The March of Time

36: The Desolation of Smaug

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

Quick A/N: ...I got nothing. All I have to say is that now summer is here, updating should get better, and I'm going to start posting two chapters per week from here on, probably every Tuesday and Saturday. No guarantees, though, so don't come after me with a pitchfork if I miss an update. Anyway, read on, dear readers, and enjoy!

Chapter Thirty-Six: The Desolation of Smaug

Despite now having four dwarves to worry about, and one of them being gravely ill, Bard didn't have much to do once they were all back in his house.

The sick dwarf's brother, the light-haired fellow, and the dwarf with the ridiculous hat had supported the dark-haired one all through the alleys while Bard had led them through a winding yet quick shortcut, and once they were in the house, Bard had given up his own bed for the dwarf and stood by uncertainly while the healer one with the terrible hearing had gone straight to work, force-feeding a foul-smelling poultice he had made into the dwarf's mouth and then cleaning and redressing the wound on his thigh.

When the healer had carefully peeled away the swath of bandages covering the wound, Bard's stomach had curled uncomfortably and an awful smell hit his nostrils, one that reminded him nauseatingly of dead flesh and other foul things before he had volunteered to get boiling water and hurried away.

While heating the water in the fireplace, Bard repressed a shudder at the image of the wound now imprinted to his brain, and he wondered where the dwarf had gotten such an injury, for it was nothing like he had ever seen before; ragged and ugly, puckered and warped with twisting black tendrils... Bard ignored the shiver that slipped down his spine, preparing the now-boiling water and fervently thanking the Valar that his children were not in the house to see something like that.

But as he passed the water to the healer dwarf, he decided to add that question to the growing list of things he would be asking Alison upon her return; he was tired of being kept in the dark, and even though he knew Alison had told him the truth, he sensed that there was much more to this than anyone was letting on, which only unnerved him and made him feel slightly offended, as if he wasn't important enough to know all of the information.

He shook those thoughts off, though, instead crossing back into the kitchen and bracing his hands on the counter by the window, looking out upon an early morning sky streaked with pink and wondering if Alison had made it out of Lake-town yet.

Having her go off on her own to confront her sadistic, backstabbing "cousin" had been hard enough to swallow to begin with, but now that she was truly gone, he felt worry gnawing at him like a bone, and he began to wonder what had ever come over him in allowing him to agree with such an idea in the first place. Alison Ashburne was not like a daughter or a niece to him by a long shot, considering the brief time they had known each other, and she was barely a friend, but still Bard worried like a father for her, knowing that she was walking straight into the arms of the enemy and banking on her status as a Hero and Johnathan and his Master's leniency in order to get close enough to bring them down; so to put it in blank terms, he was terrified for the girl.

And not to mention that in just a few days, Lake-town could possibly be burning and Smaug would possibly be destroying them all, and Bard was to make sure that didn't happen because he was supposed to kill the thing with a Black Arrow like he did it before breakfast every day.

Well. Alison Ashburne did know how to leave a lasting impression, didn't she?

He was pulled out of his thoughts when the sound of thundering footsteps on the porch stairs could be heard, and, thinking it was one of his children, he strode to open the door for them, but was taken aback when it suddenly crashed open and Alison Ashburne herself stalked in, fury swirling in a palpable cloud around her.

"Finally," she said exasperatedly, coming to a stop in his living room, and Bard noticed the dwarves staring at her with wide eyes and slack jaws from the sick one's bedside as she looked around, unfazed by their reactions. "It took me ages to find my way back to this place."

"What - how - I don't - haven't you ever heard of knocking?" Bard spluttered, blinking rapidly as if he were in some sort of bizarre dream. He had seen her leave, had watched her walk away - why was she back?

Alison snorted derisively, rolling her eyes. "Out of everything that could be said right now, you go with that? Really?"

"I'm sorry, would you like me to be more specific?" Bard shot back, bristling at her tone; Hero or not, she was still young enough to be his daughter, and at this point, his fatherly instincts could not be quashed as he met her glare head-on. "I saw you leave an hour ago! What are you doing back here, and, on a side note, did my front door really deserve to be violated like that?"

She opened her mouth to retort something scathing, but their increasingly heated and sarcastic conversation was interrupted by the blonde dwarf, who said in a much calmer tone despite his staring eyes, "Alison, why are you here? Did something happen?"

