5: Stories in the Dark
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 to Chapter Five! Thanks for reading, and enjoy!
Chapter Five: Stories in the Dark
It was as if the world had turned slow-motion, then someone had pressed the fast-forward button on a remote. Alison's brain barely had time to process what was happening as the creature lunged for her, and as the adrenaline kicked in, she saw it coming at her as if it were moving through syrup.
She could see every one of its fangs as it came nearer, and smelt the hot breath on her face, a horrid mixture of rotten meat and the old coppery smell of blood and decayed flesh.
Then, the fast-forward button.
As if on auto-pilot, her brain directed her body where to go, and she ducked at the last second, the creature soaring over her and Hidalgo before coming to a skidding stop on the road before them, cutting off their access.
Hidalgo reared, whinnying in fear, and Alison had to grasp the reins tightly so she wouldn't be thrown from the horse. As Hidalgo put all fours back on the ground, Alison got a glimpse of the creature that had just tried to eat her and felt ice flood her veins.
The thing was monstrous, a mutant cross-breed of a wolf and something wilder, much more sinister. It was bigger than Hidalgo's small pony body by several feet, with thick, coarse fur that was as dark as the shadows itself, slitted yellow eyes agleam with malice, and scars criss-crossing its snarling muzzle as it crouched, ready to spring again.
Staring down the thing in the middle of the road, Alison's survival instincts kicked in, and she slowly began to reach for the knife in her boot. Hidalgo snorted and pawed fearfully at the ground, but Alison kept him in check, at least for now. She never broke eye contact with the wolf-creature; she had read somewhere that breaking eye contact with dogs was considered submissive, and she wanted its eyes on hers while she slid her knife out of its sheath.
She straightened up slowly, the wolf-creature's eyes still boring into her; she didn't know how much longer she could have its attention, but she figured now was the time to act before it came at her again.
She gripped the knife hilt tightly, her heart pounding, and very quickly, flicked her gaze away from the wolf-creature, just enough to break the dominance stare-down. With a snarl that made her bones vibrate, it bounded forward and lunged once more, achieving an astonishing height for such a large creature.
Almost without thinking, Alison raised her knife-hand and slashed, and she felt the force of the creature's underbelly scraping against the blade, almost ripping it out of her hand as it howled and landed awkwardly on its side. Alison could feel the blood running onto her hand, and her stomach roiled, but she fought it down as she spurred Hidalgo forward, galloping down the road at a speed that surprised her for such a small pony.
Behind her, Alison could hear the creature howling and whining in pain, and she shut off her humanitarian side as she heard it lurch to its feet and chase after them, snarling furiously. This thing is trying to kill you, do not allow "In the Arms of an Angel" to start playing in your head.
Dark forest surrounded Alison on either side as they ran, and she looked back, seeing the wolf-creature gaining on them. On the open road, there were no obstacles for the thing to dodge, and it was extremely fast. She could see the vicious gleam in its eyes now, and she knew she was going to have to get off the road if she wanted any chance of living to see the dawn.
She jerked sharply on Hidalgo's reins, and they careened into the shadowy trees on the left-hand side of the road. With an irritated growl, the wolf-creature backtracked and hurtled after them, though it had to slow down some to fit its huge body in between the closely-packed trees.
Alison and Hidalgo ran for what seemed like hours, dodging trees and roots wildly as they thundered through the dark and unrelenting forest. Alison's eyes were strained and beginning to hurt as she guided Hidalgo as best she could by the faint moonlight filtering through the tree-tops, trying to avoid sending them sprawling on roots or decapitating herself by a low-hanging branch.
The wolf-creature was still keeping steady pace with them, though, having gotten used to the terrain and obviously bred for perfect night vision and tracking skills, and Alison began to feel fear beneath her adrenaline; Hidalgo couldn't keep up this pace forever, and it seemed like that thing wasn't getting tired. She would have to make a stand.
Suddenly, Hidalgo twisted one of his front legs on a protruding tree root, and the horse stumbled, crying out in pain. Alison, with only one hand on the reins and the other still gripping her knife, rolled painfully out of the saddle and hit the ground, knocking the breath from her lungs. Hidalgo fled into the trees, still crying out, and Alison scrambled to her feet, fighting to breathe, as the wolf-creature leaped in front of her, its lips drawn back in a menacing growl.
