The March of Time

9: The Hunt

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

Quick A/N: Hello, all, and thank you for reading! Here is Chapter Nine!

Also thanks to Guest for informing me that I had Chapter Eight posted under this chapter, as well. I did not catch that until they said something so a ton of thanks! Apologies to anyone who went to read Chapter Nine but found Chapter Eight again instead. So here is the REAL Chapter Nine!

Enjoy!

Chapter Nine: The Hunt

When Alison came to, it took her a few moments to regain her senses, her mind still foggy from the swath of unconsciousness that seemed to press on her head like a pervasive cloud. She was vaguely aware of a burning pain in her torso, and when she looked up, she had to process what she was seeing for a good long while until everything came flooding back to her.

She gasped, the world becoming clear and defined again as she realized she was tied to the base of a tree, rough bindings of rope cutting into her wrists, chest, and waist. Along with her newfound clarity, the pain in her torso from the troll's grip seemed to intensify, and she grit her teeth, feeling like her organs had been liquefied.

She struggled at the bindings, trying to wriggle free, but they were too strong. All she could do was watch in horror as one of the three trolls grabbed up Bilbo by his legs and held him upside down, questioning if there were any more of them hiding in the woods. To her intense relief, Bilbo remained loyal to the Company and said no, but the trolls weren't convinced, and they threatened to hold his toes over the fire until he talked.

Suddenly, Kíli came whirling into the clearing, cutting one of the trolls on the back of the leg and ordering them to drop the hobbit.

Poor word choice, she thought, as the troll in the strange apron tossed Bilbo like a rag doll to Kíli.

Luckily, the dwarf prince caught the hobbit, and as they went sprawling on the ground, there was a battle cry from the bushes, and Alison saw Thorin charge into the clearing, sword drawn, as the rest of the Company came after him, their own weapons gleaming as they engaged the trolls.

The clearing erupted into chaos, and there were yells and fearsome cries from the dwarves as they fought bravely against their opponents. Despite the trolls' size, they were slow and stupid, and the dwarves were too experienced to be caught by their great lumbering hands or stepped on by their clumsy feet.

Alison continued to squirm against the ropes, grunting with the effort and wondering if the dwarves would ever notice her so they could set her free. Calling out for help was too risky; one of the trolls could hear her and would squash her like a bug, since she was defenseless and could be used as leverage. So she struggled in strained silence, ignoring the chafes and burns on her wrists as she tried to break free of her bonds.

"Having trouble?" A voice said from beside her, and she whipped her head to her left, seeing Fíli kneeling down beside her. There was a great iron sword in his hands, splattered with flecks of troll blood, and he brought it down swiftly, cutting loose the bindings around her and helping her to her feet.

"Took you long enough," she grunted as she stood up, her insides still tight from the troll's grip. "Thanks, though," she said, as he handed her back her knife she had dropped when she was first taken.

He nodded once in reply, his eyes focused on the fight. "Stay here," he said, and before she could object, he rushed back into the fray, swinging his sword as he went to attack the fat, blundering troll who had kidnapped her.

Alison wanted to help, but she knew she would only just get in the way. But she had to do something. She cast her eyes desperately around the clearing; it seemed the dwarves were gaining the upper hand, but the trolls weren't tiring. Despite how outnumbered they were, the weapons were barely doing anything except annoying them, and Alison tried to recall this part from the book. Now that it had actually happened, she mentally kicked herself for forgetting this scene, and she tried to dredge up memories of this chapter in the book. How were they defeated?

But she couldn't remember, no matter how hard she tried. She remembered their names—William, Bert, and Tom—but other than that, her vision was stubbornly hazy.

So much for foresight, she thought, and out of the corner of her eye, she suddenly saw Bilbo crawling over to a pen where four of their ponies were tied up, finding one of the troll's stray blades on the ground. Knowing what the hobbit was trying to do, Alison skirted around the edge of the fray and sprinted over to where Bilbo was.

The hobbit spun around as she approached, hefting the blade with difficulty, but he stopped when he realized it was just her.

"Alison, thank goodness," he said in relief, as she moved to help him with the blade, which was as big as his body. "I'm glad you're all right." Alison wondered why the hobbit was covered in thick, stringy goo that looked suspiciously like snot, but she decided to save that question for later as they hoisted the blade up to the pen ropes.

She only shot him a strained smile as they began to move in unison, cutting the blade along the ropes. Every sawing movement jarred her stiff and aching body, and when the ropes were finally sliced and the ponies set free, she and Bilbo dropped the knife, catching their breath after their laborious effort of using the giant blade.

Alison thought they were in the clear—as the sounds of battle appeared to be dying down behind them—until Bilbo was suddenly lifted into the air with a cry of surprise from beside her.

"Bilbo!" she said, reaching for the knife she had foolishly replaced in her boot, but her movement was cut short as a meaty hand gripped her ponytail and yanked her up. She cried out at the pain, feeling as if her scalp was being peeled from her skull, but she was soon shifted into another position as the troll who had grabbed her held onto her arms instead, letting the rest of her body dangle almost eight feet off the ground.

"Bilbo! Alison!" She heard Kíli's voice from below her, and she looked down, seeing all the dwarves facing her and the trolls and Bilbo from the other side of the clearing. Kíli started forward, raising his sword, but Thorin held him back with a firm, "No."

