The March of Time

49: The Gathering of the Clouds

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

Quick A/N: I know it's been a month guys. I know. And I'm really sorry. But combine all the stresses of life and just the complete and utter dissatisfaction I have with this chapter, and you get a pretty good recipe for not updating in...forever.

And also add in the fact that I started writing another Hobbit fic, AND began actual work on the sequel and the freaking third part to this story because I'm in way too deep now, and yeah. But I'm back now, so no worries, right? (And since next chapter is an incredible milestone, I will announce the title for the third part there :) )

Much thanks to my amazing, amazing reviewers last time: mh21, PK-chan12, KelseyBl, Prost, and Guest!

And now on to the chapter! Enjoy!

Chapter Forty-Nine: The Gathering of the Clouds

She found it. She found it.

Johnathan felt more alive than he had in years, his heart beating unrestrainedly against his ribs and his blood singing at the flawlessness of it, his fingers tingling and his soul rising to the stars, inviting them to join in the exaltation he was finding intoxicating, all of it stemming from his one thought: She found it.

Johnathan had felt when it had happened, the precise moment when Alison had touched the Lesser Ring; his blood had seared and he had felt a surge of magic go through him, dim, but almost certainly there, a phantom touch of Sauron's power that already flowed through his veins.

She found it.

The sound of a tree falling and the ground quaking beneath his feet drew him from his thoughts, and Johnathan turned to see his orc troops and their new cave trolls tearing even more trees from the ground, as per his orders, while the newly recruited goblins watched warily; the northern end of Mirkwood may not have been as festering and dark as its southern counterpart, but Johnathan wasn't taking any chances. He didn't want to lose soldiers to the madness of the forest or giant spiders, no matter his Master's hold on them; this purge was necessary if they wanted to pass through unharmed.

"Commander," a thick, croaky voice said, and Johnathan looked up into the face of one of the goblin commanders, a hulking, putrid beast with a name he didn't even want to try to pronounce. The goblin looked at him expectantly, and it took him a few moments to come out of his exhilarating haze, pushing all thoughts of Alison and the Ring from his mind.

Johnathan gestured for the goblin to speak, ignoring the prickle of weird that went down his spine as it spoke in Common – goblins were more stupid than orcs in nearly every way except for language, and it still took some adjusting to remember not to communicate in Black Speech as the goblin spoke.

"How much longer 'til we reach this mountain, eh?" it said, an ugly scowl pulling on its flabby features, and Johnathan suppressed the urge to vomit as the smell of its breath hit his nostrils. "We've been marchin' for days and we still ain't any closer."

Another falling tree interrupted Johnathan's retort, but when the tree struck the ground and opened up the night sky, illuminated by the fires from the army's torches, his face suddenly split into a savage grin, earning a confused look from the goblin commander.

"I think this should be answer enough, don't you think?" he replied, and the goblin turned, starting when its beady eyes landed on the object of Johnathan's sudden glee.

The Lonely Mountain glittered before them, alight with stars and crowned with snow; though still some distance away, the peak shone like a beacon before them, closer than it had been in weeks.

"Send out your fastest scouts," Johnathan said to the dumbstruck goblin. "We are a three days' march from the Mountain, and it is time to summon the bats from Gundabad."

The goblin commander nodded weakly, shuffling off to do as the Hero had said, and Johnathan turned his attention back to the Mountain, a grin creeping across his face as the poison in his veins churned, his blood calling for the Ring as it drew him closer and closer to its destination, its ancient power reawakened from the touch of an Ashburne, ready to submit its will to whoever wielded it.

Alison may be in possession of Ondolissë, but once the other Lesser Rings were found, he would have no need of her, and could proceed with his plan.

He turned his face in the direction of the West, that same feral grin lighting his features as he said to the air, "Your time will soon end, old friends. You're about to lose all of your pawns, and your game of suffering will perish along with you. It is over."

There was no response, but the cold winter wind whipped into a frenzy, snuffing out torches and making even more trees creak and groan before falling as Johnathan laughed, looking back to the Lonely Mountain and imagining Alison with the Ring, staring back to him and wondering what his next move would be, causing him to grin wider.

He just couldn't wait to see the look on his cousin's face when she found out what he had in store for her.

Fíli pulled on his new armor slowly, discarding the previous clothes he had been wearing in Lake-town to the floor as he tightened his leather jerkin and secured the mail coating his shoulders, slipping on matching leather gauntlets and boots before staring at his reflection in the cracked looking-glass before him.

The glass was something he had found during his five days of wandering throughout Erebor, settled in a modest house in the eastern part of the kingdom; not extravagant as a noble would have had it, but he suspected it had belonged to a craftsman, if the leftover tinkering and abandoned projects strewn around the place were anything to go by.

This was the third day Fíli had been back here, and the looking-glass propped haphazardly in the sitting area was not one of the reasons why; the more he stayed in here, the more he became fascinated with the previous inhabitant and what his life must have been like – or their life, he should say, as his findings of dresses and toys earlier that week concluded that the dwarf living here had had a family.

He didn't know why he found this craftsman so intriguing, but he did; he had begun to imagine himself living in this dwarf's place at times, coming home from either the shop where he finished his final craft or the market from selling it, walking in to see two nameless children laughing and playing in this sitting room and a blurry, indistinct dwarrowdam in the kitchen preparing that night's supper as she gave him a tender kiss…

Fíli shook his head, clearing those thoughts out of his mind. He felt a tightness in his chest, though over what, he couldn't say; it wasn't like that had actually been his life, or as if he had known this craftsman personally; he had no reason to feel as melancholic as he did.

