was gone, making for the barge and taking with him the phantom feel of his lips and warmth on her skin, and leaving her with the clasp in her hand and an unidentifiable feeling in her veins.

And that was how she stood, watching the Company load up and wishing for hot chocolate as the chill settled back in, until a tap on her shoulder made her turn, and she looked up into the grim face of Bard, though his eyes were somewhat pitying when she met his gaze.

"I brought the horse for you," he said, raising his voice as trumpets began to blare, heralding the Master's arrival as the ginger-haired, greasy Man began to ascend the stairs to the rickety platform, waving and smiling indulgently, and Alison nodded. "I'll be there in a minute. I want to see them off first."

Bard nodded back and proceeded to melt into the crowd, and Alison watched the Company as the trumpets continued to play, though the song was out of tune and it was apparent no one really knew how to play the instruments as they blew shrilly and off-key. She stopped, puzzled, though, when she noticed that Fíli was storming off of the barge, heading to a place where Kíli and Óin were sitting, Kíli looking devastated and Fíli angry, and then her eyes traveled over to Thorin, who watched the group on the docks with an expression that seemed to cut deep into her skin, and she wondered what was going on as something tugged at her memory, yanking her thoughts hard as if she were forgetting something important...

The Master began to speak behind her, his voice droning on in some elaborate and turgid speech, as Alison struggled to remember why she was feeling as if something was off...

She looked back over to the barge, and at the same moment, Thorin seemed to look at her; their eyes locked across the crowd, blue against green, conflicted against confused, and in that moment, lightning arced down Alison's spine as she finally recalled what she was searching for.

"There will be a battle," she said softly, her voice quiet and subdued in the small room of Bard's house as everyone sat around her, watching and listening intently as she divulged the secret that had kept her up for nights on end. "A great and terrible battle before the end, before the peace and glory of Erebor is truly restored."

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

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

"No," Alison whispered, her veins freezing over as she realized that they were about to leave, that Thorin was about to leave, unknowing of what awaited him in the Mountain, of what his fate would ultimately bring upon all of them, and Alison felt like screaming, wondering why on earth she didn't tell him, why she didn't tell Fíli and Kíli what would happen in the battle, and she suddenly felt sick, her stomach cramping and her heart pounding, and before she was even fully aware of what she was doing, she was sprinting to the barge, terror seizing her body, and, not even caring that the Master was still giving his speech, she screamed, "Thorin! Thorin!"

She heard the Master's voice falter behind her, but it picked up again, still dutifully plowing on, but she had captured the townsfolk's attention, and she could feel their eyes boring into her back and hear their shocked and curious whispers as she kept running, until she was right up to the barge and everyone in it was staring at her with wide eyes and weird expressions, as if she had lost her mind.

"Thorin," she said, panicked. "Thorin, please, I need to talk to you before you go-"

"What is wrong with you, girl?" he said, using his I-don't-feel-like-talking-to-you-right-now-so-go-away-for-Mahal's-sake voice, but she was undeterred, shooting him an annoyed glare.

"Thorin, please, it's important," she insisted, trying not to lose her cool. "It's something about the quest-"

"If it involves that silly story of yours, I don't want to hear it," he said flatly, cutting her off. "I will not hang the fate of this quest on a pre-determined tale. You said so yourself things are not exactly the same here as they are in the story, so you'll excuse me if I'm not interested-"

"I know what I said!" she snapped, her temper flaring along with her nerves. "But it's something I didn't say before, and I should have, but I was stupid and afraid-"

"Alison," he interrupted sharply. "We have a quest to go on, and so do you. I'm sure whatever it is can wait until we get back-"

"God, you don't get it," she said angrily, and that put an abrupt stop to his sentence as she blurted out unrestrainedly, "Thorin, I'm trying to tell you that you might not come back at all!"

There was a moment of deathly silence, in which everyone on the barge stared at her with varying expressions of confusion and fright, but Thorin's face had drained entirely of color, and she met his eyes, unflinching, giving him a silent request through her gaze.

As if he wasn't entirely in control of his movements, Thorin clambered out of the barge and walked to her side, and with a last glance at the shocked Company, she led him near the edge of the docks where there weren't any people, and when she turned around to face him, his face had regained a little color, though his voice was hoarse as he said, "Explain. Now."

Alison swallowed hard, wondering how she was supposed to do this, and she felt something twisting in her gut until Thorin said, "Is it... Is it about me?"

