The March of Time

42: Dealings of a Different Kind

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

Quick A/N: Firstly, I would like to apologize for the delay in updating. But I recently got a new laptop that had some downloading issues, so I had to work that out, and, also, this chapter was just a bully; I had to rewrite this at least five times, and I'm still not happy with the end product, but don't keep beating something that's dead, right? Or, something like that... But I hope y'all will still enjoy it, because only three more chapters left until we end DoS and cross into the "uncharted" territory that is BOFA, with a twist!

(And I haven't been idle all this time, either: if you haven't checked it out yet, I recently rewrote the prologue to this story and corrected some grammar mistakes in the first chapter, so you should go check it out if you haven't already! It offers a little more insight on the roots of the Ashburne Line and I think it's just better, but that's my opinion; and I will continue to go back and edit those earlier chapters, because... eh).

Now, secondly, to answer reviews:

To Guest 1: Thank you so much for your review! To answer your questions, I will NOT be stopping this story and waiting for BOFA to come out, because I have WAY too much planned to be delayed, so I'll be winging it from here basically. *refuses to say anything about Kilison until next chapter* But yes, Legolas will still be in the story, as you will soon see ;)

To Guest 2: I don't know if anyone has helped you yet, or if you even see this, but if you want to publish your story, my advice is to first get a profile! I don't think this site allows anonymous publishing (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong), but if you still need help after getting a profile, I will be glad to help!

To wickedgrl123: Ahh, thank you so much! Don't worry, I have a lot planned for our upcoming Kili/Tauriel/Alison dynamic... ;)

Thank you also to Miriel Tolkien, ACreativeHobbit, mh21, PK-chan12, aeriestar, and other/same Guest for your reviews!

Whew. Now on to the chapter...

Chapter Forty-Two: Dealings of a Different Kind

Bard's awakening was slow and painful; he was aware that he had finally seemed to break through the swath of unconsciousness layering thickly on his mind, yet every time he attempted to move or sit up, an outstanding throb would emanate from his left temple and spread outwards, making him grit his teeth and suck in tight, hissing breaths as he lay on his back... somewhere.

He didn't know where he was; it felt like he was laying on damp straw, and the stench of fish oil and tar and decaying wood permeated the air, though that did nothing to eliminate from the list of places where he could be, for there wasn't a single thing in this town that didn't smell like that.

Finally, the thought of not knowing began to drive him mad, and, despite his protesting head and stiff muscles, he pushed himself up with his hands and cracked open his eyes, taking in his surroundings warily.

He was sitting on a thin, pathetic excuse for a cot, with a dusty, dirty stone floor beneath him and equally grimy wooden walls hemming him in from three sides - only three sides, because in front of him was a set of iron bars, and everything finally clicked into place: the rumble from the Mountain, the Black Arrow, Braga and the chase through the streets, and then - nothing. All he remembered was sprinting down an alley, something smashing into his head, falling, and then all had gone black until he had woken up in here.

Judging by the shadows on the walls and the numerous lanterns that were glowing outside of his cell, Bard guessed it was still sometime in the night; though if it was the same night or many different nights later, he could not say.

His musings were cut short, however, when further down the hall there was the sound of a door swinging open and then many hushed, low voices and footsteps, and Bard strained to hear what they were saying, crossing over to the bars while ignoring his pounding head, and assuming it to be the guards as they spoke,.

"First that rumblin' from the Mountain, now there's Orcs in the streets? Bloody 'ell, you'd think the world was comin' to an end - "

"Mind you, I'm thinkin' those Orcs was after somethin' specific. They di'n't even touch the townsfolk - "

"Scared 'em right out of their wits, though; ole Miss Peggy swears up and down that her husband died from fright - "

"Of course she swears that, she's wanted him dead for nineteen years, anyway - "

Bard wrapped his hands around the bars, thinking hard and frowning in worry. Orcs? In Esgaroth? There was no way...

And then Bard remembered Bofur's comment, about how Orcs had been following them since the Misty Mountains, and how he and Alison had debated over the possibility of them still being tracked...

After that memory struck him, Bard felt horror drive straight to his core as he realized that if the Company was still being followed, that would lead the Orcs straight to -

"No," Bard whispered, but he was distracted by the door swinging open once more, and he focused on what was happening beyond the line of cellblocks he was in, trying to keep a tight grasp on his fear and sudden dread.