He was just re-strapping all of his weapons back onto his person when a sudden voice behind him made him jump, and he turned to see Kíli standing in the doorway to the house, staring at him in a slightly awed way that made Fíli self-conscious.

"You look like a king," Kíli said, entering the house, and Fíli shrugged, gesturing to Kíli.

"You're one to talk," he joked, taking in Kíli's intricate outfit of black leather and golden mail, and his brother made a face at him.

"I'm serious, Fee," he replied, coming to stand by Fíli and gazing at their reflections in the looking-glass together. He hesitated, and Fíli looked at them standing together in the glass, wondering just when they had changed so much, for they were certainly not the same dwarves that had set out from Ered Luin all those months ago.

"Mother would be proud," Kíli said quietly, and Fíli sucked in a sharp breath, a needle of homesickness threading through his heart as he thought of their mother, dark-haired and stern and proud and beautiful, waiting for them in Ered Luin, either for news of their victory or news of their death, before he pushed that thought away.

Fíli put his hand on his brother's shoulder, disgruntled to find that he had grown taller than him in the last few months, but he smiled wanly when Kíli reached up and clasped his hand.

"She would be proud of both of us, Kee," he said fiercely. "Remember that."

Kíli squeezed his hand, but Fíli saw the solemnity in his brother's features in the glass, and he turned to look at him, taking in with some alarm the tension in his dark eyes and the stiffness of his jaw.

"Kíli?" he said concernedly. "What's wrong?"

Kíli dropped his gaze and released his hand at the same time, his jaw tightening as he looked around the dusty sitting room and Fíli watched him carefully.

"I-I just… Something's wrong with Thorin," he blurted, and Fíli's heart sank to his toes.

"So you've noticed, as well," he said resignedly, feeling something hollow inside of him as Kíli looked to him sharply.

"The…the sickness?" He said it in a whisper, as if he were to speak it any louder the Valar would smite him on the spot, and Fíli nodded slowly.

He had always been aware of the "curse" of the gold that ran through the Line of Durin's blood, and after the conversation he had had with Bilbo, Alison, and Kíli their second night in the Mountain, it had come back to haunt him every time he was near Thorin.

"I fear for Thorin," Bilbo said, as they stood near the pile of rubble near the Front Gate that they were planning on moving to provide some sort of cover the next morning, and Fíli and Kíli had shared a confused glance, though the older prince had noticed that Alison did not seem surprised by Bilbo's proclamation.

"What do you mean?" he asked, confused by the hobbit's words and the Hero's behavior as she began to pace behind Bilbo, looking agitated as the hobbit twiddled his thumbs anxiously.

"There is a sickness that lies on that treasure in there," Bilbo said, gesturing towards the treasury where everyone else was. "And Thorin, well—"

"You're afraid of the gold-sickness," Kíli stated bluntly, and Bilbo had nodded, his overlong curls flopping into his eyes. "Bilbo, I don't think there's anything to worry about; Thorin was perfectly fine when we got here, and he wouldn't let that happen to him—"

"Kíli, this isn't something to shrug off," Alison said, stopping in her tracks and facing the dark-haired dwarf seriously. "This sickness happened in the book from my world, too, this isn't just Bilbo's imagination running wild. And from what I've heard, Thorin has barely left the treasury for days—"

"We've been here for a day and a half," Kíli pointed out. "It's only natural for Thorin and the others to want to go through the treasure that they fought to get."

"But you have been here for only a day and a half," Bilbo said, sounding strained. "I've been here since we first entered the Mountain, and Thorin said he would not let anything happen to him, but he tried to fight it and now I fear he is losing that battle against himself!"

"I know you don't want to believe it, Kíli," Alison said calmly, before the younger prince could retort something back to the hobbit. "But you can't deny that Thorin seems a little…off. Maybe it's a minor thing, and maybe it isn't. We're not saying that something needs to be done, but just… keep an eye on him for now. Let's make sure that nothing happens to him that can't be reversed. Just as a precaution."

"She's right, Kíli." Fíli spoke up for the first time in the conversation, and the others' heads swiveled in his direction. "It could be nothing, or it very well could be something. But they do have a point. Let's just…approach this with caution, is all."

And that had been the end of it – or so Fíli had thought. But in the days following that conversation, Fíli had noticed a change in Thorin, and though he had tried to pass it off as nothing, it was soon proving difficult, as Thorin's behavior became more erratic and moody, nothing like the uncle Fíli was used to.

He was always restless, full of never-ceasing energy, and Fíli couldn't remember the last time he had seen him sleep or eat, though Bombur did force some thin broth down his throat every once in a while. But other than the few hours spent at their makeshift campsite eating and sleeping, Thorin was constantly in the treasury (except for the day and a half journey his uncle had apparently taken to Ravenhill earlier that week), spending hours and hours sifting among the gold coins and shoving treasure aside, and from what the older prince had gleaned out of his uncle's muttered words, he was looking for the Arkenstone.

He had even stopped talking to the other dwarves, particularly Balin and Dwalin, so immersed in looking for the King's Jewel that he neglected anything to do with his Company, only speaking to him, Kíli, and Bilbo, and even then only briefly. Fíli was aware that they were becoming increasingly agitated with Thorin's careless behavior, yet no one had confronted him about it, either hoping that it was a mood that would pass, or – and this thought worried Fíli more than anything – they were just too afraid to say anything to him.