With a last look that clearly read We'll finish this later, Alison turned to face the dwarves, her expression softening a fraction, but Bard noticed how wound up she looked, her muscles coiled under her clothes and her eyes red-rimmed and bloodshot, as if she'd been crying, and he wondered what had happened to her in the short amount of time they had parted before she took a deep breath and explained.

"I know I shouldn't be here," she said, fingers fidgeting with the hem of her coat. "But...I realized something before I left, and I'm pretty pissed about it, actually, because I should've realized it sooner." She met everyone's eyes in the room, even the sick dwarf's, who finally must have noticed something was off as he stared at Alison intently despite his pain. "But I told all of you a long time ago, at the beginning of this quest, that I don't leave people behind, strangers or not, and I intend to keep my word about that. But once Kíli is healed and Smaug is dead, I also intend to go after Johnathan still, but not until I know that all of you are safe, or as safe as you can be until I stop this battle."

No one said anything for a long moment, but Bard was suddenly certain that he was not the only person who was put off by Alison's proclamation when he took in the blonde dwarf's slightly narrowed gaze and the brunet one, Kíli's, troubled frown. Or maybe that was just a grimace of pain.

But either way, Bard sensed that Alison was not telling them something, and the feeling began to itch at him until she broke the silence, walking over to the bed where Kíli lay and turning to the healer dwarf, saying in a slightly louder voice, "What's wrong with him, Óin? You said he was sick, but with what?"

Óin shook his head as Bard came to stand by Alison, his expression still as grave as when they had been on the docks as he said, "The arrow he was shot with was poisoned. With what, I can't say; but it is in his bloodstream now, though I will try to heal him to the best of my ability."

Alison stiffened, looking down in shock at the dwarf as Bard mouthed wordlessly beside her, feeling completely lost again.

"You make it sound as if I'm already on my deathbed," Kíli complained half-heartedly from his position on the bed, and his brother rolled his eyes as the hatted dwarf snorted.

"Wow, mortally wounded and you still whine," Alison said, smirking down at him, but her eyes were still tight, and the brunet gave her a weak grin until Bard finally found his voice again.

"Wait," he said, holding up his hands, and everyone turned to look at him while he tried to squash down the feeling of being out of the loop once more. "What on earth went on with you lot to result in him getting shot by a poisoned arrow? I thought you just ran into a spot of trouble with the Forest River, not -" He waved his hand at the dwarf while the five of them shared an uncomfortable glance, which only grated on his nerves even more until Alison turned to him.

"Yeah, well, that's one way to put it," she said, sounding awkward as Bard stared at her. "I mean, if Orcs can be counted as 'a spot of trouble.'"

"By the Valar," Bard said, his eyes widening. "Orcs?"

They all shared an uneasy look again before the hatted one spoke up, sounding far too cheery as he said, "Aye; they've been following us ever since the Misty Mountains. Well, first it was one group, but then they went away south until a new group came and ambushed us while we were-"

"Yes, thank you, Bofur," the blonde dwarf said loudly, cutting off the other's sentence as Bard shook his head, a dull pain beginning to emanate from his temples that his wife used to call his 'over thinking ache,' just so she could get a disgruntled look out of him that would make her laugh, only Bard didn't find it funny now.

"And one of these Orcs shot him?" he said, struggling to comprehend, and Alison nodded.

"Yeah, a big, ugly brute with some iron thing implanted in his head or something; he was huge, almost like this one other -" She abruptly stopped, a strange look crossing her face before understanding lit in her eyes and she swore. "Son of a bitch. I knew that Orc looked familiar!"

"What are you talking about?" Bard asked, torn between feeling offended at her vulgar language or amused at it as he watched her tug on her braid in frustration.

"Didn't Azog have a son?" she asked the dwarves, ignoring Bard, and they all looked at her blankly.

"Uh, I don't know," the light-haired one said. "That's also something I'd prefer not to think about, though."

"It's Bolg, then. It has to be." She said, shaking her head.

"Who are we talking about?" Bard cut in, frustrated. "Who's Bolg?"

"A character from the story," she answered, waving a hand, and Bard's gut pinched at the mention of the story. "He was the one who led the Orc and goblin armies in the battle, I think, but that doesn't make any sense now; he wouldn't have come after us unless..."

