The March of Time

7: High Waters

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 7! I'm still not quite into this chapter, even after editing, but I hope you will deem it suitable all the same.

Enjoy!

Chapter Seven: High Waters

Kíli's prediction did not prove true for at least another week, however, when the Company awoke one morning to a dreary mist and low-hanging grey clouds, and there was much grumbling and complaint as they ate a pathetic meal of damp bread and leftover cold ham from their rations.

After their measly breakfast, the Company packed up and moved on, bringing out their traveling cloaks and drawing up their hoods in an attempt to stave off the clinging drizzle.

Fíli resumed his position of rear-guard at the back of the Company as they pressed on down the Great East Road; they had left the last of civilization behind for a time after passing quickly through Bree, only occasionally passing by a farmer's homestead - and even those rarely - and, according to the map Bilbo had given Alison, they were just coming upon the Hoarwell River as they rode on, deeper into the Wild.

Fíli was distinctly unruffled by the moisture coating his uncovered skin and clinging to his hair under his hood, but by mid-afternoon, he was downright uncomfortable as the light mist turned into a downpour, and despite his cloak he could feel his sopping clothes sticking to his body, and he scowled at the discomfort.

"Here, Mr. Gandalf," he heard Dori say from the front of the group. "Can't you do something about this deluge?"

"It is raining, Master Dwarf," Gandalf replied from his place at the head of the Company. "And it will continue to rain until the rain is done! If you wish to change the weather of the world, you should find yourself another Wizard!"

"Are there any?" Bilbo asked, and Fíli saw the hobbit near the front as well, looking quite downtrodden as he didn't have a cloak to shelter him from most of the rain and was soaked to the skin.

Gandalf's reply was lost as Kíli hung back until his pony was neck-and-neck with Fíli's, and the blonde-haired dwarf looked to his younger brother as Kíli met his gaze, his dark hair plastered to his face underneath his hood.

"Lovely weather we're having, isn't it?" his brother said with a big smile, and Fíli snorted.

"Quite lovely," he said dryly, and Kíli chuckled at his brother's clear discomfort. "Have you come to mock at my discomfort, since you're so obviously enjoying yourself, or is there something else you need to speak to me about?"

Fíli raised his eyebrows pointedly, recalling Kíli and Thorin's conversation from over a week ago, the second night after they had left the Shire. He knew Kíli was hiding some of the truth from him, but he hadn't pressed, knowing his brother would tell him anyway in time. And it seemed he was right.

"I wanted to talk to you about mine and Uncle's conversation," he said, and Fíli nodded, encouraging him on. "It was about…well, it was about Alison, and the quest."

At the mention of her name, Fíli looked to the middle of the traveling Company where Alison rode beside Balin. She had no cloak, either, and her hunting jacket didn't have a hood; Fíli guessed she must've been pretty miserable riding in the downpour, but she talked animatedly to the older dwarf, occasionally making grand gestures with her hands as she talked.

"What about her?" Fíli asked, tearing his eyes away from her back and looking to his brother again.

"Uncle believes that the Valar didn't summon her just because of our quest," he said bluntly, launching straight to the point; Kíli's virtues had never extended to tact or subtlety. "He thinks that there is something more to this quest, something greater than just Erebor, and it involves Alison and her arrival. And I agree with him."

"So now you're asking what my thoughts are," Fíli said, and it wasn't a question. He knew the unspoken plead for his input in his brother's tone, and they rode in silence for a moment as Fíli sat, thinking.

"I agree with the both of you, as well," he said finally. "It makes sense. From what I've gathered about the whole Ashburne-line thing, it sounds like they're only called upon for major things, like Johnathan Ashburne and the War of the Last Alliance. Though this quest certainly seems like a major thing, I do also think that there is something else involved; but who knows?"

"Do you think she's meant to kill the dragon?" Kíli said, and Fíli shot him a look. "I mean, if the dragon is still alive," he amended, and Fíli shrugged.

"I don't know, Kíli. It's too early to know anything for sure. We haven't even reached the Misty Mountains yet, and we still have months to go before we reach the Lonely Mountain itself. I don't know."

They fell back into silence, and Fíli was enjoying his quiet solitude until Kíli had to open his mouth again.

"Do you think she's nice-looking?" he said abruptly, and Fíli almost fell off his pony at the unexpected question. He looked at his brother, but the dark-haired dwarf was staring ahead adamantly, waiting for Fíli's answer.