Kíli sighed heavily, interrupting the older prince's reverie. "What are we going to do, Fíli?" he said. "He's only getting worse, and Johnathan's army is still out there, on their way to the Mountain as we speak. We have no way of defending ourselves, and even less if Thorin's not thinking clearly."

"I don't know, Kíli," he replied, even though it pained him to say it. "This sickness is something Thorin needs to fight by himself; as for Johnathan's army… I don't know."

Kíli nodded, still looking anxious, and Fíli had the sudden urge to embrace his brother encouragingly before the younger dwarf stepped away, toward the door of the house.

"I'm going to find Alison," he said wearily. "Maybe she'll know of something to do."

Fíli highly doubted this, as he had been to see her several times already about Thorin as his suspicions had heightened, and each time she had seemed less confident and more frustrated, but he didn't say that to Kíli, not wanting to dim his hopes, and knowing that advice was not the only thing he was seeking from the Hero.

"You really care for her, don't you?" Fíli said suddenly, and Kíli stopped so abruptly in his tracks he almost crashed into the door frame as he turned to stare at his brother, and Fíli gazed back, half-amused, half-sympathetic.

"Aye," Kíli said, recovering his wits and clearing his throat. "I do. And I'm asking for her help with Thorin not just because of her story and her knowledge, but because I know she will do everything she can to pull him back from the edge. She's not doing this just because he's my uncle, or yours; she cares about Thorin, as well, and I know that despite their differences in the beginning, she would not want to lose him, either."

Fíli nodded slowly. "I know you're counting on her, Kíli; I am, too. But we shouldn't ask too much of her in this case. This is Thorin's battle, not hers."

"I understand," Kíli said, turning away. "I'll see you soon."

Fíli raised a hand in farewell as Kíli exited the house, leaving him alone once more. He turned back to the looking-glass and took in his appearance for lack of anything else to do, thinking of the daunting task that lay before them in terms of Thorin's sanity and the coming battle, and he found himself wishing he could feel as kingly as he looked.

Thorin woke up after only a few hours' worth of garbled dreams and broken sleep, sitting up from his spot on the floor to find that he was alone in the corridor where their makeshift camp was situated, the torches centered in the middle unlit and making the whole atmosphere gloomy and depressing.

A dull ache had started up again in Thorin's chest upon his awakening, a hollowness that seemed to suck at his very soul as he rubbed his sternum, wincing.

He knew what the feeling was from, though, as he had been experiencing it since the day after Smaug's escape from the Mountain, when his feet had led him first to the throne room, and, later, to the treasury to begin the search for the Arkenstone.

The pain seemed to heighten every day, a voracious desire that pulled at him and urged him to keep looking for the King's Jewel, even if it required moving every single piece of treasure in this kingdom to find it. He had to have it. With such bleakness and turmoil ahead of them, it was the only thing that could unite an army to protect and defend the East, and, ultimately, secure his own rule as King of Erebor.

But where it was, Thorin did not know, and each passing day it was not in his hands only increased his frustration and fueled his need for it. Bilbo had said he had seen it when he first confronted Smaug, but enlisting the burglar's help to find it had been a wasted effort; he could not remember where he had seen it, was all he said, and Thorin had eventually stopped utilizing the hobbit's help, as he was only hindering his search. But he had been grateful for his attempts, nonetheless, which had prompted him to give Bilbo the shirt of mithril rings he had found, a gift, he declared, worthy of a loyal friend.

The others, however, had at first been eager to help him look for the jewel, but they had soon grown tired of wading through the mounds of gold and had taken up the task of building up Erebor's defenses, using the rubble of the Front Gate to create a wall as Thorin had instructed. He had barely even noticed they were gone, only intent on finding the Arkenstone; conversation with the Company had almost ceased entirely, as well, for Thorin didn't have time to dawdle and chat anymore; if it wasn't anything to do with the Arkenstone, he didn't want to hear it, not until it had been found.

Thorin stood up from his bedroll, his drive for the search pulsing inside of him as he picked up his discarded coat from the ground and put it on, the heavy fur settling easily upon his body as he drew it tighter around himself. It was a fine garment, fit for a king, made of thick brown fur that reminded him of a wolf's, and it reminded him of what his father had used to wear during their days before the dragon, regal and royal and exuding an aura of nobility and authority.

He glanced down to his pile of weapons beside his bedroll, one of the Mannish swords he had chosen in Lake-town, and the recently reacquired Elven blade of Orcrist and his shield, the one he had thought lost on the mountain-side after his fight with Azog.

He had been shocked when his nephews had presented them back to him upon their reunion, but once they had explained the circumstances of how they had received them, Thorin had only smiled sardonically.

"Of course they were only returned when the time suited the Elves," he had said scathingly. "Had the dragon not been slain and the Mountain left unclaimed, they would not even hesitate to keep such heirlooms."

Fíli and Kíli had shared a confused look at his statement, but Thorin had only shaken his head before continuing his search for the Arkenstone; the two princes were still too young to understand the hidden motivations and underhanded schemes of true court politics, having only experienced diplomacy between the villages of Men surrounding the Blue Mountains, but Thorin knew better than anyone just how slippery Elves – especially Thranduil – were when it came to politics.

After gazing at his shield and swords for a while longer, Thorin decided to leave them there; after all, there was no need for weapons when the Mountain was in relative safety, and, more importantly, they would only get in his way as he searched the treasury again.

He turned and left the empty corridor behind, tracing a route through the extensive network of hallways that would take him by the Front Gate so he could view the Company's progress on the wall before continuing on to the treasure chamber.