Kíli gave his uncle a disbelieving look as the troll with the apron—she guessed was William—said in a smug voice, "Lay down your arms! Or we'll rip theirs off!" He jerked one of Bilbo's arms in his hand to emphasize his words, while the one wearing the vest—Tom? Or Bert?—giggled stupidly as he held onto Bilbo's other arm.

Alison saw all the dwarves gazing from them to Thorin, who stood still, his face expressionless. The troll holding her shook her slightly, as if to mock the dwarf, and slowly, reluctantly, he lowered his sword and stabbed it into the ground. The Company all looked to him incredulously, but they soon realized that there was no other choice if they wanted to keep two of their members alive. With grumbles of anger, they too dropped their weapons, glaring at the trolls with murderous expressions.

Alison knew how hard Thorin's decision must've been, and she was grateful that he had chosen to protect them instead of letting their arms part with their bodies, but she was suddenly furious at the trolls, and herself for getting caught by the great oafs.

So when the trolls ordered the dwarves to strip down to their underclothes, she couldn't help it; she began swearing at the trolls so much her mother would've shoved a bar of soap down her throat if she had heard the kind of language she was using.

The trolls, annoyed by her incessant cursing, finally gagged her with a foul-smelling piece of cloth, and she was the first one to be dumped into a moldy, rotten sack and tossed to the ground, where she was quickly joined by the other sacked Company of Bilbo, Thorin, Fíli, Kíli, Óin, Balin and Bombur. All the other dwarves were tied head to foot on a spit and were promptly hoisted over the fire in the center of the clearing, all of them shouting insults at the trolls as they were slowly roasted over the flames in their underclothes.

"Don't bother cooking 'em!" The vested troll with the crossed eyes complained. "Let's just sit on 'em and squash 'em into jelly!"

"They should be sautéed and grilled, with a sprinkle of sage," William, the cook, argued as him and the other one—Alison assumed that one was Bert—rotated the giant spit with their hands.

"Never mind the seasoning," Bert growled. "We ain't got all night! Dawn ain't far away, let's get a move on; I don't fancy being turned to stone!"

Bilbo, who had been struggling near Alison in his sack, suddenly froze, and she met the hobbit's eyes widely, now remembering the trolls' weakness. She saw the idea forming in Bilbo's gaze, and she nodded vigorously to him, not having her mouth available to say anything. The hobbit steeled himself, and she nodded encouragingly once more before he spoke from his place on the ground.

"Wait!" he said, and the trolls looked to the hobbit with disdainful expressions. "You are making a terrible mistake!"

"You can't reason with them, they're half-wits!" Dori called from the spit before he was turned out of sight.

"Half-wits?" Bofur echoed, as he too went spinning by on the spit. "What does that make us then?"

"I meant with the uh, with the seasoning," Bilbo said, undeterred from the dwarves' comments. With difficulty, he got to his feet, hopping towards the trolls in his sack.

"What abou' the seasoning?" William said, eyeing the hobbit distrustfully.

"Well, have you smelt them?" Bilbo said, gesturing with his head towards the dwarves on the ground. "You're going to need something a lot stronger than sage before you plate this lot up!"

All the dwarves began to yell angrily at the hobbit, with Glóin exclaiming, "Traitor!" and Alison rolled her eyes, sighing out through her nose. Honestly, have they never heard of a 'diversion?' Or at the very least, 'stalling for time?'

"What do you know about cooking Dwarf?" Bert asked suspiciously, still turning the spit. But William abandoned his post, leaning in closer to the hobbit with an eager gleam in his eyes.

"Shut up," he said. "Let the uh, flurgeburberer-hobbit talk."

"The secret to cooking Dwarf is…" Bilbo trailed off, obviously not have thinking this far ahead as he paused, looking around frantically as the dwarves and trolls watched him in silence.

"Yes? C'mon," William said impatiently.

"Yes, yes, I'm telling you!" Bilbo said hastily, his eyes still darting around. Alison watched with bated breath, noticing how the edges of the sky were beginning to turn pink. Come on, Bilbo, she thought desperately as the hobbit floundered. "The secret is…to…skin them first!" he said, and the dwarves broke into an angry tirade again as Bilbo rolled his eyes in frustration.

"Tom, get me filletin' knife," William said, holding out his hand as the vested troll went to retrieve the object.

"Wha' a load of rubbish!" Bert objected from his place by the spit. "I've eaten plenty with their skins on. Scoff 'em, I say, boots and all!"

"He's right," Tom said, abandoning his task of getting the filleting knife and stalking over to the dwarf pile on the ground. "Nothing wrong with a bit o' raw Dwarf!"

The troll picked up Bombur from the ground and dangled him above his mouth, the great ginger dwarf squirming in his hand. "Nice and crunchy…" Tom said, lowering his hand to where Bombur was almost in mouth-range.

"No, not that one! He…he's infected!" Bilbo said in a panic, and the troll looked at him in horror.

"You what?" Bert said.

"Yeah, he's got, worms, in his…tubes," Bilbo said desperately, and Tom dropped Bombur in disgust, backing away quickly. "In—in fact, they all have, they're infested with parasites. It's a terrible business. I wouldn't risk it, I really wouldn't."

"Parasites?" Óin said angrily. "Did he say 'parasites?'"

"Yeah, I don't have parasites, you have parasites!" Kíli shouted, and Alison knew the time had come for her to get involved, since apparently no one was going to catch on.