"Azog is the one who will be leading the army," the blonde dwarf finished, his face paling a bit, and Alison nodded slowly, her eyes now looking even more haunted than they did before.

"And that means that Bolg is still out there, possibly looking for us," she concluded, and the house fell into silence once more while Bard's heart thumped uncomfortably.

"Or maybe they retreated?" Bofur suggested hopefully. "I mean, it'd be a waste of their time to circle around the whole lake for us, especially since they know how close we are to the Mountain and that we could've left as soon as we got here; they'd be even more hare-brained than I thought if they kept up looking for us."

"Maybe you're right, Bofur," Alison said uncertainly. "But I don't know."

The house fell into silence once more, until finally it became too oppressive for Bard and he shook his head, taking a step back.

"Well, before all of this gets any stranger, I'm going to make some breakfast," he said, and then he turned to Alison with a meaningful look. "I could use some help, though."

She must've noticed the meaning behind the gaze, for she stifled a sigh and nodded, her red eyes wary as she followed Bard into the kitchen around the corner.

They worked silently for a few moments, setting out dishes and food, until Bard broke it, saying in a low voice, "I think you already know what I'm going to say about you being back here."

She didn't look up from her task of cracking eggs into a bowl, but she replied, just as softly, "And I think you already know what my answer will be to whatever you have to say."

Bard bit back a frustrated remark, forcing himself to be calm as he said, "Then I trust you already know that I don't believe you when you say you are here because of your word to them." He turned to stare at her, hard, while she diligently began whisking the eggs, not meeting his eyes. "Something happened, Alison, after we parted ways from the docks. I don't know what could've happened in such a short amount of time, but all I know is that it changed your mind about going after Johnathan. I don't doubt your heart is in the right place, but is one sick dwarf really more important than putting an end to all of this?"

She stopped beating the eggs and looked up to him, and once again he was taken aback by how haunted she looked, though now that he was closer, he could see that there was anger behind her eyes, as well, and he only listened as she hissed, "You have a family, Bard, so don't pretend you don't understand! My own family is a world away, but while I'm here, these dwarves have a place in my heart just as my own family does! I can't abandon them; not now, and you of all people should understand that!"

Bard blinked at her sudden harsh tone, but he listened as she went on, clenching her jaw. "I don't need to justify my actions to you, or to anyone, but if it makes you feel better, then know that I do still plan on going after Johnathan, and when I do, I will rip his miserable little heart out of his chest."

Immediately she paled as Bard gaped, and she suddenly looked nauseous as she gripped the counter with white knuckles. "I'm - I'm sorry. I didn't mean - I would never... I'm not like that, I swear."

She whispered this last part, staring down at the eggs she had been beating as Bard watched her eyes well with tears and slowly begin to trickle down her face, her shoulders hunching and her hands beginning to shake.

"I don't know why I said that," she said, so quietly Bard had to lean in to hear her. "I would never..." She took a ragged breath, her hands still trembling. "Killing Orcs is one thing, but killing another human being... I don't know if I can do it. I know it's the only way to stop Johnathan, but I'm afraid of doing it, because what if I can't? What if I can't do it, and then everyone will suffer because of me, because I was too weak to put an end to him?"

She clamped a hand over her mouth then, her shoulders heaving with suppressed sobs, and Bard didn't know what else to do besides put a comforting arm around her and stroke her hair gently, glad that they were concealed from the dwarves' sight or else he would feel distinctly awkward as he shushed her reassuringly as he did to Tilda whenever she had nightmares.

"Not being able to kill someone is not a sign of weakness," he said after a while, once her tremors had lessened and he couldn't hear her muffled sobs anymore. "Killing the villain is not as glorified as all the legends will have you believe; but you have to decide for yourself whether it is worth it, to either rid the world of this evil, or to let it continue on and allow things to become worse. There is no right or wrong choice when it comes to this, Alison, not when dealing with life or death. This is a choice solely for you and whatever your gut tells you."

He wasn't sure whether that got the point across or not, never having to deal with this sort of situation before, but when she finally stilled, he figured he had at least given her something to think about.

Unfortunately, he had done the same thing to himself.

This is only the beginning. There is still a long and perilous road ahead before we reach the ending of this darkness. And if I have guessed anything correctly about Johnathan Ashburne, then I'm sure he will make it quite the spectacle...