A few minutes of purposeful walking took him to the entry hall where the Front Gate had once stood, and he stopped in the shadows of the great hall, observing from a distance so he wouldn't attract the attention of the others and thus be delayed by conversation.

The defenses were coming along well, he noticed. Where once a great maw opening into the cold winter air had stood, there was now a solid wall patched with stones and rubble, filling the empty gateway up about halfway, with a hastily assembled yet sturdy-looking staircase that led up to a narrow platform at the top where the Company was currently working, still shoring up the defenses.

From where he stood, Thorin could make out several statue faces of his ancestors thrown in with the rubble of the wall, and though the sight made him feel slightly guilty, he ignored it; once he had the Arkenstone and this blasted battle was won, he would restore Erebor to its full glory, and he would not need to worry about these ancient statues being used for menial protection – even though he had been the one to give the orders to pull them down.

His eyes roved over the wall and the Company once more, taking in the quiet, deft working of the dwarves before his gaze flicked over to Bilbo, who stood at the top of the wall fitting small stones into the barricade that Ori handed him, silent and looking worried, though he attributed this to the coming battle that lay on the horizon.

He noticed Alison was not there, however, though he didn't think too much of it; she had probably stepped outside to get some fresh air and scout, he presumed, as that was what she had been doing most of the time for the past week since she had arrived at the Mountain.

He still didn't understand what had motivated her to go back to Lake-town after making herself very clear that she was going after Johnathan Ashburne in Dol Guldur, but he had a sneaking suspicion part of it had something to do with Kíli: his nephew hardly kept his eyes off of the mortal Hero from the few times Thorin had noticed it, and the small, seemingly normal actions they shared appeared to have taken on a deeper meaning. Thorin didn't entirely approve of it or understand fully what was going on, but he had vowed to talk to his youngest nephew about it after the problem with the Arkenstone was solved.

After watching the Company work for a few moments more, Thorin turned and left the great hall, his feet carrying him to the eastern part of the Mountain where the treasury was, his mind already consumed with the thought of where to search for the Arkenstone next; he had yet to search the lower levels of the chamber, but he still had the upper quadrants to finish first…

His musings were cut short, however, when a shadow moved in front of him, just before the entry to the treasury, and he reflexively reached for Orcrist at his waist before remembering he left it in the corridor –

He stopped abruptly when the shadow moved forward into the torchlight from the wall, revealing itself to be Alison, who stood with her arms crossed and her face folded into a frown, as if she looked displeased at the sight of him, which was confusing; they had hardly spoken since the reunion a week earlier, but Thorin couldn't help feeling as if he had done something wrong, despite the fact that he was receiving this look from a human girl that barely topped his own height, and was almost two centuries younger than he.

There was an awkward moment of silence, before Thorin cleared his throat and said, "Have you just come back from scouting?"

"Yeah," she replied, but her lips barely moved when she said it. "Refugees are continuing to move into the ruins of Dale and are being escorted by the elves, from what I've seen; the Lake-people probably want to maintain their self-sufficiency, is my guess, and the elves are willing to help them do that."

She shook her head, her features now touched with some exasperation. "Why they'd want to do it now, though, is a mystery; the clouds are gathering on the horizon still, and it looks like it's turning out to be a nasty storm brewing. Can't say how long until it hits, though, considering I'm not a weatherwoman from the news or anything."

Thorin ignored this weird comment, instead only nodding and continuing on. "Any news from the ravens?" he asked, only to frown when she shook her head.

Thorin had traveled to the old watchtower at Ravenhill in the beginning of the week, a day and a half's journey from the kingdom, to see if any of the Ravens of Old still nested there, even in the subsequent years after Smaug's attack.

When he went there on his own, he found an old chief by the name of Roäc that still took up residence at the hill, a balding, decrepit bird with only but a few other ravens nested with him, but Thorin remembered the bird from his younger days in Erebor; the raven's father, the chief before him, had been Carc, and he had been a very trusted advisor to Thrór.

Thorin had spoken to the old raven, and had convinced the chief to send one of his sons to fly to the Iron Hills and seek out Dáin Ironfoot, the Lord of those lands, and ask him for assistance now that the dragon was dead. Thorin had been hoping to hear from his cousin by now, but every passing day there was no news, and he was beginning to get frustrated.

"There's been nothing," Alison said, and she actually sounded sympathetic when she said it. "I'm sorry, Thorin; I don't know why Dáin wouldn't be responding."

Thorin nodded jerkily, not really wishing to be pitied, so he changed the subject. "Thank you for the news," he said gruffly. "If that is all."

He made to move around her to enter the treasury, but was brought up short when she stepped in front of him, giving him an incredulous look, though her features were still tight as she stared at him, and he stifled a sigh. I don't have the time for this.

"No, that's not all, actually," she said sternly, and Thorin raised a brow impatiently. "I also came to talk to you, because I knew exactly where you would be headed."

Thorin took in her defensive stance and the way she was glaring at him, knowing what was coming, but not seeing any way out of the argument he knew was about to happen, as did Alison.

"You know what I'm going to say," she said matter-of-factly, meeting Thorin's eyes intently as she raked a hand through her loose brown hair, now long again after not cutting it since Beorn's almost three months ago.

"Aye," he said shortly. "But you need not concern; I am fine."

She gave him a scathing look, which only made Thorin's jaw clench involuntarily as she scoffed.