"Kíli, we've known her all but - what? Two weeks?" he said, regaining his wits and glancing ahead to make sure no one was overhearing their conversation. Thankfully, no one seemed to be paying them much attention. "I hardly think that's a fair amount of time to give her judgment." Fíli suddenly looked at his brother suspiciously. "Why? Do you think she's nice-looking?"

Kíli gave a non-committal grunt and jerked one shoulder. "She doesn't have a beard," was all he said in reply, and Fíli decided to let the subject drop before it got any stranger, though he was sorely tempted to point out that he had no beard, either; but he didn't think his brother would appreciate that. His beard – or lack thereof – was always a touchy subject.

Eventually, Kíli rode back up to his spot behind Alison, and Fíli watched the human girl's drenched hair-tail swing back and forth as she rode, wondering why Kíli would ask such an abnormal and unexpected question.

Was it possible that he…? Fíli shook his head, choosing not to finish that thought. Kíli was young, and he had always been impressionable, but it wasn't fathomable… After all, he was a Dwarf, and she was a Man from another world, the mortal world. And who knew what would happen to her after they finished their quest and took back the Mountain? The Valar would probably send her home, her task completed…

He felt a strange twinge in his chest at the thought, and he pushed all wonderings of Kíli and Alison out of his head. For some unknown reason he couldn't explain, Kíli's question had unnerved him, and as the Company rode on through the rain, he couldn't shake the foreign feeling that had suddenly developed in the back of his mind, and the feeling persisted as the rain continued on and they journeyed farther and farther into the Wild.

If Alison thought that her journey on the North-South Road was uncomfortable, it was nothing compared to this.

In any other situation, she would've loved the rain. It was the heavy, steady kind of rain that patters on the roof at night and lulls people to sleep with the sound, and it was nice and cool, not too cold for the summer season. However, since she was stuck on a pony riding through Middle-earth, without a hood or cloak to have at least some cover from the unrelenting downpour, and with her arms and back tight coils of stiff muscle, she was just plain miserable.

She had given up on trying to keep her spirits high as they trudged along through the mud and puddles, the rest of the Company as silent and disgruntled as she was. She vaguely listened to Gandalf's explanation to Bilbo about the other Wizards, but seeing as she had already heard about the Order when she first fell into Middle-earth, she tuned them out.

Without realizing it, her eyes had subconsciously drifted to Thorin's back where he rode behind Gandalf, and she remembered Balin's story about the war at Moria from a week ago now.

She had listened intently, Balin's voice filling her with mixed emotions as he told the tale; hope, sorrow, and a pressing grief that lay heavy on her bones. It wasn't until Balin had finished the story and she had laid down for sleep when she realized that the grief wasn't stemming from Thorin's story—it was her own grief, long since buried after the death of her father.

The war and hearing about Thorin's father had opened up a well in her heart, and painful memories had risen to the surface. She felt a connection to Thorin, though she would never tell him that. She had lost her own father to war when she was twelve—or, rather, three months after he had returned home, from a heart attack—and she would never forget his funeral; the coffin, draped with the flag, and the military salute, with the rifles firing three shots into the air as she watched her father pass away beyond her reach. Of course, she knew that he had been long gone before then, but seeing the coffin disappear into the cold, hard earth had seemed so final, and it had hit her then that he was gone forever. Listening to Thorin's father's and grandfather's fates had ripped open that old wound, and when she had gone to bed, she had silently broken down.

Everything had come crashing down at her at once, and she cried for all the pent-up emotions she had been hoarding for the past three days; her fear of the unknown, her uncertainty that she could change the line of Durin's fates, the homesickness for her family and friends and stupid small town—it had all slammed into her, and she had curled into a ball and let the tears flow, muffling her cries into her blanket so she wouldn't disturb the others.

She was fine now, though. It was difficult and painful, but she knew that there was no use crying over the inevitable and the unchangeable, so she had put on her brave face the next morning and kept her head down for the past week or so, helping when she could and just generally…being there, for now. And besides, she had more pressing matters on her mind.

