The March of Time

48: Of King's Jewels and Magic Rings

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

Quick A/N: Hello, all, and welcome back to another chapter! I haven't had time to hardcore edit this chapter this time, so I apologize for any mistakes you will undoubtedly find. If you happen to find one, don't be afraid to point it out, and I will try to go back and edit it as soon as I am able. Thanks!

Thank you to mh21, PK-chan12, Obi-wan's girl forever, KelseyBl, Lily Rae, and Guest for their reviews!

And now on to the chapter! Enjoy!

Chapter Forty-Eight: Of King's Jewels and Magic Rings

The sun had just begun to stain the horizon red as Tauriel and Legolas approached the disbanded camp of the Lake-people, the grey smoke over their town still trailing upwards into the dawn sky and giving everything an opaque look as the two Elves cleared the tree-line and entered into the still and silent camp.

Refugees lay huddled together in tight-knit groups as they slept in the center of the clearing, a handful of guards scattered around the perimeter and looking on the verge of collapse as one nodded to the two Elves, stifling a yawn but managing to look awed at their presence at the same time, something Tauriel found amusing as her and Legolas moved deeper into the makeshift camp.

"I will inform the Master of Thranduil's message," Legolas said, so softly that none of the people they strode by even stirred, and Tauriel nodded.

"Do you think he will even accept the King's offer?" she said, lightly stepping over a sleeping man's sprawled-out arm as he slept near his wife.

Legolas snorted, a quiet sound that made Tauriel smile at the normalcy of it. "He'd be a fool not to," he pointed out, and Tauriel nodded again in agreement.

"Well, then I wish you luck, mellonín," she said, shooting the elf prince a sarcastic grin as he made a face back at her. "Find me when you are finished."

Legolas inclined his head and kept walking forward, to where the large form of the Master could now be seen sitting near a pathetic fire with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, the greasy, gangly Alfrid hovering over him like a worried crow as Tauriel snickered to herself and turned away, heading towards the edge of the camp where the dwarves, Alison Ashburne, and Bard and his children were.

She approached silently, her eyes sweeping over the sleeping forms scattered around a fire that Fíli was currently feeding more twigs and leaves, the only person awake amidst the group.

Tauriel scuffed her boot slightly on the ground to get the dwarf's attention, and he looked up, inclining his head respectfully when he noticed her.

"You're back," he said, brushing his hands off on his pants and standing up, though he barely stood taller than her breasts. "Did you find a patrol?"

"Indeed," Tauriel said, as Fíli looked relieved. "They told Legolas and me that Thranduil had already sent them out under orders to look for any Lake-town refugees. They should have reached the Halls a few hours ago, and said they would be back to help lead the refugees and bring you your supplies at… now."

She smiled at the befuddled look on the prince's face as her ears picked up a familiar sound of light, rushing footsteps, and she turned towards the tree-line as three elves dashed into the clearing, their sharp eyes finding her immediately, and they headed over.

"Fíli, this is Feren, Lethuin, and Menelwen," Tauriel introduced, pointing out the three elves, two males with black and brown hair and one flaxen-haired female, who all nodded stiffly to Fíli, and he returned the gesture.

"We have the supplies, as you asked for," Menelwen said, indicating the packs on hers and the others' backs, and Tauriel clasped the guard's shoulder gratefully.

"King Thranduil has ordered a space be set up for the refugees, as well," Lethuin added. "It will be ready when they arrive."

"You have done well, my friends," Tauriel thanked. "We can begin moving them in a few hours, once they have awakened."

"What about food?" Fíli said, furrowing his brows. "These people haven't eaten since two nights ago, and most of them are injured and exhausted. They need strength."

"We can help hunt for them," Menelwen replied. "Those who know how to use a bow and trap will come with us, as for any person able enough to do the task."

"I can begin to round those folk up," a voice said from behind them, and the four elves and the dwarf turned to see Bard striding out of the trees, looking exhausted but walking with a proud set to his shoulders as he came to a stop before them. "There aren't many who know how to hunt, I'm afraid, considering the majority of them are fishermen and shop owners, but there is a group of huntsmen I know and some guards who will be up to the task."

"Good," Tauriel said, nodding, and she gave the bowman a fleeting smile when his dark eyes met hers, his grim features cracking a little when he returned the gesture. "Then let's get to work."

Fíli began to wake the others in his small group while Bard made his way to the center of the camp to seek out the men who would help them, and Menelwen and Lethuin, looking somewhat disgruntled, passed out supplies to the waking dwarves and Alison Ashburne.

Tauriel watched their proceedings for a moment until she felt a presence at her shoulder, and she turned into the stern face of Feren standing behind her, his dark hair and olive skin looking washed out and grey in the hazy light.

"Captain," the guard said without preamble, and Tauriel braced herself for what was to come, already knowing what was on his mind. "Thranduil is angry with you, extremely angry. What you did—"

"I am aware of what Thranduil may think of me right now," Tauriel interrupted, holding up a hand. "I would be a fool not to realize what my actions have caused within the Woodland Realm, and I will accept whatever scolding is to come, though I will not admit that what I did was shameful."

Feren opened his mouth, looking as if he was going to say more, but they turned as Alison Ashburne approached them, yawning and smoothing down wild wisps of hair that had freed themselves from her braid as her new supply pack bumped against her back.

"Lady Ashburne," Tauriel greeted, as Feren gave a stiff nod from beside her. "Are you planning on leaving soon?"

"Yeah, right now, apparently," she said, giving a pointed glare in Fíli's direction, and Tauriel stifled a snort. "So I just came to say, you know, good-bye, and…thank you."

At this point, Feren prudently moved away to go help his companions, leaving Tauriel and Alison alone as the two women faced each other.

"You have nothing to thank me for," Tauriel said gently, touched at the Hero's consideration. "It was my honor to help assist in evacuating the town and helping these people."

"Not just that," Alison said, and Tauriel took in her pale eyes, churning with so much emotion that the she-Elf wondered how she could stand it all, though her smile was warm. "You and Legolas, you tracked those orcs that were after us, and in that fight…you saved us. We would've been overpowered, but you helped us fight them off, and then you saved Kíli's life…"

She trailed off, biting her lip, and Tauriel stepped forward, placing her hands lightly on the warrior's shoulders. "I accept your thanks, Alison Ashburne," she said. "You are a Hero with every beat of your heart and every drop of your blood. It was an honor to fight alongside you, and you will be remembered a friend of the Elves of the Woodland Realm through many long years."

The Hero said nothing, but her eyes shined and her face had split into a wide grin, and before she knew it, her arms were wrapped around Tauriel and the she-Elf was pulled into a tight but quick embrace.

Tauriel stood stiffly for a few seconds, until she got over her initial shock and put her own hands on Alison's back, a hundred feelings coiling in her chest as she realized she had not been treated in such a manner since she was a youngling, since she had her family…

Alison stepped away, looking chagrined at her sudden impulse but glancing politely around the clearing as Tauriel pulled herself together and swallowed away the lump that had formed in her throat at the unexpected gesture.

"Thank you," Tauriel said quietly after a few moments, and she didn't know whether she meant the warrior's praise or her gesture of kindness as Alison gave her an understanding smile and one last nod of farewell before joining her dwarf companions.

