The March of Time

4: Into the Wild

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

Quick A/N: Hello all, and thank you for reading! Enjoy!

Chapter Four: Into the Wild

Everyone piled into Bilbo's entryway as Gandalf went to open the door. Alison felt a strange sense of foreboding as she lurked near the back of the Company, not sure how she should act around Thorin, for he was the Dwarf King. And she wasn't all that keen to discover how Thorin would react once he found out Gandalf had tried to rope her into their quest.

Gandalf opened the round door, and there, silhouetted against the moonlight over Bag-End, was Thorin Oakenshield.

Alison didn't know why the book had made him out to be so plain. As the pale light shone down on him, she thought she had never seen a more kingly person in her life. His hair was long and black, like a raven's wing streaked with grey. His face was thin and angular, with deep-set eyes of a grey-blue that matched Fíli's, yet darker, more intense. He also did not have an abnormally long beard, but a well trimmed one that circled the lower half of his face. As Alison looked at him, with his sword strapped to his waist and heavy fur coat over his thick armor, she wondered why she had thought Dwalin was so intimidating. Thorin radiated authority, and it was all she could do to not drop to her knees and bow before him, screaming "I'm not worthy!"

Then she mentally slapped herself. He's a Dwarf King, not a god. Get yourself together.

"Gandalf," Thorin said, stepping over the threshold. His voice was low and rich, and Alison immediately compared it to the likes of Morgan Freeman, it was so amazing. "I thought you said this place would be easy to find; I lost my way, twice. I wouldn't have found it at all had it not been for that mark on the door."

He shrugged off his fur pelt, which Dwalin placed on the coat rack by the front door as Bilbo pushed his way to the front of the throng, saying, "Mark? There's no mark on that door. It was painted a week ago!"

"There is a mark, I put it there myself," Gandalf replied easily, shutting the front door. "Bilbo Baggins, allow me to introduce you to the leader of our Company, Thorin Oakenshield."

Thorin surveyed the hobbit with unreadable eyes. "So, this is the hobbit." He said it flatly, almost carelessly, as if he had suspected Bilbo's reaction and appearance and was not surprised by it. "Tell me, Mr. Baggins, have you done much fighting?"

"Pardon me?" Bilbo asked confusedly, as the dwarf king began to circle around him, scrutinizing him with narrowed eyes.

"Axe or sword, what's your weapon of choice?" He continued, coming to a stop before Bilbo as if he hadn't heard him.

"Well, I do have some skill at conkers, if you must know," the hobbit said, bouncing nervously on the balls of his feet. "But I fail to see…why that's relevant."

"I thought as much," Thorin said. "He looks more like a grocer than a burglar."

The other dwarves laughed, and Thorin glanced around at them all, taking them in, but froze when his eyes landed on Alison. "And who is this?" He asked, shooting a look at Gandalf as he approached her. "There was no mention of a woman to be at this place."

"Thorin Oakenshield, meet Alison Ashburne," Gandalf said, coming up behind the king. Alison tried not to gulp as Thorin gave her the same once-over he had Bilbo, his eyes unfathomable as he took her in. At Gandalf's words, though, he stiffened, and his mouth twitched as he turned to Gandalf.

"An Ashburne?" He said quietly, and the temperature seemed to drop ten degrees as Thorin looked back to her, his eyes now full of understanding and anger. Apparently he knew what her presence meant for him and his Company. "The Valar mean for this girl to help us in our quest?" He demanded of no one in particular, and he received no answer. His eyes traveled her once more, his scowl deepening at whatever he saw. "She seems like a gust of wind would do her in."

Oh, for heaven's sake, she thought angrily. Not this again.

"Luckily for you, Thorin Oakenshield," she emphasized his name sarcastically, and his face tightened at her tone. "This fluffy little bunny isn't coming on your quest, so there's no need to get your hair in a twist."

The dwarves, who had been so amused by her similar comment to Dwalin earlier, now looked between their king and her fearfully, as if she were about to be stomped on by Thorin's heavy iron-shod shoes. Alison wasn't going to apologize this time, though; she'd had enough of gender stereotypes for one night, and there was no point in being all feminine and polite; she'd be gone tomorrow, anyway, and they would both head their separate ways.

After a few tense minutes of silence, Thorin stepped up to her, and she felt another flash of anger as she realized that he was taller than her, too. What was the point in calling them 'dwarves' if she was still shorter than half of them? "You would do well to hold your tongue, Miss Ashburne," he said quietly, so the others had to strain to hear. "Warrior ancestor or not, it could lead you to serious trouble one day if you are not wise enough to keep your comments to yourself."

At that, he brushed past her into the dining room, followed by the other dwarves, who shot her furtive glances and looked away quickly as they trailed after him. Alison stayed where she was, breathing out a small sigh of relief that the dwarf king hadn't demanded her head or anything after that. Gandalf stood with her, looking at her with his arms crossed and his face folded into a frown.