It was strange, in Bilbo's eyes, that after so many months of traveling and adventure, with their destination on the horizon yet so distant at the same time, to finally be on the doorstep of their journey's end, to finally be at the Lonely Mountain, Erebor, that he had heard so much about to the point where it stirred something in him much the same as the sound of 'Rivendell' and 'the Shire' did.

The Company, much smaller than it had been before, walked in a single-file line across a rocky-soiled plain, dense grey clouds hanging low above them and bringing with them a chilly fog and a sharp breeze from the north.

Swathed in many layers of clothes, both from the package he had received from the Master of Lake-town and from Bard, and with his thick-soled, hairy feet, Bilbo found that he was not that cold at all despite the season and the climate, yet it took him a while to pinpoint why exactly he was shivering anyway. And then he remembered.

His small shivers were not from the chill or the damp at all, but rather from nerves, both parts anticipation and dread.

Anticipation, of course, for finally reaching their end goal, for making it all the way from the West into the East; yet dread was beginning to settle in, for reaching the Mountain also meant that the time had come for what Bilbo had been roped into this quest to begin with - to burgle a dragon.

He tried not to imagine what Smaug would be like when he entered the Mountain, but the echoes of Bofur's description from that night in his dining room so long ago refused to leave him alone, until finally he shoved everything to the back of his mind and pressed on after the marching Thorin and Balin in front of him, refusing to fall prey to his anxious imaginings again.

The plain they were on gradually began to slope upwards, and after a few more hours of hiking, Thorin allowed them a brief respite.

Bilbo sank to the ground with relief, wincing a bit as his muscles pinched, though it was nothing like what he had experienced before when they had first set out on their journey. It seemed the long weeks of walking, running, climbing and all the other sorts they had done had finally paid off, giving him an extra boost of endurance he hadn't realized he needed before until now, and somehow it made him feel a tad homesick.

But not more so than eating, however, as he began to unpack the measly rations in his pack. That was one of the most noticeable differences Bilbo could detect.

Hobbits were known for their robustness and their love of food, and while Bilbo loved food as much as the next hobbit, he had always been on the slimmer side of the tree. But he had retained a respectable amount of portliness until their adventure; lack of food from many a night and infrequent meals (at least, compared to hobbit standards) had resulted in him becoming leaner and a hair more shapely, something he wasn't quite sure how to feel about yet.

He pondered this in silence as he ate the rationed lunch of jerky and dried fruit, swallowing it down with a few sips from his water-skin as the other dwarves ate quietly around him, too tired to talk and laugh merrily yet, despite being in the shadow of the mountain, though Bilbo knew their spirits would raise the closer they got.

The only person not sitting on the ground and eating was Thorin, and Bilbo watched him for a moment as he stood, tall and proud, gazing around the landscape with trained eyes as the rest finished their meals and started packing up to move on.

Ever since that morning, Bilbo had noticed a change in the dwarf, though he had yet to put his finger on the exact reason why. Obviously it had something to do with Alison pulling him aside to talk before they left, yet when Thorin got back on the barge, pale in the face but looking more determined than ever, no one had asked him about it, and he had not told. In fact, he had hardly spoken at all, but Bilbo had come to realize a long time ago that Thorin was not a person of many words, and he had learned, even more recently, that he was perfectly content with the king-in-exile being like that.

His thoughts were interrupted when Thorin turned around and ordered them to move on, and Bilbo followed the others, swinging his bedroll and pack over his shoulders once more and falling into his place between Balin and Dwalin as they continued their hike up the mountain.

After a few more hours of plodding along in silence, there was the sudden sound of scattering rocks from up ahead, and Bilbo looked up, pushing his sweaty, overlong curls out of his eyes to see Thorin sprinting to the top of a ridge they had come upon before stopping and planting his drawn sword tip into the ground, gazing out over the ridge with a look of tantalizing familiarity on his face.

The rest of the Company quickened their pace and followed him, coming to the top of the ridge and stopping in amazement at what was before them. Curious, Bilbo took a place between Thorin and Balin, and he felt his breath catch in his throat at what was before them.