Soon, true morning was upon them and the four dwarves and Alison had gone, after saying their farewells and thanks to Bard and his children and the elves, leaving Tauriel standing alone at the edge of the clearing until the five travelers faded beyond even her own keen eyesight.

The camp was truly bustling now, as the climbing sun burned away most of the clinging smoke from the ruins of Esgaroth and people moved to and fro like a swarm of ants, men organizing themselves into more hunting parties and guard duties and women and children helping when needed, whether with carrying things or assisting their injured neighbors, and Tauriel marveled at the cohesiveness of the community, of how they all took care of each other and were not concerned with individual needs until it was unavoidable for them.

Elves worked beneficially in groups, as well, but the amity these people shared with each other was foreign to her; she knew that she did not know half of the people living within Thranduil's Halls like these Men seemed to know each and every person by name, and she had endured the cold, distant respect and haughty sneers of the Wood-Elves long enough to almost forget what it was like to have care and compassion for someone else, that were not her guards.

It was…strange, to say the least.

"Will you be ready to leave once the last of the hunting parties have returned?" Legolas materialized at her shoulder, catching her off guard a bit as she broke out of her reverie and turned to the prince, who raised one alabaster brow as he awaited her response.

"I believe so," she said. "But the people will need their energy for the trek to the Halls, so we must be patient until they are ready themselves. We shouldn't press them for the sake of time."

"I know," Legolas replied, looking over the camp as she was. "I only fear that night will fall before we reach the safety of the kingdom, and we will have to fight off any predators that wish to do them harm. They cannot withstand an attack in such a condition."

"I understand," Tauriel said. "But we offered our aid, and we must help in any way that we can, even if it means defending them."

"Bard can help us with that," he said, and at the mention of the bowman, Tauriel's eyes sought him out, seeing the grim-faced Man showing a boy that could not have been more than fifteen winters how to properly hold a bow. "I think he's doing more work around here than the Master, if I am being honest; no wonder the people rally behind him."

Tauriel hummed in response, still watching the Man instruct the boy, until she heard a soft chuckle from Legolas, and she looked over to see him staring at her, half in amusement, and half in concern.

"What?" she demanded, raising her eyebrows.

"Nothing," he said, smirking, and she narrowed her eyes at her friend's teasing tone. "I was just thinking that if you stared at that bowman any longer you would set him aflame."

"Don't be daft," Tauriel said exasperatedly, refraining from rolling her eyes as the prince continued to snigger, knowing what he was implying. "He is the slayer of the dragon; it is hard to keep your attention off of him when he swaggers around the camp in such a manner."

"He's a modest, humble fellow," Legolas objected. "He takes pride in what he did, yes, but he doesn't strut around like an arrogant Man."

"Then perhaps you should take a fancy in him, if you are going to defend his honor as such," Tauriel said coolly, before striding away from her friend, who began laughing heartily, no doubt from the shade of red that now tinged the pointed tips of her ears.

Twilight was settling upon the forest when Tauriel, Legolas, and Bard led the Lake-town refugees through the East Gate of the Woodland Palace, leading the procession into the eastern courtyard where already, tents and cots had been laid out and a great fire had been started in the center, providing light and warmth to the place as about a dozen elf-servants stood around, helping guide the refugees to sit down and get comfortable as plates and bowls of food began to pass around the Men.

The Lake-people looked half-frightened, half-stupefied as the elves approached them, and the ones that had been injured or fallen ill from the dragon attack were ushered into a pristine green-clothed tent Tauriel recognized as a healer's.

A cluster of elves whisked by with two men propped between them, sweating and groaning, and Tauriel winced as she recalled the spider attack that had happened not even two hours ago; it was the only attack they had sustained during the entirety of their relocation, and with the numbers of the Men on their side, the four spiders that had decided to feast had been driven back or killed, but not before those two men had been jabbed by their stingers.

"So, this is the Woodland Realm," Bard said, looking around the courtyard appreciatively as the last of the refugees were urged toward the fire and given food, Bard's children included. "Nice place."

No one answered him, for Menelwen, Lethuin, and Feren walked over to them then, no longer having to guard the rear and flanks of the group, and Feren gave them a brisk nod.

"I will go to Thranduil and tell him we have arrived with the refugees," he said. "Wait h—"

"That will not be necessary, Shaalth," a cold voice said from behind them, and everyone in the courtyard froze and stared as Thranduil appeared on the sweeping steps leading down into the courtyard, his frosty silver eyes seeming to glow in the light from the enormous fire.

Every Elf in the courtyard sank to one knee at the sight of the Elvenking save for Legolas, who only dipped his head and placed a hand over his heart, while the Lake-people stumbled into sloppy bows and weak-kneed curtsies.

Tauriel kept her head down, her heart beginning to thump rapidly as she realized that she was back in the Woodland Realm, that Thranduil stood above her, no doubt furious at what she had done by disobeying his orders and leaving the kingdom, disappearing for days as she hunted those orcs and stayed in Esgaroth to help the dwarves and the Hero, dragging the King's own son with her.

She felt Thranduil's eyes roving around the courtyard, and she tried not to stiffen when his gaze alighted on her, two orbs of frigid iron that seemed to penetrate the back of her skull and make her unintentionally clench her teeth before they moved on, only staying on her for a few seconds.

She stood up when the other elves around her rose to their feet, her hand gripped tightly on her bow as if she expected to be attacked – and in a way, she was. She was not afraid of Thranduil, for they had worked closely together in the past to eliminate many a threat in the kingdom, but that also meant she knew how the King worked, and her fear rested with the power he held in his hands to punish her as he saw fit.

The Elvenking slipped down the steps like snow falling upon the petals of flowers, his hair flashing golden and his crown, devoid now of any red leaves and berries, shimmering with ice upon the spires of the headpiece that matched his trailing robes, palest blue trimmed with starlight as he descended into the courtyard, standing only feet away from Bard, Tauriel, and Legolas.

"Where is the Master of the Men of the Lake?" Thranduil called, his voice echoing around the space as his eyes landed on Bard. "Are you him?"

Bard mouthed wordlessly for a few seconds, finally managing to say, "No, my Lord," when there was a ripple of movement from the Lake-people, and the Master extricated himself from the throng, closely followed by Alfrid.

"It is I, my Lord Thranduil," the ginger-haired Man said, striding forward and bowing low at the waist while Alfrid did the same behind him. "Lester, son of Wellen, Master of Esgaroth, at your—"

"Indeed," Thranduil said blandly, startling the Master into silence as he straightened up and fixed his furry coat, looking abashed and outraged at the same time as he fastened his beady eyes on the Elvenking.

"Welcome, Master and people of Esgaroth," he went on, flicking his eyes around the courtyard. "The Woodland Realm offers their hospitality and services to you until you are ready to journey back to your homes.

"Now," he said, and his grey eyes seemed to gleam brighter in the firelight. "Where is this bowman that rumor has told of, the heir of Girion and the Dragon Slayer that has finally brought about the demise of the Great and Terrible Smaug?"

Bard cleared his throat and stepped forward, raising his hand slightly. "That… would be me." He said nervously, and Thranduil appraised him evenly.

"Le naa curucuar," he said eventually, and Tauriel raised her brows at the King's high praise. "Le garo nín fael, a le nathlam hí."

