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Breaking Mahal's Heart

Chapter Text

“Hey, sweetie, would you please stop that?”

Liddy’s fingers stilled, embarrassment making her hot and cold at once despite the car's noticeable lack of air conditioning. It was humiliating enough being driven to the park on a Tuesday afternoon like a twelve-year-old, let alone being scolded for peeling the roof interior off her mother’s clunker. Despite her father’s threats to take Old Tony to the scrapper, the Ford Taurus station wagon was still puttering along, disintegrating foam and all.

Liddy sighed, brushing the hair out of her eyes. “Sorry. Bad habit.”

She watched her mom's lips curve with a resigned smile. “It’s OK, honey, everyone does it. Even caught your grandmother red-handed last week when I took her to the doctor.” She made a sharp left onto the lane, almost shaving some shiny black paint off the oncoming Mercedes-Benz.

Putting a hand to her jugular, Liddy tried to still the pulse that sprang to it. Damn you, Bethmobile, she mentally cursed. Her poor, beloved heap was languishing in the shop 100 miles away. As consolation, her dad had very generously picked her up for this mini 'vacation.' It was so generous that she'd totally forgotten about being at the Taurus’, and her mother's, mercy for local trips. But, she supposed, a little bumpiness was a better alternative to shelling out money she didn’t have for a car rental.

Better, that was, if she and her mother survived this five-minute car ride.

“Crazy doctors and lawyers around here drive like they own the place…and I’m more worried that you need to fidget than about the car.”

Deep breaths, Liddy coached, gripping the handle.

“I’m fine, Mom. Seriously.”

They dipped down the hill, the adrenaline of the near-miss with the Mercedes finally dissipating. At another sharp turn, Liddy flicked a warning glance at her mom, hoping the non-verbal hint would curtail a third World War about driving abilities at a certain age. Though the older woman’s hair was still a miraculous chestnut at sixty-four, her eyebrows had a fleck or two of white in them. It was those hairs which caught the light when she arched a knowing eyebrow at her daughter, her gaze still affixed to the road ahead.

“So, sweetheart...how many days are you going to be here? You know you’re welcome, and we have the air mattress.” She coughed, her hands loosening on the wheel. “I’m just sorry we have such a small home now and—”

“You know that’s not your fault. It only makes sense to downsize at your age. And you know I love your little place, now.”

“But not made for long stays,” Liddy's mom replied ruefully as the car jounced again.

A seed of nausea implanted in Liddy's stomach. “I’ll be leaving on Thursday. Just wanted to get away for a few days while Mike’s gone.”

Tension built again in her fingers as the breaks creaked. They were at the stop sign below the mansion. The park was only a few minutes away now, thank Jesus.

“You know Mike’s always been very nice to us, and I appreciate that. I really do…”

Calmly registering her mother's tell-tale nervous chirping, Liddy tried to keep herself from revisiting the inviting foam above. She'd read somewhere, she recalled offhandedly, that frustrated people peel things...

“…but…” she supplied wearily, tapping her nail on the window if only to do something with her restless hands. If they were going to argue, it might as well be now.

”—But you just seem so unhappy.”

Liddy’s dry lips parted, wanting to volley back with something irrefutable. Instead, she slumped back in the seat, draining the last noisy slurp of her water bottle.

It had all started six months before when, without warning, her non-profit shut down and everyone was laid off. At first, Mike had been supportive and she optimistic. She was getting her master’s degree in higher education. They lived in an area with a ton of colleges. The job market was 'robust,' the experts said, and something would pop up in no time.

And then, somehow, it just…hadn’t. After months of fruitless interviews where she’d come close only to be rejected, everything seemed wrong. More specifically, something was wrong with her, and she didn’t know how to fix it.

Since Mike worked long hours and odd days at the radio station, it was easy in hindsight to see how he could be so oblivious to her unraveling. Every afternoon, she would do just enough dishes to keep him unaware of how high they would pile. A thin film of dust blanketed the unopened blinds, the days simultaneously shortening and lengthening. By sunset when she was still not showered and the house was still hours of chores behind, she’d pull it together convincingly enough to dodge his questions at dinner.