As the trolls looked on suspiciously at Bilbo, Alison rolled in her sack until she knocked against Thorin, not even finding humor in seeing him trying to chew on the ropes around the sack as she met his gaze beseechingly and started making frantic noises from underneath her gag. He stared at her uncomprehendingly, and she started to gesture using her head, first towards Bilbo, then to the lightening dawn sky.

Finally, understanding dawned in his eyes, and, with difficulty, he kicked Kíli in the back. The young dwarf looked to him, outraged, but then he read the look in his uncle's eyes, along with everybody else, who had turned along with Kíli at Thorin's kick. Comprehension broke over them, too, and Óin turned to look at the trolls.

"I've got parasites as big as my arm!" he declared.

"Mine are the biggest parasites, they're huge!" Kíli added, and soon all the dwarves were in on it, shouting assurances to the trolls of their parasites with a little too much vigor, if Alison had any say in the matter.

The trolls looked on in disgusted suspicion. "What would you have us do then?" William asked Bilbo. "Let 'em all go?"

"Well…" Bilbo said, and William poked him in the chest, hard, as anger filled his eyes.

"You think I don't know what you're up to?" the troll growled, and the Company looked on in fear. "This little ferret is taking us for fools!"

"Ferret?" Bilbo repeated in indignation, as Bert said, "Fools?"

And suddenly, a figure emerged from the trees to stand tall on a boulder outlying the clearing, and Alison felt her heart leap as she recognized Gandalf.

"The dawn will take you all!" the Wizard said in his booming voice, and the trolls turned to look at the newcomer in surprise.

"Who's that?"

"No idea."

"Can we eat him too?"

With a powerful strike, Gandalf brought down his staff on the rock, and there was a splintering crack as the boulder snapped in half, allowing bright dawn sunlight to pour forth into the clearing. Alison closed her eyes against the sudden blinding light, and when she opened them again, she saw the trolls had been turned to stone, forever stuck in the various forms they had been standing in when the rays had hit them.

All the dwarves began to cheer, and Alison would have joined in, but considering she was still gagged, she had no choice but to lie there silently and watch as Gandalf freed the dwarves on the spit, then moved over to their group on the ground.

When Alison was released from the foul sack, she immediately ripped the gag out of her mouth and began to spit and rub her tongue on her sleeve, trying to get the horrid taste and stench out of her mouth.

A few minutes later, when she had done the best she could but knowing she'd have that taste in her mouth for days afterwards, she stood up from the ground and went over to Gandalf, who was counting off the dwarves with his hand. Alison averted her eyes as the dwarves redressed, already having enough mental scars from watching the trolls make them strip down in the first place.

"You came back," she said, striding up to the Wizard and standing beside him. Gandalf looked down at her with a knowing twinkle in his eyes.

"I thought you knew that," he said, obviously referring to her supposed "foresight," and Alison shifted under his gaze.

"Gandalf, I barely remember this story," she reminded him. "The last time I read it I was still in elementary school. You can't expect me to remember the book cover to cover."

"Which is why I instructed you to read it when we first met," he said, somewhat sternly as he gazed down at her, and she sighed.

"Yeah, but was I really going to listen to some weird old man at a bus stop?" she said half-jokingly.

"Well, what does it matter?" Gandalf said, turning away from her. "You're here in the story now, and it seems we'll have to play it by ear. Though I trust you'll still work with the memories you do have?"

She nodded, not having any time to reply with something more as Thorin came up to them then, fortunately back in his armor and clothes.

Alison avoided his eyes, fighting hard against the laughter threatening in her chest; she had watched, in a kind of horrified trance, as all the dwarves had been forced to remove their clothes and armor, and despite how mortifying the whole situation had been, she still couldn't get the image of the great and fearless Thorin Oakenshield in his skivvies out of her head.

Thorin shot her a glare before turning to Gandalf, as if knowing what she was thinking, and threatening that if she ever breathed a word of what had happened he would personally see to her demise.

"Where did you go, if I may ask?" The king-in-exile asked Gandalf, who had been studiously observing the stone trolls during Thorin and Alison's silent exchange.

"To look ahead," the Wizard replied, giving a sharp rap on the one who had been Tom's head with his staff.

"And what brought you back?"

"Looking behind," Gandalf said, and Thorin nodded, as if expecting this sort of answer. "Nasty business," the Wizard continued, looking around the clearing. "But still they are all in one piece."

"No thanks to your burglar," Thorin said, raising an eyebrow.

"He had the nous to play for time," Gandalf said, and Thorin looked away from his stern gaze. "None of the rest of you thought of that."

There was a weighty silence between the three until Gandalf broke it once more. "They must have come down from the Ettenmoors," he mused, examining the trolls intently.

"Since when do mountain trolls venture this far south?" Thorin asked.

"Oh, not for an age," the Wizard said, his eyebrows contracting. "Not since a darker power ruled these lands." Gandalf fell silent, thinking for a moment. "They could not have moved in daylight," he said, almost to himself.

"There must be a cave nearby," Thorin said, and as if they had rehearsed it, the Wizard and the dwarf king moved off in search of it at once. "Dwalin, Nori, Bofur, Glóin," Thorin called, jerking his head as he moved out of the clearing, and the four dwarves followed him. "The rest of you get our supplies from the campsite."

Alison watched the small party disappear, slightly miffed Thorin hadn't chosen her to come along, since she had been standing right there. But she followed the others back to the campsite to collect their things nonetheless, albeit cursing Thorin for being so prickly and stubborn all the time.