After Thorin had told Bilbo that Azog had died from his wounds long ago, Alison had caught an exchange between Balin and Gandalf that had both confused and terrified her in equal measure. It was a look of warning and uncertainty, and Gandalf had glanced away uncomfortably after a few seconds, not realizing that he had captured Alison's attention and she had seen the whole brief exchange between the old dwarf and the Wizard. She was burning to know what that exchange had been about, but she knew that she hadn't been meant to see it, and she didn't want to reveal her nosiness to the two.

And she wasn't entirely sure she wanted to know the answer.

After a few more miles of being wrapped up in her thoughts, Alison felt a pony drop back to her side, and she looked up, expecting to see Kíli, ready for another story, (she had been telling him some over the course of the week; so far she had only recounted Star Wars, since the whole thing covered six movies, and considering he and the other dwarves always interrupted her with questions, it had taken forever to get through, but they had finally finished it last night), but she was taken aback as she recognized Balin beside her.

She was a little surprised at the dwarf's presence; she hadn't really spoken to him all that much so far, only once or twice when they either made camp, or when he had handed her a contract like Bilbo's to sign for the quest about five nights ago. But other than those few occasions, she hadn't interacted with him, since he always seemed to be busy discussing things with either Gandalf, Thorin, or Dwalin and some of the others, so her surprise was valid when he began to ride beside her.

Her mouth snapped closed on the witty remark she had been about to say to "Kíli", and Balin smiled kindly at her, his eyes twinkling good-naturedly.

"Sorry, lass, I didn't mean to startle you," he said, misinterpreting her expression as one of alarm instead of relief of having caught herself before saying something foolish to the wise dwarf. "I came to see how you were holding up back here. You seem a little down."

"I'm fine," she said, giving a small shrug. "I think we're all a little under the weather at the moment." Then she winced. "Sorry, bad pun."

Balin chuckled, waving his hand and flapping water droplets into her face; not that it mattered. Her face felt like it was already submerged underwater anyway.

"Well, good," he said, adjusting his hood a little lower over his face. "That's good." There was a brief pause, and then the white-haired dwarf turned to her, his face alight with curiosity. "Do they have libraries in your world, Miss Ashburne?"

"Libraries?" she said, wondering how that question had popped up from bad puns about the weather. "Well, yes, we do. Millions of them, probably."

"Millions?" Balin echoed, and his eyes lit up with intense interest. "Have you ever been to one?"

"Plenty of times," she said, warming up to the dwarf; she had thought he had been one of the disapproving ones of her, such as Dwalin and Thorin, but looking at him through the rain, Alison thought that maybe she had gained another companion. "But it wasn't grand or spectacular. It was just a regular public library in my town."

She noticed that she was starting to gain the others' attention as she talked, but she didn't mind that much anymore. Most of them had taken to her and were kind, and she had become more comfortable speaking around them.

She looked back to Balin. "However, there's this one library that I've always dreamed of going to. It's called the Library of Congress, and it's this beautiful round room, like a cathedral…" She went on explaining about the library, using expansive gestures as she did so to convey the enormity of the room, and then Ori had asked her to describe a cathedral from her world, so she did that next while the dwarves listened in rapture.

At one point, Alison had glanced back over her shoulder, and she noticed Fíli and Kíli riding at the rear, talking in hushed tones and facing each other seriously. She wondered what they were talking about, as Fíli shot his brother a sharp glance and his face twitched in surprise. She watched the older dwarf prince for a moment as he replied to his brother, a weird expression on his face, and Alison found herself staring at him a little too intently. She turned back to the front of the Company, hoping none of the others had seen her scrutiny of the fair-haired dwarf.

She heard a pony splash up behind her a few minutes later, and wasn't all that surprised when she heard Kíli's cheeky voice. "Are you going to tell me another story now, Alison, or should I wait until my ears have collected enough water to where I can't hear?"

"And what type of story did you have in mind?" she asked, shooting him a quick glance over her shoulder. Her eyes sought his through the rain, and she thought she caught a strange flicker in the dark depths as he met her gaze, before it was gone and she told herself it must've been a trick of the rain.

"Tell me another of your favorites," he said. "But with something fascinating, like those Jedi Knights you told me about."

"All right, Mister Picky, I'll see what I can do," she said, sticking her tongue out at him when he grinned, and she thought for a moment, her mind strangely blank.

"That's kind of hard," she said slowly, stalling for a few seconds as she tried to think. "I have a lot of favorites." She dropped her horse back to ride beside him, not wanting to crane her neck around every time she spoke to him.