This time, there was no hesitation; the wolf-creature lunged, and she was too winded to raise her knife in time. A force that felt like a ton of bricks slammed into her, knocking her flat on the ground again, and the knife skidded out of her reach as the wolf-creature snarled down at her, one fore-paw on her throat and the other on her outstretched arm.
She gagged on its breath as it leaned in to her face, and a rope of slimy drool caressed her cheek, making her want to die just from the disgust of that sensation. Her fingers groped hopelessly for her knife hilt, but all she managed to find were tufts of grass and handfuls of dirt.
Despair welled up in her as she realized she was about to die, but it was immediately oppressed by the red-hot wave of fiery determination that rose up in her; she would not die, not here, not like this, without a weapon and defenseless, awaiting the killing blow that was bound to come any second. She thrust out her hand one more time, and her desperate fingers seized on a jagged hunk of rock; not her knife, but it would do.
Summoning all of her strength, Alison raised the hand pinned down by the wolf-creature with difficulty, and drove a sharp point of the rock into its paw. It shouldn't have hurt it much, but it distracted it enough to where she could get her wrist free and swing it up, the rock still in hand.
The rock collided with the side of the creature's jaw, and Alison heard a satisfying crunch as the creature staggered back, spitting out several broken fangs and roaring with rage. Alison used her few seconds of distraction time to locate her knife and grab it up, before lurching to her feet and beginning to run as fast as she could.
It was hard work, running for her life while carrying a rock and a knife in both hands, while simultaneously trying not to get eaten and avoid all the roots that threatened to trip her up and offer her as this creature's next meal, but somehow she managed it quite well, only thinking Got to get away. Got to get away.
The wolf-creature was only a few feet behind her, and Alison decided to make her final stand; if she were to go down, she would go down fighting. All of her fear burned away as she swung around to face the creature, pitching the rock to where it hit its head, but it was like throwing a marshmallow for all the good it did her.
She brandished her knife, backing away from the creature as it slowly advanced on her, as if knowing she was about to die and had all the time in the world to make it happen. She swung the blade threateningly, and if scary giant wolf-creatures could give unimpressed, patronizing looks, she was sure she had just received one.
The rumbling growling had started again, and in a heartbeat, the wolf-creature pounced, pushing off from its haunches and reaching for her throat. Alison screamed, just as a familiar voice behind her yelled "Duck!"
Obeying the order without question, Alison hurled herself backwards, away from the creature's outreaching paws as suddenly an arrow whistled over her and lodged itself firmly in its maw. The creature made a startled sound, then gurgled, falling to the ground before Alison, twitching and bleeding, before it stopped moving and was still.
A ringing sound filled Alison's ears as she stared at the creature, incomprehensive as to what exactly had just happened. Once her brain pieced together that she was seeing the wolf-creature dead before her, though, she crawled as far away from it as she could before her body gave out and she vomited into a cluster of bushes.
Tears and sweat mingled on her face as she sat back up, her back turned away from the dead thing that had so nearly killed her. She gulped in air, adrenaline still coursing through her body, and she was suddenly hyper-aware of the fact that there were people behind her.
She clambered to her feet, weak and shaky, and turned, taking care not to look at the thing on the ground. There was the Company behind her, all tense and with weapons drawn, searching the trees around them carefully, wary of another creature lurking in the shadows.
"It's all right," she said, her voice croaking a little bit as it came out. The Company's eyes all swiveled to her, seemingly taking her presence in for the first time. Their eyes were wide and shocked, and she figured how terrifying her arrival must have been for them: crashing through the woods, being chased by a giant wolf-creature with a bloody knife in her hand, when she was supposed to be going in a completely different direction than they were.
At the reminder of the knife, Alison dropped the blade as if it had burned her, refusing to look at it or the blood that was beginning to crust over on her hand. She swayed, her vision going fuzzy, and suddenly someone was there, holding her steady as the world tilted around her.
"Alison, what in Mahal's name are you doing here?" She heard Kíli's voice as if coming down from a long tunnel, but she realized that he was actually very near, for he was the one steadying her as he looked down at her, his face white with shock. She vaguely noticed the bow and arrows on his back, and instead of answering, she said, "You killed it? You killed the…the…"
"The warg," he said, his tone still colored with shock. "Yes, I killed it. You're safe now."