He pressed closer to the bars when he heard one of the guards say in an oily voice, "'E's right down there, Sire. Last block at the end of the hall." There was the sound of heavy-soled feet coming down the line of cells Bard was being kept in, but when he saw who had come to visit him, he stepped away from the bars immediately, for it was the last man he wanted to see.

"Evening, Bard," the Master said jovially, but his face was twisted into a nasty, triumphant leer as he glared at Bard from the other side of the bars. "Fancy seeing you here after your, ah... unfortunate conk to the head." The greasy man pointed to his forehead and winced mockingly, and Bard felt his teeth grinding against one another as he glared at the Master.

"You bastard," he growled, and the Master only raised an eyebrow coolly. "You better have a damn good cause for locking me up in here, or else your concern with that treasure in the Mountain will be the last thing on your mind."

The Master waved a pudgy, grubby hand at Bard, scoffing. "Don't get all dramatic on me, bargeman. I didn't bring you here because I wanted to arrest you; I brought you here for a nice little chat."

Bard crossed his arms, still glaring at the repulsive man before him. "Right. Of course. Explain to me how that's sensible again?"

The Master rolled his eyes, huffing out a large breath that made his mustache ripple as he then fixed those same beady eyes on him.

"Mere technicalities," he dismissed, and now it was Bard's turn to roll his eyes. "What matters, bargeman, was that I needed to seek you out without raising suspicion. And when the opportunity arose, I took it."

"'Seek me out?'" Bard repeated, furrowing his brows and not even bothering to point out the flaws in the Master's plan. "Why? It's no secret you loathe me; what could you possibly want with me? And especially now that I hear that there's been an Orc attack?"

The Master looked quite uncomfortable at the mention of the Orcs, and he muttered something under his breath that sounded like "ongoing investigation..." But after a quick clear of his throat, he faced Bard squarely again, his jowls quivering as he replied, "Yes, well, it is times like these when one finds they need to resort to, ah, options that do not please them entirely in order to deal with the task at hand."

"And what would that task be?" Bard asked flatly; his head was still throbbing from where he had been hit - no thanks to the Master - and he felt nearly weak with worry, making him impatient and short, wondering whether his family was safe and if the Orcs had found the dwarves or not, and everything else on top of that, also.

He reached out and grasped the bars again, imagining them as an anchor grounding him as the Master answered, his tone suddenly brisk and business-like, the politician that had gotten him his position in the first place making an appearance as Bard listened warily.

"Well, as you very well know, Thorin Oakenshield and his Company set off for the Mountain two days ago with the intent of entering the Dwarf kingdom and seeking out a very valuable jewel, called the Arkenstone. This King's Jewel, as they call it, has the potential to unite the Dwarven armies, and once rallied, they plan on killing the dragon and then reclaiming the kingdom."

Ahem, about that... Bard wanted to say, but he kept his mouth shut, more for Alison's sake than his own; as much as he'd like to tell the Master that the dragon was coming and get him to possibly evacuate the town, he knew of the Hero's fears that too many people knowing would make things worse, and, besides, the Master would never believe him anyway.

So what he said instead was, "And what does this have to do with me? This seems like a Dwarf problem, not ours."

The Master gave him a dry look, as if he had spoiled the big reveal, but went on nonetheless.

"Your part is simple," he said. "Once Thorin Oakenshield kills the dragon and is reinstated King under the Mountain, he is - supposedly - in accordance with me to provide Esgaroth with a sum for our services. However," he paused and made an expression that looked like he had just swallowed a lemon, before clearing his throat and continuing. "He left before our terms could fully be enacted; and that, I suspect, was purposeful, for it is widely known of the greediness of Dwarves, and no doubt they do not want to share the gold with us."

"Guess you must be half-Dwarf, then," Bard muttered under his breath, but the Master plowed on, unaware of the comment.

"This meaning - and I have thought long and hard about it - that I decided you would be the best candidate to convince the Dwarf that Esgaroth needs payment, after all we have done for them and their quest."

Bard stared blankly while the Master simpered down at him; him? Becoming the new lackey for the Master? Not likely.

"Why me?" Bard asked suspiciously. "Why not get Alfrid or one of the others you have stuffed in your pocket to do it?"

