The March of Time

8: A Bad Feeling

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

Quick A/N: The worst thing about going back and looking at old chapters is having to reread all of my really terrible A/N's that make me sound like I'm twelve (um, no offense if you are twelve), so I am now making it a goal to be not be as annoying and cringe-worthy. But anyway, thank you for reading, you wonderful readers, and for reviewing!


Chapter Eight: A Bad Feeling

Thorin sat in the pre-dawn shadows of the morning, his eyes scanning their surroundings as he listened above the din of crickets and woodland creatures, straining to catch something, anything, that would tell him if they were being watched.

Nothing revealed itself to him, however, but the unease he had been feeling since the night of the warg attack tickled its cold fingers across the back of his neck again; he knew there was something wrong, something astray in the scheme of things, but he couldn't put his finger on it. All he knew was that a bad feeling had settled in the pit of his stomach.

Even the weather seemed tense, holding its breath as if it, too, were waiting for whatever was in the shadows to make itself known. The air had turned humid and stifling as the night wore on, and Thorin slapped at his neck where a bug had just pinched him; no doubt the insect had been drawn to him from the smell of the river and the sweaty, dirty stench from lack of a bath.

"These cursed bugs!" he heard Balin grunt from beside him, and there was a sharp smack as the dwarf killed one that had been perched on his cheek. "Never again am I camping by a stream, Thorin. I think I've lost about a pint of blood as it is."

Thorin allowed himself a small grin at his old friend's discomfort. "They must enjoy your stench if they're attacking you this much."

"You're one to talk," Balin retorted jokingly, as he swiped the air near his face. "Have you smelled yourself lately?"

Thorin didn't reply to the jibe, just chuckled. "Take a rest, Balin. I can watch by myself for the next few hours. You'll need all the sleep you can get."

"An impossible task, considering these infernal beasts," he grumbled, though Thorin knew he was grateful for the extra chance of sleep. "Just wake me if you need anything, laddie."

He clapped Thorin's shoulder affectionately before laying down on his bedroll, still swishing away the bugs that followed him before drifting into a comfortable doze. Thorin watched the white-haired dwarf for a moment, the sounds of the woodland life pressing upon him as the sky began to lighten infinitesimally above.

He had been immensely glad and relieved once he found out that Balin had agreed to come on the quest. Though Thorin knew the wise dwarf had some reservations about taking back their homeland from Smaug, he had never been more grateful, for Balin was his most trusted advisor and one of his oldest friends and cousin. Thorin trusted his counsel more than anything, and he wondered if he should seek it now, after the whole situation at the river the evening before.

Thorin had thought about it most of the night. While he knew his actions were justified, he had seen in the eyes of the Company that his reaction was completely unexpected, and maybe a bit excessive, though they respected him enough not to berate his methods. Thorin's long thought had brought him to the conclusion that maybe the delivery was excessive, but he meant his words.

When the Company looked at Alison Ashburne, they saw a small human girl from another world struggling to fit in to this new world she had been unknowingly sucked into, thrown on a quest with thirteen dwarves and a hobbit she didn't know. Thorin could see it too, and he respected her for making the decision to come despite her reservations, but he could also see something much different in her.

Thorin had heard tales of Ashburnes before; they had always been described as great human warriors, skilled in weaponry and wise in their counsel, selfless and enduring. Though she wasn't trained and didn't at all fit the profile of a warrior, he could sense Alison possessed some of the qualities well enough. She was brave in her own way and selfless, though completely unorthodox and reckless, and when she wasn't making snippy remarks or sarcastic jokes, she seemed mature beyond her years, with a special insight into things and people. Though the Company viewed her as a fragile human, Thorin knew that Miss Ashburne wasn't entirely as she seemed. And though he would never admit it out loud, he agreed with Gandalf when the Wizard had said training would make her a valuable asset; from what he had heard, Ashburnes were weapons unto themselves, and he was curious to see if her skills lived up to the legends.

But he would not allow her to be a danger to his Company. He had been serious when he threatened to banish her from the quest if she did anything as impulsive like that again. And though he had feared for her safety as well, Fíli had been his main concern, and his nephew was the only thing on his mind when he had snapped at her. Had he lost Fíli…

He shook his head at the thought, not wanting to go down that path. He had promised his sister, Dís, that he would look after and protect her sons, his nephews, from harm to the best of his ability, and he planned to do that. But how could he when they threw themselves into harm's way? He understood they had never been in battle or on adventures before; they were experimenting, and they had always been bold and daring. But Fíli's actions had concerned him.