As they moved their bedrolls and things back to the clearing where the trolls had been, the sun climbed higher into the sky, and Alison felt fatigue pulling at her. Despite her brief unconscious spell, she was tired from lack of sleep and dreadfully sore from the night's events, and as they went off in search of the troll hole, she felt as if she were walking with cement blocks stuck to her feet.

Eventually, the Company found the troll hole, mostly from its horrible stench, and they set up watch outside of it, waiting for the party that had gone in to come back out. Alison sank to the ground stiffly, propping herself against a small boulder and resting her back into it, wishing she could just sleep and sleep the day away. But knowing Thorin's tactics, they were bound to be moving on soon, so she had to keep herself awake.

A few minutes later, a figure slid down to the ground beside her, and she looked over to see Bilbo propped up next to her. His face was dirty and sweat-streaked, and dried troll snot encrusted him head to foot. Alison felt a strong maternal instinct suddenly rise up within her, and she licked her thumb, using it to wipe a smear of dirt from the hobbit's face.

He gave her a weird look, trying to pull away, but she shot him a fierce glare and said, "Don't move." So he obeyed, waiting patiently as she finished wiping the dirt from his face.

"Um, what exactly was the point of that?" he said in bewilderment.

Alison shrugged, not at all bothered by the hobbit's reaction; honestly, he was so small and adorable she had to keep reminding herself that he was older than her, in his fifties, at least, and not a tiny little hobbit who needed a mother to look after him.

"I don't know. My mom used to do it to me when I was younger. I guess you kind of reminded me of when I was just a dirty little kid right then."

"Well, that's comforting," he said dryly, and she smirked, though she was pleased to hear that he didn't sound so baffled anymore. "Do you miss her?" he said abruptly, and she looked at him quizzically. "Your mother, I mean?"

"Of course," she said. "It's hard, knowing that she's literally another world away, not even aware that I'm gone. And it's frightening, knowing that I possibly couldn't come back to her. But I know she would always want me to do what I think is right, and this…this feels right. I know I'm meant to do this. Not just because the Valar have assigned me to it, but because I also know that I need to do this for myself, as well. And I know she would understand my decision, but I still do miss her and my brother and sister very much. So…" she shrugged, meeting the hobbit's eyes.

"You're very brave doing this, you know," he said. "If I thought leaving my home behind was hard, I know it is nothing compared to the sacrifice you had to make, leaving your family and your world behind."

Alison smiled embarrassedly. "You make me sound so noble."

"You are," he said seriously, and Alison felt a glow of gratitude run through her. She didn't care if the Company had reservations regarding Bilbo's capabilities; there was a certain sense of good in the hobbit Alison was growing fond of, and she knew that he had a lot more to offer on this quest than everyone else thought, including, as Gandalf had said, himself.

The party from the troll cave reappeared from the hole, coughing and gagging from the smell as they stepped out into the fresh air. Thorin and Gandalf brought up the rear, and Alison saw a dusty, cob-webbed sword in Thorin's hand that she assumed with a slight shock was Orcrist, remembering the blade from the book. Gandalf carried a sword as well, Glamdring, she recalled, yet he was also holding a much smaller sword, almost like a larger knife, in his hands, and he made his way over to Bilbo and Alison.

"Bilbo," Gandalf said, holding out the short sword, and Bilbo took it curiously, not seeming to realize its purpose in his hands yet. "Here, this should be about your size."

Bilbo suddenly looked at the blade in his hands with a deep frown and a faint expression. "No, I—I can't take this, Gandalf," he said, trying to give back the dagger, but Gandalf shook his head.

"The blade is of Elvish-make, which means it will glow blue when orcs or goblins are nearby," the Wizard said, looking to the blade in its fine leather sheath.

Bilbo looked to the dagger again, still frowning. "I have…I have never used a sword in my life."

"And I hope you never have to," Gandalf said, his blue eyes serious and solemn as he met Bilbo's gaze. "But if you do, remember this: true courage is knowing not when to take a life, but when to spare one."

Alison watched as Bilbo looked troubled, but he kept the sword in his hands, looking back down to it. In a strange sort of way, Alison felt a flicker of jealousy that the hobbit had gotten a magical Elven blade when she was stuck with a plain old iron knife.

She didn't dwell on it for long though, for suddenly there was a loud crashing noise in the trees around them, and the Company were instantly on their feet, weapons drawn and bodies tense as Thorin shouted, "Something's coming!"

Gandalf straightened up, his gaze alert, and Bilbo said, "Gandalf—" but the Wizard had already drawn Glamdring, rushing off towards the sound, saying, "Stay together! Hurry, now! Arm yourselves!"

Bilbo drew his dagger slowly, gazing at the fine silver blade with Elvish runes curving down it, and Alison drew her own knife. "Bilbo, come on!" she said, rushing off after the others, and a few seconds later she heard the hobbit running behind her as they raced through the trees.

The Company came to a stop on the top of a grassy ridge, weapons at the ready, and Alison sank into the position Dwalin had taught her last night, her legs slightly bent, ready to spring into action and the blade gripped tightly in her hand. She felt a bit stupid doing it at first, but as the crashing noise got closer, she realized how serious the situation actually was, and all shreds of humor disappeared as she concentrated.

The noise was right on top of them, and Alison began to hear a voice yelling, "Thieves! Fire! Murder!" She wondered what was going on, when suddenly a sleigh, pulled by—were those bunny rabbits?—barreled into the clearing they were standing in, and as Alison took in the sleigh driver, she knew that she had never seen a more bizarre man in her life.