"Oh, God," she said, slumping in his arms as all the fight and adrenaline rushed out of her body, making her dizzy and trembling. "Oh my God, what the hell just happened?"
"An apt question," Thorin said as he broke away from the group and strode up to her, his expression containing more fury than a thunderstorm. "I would very much like to know why you are here, Miss Ashburne, and please know that I have no mercy on liars and deceivers, woman or not."
"Uncle, please—" Kíli said, but Thorin held up a hand, silencing him.
"Speak," Thorin barked. "You were supposed to be making for Isengard, yet now you show up again, trailing a warg behind you. I want to know what exactly in Durin's name you are doing here."
Alison pushed herself up from Kíli's supporting grip as all the dwarves watched anxiously and suspiciously; her dizziness was fading, and all she wanted to do now was sleep, her body and mind too exhausted for anything else.
"What is this? What is this?" Gandalf said, pushing his way to the front of the throng, staff in hand. Alison wasn't all that surprised to see Bilbo trailing behind the Wizard, his eyes gleaming warily at the surrounding trees. Gandalf stopped in his tracks, his eyes taking in the dead warg and Alison's unexpected arrival easily, as if he had suspected it all along, and that was when it hit her; his knowing look earlier that morning, when she had said she hoped they would meet again…
That damned Wizard.
"You knew," she said, pointing accusingly at the Wizard. "You knew I would come back, that I would rejoin the Company, didn't you?"
"I was ninety percent sure, my dear girl," the Wizard said unabashedly. "The Valar brought you here for a specific reason, and I knew that even if you chose your own path, fate would somehow lead you back to here. It seems you are destined to come with us."
"Destined?" Thorin repeated, and his snarl was almost worse than the wolf-creature's. "She is not destined for any part in this quest. I have already allowed you to bring Mr. Baggins along, but I will not allow this, Gandalf. This woman is not coming with us, even if the Valar themselves came down and begged me to take her."
"And why not?" Gandalf challenged. "You would defy the very decree of the Valar, you would ignore the ancient rites of the Ashburne line, all because she is a woman? Need I remind you, Thorin Oakenshield, that Alison is not the first female Ashburne to cross into our world and offer her assistance. I believe that she is as capable as her ancestors in this matter."
"They had training," Thorin shot back. "It is obvious that she does not; it's barely been a day since we left Hobbiton and she has already gotten attacked—and by a warg, at the very least."
Alison was annoyed that the dwarf king and the Wizard were speaking about her as if she wasn't there, but she let them continue, still too shaken to join in the argument yet.
"With training, though, Alison could be a very useful asset; have you even bothered to look at the warg's injuries?" Gandalf said heatedly. "Broken teeth, a slash on the creature's underbelly, and Alison's knife, so obviously covered in blood?"
When Thorin only glared darkly at the creature, Gandalf pressed on, his tone firm as he said, "She is descended from Eleon Ashburne. Though she may not have had training, the same warrior blood runs in her veins, the same instincts. Those instincts kept Miss Ashburne alive tonight, and I believe that with the proper training, she would make a formidable weapon."
"Women are not warriors or weapons," Thorin argued. "They should know how to fight and fend for themselves, but I will not let one join a quest willingly, where there is no guarantee of her survival."
"That's not your decision to make," Alison broke in, figuring it was time to take control of the situation. "Look, the Valar called on me to help you. I know you don't like it, but that was their choice, not yours. I'm not even entirely sure if I want to be here yet, on this quest; I had a normal life in the mortal world, and don't think you're the only one who knows I could die on this quest. I know that, too, but I'm willing to risk my life to be here. The Valar tasked me to help you, and I came back because I don't leave people behind, strangers or not. If I can help, then I will stay. Train me if you want, teach me how to fight on the road. But I'm not leaving again. The Valar chose me for this, and as weird and stupid and superstitious as this sounds, I know I was meant to do this. I was fated to aid you on this quest, and you can be grumpy and brooding about it all you want, but face it: you're stuck with me now."
Silence filled the forest, and Alison watched Thorin's face shift and contort in the shadows of the moonlight, seemingly waging an internal battle with himself. Alison met Gandalf's eyes in the gloom, and she caught the barest trace of a wink before he looked back to the struggling dwarf king. The rest of the Company and Bilbo stood around, not knowing what to do as Thorin finally came to a decision.