Fíli was next in line to the throne, and Thorin had groomed him all his life for it, raising him to be a fair and just prince, knowing that if something were to happen to him, then his line would be secure in the older prince's hands. Though Fíli had his own personality, what he had done back at the river had been something more expected from Kíli. He didn't know what to think of Fíli's impulsive act yet, but he was now going to be keeping a sharper eye on him…

A sudden movement to his right caught his attention, and he sat up straight against the tree trunk he was leaning on, automatically reaching for his sword hilt. He relaxed though, once he saw that it was just Alison getting up from her bedroll, brushing her hair out of her face as she walked sleepily into the trees around them.

Thorin waited for her to come back, watching as the shadows began to turn paler as the sky turned lighter; they would have to pack up and move on soon. They had a lot of distance to cover that day, and he wanted an early start.

A few minutes later, Alison returned back to the campsite, and Thorin gestured from his place by the tree to get her attention. She approached him warily, her eyes hard and her face closed, and he felt an infinitesimal prickle of guilt as he realized she was cautious of him.

"What?" she asked quietly yet irritably as she reached him. "Am I forbidden to go to the bathroom now if I don't have your orders?"

Thorin felt his mouth tighten, but he tried to let it go as he became aware of her reaction. Her shame from the night before had hardened overnight to become a guard for her, a shield of detached wariness for her to hide behind. He found it slightly impressive that she had managed to put up a defense so quickly, but he could sense that it wasn't her personality to act like this.

He ignored her comment, instead inclining his head to a tree stump a few feet away from his seat at the base of his own tree. She moved stiffly and sat down, crossing her arms and legs tightly as she looked to him expectantly.

"I hope you do not expect me to take back my words from yesterday," he said, and she remained expressionless, though one of her eyebrows rose slightly. "But I would like to…apologize." The words seemed to grate on his tongue as they came out, but he swallowed his pride for a moment as now both of her eyebrows raised high. "My tone was not in order, and I realize that I should not have treated you so harshly, though my words remain true. I will not permit you to flaunt my orders and do whatever you want. I am still the leader of this quest."

"I understand," she said, and her tone was less biting than it had been before. "And I accept your apology. I'm…sorry, also," Thorin noted with faint amusement how the words came out grudgingly from her mouth too; apparently they shared the same mind-set when it came to apologies. "I shouldn't have disobeyed your orders like that. It was stupid, it was completely out of line, and I just…um, sorry."

Thorin nodded, accepting her words, and they fell into a slightly awkward silence. After her apology, he noticed that the girl's shoulders had lost some of their sharp edge, and she seemed more relaxed, as if a heavy weight had been lifted off of her.

"Are you ready to continue your training tonight?" he asked her, to break the silence, and she looked up, nodding her head eagerly. Some of the light had returned to her eyes and a small smile played on her lips. "Good. Dwalin will take your rotation tonight."

At this, he noticed her smile fade a little, and she suddenly looked anxious. "All right."

"Is there a problem?" he said, confused by her expression.

"No, no. It's just…" she hesitated, blowing a loose strand of brown hair from her face. "I just…don't think he likes me much."

Thorin felt a flicker of amusement, thinking how Dwalin must look to her. Though Thorin and the others were used to his appearance, he realized how intimidating the battle-scarred and tattooed dwarf must seem to her. "Dwalin rarely likes anybody unless you earn his respect. He may seem hostile or distrustful, but he will warm up to you…eventually."

She nodded, though she didn't seem convinced. She looked up to the lightening sky, where the first rays of pink and gold were melding together to announce the arrival of the sun. "We should probably get moving again, huh?" she said, and Thorin nodded in agreement.

She got to her feet, and he made to do the same, but stopped when he noticed her outstretched hand. He looked at it for a moment, taken aback by the gesture, and she held it out more insistently. "Honestly Thorin, I'm not going to Judo-flip you. It's just a hand." At her comment, he took it and allowed her to help him to his feet, brushing off his clothes. He thought about asking what the term "Judo-flip" meant, but she had already walked off, beginning to pack up her bedroll and blanket.

Thorin knelt down and shook Balin awake, and the white-haired dwarf opened his eyes, yawning and immediately packing up without question as Thorin went around waking the others.

Soon, everyone was awake and packed, and they ate a hurried meal of porridge before loading back up their ponies and riding out.

As the sun peeked over the horizon, they were already traveling farther and farther into the Wild, and as they rode on through the day, the bad feeling Thorin had been sensing since his watch came back, creeping up on him and making his jaw twitch in anxiety. Something was about to happen; he knew it. But his prediction didn't prove true until that night.