The Master's flabby features tightened at Bard's question, but he replied evenly, "Because you know those dwarves, Bard. You gave them shelter and helped them, and, however brief and shaky, they trusted you. Surely they will trust you with such a, erm... delicate matter now."

"And if I refuse?" Bard asked, raising an eyebrow. "What then?"

"Exile," the Master said, with no hesitation and a wide smile. "For you and your children. But..." And here, the Master appraised Bard from head to foot, his lip curling slightly. "If you help me, then I will agree to leave you alone. The spies, the distrust; all of it, gone. You can live the simple, carefree life you have always craved, off the books and not in anyone's business but your own. I'd say that would be a fair deal, no?"

Bard did not reply immediately, instead feeling his fists curl once more at his sides. He wasn't a politician, or a negotiator, and he certainly did not want to plead on the Master's behalf before Thorin; but if Alison's version of things changed, and Bard did not have to kill the dragon, he didn't want to risk exile should he refuse; yet he wanted even less for the dwarves to fail and for the dragon to come here, where he would be forced to kill it, and then everyone would be in exile because the town was destroyed. The Master's offer was a fair one, but it seemed almost too fair to him, given the history between the two men. It was... suspicious, to say the least.

Bard sighed. There seemed to be no winning side for him in this situation.

"I'll... think about it," he said finally, and the words left a bitter taste in his mouth when he spoke them. "Just... I need to think."

The Master's expression did not change, but he gave a curt nod. "Very well," he said briskly. "But I won't wait for your answer forever, bargeman. I am not a patient man."

"I'm aware," Bard deadpanned, and the Master sniffed. "Now, can I be released, or would you like to chain me to the wall for the night?" He smirked. "Though I must say, shackles are not my type of thing."

The Master rolled his eyes once more, gesturing for one of the guards down the hall to bring the keys. The guard complied, bringing the ring of keys and fumbling to open the cell, and Bard stepped out, making for the street until the Master caught the sleeve of his coat.

"I want you to seriously consider my offer, bargeman," he hissed, bringing Bard's face down to eye-level since he was so much taller than the pudgy man. "You would be wise to stand with me, rather than against me."

"And I think it would be wiser to stand on neither side, and be left out of this mess entirely," he countered, causing the Master's face to pinch. "But, then again, I am but a simple bargeman."

And with that, Bard tugged his coat out of the Master's grasp and stalked out of the jailhouse, turning towards the direction of his house and wondering what he had gotten himself into, and dreading what was now to come even more than before.

"You should take a break, lad," a voice said from behind Fíli, and the blonde dwarf turned to see Óin standing and giving him a small smile. "You've barely gotten any sleep since yesterday, and you're starting to stare at Kíli like you want to murder him."

"Part of me does want to," Fíli admitted with a weak grin, as the healer dwarf came to stand by his shoulder. Fíli closed his eyes, rubbing his hands over his face as he breathed a deep sigh. "After making me think that he... that I would never..."

He felt his throat close up, and Óin patted his shoulder gently. "I understand," he said quietly. "But he's fine now. Step outside for a moment, clear your head, breathe. He's going to be all right; all of us are."

Fíli bit his lip, looking down to the prone figure of his brother on the table; already, he was starting to see dramatic changes in the dark-haired prince's appearance, something that gave him some renewed hope after the horrors of the past few hours alone. He was still pale and wan, but the shadows under his eyes had lessened and his breathing had stabilized, and even now, his skin was regaining some of its former bronze, instead of the waxy pallor it had been.

After staring at his unconscious brother for a few more seconds, Fíli finally nodded and stood up from the chair he had occupied, giving Óin a faint smile as the old dwarf took his vacated seat and began checking Kíli once more.

After a slight hesitation, Fíli turned and stepped out of the door of Bard's house, where it now hung crooked on its hinges and part of the bottom half had been kicked in from the fight. He shut it as much as he possibly could before he gave up, knowing that that would have to be fixed soon, along with most everything in the house that had been destroyed in the attack.

Thinking about the Orcs made Fíli wince and subconsciously rub the nasty bruise on his ribs from where a particularly violent beast had kicked him, and he sighed, wishing he could just sleep and forget about everything for a while, though he knew he had far too much to do instead of resting; as long as he was upright and not on death's door, he would do whatever he could to help. After all, it was kind of their fault that this had happened. Lake-town was just collateral damage. They had been the Orcs' intended targets.