"Fine?" she echoed. "'Fine' as in shutting yourself away in that treasury all day, neglecting your Company while they prepare for a battle? Or 'fine' as in not caring about a damn thing that happens outside of these walls, least of all the implications of setting Smaug loose upon Lake-town, and not wanting to help the refugees practically queueing up outside our doorstep—"

"I don't need to be patronized." Thorin snapped, his temper flaring along with Alison's with every heated word she directed at him. When she blinked and leaned away from him, Thorin inwardly cursed himself for his tone; he knew Alison was insinuating about the gold-sickness – again – and he was frankly getting tired of it, for it seemed no matter how much he denied it and implored her he wasn't doing anything wrong, she still didn't believe him.

"I assure you, Miss Ashburne," he said through gritted teeth, though he did compose himself and lower his voice. "You have nothing to fear."

"Alison." She said, and Thorin furrowed his brows, surprised to hear the new edge of hurt that laced her voice and the strange way in which she looked at him, confused as to what she was on about. "You used to call me Alison," she elaborated. "And now it's 'Miss Ashburne' again?"

Thorin didn't understand how that minor slip-up could have affected her; after all, it was what he used to call her at the beginning of the quest, when they had first met in the Shire. How was that hurtful?

"I apologize, Alison," he said, if only to appease the girl's feelings. "But you still needn't worry; I have won out over the sickness. I do not care for the gold as much as I care about the whereabouts of the Arkenstone. I am not drawn to the gold, nor does it call me to it."

"That doesn't make it any better, Thorin," she said, reverting back to her stern glare and disapproving tone that caused him to bristle. "The need for the Arkenstone was what fueled your sickness in the book, and—"

"The Arkenstone is not just a mere jewel I want to find for sport," Thorin interrupted, meeting Alison's glare head-on as she still stood before him, barring his way into the treasury. "It is the legacy of my people, and it will help us muster an army that can not only protect Erebor, but all lands of the East, and perhaps even beyond. That is why I must find it – not because some sickness is driving me to do it."

"And what of the Lake-people?" she demanded, and Thorin was momentarily thrown by the abrupt change in topic.

"What of them?" he asked warily.

"You set Smaug on them like a rabid dog!" she hissed, and Thorin was shocked at the sudden vehemence in her voice. "Your brilliant plan to piss off a dragon caused that whole town to be reduced to rubble and ash! I saw those people, Thorin, I was there when Smaug attacked, and it's something I will never be able to forget: bodies floating in the water, people's flesh melting from their bones, and now the poor refugees sheltering with the Wood-Elves because they lost everything—"

"Wait," Thorin said, cutting off Alison's rant and causing her to look outraged, but he didn't pay any heed to her reaction, still caught up on her former words. "I thought you said the elves were only escorting them to Dale, not sheltering with them?"

"That's beside the point," she growled. "We need to help them, Thorin. They suffered from Smaug because of our actions; the least we can do is offer them some compensation. They're camping in Dale, and winter is upon us, and they can't sustain themselves in that place without help for an entire season. We should assist them."

"No," Thorin said, and she looked at him as if he had uttered a disgusting swear word.

"No?" she repeated, her tone dangerous, but he was not fazed, raising his chin as he held her stare.

"The Lake-people have sought an alliance with the elves," he said. "I'm sure Thranduil will be able to support them just fine. I see no need for us to step in to their affairs."

"Look, I get that you don't like the Master, or Thranduil," she ground out. "But I know that they will come to us for aid because it was in the book, and if we turn them away, then we won't have allies for this battle unless we resort to even more desperate measures, especially since Dáin isn't riding to our rescue."

"Enough with this book," Thorin snapped. "I am sick of hearing about it and what it dictates as the future, because Mahal knows things haven't exactly gone according to what you have said—"

"Well, maybe it's time to take a few leaves out of it, unless you want the ending you have laid out before you to come true!" she shouted, and now it was Thorin's turn to blink as if she had slapped him, though his anger, coiled as tightly as a sleeping snake, suddenly struck out inside of him and made his muscles tense.

"Let me into the treasury," he growled lowly, dangerously, but Alison held her ground, still glaring at him and looking as if she were refraining from punching something. "This conversation is over."

"Not gonna happen," she said coldly.

"Stand aside, Miss Ashburne." He enunciated each word clearly and tersely, but she still wouldn't budge.

"No." She said, her jaw set stubbornly like she did whenever she was obstinate about something – which always seemed to counter his own perception of things, he realized with a touch of unamused irony.

Thorin tried to push past her impatiently, but she bodily shoved him back, catching him off-guard at her reckless and disrespectful behavior.

"God, how are you not seeing this?" she demanded, shaking her head quickly. "Look at yourself, Thorin! You're so obsessed with finding this stupid stone that you can't even see what's going on beyond Erebor, and I'm so worried—"

"You think I can't see what is happening outside of my own kingdom?" he snarled, taking a step forward so that they were only inches away from each other, so close he could see himself reflected in her wide eyes. "You think I can't see beyond anything but the Arkenstone? I see a war brewing on our horizon, Miss Ashburne, and I seek a way to save all of us from being slaughtered like pigs, while you take it upon yourself to – what? Look for this Lesser Ring Johnathan Ashburne wants to wield against us?"

Her face pinched at this statement and she seemed to go paler, but Thorin pressed on, all of his pent-up anger and frustration spewing forth with no way for him to stop it as she stared. "I am searching for the key to our survival, while you stand there and accuse me of succumbing to greed and gold, and claim that I don't see anything when I see clearly what is coming! And what I see is you standing back and letting me handle this by myself while you skirt around my nephew with every intention of bedding him under my nose, because you think I have no sense of what is going on!"