He was an older man, dressed in ragged and frayed brown robes with a large patched-up hat to complete his get-up. His hair was wild and tangled, as if he had stuck his finger into an electric socket for fun, and something that looked suspiciously like bird poop was caked on one side of his face and hair. Even his eyes shone with a manic light, and Alison was taken completely aback as Gandalf approached the man, saying, "Radagast! It is Radagast the Brown."

Alison and Bilbo exchanged a glance, both of their expressions plainly reading, What the hell? But as Alison looked back to the man, she realized that this had to be the Brown Wizard, for he carried a staff topped with a dark blue crystal much as Gandalf did.

Gandalf stepped towards Radagast, his expression bewildered as he said, "What on earth are you doing here?"

"I was looking for you, Gandalf!" the Brown Wizard said, and Gandalf raised his eyebrows at the other Wizard's frantic voice.

Alison looked around the clearing, noticing how everyone had stood down, though they kept their weapons out. She pulled out of her crouch, taking her usual stance as she focused back in on what the Wizards were saying.

"Something's wrong," Radagast was saying, wringing his hands. "Something is terribly wrong!"

"Yes?" Gandalf prompted, as Radagast cut off what he was saying.

Radagast went to speak, then stopped again, his face pulling into a strange, faraway look. Alison was wondering if the Wizard was quite all there in the head as he said in frustration, "Just give me a minute. Um…oh! I had a thought and now I've lost it! It was, it was right there on the tip of my tongue!"

Suddenly the Wizard stopped speaking again, and his face went slack. "Oh," he said, and his voice came out garbled, as if he weren't moving his tongue. "But it's not a thought at all. It's a silly old…" And he stuck out his tongue, revealing a thin brown bug on it. "Stick insect."

Alison felt a tug at the back of her throat as Gandalf, with a look of mild distaste, pulled the stick creature out of Radagast's mouth, and then placed it into Radagast's palm as the Brown Wizard looked at it and cooed.

Gandalf cleared his throat, interrupting the other Wizard's doting. "You were saying, Radagast?"

The Brown Wizard glanced covertly around at the Company, his eyes suspicious, and Gandalf seemed to stifle a sigh, saying, "Come, Radagast. You can tell me about your, er…problem down here." And the two Wizards stepped out of the clearing and walked further into the trees until they were hidden from sight.

"Well, that wasn't weird at all," Alison said into the silence, and the Company let out some snickers, the tension diffusing a bit. Alison perched herself on a mossy boulder nearby and sighed, a sharp pang of hunger gnawing at her stomach now and making her feel worse than she had before.

"Here," a voice said, and she glanced up from examining her knife blade to see Kíli in front of her, holding out a chunk of bread. She accepted it gratefully as he came and sat down beside her, having to shift all of his weapons in order to sit comfortably.

"How did you know I was hungry?" she asked, taking a bite out of the bread; it was dry and tasteless, but it was still food nonetheless, and she devoured it in a couple of minutes.

"Considering you were tied to a tree, about to be eaten yourself all night, I figured you would be," he said, and he stared off into space as he said it, a frown pulling on the corners of his mouth despite the joke.

Alison swallowed the last of her bread, watching the young dwarf prince curiously. "Are you all right? You seem…upset."

"You could say that," he said, a little bit bitterly, and she looked at him closer. It wasn't in Kíli's nature to be so serious.

"Talk to me, Kíli," she said, shifting on the rock so she faced him completely. "What's going on?"

"I just…feel stupid," he mumbled, and she raised her eyebrows. "How come?"

"Fíli and I went off to spar," he said reluctantly, still refusing to look at her. "And I feel like it's my fault you were taken by that damned troll. If we had only listened to Thorin when he said to stay with the ponies, if we had been there when you showed up, we could've stopped the troll from taking you. And I can't stop thinking about what would have happened if we had been too late. You're a Hero, and a companion on our quest, and we—I—disregarded that completely last night, and it put you at risk because of it."

They were silent for a moment, and Kíli picked up a twig, peeling off its bark in a bitter sort of way, while Alison looked on, watching the wood shavings fall to the ground as she thought about what Kíli had said, shocked yet slightly touched to think that her safety had been a genuine concern for him.

"Look at me," she said finally, and he did, dropping the twig and meeting her eyes. They were dark and serious, even in the late morning sunlight filtering through the trees, and she smiled gently. "I'm not upset or anything. You're acting like you deserve to be punished for something I did. But I was the one who was stupid enough to get caught in the first place. You're not being there had nothing to do with my idiocy. So, seriously, please stop beating yourself up over it. I'm fine, we came out of it alive, and everything's okay now. All right?"

"But—" he tried to say, and Alison held up her hand.

"Stop it," she said firmly. "There will be no self-deprecating allowed anymore, got it?"

"Fine," he said, and though he looked better, his eyes were still troubled.

"If you need me to slap a smile onto your face, I will," she said, holding up her hand, and at that, he did smile, shaking his head.

"You have an interesting way of showing affection," he said, and she grinned mischievously.

"Just wait," she said. "It only gets better from here."

He laughed at that, and Alison smiled too, relieved she could ease his conscience, when suddenly a howl tore through the serene morning, very close by, and Kíli leaped to his feet, bow at the ready, and Alison scrambled off the rock behind him, raising her knife as her heart doubled its pace in her chest.