"He is right, you know," he said.

Alison resisted the urge to snort. "He was being rude to Bilbo," she defended herself. "And I'm tired of all these guys thinking I can't handle myself."

"But can you?" The Wizard raised his eyebrows at her. "You said so yourself you had no experience or training of any kind, and no offense to you, my dear, but it is evident that your words are true. As of right now," he added as an afterthought.

"Whatever," she grumbled, annoyed that the Wizard had brought that point up. "I just want to get out of here."

"I'm afraid you will have to wait until tomorrow morning," Gandalf said. "Right now we must finalize our plans for departure. So, if you would be so kind—" he gestured to the dining room, and Alison reluctantly moved down the hallway. "And this time, please try to keep civil." He said in her ear.

She grit her teeth and said nothing, stalking into the dining room and choosing a seat as far away from Thorin—who was at the head of the table—as possible, throwing herself down between Kíli and the wall behind her. She could feel their eyes burning into her, but she kept her head down as Gandalf had requested, focusing on a random spot on her jeans as their meeting convened.

"What news from the meeting in Ered Luin?" Balin asked, as Bilbo set down a bowl of stew in front of the dwarf king. "Did they all come?"

"Aye, envoys from all seven kingdoms," Thorin replied, spooning a bite into his mouth.

The dwarves all rumbled hopefully, their faces lighting up. "And what did the dwarves of the Iron Hills say?" Dwalin asked. "Is Dáin with us?"

Thorin hesitated, his spoon halfway to his mouth. "They will not come."

What small hope the dwarves had had before vanished, being replaced by disappointment. Alison looked up from her lap, a stab of pity going through her as she saw how dejected all of them looked. "They say this quest is ours, and ours alone."

"You're…going on a quest?" Bilbo piped up from his place at Gandalf's shoulder.

"Ah, Bilbo, my dear fellow, let us have a little more light," the Wizard said, and Bilbo retrieved a candle from the mantel over the fireplace, coming back as Gandalf took out a map from beneath his cloak and spread it over the table. "Far to the East, over ranges and rivers, beyond woodlands and wastelands, lies a single solitary peak."

In spite of herself, Alison leaned in for a closer look, along with the other dwarves and Bilbo. "The Lonely Mountain," he read over Gandalf's shoulder, and Alison saw a lone mountain on the map, with a blood-red dragon appearing to be flying over it.

"Aye, Óin has read the portents, and the portents say, it is time," Glóin broke in, and some of the others began to mumble and sigh at the fiery-haired dwarf's words.

"Ravens have been seen flying back to the mountain, as it was foretold," Óin said over the mutterings. "When the birds of yore return to Erebor, the reign of the beast will end."

"Uh…what beast?" Bilbo asked, his eyes wide.

"Well that would be a reference to Smaug the Terrible, chiefest and greatest calamity of our Age," Bofur answered easily. "Airborne fire-breather. Teeth like razors; claws like meat hooks. Extremely fond of precious metals."

"Yes, I know what a dragon is." Bilbo said, now looking thoroughly uncomfortable.

Suddenly Ori rose from his seat, his large, innocent cow-eyes defiant as he said, "I'm not afraid, I'm up for it! I'll give him a taste of Dwarvish iron right up his jacksie!"

The others cheered him on and Alison smiled while Dori hissed, "Sit down!" and pulled him back into his chair.

"The task would be difficult enough with an army behind us," Balin said over the clamor. "But we number just thirteen; and not thirteen of the best…nor brightest."

The dwarves all began to argue at once, and though it was a serious matter, Alison snickered as she heard one of them interject: "Hey, who are you calling dim?" There was suddenly a loud slap on the table, and the dwarves grew silent; Alison looked to her right and saw Fíli, his easy smile gone to be replaced by a fierce expression.

"We may be few in number, but we're fighters, all of us! To the last Dwarf!" he declared.

"And you forget we have a Wizard in our Company!" Kíli said excitedly, almost knocking Alison off her stool as he gesticulated broadly. "Gandalf will have killed hundreds of dragons in his time!"

Alison fought down a laugh as all eyes turned expectantly to Gandalf, knowing that wasn't true at all. "Oh, well, no. I—uh…"

"How many then?" Dori asked.

"What?"

"Well, how many dragons have you killed?" Gandalf began to cough awkwardly on his pipe smoke. "Go on, give us a number!"

And suddenly all the dwarves were on their feet, arguing and yelling, and Alison sat still, not quite sure what to do. She nearly jumped out of her skin when Thorin stood up from his seat and roared "Enough!"

Immediately everyone sat down, still and silent once more.