"Just pick any one you like," he said. "I don't mind."

"Um…all right." She cast her mind around for a few seconds, until she landed on a memory of her on the couch in her house, curled up reading a Harry Potter book to her siblings. She grinned to herself as she looked at Gandalf's back; oh, the Wizard was going to like this one…

"Okay, I have one," she said, and Kíli looked to her attentively as she began. "So, uh…once upon a time, there was this Dark wizard, who called himself Lord Voldemort. While he declared himself as that, though, all the other witches and wizards called him 'You-Know-Who' or 'He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named'…"

And so Alison told the whole story of Harry Potter from beginning to end, taking up most of the day as she talked, for there were seven books to cover, and it was the retelling of Star Wars all over again; she kept getting interrupted by the dwarves whenever they had a question about a specific event or character, and, more than once, she had to remind them that this was just a made-up tale in her world, and no she didn't know how to actually cast a Patronus Charm and no she did not have a house-elf working in her home. Other than that, she quite enjoyed telling the story to the fascinated Company, and by the time they came to the river, her throat was dry and her voice was getting scratchy from so much speaking.

"Stop!" Thorin called from the front, interrupting Alison just as she had gotten to the part where Harry and Voldemort finally faced each other down after Harry's "resurrection" and he was explaining how the Elder Wand was rightfully his. The Company obeyed, pulling their ponies to a halt.

The rain had finally ceased, and the oppressing grey clouds were beginning to dissipate, revealing a pink-streaked sky as the sun neared the end of its daytime journey as they paused on the riverbank.

"What is it? Why have we stopped?" Dwalin asked from in front of Alison and Kíli.

"The river," Thorin grunted, gesturing ahead, and the Company all craned their heads to see a voracious, fast-flowing river a few feet away from them, obviously flooded from the torrential rains of the past day.

"We can still get across," Kíli said optimistically. "It'll just be a lot more dangerous than usual."

Alison looked at the river skeptically; 'dangerous' was a bit of an understatement. The water had to be as high as her chest, and moving that fast…

"We'll have to cross here," Thorin agreed. "It'll take too long to go around, and I don't want to be stuck on this side of the river after nightfall if there is something hunting us." Alison shivered at his words. "Kíli, gather up the ropes and knot them together. You'll swim to the other side and tie it to a tree so we can cross with the ponies."

Kíli nodded, removing his rope from his saddle and then reaching across for Alison's. "Kíli, be careful," she said worriedly, and the young dwarf prince winked at her as he gathered up her rope.

"Don't worry," he said, swinging off his pony and going to collect the others' ropes. "I'm like a fish in the water. I'll be on the other side before you know it."

Alison nodded as he whisked away, feeling a tight strain of anxiety as she looked back out to the water. It was brown and murky as it rushed past, and it was about forty yards across. Please, please don't let him drown, she prayed to whatever force watched over this world.

Kíli approached the river bank, all the ropes knotted together over his arm as he took one end and tied it to a tree on their side of the river. Then he waded into the fast-moving water and walked out until the water reached his chest, and then he began to swim, kicking out hard and dragging himself forward through the current. He reached the other side and clambered up onto the bank, shaking himself like a wet dog, and Alison breathed out a sigh of relief, not even aware she had been holding her breath until the dwarf prince had made it safely to the other shore.

"All right, Gandalf, you first," Thorin said, and the Wizard sloshed to the bank, grabbing hold of the rope with one hand and leading his horse with the other. "Balin, you next, and then everyone else. Walk your horse, don't ride it through the water, and when the person in front of you reaches the middle of the river, then you will begin to cross after them. Don't let go of the rope and watch your step. We'll continue for a ways after we all cross and then set up camp for the night. Is everyone in agreement?"

The Company all nodded and muttered in consent, and they watched as Gandalf reached the other shore, leading his waterlogged horse up the bank with the assistance of Kíli. Balin reached the middle of the river, and Alison feared the short dwarf was going to be dragged under, but he kept going, reaching the other side as Dwalin waded into the current.

After Dwalin came Thorin, then Bilbo, who lost his footing for a moment and went under, but splashed back up again, gasping and continuing forward. One by one everyone crossed the river, until the only people left on the other side were Alison, Glóin, Bombur, and Fíli.