"Was that a wolf?" Bilbo asked fearfully into the silence that had befallen the clearing. Gandalf and Radagast appeared out of the trees, Gandalf tucking a wrapped, thin package of sorts into his cloak and simultaneously drawing Glamdring as they all looked around. "Are there wolves out there?"

"Wolves?" Bofur said, and he looked around at the trees uneasily, his battle axe gripped tightly in his hands. "No, that is not a wolf."

A deep, vibrating growl reverberated very close by, and Alison recognized the noise instantly, feeling her blood freeze in her veins. Out of nowhere, a great black-furred warg leapt out of the trees, snarling, and Thorin cut it down in two clean strokes, wielding the curved blade of Orcrist with flawless technique.

Another snarl sounded from across the clearing, and another warg lunged out of the foliage, its jaws snapping at Nori, but Kíli let an arrow fly, piercing the warg's side. As the creature tumbled down, Dwalin finished it off with a savage blow to its neck, and Alison heard the sound of the blade crushing bone, setting her teeth on edge as she avoided staring at the dead creature and Dwalin yanking one of his battle axes out of its neck with a splash of blood.

"Warg scouts!" Thorin said, flicking blood off his sword and looking around the clearing furiously. "Which means an orc pack is not far behind!"

"Who did you tell of your quest, beyond your kin?" Gandalf demanded, striding forward and suddenly looking thunderous as he turned his glare on Thorin, who scowled back.

"No one," he said.

"Who did you tell?" Gandalf thundered, his voice tight with anger.

"No one, I swear!" Thorin said, and Alison saw the dwarf's eyes flash menacingly. "What in Durin's name is going on?"

"You are being hunted," Gandalf said gravely.

"We have to get out of here!" Dwalin said, shouldering his supply bag, but Ori appeared at the top of the ridge, his eyes wide and panicked.

"We can't!" he said. "We have no ponies! They bolted!"

Alison felt her heart sink, until Radagast piped up from behind the Company. "I'll draw them off," the Brown Wizard said, and Gandalf looked to him skeptically.

"These are Gundabad wargs," he said. "They will outrun you."

"These are Rhosgobel rabbits," Radagast replied confidently. "I'd like to see them try."

The Company stood silently in the shadows of the trees, waiting tensely for their cue to begin running. They were leaving the thick tree cover of the forest behind, and ahead of them stretched an empty golden plain, interrupted here and there by sparse mounds of large grey boulders.

Alison's heart pounded in her chest, and she gripped her knife tightly, sweat slicking her palm and making it hard to hold on to as she raked her gaze over the landscape, trying to ignore the shivers coursing down her spine as the howls of the wargs drew closer.

At that moment, Radagast broke free of the tree-line half a mile to their left, riding his rabbit-pulling sleigh as at least a dozen wargs tore after him, about half of them with orc riders on their backs. They were too far away to see clearly, but Alison could see the gleam of their wicked weapons and the malicious, deformed profiles of their bodies, some ranging from skinny and vicious to downright giant and nightmarish.

As they whisked out of view, Gandalf said, "Come on!' and sprinted out of the trees, the Company close behind as they began their sprint across the plains. Alison felt horribly exposed without the tree cover, and the sun beat down on them harshly, hindering their eyesight and making them overheated as they ran in their clothes and armor, with their heavy weapons in hand and supplies bouncing on their backs.

They reached the first cluster of boulders and hid behind it with no problem, catching their breath, and were about to go again when Radagast whizzed by, far too close for comfort, leading the hunting party after him. Luckily, none of the orcs or wargs noticed them, but they had to wait for them to move far enough out of range again.

Alison wondered why their quest was now being tailed by some orc hunting party; she recalled Gandalf and Thorin's heated exchange back in the forest, but somehow, the Wizard's accusations didn't sit well with her. She had a nagging feeling that this wasn't just about the Company, but herself, to an extent. After all, Gandalf had told her she was a Hero, and that not everything would stay the same because of her presence; maybe this is what he had meant.

She was so lost in her thoughts that she didn't even notice Gandalf gesturing the Company after him until half the group had taken off around her, and she seemed to register this only after Fíli sprinted by and grabbed her wrist, tugging her after him as she yelped and he shot a warning glance over his shoulder, his expression clearly reading, Please shut up and follow me before you get us all killed.

Alison swallowed whatever indignant comment she had been about to make and instead raced behind Fíli, his hand still clamped around her wrist as they ran across another stretch of plain.

Radagast and the hunting party suddenly neared them again, cresting over a small hill very close by to the point where Alison could see the Wizard's erratic smile and the pursuing wargs' frothing mouths as they ducked behind another pile of boulders, fortunately before Alison could get a glimpse of the orcs, or else she would have stopped running for sure out of sheer fright.

"Ori, no, get back!" Thorin snarled, as Ori lost his balance and almost toppled into view of the orcs, and Thorin pulled the young dwarf roughly back into cover, panting and sweating and looking slightly abashed as he pressed into the rocks they were all flattened against.

They watched as Radagast and the orcs shrank farther away down the plain, but before Gandalf could order them to move again, Thorin looked to the Wizard with narrowed eyes, saying, "Where are you leading us?"

Gandalf spared Thorin only a short glance, not replying, just ordering them to stick together and move quickly as they dashed out from behind their hiding place and made for another large boulder rising up about halfway down the plain, Thorin looking furious but sprinting after them all the same.