"If we have read these signs, do you not think others will have read them too?" He asked, his eyes traveling along the table and flicking over Alison like she wasn't even there. "Rumors have begun to spread. The dragon Smaug has not been seen for sixty years. Eyes look east to the Mountain, assessing, wondering, weighing the risk. Perhaps the vast wealth of our people now lies unprotected. Do we sit back while others claim what is rightfully ours? Or do we seize this chance to take back Erebor?" The others roared in approval as Thorin shook his fist, proclaiming something in what Alison assumed to be the Dwarvish language.

"You forget the Front Gate is sealed," Balin reminded, and a distant part of Alison wondered why he was such a party-pooper, though she knew he was only being practical. "There is no other way into the Mountain."

"That, my dear Balin, is not entirely true," Gandalf interjected, and suddenly there was a gleaming, oddly-shaped key in his hand. The others stared at it in awe; even Thorin, seated again, looked thunderstruck as he saw the key.

"How came you by this?" he whispered.

"It was given to me by your father, Thráin, for safekeeping," the Wizard answered. "It is yours now." He handed the key to Thorin, who took it carefully, almost reverently, still staring at it.

"If there is a key, there must be a door!" Fíli said, as if he had just realized this.

Gandalf pointed to the map, nodding. "These runes speak of a hidden passage to the lower halls."

"There's another way in," Kíli said, grinning as he clasped Fíli's and Alison's shoulders in an excited grip.

"Well, if we can find it," Gandalf amended. "But Dwarf doors are invisible when closed. The answer lies somewhere hidden in this map, and I do not have the skill to find it; but there are others in Middle-earth who can. The task I have in mind will require a great deal of stealth, and no small amount of courage. But if we are careful and clever, I believe that it can be done."

"That's why we need a burglar!" Ori exclaimed.

"Hmm, and a good one, too," Bilbo said, gazing interestedly at the map. "An expert, I'd imagine."

"And are you?" Glóin asked, raising a thick eyebrow at the hobbit.

"Am I what?"

Óin pointed to Bilbo, his ear trumpet in his ear as he grinned and said, "He said he's an expert!"

"Me?" Bilbo said, his eyes going wide and a panicked expression appearing on his face. "Oh, no, no, no, no. I—I'm not a burglar! I've never stolen a thing in my life!"

"I'm afraid I have to agree with Mr. Baggins," Balin said, his eyes raking over the hobbit sympathetically. "He's hardly burglar material."

"Aye, the Wild is no place for gentle folk who can neither fight nor fend for themselves," Dwalin added, with a vague glance in Alison's direction. She had to bite her tongue as the dwarves all started arguing again, and almost missed Gandalf as he stood from his seat, towering over the rest of them.

"Enough!" He said in a magnified voice, and Alison's jaw dropped; Gandalf glowered at them from his great height, and it seemed that all the shadows in the room were warping and twisting around the Wizard, casting his lined face into deeper contrast. "If I say Bilbo Baggins is a burglar, then a burglar he is!"

And as quickly as they had come, the shadows receded again, leaving all of them in a shocked wake. "Hobbits are remarkably light on their feet," the Wizard continued in a normal tone, as if carrying on about the weather. "In fact, they can pass unseen by most if they choose; and while the dragon is accustomed to the smell of Dwarf, the scent of Hobbit is all but unknown to him, giving us a distinct advantage."

Thorin looked like he had swallowed a lemon, and Alison got the faint idea that they had had this argument before, though Thorin's attitude still hadn't changed about it. "You asked me to find the fourteenth member of our Company, and I have chosen Mr. Baggins," Gandalf reminded Thorin. "There's a lot more to him than appearances suggest. And he's got a great deal more to offer than any of you know, including himself." Bilbo looked up at this, his expression half-anxious, half-grateful.

"You must trust me on this," the Wizard said directly to Thorin.

"Very well," Thorin said sullenly. "We'll do it your way." Bilbo started to protest, but Thorin ignored him. "Give him the contract."

Balin rose to his feet, removing a thick packet of parchment from underneath his cloak and handing it to Thorin, who shoved it unceremoniously into Bilbo's objecting arms. "It's just the usual summary," the white-haired Dwarf said. "Pocket expenses, time required, remuneration, funeral arrangements, and so forth."

"Funeral arrangements?" The hobbit repeated in bafflement, as he began to read the contract out loud to himself. Thorin had stood up and was whispering to Gandalf, who looked grave as he listened to Thorin's words, only muttering, "Understood" and "Agreed."

"Uh…" Bilbo said from the hallway, and everyone's attention snapped back to him. "'The present company shall not be liable for injuries inflicted by or sustained as a consequence thereof, including, but not limited to…" he brought the contract closer to his face. "Lacerations? Evisceration?" He unfolded a side part to the document. "Incineration?"