"Miss Ashburne, Fíli, Kíli, Dwalin, and Gandalf, you will remain here with me," he ground out, as if every word caused him pain, and Alison felt her heart leap. "Bifur, Bofur, Glóin, and Nori, scan the perimeter, make sure no more of those foul beasts are nearby. The rest of you go back to camp. Bombur, prepare the food. We'll be there shortly."
The Company all nodded and dispersed, going to their separate tasks under Thorin's orders. Soon Alison was left alone with the Wizard, the line of Durin, and Dwalin.
"Do not think you are special because I have allowed you to stay, Miss Ashburne," Thorin said coldly, his eyes like chips of ice in the faint moonlight. "You will be treated the same as the rest of the Company, and you will treat them with the same respect and helpfulness in return. You will also refrain from going against my orders or arguing with my decisions. You have no higher privilege or status than the rest of us, and you are to note that your life is entirely in your own hands if you wish to be a part of this quest. Do I make myself clear?"
"Crystal," she said, trying not to let Thorin's attitude get to her. She was going on the quest! A part of her sang. She was a part of the Company!
"Fíli, Kíli, and Dwalin will rotate turns overseeing your training," he continued, and the two princes nodded enthusiastically at the mention, while Dwalin looked disgruntled, but he didn't object. "And now that we have that established, you will tell me everything that has happened to you and how you came to be this warg's prey."
So Alison began, telling them of how she had been riding on the North-South Road for that day, but she had changed her mind and rode back to rejoin their quest, taking care not to mention the specific reason she had turned back. Once she had made it onto the Great East Road, the warg had attacked her, and she told of the wild chase through the forest, and how her pony had twisted a leg and bucked her off. Her voice trembled a little as she went on, the events still so fresh and horrid in her mind: how the warg had knocked the knife out of her hand, and how she had grabbed the rock and hit it and started running. "Then the rest you know already, since you were kind of there for it," she finished anticlimactically. The dwarves had begun to circle around the warg as she told her story, examining its wounds and communicating in low voices to each other.
"And what of the knife?" Thorin asked, picking up the blood-stained blade and examining it closely. "Did you inflict this wound on the creature?" He gestured to the large gash on the warg's stomach, its fur clotted with dried blood from the wound.
Alison nodded. "On the Road, the second time it leaped for me, I just kind of swung, and…" She shuddered, remembering the scraping feeling and the drag on her hand as she had slashed the warg open, its hot blood running down her wrist…
"You are very fortunate to have escaped, Miss Ashburne," Thorin said. "But I have yet to understand what a warg was doing so close to the borders of Hobbiton, hunting through broad daylight, and especially one with the audacity to attack a traveler, with no rider or companions." He shook his head. "It makes no sense."
"Maybe it was just a wild one?" She said uncertainly, knowing that it probably wasn't true. She knew wargs were associated with Orcs, and she had a bad feeling that this wasn't just a random attack on a lone traveler.
"Perhaps," Thorin said, though she could tell he wasn't convinced either as he met her eyes, and she knew him to be thinking the same thing she was. Suddenly there was a rustle in the bushes somewhere to their left, and the group swung around, the others readying their weapons as Alison backed up behind them, her knife still in Thorin's hand, leaving her weaponless. But it was just the search party, coming back from sweeping the perimeter.
"We didn't see any more of them," Nori announced as they stepped out of the bushes. "I think there was only that one."
"But we found this," Bofur said, holding up Alison's backpack. She felt a rush of relief; it must've come off when she fell off Hidalgo, but it was found again, looking quite unscathed.
"That's mine!" She said happily, stepping forward and taking the pack from his outstretched hand. She looked through it, and found to her intense surprise that she still had most of her supplies. Of course, most of her food and her bedroll and things had run off with Hidalgo, but she was happy enough with the supplies she still had.
"We'll leave the body until dawn," Thorin said, sweeping past them as he made his way back to the camp. "Now, come on, we need to eat and get some rest. We set out at first light."
Gandalf and the dwarves fell into step behind him, trekking through the undergrowth towards a dimly glowing light between the trees Alison hadn't noticed until then. Before following, she paused and looked back at the warg, her mind still spinning.
The whole experience had been like a living nightmare, but she was alive. She was alive. She had to repeat this to herself several times over in her head before she accepted it. She had survived a warg attack in one piece.
Huh. Maybe she did have some warrior blood, after all.