Bombur went first out of the four, his fat seeming to buoy him up as he crossed, but he went painfully slow, and Alison felt sweat beginning to slick her palms as she stepped up to the river. She had her own pony and Kíli's with her, holding both of their reins in one hand so she could grab on to the rope with her other. Glóin would follow her, leading his horse and the other supply pony, and Fíli would go last, untying the rope on their side and meeting up with them on the opposite bank.

Bombur reached the middle of the river, and Alison waded into the water with a deep breath. Immediately a spike of cold shot through her legs, and the current tugged at her, threatening to drag her in and under. She pushed forward, leading the ponies and muttering comforting words of encouragement to them as she grasped the rope, pulling herself along as the water sucked at her clothes.

Everything was going smoothly until she reached the center of the river, where the current was at its strongest. The water lapped at her shoulders, and her teeth began to chatter from the chill. The ponies began to snort and make frightened noises behind her, and she said, "It's okay. We're okay. We're—"

At that moment, Alison stepped weirdly on a dislodged rock, and her boot slipped, threatening to throw her under the current. Luckily, she managed to stay upright, but her sudden, jerky movement had spooked her horse, and the pony attempted to rear in the water, yanking its rope out of her hand.

"No, no, you're okay—" she attempted to say, but her horse whinnied, and suddenly the pony was floundering in the current as the river bore her away, losing her footing and not having Alison holding onto her bridle to steady her.

"Shit! Penelope!" she said, and in a split second, she made a decision. She took Kíli's horse's bridle and tied it securely to the rope spanning across the river; as she did so, she heard Thorin's voice yelling out to her from the opposite bank.

"Miss Ashburne, keep moving! Kíli will get the pony! Keep moving!"

Alison glanced to the shore where most of the Company was standing, but she knew Kíli would never reach the horse in time; the pony would soon be swept too far downstream to save, and Alison was still in the water, and the current was on her side.

Hoping that those swimming lessons she had taken in middle school would help her now, Alison launched herself into the current, and almost immediately regretted her decision as the coldness of the water stabbed into her skin like tiny daggers and sucked away her breath.

She tumbled and scraped along the bottom of the river as the current whisked her downstream, and she started to panic as she struggled to reach the surface. Then, remembering to kick, she pushed off of the muddy bottom and fought her way to the surface, gasping in air. She took in her surroundings, searching for her horse, and she saw the pony a few feet away from her, splashing and fighting against the water, its eyes rolling with fear.

She kicked out towards the pony, noticing that in the few seconds she had been submerged underwater the river had carried her far downstream, where the water was much deeper, and she couldn't see the Company anymore, though she noted with relief that the shore was actually fairly close.

Alison neared the pony with difficulty, trying to avoid being hit by one of its flailing legs as she reached for the bridle and grasped it in triumph. However, her victory was short-lived, as the pony shrieked and tumbled back underwater, dragging Alison with it.

River water shot up Alison's nose and she choked, not having had any time to take a breath before being pulled under. With horror, she realized her wrist was tangled in the horse's bridle, and no matter how hard she tugged, she couldn't free her hand. She was dragged mercilessly along by the current, and her eyes were starting to swim with black spots from lack of oxygen. She attempted to kick to the surface, but the pony's weight was too much; she was stuck under the water.

Pure terror seized her as her lungs began to burn, and all she could think was, I'm going to die. I'm going to die by drowning. I'm going to die because I was too stupid to let just one damn horse go.

Despair rose up within her, and her brain was going fuzzy. She was on the verge of unconsciousness when suddenly her grip on the bridle slackened, and then her hand was free. She felt hands under her arms, pulling her back up to the surface, lifting her back to the sky and the air—

Alison's head broke the surface, and she sputtered and gasped, trying to expel the river water from her lungs but also trying to breathe at the same time. "Alison, listen to me," a familiar voice said as she gagged, and she tried to focus her eyes on the person, but she was too dizzy. "Alison, make for the bank. Swim, swim to the shore. I need you to swim for me, all right?"

She nodded once, noticing the riverbank through her oxygen-lacking haze, and she struck for the shore, her movements clumsy and awkward. After what seemed like years, her feet began to touch solid ground again, and she half-swam, half-dragged herself out of the river, flopping onto the grassy shore and immediately retching up water.

Her vision was starting to clear as she forced herself to her hands and knees, and she scanned the river in panic, that overwhelming feeling of terror closing up her throat again as she searched the water, no sign of life anywhere in the rushing current.