"Oh, aye, he'll melt the flesh off your bones in the blink of an eye," Bofur said cheerily, and if he was close enough, Alison would've kicked him under the table.

"You all right, laddie?" Balin asked sympathetically, as Bilbo swayed slightly.

"Huh? Yes, um, fine," he replied weakly. He took a deep breath. "I feel a bit faint."

Bofur got up from his seat and leaned through the opening of the dining room, saying, "Just think furnace, with wings!"

Bilbo hunched over, hands on knees. "I…I need air."

"Flash of light, searing pain, then puff! You're nothing more than a pile of ash!"

Bilbo thought for a moment; for a second, Alison thought he was going to be fine as he straightened up. But one look over at the dwarves watching him, the hobbit said "Nope" and collapsed on the spot.

"Oh, very helpful, Bofur," Gandalf said exasperatedly, joining the dwarf as they herded Bilbo into his living room.

"As I said earlier," Dwalin said pointedly, once the Wizard was out of earshot.

"Gandalf's right, you know," Alison said. Now that Gandalf wasn't there, she could speak freely again, though she did try to watch her tongue a bit. "Bilbo has it in him, he just doesn't believe it himself, yet."

"And what do you know of a Hobbit's bravery?" Dwalin asked. "You supposedly come from another world; how could you possibly know anything about this matter?"

"I just know, okay?" It was a weak defense, but Alison thought it would be better than saying I know all this because in my world you're all really just a bunch of fictional characters, and I can guarantee that three of you sitting here now will die by the end of this quest, so don't question me! But of course, that would go over real well. "I mean, all of you were like him once, with no idea what it's like out in the Wild, no experience, nothing. But if all of you can overcome your fears of the unknown and find your courage to step out beyond your doorstep, who's to say Bilbo can't do the same?"

No one challenged her, and she felt a flicker of pride as even Thorin kept his comments to himself.

Suddenly exhausted again, Alison stood up from her seat, trying not to fall over from fatigue. "If that's all for tonight," she said, and left the room in search of Gandalf, wondering where she was supposed to sleep. She knew for sure that she would not be bunking with the dwarves tonight; she'd rather sleep outside.

She found Gandalf in the living room, waiting for Bilbo to come to in the armchair Alison had occupied earlier while Bofur went back into the dining room with the others.

"I heard what you said back there," the Wizard said, before Alison could even open her mouth. "That was a very generous thing you did in Bilbo's defense."

"Yeah, well, anything to convince them that they need him," she said, embarrassed at the Wizard's praise. "How is he?"

"He'll be fine," he said. "It was just a shock. He'll be around in a minute. Is there something you wanted to ask me?"

"Yes," she said. "Uh, where should I sleep?"

"I believe there is a guest bedroom down the second hallway, last door on the left," he replied. Bilbo began to stir, and Alison nodded. "Right, then. See you in the morning."

Gandalf didn't reply as Bilbo sat up, and Alison ventured down the second hallway, coming to the door Gandalf had said and stepping inside to a quaint, plain bedroom. She shut the door behind her and leaned her back against it, trying to wind down from the day's events.

She noticed a door to her left, on the other side of the bedroom, and she crossed to it, peeking inside to see a washroom. Taking a candle from the bedroom and lighting a lamp in the bathroom with it, she saw a large tub in the corner, empty, but presumably used for baths, and a counter in the other corner, a basin of water atop it as a sort of sink with a small square mirror above it.

She went to the sink, dipping her hands in the cool water and splashing some on her face, enjoying the refreshing feel on her flushed body. She glanced in the mirror as well, expecting to see a completely different person, but there she was: still the same Alison Ashburne as the one she saw in her mirror back home yesterday. But she also felt different, more…comfortable.

She had always been small and slim for her age, bordering on delicate, but not quite; she had been involved in some sports, so she wasn't weak, but she wasn't super muscular, either. But being in Middle-earth had done something to her, though she couldn't quite put her finger on it yet. All she knew was that she felt more grounded somehow, as if she had just tripped and was steadying her balance again.

Sighing, she gathered her hair behind her head, not even that bothered she didn't have a hairbrush. Her hair was always straight, no matter what she did to it. Relieved that she still had a hair tie on her wrist, she tied her hair back. A feeling of homesickness washed over her as she noticed that she didn't have a toothbrush or deodorant or anything with her, but she pushed it aside, reminding herself that she'd be home soon and none of that would matter.

Putting out the lamp, Alison made her way back into the bedroom and blew out all the candles save for the one on the nightstand. She sat on the bed, kicking off her boots and removing the map and coin pouch from her pockets before taking off her jacket. With another pang of homesickness over the fact she had no pajamas, she threw back the comfy white sheets and duvet and lay on her side, pressing her face into the soft downy pillows and waiting for sleep to overcome her.