In a valley below, resting in the shadow of the mountain, was what looked like to Bilbo a city; though the many stone buildings and towers had collapsed, and the ones that were still standing looked old and dilapidated, even from this distance, Bilbo could still tell it was a shell of a former city. But what captured his attention more so was the land around the city in the valley; instead of it being lush with greens and fields, it was cold and rocky and unforgiving, dusted with clouds of ash that stirred in the wind and dotted with a few stunted trees, and beyond that was the Lonely Mountain itself, its peak crowned with snow and looking far more looming and formidable than ever before.

"What is this place?" Bilbo breathed, his sharp eyes raking back over the ruined landscape. He felt Thorin tense beside him, but it was Balin who answered in a grim tone, under-lied with something else Bilbo couldn't detect.

"It was once the city of Dale," he said, not taking his dark eyes off of the valley below them. "But now it is a ruin; the Desolation of Smaug."

There was a brief moment of silence after this, until Thorin spoke up, saying, "Our best chance of finding the hidden door is on the western spur, near the Front Gate." He pointed to the left, where Bilbo could make out the flowing waters of the River Running and something that looked like a statue hewn out of the Mountain itself. "We can follow the outskirts of the valley, approaching from the east -" he traced his finger around the rim of the valley. "Or... going through Dale could save us at least half a day's travel."

He let that hang in the air, and Bilbo looked around at all of the dwarves, noting the unease on their faces and their shuffling feet, and Bilbo felt his own apprehension rise at the thought of walking through those abandoned streets in the shadow of a mountain occupied by a dragon.

But before he could voice his concerns, Balin said, "We will need all the time we can get if we want to find this door before sundown tomorrow. We'll have to brave it, lads."

A ripple of low muttering went through the dwarves, but no one questioned the decision, and they began to trail after Balin as he made his way down the ridge to the southern slope of the valley, where they would follow the rim before reaching a semi-usable road into the city to cut across the basin.

Before Bilbo followed, though, a sudden thought struck him as he looked back down at Dale from his spot on the ridge, and he turned to Thorin, who still stood beside him with an unreadable expression on his face before raising an eyebrow when he noticed Bilbo looking at him.

"Isn't this the overlook?" he asked, and when Thorin looked vaguely puzzled, he elaborated. "Gandalf said to meet him here before he left from Mirkwood; on no account were we to..."

He trailed off as realization lit in Thorin's eyes, but he was taken aback when his brows drew low and he leaned against his sword, looking irritated as he said, "Do you see him anywhere?"

Bilbo said nothing as Thorin shook his head, straightening back up as he turned away and began to pick his way down the ridge, hugging close to the rim of the valley as he said, "We have no time to wait upon the Wizard; we are on our own. Come, Master Baggins."

Bilbo bit his lip, looking back and forth between the valley of Dale and Thorin's retreating back, but after a slight hesitation, he made his way after the king-in-exile, bracing himself for what was sure to be a pleasant shortcut.

Despite popular opinion, Dwalin was generally a good-natured fellow.

He loved drinking ale as much as the next dwarf (perhaps even more), enjoyed the thrill of a good brawl or two, and reveled in sawing on his old fiddle whenever the chance had arose before the quest; indeed, he enjoyed being merry (most of the time, and only with those he trusted), and he liked enjoyable things in a life of hardship, just the same as any dwarf would tell.

But one thing he did not find enjoyable was wandering the haunted streets of a silent, empty city he had never known, having been only a babe when Erebor fell, but he could still imagine with such clarity, as if he had witnessed it himself, the burning of Dale and the screams of the townspeople long since lost in the echoes of the valley.

The Company had trailed along the rim of the lowland until they had stumbled upon a hill on the southern spur of the ridge, a hill that was unfamiliar to Dwalin, but one whose name his elder brother had told him many times before.

"Ravenhill," Balin had breathed when they neared, and Dwalin's careful eyes had scrutinized the place up and down, taking in the crumbling architecture of the once-watch-post he had heard about before following after Thorin, who had spared the far-off hill a short but reminiscent glance before continuing on. Balin had told him that above the guard-post ravens had resided there, able to speak and carry messages, but like everything else so far, it looked completely abandoned, and Dwalin had not looked back as they pressed on.

Another half-hour of cursing and stumbling down the descending slope of the valley had eventually taken them to a somewhat-usable road leading into the city, and Thorin had barely paused before leading them down the stone path, cracked with years of age and misuse and cluttered with debris, and the others had followed, though more slowly and carefully.