Every day, she’d assured him things were fine. They didn’t stop spending as normal because "Everything Would be Fine." Despite the evidence literally mounting before him, Mike never realized how the darkness and debt had closed in on their small apartment.

And then, one day, when the bill collectors had started calling, it was far too late to explain.

It was painful to consider how much she could have done differently. She could have realized that the antidepressants had stopped working, well before everything came crashing down. She could have cobbled together enough part-time jobs to make ends meet. She should have been honest with how despondent she was that the job she loved was taken from her.

Instead, she had kept him in the dark and now, here they were, her still unemployed and thousands more in debt than she’d ever thought she’d owe anyone.

When Mike had told her a few weeks ago that he’d need to go to Tampa for week to produce a broadcast, she almost was glad. From the tired look in his eyes, she’d thought he’d been a little glad at the prospect of a break, too.

No, she couldn’t argue the point that her life didn’t suck. Still, she had to try. Saying things were better than they were made it almost true.

“Mom, he’s been there with me through everything. We’re just...hitting a snag right now.” She drew herself up, the old seatbelt strangling her collarbone. “We’re going to be fine.”

She almost flinched when a hand patted her shoulder.

“Need anything at Boscov’s?”

Tears prickled Liddy’s eyes. The conversation was over, just like she’d wanted.

That’s Mom, for you.

“No—no I don’t need anything. Thanks, though.”

They drove for another minute or two in companionable silence, the afternoon haze lulling away the sourness of the conversation. Just as she was about to doze, the station wagon ground to a tooth-rattling halt.

Ironing out a crick in her neck with her knuckles, Liddy smirked at her mom's guilty expression. "Should I ask how much money you've pumped into it this time?"

"It's still running, isn't it? And as long as I don't tell your father about the transmission, Tony will live forevaaaaah." The older woman reached to the backseat for her purse, which was, as usual, brimming with old receipts.

"Well, enough about this damn car," she added, unzipping her purse and handing Liddy some hand sanitizer. "You're here!"

Despite the cheer in her voice, her thin smile was too wide.

She's worried about me. Just like everybody else, these days.

“I promise I'll be OK. Have fun shopping.”

“Well, I’ll be here at six. You sure it won’t be too dar—”

“Plenty of light left by then.” Liddy made sure she smiled until the corners of her mom's mouth finally perked up in response. She jiggled the handle a few times until the door lurched open.

As though coming out of a trance, Liddy’s mom shook her head. “You’re right, it’s summer.” She waved. “Love you, honey.”

“Love you, too.”

Liddy waved back as the car sputtered to a start and began its slow climb. A strange longing stretched like a thin cord in her chest as she watched the garish paint disappear over the hill. She’d always been a loner, but suddenly she questioned the wisdom of an afternoon to herself—even in the park she loved.

Dismissing the thought, she let the familiar scents of grass and summer waft over her as she trotted down the hill. In autumn, the landscape would billow with orange and red and yellow pom poms bursting out above the creek. For a moment, she tasted crispness rather than the sun-baked aridity of summer.

She took yet another measured breath, trying to ignore the way the field seemed to span for miles. It was the fifth time she’d been out of the house in three weeks. Mike was making her count.

Like everything else now—therapists and medications and spreadsheets—counting and measuring would keep her on the good path.

The walk to the bridge took minutes that felt like hours. Reactivating the rusty fibrils of her calf muscles, she jogged across the graying wood planks. Courtesy of it being a Tuesday, there was no one in sight as she closed her eyes, feeling the coolness of the water tickle the soles of her sneakers and the sun filter onto her hair through the cracks in the covering overhead. Somewhere close by, a gaggle of geese landed, their honks bouncing off the rocks in a lonely yet comforting song.