The Company traveled swiftly that day, some of them holding rambunctious conversations that roused laughter from the dwarves, while others, like himself, opted to remain in silence, wrapped up in their own thoughts.

At some point in high afternoon, Thorin had looked back to the group to do a quick headcount and make sure nothing in the surrounding landscape was out of place. The grassy, open plain they were traveling on made him feel vulnerable and exposed, but he saw nothing over the grassy hill-lands following them. All the dwarves, Bilbo, Gandalf, and Alison were accounted for, and Thorin noticed Alison riding with Bifur in comfortable silence. He was secretly relieved to see that she didn't look upset anymore. It seemed she had accepted what had happened and had moved on from it, choosing to let go of her grudge, which he found admirable. From his own limited experience with women (namely, his sister), he knew that they could hold on to things for a very longtime.

When the sun was beginning to descend from its high point in the clear sky, the Company stumbled onto a broken down, dilapidated farmhouse off the edge of the Road. Beyond the farmhouse was more forest, and even farther, some small rocky cliffs that provided a sharp contrast to the full green foliage around it.

Thorin took to the place instantly; the forest around them would provide apt cover should they have reason to flee, and the farmhouse was located far enough away from the Road where they wouldn't be easily visible to passersby, though he doubted there would be any; they were in the true Wild now, and there weren't a lot of folk who would fancy traveling through this place after dark.

"We'll camp here for the night," Thorin called to the Company, and he led the way off the Road up the grassy incline until they reached the ruined house. Everyone began to swing off their horses and unpack, and Thorin saw Gandalf walking over to the farmhouse, staff in hand and an expression on his face Thorin didn't like.

"Fíli, Kíli, look after the ponies," Thorin ordered his nephews, and they nodded, already unpacking their steeds. "Make sure you stay with them." He added sternly, since he knew that the two young princes weren't going to take their jobs seriously and would probably go off to spar, leaving their charges for a short while.

They nodded again, somewhat mischievously, and Thorin trailed after Gandalf, saying as he did so, "Óin, Glóin, get a fire going."

The two dwarves nodded and got to work as Thorin approached Gandalf, who had entered into the rundown house. "A farmer and his family used to live here…" the Wizard said to himself, and then turned around when he sensed Thorin's presence. "I think it would be wiser to move on. We could make for the Hidden Valley."

"I've told you already," Thorin said irritably, recalling the numerous arguments and discussions they had had already about this matter; the Wizard had been like a pesky fly, nagging him every couple of days or so and dropping sly hints about the Elven haven, and Thorin was frankly exhausted of having the same conversation every time. "I will not go near that place."

"Why not?" Gandalf said, his eyebrows drawing down over his piercing eyes. "The Elves could help us. We could get food, rest, advice."

"I do not need their advice," Thorin said, scowling at the Wizard.

"We have a map we cannot read. Lord Elrond could help us."

"Help?" Thorin echoed, his voice venomous. Had Gandalf forgotten already what Thorin had told him of the Elves' treachery? "A dragon attacks Erebor. What help came from the Elves? Orcs plunder Moria, desecrate our sacred halls, while the Elves looked on and did nothing! You ask me to seek out the very people who betrayed my grandfather, who betrayed my father?"

"You are neither of them," Gandalf said exasperatedly. "I did not give you that map and key for you to hold on to the past!"

"I did not know they were yours to keep," Thorin snapped, meeting the Wizard's gaze head-on.

Gandalf's face twitched for a moment; he looked on the verge of arguing, but instead he whisked away, stalking off back down the grassy slope towards the Road in frustration. Thorin heard Bilbo's voice call out, "Everything all right? Gandalf? Where are you going?"

"To seek the company of the only one around here who's got any sense!" the Wizard shot over his shoulder.

"And who's that?"

"Myself, Mr. Baggins! I've had enough of dwarves for one day." And at that, the Wizard disappeared from view. Thorin stared at the spot Gandalf had last been seen, feeling half-satisfied and half-frustrated.

"Come on, Bombur, we're hungry," Thorin said, as Bilbo asked, "Is he coming back?"

No one answered him, for they didn't know themselves, and Thorin watched as everyone's supplies were laid out and Bombur began to cook with the fire Óin and Glóin had started, twisting the silver ring on his finger in agitation.

Fíli and Kíli headed into the woods with the ponies, herding them into the trees, and not long after, Dwalin entered the forest with Alison, the burly dwarf stalking ahead while the girl straggled after him, nearly having to jog to keep up with his brisk pace.