"Have you come to join the pity party, also?" Fíli looked down and saw Alison sitting on the planks of the porch, her legs fitting easily through the railings to where her feet dangled over the canal and the street below, looking up at him with the barest of smiles.

"Should I fetch the whiskey to drown our sorrows first?" he replied, moving over to sit by her, and she chuckled, wincing when her face twitched in pain, and Fíli felt a twinge of sympathy for her when he took in the extent of her injuries.

Her once-angular face and high cheekbones now seemed distorted, swollen and puffy and mottled with dark and ugly bruises, and she now sported two brilliant black eyes from where the Orc had broken her nose, though he noticed with some relief that, while still bruised, her nose was no longer out of alignment and had stopped bleeding, though there was still some dried blood on her chin. She looked awful, but, as per usual, she tried to act as if it wasn't bothering her as her half-hearted grin slipped into a frown.

"Honestly, I could do with a drink right now," she said, sighing, and Fíli nodded slowly.

"That I can understand," he said quietly, looking out upon the town below them. People still milled in the streets, talking in anxious and panicked tones, but it was nowhere near the terror and mania that had been happening earlier, thank Mahal.

"So how's Kíli doing?" she asked, her eyes raking over the town below them, too.

"Much better, thank the Valar," he said, watching a woman wrap a thin blanket around her two children before ushering them inside of their home and shutting the door, the light in the house being extinguished shortly after. "He's still out cold, but the infection is gone and he's starting to return to normal. Soon it'll just be a regular wound that he'll have to deal with."

She nodded, tucking a piece of hair that had come loose from her braid behind her ear before turning to him and scrutinizing him carefully, her eyes bright and pale in the surrounding darkness.

"And you?" she said. "How are you holding up?"

Fíli met her eyes for a few seconds before looking away again, sighing and resting his forehead against one of the wooden railings. "Honestly? Terrible. Just so, so terrible." When she didn't comment, he went on, closing his eyes and imagining he was speaking to himself as everything he had been feeling over the last week came bubbling to the surface.

"I'm angry, and frustrated, from those bloody Orcs attacking us, and Thorin leaving us behind - and I know it was my choice, but part of me is just so... resentful. We came all this way, and now we're not even at the Mountain; we're here, putting these people's lives in danger because some maggoty creatures want our heads for their Master, or who the hell ever. And I also want nothing more than to go after that Bolg bastard and rip him apart limb from limb, for what he did to - to Kíli..."

He sucked in a sharp breath, feeling wetness in his still-closed eyes, but the words continued to flow out of him, as if he had no control over his mouth. "And I'm terrified, really, truly terrified; I almost lost Kíli. And not in the way when we were lads and he'd be at archery practice and I at swords; he almost died. I could see him dying before my eyes, and I knew I was helpless to stop it. And I kept thinking about what could've happened, if Tauriel hadn't saved him, about how I would have to tell Thorin, and the others at the Mountain, and if the quest was over and I went back to Ered Luin, and having to tell our mother that he..."

He swallowed, hard, not even caring if Alison could hear the hitch in his voice, could see the lone tear trail down his face as he went on. "I would have failed him if he'd died. And I can't allow that to happen; I promised I would protect him, that I'd always be there. And now that he's safe, I can't stop thinking about the others, and if they're still alive, and what's going to happen - "

He stopped abruptly, not sure whether he just wanted to scream or punch something or both, before he heard Alison exhale slowly from beside him, just that one simple gesture sounding so strained and tired.

"I couldn't possibly begin to know how you're feeling," she began quietly, as he kept his eyes shut tight and tried to focus on breathing and her voice, anything besides the storm of emotions raging inside of him. "Kíli getting hurt by Bolg never even happened in the book, and, to be honest, Tauriel was never even mentioned in it, so this whole thing... God, I was terrified. I knew some things were changing from the storyline, but the path always seemed to reassert itself later down the line, and now I just feel like the universe is mocking me, or something, because I can't control any of this, and if something happens to one of you..." She paused, her breath hitching before she went on, much more quietly and subdued. "I think what scared me the most about losing Kíli was the effect it would have had on you, and Thorin. I just - "

She stopped, and Fíli finally looked up to her, confusion and worry prickling his skin when he realized that her expression had become torn, as if she were battling with herself over something internal. He was about to ask her what was wrong, but before he could open his mouth, she beat him to it.