His voice rang through the corridor they were standing in, and Thorin faced her, breathing heavily, watching the Hero's features shift and contort in the torchlight, first from white-faced horror and shock, then to hurt and disappointment, before finally settling on burning red anger and mortification, something that would have normally cowed Thorin to see, except now he felt nothing but frustration and fury, roiling inside of him as he stared unseeingly at the rigid Hero before him.

"Who are you anymore?" she finally said in a ragged whisper, and that seemed to break through Thorin's furious haze, punching him straight in the gut as Alison shoved by him, hurrying away down the corridor as Thorin now stared at the unblocked treasury, beginning to feel sick as his actions and words caught up to him.

"Alison, wait—" He said, but when he turned, the warrior was nowhere to be found, and the weight in his chest seemed to pull him down and become more burdensome as he racked his brains, wondering what on earth had possessed him to say such horrible things to her.

You know why you said those things, a small voice crooned from the back corners of his mind. You feel the sickness within you, thriving under your skin and sucking at your blood like a parasite. You know it is there, and why you said such terrible things: because you are afraid that she is right.

I am not my grandfather, Thorin thought back to the voice vehemently. I am not my father. I am not like them. I can't be like them.

But you are, the voice giggled. You are just like them, and you know it. There is no escaping blood, and yours is cursed above all in these lands.

I can make this right, Thorin thought despairingly. I can make this right by saving all of us.

But Thorin only knew of one way to save them, and he turned his gaze back to the treasury, the brightness of the gold blurring in his eyes. The voracious hunger pulled at him again, and Thorin stumbled into the treasury once more, Alison's last words to him echoing in his mind.

Who are you?

He only wished he had a good enough answer for her.

Bard had never particularly liked Dale, even looking upon it from a distance.

It was a ghost town, a ruined city that stood outside of Erebor's gates as a reminder of what had been lost in Smaug's attack, and even though he knew that his roots traced back here, he still had no desire to be within the city.

But Thranduil had insisted on making camp in the ruins, persuading Bard to see the advantageous position of the place; it would provide some shelter from the harsh mountain atmosphere, and while they were there, they could begin to rebuild what had been destroyed. The Elvenking had also been hinting at Bard's lineage and who now stood to claim the leadership of Dale, though he always acted clueless when this point came up. Bard still wasn't sure what he felt about becoming the Lord of Dale, so he decided to put off thinking about it for as long as possible, especially since the Master was already suspicious enough of how much time he spent with Thranduil.

Not that it was his choice, really. The Elvenking had an aura about him that told Bard he always got what he wanted, and whoever crossed him would regret it ten times over, so he thought it best to stay on the King's good side – and quite literally, as Thranduil seemed intent on dragging Bard along everywhere with him.

But that didn't mean Bard necessarily approved of the cold, calculating Elvenking. It seemed Thranduil was set on retrieving whatever he wanted from the Mountain, as after a two-day rest in the Woodland Realm he had told Bard to gather any able-bodied Man to set out for Dale. The elf had assured him it was for the Lake-people's benefit to go to Dale and begin to rebuild, but Bard knew it was only a façade, a cover-up so Thranduil could get close to Erebor and plan out how to coerce Thorin Oakenshield into giving him what he wanted. And Bard had a sickening feeling that Thranduil would resort to any measures to obtain it, if his current activities were anything to go by.

The past three days since they had set up camp within the city had seen a flurry of activity; Men and Elves rushed around everywhere, setting up armaments with weapons and armor, and on his routine rounds of the camp, Bard had seen the two races training together, wielding bows and swords as if preparing for battle – which they were, obviously, but Bard was beginning to wonder whether they were preparing for Johnathan Ashburne and the orcs, or for an altercation with Thorin Oakenshield at the Mountain.

Either way, the sight of the soldiers (for there was no doubt that that was what the combined Men and Elves were now) gave Bard a tight feeling in his gut, but he knew he had no choice but to go along with Thranduil's decisions, the Master's threats looming above his head still like an ominous black cloud.

Bard passed through the crumbling, vine-choked archways and snowy, cracked streets of the city, heading towards the center of the town where Thranduil had set up his command tent. The Elvenking had sent a messenger to him early this morning, telling him that Thranduil wished to speak with him at his earliest convenience, and considering Bard didn't have his children to care for (as they were still in the Woodland Realm with the other children and women and feeble-bodied) and nothing else to do at the moment, he was setting out from his own tent at the sun's rise.

The red sun peeked out from behind snow-laden clouds and illuminated the ice upon the ground like blood as he walked further through Dale, weaving in and out of tents and avoiding the soldiers' prepping as he strode on. He dodged Men toting weapons and donning mail the Elves had provided, and didn't even stop to marvel at a squadron of gold-armored Elves as they turned and locked their bows in unison, having already seen it about a dozen times before.

Bard finally approached the large, expansive tent of Thranduil, where two guards stood on each side of the entrance. The guard on the left gestured for him to enter, and he stepped inside the warm and inviting tent, looking around and realizing that something was different this time around as he took in the assembled persons.

Thranduil was there, of course, wearing decadent robes of dark green and grey, not yet adorned in his armor, but the Elvenking looked agitated, pacing behind the desk set up in the far side of the tent, and Bard could almost imagine a long tail flicking irritably behind him as he watched the King stalk back and forth.