Thorin joined the Company by the fire, and as he sat down next to Balin and Bifur, that same nagging feeling started up again in his gut. As much as he didn't want to believe it, Thorin knew that something was bound to happen, and soon. With a sense of foreboding creeping into his mind, Thorin engaged Bifur in a conversation of Khuzdûl as the sun slipped farther and farther down to the horizon.

By the time they had settled for the night near the broken down farmhouse Thorin had led them to, Alison was feeling considerably better compared to last night.

Her short, slightly uncomfortable talk with Thorin in the pre-dawn light had lightened her spirit greatly; she had thought he would hate her forever, but he had found it deep, deep down in his stony heart to apologize for his behavior, and she had been grateful for that, though she still knew her actions had deserved to be reprimanded. She wasn't friends with Thorin by a long shot, but they had reached a shaky truce, and she would take that over his anger any day.

On the Road, she had preferred solitude, still exhausted from her jaunty dip in the river and ten times as sore as yesterday from all the swimming she had done, combined with her already-sore muscles from the archery training she had been put through for the past week and a half.

Eventually, she had fallen into step with Bifur, and he had signaled to her the Iglishmêk gesture she had learned from him that first night they had communicated: Are you all right?

She nodded, smiling gently. "I'm all right," she said. "Are you?"

He had signaled back to her that yes, he was fine. After that, they had fallen into a comfortable silence, and Alison found that she enjoyed the wild-looking dwarf's company. Though she had heard him to be fierce and volatile when riled up, he had a soft side to him that Alison found comforting and endearing, though she was slightly upset that she didn't have a way of speaking to him beyond those two gestures.

She told herself that she was going to ask Thorin if she could learn the Dwarvish language, and if not that, then at least the Iglishmêk so she could communicate more broadly with Bifur. After all, she would be sent back home to the mortal world after they completed their quest, so she wouldn't technically be intruding on their language if she didn't share it. And she knew she never would; if she went around speaking Khuzdûl and signing the Iglishmêk, she'd be locked up in the nuthouse for sure.

Then another troubling thought had hit her; she would never be able to tell anyone what she was doing right now. No one would believe her, and if they did, she would be in a padded room for the rest of her life. No one would ever know what she was doing, what she had done when she returned home, not even her mother; though she was an Ashburne, she wasn't directly descended from Eleon, so she would never believe her, and Alison's father had never been summoned, so there was no way. She could tell Katie and Jace, her siblings, but when they grew up and left their childhood behind, they would think it was just some elaborate bedtime story she had made up. They would never know the truth; nobody, ever. This was her burden, and sorrow washed over her as she realized that. She would be alone in her knowledge in the mortal world, and that thought frightened and saddened her.

She had shaken it off, though, as they reached the farmhouse. This was only the beginning of her journey, and she still had months ahead of her to worry about that and figure it out. Right now, she had to focus on the present. And, unfortunately, that present involved Dwalin striding up to her after Gandalf had whisked away, his heavy eyebrows pulled into a glower and his mouth set in a displeased fashion.

"C'mon," he grunted, and without looking to see if she was following, he turned and strode towards the trees, where Fíli and Kíli had just disappeared with all of the ponies.

Dumping her unmade bedroll and blanket on the ground, she hurried after him, catching up to him just as they entered the tree-line. They walked for a few minutes until they came to a small, grassy clearing, and then Dwalin abruptly stopped walking and faced her.

"Take out your knife," he said, and she obeyed, fumbling a little as she pulled it out of its sheath. "Thorin wants you trained in different forms of combat. While Kíli is teaching you to be a dainty little archer, I'll be instructing you on close-quarters combat and hand-to-hand strategy. Got it?"

"Yeah – I mean, yes, sir," she said, trying not to let her nervousness get to her. Dwalin intimidated her enough as it was, despite Thorin's earlier words, and now close-quarters combat with him? She knew she'd probably end up with something broken by the end of the lesson.

"Grip you knife tightly in your hand," he said, and she did, glad that she was already somewhat familiar with the blade as she held it. "I'll be teaching you how to fight an opponent with one first, then later I'll teach you how to throw it. Now, there are several different ways to fight with a knife, depending on the kind of weapon your adversary has. Since swords are more commonplace, I will teach you how to fight against that weapon first. So, to begin…"

After twenty minutes of instruction and Dwalin snapping at her every time she messed up her stance, he finally found no flaws and began to teach her drills that would help her practice her moves. Since she was so small, he set her at a pace that would improve her reflexes and make her fast and nimble in her movements. Unfortunately, that pace was strenuous, and after only ten minutes, she was beginning to sweat, and the rapid pace was causing her to forget or mess up a move in the middle of a drill.