"Alison, are you coming?" Fíli said, and she turned. The fair-haired dwarf stood between two trees a few feet from where she was, still looking at the dead warg. It was strange; a few minutes ago she had been puking her guts out over the sight of the dead thing, but now she felt nothing. No hint of remorse or disgust; nothing.
"Yeah," she said, stepping over roots as she went over to him.
"Do you want to clean that up?" He asked, pointing to her right hand, which was sticky and crusty from the dried warg blood.
"That'd probably be a good idea," she said, as they turned and made their way after the others.
"So," Fíli said wryly as they approached the campsite. "My excellent knife-wielding advice proved to be resourceful after all, eh?" He quirked a grin at her, and Alison smiled back, the remaining strands of tension that had been left in her body dissolving as she met his eyes, a pretty silver-blue in the pale moonlight.
"'Just swing and slash until you hit something?'" She said, cocking an eyebrow. "That's some pretty straight-forward advice. It's not that hard to remember."
He chuckled as they reached the campsite, but before he could enter she stopped him, placing a hand on his arm. He looked down at her hand, then to her face, startled at her sudden touch. "But it was appreciated, nonetheless," she said quietly, so the others at the camp couldn't hear. "If you hadn't given me that knife before I left…" she trailed off, shivering at the unfinished thought.
"Don't mention it," he said in an equally soft voice. "It would have put a kink in the Valar's plans if you had died. And for what it's worth, I'm glad that knife was able to protect you."
She nodded and removed her hand from his arm. "Ugh, we really need to clean this," she said as they walked together into the campsite, examining her blood-encrusted hand. "This is disgusting."
"Wait here," he instructed, and he darted around the large campfire in the center of the clearing they had entered, retrieving a water-skin from what was presumably his bedroll on the far side of the open space.
Alison stood awkwardly, not quite sure what to do. Thorin, Gandalf, Balin and Dwalin were standing in a huddled group together in a shadowy copse of trees on the edge of the clearing, apparently in deep discussion, while all the dwarves were seated together in a circle on the other side of the campfire, talking and laughing raucously as Bombur passed around wooden bowls and spoons to everybody, the bowls filled with what she assumed was stew. Bilbo looked oddly out of place amongst the group, but didn't seem all that uncomfortable. He just looked wistful, as if he were thinking of his cozy home in Bag-End.
"Alison!" Kíli's voice called, and she saw him waving to her from the group. "Come get some supper!"
"Be right there!" she called back, just as Fíli rejoined her with his water-skin and a rag in his hands.
"Here," he said, pouring some of the water onto her hand. She accepted the rag gratefully and began to scrub away at the blood, the reddish-brown gunk peeling satisfyingly off of her hand and wrist as she scrubbed vigorously. "Try not to take your skin off," he said jokingly, as the tanned skin on her hand took on a pink tinge from scrubbing so hard.
"Have you ever tried to get blood off of your hands?" she asked, as the last traces of blood began to fade. The cuff of her jacket was stained, but she didn't mind all that much; the material was dark anyway, so it would be difficult to see the stain.
"I've done my fair share," he answered, and she froze.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I shouldn't have said that."
"Oh, no," he said, waving off her apology. "I haven't really experienced that kind of fighting yet. I was mostly talking about hunting. I didn't mean to frighten you."
"Oh," she said quietly; her mind had registered the word yet, and she felt like she was drowning as she handed the rag back to him, knowing what would await him at the end of this journey and feeling sick again. But that same fiery determination rose up inside her once more, and she thought, I will save them all. I will.
"Let's go get some food," he urged, not noticing how still her body had gone and the sudden determined clench of her jaw.
She trailed after him as they joined the group, and he promptly squished in between Bofur and Óin, while Bombur passed him a bowl of stew. Alison hesitated, unsure of where to sit, but that problem was solved quickly enough when Bofur grabbed her hand and promptly dragged her down to his other side with such enthusiasm her butt slammed uncomfortably into the ground, and she winced slightly.
"Welcome back to the Company!" he said cheerily, and Alison smiled; Bofur's bright and cheery attitude was infectious, and it was impossible to not smile when in his presence. Alison found it surprising that she had taken to Bofur so quickly. She only had a close-knit group of friends back home, and she rarely ever talked to other people besides them, comfortable with her small clique. But that was the power of Bofur; he made her feel like she belonged, even when all she wanted to do was be by herself and not draw attention.