Bard blinked, but bowed his head all the same, and Thranduil took in the courtyard at large once more. "Tonight we will feast in celebration of the dragon's death," he declared, and murmurs and excited whispers broke out among the crowd. "When the sun sets and Menelvagor appears in the sky, we will commence the festivities; but until then, rest, recover, and refresh yourselves. Master Lester, Master Bowman, and the…lackey, will join myself, my son, and my captain in the throne hall. I bid you all a welcome and reinvigorating stay."

And with that, the Elvenking beckoned those he had announced with his hand and began to ascend the steps back into the main palace, the others following closely behind.

Tauriel avoided everyone's eyes as she trailed after the group, her heart beginning to pound in earnest. She had not missed the silky warning in Thranduil's tone when he had said 'captain,' and she knew that the King was about to make her life very hard as she proceeded to the throne hall.

It took less time than she thought to get there, so wrapped up in her thoughts and trying to block out all the stares and whispers she was receiving as she went through the familiar corridors; it was obvious that the runaway Captain of the Guard and the renegade Elf Prince had been a heavy dish of gossip these last days, and she tried not to feel guilty as she took in Legolas's tall and proud figure before her, knowing that she was the one to give him such an unwanted and unprecedented reputation.

They reached the throne hall, two silver-armored guards shutting the great carven doors behind them as they made their way down the winding center pathway that would take them to the foot of the throne and the platform it stood upon.

Thranduil did not even bother to perch upon his throne, instead turning with a languid grace and clasping his hands behind his back, his eyes fastening on Tauriel and almost freezing her in place at the concealed anger simmering behind the frosty depths.

"Captain, step forward," he commanded, and Tauriel did, aware that everyone's eyes were upon her as she came before the King, apprehensive and wary but with her back straight and her expression blank.

"Tell me everything. Now." He said it stonily, emotionlessly, and Tauriel knew she had crossed the line this time; he was not even bothering to raise his voice, but the underlying threat and palpable rage made it worse tenfold.

"I left the kingdom," she said bluntly, trying not to be fazed by his eyes boring into her with all of their intensity. "I was angry, and I wanted justice, so I left, and I followed the orcs that had attacked at the water-gate. Legolas tracked me, and tried to convince me to come back with him because you were displeased with my actions, but I could not go back, not then. I persuaded, wrongly, for Legolas to come with me, and we tracked the orcs to Esgaroth, where there was an altercation before they retreated back to Dol Guldur. Legolas… went after the leader of the orcs, while I stayed behind to…" Here she swallowed, her palms beginning to feel slick.

Thranduil said nothing, made no sign for her to continue or stop, but she pressed on anyway; she had disobeyed the King with her rash actions, and now she must accept the consequences. "I – I healed one of the dwarves of Thorin Oakenshield's Company, and then I followed Legolas and met him at the entrance to the town, just as the dragon attacked. We stayed within the town and helped evacuate the civilians, leading them to the borders of the Woodland Realm, and then finding the patrol this morning—"

Thranduil held up a hand, cutting off her words, but instead of acknowledging her, he turned to Legolas instead, who stood off to the side observing with a closed expression that mirrored his father's.

"Is this true?" he demanded.

"Every word of it is true," the prince confirmed, and Tauriel felt some of the tension leave her shoulders, though she was still on edge. "Except for the part of her persuading me to join her in her hunt."

Tauriel's stomach swooped, and she looked to him with wide eyes while Thranduil raised a brow coolly. What was he saying? Was he trying to get her exiled for direct treason? How could he—

"I joined Tauriel on my own accord," he continued, and Tauriel's knees felt weak, though her heart still beat madly. "She did not coerce me in any way to follow her. It was my own choice, and one that I do not regret."

There was a heavy moment of silence in the hall, one that weighed enormously on Tauriel as she awaited the King's verdict, but she still felt a strong surge of gratitude when she caught Legolas's eye and he gave her the faintest hint of a wink.

"Very well," Thranduil said finally, his voice still as cold as a winter storm. "My son has vouched for you, Captain, yet that does not change the fact that you went against a direct order and abandoned your post in a most dire time. Such actions do not go unpunished."

Tauriel bowed her head in acknowledgement as Thranduil paused, then said, "I should strip you of your station for your subordination."

Tauriel looked up sharply, her eyes widening as Legolas stepped forward, his mouth opening, but Thranduil stopped him in his tracks with one glance before turning back to her.

She couldn't breathe, couldn't even think straight as the full implication of what Thranduil was saying beat into her like a hammer. For centuries, she had worked her way into the guard, had striven with blood and sweat and very few tears to become Captain, and she had served Thranduil loyally and faithfully for much longer, and now he was stripping her of her title, of her duty?

She was ashamed. There was only one word for it. She felt as if she would burn to death from it, from the shredding of her honor and her life and everything she had worked for; she had ruined it all, she had—

"Or perhaps not," Thranduil said, causing Tauriel's heart to drop once more as she lifted her head, a glimmer of hope rekindling in her chest.

He looked her over with frighteningly chilly eyes before going on. "Several scouts I sent to the far south have relayed a message that an army of orcs and goblins are marching north, with the intent of turning east in only about a week's time, and I think it is obvious where they are heading."

"The Mountain." Bard spoke up unexpectedly, looking troubled, and Thranduil nodded slowly.

"Indeed," he said. "And if a war is brewing on our doorstep, upheaving the order of things and causing chaos within the guard is something that we cannot afford. So, Tauriel, daughter of Beinion, you are temporarily pardoned from your crimes; however, when this threat has passed and we are secure in our realms once more, you will face a proper council where the extent of your actions will be judged. Am I understood, Nikerym?"

"Yes, my Lord," Tauriel said, bowing at the waist and fighting the urge to smile. "You have my gratitude."

She stepped back to Bard's side, ignoring the bowman's roguish, encouraging grin and instead watching as the Master stepped forward, clearing his throat.

"If I may have permission to speak, my Lord?" he said, and Thranduil waved a hand in acknowledgement as the Man stood boldly before the King, though Tauriel saw the slight tremor in his hand from where she stood.

"Well, as you may have noticed already, the dragon's death has brought to light a new possible outcome that we must consider," he began, while Thranduil just looked bored listening to him. "And that is the matter of Thorin Oakenshield; and, more importantly, the notion that if he survived Smaug, then he is now King under the Mountain."

Thranduil's face pinched at this, but the Master had gotten his attention, and went on in a smug manner.

"Oakenshield and I made an agreement before he went to the Mountain that, for our offered aid despite these troubled times, he would repay in kind for our hospitality. As soon as we are able, I am sending emissaries to the Mountain to ask for our payment, and my recent direction of thinking has led me to extend my hand in friendship…to you."

Thranduil narrowed his eyes as Tauriel, Legolas, and Bard shared a bewildered look. "And what would have prompted such a gesture?" he asked, and the Master simpered up at him.

"Why, because you have shown us such kindness!" he said jovially. "I was only thinking that, given we have been such close allies for so long, that I would incorporate you into my deal with the dwarf, as well. What better way to repay the Elvenking than by the vast wealth of Erebor? Surely there must be something within that kingdom you desire, my Lord."