Dismounting the small step at the end of the bridge, Liddy grinned up through the long shadow in which she stood. Here she was back at Council Rock, the cragged 200-foot high monolith towering above her. As legend had it, the site was a Lenai Lenape meeting ground. Whatever its purpose hundreds of years ago, the pocket of a cave at its base was always fun to explore.

Stepping forward on the dirt path, she peered in, half expecting a troll to pop out. Somehow, it looked a lot brighter and smaller than she'd remembered it being 20 years ago.

Testing her hiking boots, she jogged down the path adjacent to the river, leaving the rock at her back. When she was a good couple of yards away, she clambered up onto a rock. Her muscles were already burning in that good, rejuvenating kind of way.

Whenever she was at the park as a girl, she’d preferred the long way up to the top of the rock. Every time, she would look for the notched roots in the ground that became “steps” winding her heavenward into the 'enchanted' forest. These woods, punctuated with chirps and flutters and all sorts of sounds, had always held a serene yet lively magic, like something out of Fern Gully.

She brushed her foot against the moss covering the first step on the path. It was late in the year and had bloomed from sparse to puffy, but even after all these years she knew each gnarl and knob like the back of her hand.

Brushing away the now sweat-slicked hair that had again escaped her ponytail, she surveyed the incline above. Though it had seemed like a mile as a ten-year-old, at 33, she could tell it was at least 150 feet worth of climbing. It was also nearly vertical.

Her tendons tugged and strained as she started scrabbling up. After only about 35 yards, she looked downward toward the creek, just as quickly clutching the side of a rock. Glittering flakes of mica fluttered from her palm as she pulled it away, her vision blurring.

Whoa, since when did she have vertigo?

Her lips pursed as a breath wheezed out.

If she was this winded at the start, could she make it up at all?

A resonant snap sent panic shooting up her spine. She looked up toward the noise. About fifty feet above, a doe and her fawns were grazing on the dandelions in a small clearing. Adorably Bambiesque as they were, it seemed like a crime to disturb them.

Another excuse, she thought reluctantly, to figure out another way up.

After climbing back down, she made it back to the cave entrance. The sun was starting to angle just so that it shone directly in, brightening the granite to an inviting gray-brown. She squinted at the mica flakes and flickering motes of pollen before pulling her entranced gaze leftward.

The other path up started right here beside the cave, but it was even steeper than her usual trek. She'd only climbed it once, as memory served. A vague itch sparked on her arm as her eyes widened.

Oh right...the poison ivy.

Biting her lip, she examined the cave again. In a few hours, her mom would pick her up. She'd probably wasted a half hour of that already just trying to figure out what to do with herself.

Well, she thought guiltily as she climbed into the mini-cathedral of granite, at least she could say she’d gotten out in nature.

Once inside she gingerly knelt down, readying to sprawl out. Hopefully the rangers were as underpaid as usual and wouldn’t drop by to give her shit for snoozing. Not like she was smoking weed, or something. (Not like she was cool enough to smoke anything even when it was cool to smoke things.)

After putting her backpack on the ground, she unzipped her hoodie, balling it up behind her head. It wasn’t much comfort given the solidness beneath it, but it would do. Just in case, she toggled the alarm on her phone, adjusting the volume down. It was quiet enough that, should the deer or geese or said hapless ranger wander by, they wouldn’t get the bejesus scared out of them.

Finally settling herself, she inhaled and exhaled fully—something her therapist noted she’d not quite yet mastered. The light now filtering in was almost green, bouncing off the moss at the mouth of the cave. As though already dreaming, she lifted her hand. There was a lulling eeriness about this light, the way it got so bright toward the center that it almost made her fingers look like black claws.

Her eyelids fluttered closed as she tried to focus on her breathing, on feeling. For once, she was almost relaxed enough to forget everything else.

Chapter Text

The roar was low—the ocean, maybe. It was faraway and just loud enough to be heard beneath the quiet whistling of the breeze.