"Fíli?" she croaked, her voice scratchy and hoarse from her vomiting spell. "Fíli! Fíli!" She was sure she had heard his voice, she was sure he had saved her; but where was he? "Fíli!"

"I'm here." She heard his voice, and her head whipped to the left, seeing him slowly walking towards her, a knife in one hand and leading the trembling and wild-eyed Penelope by a broken bridle in the other.

"Oh, my God," she said in relief, rushing towards him and throwing her arms around him. "Oh, thank God you're alive." She pulled back from him, meeting his startled eyes and then looking him over. He looked like he had lost a fight with a hurricane, and was completely waterlogged, but other than that he was fine. "I thought—you—"

"Alison," he interrupted in a tightly controlled voice, and she met his gaze again apprehensively, his eyes steely as he looked down at her. "Are you completely mad, or do you just have a death wish? What in Durin's name could possibly have possessed you to jump in after this horse? What was your sole purpose of rescuing this creature, and Mahal knows you better have a good reason."

She quailed under the fierce look he was giving her, and she suddenly felt shame well up in her; what had possessed her to save this horse? "I—I don't know. Supplies—I…" Her voice gave out, knowing that Fíli didn't believe her. His reaction was more unnerving than anything; he was usually easy-going, fun and light-hearted, though more subdued than his brother. Seeing him this angry was uncharacteristic, and it alarmed her, and also made her feel guilty that her recklessness had driven him to this point.

"Look, if you're trying to make a statement to the rest of the Company to show how 'tough' or 'warrior-like' you are so you can prove to them you're not just some helpless little girl, then pulling stunts like this needs to stop," he said angrily. "There are other ways of proving your worth than making reckless decisions and putting your life at risk. Mocking death isn't going to help you with anything besides throwing away your life because of a stupid decision. Do you understand me, Alison?"

"Yes," she said meekly, refusing to meet his eyes. Her whole body burned with shame, and she had to blink back tears that were threatening at the corners of her eyes.

She heard Fíli sigh somewhere above her hanging head. "Look at me," he said, and his voice was gentler now, though that steely edge still remained underneath it. Reluctantly, she raised her head and met his eyes.

The grey-blue depths softened as she looked into them, though she could still sense his displeasure with her actions. "It was a selfless thing you did, but a foolhardy one. Just remember there is more to being a warrior than noble deeds and brave acts. It takes thought and a steady heart; impulsive actions and snap decisions are rarely helpful in life-or-death situations. A clear mind and sharp wits are always your best friend."

"I understand," she said quietly, and they held each other's gazes for a long moment until Fíli cleared his throat and nodded behind her.

"We should get back to the others before they suspect the worst," he said, and she silently agreed, trudging her way back upstream with him and the horse beside her.

"Did everyone make it across all right?" she asked to break the tense silence between them. She was surprised at how far downstream they had traveled in such a short time as they slipped up the grassy embankment, their wet clothes and half-drowned limbs slowing them down.

He nodded, trying to keep himself steady on the slippery grass. "Glóin got the other ponies across and I think he went back to get the rope, as well. But I'm not sure. I jumped in after you before I could know." She felt another twinge of guilt at that as Fíli tucked the knife he had been holding into the inside of his drenched cloak. Between the blade and the broken bridle he held in his other hand, Alison guessed that he must've cut the pony's bridle to free her hand, which just made her feel ten times worse.

He had risked his own life to save her, and what did she have to show for it? She had claimed to save the pony because of supplies, and only half of the supply bags remained on the pony's back. The rest had been washed away by the river.

And looking back on it, she knew Fíli was right. She had been desperate to prove herself. She wanted to show the Company that they hadn't made a mistake in bringing her along on the quest. She felt tears prick her eyes again as she realized that her decision was entirely foolish, and now she just looked weak and reckless in the eyes of the Company. She wouldn't be surprised if Gandalf and Thorin chose to kick her out of the quest after her stunt and told her to make for Isengard again and go home.

She looked up from her self-misery as a figure appeared in front of them, and Kíli hurried over to his brother, exclaiming, "Durin's beard, Fíli, you look like a drowned cat!" The two brothers briefly clapped each other on the back as Fíli grimaced at his brother's remark.