Thranduil said nothing, but Tauriel saw the flare behind his eyes, the light of greed that peeked out for just an instant before the King worked his emotions back under the surface. But before he could say anything, Bard came forward, looking outraged.

"You lie," he told the Master, and the rotund Man swung around to face him, scowling. "You told me that Oakenshield had already left the Mountain before your terms could fully be enacted. You're already being underhanded enough demanding payment for our people; there is no need to get the Elves involved, as well."

The Master leered at Bard, his expression becoming downright nasty. "Watch yourself, bargeman," he said, and Bard's mouth twitched agitatedly. "You may have slayed the dragon, but I am still the Master, and our previous agreement still stands."

Bard still looked defiant, but at these words the Man paled and took a step back, seething, and the Master sneered at him before turning back to Thranduil.

Tauriel looked to Bard beside her, wondering what the Master had meant; those last words…they almost sounded like a threat. And she figured she had it right as she took in the bowman's quivering fingers and dark scowl, before her attention was redrawn by Thranduil and the Master.

"What say you, King Thranduil?" The Master asked. "Do we have a deal? Will you uphold our alliance before the Throne of Erebor, and the King under the Mountain?"

There was a prolonged silence that stretched on for so long Tauriel began to fidget, despite her knack for stillness, the tension within the hall becoming overbearing.

But finally, Thranduil spoke, and what he said made Tauriel's heart drop to her toes, dread creeping down her spine as she saw, clearly, the lust in the Elvenking's eyes.

"I believe we do," he said, in that same cold, detached voice, despite the newfound fire in his eyes. "Oakenshield has something of mine within that Mountain – and I want it back."

Bard leaned against one of the vine-entangled pillars of the courtyard, watching the feast proceed before him from the edges of the crowd and trying to enjoy the sight of his laughing and dancing children, though it was proving difficult as his thoughts seemed to plague him every other second.

He took a sip out of his fine golden goblet, puckering his mouth at the sweetly sourness of the Elven wine; it was a good drink indeed, a draught fit for kings, but Bard knew the swift and heavy inebriation of Elven wine, and wasn't keen to experience it, putting it down by his side despite his tongue dancing for more.

Bard smiled to himself as Bain was suddenly swept up in a slow dance with a pretty girl, his son's bright red face beaming out at him from the small throng of twirling dancers in the center of the courtyard, twisting and weaving around the high fire as elves played their instruments off to the side.

Flutes, harps, and lyres blended together in haunting melodies that spun great tales of love and heartbreak, victory and tragedy, and he had to shake his head some to get the tune out of his ears, blaming the wine for making him want to curl on the ground and question his life as the music continued to swell and shimmer.

He looked back to Bain and tried not to think about the Master's warning from earlier, but of course his croaky, sneering voice came back and echoed in his mind: "Our previous agreement still stands."

Bard knew what that agreement was, and he clenched his fingers tightly on his goblet, gritting his teeth. "Exile." The Master's voice continued to mock. "For you and your children."

Bastard, Bard thought vehemently, downing the rest of the wine in one frustrated gulp. He was angry, so angry, at the hold the Master had on him. He was like a puppet on a string, stored away in the closet until he was ready to be toyed with again, and he wanted nothing more than to take his fist and plant it into the Master's flabby face – but he couldn't, he thought bitterly, because one wrong move, and him and his children would be banished from their home.

He would not let his children suffer, he would not raise them poorer than they already were and with no hope for a future to look beyond to. He knew the Master was going to demand payment from Thorin Oakenshield, and that he would be used to achieve that end, but now that Thranduil was involved… Bard didn't know what to think. All he knew was that things had just gotten a lot more complicated.

"Menelvagor is agitated tonight," a soft, melodious voice said from behind him, and Bard whirled around, nearly stumbling over his feet and knocking into Tauriel.

"Good evening," he blurted automatically, while Tauriel steadied him with her hands on his shoulders, watching him in amusement. "Um…what did you say?"

"I said Menelvagor was agitated tonight," she repeated patiently, raising a brow as Bard nodded slowly.

"Right…uh, what's that?"

"You know it, you just call it something different," she replied, lifting her gaze upward and pointing a pale finger at the night sky, to where the stars gleamed through breaks in the high trees. "It is the constellation for the great warrior, Túrin Turambar. A prophecy if you wish, of his return to defeat Melkor in The Last Battle of the World."

"Menelmacar," Bard said, nodding as memory came back to him. "That is what we call it. Not that much different."

"Indeed not," Tauriel said, and Bard looked to the she-Elf, disgruntled to find that she was his same height, but he tried to swallow down the nervousness pinging around inside of him.

She had changed out of the green armor she had been wearing earlier, now clothed in new forest green and earthy brown attire that blended into the shadows with her every movement, her red hair flowing down her back like fire and her cleaned skin shining softly like pearls.

She truly was beautiful, Bard thought with some despair, but when she turned her warm yet distant eyes on him, he cleared his throat and blinked, hard, hoping she hadn't been able to tell how he had been staring at her, and cursing the faint snicker of Alison he heard in his head.

"So, er, what did you mean, when you said the stars were agitated?" He asked, and Tauriel shifted her gaze upward again, Bard following her line of vision as he took in the flashing constellation above them.

"See how the stars are blinking?" she said, and Bard nodded at the winking lights. "They are usually still, but something has raised their ire; I have not seen them tremble this much in a very long time."

Bard couldn't help but snorting. "I wonder what could have possibly caused that." He said dryly, and he looked over as Tauriel turned her head to him, a resigned look upon her features.

"Then I am not the only one wary of events to come," she said, and it wasn't a question. Bard nodded slowly, and she expelled a tight breath.

"Legolas sees it as well," she admitted. "Darkness brews on the horizon, yet now I fear that something stirs within our midst, a threat closer than the army from afar."

"Thranduil and the Master are going to back Thorin into a corner," Bard said. "And knowing the stubbornness of Dwarves, I fear that this will only get worse before it gets better."

Tauriel nodded thoughtfully. "The Master has something on you," she said unexpectedly, and Bard looked to her sharply. "That's why you stood down in the throne hall, why you didn't object their agreement."

"You didn't either," Bard countered, and the she-Elf's features tightened. "Probation from Thranduil certainly caused you to hold your tongue." Her green eyes flashed, but before she could retort something, Bard shrugged. "I guess you could say the same thing about my involvement with the Master."

Tauriel still looked on the verge of saying something, but finally she closed her mouth, instead turning her attention to the pillar he was still propped against and rubbing a soothing hand over the vines.

"It is a clever ploy," she said eventually. "Your Master wants compensation for aiding the dwarves, and will no doubt use the destruction of the dragon and the needs of the people to coerce Oakenshield for pay, and my King will use their escape from our dungeons to pressure them to avoid further strife."

"Greed feeds even the kindest man bitterness," Bard pointed out.

"Yassen le," she sighed, and she looked so troubled that Bard didn't even mention the fact that she had slipped into her own tongue, instead opting to stand in companionable, albeit tense, silence with her.

He looked back up to the constellation of Menelmacar, watching the stars glisten tumultuously in the sky and letting the Elvish music wash over him again, trying not to imagine the slow, dark tune warning him against the storm to come.