Legolas and Tauriel were there, also, which somewhat surprised him, as he had thought the two elves had been scouting for the last week. He figured they had just gotten back, though, as he noted the travel stains on their clothes, and Legolas's tired blue eyes and Tauriel's slightly slumped posture, though she gave him a tiny smile when his eyes met hers, and he looked away quickly after returning the gesture, ignoring the way his heart sped up a bit in response to her presence.

His eyes finally alighted on the object of his feeling of displacement since walking in once he glanced away from Tauriel – more less of a what, but rather, whom.

He was an old man, stooped and leaning on a great staff of wood with a crystal set in the top of it, clutching in one hand a raggedy grey hat that matched his tattered robes and tangled silver hair, framing his exhausted and battered face, though his keen blue eyes still took in Bard with a brilliantly sharp look that belied his old age.

"Ah, and you must be Bard the Bowman," the man said, giving Bard a once-over and approving nod. "I have heard of your defeat over the dragon, and I do believe congratulations and thanks are in order."

"Um…thank you," Bard said slowly, looking around at all those assembled with a very confused expression. "And you are?"

"Gandalf," the man said, holding out the weathered hand that was not holding the hat and shifting his staff to lean on his shoulder as Bard shook the offered hand, though he was careful to avoid the bloodied and bruised knuckles, wondering what on earth this poor man had been through recently to look as beaten and worn as he was. "Gandalf the Grey."

"Then you were Alison's companion?" he said in surprise, recalling the warrior's use of the name 'Gandalf' on several occasions, remembering him as the Wizard who had been their guide.

Gandalf nodded, though Bard noticed his face darken at the mention of the Hero's name.

"Indeed," he said. "But I heard that she and the others are alive, and that they took refuge with you before the dragon's attack?"

"Aye," Bard said. "I know that she and four of the dwarves are alive; as for the rest of them, I cannot say. We haven't seen hide nor hair of them since they left the shores of the Long Lake for the Mountain, and there has been no news from their end. We don't know what is happening inside Erebor at the moment."

"It is as I said," Thranduil broke in, fixing his frosty eyes on Gandalf, and Bard thought he saw the Wizard's shoulders stiffen as he turned back to face the Elvenking. "Thorin Oakenshield is alive, this I do not doubt; as for why they have not shown themselves, it is because of him. He has forbidden any of his company to set foot outside of the halls, and has ceased all contact with those who would consider him an ally in these troubled times. The sickness has taken his mind, Mithrandir. He has locked himself away—"

"I think you have made your point quite plain already, King Thranduil," Gandalf interrupted, and Bard had the sneaking suspicion the Wizard was refraining from rolling his eyes as Thranduil glared. "I don't know what Thorin and the others are planning to do, but if they have any sense of reason, then they are probably doing the same thing you are doing here: preparing for war."

"But who's war?" Thranduil fired back, still continuing to pace. "Do you not think it strange, how this army of orcs and goblins and other foul creatures, are nearly upon us, yet the dwarves have not emerged from their fortified kingdom to strategize and ally with us against this foe? I have told you, Mithrandir, Thorin Oakenshield is preparing to defend his treasure over his own people and his reclaimed kingdom, and we are the opponents he views as a threat."

"Thorin is not going to launch war on you!" Gandalf snapped. "This has nothing to do with treasure, or us—"

"It has everything to do with us," Thranduil said, and his voice alone seemed to lower the temperature in the tent as Bard, Legolas, and Tauriel stared at the bickering men. "Because you were not here to keep a leash on your king-in-exile, and now he is riddled with madness and greed, no doubt. And when his blind eyes turn to us as his enemies, Gandalf, I will hold you responsible for our fates as well as his. You started this, do not forget; but you will forgive me if I finish it."

"That is quite enough, Thranduil!" Gandalf said, and his voice rang with such authority and warning that Bard was quite surprised to hear it issue from such a frail-looking figure – though he was starting to imagine Gandalf with a spine of steel stronger than all of them combined as he listened to the Wizard.

"Thorin will not betray us," he went on. "And I will not quarrel with you on this matter any further! Tomorrow we will ride out for the Mountain and speak to anyone still in there, but at this present time, we have more troublesome news to discuss."

Thranduil looked furious at Gandalf's words, but he stayed silent, his robes lashing across the clothed floor of the tent while the interior seemed to hold their breath before Gandalf spoke once more.

"Johnathan Ashburne and his army are a three days' march from the Mountain," he said. "They are coming, and swiftly. We must be prepared—"

"Johnathan Ashburne?" Thranduil broke in, and the shock coloring his usually icy features unnerved Bard, as him and the other two elves shared a worried look; apparently no one had mentioned the Second Hero's involvement in the battle until now, and Bard wondered how they could have made such a crucial mistake about this.

"Johnathan Ashburne is dead," he continued coldly. "I fought beside him in the war against Mordor two and a half thousand years ago. There is no possible way he is alive."

"Well," Bard said, clearing his throat nervously as Thranduil looked to him with scarily blank eyes. "He's quite alive and kicking, I can assure you, considering I only saw him about a month ago."

Thranduil's eyes flicked back and forth between Bard and Gandalf, his features seeming to freeze over when he looked back to the Wizard.

"Go on, then, Mithrandir," he said silkily. "But if you ever keep me in the dark about something as momentous as this again, I don't care what rights you are given in this world by the Valar to traverse its surface; you will be seen as a trespasser in our borders and you will have no more liberty to walk our forests, do I make myself clear?"

Gandalf looked unimpressed, but he did have the wits to look somewhat abashed before he cleared his throat and went on, inclining his head slightly to the Elvenking.