She nodded slowly, not breaking eye contact with him as something jumped in his jaw, and finally, she managed to choke out, "You will die, Thorin. That battle I told you about, after the quest is over..."

He said nothing, fixing his gaze on a spot over her shoulder, and Alison was frightened to see that his expression had gone completely blank; there was no panic, no fear, or anger or anything; it was like he had been carved from stone, and words flowed out of Alison's mouth, finding that she had to keep talking, to explain, to say something that would get this terrible frozen expression off of his face.

"I meant to tell you, I swear, but I thought I was going with you to Erebor up to this point, and then everything with Nadia's journal and Johnathan, and I didn't want to tell you before when we first met because I thought something horrible was going to happen if I shared my foresight with you all or whatever the hell it is, and I kept telling myself that I still had time to tell you, but now we're here and you're about to leave and Thorin, please say something, you're scaring me, Thorin, please-"

"The gold-sickness?" he said, cutting through her rambling, and his voice was as devoid of emotion as his face, sending a shiver down her spine, though it was understandable after the bombshell she had just dropped on him.

"Wha-what about it?" she stammered, thrown off a bit by his flat and empty tone, and then his eyes shifted to her, and she felt a blow to her gut.

The icy depths were fragmented and pained, and there was a culmination of so many different emotions swirling within the pieces that Alison was breathless just looking at them, but she only listened as Thorin went on, his voice now more ragged as he forced out, "In the battle...will the- will the cause of my death?"

The last word came out hushed, and Alison was hit with an overwhelming sadness and a fierce desire to protect all at once. Even though Thorin was afraid (he'd be a fool not to be), Alison still saw that he was trying to hold on to something besides the despair she saw plainly in his features, and she knew then how brave and unwavering Thorin was; he wasn't accepting of his fate, but neither was he disregarding her completely, and in that moment Alison saw everything good in him she always tended to overlook, everything pure and just and honorable and everything that made up him, Thorin Oakenshield, the dwarf, the king-in-exile, the real, solid, living, breathing person before her, not the character in the book. This was the real Thorin, the one who stood, afraid but unwavering before her, and the one that not everyone would see and know back in the mortal world, not like her.

And standing with him then, she knew that blunt honesty was the way to go; dwarves did not sugarcoat, they did not offer words of comfort beyond what they could give; they told you straight up how it was, no matter how hard or painful it would be to hear, and Alison suddenly gained a whole new appreciation for dwarves' brutal honesty as she met his eyes again.

"Not outright," she admitted. "But it will cloud your judgment, influence you by greed, and it will make you set off a chain of events that can hinder the end to this quest in a lot of ways."

He closed his eyes briefly, clenching his fists at his sides, and Alison was suddenly afraid that he was about to snap and go into a rage, but when he opened his eyes, they were suddenly clear again; haunted, but clear, and they shone like blue fire as they locked onto her face with a steely determination and ferocity that caused a smile to creep across her lips despite the circumstances.

"What must I do?" he said, and his voice came out strong and steady and commanding, the voice of the person that she had followed under for all these months - the voice of her King.

"I can't tell you how to fight this, Thorin," she said, choosing her words carefully. "All I can tell you is to be strong; for the sake of everything you have ever held dear in your life, for the sake of every last man, woman, and child you have saved from dragonfire and exile, for all of those you will give a new life to in the future and give glory and prosperity to once more, for anything - just be strong, and fight it."

It wasn't the best inspirational speech by a long shot, and there was probably more she could have - should have - said, but it seemed to do the trick for Thorin. He didn't say anything in return, or look any different after her words, but Alison could tell something within him had changed, and she began to feel a seedling of hope that he could overcome this, that he would not wreak havoc on the quest all of them had given up so much for because of a few pieces of gold and a fancy jewel.

"Alison," he said, and she blinked, looking back to him and realizing that she had gotten sidetracked with her thoughts, and she heard the Master's droning voice in the distance, sounding like he was coming to a close with his speech, but she turned her attention back to Thorin when he continued, saying lowly, "I need to know... What about everyone else? Fíli and Kíli...?"

Just when she felt as if her heart was lighter after dumping most of the weight she had been carrying on it off after telling Thorin his fate, it plummeted like a stone once more, but Alison shoved the wretchedness away, meeting his eyes head-on as she said, "The others live. But Fíli and Kíli..."