"I'm glad to be back," she replied, as Bombur waddled over and pressed a bowl of stew in her hands. "Thank you." She said to the great ginger dwarf. He blushed and didn't say anything, just gave her a quick nod and rushed back to his spot.
"He doesn't like me," she said, her grin fading a bit at the dwarf's reaction.
"What, Bombur?" Bofur said. "Oh, lass, there's nothing to worry about with him. He's just shy, is all. He likes you, he's just too nervous to say anything to you."
"Him? Nervous because of me?" she echoed incredulously. "Why?"
"Hmm, let's see," Bofur said around a mouthful of stew. Alison spooned a bite into her own mouth, and immediately the delicious flavors flooded her taste buds, warming her up from the inside out and settling comfortably in her empty belly. She began to shovel heaping spoonfuls in her mouth as Bofur went on. "I mean, it couldn't possibly be from the fact that firstly, you're human, and a female one at that. Secondly, you were summoned by the Valar from another world. And, thirdly, you know, there's that whole thing with you being descended from a Hero…"
"All right," she conceded. "But I still don't see how I'm that intimidating. According to Thorin a gust of wind would do me in."
"You're being modest," Bofur said, wagging his spoon at her. "You just managed to get away from a warg attack practically unscathed because you knocked its bloody teeth out and stabbed it. That's a bit intimidating."
Alison was spared trying to answer to that when she felt a tap on her shoulder, and she looked to her other side, where Bifur was seated beside her. The wild-looking dwarf made a series of hand gestures to her, grunting incoherently, and Alison sat blankly, trying to decipher what he was trying to sign to her, but the gestures made no sense to her. She knew that there was something wrong with Bifur's speech capabilities, probably stemming from the hatchet blade stuck in his head, but the dwarf was still trying to communicate with her, though she felt a sympathetic twinge in her heart as she realized she didn't know what he was trying to communicate to her.
She set down her bowl on the ground before her and shifted to face Bifur, tapping Bofur on the shoulder as she did so. "Help me with your cousin," she said quietly to him, remembering that despite their similar names, Bombur was Bofur's younger brother and Bifur was just his cousin.
Alison turned back to face Bifur, and the dwarf watched her carefully with his beetle-black eyes, and she recognized the faint crease of frustration between his bushy black eyebrows, because she did the same thing whenever she was frustrated. "Can you sign to me again?" she asked kindly, and he nodded, doing the hand gestures to her again.
She studied the movements carefully, picking up on a closed fist, opening up into a cupped palm, and then his right forefinger flicking out quickly before his hands became fists again.
"He's using the Iglishmêk," Bofur explained, sounding a bit apprehensive. "It's the gesture language of the Dwarves. It's mainly used for communication within the mines and forges, where we can't hear each other, but Bifur uses it along with our spoken language, the Khuzdûl. He's only ever been able to speak like that since his, you know, incident."
Alison nodded, attempting to recreate the gestures on her own hands as Bifur watched her patiently, going back over the parts she stumbled on. She felt Bofur's tension at her back as she clumsily redid the gestures. "Let me guess," she said without turning around. "I'm not supposed to be doing this?"
"Well…no," he admitted. "Our languages are supposed to be secret, never used by or to an outsider of our race, but…"
She stopped suddenly at Bofur's words, realizing how incredibly rude and imposing she must seem by trying to learn the secret Iglishmêk. "But?" she prompted, clasping her hands in her lap embarrassedly.
"He's asking if you're all right," Bofur said resignedly, and Alison suddenly wished that she had taken sign language in school instead of Spanish so she could still communicate in gestures to Bifur without intruding on their secret language.
Alison smiled at the fierce dwarf as his eyes watched her. "Yes, Bifur, I'm fine," she said kindly. "Thank you for asking. And how are you?"
Bifur smiled under his tangled beard and gesticulated rapidly, his left hand curled into a loose fist and flipping his right hand upside down, splaying his fingers out. "That means he is well," Bofur said, and Alison smiled again.
"That's great, Bifur!" she said, and the dwarf smiled again, his black eyes crinkling in the corners. Alison suddenly became aware of how quiet the campsite was, and she looked away from Bifur to the others. The dwarves and Bilbo were all looking at her with unreadable expressions, and, much to her nervousness, she saw that the group who had been standing on the other side of the clearing talking earlier had wandered back over, and were staring at her, too.