Whenever she screwed up, Dwalin would swoop down on her like a bird of prey, barking at her to fix her stance or to go back and re-do a certain move because she missed a step. After another half-hour of sweating and getting ordered at like a drill sergeant, Dwalin called for a break and she stopped moving, nearly keeling over at the stitch in her side as the sweat beads dripped down her face.

"Well," he said as she bent over, clutching her knees as she panted. "You aren't a huge disappointment. You pick up instructions quickly, and your movements are improving, though we still need to work on your speed and reflexes. Keep practicing those drills and we'll see how well you do next time. Then we'll see if you're ready for combat without a weapon." He started out of the clearing after this abrupt sentence, but Alison held him back.

"Why don't you like me?" she blurted out, and the huge, rippling dwarf stopped at the edge of the clearing, turning around to look at her in genuine, glowering surprise.

"What do you mean?" he asked, and she straightened up, sliding her knife back into her sheath and tightening her ponytail, which had come loose after flying around the clearing for an hour.

"I mean, you're always so…scowling. And…disapproving," she said, meeting his eyes boldly and trying not to back down from what she had started as he raised his bushy eyebrows. "And I know you probably don't want me here, and you think I'm a stupid, weak little girl with nothing to offer, but don't you think we should just…you know, at least have a mutual understanding of each other?"

"I never said I didn't like you, lass," he said, and she blinked in shock as he looked at her strangely. "If it were anywhere else but here, on this quest, I would like you a lot, but…" he shook his head. "I don't like what your presence here means for all of us, and, to be honest, nobody else is really comfortable with this, either. We like you well enough, but we don't know what in Mahal's name is going to happen to us now."

"Oh," she said, startled at his response. She had expected this tirade about how women are not fighters and shouldn't be on quests, but this was different. "Wow. Well, uh, thanks…for you know, being honest."

He inclined his head to her in a very Thorin-ly fashion, and she rubbed her slick palms on her jeans, not really knowing what to say to that anymore. "Well, I'm just going to um, cool down some," she said, gesturing to the trees behind her.

Dwalin nodded. "Don't wander too far. The sun will be gone in a few minutes, and this is an unfamiliar forest."

"Don't worry," she said as he disappeared into the trees, back towards the camp. "I'll…be fine." She stared at his retreating back until he was swallowed up by the woods. "Okay, then. Or you can just walk away mid-sentence. That's cool, too."

She sighed, running a hand over her sweaty, disgusting hair, and ventured out of the clearing, wondering if she could find Fíli and Kíli with the ponies. She hadn't spoken to them all day, and despite only knowing them for a couple weeks at the most, she enjoyed their companionship and their stupid banter, even if they could be insufferable sometimes when together.

She heard the snorting and pawing of the ponies ahead, and she entered into another clearing, this one larger and darker than the one she had trained with Dwalin in. The ponies were corralled in a makeshift pen, all grazing and jostling each other, but there was no sign of Fíli and Kíli anywhere.

Alison huffed, crossing her arms. They had probably snuck off to do some manly—or Dwarfly?—bromance things, like hunting together in the moonlight. She snickered to herself at the thought, approaching the penned up horses and petting a pretty white one on the nose. It nickered softly at her touch, and soon all the other ponies were gathered around her, all shoving one another to get in line for her touch, as well.

She giggled, scratching two of them under the chin at once, when suddenly her gut clenched in warning, almost like an instinctual thing. There was the sound of snapping and creaking twigs from behind her, and she whirled around as the ponies cried out in fear as the ground trembled beneath her like an earthquake—and she came face to face with a troll.

She somehow knew it was a troll just from one look; it was a huge, lumbering creature, wearing a scanty loincloth of rough brown material, and it looked down at her with stupid, beady eyes, its rock-like grey skin allowing it to blend in with the pale shadows of the night. The troll sniffed as Alison stood, paralyzed, and the troll reached over her head, grabbing up two of the ponies from the corral before bending down to examine her.

"What's this?" the troll said, and if the situation hadn't been so terrifying, Alison would've laughed at the troll's strong British-sounding accent. "You don't smell like 'orse. What are you, two-legs? A mutant deer?"

"I'm a human," she said, regaining her voice and composure and whipping out her knife, trying to look a lot fiercer than she felt. "And if you don't put those ponies back right now, I'll gut you like a fish."