Watching their exchange, Alison felt guilt such as she had never felt in her life before. She could have taken Fíli away from Kíli. The older dwarf prince could've drowned himself trying to save her. Hysteria bubbled up in her; she was supposed to be protecting the brothers, not risking her life like some damsel in distress so they could save her at the last second, while putting their own lives in danger. How was she supposed to save them if her own blind stupidity and impulsiveness killed them first?

"Alison, thank Mahal you're all right," Kíli said, approaching her with his cloak to presumably wrap around her shoulders. He stopped though, puzzled, as she staggered back, shaking her head. She couldn't do it. She couldn't accept their kindnesses when she was a hazard for their lives. "Alison, what's wrong? Alison?"

She was trembling hysterically, shaking her head back and forth, too shaken to form words. Kíli looked to Fíli with a concerned look. "What's wrong with her? Is she ill?"

Fíli shook his head worriedly. "I think it's just shock. I don't know—"

He broke off as the rest of the Company appeared, Thorin leading in front with an expression that could crumble a mountain. His eyes took in Fíli, seeing his nephew was all right, before rounding on Alison and stalking up close to her face.

If she had thought Fíli's eyes were angry, it was nothing compared to Thorin's. He was furious, and she could imagine sparks spitting from the blue depths as she shrank to the size of an ant under his gaze.

"One week," he growled, and Alison gulped at his deadly tone. "One week, Miss Ashburne, and you have already disregarded my words to you completely. I warned you that if you were to come on this quest with us, you would be expected to follow my orders and respect my decisions without question. And when I gave you a clear command to keep moving, you ignored me and instead went flailing after the horse, nearly killing yourself in the process. You are lucky Fíli's actions proved swift and successful."

Alison felt as if she had been tied to a stake and was burning, Thorin's words and her own shame melting her skin right off her bones as the Company stood and watched in stunned silence. "I will warn you once more, Miss Ashburne, and this time, heed it: you will not disobey my orders anymore. If you defy me in such a way again, I will cast you out of this Company without hesitation, regardless of the implications it will have on the world at large. I will not endanger the lives of this Company any more than I have to because you are too impulsive and defiant to follow commands."

Alison looked up at him, aghast at his words. One more shot, and she was out of the quest? But another part knew she couldn't argue with him; he was perfectly right. "Do you understand me, Miss Ashburne?"

She swallowed, trying not to break down like a small child under his blazing eyes. "Perfectly." She said in a small voice.

Thorin glared at her for a moment more before turning to the rest of the Company, ordering them to move out; they would travel for a few more miles before stopping to rest for the night.

Alison kept her head down as she trudged over to the still-trembling Penelope, accepting the bridle reins from Fíli wordlessly as she avoided everyone's eyes, too ashamed and mortified from Thorin's irate outburst to show her face. She sensed Kíli starting towards her, but Fíli put his hand on his brother's shoulder, shaking his head as she swung herself onto her bedraggled and bogged down pony.

The Company fell into step behind Thorin and Gandalf once more, and Alison trailed after them dejectedly, her loose, wet hair dripping into her eyes as she rode.

By the time the moon appeared in the sky, she was shivering violently from the leftover chill of her damp, clinging clothes, and when they stopped and made camp in a small clearing near a stream that ran off from the river, she sat as close to the fire as she could without catching aflame and waited for her hair and clothes to dry, her teeth chattering despite the heat of the fire and the warm summer night.

When Bombur approached her quietly with a small plate of food, she only shook her head in reply and stared into the flames, rocking back and forth with her knees to her chin. She felt awful, and she was too disgusted with herself as a human being to bring herself to talk or sit with anyone in the Company that night.

Shortly after she was dry, she let down the rest of her hair, sliding her hair-tie (which had miraculously survived her fight with the river) onto her wrist and then curling up on her still-slightly damp bedroll and blanket, which had also somehow made it out of the crazy downstream journey.

Hoping she would feel somewhat better by the next morning, Alison closed her eyes and fell asleep with her back to the fire and the Company, grateful for the emotionless release the darkness gave her as she sank into oblivion.

Fíli watched as Alison sank onto her bedroll— which was separated from the others' by her own doing—not even bothering to remove her jacket and boots before quickly falling asleep, her back towards the rest of the Company as they talked in hushed voices and finished up their meals.