"Um, sorry," she said meekly. "I didn't mean to impose on your, um…it won't happen again." Her eyes sought Thorin's, but he didn't look angry, just…thoughtful.
"We've found another bedroll and blanket for you to sleep with," he said, ignoring her apology, and Alison felt herself relax. Apparently Thorin's voice had broken the silent spell over the others, for they went back to their eating and conversations, turning their attention away from her as her blush faded.
Alison nodded at the dwarf king as Bombur ladled him a bowl of stew and handed it to him. "Thanks," she said, and he inclined his head slightly to her as he sat down between Balin and Bilbo.
"Excuse me, Miss Ashburne?" A soft voice said from across the circle, and she looked to find Ori speaking to her. The younger dwarf was staring avidly at her with his gentle cow-eyes, and his cheeks turned a faint pink as she smiled at him. "Yes, Ori?"
"Would you…would you mind telling us about your world?" He looked down at the leather-bound journal in his hands as he asked, and Alison thought that if Dwarves could be adorable, then Ori was definitely the winner.
"What do you want to know?" she asked.
"Well, what does it look like?"
"Um…well, it's big," she said, aware that everyone's eyes were upon her again. She paused, uncertain of what to say, but Ori looked at her with such expectation she just decided to go for it.
"It's very big," she went on, playing with a tuft of grass before her. "And there's a crazy amount of people living there, too, in giant cities with lights that never turn off, so it always seems to be lit up." She smiled to herself when she saw the dwarves listening to her raptly; even Thorin and Dwalin looked mildly interested, despite gazing intently into their bowls, and she went on. "But there aren't cities everywhere; there's a lot of mountains and forests, and more than half the planet is nothing but water, like oceans and seas and stuff."
"Have you ever been to the sea?" Ori asked, scribbling excitedly in his journal.
"Once," she said, dredging up childhood memories from the back corners of her mind. "My family and I went there when I was eight, just before my brother and sister were born. It was really hot; I remember getting an ice cream cone—a dessert thing, I'll explain later," she said to their puzzled looks. "And it just melted, and I threw a fit because I hadn't gotten to finish it."
The dwarves chuckled at this, and her lips curled faintly upwards as she tried to recall that summer. "And the beach was so long, this huge strip of golden sand that went out right to the edge of the water. The ocean was massive, stretching out as far as the eye could see in both directions, and meeting the sky far out on the horizon, where it looked like the sun was sinking beneath the waves as it set."
The whole circle was enraptured as she went on, her confidence bolstering as she continued describing her world, feeling a stab of homesickness as she did.
"Do you live near the beach?" Ori asked, looking up from his furious scrawling.
"No, I live in a place called West, Texas," she said. "It's a small town, located in the middle of nowhere, basically. It's hundreds of miles away from the beach I went to, with nothing but empty farmland and a town square…and that's about it for miles around us."
"You journeyed hundreds of miles to the sea when you were only eight?" Nori broke in, sounding mildly impressed. Alison laughed, remembering that this was Middle-earth and they didn't have cars.
"Oh, no," she said. "We don't think of that distance the same as you do here. My world is really advanced, and we have things called cars that transport us to places. They're like…mechanical carriages, I guess, but they have this thing called an engine in it that makes it run instead of being pulled by horses…"
The group seemed very skeptical of this concept, and it took half an hour for Alison to attempt to describe the concept of a vehicle to them, which was extremely difficult considering she wasn't a car enthusiast or anything. She never realized how unknowing she was of the technology in her world until she was trying to describe it to the dwarves and Bilbo, so used to the presence of it that she never really questioned how it all worked until now.
Once the struggle of that task was over, she was ready for a topic change as the dwarves finally dropped it, still disbelieving at the concept of technology and electricity and everything else she had been forced to describe. Gandalf looked on with mild amusement, smoking his pipe serenely; he must've thought it funny to see her floundering around like that, drowning in the dwarves' numerous questions she didn't really know the answers to.
"You said at first you didn't want to come on this quest because you would be abandoning your family," Kíli said suddenly, and Alison met his dark eyes apprehensively. "Would you tell us about them? Your family?"
There was a long pause in which Alison debated in sharing about her family. She was homesick enough just talking about her world, and she was afraid she would be reduced to tears if she talked about her family. But instead she nodded.