"As I was saying, Johnathan Ashburne is ready to make his assault upon the Mountain soon," he said solemnly. "His drive to advance is now heightened because he now knows that Alison Ashburne has found the Lesser Ring within Erebor."

"How do you know of this?" Tauriel asked, stepping forward, before she was silenced by a significant look from Gandalf, and she nodded, which only confused Bard further.

"The army marches closer," Legolas said, nodding at Gandalf to confirm his earlier words. "Many fell creatures have taken up the call of the Shadow: orcs, goblins, trolls, wargs, bats. They vie for the Mountain; for its wealth, its position. This is an army meant to destroy, not just kill and win. Their goal is total annihilation."

Gandalf nodded grimly. "This is the last move in a master plan," he agreed. "A plan that has long been in the making. Sauron has arranged the grand finale, and he is now ready to unveil it. We must be prepared and united to meet the Darkness when it calls."

The Wizard looked around the tent intensely, his eyes coming to rest on Thranduil, who met his stare evenly as Gandalf spoke once more.

"The time has come for us to choose which side we are on," he said, and Thranduil's features tightened imperceptibly. "Gold and jewels matter no longer when our very existence hangs in the balance, this we must all agree on."

Thranduil said nothing, dropping Gandalf's gaze as Bard watched, and he suddenly knew with some despair that the Elvenking wasn't going to give up whatever he desired from Thorin so easily, a sentiment Gandalf seemed to share as his blue eyes watched Thranduil, his expression almost…disappointed, though he did not comment further.

"Ready the troops," the Elvenking said instead to Tauriel and Legolas. "I want them in their best form from now until the dawn of the third day. But from there, it is up to them to fight or die."

This seemed a little harsh to Bard as the two elves bowed and exited the tent, but he somehow knew Thranduil did not mean it in such a cruel way; after all, no one could guarantee the fate of the person fighting beside them on the battlefield, and even less, their own.

When it was clear Thranduil was not going to say anything else to them, Bard and Gandalf stepped back out of the tent in unison, taking in the flurry of movement around them for a second before Bard felt the Wizard's hand on his shoulder.

"Walk with an old man for a moment?" he asked, with a slight grin, and Bard nodded, leading the way into the crowd and away from Thranduil's tent.

When there weren't so many Men and Elves scurrying about, Bard slowed his pace, forgetting that Gandalf was not as young as he and was obviously suffering from some injuries, keeping silent until the Wizard started the conversation himself.

"I am aware of your current situation between the Master and Thranduil," he said without prelude, and Bard looked to him quickly.

"Then you must also know that if I wish for my children and I to still have a home and a life, I can't cross the Master and break the alliance I forged with Thranduil," he replied, with a touch of bitterness. "And we both know that Thranduil is not going to give up his claim on the treasure so easily, and that when he demands payment from Thorin tomorrow, I must also extend my hand."

"So you do not believe Thorin and the others perished in Smaug's rage?" Gandalf asked, and Bard hesitated before answering.

"No, I believe they are still alive, all of them," he said eventually. "If the others had been dead, Alison would have led her group back to us, I would think. But as much as I don't want to admit it… I think Thranduil has a point. Something is going on in that Mountain that is keeping the dwarves and Alison and Bilbo from coming out; I just pray that it is not what Thranduil believes it to be."

Gandalf nodded slowly, as if mulling over his words. "I agree," he said. "And I hope that you are right." He sighed, that one action sounding so weary that Bard truly felt awful for the Wizard in that moment.

"I hoped that things would not have come to this," he said quietly. "That was why, I think, I was so overjoyed to hear that Alison was being summoned to Middle-earth; an Ashburne Hero would change the fate of everything, and I thought that that was exactly what we needed. But now I wonder at just what cost this will all come out to be."

They came out upon one of the many balconies and terraces stretching around the outside of Dale, and they stopped, looking beyond into the morning to where they could just see the two huge Dwarven statues guarding what Bard presumed to be the Front Gate of Erebor, though the Gate itself could not be seen. Beyond that, dark clouds bloomed on the horizon, building up as if ready to unleash a storm never before seen on this earth as they watched the clouds boil and churn.

"If there is one thing I know about Alison Ashburne, she is loyal and stubborn until the very end," Bard said, after a long moment of silence. "And she will help Thorin and the others, this I don't doubt. He has brought upon my people only ruin and death, but I believe that if anyone can save him from his fate, it is her; though, of course, it is up to only Thorin in the end."

"She's a remarkable woman," Gandalf agreed. "A true Hero that has not been seen in this world for a very long time. I believe that she will do whatever it takes to see it done, no matter the personal cost."

This last part sounded vaguely ominous to Bard, but he let it go, looking back out to the Mountain with Gandalf as fresh snow began to fall from the sky, and blanketed the world in silence.

Author's Note

Huzzah for another filler chapter! But next chapter things get rolling again (plot-wise), so that should be fun...

And to everyone who caught it last time, Gandalf was indeed the surprise return character. And I know I said I'd have a Fili and Kili and Bard POV, but Kili wasn't working so it instead became J-Ash, Fili, Thorin, and Bard, which I thought came out a lot better in the end, in my opinon.

Anyway, thank you for all the reviews/favorites/follows! (We're almost at 300 reviews! WOW!) As ever, let me know what you think: anything you liked, disliked, are looking forward to? Let me know!

Next chapter (the great big 50!) we get an Alison POV with an unexpected complication and another character to join the fun dynamics, and a Bilbo POV where he wonders just what to do with the Arkenstone still in his pocket...

Thanks again, lovelies! Until next chapter...

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