As they ran, the orcs neared them again, still being led on by Radagast, but as Alison watched, one of the riders in the pack slowed down, pausing and seeming to sniff the air, before gazing in their direction and drawing a curved machete that had to be the size of her leg.

"Thorin!" she gasped, as a thrill of fear rushed through her body, making her numb legs go weak, though Fíli still pulled her on relentlessly. "I think one of them sees us!"

"Keep moving!" he ordered, and they flat-out sprinted to the giant boulder as thudding footsteps could be felt coming closer. They threw themselves against the boulder, pressing their backs into the rock, and Fíli pushed Alison close behind him, his arm secured across her waist in a move that could only be described as "soccer mom-ing."

The Company held their breath as huge paws scrabbled atop the boulder, nails scraping the stone as the warg sniffed, growling low in its chest, no doubt sensing their presence. A couple places down from Alison, she saw Thorin gesture with his head to Kíli and his bow, then up to the boulder above them.

Kíli acknowledged his uncle with a glance, and silently, pulled an arrow out of his quiver, fitting it to the bow string. He heaved a breath to steel himself, and then pushed away from the boulder, taking aim above and shooting the warg through the throat. The creature snarled, its claws scrabbling on the stone as it fell down before them, throwing its rider with a roar of surprise and anger before Bifur and Bofur quickly disposed of the beast with their weapons.

The orc, shrieking a battle cry, grabbed its crude blade off the ground and charged at Kíli, who shot another arrow into the grotesque creature's shoulder. Thorin and Dwalin drew their own weapons and attacked the orc before it reached the younger prince, knocking it down and stabbing and pummeling it as the creature howled and screeched, the sound grating on Alison's eardrums.

They were making far too much noise, she realized; the hunting party was bound to hear them, but she watched in horrified fascination as the orc was slain by Thorin and Dwalin, black drops of blood spattering the ground at her feet. Her stomach roiled as Dwalin polished off the orc for good, swinging his axes in a large arc that splattered the nearest members of the Company (including herself) with oily, foul-smelling blood, and it took everything she had not to throw up or pass out right then and there.

"Move! Run!" Gandalf cried, as the sounds of howling and shrieking drew nearer, and as the Company ran for it, Alison saw the hunting party on their tails, a dozen wargs and riders tearing after them across the plains.

"There they are!" Glóin yelled, as the riders caught up to them, closing in on their prey.

Gee, Glóin, thanks for the heads up, Alison found herself thinking vehemently as they ran on, and she glanced ahead to see Gandalf still leading them on across the barren plains, no shelter or anything in sight. This Wizard better have a grand effing plan beneath that stupid pointy hat of his or we are all dead.

"Quickly! This way!" Gandalf shouted, as if he had heard Alison's thoughts, and he pointed to a large spire of rock reaching high into the air about a quarter of a mile in front of them.

Through her terrified haze, Alison wondered what that rock could possibly do for them, but she continued towards it anyway, right behind Fíli. She stumbled, her legs burning and her chest heaving, but Fíli's hand slipped from her wrist and grasped her hand, squeezing it tightly and steadying her.

They made it to the rock just as the orcs closed in on them, and there the fighting started. Alison saw Óin and Nori take down an orc and warg duo, breaking bones and smashing heads with their axe and staff, and Dwalin hefting his own two humongous, bloodstained battle axes, bringing down another warg and then impaling the rider with the blade-like gauntlets and wrist-covers he wore on his lower arm.

Fíli brandished one of his two swords beside her, deftly moving in front of her while keeping a tight grip on her hand, and she understood what he was doing; he was trying to keep her out of the orcs' sight for as long as possible.

Alison saw Kíli sprinting back towards the group, shouting, "There's more coming!" before swinging around and readying his bow.

The orcs closed in, menacing and vile, and Alison knew that for as long as she lived, she would never see anything as disgustingly horrifying as them as they ambled closer, their beady eyes sparking evilly and sadistic smiles crossing their oozing mouths.

"Kíli, shoot them!" Thorin said, and Kíli obeyed, launching arrows at any orc who came near. The other dwarves joined in, engaging the hunting party, but Alison knew that they were greatly outnumbered, and she tried to hold in a whimper, knowing that that wasn't very heroic at all.

"We're surrounded!" Dori cried, and Alison saw him swinging a whip of some sorts with a sharp blade attached to the end of it, keeping a warg at bay.

"Where's Gandalf?" Fíli suddenly shouted, and Alison looked around, realizing that the Wizard was nowhere to be seen with a spike of panic.

"He's abandoned us!" Dwalin snarled as he cut down another warg, after realizing what Alison had, but she tried to hold firm despite her terror; Gandalf would not have abandoned them like this.

Would he?

"Hold your ground!" Thorin roared, raising Orcrist with a flourish as he faced the approaching hunting party.

The orcs closed in, circling around their group, and directly in front of Alison and Fíli, a rabid warg was creeping closer, bearing a fearsome rider upon its back. The orc was smaller than most of the others, but no less terrifying, wearing a horrible barbed collar appearing to be made from giant fangs and bones of some sort that bristled out of its back and shoulders, and from the way it carried itself and the wicked spear in its hand, Alison guessed this one was the leader.