Dwalin kept pace with Thorin the whole way down the road and into the city, keeping his hands firm on the shaft of his two-handed mace he had selected from the pile of weapons they had been provided in Esgaroth. It wasn't his twin axes by a good league, but it was usable, and though the notion would appear foolish to others, he always felt more at ease with a weapon in his hand than not.

They moved quickly and quietly through the ruined streets, passing by charred and blackened buildings, crumbling skeletons of the wealth and grandeur this place had once exuded, according to his parents and Balin, and their boots kicked up the soot layering the streets, until they had to hide their mouths in their shirts and cloaks to keep from breathing it in and coughing as they stumbled along, eyes streaming and caked with dust.

Every now and then, Dwalin would see his brother and Thorin exchange a glance if they passed by something important they both seemed to know, and while he took no notice of it at first, it soon became bothersome to Dwalin as he remembered that they had grown up here, had lived peaceful and plentiful lives within Erebor before the dragon came, had seen the prosperity of their kingdom and this town, and that seemed to strike a nerve within him. All he had known was exile and hardship, a life in the Wild and on the battlefield, before settling in Ered Luin, and while they had thrived there, Dwalin knew it was nothing compared to what Thorin and Balin were recalling in these moments.

Then he shrugged those thoughts off, shaking his head; it was not their fault if Dwalin had not experienced the life they had had here, and there was no reason to feel something as petty as envy towards his brother and cousin, his two oldest and most trusted friends, his King and his closest related kin. And there was especially no reason to feel such things when in several months, Dwalin would get to know that life in the flesh, as well.

They passed through the rest of Dale in silence, each member of their dwindled Company wrapped in his own thoughts as the sun began to sink behind the darkening grey clouds, and Dwalin figured it was twilight by the time they finally reached the western road that would take them out of the ruined city.

They followed the road, leaving the valley of Dale behind as they came out on an ascending slope that would take them to the western spur of the Mountain, passing beneath the shadow of a broken aqueduct spewing water into mid-air before they came to the top of another ridge, looking down into another lowland where the River Running flowed from the Mountain south to join the Long Lake, and Dwalin could barely discern the Front Gate, damaged and sealed off, and the statue of a great Dwarf and another beyond it in the gathering darkness.

"We'll stop here for the night," Thorin announced, leading them over to a rocky overhang nestled into the side of the ridge, big enough for all of them to camp under as everyone followed after him and began to set out bedrolls and take out rations to eat.

They lit no fires that night, for the threat of the dragon was starting to permeate the air more and more, and this close to the Gate would be too risky, lest the beast see it or something of the sort.

So they sat and ate in the darkness, talking quietly about anything and everything to get their minds off of the encroaching threat, and then, one by one, the Company began to drop off into sleep, save for the hobbit, who had elected to watch that night, Thorin, who looked too deep in thought for sleep, himself, and Balin, who stared at Thorin with a creased brow before turning and catching Dwalin's eye and making for him instead.

He said nothing when his brother sat beside him on the ground, though he did grin a bit when he heard the older dwarf grunt with the movement, something Balin's shrewd eyes did not miss.

"Oh, hush, brother," he said in mock-irritation. "You'll be getting there yourself one of these days, you know."

Dwalin raised his water-skin in a show of toasting, saying, "Hear, hear, brother. But I still have a while yet."

He chuckled and took a swig while Balin rolled his eyes, his mouth quirking at the corners. They fell into an amicable silence, not having much to say to one another, but that was what Dwalin thought the beauty of their relationship; they could fill a room with the amount of words they say to each other, but they could also appreciate one another's company, and just sit in calm silence such as they were doing now.

Eventually, Balin broke it, though, as he always did, saying in a hushed voice, "I can't wait for you to see it, Dwalin. I've tried so very hard for many years to describe it to you, but I fear that I have always fallen short of the true majesty and beauty it was, and what it will be again. Though this time, you won't need me to describe it to you."

Dwalin clasped his shoulder at the sudden emotion in his voice, not needing to know what he was talking about as he brought his forehead to his brother's in an affectionate gesture, saying in a rumbling voice, "And I'm sure it will be everything and more you have told me, nadadûn."

Balin smiled gently, patting Dwalin's shoulder before getting up and moving away to his bedroll, laying down and going to sleep almost as soon as his head touched the roll.