A dull throb began to emanate from her hip, though, and she sat up, checking her jeans pocket and discovering a hard tube of some sort. She pulled it out, and saw by the light of her one candle that it was a thing of chapstick. "Really?" She asked out loud, wondering if the universe was playing some sort of cosmic joke on her.

So she could fall into Middle-earth with a pair of pants and a tube of mint-smelling chapstick, but not anything important, like food or medical supplies? Why not give her a fifty-pound block of concrete while she was at it, so she could add another thing to her list of useless items she had been stuck with.

Placing her chapstick on the nightstand and blowing out the last candle, Alison attempted to fall asleep, but it wasn't happening. Despite her physical exhaustion, her mind was flying at top speed, and she couldn't get that day out of her head. Finding out that her dad's stories of warrior ancestors were true, being offered to go on the Erebor quest, meeting her favorite fictional characters: it was all too much for her brain to handle.

So she lay awake for a long time, until she began to hear a rich, deep humming coming from the living room. Propping her head up, Alison began to hear slow, soothing words, and with a shock, she recognized Thorin's voice; he was singing.

"Far over the Misty Mountains cold,

To dungeons deep and caverns old.

We must away ere break of day,

To find our long forgotten gold."

Alison listened raptly, her heart squeezing at the words; they carried ancient sorrow, but a hint of strength, as if the words were filling her with a courage long since buried. The other dwarves joined in singing, and Alison felt her spirit soar, imagining the words sweeping her away, over distant landscapes and fantastical places, and that same longing feeling she had gotten earlier when she said she couldn't go on the quest filled her up again as she went on listening:

"The pines were roaring on the height,

The winds were moaning in the night.

The fire was red, it flaming spread,

The trees like torches, blazed with light."

The song had ended, and Alison heard the dwarves begin to settle down for the night, but she lay awake still, replaying the words over and over in her head. That same lingering feeling persisted, clouding her thoughts, and it was a long time before she was finally lured to sleep.

"You wake her up."

"What? No! You do it."

"Why me?"

"Because I'm ordering you to."

"Ordering me? You can't play that card on me just because you're too afraid to wake a lady from her sleep, next heir to the throne or not—"

"Kíli—"

"You know I can hear you, right?" Alison grumbled sleepily, half-opening her eyes to see Fíli and Kíli standing uncomfortably in the doorway, guilty expressions on their faces as they realized she was awake.

"Apologies, Alison," Fíli said. "But the Company is preparing to leave, and Gandalf requested we wake you so you can start on your own journey."

Alison closed her eyes again and groaned; she had completely forgotten that she was to make for Isengard that day, and then she felt a rush of panic; how was she supposed to get to Isengard by herself, with nothing except a small pouch of coins and the clothes on her back? And not to mention her chapstick.

"Are you all right?" Kíli asked, coming over to sit on the bed, bouncing the mattress as he did so. Alison thought this was a bold move for someone he had just met, but he didn't seem troubled with it, though Fíli gave him a disapproving look from the doorway.

"Just peachy," she replied, her voice muffled by the pillow. She still couldn't bring herself to get out of the comfortable bed.

"Well, come on then! Let's get a move on," Kíli encouraged her, and she only groaned again in reply.

"We're leaving in an hour," Fíli said, as his brother rejoined him at the doorway. "So that'll give you enough time to get up and eat before you go."

"Cool," she said, giving them a thumbs-up as she pulled the covers back over her head. She heard their footsteps retreat back down the hall, and she sighed, knowing she had to leave the warmth of the bed to prepare for her trip.

She got up, pulling back on her boots and jacket and refilling her pockets with her things. She thought about leaving the chapstick behind, but decided against it; after all, she never knew if her lips might get chapped on the road, so better safe than sorry. She pocketed the tube, as well, and redid her ponytail, using her fingers to comb some of the snarls out of her hair.

After making the bed and checking that she had everything—which didn't take long, considering she had virtually nothing—she ventured back out into the main hobbit-hole, finding the Company and Gandalf all seated at the dining table again, though the atmosphere was much different from the night before. Nearly all the dwarves were still half-asleep, trying to revive over hot mugs of coffee and tea, and there was barely a word of conversation as pale dawn light washed the room in a rosy glow.

"Ah, Miss Ashburne, good morning!" Gandalf greeted cheerfully as she stumbled sleepily into the one available seat, which was between Dwalin and Thorin, much to her distaste. "Did you sleep well?"

She only grunted in reply, staring at the breakfast platters before her. She knew she should probably eat before setting out on the road, but couldn't bring herself to do it; after remembering her quest to Isengard, her stomach had knotted anxiously, and she was too scared to even consider eating now. So instead she filled a cup of coffee and took a sip, not even tasting the liquid as it scalded down her throat. She noticed then that her hands were shaking, and she clunked down the mug before anyone else noticed.