"Hmm," the troll smiled nastily, leaning in close to her face from his great height and sniffing again. "I don't think so, pretty. You smell nicer than these 'ere 'orses, and I think you'll suffice for at leas' a mouthful."

Alison jabbed her knife into the troll's face, but the giant creature just shrugged it off like it was nothing more than a toothpick as she recoiled, the blade dripping with a little bit of blood from the shallow cut she had made on its face.

"Mmm, I wonder if your flesh will taste as spicy as your attitude, pretty," the troll said, and in one fluent movement, it swiped her off her feet with the back of its hand and she went flying, crashing into one of the trees it had uprooted and falling to the ground, dazed and dizzy.

Then one of its giant hands grabbed her up, squeezing her, and in the cloud of pain that erupted from the constriction of her torso, she fumbled and dropped her knife at the base of the tree. The troll chuckled to himself as he lumbered out of the clearing with her, and before she passed out from the painful grip of the troll's hand, she heard it say in its revolting accent, "Dinner is served."

"He's been a long time," Bilbo said worriedly, pacing up and down behind Bofur and Bombur as they served the rest of the Company dinner.

"Who?" Bofur said, as he ladled some stew into two bowls.

"Gandalf," Bilbo replied, his keen eyes searching through the dark to see if he would find some sign of the Wizard's return. He felt distinctly uncomfortable and anxious without the Wizard there; after all, Gandalf was the one that had roped him into this mess to begin with, and it only seemed fitting – if not polite – that the Wizard would have stuck around and not left him alone with thirteen dwarves that he did not know particularly well.

"He's a Wizard, he does as he chooses," Bofur pointed out. "Here, do us a favor and take this to the lads," he gestured his head towards the trees, and Bilbo took that to mean Fíli and Kíli. Bilbo nodded, silently wondering if he had missed anything in the contract that entitled him as the errand boy, before taking the bowls and heading for the woods. Halfway there, he crossed paths with Dwalin, but there was no sign of Alison behind the intimidating dwarf.

"Where's Alison?" he asked Dwalin, and the burly dwarf jerked his head.

"She stayed back for a minute. Needed to catch her breath."

He continued on back to the campsite, and Bilbo walked to the tree-line, trying not to slop stew on himself as he went. Though he thoroughly enjoyed Bombur's cooking, he couldn't help thinking of his own home-cooked meals in his cozy smial in the Shire, and, frankly, how he was very tired of eating stew almost every night.

The hobbit came to a clearing where the ponies were tied up, and he saw Fíli and Kíli, their backs turned towards him as they gazed silently at something before them. Bilbo approached them cautiously. "Um…what's the matter?"

"We're supposed to be looking after the ponies," Kíli said without turning around.

"Only we've encountered a…slight problem," Fíli added.

"We had sixteen."

"Now it appears there's only fourteen."

The two brothers started towards the makeshift corral, and Bilbo followed them, a bad feeling creeping up his spine as they examined the pen. "Daisy and Bungle are missing," Kíli observed, and then he joined his brother as they searched around the clearing, Bilbo following in bafflement after them.

"What?" he said anxiously, still holding the bowls of stew. "Well, that - that's not good." Suddenly he glimpsed uprooted trees before them, and he spluttered, "And that's not good at all!"

"Fíli," Kíli said sharply, and the blonde dwarf prince went to his brother, along with Bilbo, who didn't know what else to do.

Kíli held up a knife in his hand, the tip of the blade stained with blood. Bilbo felt his stomach curl looking at it, but somehow he couldn't make himself glance away.

"That's the knife I gave Alison," Fíli said, taking it from his brother's fingers and examining it with a strange look on his face. "The blood's still fresh. She must be nearby. Wasn't she supposed to be with Dwalin?"

"He said she stayed behind for a breather," Bilbo piped up, and he saw Fíli frown deeply and Kíli's eyes flash.

"I'll be having a word with Mr. Dwalin once we find her," the younger dwarf said, and there was a tense moment of silence as they took in the clearing once more, each trying to piece together a logical story of what could've happened here.

"Um, shouldn't we tell Thorin about this?" Bilbo asked as Fíli pocketed the knife, and the brothers ventured deeper into the woods, discovering more broken and uprooted trees.

"Oh, no," Fíli said awkwardly, and Bilbo wondered where the two had been when all of this was happening. "It's best we not worry him. After all, as our official burglar, we thought you might like to look into it."

"Well, uh…" Bilbo said, caught off guard for a second. "I - it looks like something…big, uprooted these trees."