Dwalin watched him for a moment before stretching out on his own roll, bringing his weapon closer to him just in case anything decided to surprise them and attack in the middle of the night.

But before he shut his eyes, his mind filled with images of a glorious dwarven kingdom, he wondered if they would live long enough to see it restored at all as sleep finally pulled him under.

The morning of Durin's Day rose clear and crisp, the pre-dawn sky dotted with a few wispy clouds and the wind not as strong as the day before, which seemed like a good omen to Bilbo.

He sat curled against the side of the overhang they had sheltered under the night before, feeling very alert and energized despite not having slept; perhaps it was the thrill going through him at the thought of being so close to their final destination, but Bilbo found that he could not force himself to sleep. And, though having been told by Thorin that he himself would take the second watch at midnight, Bilbo could not bring himself to wake the dwarf, who had looked so troubled, even in sleep, and he had wondered if Thorin had slept at all in Lake-town, to which he told himself that he would not disturb Thorin out of a good night's rest.

A sudden shuffling noise brought Bilbo's eyes back to the campsite from where they had previously been roaming the landscape, and he saw that it was Thorin who was stirring in his bedroll, as if his thoughts had persuaded him to wake up.

Bilbo watched calmly as Thorin sat up and blinked, looking at the lightening sky in confusion before settling his piercing blue eyes on Bilbo, and he watched in small amusement as comprehension dawned in his gaze, and then annoyance.

He kicked off his blankets and strode over to where Bilbo was, re-strapping his sword to his waist as he did so before sitting down against the overhang also, facing Bilbo and glaring at him, though he had become quite accustomed to the look over the months and only met it coolly now.

"I said to wake me at midnight so I could take over your post," he said, shattering the morning stillness, and Bilbo sighed, his breath coming out in a chilly cloud.

"You did," he agreed. "But I was not tired, and you needed the rest, so I watched the whole night."

Thorin opened his mouth to argue, but Bilbo cut him off, saying, "Trust me, Thorin, you needed it. You've been looking like a dead animal that learned how to walk on two legs ever since we left Lake-town."

The dwarf gave him a strange look, but there was a glint of something like amusement in his eyes as he said, "I cannot tell whether Alison's blunt tendencies have rubbed off on you, or if you have always had a tongue that sharp, Master Baggins."

Bilbo shrugged. "Sometimes I like to think she was the one who learned it from me," he said. "But I have been rather polite on this journey so far, don't you think? It's only when one of you decides to be stupid that I have to say something."

This goaded a chuckle out of Thorin, but he didn't reply, instead looking out over the valley below with a wistful, nostalgic expression, softening the harsh, weathered lines on his face and making him look not so... severe, and brooding, for once.

"Do you wish Fíli and Kíli were here?" Bilbo asked suddenly, and Thorin turned to look at him in surprise, his brows creasing.

He took a moment to respond, his eyes raking over Bilbo as if sizing him up, before he nodded and said, "I do. They are my nephews, my kin, and my heirs; this moment should be theirs just as much as it is ours." He sighed, twisting the silver ring on his finger that had miraculously not fallen off or been taken all along their journey before continuing. "I wish all of them were here: Fíli, Kíli, Bofur, Óin, Alison... We started this quest together, and it only seems fitting that we should end it together."

Bilbo did not reply, unsure of what to say. He wished the same things as Thorin, but he was still caught up on the 'together' part. He had known that Thorin disapproved of his and Alison's joining of the Company, and he had not made it a secret, but Bilbo was suddenly hit with the realization that Thorin had been fairly civil, even polite to him, these last couple of months, and like right now, when it was just the two of them, he actually seemed to be letting his guard down to the hobbit, and Bilbo was... quite taken aback by this change in attitude, to say the least.

"The sun is on the rise," Thorin remarked, looking back up to the sky as he got to his feet. "We should move on, start looking for the hidden door."

Bilbo nodded, making to get to his feet, but stopped when he saw Thorin extending his hand in front of him. Quite sure he was delusional after a night of no sleep, Bilbo reached out his hand anyway and grasped Thorin's rough, callous-worn one, shocked to find that it was real and solid as the dwarf pulled him to his feet.