"This sucks," Alison moaned, as she settled her pack higher on her shoulders and tried not to fall to the ground in exhaustion, trudging along after the dwarves. "Lake-town was so nice. We didn't have to walk eight thousand miles every day, and we had actual beds and food—"

"You know, there is a conveniently placed rock right there that I could use to knock you out, if you wish," Fíli said, half-jokingly, half-exasperatedly as he pointed to a large stone lying on the ground some feet away. "Then you wouldn't be conscious and we wouldn't have to hear your complaints; everybody wins."

The other dwarves sniggered at this, but Alison made a face at the older prince as he turned back and winked at her.

"And how about I just take that rock and stick it where the sun doesn't shine," she grumbled under her breath, but she shut up after what Fíli had said, knowing he was right.

She was reminding herself of when she had first joined the Company, how every day passed in a slow haze of riding and walking, riding and walking, and she complained about it constantly, which made her feel like a brat in hindsight, and now she was doing it again, despite trying to cheer herself up. Which currently wasn't working.

Lake-town had been a luxury compared to their long months in the Wild (yes, she was comparing Lake-town of all places to 'luxury;' that was sad), and now that they were on the move again, back to hiking and sleeping in the outdoors, she was almost ready to just crawl back to the town.

Except for the fact that it was currently burnt to a crisp.

On second thought, maybe the outdoors weren't so bad after all.

The late afternoon sun beat down on them from its place in the sky, and despite the fact that it was winter and it just snowed that morning, the overexertion of hiking around the Long Lake (which she soon found out was called 'long' for good reason) and the battering her body had sustained over the last several days was finally starting to take its toll.

But Fíli was relentless, only letting them stop for breaks every few hours or so, and even for those briefly before they were moving again. He seemed determined to get them to the Mountain that night, but Alison knew that was impossible; the lonely peak jutted into the sky, still some miles away from them, swathed in low-pressing clouds and capped with snow. And not to mention that after they got around the lake first, they still had the bloody foot of the Mountain to climb over.

She couldn't take her frustrations out on the older prince, though, she knew. Fíli was just doing his best to lead them, and they were all anxious to get to the kingdom as soon as possible. The other dwarves were still in there (in whatever condition, she tried not to think about too much), and even now, not anywhere close to entering the Mountain yet, her heart still chattered nervously at what they would find, a sentiment that was clearly shared by the others.

Alison glanced ahead at her surroundings, her eyes raking over the frozen landscape, taking in the Mountain steadily looming before them and the chilled steel of the lake to their left, the distant silhouette of the skeletal Lake-town almost out of their sight completely, which she figured meant that the lake was coming to an end, and then they could stick to a straight course instead of having to continue going around it.

Her eyes then landed on Fíli, leading at the front, and her vision strayed from his confident stride to come to rest on the shield strapped to his back, still startled every time she caught a glimpse of the object.

Just before they had left, Legolas had appeared to them and stopped before Fíli, the two princes sharing a respectful gesture before the elf had taken something off of his back that had made the dwarves and Alison gasp.

"Thorin's shield?" he had said in disbelief, accepting the offer from Legolas and holding it in his arms in wonder. "But – how? It was lost on the mountainside—"

"The orcs had it, and left it behind when I tracked them," Legolas replied, as they all crowded around for a closer look, their eyes straying to a burnt side of the shield, though it was undoubtedly the same one Thorin had had.

"Along with the shield, I give this back to you." Legolas then unstrapped the scabbard at his waist and held it out to Kíli, who took it reverently and pulled the sword out, revealing Orcrist. "Consider it a show of good will between the Wood-Elves of Mirkwood and the Dwarves of Erebor as they return to their home. It cannot erase the enmity our two races have pitted against one another, but it could be a good start."

The two princes had bowed deeply to the elf, expressing their thanks in Common and Khuzdûl, and before they could start fangirling over Legolas or something, Alison had said farewell to the elf prince and thanked him before dragging the two dwarves after her.

So now they were on their way to the Mountain, back to hiking and walking and rationing their food and water and sleeping on the ground, and Alison was thrilled.

They passed several more hours in silence, only pausing once for a water break and to sit for a couple minutes, and the sun was beginning to set when Alison heard footsteps crunch next to hers on the icy, stony ground, and she looked up to see Bofur walking beside her, still looking as cheerful as ever.

She grunted in greeting to the dwarf, swiping a piece of hair out of her mouth that the strengthening wind had blown, and Bofur chuckled at her unenthusiastic response.

"Having fun, are we?" he said amusedly, and she grumbled something incoherent, burrowing deeper into her coat to escape the biting winter wind.

The hatted dwarf laughed at this, clapping her on the back and almost sending her sprawling to the ground.

Fortunately, he didn't say anything to her for about a half-mile, but after a while, he spoke up, as Alison knew he eventually would – the dwarf could never stay silent for long. But his words surprised her when they came out.

"I think you're going to like Erebor, lass," he said softly, a bright smile on his features, and Alison turned to look at him. "It is the center of the Dwarves' pride and love for all things great and beautiful, a kingdom worthy of Mahal himself, in some ways. I think you're going to like it."

He looked dewy-eyed as he said it, and Alison wondered if he was talking about her anymore as she unhooked one of her crossed arms and looped it over the dwarf's shoulder, pulling him close to her in a one-armed hug as he wrapped one arm over her own shoulder.

"I'm sure I'll love it, Bofur," she said gently. "If it's anything like you and the others have told me, I'm sure I'll love every bit of it."

Bofur gave her a watery smile before reaching up and flicking her nose lightly. "I'm so proud of you, lass," he said suddenly, and Alison looked to him quickly, heat rising in her face. "We all are. You've helped us so much, you've helped us get so far, and we can never thank you enough for that. You truly are a Hero in our eyes, Ashburne or no. Every kingdom should praise your name for what you have done for us."

"Bofur, are you drunk?" she deadpanned, but the joke was only to keep herself from breaking down completely, she knew. She had never realized until then just how much she had been needing that, just one kind, simple word from someone, and she blinked rapidly, trying to dash her tears away.

Bofur said nothing, just squeezed her tighter against his side. But of course, after a few minutes, he had to ruin the moment.

"I was right, wasn't I?" he said, and she gave him a quizzical look. "Right about what?"

"You and Kíli," he said, grinning, and Alison rolled her eyes, trying to pull away, but Bofur kept her pinned to his side. "I was!" He gloated. "Just look at your face! So, what happened? Did you get a good snog in—"

"Dude," she complained, ignoring Bofur's baffled expression at the term before he shrugged it off and waggled his eyebrows at her. "Who even says 'snog?'"

"Avoid the question all you like, Alison, but there's no escaping the truth. I see everything." He narrowed his eyes and pulled such a weird expression that Alison had to laugh.

"Really, now?" she said. "Guess I should keep that in mind next time I consider stealing another roll from your pack."

"Wait, that was you?" He demanded, then waved off her response. "Never mind, beside the point. I just want the truth. Did you or did you not finally confess your pent up pining for our young prince? 'Cause I was at the docks, and that kind of reunion I saw—"

"Yes, fine, okay! I told him how I felt! Happy now?" She snapped, trying to keep her voice down so Kíli, who was walking some ways behind them, wouldn't hear her.

"And?" He prompted.