Unfortunately Thorin had seen, and she wanted to crawl under the table as he said, loudly enough for everyone to hear, "So, Miss Ashburne, I hear you are making for Isengard."

"Yeah, I am," she managed to choke out around the tight ball of anxiety in her throat. "What makes you so interested in what I'm doing?"

He shrugged disinterestedly. "I had thought that after your comments last night you were determined to impose yourself on the quest."

"I have a family," she said for about the millionth time, choosing to ignore his word choice about her invitation for the quest; the last thing she needed this early in the morning was a fight with Thorin Oakenshield. "They need me. I would be abandoning them if I came with you."

"Understandable," he said, and she thought she caught a hint of respect in his hard eyes before it was gone, being replaced by his unreadable look again. "You are to come with us to The Green Dragon," he added. "We have supplies for you there with our other things, and then you can make for Isengard."

She nodded, her throat now too tight to speak as her fear mounted higher. "You should eat something, lass," Balin encouraged her, but she shook her head. "I'm not hungry."

"Are you sure you're all right, Alison?" Kíli asked her. "You look pale."

She only shook her head again, her stomach clenching, and she noticed that her hands, which she had placed on the table, were vibrating uncontrollably, causing the whole table to quiver.

"I need air," she gasped, practically running from the room and out the front door, gripping the front gate as her stomach heaved, wanting to throw up but not having anything in it. She gulped in deep lungfuls of air, trying to calm herself. She had to look strong; she had to. She had to show them she wasn't some scared little girl running off into the woods with an unclear head.

After several minutes of breathing and trying to relax, she felt a bit better, and didn't even realize someone was behind her until she heard a little cough, and she spun around, not surprised to see Gandalf standing there.

"You're scared." He stated simply, and she coughed out a harsh laugh that seemed to grate on her throat.

"'Scared' is an understatement," she said. "I don't know who I'm kidding; this is impossible. I can't do this."

"Nothing is impossible if you give all of your effort," he said, and Alison waited for him to continue with more sappy motivational stuff, but he stayed silent. This wasn't some little kids' story, she remembered, where the wise old wizard said some encouraging words that made her suck it up and be brave; this was real, and they both knew that the real world didn't work like that. After all, it had been her choice. She had made this decision, and now she had to go it alone.

"Come inside," he insisted. "Eat some food before you set out. You'll be amazed at how better you'll feel once your stomach is full."

"No thanks," she said, as her stomach curled at the mention of food. "I'm fine as it is."

The Wizard shrugged. "As you wish. But I'd still eat if I were you; food is scarce on the road, and your rations can only last for so long."

Alison slumped against the gate, knowing he was right. "Fine," she gave in. "But if I puke on your shoes, we'll know who to blame."

An hour later, the Company, Gandalf, and Alison left Bilbo's house just as the sun had risen over Bag-End and Hobbiton. As they made their way down the hill, hobbits were beginning to stir, putting out their laundry on clothes lines and starting the arduous task of farming and herding and opening shops for the day. They ambled into the center of the village, and hobbits gazed at them half-curiously, half-fearfully as they made for the stables behind The Green Dragon, where the dwarves' ponies and supplies were.

After Alison had managed to choke down a few slices of bacon and a mouthful of eggs, the Company had tidied Bilbo's house and left. Apparently the hobbit had decided not to go on the quest, but Alison wasn't worried; she knew Bilbo would change his mind, and it seemed Gandalf did, too, for he had left out the contract in the living room for the hobbit to find.

On the way to the stables, the dwarves—or at least, the ones who were more comfortable with her, like Fíli, Kíli, and Bofur—had tried to keep her spirits up, but it wasn't helping much. Alison was a tightly wound ball of mental strain, and she felt like she was about to snap any second.

They reached the stables, and the Company began the final stages of their preparations, checking and double-checking their packs and ponies for supplies, cataloging to make sure they had all their weapons, and other similar things. Alison stood off to the side, trying not to be in the way, and she watched the dwarves as they got ready to leave. There was a nervous excitement in the air as they prepared, and she envied them; they had been trained for this, they knowingly knew what they were going to do, while she…she was lost, even before she had began.

She looked up as she heard footsteps approaching, and Fíli stopped before her, looking sort of awkward.

"Alison," he said, somewhat stiffly, and she wondered what had made him so tense all of a sudden. Then, gazing over his shoulder, she saw Kíli fiddling with his horse's packs, looking as if he were trying to keep from laughing. Once he saw her looking, though, he dropped his gaze, still grinning, and she was suddenly very curious as to what was going on.

Her attention snapped back to Fíli as he held out his hand, and she stared blankly at it, not really processing what it meant. There was a longish, thin blade in his hands, encased in a plain, black leather sheath with a simple stone hilt.