"That was our thinking," Kíli agreed, searching the ground for signs of tracks.

"Something very big," Bilbo went on nervously as he saw giant footprints in the soft earth before Kíli. "And possibly… quite dangerous."

"Hey!" Fíli said suddenly, and Bilbo hurried over to him, still carrying the bowls of stew. "There's a light!" He gestured to Kíli, who bounded over on Bilbo's other side as they crouched down behind the trunk of one of the uprooted trees.

"Stay down." Fíli ordered.

"What is it?" Bilbo asked.

Through the trees, he could see the reddish-orange glow of a fire, and as he watched, he gulped as he saw huge, lumbering shadows thrown against the face of the cliffs beyond them. "Trolls," Kíli growled, and Bilbo's suspicions were confirmed as the two brothers leapt over the tree trunk and sprinted deeper into the woods, towards the light.

Bilbo made after them, but stopped, hesitating. With an irritated huff, he went back for the bowls of stew, then ran after the two princes, carefully holding the bowls so they wouldn't spill.

As Bilbo ran after Fíli and Kíli, he saw them suddenly take shelter behind a tree as the ground began to shake violently. At the last second, Bilbo threw himself behind a wide trunk as a giant, fat troll appeared out of the trees, carrying a pony under each arm and making for the fire.

"He's got Myrtle and Minty!" Bilbo whispered in indignation as the troll moved out of earshot. "I think they're going to eat them! We have to do something!"

"Yes, you should!" Kíli said, as if just realizing Bilbo was there. Bilbo started to protest, but Kíli spoke over him. "Mountain trolls are slow and stupid, and you're so small! They'll never see you." He deftly took a bowl from Bilbo's hands as the hobbit objected, but it was like arguing with a wall from all the response he got. "It's perfectly safe! We'll be right behind you."

"If you run into trouble, hoot twice like a barn owl, and once like a brown owl," Fíli said, taking the other bowl from Bilbo as he said so. With a little push, Bilbo stumbled out of the close tree cover, freezing for a moment as his ears strained to hear what the trolls were doing in front of him.

"Twice like a barn owl…hoot twice like a brown owl, wait, no. Are you sure this is a good idea?" he asked, but when he turned around, the princes had gone. Bilbo suppressed a sigh, realizing he was on his own now, and he only hoped that the two hare-brained princes had gone for help before turning back to the distant glow of the fire before him, swallowing hard.

Not having much choice, and also curious and knowing he had to try at least scouting for a sign of the ponies and Alison, Bilbo crept towards the fire, the trolls' grunting voices getting louder as he drew nearer.

Bilbo hid behind a tree near the edge of the clearing he saw before him, taking in the scene quickly. Three monstrous trolls sat around a large fire, a black iron cauldron big enough to fit at least three Men inside simmering over the flames in front of them, while one stirred the contents with a large wooden spoon. Another one sat beside the fire, his mismatched eyes staring into the cauldron hungrily while the last, the one carrying the ponies, dropped them into an old, broken pen, and Bilbo guessed that it had been a leftover relic from the farmer who used to live here. With a sinking feeling, Bilbo could imagine what had happened to the poor farmer.

The troll stirring the pot's contents sniffed distastefully as the other one came and sat down, saying, "Mutton yesterday, mutton today. And, blimey, if it don't look like mutton again tomorrow!"

"Quit your griping!" The one who had taken the horses snapped. "These ain't sheep. These is West Nads."

"Oh!" The third one, wearing a sort of vest thing, complained. "I don't like 'orse. I never 'ave. Not enough fat on them."

"Well, it's better than that leathery ol' farmer," the one at the pot said, and Bilbo realized that the troll was wearing a sort of apron, which would've been comical in any other predicament. "All skin and bones he was. I'm still picking bits of 'im out o' me teeth."

As the vested troll sneezed violently, apparently producing some sort of vile snot in the cauldron that the trolls began to argue over, Bilbo used their distraction to crawl over to the horses and began tugging at the ropes penning them in, all while keeping an eye out for Alison, who was nowhere to be found yet. Bilbo soon realized that the ropes were tied far too tightly for him to untie with his bare hands alone, but as the troll in the vest looked over to the pen and rose from his seat, Bilbo threw himself down to the ground, his heart pounding.

"I hope you're going to gut these Nads," the troll said, and Bilbo heard his voice coming nearer with a spike of fear. "I don't like the stinky parts."