"And what?" Alison growled. "Nothing will come out of it, so what's the point? He's a prince, I'm a mortal Hero who, sooner or later, has to take off back to my own world and never see any of you again. Who wants that kind of baggage weighing them down?" She laughed bitterly at this, trying to ignore the ache in her chest at the thought.

"No one does," he agreed, startling her. He sounded serious, and when she looked over at him his dancing brown eyes looked back at her intently. "And I know where you're coming from, Alison, I really do. But you shouldn't be afraid of what comes after love. It will be hard, I understand, to let go of what you have here; because we will have to face that same day as you, and we will lose you, just as you will lose us. But why bury something good for the sake of you not wanting to deal with that pain, for you to always wonder about what could've been? Why not be happy now, and look back on those memories with a tear or two, but ultimately with a smile?"

"Whoa, there, Dr. Phil," she said, but she could feel her heart rattling around in her chest, shaken from the words that Bofur had just said.

He was right, of course. Completely right, despite her mind's protests. She wanted this, she realized. She wanted something good to come out of her and Kíli, but she was so afraid of starting something only to lose him in the end, either by his death in the battle or her return to the mortal world. She wanted the laughter he managed to always free, no matter how foul her mood, she wanted the excitement he brought her, the adventure that came with him and his bellowing laughter and horrid table manners and carefree ways as if he had the whole world's attention and couldn't care less.. She wanted his touch, and the way his eyes looked in the firelight, and his scent and his unwavering concentration when he shot his bow—she wanted everything. She wanted him.

"We'll stop here for the night!" Fíli called from the front, and Alison broke out of her thoughts, Bofur releasing her but giving her a brief, encouraging smile before moving away to stand by Óin.

They had stopped before the first slopes of the Mountain, and they made camp in the shadow of the northeastern spurs, setting up their supplies under a large outcropping of rock that sheltered them from the brunt of the wind.

A pathetic cluster of stunted, bent trees stood a few yards away from them, and Bofur went to go retrieve sticks and brush for them to start a fire with.

The sun had truly set by the time they finally managed to get the fire going, and they sat around the flames, making small talk as they ate their rations, but for the most part remaining quiet, each wrapped up in their own thoughts.

Fíli began to divvy up watches between the five of them, and after Alison received her post of watching from about three in the morning until dawn, she elected to get more firewood to feed the fire and walked off into the copse of trees, keeping a tight grip on her bow; she didn't know what kind of creatures were in this part of the world, but she had been through too damn much at this point to relax her guard, and she wondered if she ever could at this point.

She stumbled around in the semi-darkness, looking for suitable branches, when a sudden snap to her right made her drop her twigs and swing an arrow to the bowstring, whirling towards the sound until a sudden voice made her stop.

"Durin's beard, it's me!" Kíli yelped, holding up his hands in a show of peace as Alison lowered her bow, scowling.

"Don't sneak up on me like that!" she hissed. "I could've put an arrow through you!" She held up said arrow to demonstrate before replacing it in her quiver. "What are you doing in here, anyway?"

"Um, doing my business?" he retorted. "Though I think that urge has passed now, thanks."

During the entirety of their conversation, he didn't meet her eyes, and he made to brush past her, before she put out an arm and stopped him.

"Why are you acting like this?" she asked bluntly, and he looked at her sharply, scowling.

"I think you know why," he said lowly, and he tried to move past her again, but she stepped into his path, forcing him to meet her gaze.

"You know what, I do know why," she said heatedly. "And just because we said how we feel about each other doesn't mean we can just drop everything and deal with it! We have more important things to prioritize before any of the complications this brings—"

"Complications?" he repeated incredulously. "So that's what we are, a complication?"

"I didn't say that—"

"But that's it, isn't it?" he said coldly. "You think that me telling you I fell in love with you was a joke, that it was nothing, and you can just walk it off like nothing ever happened—"

"Stop it!" she shouted, cutting him off. "Just stop it, for God's sake! I'm not doing this because I want to see you suffer over me, I'm doing this because I'm afraid!"

"Of what?" He yelled.

"I'm afraid of losing you!" And just like that, all of her walls were down, and everything she had been feeling came rushing to the surface, tears springing to her eyes as she forced herself on, Bofur's words echoing in her head. "I'm so afraid of getting you only to lose you in the end, and I don't know if I could handle it if you—"

"Alison, what are you talking about?" Kíli said, and his tone was quieter now, more concerned.

"You're supposed to die in the end," she blurted, watching his face morph through shock, anger, fear, and finally settle on blank as he stared at her. "It's in the book from my world. You, Fíli, and Thorin. And I know what I said about everyone surviving the battle at Bard's house, but I lied because I was a coward and I wanted to protect you. Fíli and Thorin already know, but this is why I-I can't start something with you that might not end well and—"

Her voice broke, tears falling out of her eyes and she rubbed them away, wondering why she was so goddamn emotional all the time and why everything with Kíli now involved fighting. She was sick of it.

"But you won't," Kíli said, and she looked at him at the sound of his voice, her eyes widening slightly.

He gazed at her with a determined expression, his jaw set and his dark eyes blazing, gleaming out of the shadows as he faced her squarely.

"You're not going to lose me, or any of us," he said firmly. "I mean, give me some credit. I survived Morgul poison, after all."

He gave her that familiar, cheeky half-grin, and something inside of her crumbled at the expression, the last line of defense around her heart, and she laughed as he hesitantly grabbed her hand.

She stopped laughing when she took in his gaze, serious once more, but still glinting with that cheeky recklessness she had grown to care so much for. He raised her hand in his and put if, palm-down, over his heart, and she could feel its beats beneath her fingers, strong and sure as it pumped on, and she looked into his face once more, an expression she had never seen before lighting his features.

"As long as you feel that, I will always be here," he said quietly, and he reached up and touched a hand to her cheek, wiping away the last trail of a tear on her face. "And I know the implications about us, Alison, I truly do, but… I know I could never walk away from whatever is between us. I wouldn't even care if you told me you just wanted to remain my friend. But as long as I had some part of you… I think I'd be all right with that."

"I would be, too," she replied, just as softly. "But I'm so tired of fighting, Kíli. I just want something… good in my life again, and if you're willing to do something about us, then I am, too. Just… whatever happens, will happen. And I'm okay with that."

"Funnily enough, I am, also," he said, grinning. "But I hope fighting isn't always what tempts us to do this."

And with that, he crushed his lips to hers, and Alison reached up automatically to fist one of her hands in his coat, pulling him closer as his hands anchored her in the same manner.

The fire that had sparked in their first kiss was still there, but it was tamer this time, more warmth than burning flames, and it felt good. Like all the barriers had fallen and only leaving her with Kíli, and herself. Her fears were still there, of course, a kiss couldn't change that, but instead of leaving her vulnerable as she thought this would, it only seemed to strengthen her resolve that much more, filling her with steel and giving her so much more cause to fight – for this, for Kíli, for the others, and, ultimately, for the world. Well, two, if she wanted to get technical.

But this. This was enough. And right now, that was all that mattered.

The next four days passed very much the same as the first. There was more walking, more hiking, yet now with the added bonus of climbing.

They had left the spurs of the Mountain behind, and were now walking through the valley under the peak. To the east was the shell of the former city of Dale, haunted and eerie as it stood out amongst the ruin of the Desolation of Smaug, powdered white from the snow and a sharp contrast to the black ash coating the valley floor.