"I wasn't sent here for the sole purpose of aiding your quest," she blurted, and Fíli's eyebrows furrowed in shock and bafflement as she suddenly looked horrified at what she had said, her body tensing and her eyes widening as he looked on.

"What are you on about?" he asked. "What other reason were you..."

He trailed off, once he realized that he had seen this expression on her before; once, when they were in Mirkwood and she had woken up from a nightmare, and she had refused to talk about it, and the second time, just recently, when the group at the Mountain had been preparing to leave and she had looked at Thorin, before screaming his name and running to him to talk, and when they had come back, Thorin and her had not looked the same...

"Is this reason what you talked to Thorin about before he left?" he asked, and she just nodded slowly, her expression... fearful, almost, as she held his gaze, and he could feel dread settling in the pit of his stomach, not even sure he wanted to know what she was about to say - and he could tell she was about to say it, by the way she was acting; frightened, and nervous, and something that looked like self-loathing in her features, the words on the tip of her tongue.

"I'm... not just here to help you all with the quest," she reiterated. "When I first came here, and Gandalf found me, he... he told me that I had another purpose." She took a deep breath and met his eyes again, and this time, they were hard and stoic, as she said purposefully, "I was also summoned for this quest because I'm supposed to save the Line of Durin."

Fíli stared at her for a couple of seconds, mulling over the words before realization suddenly hit him, and all feeling seemed to vanish from him as he continued to stare. What was she... ?

"Remember that battle I told you all about?" she asked cautiously, when he still did not speak. "Well, in the book, you, and Thorin, and Kíli... you don't make it. But that's what Gandalf told me I had the power to change, and - "

"How long have you known about this?" he said, and he didn't feel anything when his voice came out cold and emotionless, or when Alison flinched slightly at his tone. It was like an icy void where his feelings used to be, though he could still feel his core on fire, searing him from the inside out while the suddenly buried emotions tried to escape, tried to make him feel as if the world was trying to break him once more.

When she didn't immediately answer, the icy numbness within Fíli grew, and he honestly didn't know what to feel or think anymore as she eventually said, "Since I first got here. Or, a long time before that, if you count the mortal world, and when I first read the book."

"Who all knows?" he asked, his eyes boring into hers, and he distantly noticed that she looked considerably uncomfortable, and confused, as if she hadn't expected him to react this way, though he couldn't find it within himself to sympathize with her.

"Um... Gandalf, me, Thorin, and now you," she answered hesitantly, and he breathed out his nose, shutting his eyes, and he wondered why he couldn't feel anything, why he wasn't responding to the dread and fear and anger and frustration he could feel at his core, why he was... indifferent, almost.

"So Kíli doesn't know?" he asked, and he sensed her shaking her head. "Good; let's keep it that way for now. He doesn't need this thrust upon him as soon as he wakes up."

Now he sensed her nodding, and then she said, in a quiet and hesitant voice, "Fíli, I'm sorry. I didn't want to keep this from you for as long as I did, but - "

"But you did," he said flatly, interrupting her, and he could feel the shock and flicker of hurt that rolled over her, even though he still wasn't looking at her as he reopened his eyes. "It's been a long night. You should go inside, get some rest."

There was a heavy, tense moment of silence, and then he saw her get to her feet out of his peripheral as he continued to stare blankly at the dark waters below.

She hesitated, and he could feel her eyes on him and sensed she was about to say something, but at the last second, she closed her mouth and walked away, grappling with the broken door before entering back into the house, and leaving him alone in the black and bitter night.

He had no idea why he was acting the way that he was, but he knew that whatever was going on with him, it was happening because he was trying to cover up what he was really feeling, fighting back the despair and enmity that were threatening to drag him to a dark place he had no desire to think of.

He wasn't even sure who he was really angry with; Alison, for leaving him in the dark about something so paramount, when she and Gandalf had known for months, or with himself, for being too stupid to realize something was off from the beginning. Because now that the greater picture was there, the puzzle pieces that had led to its completion were all falling into place, as well.

The way she had reacted when they had first met in The Shire, her expression flickering as if she had been holding something back when he had introduced himself, or those random moments where he would look over at her in the dark or walking through the Wild, her gaze fixed on either him or Kíli or Thorin with a stubborn, determined scowl and a thoughtful look; or the more obvious reasons, like the nightmares and the worries and the tip-toeing around the book and the battle... it all made so much sense now, and Fíli was finding himself growing hotter yet colder with every new revelation.