And she explained to him of how they would die, defending him to their last breath on the battlefield after he had been mortally wounded. It was hard to force the words out, but Alison knew that Thorin had to know, so he could protect them, so that he would know of what his future actions might potentially cause. And though his face became ashen and waxy and he did not speak for several long minutes as the crowd cheered exuberantly in the background, he finally said, his voice steady, "If by my life or death, I can spare them, then I will. I will not forsake them, and I will not let them fall even if I should do so myself. I swear it."

He said it more to himself than to her, and Alison smiled gently, ignoring the pit in her stomach as she touched his arm reassuringly, saying nonetheless, "Keep faith, Thorin. Just...keep faith."

He didn't respond, but he did reach up and place one of his hands over hers on his arm, bowing his head to her slightly, and the change in his attitude and demeanor since she had first led him over here were striking, but it gave her hope, regardless.

The trumpets began to shriek and blare behind them again, and Thorin scowled, though he squeezed her hand once last time, and said, in the gentlest voice he had ever used with her, "Until next we meet, Alison Ashburne. Good luck, and safe journey."

"Same to you, Thorin Oakenshield," she said, grinning at how noble she sounded, almost, and then they walked back together to the barge, where everyone still stared at her as if she had suggested they swim across the icy lake to the Mountain instead.

But she waved to them and smiled, nevertheless, trying not to feel as if she were waving off their funeral party as the Master said from behind her, "Go now with our good will, and may your return bring fortune to all!"

And with that, the crowd positively roared, and Thorin, being the last one on, pushed off from the dock, tossing the ropes back onto the wood as the others took up the oars on either side of the barge and began to row down the canal. She met Bilbo's eyes as they drifted away, and she held his gaze until the barge passed out of sight down the canal and the rising sunlight became too bright to see past.

Once the barge passed out of sight, the crowd began to disperse, talking loudly and excitedly as they trickled back down the streets to resume their jobs and lives, and Alison turned away from the spot where the Company had disappeared, fighting the tears that pricked her eyes as she resigned herself to go find Bard and the horse that awaited her. Soon it would just be her, with nothing but her weapons, supplies, and mount, on her way to confront Johnathan at Dol Guldur and put a stop to this Evil before it happened.

She began to walk back, away from the docks, when she heard a voice yell, "Wait!" and suddenly she was plowed into by a heavy, solid weight that sent her sprawling to the ground, grunting in surprise and some pain when the new weapons she had acquired dug into her skin from her fall, and she knew those were going to bruise as she looked up, about to chew out whoever had so carelessly knocked into her, when she stopped upon recognizing Bofur standing above her, staring down the canal with a crestfallen expression and smelling suspiciously of alcohol.

"Bofur?" she said in bafflement, and at the sound of her voice, the hatted dwarf looked down and seemingly noticed her, though he still looked heartbroken.

"Oh, lass, I'm sorry," he said, offering a hand and helping her up, but Alison waved him off as she brushed off her new clothes, looking at him in bewilderment.

"What are you doing here?" she asked. "Shouldn't you be on the boat with the others?"

A slightly abashed expression crossed his face, but he didn't answer as he caught sight of something over her shoulder, and his face brightened as he grabbed her wrist and pulled her along with him, saying, "Did you miss the boat, as well?"

"What are you talking about?" she said as the dwarf dragged her along. "We already established I'm going after Johnathan-"

But she stopped talking abruptly when she realized Bofur wasn't talking to her at all, and her eyes landed on Fíli, Kíli, and Óin, still on the dock, and definitely not on the boat to Erebor.

"Wait, what is going on?" she demanded, as the three dwarves looked up at her and Bofur's approach. "Why are you not on the boat? You should be on the boat."

"It's a long story," Fíli said, at the same time as Óin explained, "Kíli's sick."

Alison turned to the healer dwarf, her heart skipping a beat when she heard how grave he sounded, and her dread heightened when he looked at her with a somber expression and repeated, "He's very sick."

Alison looked down to where Kíli was sitting, hunched over, and she noticed with some alarm that in the short time she had been away from him, his face had become paler, like sour milk, and his eyes more hooded and shadowed, and her heart squeezed as she looked back to Óin and asked, "Is he going to be all right?"

No one answered her, and ice began to coat her stomach the longer she looked at Kíli, seemingly on the verge of collapsing between his brother and Óin, and she bit her lip so hard it hurt, her concern mounting higher the longer she stood there, trying to tell herself to go and get on the road, but her body was in disagreement with her mind and stood, rooted to the spot instead.

"Alison!" A voice called, and with difficulty, she tore her eyes away from Kíli's hunched frame to see Bard jogging over to her, waving his hand. "Alison, there you are," he said when he neared. "I've been waiting with the horse. I thought you were leaving immediately after the dwarves were sent off?" Then he caught sight of the four dwarves on the dock, and his brows knitted in confusion. "Or, the majority of them, at least."