The weather had changed considerably since they had truly entered the valley, the wind picking up speed and blowing around snow and soot, and every morning they woke up to a new layer of snow and frost on the ground, always a few inches deep, but it was expected this high up above ground.

To the west they could hear the River Running, chattering and splashing despite the cold weather, and Óin explained that no matter how cold the weather could get, the river would never freeze over because its waters moved much too fast.

Alison would have been miserable trekking to the Mountain, and she still kind of was, honestly, save for the presence of Kíli.

Nothing had really changed between them since that first night of journeying to the Mountain, but the tension between them had diffused entirely, and now they were back to normal, like they had been before the whole Lake-town mess.

The only differences were the casual touches they shared when they walked beside each other (Kíli's injury had healed relatively well, meaning they didn't lag behind everyone else and his limp had gone away), like the quick twining of their fingers and the shoulder bumps, or the way they looked at each other, Kíli gazing at the stars and she at the moon.

On their fifth day of traveling, Fíli motioned for them to stop, and Alison, who had been looking at the snow on the ground, glanced up, her mouth dropping open as it hit her why Fíli had called for a halt.

"Holy shit," she breathed, which didn't accurately sum up what she was seeing, but was a pretty good substitute.

They had reached the Front Gate, by Bofur's description of it, but Alison thought that the hatted dwarf's imagery did a shred of the justice of what she was seeing.

The two Dwarf statues guarding the Gate glared down at her, as if challenging her right to be there, and she marveled at the architecture, distantly thinking that nothing in the mortal world, or anywhere else in this world, could ever come close to the detail and majesty of these statues—and this was only the Gate.

Of course, the effect was slightly marred by the large, gaping hole where the actual Gate should be, where she guessed Smaug must have busted out off, but after sharing an excited, apprehensive look, the group took off running to the Gate.

The cold, thin air burned Alison's lungs as she ran, but she couldn't care less, her heart pumping wildly in her chest as she imagined belting out the lyrics to 'Let It Go;' though, fortunately, she didn't.

It took about ten minutes to reach the smashed Gate, but when they did, they paused on the threshold and stared in awe, the mouth of the Mountain gaping before them.

"Well," Alison panted after a few moments. "This is it."

"Aye," Bofur agreed hoarsely. "So it is."

"Let's go find our friends," Kíli said, and he led them forward into the kingdom.

They walked through the entry hall, the ceiling reaching higher than they could see and pillars at least the size of a Stone Giant spearing into the high darkness. Cracked statues and tattered tapestries that screamed of a golden era long passed lined the walls, and Alison looked down at the floor when she stepped on something hard bubbling out of the ground, seeing long smears of what looked like hardened gold smearing the marble and stone, though she doubted that was part of the original design.

They entered deeper into the Mountain, gazing in wonder at the faded grandeur of the cold and dark kingdom, Bofur and Óin occasionally whispering something wistfully to each other in Khuzdûl and Fíli and Kíli staring as if they had walked into a different lifetime—and they had, she realized. They were too young to have been born in Erebor, she remembered, so this was more than a homecoming to them—it was a home welcoming, for the Princes of Erebor.

The thought made her feel strangely lonely, realizing she had no real connection to this place as the dwarves had, but she pushed that aside, refusing to dwell on it. They were home, and she wouldn't take this moment away from them.

They reached the end of the entry hall, where it then branched out into several long corridors and other halls, and they paused, momentarily stumped.

"Uh…" Fíli voiced. "Which way should we go?"

"We don't know where they are, or, you know, even if they're alive," Bofur pointed out awkwardly. "We could be wandering this place for ages."

Before anyone could think up a reply to that, a familiar voice suddenly sounded from the shadows, and the group gripped their weapons tightly.

"Who's there?" the voice snapped. "Show yourselves!"

"Wait a minute," Alison said, holding up a hand as Fíli opened his mouth to reply. "Ori? Is that you?"

A pause, then: "Alison?"

The young dwarf emerged from the shadows, holding an axe loosely in his hands as he gaped at the group before him, his cow-eyes wide and shining as his face flushed excitedly.

"It's you!" he shouted. "You're alive!"

"Ori!" Alison squealed, rushing to the dwarf as he threw aside his weapon and ran for her, crashing into her with enough force to knock the breath out of her, but she didn't care, her eyes blurry with tears as the young dwarf picked her up and swung her around, still shouting, "You're alive! You're here!"

Soon the other dwarves had rushed over, and Ori released Alison to exchange teary and relieved greetings with them.

"Mahal, it is good to see you," he said, swiping a tear off his face once the greetings were over. "Come to the treasury, that's where everyone else is, and we can catch up there—"

He continued to chatter, grabbing his discarded weapon as they followed him down one of the eastern corridors, the other dwarves occasionally chiming in as they walked along, and Alison couldn't keep the grin off her face.

They were all alive, they were going to be reunited. It was all okay. It was all okay.

"Here we are," Ori said, as they entered through a doorway and descended a flight of short steps. "I'll call for the others."

He walked up to the edge of the platform they were standing on and looked over it – at what, Alison couldn't tell, since they were standing so far back, but she heard Ori shout, "Oi, you lot! Get up here now!"

"Well, look who grew up," Kíli said amusedly from beside her, and Alison elbowed him in the ribs.

"Look who finally decided to give voice to the courage he already had," she corrected lightly, and he smiled at her, quickly squeezing her hand in his own.

It took several minutes, but soon there was the pounding of many boots on the stairs below them, and Alison shivered in anticipation at seeing her friends again.

"What is it? What's going on?" Dwalin growled immediately as soon as he thundered onto the platform. "Are we under atta – MAHAL!"

The burly dwarf's voice boomed around the extremely large chamber as he stared at the group as if he had seen a ghost.

"What in Durin's name are you yelling about, Dwalin?" Dori grumbled, joining the dwarf on the platform and plugging his ears theatrically. He, too, stopped in his tracks however, as he caught sight of them, and his eyes went so wide Alison thought they would pop out of his skull.

"Budge over!" Glóin snapped, as he clambered onto the platform behind them. "You're almost as fat as Bombur combined—"

"I really wish I had my phone to film this," Alison muttered, as Glóin mouthed wordlessly for a few seconds before he and Óin rushed to each other in unison, colliding in an embrace that seemed painful before smashing their foreheads together enthusiastically, shouting joyously in Khuzdûl.

By this point, the rest of the Company had joined them on the platform, and they looked from each other to Glóin and Óin jumping together in confusion, before their eyes landed on the group standing on the opposite side of the platform.

"Bofur, you crazy bastard!" Bombur laughed, waddling forward and crushing the hatted dwarf to his chest as Bifur barreled over, squashing Bofur in between them as he joined the hug while Bofur cackled jubilantly.

"Alison, what in Mahal's name happened to your face?" Dori cried in anguish, rushing over and immediately beginning to worry over her as he clasped her hands in his.

"Just a scratch," she joked, as Nori shouldered his brother aside and gave Alison his signature smirk and wink.

"Quit fretting, Dori," he said, rolling his eyes. "Our little warrior's still as beautiful as ever. No need to get your breeches in a twist."