And now that Alison had told them of her vision, where she had seen Johnathan and Azog leading the army to the Mountain, Fíli had a horrible, gut-wrenching feeling that the battle would commence either way, story or no. It seemed inevitable now, and Fíli knew that he was afraid, for himself, for Kíli, and for Thorin, even more so than ever before, despite the layer of numbness he had chosen to cocoon himself in so he would not have to outwardly show that fear. He didn't even know how his supposed death was supposed to happen, and that just added to his terror.

He was so wrapped up in his thoughts that he didn't even notice Bofur, Óin, and Bain leaving the house to dispose of the few bodies that had not been taken care of yet, and even less did he acknowledge Tauriel slip out of the house and disappear down the steps a few minutes later, armed with her bow and blades once more as she ghosted after the trail (unbeknownst to him) of Legolas.

Though he did notice, quite frankly, when a violent quake rocked through the earth, making the porch underneath him rattle and snapping him from his daze, and he lurched to his feet just as the door behind him crashed open, and Alison appeared at his side, and, in unison, they both turned their heads towards the Mountain.

The lonely peak looked the same as ever, still jutting into the black sky like a crown upon the world, but now, there was a great opening in the side of it, winking out at them from across the lake like a flickering candle, but this was not what captured Fíli's attention.

Because, high above them, and silhouetted against the silver of the moon, a great, winged shadow was soaring towards the small, desolate town on the lake, and, though Fíli had never before experienced a hurricane, his immediate thought was that he was in one as the sound of rushing wings - for that was undoubtedly what it was - grew closer to where they stood, rooted to the spot in shock and some awe, before Alison swore violently.

"Get ready," she said to Fíli, as the dwarf watched the shadow hurtling closer to the town, and he turned to face her, her green eyes hard and scared as the shrieking and howling of wings drew closer. "Because it looks like a dragon is coming to crash the party."

Several Hours Earlier

Stone and debris was flying everywhere, the Mountain wracking with tremors as Thorin watched the Front Gate before him being torn apart, a roar like thunder upon the earth sounding throughout the vast halls as the Gate finally crumbled, and claws longer than the height of a fully-grown Man could now be seen.

"Stand your ground!" he shouted, but he wasn't sure if he could be heard over the terrible noises the dragon was making as it finally succeeded in breaking through the last of the Gate, a bout of liquid fire streaming towards the assembled guards and soldiers barricading the now-destroyed Gate.

"Look out!" Thorin roared, as the fire heated the hall behind them to an inferno, and he dove to the rubble-strewn floor, those nearest him copying his movements, but others were not so fortunate; soon, their screams and cries began to swell with the cacophony of the dragon's attack, and the rank stench of melting iron and crackling flesh slammed into Thorin's senses, making him gag as he huddled on the floor, waiting for the white-hot flames to subside.

But there was no relenting in the attack; the dragon now forced itself fully into the broiling and devastated halls, and Thorin could only watch, helpless, as the drake stormed deeper into the once-impenetrable kingdom -

"THORIN!" Thráin's voice boomed, and Thorin scrambled to his feet instantly, his gaze locking with his father's one good eye as the older Dwarf hefted his war hammer, mustering what remained of the guard to him.

"Get Thrór out of here!" His father roared. "Find the King!"

Thorin hesitated, but only for a second; his father would lead the guard well in his stead, and his words also struck fear within Thorin, for he was right; Thorin hadn't seen his grandfather since before the dragon first began its assault - and he had a sinking idea of where the King would be.

The race to the treasury was a blur; dwarves and dwarrowdams alike ran by him in the opposite direction, screaming and clinging onto each other, cradling their children and praying to Mahal as Thorin followed the trail of havoc the dragon was wreaking, and he realized with a thrill of suppressed terror that it was making straight for the treasury - just like Thorin.

He put on a burst of speed, regaining his balance when there was a resounding crash, and he guessed the dragon had just reached the treasury as he rounded the corner and sprinted inside, shielding his eyes from the flames that were now being spit in triumph as the dragon burrowed into the gold.