"Um…it's nice?" she said, not really understanding what the dwarf prince was getting at.

"It's for you," he said patiently, holding it out to her more as she made no move to take it. She just looked at him strangely. "Look, I'm not comfortable with the idea of a lass venturing off into the woods without at least something to protect her. So, please, take it."

She reluctantly took the knife, not knowing what to do with it. It was heavy and solid in her palm, and it gave her a greater sense of safety as she held it carefully. And, suddenly, to her horror, her eyes began to fill with tears.

"Alison? What's wrong? I didn't offend you, did I?" Fíli asked worriedly.

"No, it's just…allergies," she said, scrubbing furiously at her eyes. "It's nothing."

"Are you sure?" he asked, and she nodded, blinking hard as the tears of gratitude receded.

"Thank you," she said, not really meeting the dwarf's eyes. "But I honestly have no idea how to use this."

"Oh, that's easy," he said. "Just swing and slash until you hit something. I would teach you how to properly use one, but as we're going different ways…"

"Yeah." She said, for lack of anything better to say. "Um, where should I put it?"

"If I may?" He held out his hand, and she placed the knife back into it. Then he bent down and began to strap it into the inside of her boot; she was amazed as he stood back up, the knife now secured in her shoe, just like she had seen in so many action movies.

"Impressive," she said, and she met his eyes this time, grinning at the clear depths as he nodded, smiling.

"I hope you were referring to me with that statement," Kíli said cheekily, coming up to them with a backpack of sorts in one hand and leading a shaggy black pony in the other.

"Definitely," Alison said sarcastically, breaking eye contact with Fíli as she looked to the other prince. "Is all that for me?"

"It is," he confirmed, dangling out the backpack to her. She took it and swung it on her back, the straps digging into her shoulders as it turned out to be heavier than she had imagined. "Sheesh, what's all in here?" she said, staggering a bit under the weight.

"Enough food for a long journey, two water skins, basic medical supplies like bandaging wrap and healing herbs…" Kíli ticked off all the items on his fingers as he went, and finally Alison held up a hand, saying, "Okay, okay, I get it. A lot of stuff."

"Always better to be prepared," he said, handing over the reins. Alison took them a little apprehensively; even though she lived in Texas, she had only ridden a horse once, back when she was in fifth grade, and her skills were definitely not the best. "Do you need anything else for your journey?" he asked her, watching as she hesitantly rubbed the pony's face in what she hoped to be a calming, trusting gesture.

"It sounds like I have everything I need," she said, the corners of her mouth twitching in a smile as the horse nuzzled her hand affectionately. "Thank you, really. For…your kindness, last night and today, with this." She gestured to the pony and the backpack. "Both of you. Thanks."

They only smiled and bowed a little bit in return as Gandalf strode up to them, leading a large brown horse behind him. "Are you ready for your departure, Miss Ashburne?" the Wizard asked, and she nodded, feeling her fingertips go numb with fear at the very prospect. "Good. Do you still have that map?"

She nodded again, pulling out the old piece of parchment from her jacket pocket and opening it for the first time. The language was English, bless the Valar or whoever, but the pronunciations sounded weird in her head as she studied the map intently. She had to bring the map close to her face before she found Isengard, which was in a southerly direction from Hobbiton, which she found faster than the latter. There was a road from the Shire to Isengard, called the North-South Road, and she felt relief that there was at least a road she could follow instead of trekking through the wilderness.

"I think I know where to go," she said, and the Wizard patted her shoulder bracingly.

"You will make it to Isengard," he said. "I have the utmost confidence in you."

She said nothing, wishing that she could believe that about herself as well. "Now, are you ready?" Gandalf asked, and she nodded for about the thousandth time, feeling that icy-hot flash of fear and panic coating her stomach again. "Then may you travel well and safe, my dear Alison. And if the Valar permit it, then maybe we will see each other again someday." His eyes twinkled mysteriously, as if he knew something she didn't, and she wondered what that look could possibly mean.

"Thank you for everything, Gandalf," she said sincerely. "I wish that I could come with you all but…my place is in the mortal world. And I hope to see you again someday, too, so you can remind me this wasn't all some crazy dream." The Wizard chuckled at this, and she looked around at the Company, who were all standing around them and watching.

Alison tried for a brave smile, and gave a jaunty wave to the Company. "Well, bye. It was great to meet all of you." And then, to her surprise, the Company all said their good-byes and bowed to her slightly, even Dwalin, while Thorin inclined his head a few inches; that shocked Alison beyond anything else, and she gave another half-smile and wave before leading her horse out into the village.

She looked down at the map, then back up at the village, silently cursing herself as she realized she had no idea which way the North-South Road was. Maybe she should've paid attention in her world geography class freshman year, after all, that way she could at least determine which way was which cardinal direction.