The orc leered at her from astride its beast, its black tongue rolling over its lips, and Alison shuddered as Fíli stiffened, his muscles coiled as he sank into a battle stance. Ori suddenly appeared out of nowhere, using his slingshot to try and ward off the orc, but the stone bounced harmlessly off of the warg's head, only succeeding in making the beast angrier as the orc laughed, its voice coarse and cruel.

Ori backed away, and Alison gripped his elbow as Fíli pushed her behind him, letting go of her hand as he said, "Go, Alison, Ori."

"Fíli—" she said, but he barked, "Go!" once more, without taking his eyes off of the orc.

Suddenly, Alison heard Gandalf's voice from behind them, raising above the sounds of battle like a cry of thunder: "This way, you fools!"

She turned, seeing the Wizard appear out of a hole in the spire of rock they were scattered around, and the dwarves began running to him, not having any other choice besides being run down and overpowered by the orcs.

Bofur disappeared into the rock first, followed by Bilbo, and Alison ushered Ori towards the rock.

"Fíli, come on!" she cried. But the dwarf prince ignored her, still focused on the orc, who cackled maliciously as his gaze lingered on her again. She felt her skin crawl, but then her heart stopped as the warg suddenly lunged at Fíli.

"Fíli!" she screamed, as he brought the blade down on the beast's side. The warg roared in pain, but it stayed upright, and Alison saw the orc snarling, raising its spear as Fíli staggered back from the warg's momentum, his sword swinging wildly as he tried to regain his stance.

Without thinking, Alison raised her knife, almost forgetting the thing was still in her hand, and a red-hot wave of fury washed over her as the orc raised its arm for the killing blow. Alison let the knife fly, not even stopping to think of her actions, and the blade knocked into the orc's spear-hand, slicing it shallowly across the wrist, but it was enough to distract the orc long enough for Fíli to slash with his sword, sending the warg rearing away with the orc snarling in fury, its eyes burning into Alison.

Not having any time to process what she had just done or to go back and retrieve her knife, Fíli turned and shoved her and Ori in front of him as they raced towards the rock, Thorin yelling, "Move, quickly! All of you, go!"

Ori dove in to the hole in the rock, sliding down a steep incline, and Alison quickly followed, scraping her hands and snagging on rocks as she tumbled down, Fíli right behind her. A few seconds later, Kíli came flying down into the cavern-like place they were now sheltered in, with Thorin being the last one to enter behind him.

The Company all stood together in the cavern, listening as the orcs drew closer, but suddenly, a clear, piercing noise that sounded like a hunting horn blew across the plain, and then there was the sound of many hoof beats and the twanging of bows.

Startled cries and hisses echoed from the wargs and orcs, and suddenly, an orc toppled into the cavern, tumbling to a messy stop at the Company's feet, an arrow protruding from its heart. When it was clear the orc was dead, Thorin bent down and removed the arrow from its chest, gazing at it before scowling and throwing it down in disgust.

"Elves," was all he said, nearly spitting out the word as if it were poison.

"I cannot see where the pathway leads!" Dwalin called from further down the cavern. "Do we follow it or no?"

"Follow it, of course!" Bofur said, and he started hurriedly down the pathway, the others following behind without argument.

Alison leaned against the back wall, her head spinning and her lungs burning ferociously, as if someone were pressing a shirt-ironer to her chest. But she couldn't stop thinking about the knife, and what she had done…

"Alison, can you walk?" Fíli said, looking at her. There was a strange glint in his eyes, half-wariness and something else she didn't quite recognize. She nodded, accepting the hand he offered her as he led her down the passageway.

As they continued on, he must've realized she was capable of walking on her own, and he let go of her hand, which she found she was vaguely disappointed over before shaking her head, and continuing after him with no more dwellings.

Farther and farther the Company went down the pathway, and Alison looked up to the high cavern walls on either side of her, seeing the gleam of sunlight way up above them. The air turned warmer and sweeter as they went on, seeming to walk for hours, and Alison could imagine it shimmering and singing, filling her up with a wondrous sense of…something. She didn't know how to describe it, but it tugged at her, as if sensing her presence and wanting to draw her in to the light, to the feeling of serenity that washed over her the farther she went.

"Gandalf," she said to the Wizard, who was walking behind her. "Where are we?"

"You can feel it?" the Wizard replied, looking down at her and smiling slightly.

"Yes," she said, and she wondered whether Gandalf would scoff at her as he raised his brows, before determining that if there was one thing a Wizard would not laugh about, it would be this. "It feels…well, it feels like magic."

To her surprise and relief, Gandalf only nodded, looking pleased as they came to the apparent end of the passageway, for suddenly it was wider and more light poured in. She paused with the Wizard before following the others out of the passageway.

"That's exactly what it is," he agreed, smiling down at her. "A very powerful magic."

And with no explanation, he exited the passageway, Alison hurrying behind him. And as they entered into the scene before them, her jaw dropped, and all the breath in her body escaped in a silent whoosh as Gandalf swept in front of her.

"The Valley of Imladris," he said, as Alison stepped up beside him, speechless, Bilbo trailing after her in astonishment. "In the Common Tongue, it is known by another name."

Memory came rushing back to Alison as she gazed at the beautiful scene before her, and at the same time as Bilbo, they breathed out one word together: "Rivendell."

Author's Note

A pretty intense chapter, but now for a relaxing break in Rivendell! Oops, did I say 'relaxing?' Hmm, maybe not the best word...

Thank you all for the reviews/favorites/follows, and you know the drill by now.

Thanks again, lovelies! Until next chapter...

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