Suddenly there was a loud clang, as if he had been hit over the head with a frying pan. As the troll yowled in pain, Bilbo peeked out from behind the pen and saw that that was exactly what had happened. "I said, sit down!" The third troll said, who was sharpening a knife on a large whet-stone as he yanked the other troll back into his seat. He turned to the cooking troll as the vested one started to puff on another sneeze. "I'm starving, are we 'aving 'orse tonight or what?"

"Shut yer cake hole!" The cooking troll snapped. "You'll eat what I give ya!"

At that moment, the troll in the vest sneezed again, and as he removed a large, dirty handkerchief from his waist-belt, Bilbo saw a sharp blade of sorts, and instantly an idea formed in his head. Hoping against hope that this would work, the hobbit crawled quickly and quietly on the ground until he reached the vested troll while the creatures all squabbled over what their food tasted like.

Bilbo froze as he heard the knife-sharpening troll's voice, his hand wavering in mid-air as he listened in horror. "Me guts are rumbling! I got to snack on something. Flesh, I need flesh!" And as the troll shifted, Bilbo's heart stopped as he saw Alison behind the troll, tied to a tree with her head lolling on her chest; she was obviously unconscious.

"Look 'ere, you said you'd split 'er with us after dinner!" The cooking troll growled, and Bilbo knew he had to act now if he wanted to save Alison from being eaten. He reached for the troll's blade again when there was another burst of short huffs, and suddenly Bilbo was snatched up into the vested troll's hand, where he was promptly sneezed on.

He tried not to gag as the troll looked at him in dumbfounded amazement, exclaiming, "Blimey! Bert! Bert, look what's come out o' me 'ooter! It's got arms and legs and everything!"

"What is it?" The cooking troll asked in shock, as all three trolls crowded around to get a better look at the hobbit, who had begun to squirm in the troll's hand.

"I don't know, but I don't like the way it wriggles around!" Bilbo was then unceremoniously dumped to the ground, and he struggled to his feet immediately as the knife-wielding troll held the blade to his chest.

"What are ye, then?" the troll named Bert demanded. "An oversized squirrel?"

"I'm a burglar—ah, hobbit!" he said nervously, not being able to take his eyes off the blade pointed at his chest.

"A burglar-obbit?" The vested troll said in confusion.

"Can we cook 'im?" the cooking troll said, looking Bilbo up and down with hungry eyes.

"We can try!" the vested one said, and he made to snatch up Bilbo, but the hobbit darted out of his reach, only to be stopped by Bert again.

"He wouldn't make more than a mouthful," he objected, pushing Bilbo back towards the fire. "Not when he's skinned and boned."

"Perhaps there's more of these burglar-obbits 'round these parts," the cook said thoughtfully. "Might be enough for a pie!"

The troll Bert reached for him, but Bilbo ducked under his hand, making for the edge of the clearing; he had to get back, he had to warn Thorin and the others! But his way was blocked as the cooking troll loomed in front of him, baring his flat teeth in a growl. "Come 'ere, you little—"

Bilbo tried to make a run for it, but this time the troll anticipated his move and grabbed him by the legs, dangling him upside down. "Gotcha!" he said triumphantly. "Now, are there any more of you little fellas hiding where you shouldn't?"

"No," Bilbo said, attempting to shake his head as all the blood rushed to his face from being upside down.

"He's lying!" the vested troll snarled, as Bilbo protested. "Hold his toes over the fire! Make him squeal!"

Suddenly a figure charged out of the trees, swinging a sword and slicing the troll on the back of his leg, causing him to howl in pain. Bilbo's heart leapt as he recognized Kíli, the young dwarf swinging his sword with a menacing flourish as he shouted, "Drop him!"

"You what?" the cooking troll said, staring at the dwarf prince in surprise.

"I said, drop him," he growled, and the troll obliged, tossing Bilbo to Kíli, who caught him at the last second. As they both tumbled to the ground, there was a battle cry from the bushes behind them, and the Company all rushed out of the trees, weapons glinting in the firelight as the fight began.

Author's Note

I know, I know, a horrible place to end the chapter, but if I had kept going this would have been a novel all in itself (like this fic needs to be any longer...), though I am sorry for the cliffie! But next chapter we get some troll action, with a dash of Radagast rollin' up on his bunny sleigh and, of course, some lovely orcs.

Anyway, thank you for the reviews/favorites/follows! Y'all are awesome! (Do I need to keep saying 'please review' when these are all edits...?) But please review and let me know what you think, nonetheless!

*Shameless self-promo, but if you'd like to hit up my Tumblr, my username is booty-boggins*

Thanks again, lovelies! Until next chapter...

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