He stumbled a bit standing up, his muscles stiff and numb from sitting in one position for so long, and Thorin looked at him, raising a brow as he swayed.

"I'm fine, fine," Bilbo said, waving him off. "I just haven't moved in a while." Seeing Thorin's skeptical look, he rolled his eyes. "I'm fine," he repeated. "Hobbits are quite resilient creatures; you don't give us enough credit for that."

But as Bilbo walked away to begin packing up his things, he thought he heard Thorin say from behind him, "There's a lot of things I haven't given hobbits much credit for."

Bilbo did not respond, not even sure if he was meant to overhear that comment, so instead he helped wake the others and get all of their things together. After a hasty breakfast, Thorin ordered them to move out, stoic and brooding once more, and the Company continued on, down the ridge and into the valley.

After a while, they came upon the magnificent sight of a statue, hewn out of the Mountain itself, in the shape of a Dwarf, towering high above them with a stern expression, clad in stone-shaped armor and wielding a massive war-hammer, though Bilbo noticed the second one shortly after, guarding the other side of the Great Gate that now lay before them, though the way into the Mountain was sealed by piles of rubble and ruin.

As soon as they came upon the great Dwarf likenesses, Thorin ordered them to split up and begin looking for the hidden door, or something that would take them to the location, telling them to be swift yet thorough in their search, for today was the last day they would have to look for it.

Bilbo scampered up many a rock, feeling the muscles pinching in his neck from the amount of times he had craned it upwards, searching, and all the while he tried to ignore the feel of unwanted eyes on him, but whether from the two giant statues or something inside the Front Gate he couldn't tell; all he knew that whatever it was, it was making his skin crawl.

The sun was nearing midday, and still the Company was not having much luck. They were making their way towards the second statue, led by Bilbo, Thorin, and Dwalin, and the hobbit could sense everyone's nerves by this point, no matter if they were split up or not, for he felt the same way. It had to be here. They were so close.

"Anything?" Thorin called out, his voice echoing eerily off the stones, and there were many calls of "no's" and "nothing's" from beyond.

Thorin cursed, following Bilbo some ways behind as the hobbit scrambled over more boulders and rocks, fairly sure that his hands were now raw from climbing over the blasted things, as Thorin made a noise of discontent, taking out the map from inside his shirt and staring at it, hard, as he said, "If the map is true, then the hidden door should lie directly above us."

Bilbo looked up, squinting against the brightness of the sun, and he was just about to drop his gaze again when something caught his eye, and he had to do a double-take back at the statue before him.

There was a design there he had not seen on the other one, a column of zigzagging lines carved into the stone of the statue, and Bilbo's eyes trailed upward, his heart stuttering and then almost stopping completely as he pieced two and two together, his eyes now coming to rest on a cleft in the rock, almost entirely invisible to those down below, but he had a sudden feeling he knew what it was.

"Thorin!" he cried, his voice bouncing back to him across the rocks. "Thorin, up here! Up there, look!"

The dwarf had come running at Bilbo's cries, the rest making their way over to them excitedly, and, following Bilbo's pointing finger, their eyes saw the small niche in the side of the Mountain and they cheered, a smile breaking over Thorin's face as he noticed the stairs, as well, leading up to the place where the hidden door would be.

"You have keen eyes, Master Baggins," he breathed, clapping the hobbit on the shoulder so forcefully Bilbo almost went to his knees, but they rushed towards the statue anyway, reaching the threshold of the stairs and beginning to climb, up to where the hidden door awaited them, heralding their arrival to journey's end at last.

Author's Note

nadadûn - Khuzdûl; "Older brother" (lit.) "the brother-man"

A short little filler chapter here, but it plods the story along, nevertheless. And as much as I love all of you, if one more person ships Bard and Alison together, I regret to say that I will have to strangle you. Sigrid is Alison's age; I'm pretty sure his kids will definitely not want a stepmom old enough to be their sister, so let's all take a deep breath and clear our minds, and eliminate Bard from the list of prospective love interests. Even though I love you guys and I seriously did consider a Bard/OC at one point...but that is in the past.

Anyway, thank you for all of your reviews/follows/favorites! You guys don't know how much it means to me, and I appreciate you all so much for the support! So, feel free to drop a review for this chapter: anything you liked, disliked, are looking forward to? Let me know!

Thanks again, lovelies! Until next chapter...

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