"Thrór!" Thorin shouted, when a movement from his peripheral caught his eye, and he saw his grandfather hurrying towards him, his hands filled with a shining white light -

The ground rocked again, as the dragon let out a bone-shuddering roar, and Thrór stumbled, the now-recognized Arkenstone in his hands flying away, into the heaving masses of treasure below -

"NO!" Thrór bellowed, pitching himself after the lost stone, but Thorin grabbed his grandfather and pulled him back from the edge of the platform they were on, ignoring the fists hammering into him and his grandfather's crazed, inhuman cries as he pulled him out of the treasury, knowing there was no use, that the dragon had won -

"I - AM - SMAUG!" the dragon thundered, making the walls tremble inside the cavernous space. "YOUR KINGDOM IS MINE!"

And the last thing Thorin saw, as he dragged his grandfather out of the treasury, still kicking and screaming like a small child, was the dragon, newly-christened Smaug, gloating in the gold he had been drawn to in the first place, embedding himself deep into the mountain kingdom he had infected like a parasite in a corpse -

"Thorin!" Bilbo whispered harshly, and Thorin jerked, coming back to the present as his eyes refocused on the hobbit's white, pinched face, instead of the burning kingdom he seemed to be reminded of every two seconds ever since they had reached the Mountain.

Only now, instead of fire and ruin, the kingdom was cold, dark, and haunted, and Thorin could see his breath curling in the air as he met the concerned stares of his companions around him, waiting for him to direct their next move.

Western guard room, he repeated to himself sternly. That is our next destination.

"Right," he said curtly, blinking and looking around the corner of the corridor they were currently in, listening and sweeping his eyes carefully around, making sure there was no sign of the dragon before he gestured them after him with a wave of his hand, saying, "This way."

As the group stole quickly and quietly down the corridor, Thorin tried to ignore the stares his back was receiving from the others, though most notably among them being Bilbo. Though, if he was being honest with himself, it didn't take a Wizard to know why.

The hobbit had been the only one present in the treasury when Smaug had made his initial appearance to Thorin, and he knew that Bilbo had seen his... slip-up, when he had first laid eyes on the gold.

Thorin was still spooked by what had come over him, when he had truly realized just how much wealth actually lay within Erebor; the way his eyes had fastened eagerly on the treasure, his limbs locking and heart stuttering in fascination and wonder, the thought that all of it was his ensnaring his mind and stirring something deep within his chest.

But he had caught himself at the last moment, the dragon's imminent arrival, Bilbo's coaxing, and Alison's and Elrond's words all crashing into him at once and snapping him out of his trance. Yet Thorin could still feel... something within him, a shadow of a thought on his mind, and now he seemed to be in a constant battle against himself, warring with memories of the past and his present thoughts drifting, ever so slightly, towards the treasure he had now seen...

Thorin ripped himself violently from that train of thought, channeling all of his focus and energy to the task at hand, which was to try and lead the Company under his charge to safety. He would not subject himself to thoughts of the gold-sickness; he could not afford it. Not when their predicament had become so dire.

The journey to the guard room was slow and painstaking; tension and anxiety were thick in the air, the halls eerily silent, as if they were holding their breath, and Thorin winced whenever someone's shoe scuffed the stone a little too loudly, or a ragged breath met his ears, the darkness and silence seeming to weigh on them, concealing a serpentine predator in its embrace and giving chills to Thorin's spine as he led the dwarves and Bilbo on, each step in agony and anticipation of being caught.

By the time they reached the guard room, they had only had one incident that would be considered a close-call with Smaug, when they had been crossing a narrow bridge in one of the lower western halls and the beast had slithered right above them, lantern eyes flickering from side to side, searching out his prey. Fortunately, he had not noticed them passing right underneath his belly, but it had still been too close for comfort to Thorin, and his fingers still shook slightly from the narrow encounter.

But the guard room was right ahead, and Thorin ushered them on with a burst of speed, his heart lifting at the prospect of leading his companions to momentary safety, before they regrouped and determined their next course of action -

His steps faltered, though, as soon as he crossed the threshold to the room, knowing immediately that something was wrong, terribly, horribly, wrong -

"Oh," Bilbo breathed out sadly from beside him, his light brown eyes taking in the scene before them mournfully, his features sagging. "Oh, no."

Thorin felt as if a great crack had opened within him, widening and ripping him apart wider and wider as his eyes roved over the horrific sight before him, and he could sense the others' shock and sorrow around him as he took it in.