She remembered something about the sun rising in the east and setting in the west; or no, was it the other way around? The sun was hovering sort of in the middle between her right side and her left, so she had no clue which way to walk; taking her best guess, she turned to the right, but stopped as she heard a cough behind her.

The Company all stood behind her with Gandalf, and she noticed they were smirking and snickering. "What?" she demanded.

"The North-South Road would be to your left, my dear girl," Gandalf said, pointing to the left. "Once you're out of the village, there will be a fork in the road, and then you will take the right one."

"Oh," she said stupidly. "Right." So she turned around and went left out of the village, leading her horse behind her. She waved embarrassedly to the Company again as she passed, and then she was making her way out of the village.

At the last second, she turned and looked behind her; this was the last time she was ever going to see Hobbiton in her life, and she felt a pang of nostalgia and regret as the sun washed the village and the hill of Bag-End in soft golden light. With a final shake of her head, she walked out of the village, not looking back again until she had left it far behind.

Alison was in a rotten mood.

Her butt was sore, her back and legs were in cramps, and not to mention that she was extremely hot under the constant glare of the sun. The North-South Road offered no protection from the scorching rays, so the best she could do was keep her head down to avoid it and try not to drain her water skin in one thirsty gulp.

Forget the thrill and fear of adventure; Alison had never been more miserable in her life. The road was completely devoid of any other living creature, leaving her alone to brood, sweat, and simmer in the late afternoon sunlight. Her fear had all been replaced by discomfort and irritation, and she tried not to scream out of frustration as her horse carried her on, farther into the lands beyond the Shire, every step closer to Isengard.

Why, why had the Valar chosen her for this stupid between-worlds trip? She couldn't fathom what any of it meant, unless they did, in fact, want her to change the story. Which led her to the next question: how did the Valar even know about the story? Unless they could also magically teleport themselves to Earth, which wouldn't surprise her; everyone else seemed to get there in the blink of an eye if they wanted to, yet it was supposed to take her months to cross back over the veil.

And then she felt a crippling surge of guilt as another thought came unbidden to her mind. Even if the Valar didn't know how the story would end, Gandalf did, and she did, too. Thorin, Fíli, and Kíli. Their deaths would be caused by the quest they were going on, and Alison felt bile rise to her throat.

She had met them; she had linked arms with Fíli and Kíli, laughed at their jokes, and Fíli had given her a knife to protect herself with. She had argued with Thorin, and he had respected her for choosing her family over them. She had met the Line of Durin. And now she had left them to die.

These thoughts plagued her as her horse bore her steadily on, and an internal war erupted within her.

Go back! One part of her screamed. Go back and find them! Do as Gandalf said! Save them from their fate!

I can't! My family! The other part yelled back. They need me! I can't die and leave them alone!

And what about the Durin's folk? You're just going to let them die? Fíli and Kíli have a mother and Thorin a sister, as well. Do you want her to suffer over the loss of her own family?

Alison struggled for several more minutes; her heart felt like it was being cleaved in two. She couldn't forget her family and run off on some quest in another world, but she couldn't knowingly let Fíli, Kíli, and Thorin die, either. They had people who cared about them, too.

She was so wrapped up in her conflicting thoughts that she didn't even feel the heat of feral eyes on her back.

Finally, Alison came to a decision. "Damn it, you freaking line of Durin," she snarled, and she jerked on her horse's reins, causing it to whinny in protest as she swung it back around and nudged it with the heel of her boots. The horse shot back down the way they had come, heading back for Hobbiton.

There, Alison would reach the crossroads and take the horse down the left side, down the Great East Road she knew the Company to be taking.

She loved her family, she truly did, and she didn't want to risk her life; but if she knew that someone had foreseen her own fate, that she would die, she would want someone to help save her instead of walking away, and letting the guilt eat away at her for the rest of her life.

The sun was beginning to set as Alison thundered back down the Road. Semi-familiar landmarks were starting to appear out of the dusk, and she spurred her horse on, whispering, "Come on, Hidalgo, ride." She had no idea why she had started to call the horse that, but it seemed appropriate.

By nightfall, they had reached the crossroads, and Alison turned Hidalgo to the left, speeding him down the Great East Road. At this rate, she might be able to reach the dwarves by dawn, and by God she would force herself on that quest, even if Thorin would rather eat his own arm than accept her into the Company. She would save them; she would.

Too absorbed in her own thoughts, Alison had never realized she was being followed until that moment, but it was too late.

She felt a chill run down her spine, and she compared it to the saying "As if someone had walked over her grave". She turned her head at the last second, and saw something massive leap towards her, fangs bared for the kill and a bone-chilling howl tearing from the creature's throat as it lunged.

Author's Note

Muahaha the dreaded cliffhanger!

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