Alison was suddenly struck with an idea as she looked from Bard to Kíli, trying to think of an answer for that, but what came out instead was, "Can you take care of them?"

"What?" Bard, Fíli, and Bofur said in unison, and Alison rolled her eyes. Really, is this such a hard concept to understand?

"Kíli's sick," she said, gazing at Bard imploringly. "And you're a friend, with a house that he could really use right now. Please, Bard," she persisted, as the bargeman opened his mouth to protest. "You don't even have to pay for a healer, Óin can take care of him, but he needs a place to stay, and I trust you. Please, Bard. That's my only request of you before I go off to Dol Guldur."

She had trapped him there, and he knew it. It was a card she would never have played if she wasn't desperate enough, but she was, and, looking at Kíli's trembling, sickly frame, she felt as if she were justified enough to use such a thing to her advantage.

Bard narrowed his eyes, and she knew that he did not miss the fact of what she had just pulled on him, confirming her suspicions when he said, "That was low. But..." He sighed, shaking his head, and Alison held her breath as he looked at the sky, saying, "I told myself I was done with dwarves." Alison's heart sank, but then it seemed to lift right up again as he said, "But I'm not too cold to turn away from those in need.

"Come on," Bard said to the dwarves. "We should get him out of the chill and tend to that wound of his. I know a shortcut from here to the house we can use so he doesn't have to exert himself too much."

"Thank you, Bard," she whispered, as the dwarves hastened to do what he said, and the bargeman gave her a slight smile, dulling his frown-lines and giving him a schoolboy-ish look as he dipped his head.

"I can take care of them until they're ready to join their kinsmen," he said, and they watched the small group for a moment until Bard spoke again. "You should get going, Alison. After all, the world needs saving."

She gave him a dry look as he grinned wryly, and she said, "I can't be rid of that easily, you know." He chuckled at this, but she went on, saying, "You're right, though. It's time for me to put a stop to this before it starts."

"Then may you journey well and safe," he said, becoming serious once more. "And I wish you all the luck in the world."

"Thanks," she said quietly, and after giving him one last smile, she approached the four dwarves, who looked up when she neared, save for Kíli, who stared at the ground as if he wished to pass out and lay down upon it right then and there.

Alison cleared her throat and said, "Well...this is goodbye, then. For now, I guess."

Since she had already said her farewells to the other three, she wasn't stung when it was only Bofur who jumped up and grabbed her into another rib-cracking hug, wishing her good luck and promising a good barrel of ale to share when she returned. Then he let go, and with one last, lingering look at all of them, particularly Kíli, whose condition was honestly starting to frighten her, she said a few more farewells and turned away, making for the place where Bard said he had put her horse.

She was halfway across the docks, when a sudden, strong gust of freezing air blew across the lake, and Alison smarted as a few tiny pricks of ice cut across her cheek; not enough to draw blood, but she still touched her hand to her face, her breath hissing through her teeth from the stinging pain, but it was suddenly forgotten as a voice seemed to rise out of the depths of her mind, curling around her brain like a cold, slithering snake and sending poison into her veins as it spoke with a hauntingly familiar voice.

"Poor, poor Alison," it cooed, in a sickeningly sweet, mock sympathetic tone, and Alison felt something hot and angry rise within her as she recognized Johnathan's voice; though if she was imagining it or he was somehow speaking to her over such a distance, she didn't know. And she didn't care, quite frankly, only feeling anger flood every pore in her body as his voice continued to mock her. "Abandoning your friends in their hour of need, only to run the other way on a quest you know in your heart you will fail. You know what awaits your precious Company in that Mountain; sickness and death. And you are leaving them to that fate, all because of a simple grudge."

"Get the hell out of my head," she snarled back at the voice, but it only laughed, faint and chilling, and she shivered involuntarily because it was Johnathan's laugh.

"Grudges are dangerous for people like us, Alison," the voice continued, and it took everything she could to keep walking, to not break pace, even though it felt like a civil war was raging on inside of her head. "We become fixated on the path to revenge, riveted with the thought of seeing the destruction of the one who betrayed us. It makes us forget who is really there for us, allows us to forsake the bonds we spent so much time creating. Vengeance for me will not save your friends."

"I said, get out of my damn head!" Johnathan's voice laughed again, and Alison came to a halt, wondering if she had finally lost it and was going crazy as the voice spoke up again.