Alison laughed as Dori spluttered indignantly, pulling Nori in for a hug. "It's so good to see you both!" She pulled Dori in for the hug and only let go when Dwalin bowled them over before turning to her.

"Um, hey," Alison said, waving awkwardly as she doubted Dwalin was a hugger. "Good to—"

She abruptly cut off as he yanked her forward and wrapped his arms around her stiffly, patting her once on the back before practically pushing her away.

"Great to see you too, lass," he said, and his eyes twinkled when he said it before he moved away. It had been a very short and awkward hug, but Alison felt a rush of gratitude for the dwarf all the same, thinking back to when they had first met and smiling broadly.

"Where are my nephews?" Thorin strode to the center of the platform, the other dwarves falling silent and turning as he swept forward, his blue eyes instantly fastening on Fíli and Kíli, who stood with the Brothers Ur.

He looked different, Alison noted, and not just because of his new ensemble of black trimmed with gold, but in the way he held himself; erect and proud, his eyes gleaming with a new fire.

"Uncle," Fíli said, stepping forward and sinking to one knee, as Kíli did the same beside him. "It is an h—"

"My boys," Thorin whispered, ignoring Fíli and pulling the two princes into a painfully tight grip, which they returned in relief, causing the other dwarves to cheer.

Alison watched them for a moment, smiling, but still puzzled over what was nagging her about Thorin; he seemed normal enough, at least as lucid as to recognize his nephews, but still—

A sudden glimpse of brown curls caught her attention, and Alison froze, her eyes zeroing in on Bilbo, who stood uncertainly on the far edge of the platform, biting his lip.

"Bilbo," she breathed, managing to get her body moving again as she rushed over to the hobbit.

He looked up just as she neared, and seeing his face break into that smile she knew so well warmed her like the sun hitting the earth after a long winter night, and she couldn't help the sob that escaped her lips as she bent down and embraced the hobbit, his curls tickling her nose as his arms squeezed tightly around her torso.

"Bilbo," she cried, hugging him impossibly tighter, and she heard him chuckle.

"Now, Alison," he said gently. "I told you we would see each other again."

She released him and stepped back, meeting his soft brown gaze and studying him, that same nagging feeling she had gotten about Thorin giving her pause.

He still looked the same, same smile, same eyes, but she caught a gleam of light near his collarbone, and on closer inspection noticed the new shirt of mail he wore under his clothes, which she assumed to be the mithril shirt Thorin had given him in the book. But that wasn't it, she decided. It was something else.

She took in his face, which seemed thinner and paler than the last time she had seen him, and the way he held himself, his eyes darting around constantly and his fingers twiddling together, his movements jumpy and nervous.

"Bilbo…are you okay?" she asked hesitantly, and the hobbit gave her a forced smile.

"Of course I am," he said. "Why wouldn't I be?"

"Because you look like you just committed a crime," she replied slowly. "What—"

But as Bilbo shifted his gaze away from her guiltily, a thought struck her, making her turn gasp as she remembered something about the book.

"Bilbo," she said seriously, and her urgent tone made the hobbit look back to her anxiously. "Do you have the Arkenstone?"

His eyes went wide and his mouth gaped, but after a few seconds, he nodded mutely.

"Oh, no," Alison said, dread curling in her stomach and seizing her veins as the full implication of why Bilbo would still have the Arkenstone hit her like a train. "Oh, shit. Bilbo – it's Thorin, isn't it? It's happened. He's succumbed to the gold-sickness."

"No!" Bilbo blurted. "I mean, yes – maybe – it's hard to tell." He confessed, looking anguished. "Sometimes he seems like it, and other times no, but I think it's starting to affect the others, as well. All they do is paw through the treasury, gloating over their gold." He shook his head quickly. "It's sickening, and I – I don't know what to do—"

"Hey," Alison said, gripping the hobbit's trembling hands in her own. "Look at me. It's going to be fine, okay? This is good; at least we know what's happening, and we can work together before this madness ensnares them entirely. It's going to be okay, Bilbo. We can do this."

She wondered if she was trying to convince herself more than the hobbit, but he finally seemed to come back to his senses, nodding.

"You're right," he agreed. "We must help them in any way that we can."

Alison smiled, releasing his hands and then looking down at them in puzzlement as her fingers brushed against something solid and cold.

"What's in your hand?" she asked.

"Oh, this?" Bilbo held up his hand, and pinched in between two fingers was a ring, made from a dark-colored iron, looking almost black, with veins of a silvery substance shot through it, something she assumed to be mithril. "I don't know, honestly. I just found it in my pocket where the…you-know-what is hidden, and I just haven't found the reason to toss it yet. Here."

He held it out to her, and Alison reached for it, just as every nerve in her body jangled a warning to stop – but it was too late.

The ring connected with her skin, and immediately Alison's vision went black, her blood roaring to a tidal wave in her ears as her fingers closed around the ring, the metal burning into her skin like a brand, but she couldn't force herself to let go of it.

The Mountain seemed to come alive beneath her, thrumming with power and doling out a reverberating boom like a heartbeat, the stone rising up to meet her as if begging for her to take it, to mold it as she saw fit, before the feeling was swept away and replaced with something else.

Stars exploded in her darkened vision, weaving and twisting into patterns that looped and swirled like a map that was being etched into her brain, paths and trails culminating into a chaotic, celestial realm, embedding itself into her mind as the fire the ring was burning into her skin shot out and seemed to latch onto her very being.

With a ragged gasp, Alison ripped herself out of the trance she had gone into, looking around frantically as Bilbo gripped her shoulders, whispering in a panicked voice.

"What just happened?" Alison demanded, shaken, and cutting off Bilbo's whispered fretting, but as she looked around she noticed with relief that he had been the only one paying attention to her.

"I don't know!" Bilbo hissed. "You just touched the ring and collapsed to your knees! Alison, what's going on?"

But looking down at the ring still in her palm, gleaming innocently and cold once more, she had a terrifying feeling that she now knew exactly what was going on.

"This is it, Bilbo," she said finally, looking up from the ring and meeting the hobbit's bewildered gaze. "This is the Ring Johnathan wanted me to find."

Author's Note

mellonín - (Sindarin); "my friend"

Shaalth - (Sindarin); "Lieutenant"

Le naa curucuar - (Sindarin); "You are a skilled bowman"

Le garo nín fael, a le nathlam hí - (Sindarin); "You have my thanks [lit. "we are generous"], "and you are welcome here"

Menelvagor/Menelmacar - The constellation representing the warrior Túrin Turambar of the First Age

Nikerym - (Sindarin); "Captain"

Yassen le - (Sindarin); "I agree [with you]"

Sorry if the chapter seemed too rushed or too overbearing. Just trying to push things along.

And now the alliance between Thranduil and the Master forms, Bard and Tauriel might have a thing?, Bofur ships Kilison the hardest, Kilison is probably official, things at the Mountain are spiraling out of control, and Alison now has the Ring Johnathan is ready to launch a war over. My, things are certainly heating up...

Next chapter we get our two favorite princes' POV, and another Bard POV where a surprise character comes back into play... (I, personally, am ready to see a very old friend again...)

Anyway, thanks for all the reviews/favorites/follows! And you know the drill by now. Please review!

Thanks again, lovelies! Until next chapter...

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