Corpses littered the room, mingled with two centuries' worth of dust and rubble, all piled together and jumbled like a morbid depiction of the contents of a child's toy chest, withered and sunken, with rags that were once clothes clinging to the emaciated bodies, tufts of snarled, wispy hair on some chins and skulls, and gaping eye sockets and open mouths, as if the last thing they had been trying to do was scream for help, either from others or Mahal himself; and that was when Thorin noticed the blocked passageways, and the furrows in the stone, as if the dead before him had tried in vain to struggle out of the horrors of the fallen kingdom...

Thorin's stomach churned, and he thought he was going to be sick, but he couldn't bring himself to look away, instead stepping deeper into the room as the others stood rooted behind him, and the cracks continued to carve deeper and wider inside of him as he realized - these were his people.

The ones that had tried to seek salvation and refuge, the ones they had not the time nor the resources to come back for and evacuate, the ones that had died in the firestorm - the ones he had failed to save.

And with this crippling realization, it was then that Thorin comprehended that he had led the others with him to their deaths as well, that those standing behind him he could not save either -

No, he thought vehemently. No. I may have failed the souls trapped within this room, but I will not forsake my friends now. We will not suffer such a fate. Not while I still draw breath, not while I still fight. We will not die.

"That's it, then," Dwalin said from behind him, and Thorin tore his gaze away from the fallen, facing his stark-white friend as he gazed at the corpses of the brothers and sisters he had never known before him, his voice hollow. "There's no way out."

"The last of our kin," Balin said heavily, his blue eyes layered with a thin veil of tears, grief etched deep into his features. "They must have come here, hoping beyond hope that they would escape, that they..." He trailed off, a crystalline tear falling into his dirty beard as Glóin put a heavy hand upon his shoulder, looking more solemn than Thorin had ever seen him.

And it was this, more than anything else, that goaded Thorin, the cracks within him beginning to sear and burn, filling him with a fire that suddenly thirsted for vengeance, for every lost soul within this room, for every friend standing before him and every last Dwarf on the earth - the newfound fire began to burn, bright and hot, for them.

"We could try for the mines," Balin said, his voice subdued. "We might last a few more days there."

"No," Thorin said, and his voice echoed strangely around the tomb-like room, every eye going to him as he met all of their stares levelly, his jaw tightening. "I will not die like this. Cowering, clawing for breath."

He paused, taking a deep breath as a seedling of a plan dropped into his brain; it would be madness, he knew, practically suicidal - but by everything blessed in Mahal's name, he would not die like this.

"We make for the forges," he said evenly, registering the shock and stunned looks on his companions' faces, but he pressed on, refusing to be deterred. "I will not wait to be hunted down and killed by this snake; we make a stand. Now."

"He'll see us, as sure as death," Dwalin said grimly, staring at Thorin as if he had lost his mind - and maybe he had, for a plan this rash and bold to have taken root there, but he could not see any other viable option.

"Then we split up," he said, but Balin was shaking his head, looking pained.

"Thorin, we'll never make it," he protested.

"Some of us might," Thorin countered, looking around at them all again. "Lead him to the forges. We kill the dragon."

He swept his gaze over them once more when they did not speak, his tone hard and unflinching as he said, "If this is to end in fire, then we will all burn together."

Author's Note

Ah, yes, the famous line at the end.

So, Bard and the Master's conversation will come up later in the story, if you're wondering what the point of that was, and it will raise some issues, so be prepared for that! And, THE DRAGON IS COMING. Gahh, I'm so excited to write this part! Only three more chapters to go until then... And Fili is mad at Alison, and Tauriel left, and next chapter is the moment we've all been waiting for: KILI/TAURIEL/ALISON. Still got your Life-Alerts? ;)

Also, the timeline gets a little wonky from here on out, but I'll do my best to keep it as orderly as possible, though it won't exactly be linear, if that makes any sense? But next chapter is strictly in Lake-town, and the next two will be heavily reliant on the movie, with some added POV thrown in to keep the ball rolling, if you're curious about all that. But I should really shut up now, right?

Anyway, thank you for all the reviews/favorites/follows! Welcome, to all you new ones! I hope my incessant rambling hasn't scared you off yet, but thanks for joining the story! All of you are amazing! So, please 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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