Even though her actions had been reckless and foolish and went directly against Thorin's orders, Fíli still felt sympathetic for her as he watched her back rise and fall to the slow rhythm of her breathing. She had seemed genuinely guilty and abashed of what she had done afterwards, and though he would never say this to his uncle's face outright, he thought that Thorin's treatment of her had been a little harsh. Yet he understood where his uncle's actions were stemming from.

Thorin was concerned at what Alison's arrival meant for all of them, and Fíli didn't blame him. Having an Ashburne certainly seemed like a good omen for their quest, but in retrospect, was it really? What had started out as a journey to reclaim a homeland had suddenly taken a sharp turn, leading them into the dark about what their true goal was now, and Fíli knew that all of them were uneasy for the hidden path that lay ahead, so he couldn't blame Thorin for snapping at the woman. The king-in-exile was afraid for the future, and disliked the fact that she would play such a pivotal role in what had originally been their Company of fourteen—fifteen, if Gandalf was included.

As he gazed off into space, fiddling with his pipe, Fíli recalled standing by the riverside as Alison had defied Thorin and plunged herself into the water after her horse. He had known with a sinking feeling what she was going to do when he had watched her tie Kíli's horse to the rope, and when she had disappeared into the murky depths of the water, a small sense of panic had gripped him.

Despite his warning to Alison that impulsive actions and hasty decisions were never the answer, he hadn't hesitated before tearing off down the riverbank and launching himself in after her when he got near enough. He had been paralyzed when she had gotten her hand stuck in the horse's bridle and was dragged under the surface, and once she was safe after he had freed her, he was sorely tempted to haul her to the shore and see if she was all right.

But knowing that he could still have a chance of saving some of the pony's supplies and making sure her near-death experience wasn't in vain, he had been forced to let her go back to shore on her own and go after the pony.

And then, once he had clambered back to solid ground, dragging the pony behind him, he had been caught completely off-guard when she had wrapped her arms around him in a genuinely relieved fashion. The unexpected contact had startled him, but he figured in her world they must be more inclined to physical relief rather than verbal. That strange feeling had risen up in the back of his mind again, and as he sat there thinking about the day's events he felt it probe his thoughts once more before shutting it down and forcing it away again.

"Bombur and Dori, you're on first watch," Thorin said, breaking through Fíli's reverie. "Balin and I will take second. The rest of you get some sleep. We leave at dawn."

Fíli went over to his bedroll, which was situated in a small group consisting of him, Kíli, Bofur and Ori a little ways away from everybody else. As he settled himself down, noting with a slight grimace that his clothes were still damp, the other three dwarves joined him and got ready for sleep also.

Fíli laid his head down, closing his eyes, but was immediately roused again as he heard Ori say, "Do you think Thorin would really send Alison back?" He lifted his head and opened his eyes, noticing the other three propped up on their elbows and facing each other, Ori twiddling with his journal cover worriedly as he beseeched the others.

"Of course not," Kíli said with confidence. "She's destined to help us. Even Thorin wouldn't turn down fate."

"He sounded pretty serious earlier," Bofur pointed out, chewing absent-mindedly on his pipe.

"Because he was serious," Fíli replied, and the others looked to him, not realizing he had been paying attention. "You have to understand where he's coming from. When he gives an order, he expects it to be followed, especially if it's concerning the lives of one of the Company. He would've reacted like that to any one of us had we chosen such a blockheaded moment to defy him. He's not acting like this on purpose because she's a woman or an Ashburne; he just values the safety of the people under his guide."

"Well said, lad," Bofur said, and the others nodded in agreement. Ori, looking immensely relieved, clutched his journal to his chest as he lay back down, and Bofur soon followed suit. Only Kíli remained alert, staring off into space with an intense look Fíli recognized as his thoughtful face.

"You all right, Kee?" he asked, punching his arm lightly. Kíli jerked, looking to his older brother.

"Yeah, fine," he said. His expression was carefully neutral, which Fíli found strange. His brother had always been easy to read, too carefree to really consider having a mental guard. He had one now, though, and Fíli didn't know whether to be glad that his little brother was growing up and forming that guard, or nervous that it was showing up at this particular moment.

He chose to let it go though, as Kíli lay down as well and said, "'Night, Fíli."

"'Night, Kíli." He replied, and as he closed his eyes, he wondered just how much this quest was going to change them all as sleep pulled him under.

Author's Note

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Thanks again, lovelies! Until next chapter...

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