"They will all die," he said, and his voice was no longer lilting and soft, but the voice of the traitor who had held a knife to her throat, the voice she had heard in her dream, dark and loathing and dangerous; the voice of a killer. "They will die, and you will be the cause of it, because you abandoned them for a hopeless pursuit. How cowardly of you, cousin, how...pathetic."

Alison fought the urge to scream out loud, biting down on her tongue so hard she tasted blood, but her mind was whirling; she knew it was just Johnathan messing with her, playing on her fears God knows how, but she couldn't stop the doubt and the fear, and the feeling that he was...right, flooding through her.

She knew what was going to happen next; Smaug was going to destroy Lake-town, an army would march upon the Lonely Mountain, and Thorin, Fíli, and Kíli were going to die. Even if she had warned Thorin of his and his nephews' fates, there was no guarantee that he would be able to fight the gold-sickness and see reason, that he could overcome the disease and not lead everyone she had grown to love into a needless battle; and Kíli was on death's door already, it seemed, and she was suddenly terrified that Johnathan was right. She was abandoning her friends, her family, when they needed her most. She had turned her back on them, and now they were going to suffer.

"Weak," Johnathan's voice said. "You are weak, Alison Ashburne, and you know nothing of the world if you think you can save your friends and defeat the Darkness both. You are weak, and you will fall either way."

Alison clenched her fists, flinching when something sharp dug into her palm and broke the skin, drawing blood, and she raised her hand, opening her fingers to reveal Kíli's clasp, one corner stained with a drop of red blood, and seeing it seemed to tear Alison in half, because she already knew the answer to the silent question she was asking herself: Johnathan or your friends? Johnathan or your friends?

Johnathan's voice laughed again, sharp and sneering, and Alison closed her fist around the clasp again, knowing that Johnathan already knew what she was about to do as tears of rage stung her eyes and her hands began to tremble - or maybe they already had been, and she hadn't noticed until then.

"Shut up, bastard," she growled out loud as his voice receded into the pits of her mind, and then disappeared entirely. "This isn't over. I'm still coming after you, and when I do, you'll be dead."

And with that, Alison turned her back on Johnathan and Dol Guldur, and instead followed after her friends, and as she went she could imagine Johnathan's mocking laugh in the wind, and she wondered if she had just made the mistake that would end the world.

Author's Note

I loss esgal ti rein... Mal ú-ti angol - (Legolas) Sindarin; "The snow has covered their trail...but not their stench" (lit.) "The snow cover(ed) the track...but not [their] stench."

Náto - (Tauriel) Sindarin; "Agreed" (lit.) "It is that" (a way to agree)

Im-tangada ha thia lad ir-hain gwao - (Tauriel) Sindarin; "I think it is obvious where they are heading" (lit.) "I [confirm/establish] it plain where they [to go/are going]"

Tolo - (Tauriel) Sindarin; "Come"

Úlairi - Sindarin; "Ringwraiths/Nazgûl"

Mellon - (Is this really necessary to be here?) (Tauriel) Sindarin; "Friend"

Cenda - (Legolas) Sindarin; "Watch out"

Amadinh - (Fíli) Khuzdûl; "Mother" (or, more accurately, one of the derivatives of mother; I always thought this one sounded cooler, though)

Whew, sorry for all the translations, but I felt like this chapter needed it. Speaking of this chapter, this was honestly a whirlwind to write; SO MUCH EMOTION AND ANGST AND UGH. But anyway. Pardon my French, but I'm just putting this out there; if you couldn't already tell, shit gets real from here on out. I feel like this chapter was a turning point for a lot of characters and for the story itself, so you can expect some pretty intense chapters starting from here. And that's my note on that.

And since this was eating me alive, I'm going to put this here: Since the Filison break up, a lot of concerns have been raised over the love potential of this story. And while I can't say who the happy coupling (if they'll even be happy *wait what*) will be at the end of this, I would like to say yes, there is still going to be that romance aspect. Seriously. The second genre isn't 'romance' for nothing, haha.

Anyway, a big thank you for all the amazing and inquisitive reviews last time, and especially to my new favorites/followers, as well! So if you would be so kind as to leave a review for this chapter (c'mon, make my last week of school awesome), and just let me know what you thought! Anything you liked, disliked, are looking forward to? (You know you want to...)

Thanks again, lovelies! Until next chapter...

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Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered book publisher, offering an online community for talented authors and book lovers. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books you love the most based on crowd wisdom.