"My mom's name is Emily," she said, not really knowing where to start. "I look a lot like her, except I got my eyes from my dad. She's…strong, and kind, though she can be kind of strict." She remembered her act of rebellion all those months ago, when she had tried to sneak out of her house and was grounded from her car after her mom caught her. "But she's really supportive, and she loves my siblings and me a lot." She paused, trying to swallow the sudden lump from her throat.
"I have a younger brother and sister, named Katie and Jace. They're fraternal twins, and they're honestly the most annoying life-forms on the face of the Earth when they're together. I still love them, though," she added hastily at the shocked expressions on their faces. "They're just…young and reckless, that's all."
"And what about your father?" Ori asked, and Alison felt her heart twinge, not really wanting to get into that story.
"He passed away when I was twelve," was all she said, and Ori immediately blushed to the roots of his hair.
"Apologies, Miss Ashburne. I—I didn't mean…"
"Don't worry about it," she said, forcing a smile. "And, seriously, call me Alison. 'Miss Ashburne' is too formal." She wrinkled her nose in distaste.
There were several more questions the dwarves had, though they took care not to bring up her family anymore, and Alison answered them, though with much less enthusiasm than before, until Thorin announced it was time for them to get to sleep and appointing Glóin to the first watch of the night.
The Company all got to their feet, clearing away their bowls and stamping out the fire until it was a dull red glow. Alison stood up with them, stretching out the cramps in her legs from sitting for so long and busying herself by rinsing out her bowl with some water Bombur provided from his water-skin.
Once she had finished with her task, she felt a light tap on her arm and found Fíli standing behind her. "Come on, you're over by me," he said, and Alison followed him to the other side of the clearing. Her new bedroll was between Fíli's on one side and Óin's on the other; they weren't super close to the point of awkward, but Alison still felt some trepidation of sleeping next to a bunch of men, Dwarves or not.
She plopped herself down next to Fíli and removed her boots and jacket, then lay down on the bedroll, gazing up at the treetops, where the glimmer of the stars were just discernible through the foliage. All the stories of her family and her own world had caused an ache in her chest, and even though she had made her decision to stay and help the Company, she still missed her family deeply.
To her left, Óin was already snoring, and she wondered how the dwarf could possibly fall asleep that fast as she heard Fíli settle down on her right. Soon the whole campsite was asleep, their heavy breathing and snores overshadowing the rustle of undergrowth and the quiet patter of animals in the shadows. Alison rolled over on her side to settle into a more comfortable position when she noticed Fíli's eyes shining in the gloom, gazing up at the stars as she had been doing a moment ago.
Feeling her eyes on him, he turned his head and met her gaze. Alison was glad of the cover of darkness, because she was probably blushing as she realized how creepy she was being staring at him.
"Can't fall asleep easily, either, huh?" he asked softly, and she shook her head.
"I don't know how they do it," she replied just as quietly. "It's like my mind wakes up as soon as I lie down."
"I know that feeling," he said, his lips curling into a half-smile, and Alison found herself staring at his face again, washed in the pale glow from the moonlight. She flicked her gaze away quickly, and they lay in comfortable silence for a few moments.
"I'm sorry about your father," he said, and Alison met his eyes again. They were as unreadable as Thorin's as she shrugged.
"Don't be," she said. "It was a few years ago now, and I try not to let it weigh me down anymore. You just have to keep moving forward."
He nodded thoughtfully. "I understand what you mean. Kíli and I lost our father, as well. Of course, Kíli never knew him, for he died in a bandit raid before he was born, but I remember him. It was hard, not having a father, but our mother is a strong woman, like you said yours was, and she raised us well. Along with some help from Thorin."
He grinned to himself, and Alison had to try and wrap her head around thoughts of Thorin being all caring and familial for a second, wondering if that was even possible for the scowling, broody dwarf king.
"Try to sleep, Alison," he whispered, and she nodded, already feeling her eyelids droop. The last thing she saw before she slipped under the comforting wing of sleep was Fíli's face, his face ethereal and pale in the moonlight and his eyes alight as he gazed back up to the stars.
Well, I hope you guys liked this chapter! Please don't forget to review: anything you liked, disliked, are looking forward to? Let me know!
Thanks again, lovelies! Until next chapter...