Deciding these were nice, tranquil noises for a dream, Liddy turned onto her side, trying to find a comfortable patch of rock again. Somehow, the surface was a lot bumpier than when she’d laid down. She rubbed her eyes, unwilling to open them yet.

How long was I asleep?

As she yawned, a clump of wet clay, and something that tasted weirdly like straw, funneled straight down her throat.

Her lower back twisted as she jolted upward, sputtering and coughing. Finally, her fingers touched the cold glass...the oddly cold glass...of her phone screen.

She slid the phone into her pocket, narrowing her eyes. Instead of the darkness she expected, sunlight glared back at her like a shiny hangover.

Struggling to her feet, Liddy hugged her torso as her arms started to prickle with goosebumps. Her toes were somehow freezing and her nose tickled with something that felt like...frost?

As the ground came into focus, her mouth parted in an “o” of shock.

Everything, including the hoodie still balled up where her head had been, was caked in a fine, patchy layer of snow.

Numb with cold and disbelief, she toed a little white trail with the edge of her boot. It had been an unusually cool day for August, but it was summertime. Snow was impossible.

“It’s all good, Lid,” she whispered to herself. “You’re dreaming.”

Thankfully the snow was powdery enough not to have soaked all the way through, and she made quick work of brushing off her hoodie. With a grunt, she slung her backpack over her shoulder and peered out at her dreamscape.

She was in the middle, the top actually, of a city. The courtyard in which she stood was flanked on two sides with arches. In the center, covered in snow, stood the statue of a man next to a decrepit fountain brimming with murky water. Gnarled, sun-bleached tree roots sprang up like weeds through the cobblestones, snaking their way around the stonework. Standing tiptoe, she glimpsed the uppermost parapets of what looked like a mini-fortress and a wall at the very foot of the city, about a hundred feet below. Between the fortress and the courtyard sprawled tiers of streets bridged by stairs and inclines. The roads were lined with dingy stone buildings clustered close to the roads, their terracotta tiled roofs catching the light in dull grids of orange.

An apparent problem was that many of those crumbling, soot-stained buildings were on fire.

Yipes. A nightmare, then.

That would have been bad enough, Liddy reasoned, without the shrieks and wails filling the air. A throng of people were swiftly advancing upward, streaming up the stairs and roads. From her squinting vision, she saw that they were villagers of some sort. Their garb, tattered and dirty, had a very 'hang the witches!' or 'let’s twirl about the maypole' kind of vibe.

It made sense that they were running from the fires, but that roar emanating from way below was getting louder. That sound she'd first heard, Liddy realized with a pattering heart, definitely hadn't been the ocean. It was the sound of clanging—like a thousand metal plates crashing together.

When her gaze darted lower toward the rising clamor, she spotted a swarm of what looked like monsters teeming on the lower streets. They were too far away to discern more detail than their huge, hulking forms and the giant axes and clubs they wielded. They poured through the old houses and setting as much of the city ablaze as they could. There were hundreds of them, at least, snarling and gnashing behind the villagers desperately clambering uphill.

The space between Liddy’s eyes creased. That she was in the middle of a freaking disaster area was terribly disturbing. Somehow even more disturbing was that this town and its besmudged lot looked weirdly familiar. Ren faire, maybe?

No—even she with her crazy ass dreams didn’t have nightmares about the ren faire. Besides, where were the floofy collars and turkey legs and the—

“ABANDON THE CRIPPLES!”

In a single, swift motion, a grubby hand cupped Liddy’s mouth and cheek, shoving her down face-first into the snow.

She laid there for what could have been seconds or minutes, limbs splayed on the wet ground. When she looked up through encrusted eyelashes, a man in a long black coat was sprinting up the steps of a large building that had apparently been behind her. Blinking at his retreating figure, her bleary eyes noticed a shiny black rectangle in the middle of a small snowdrift.

Her iPhone.

The angry 11-shaped wrinkles between her eyebrows flared again. Dreaming or not, that phone was only on month four of a 36-month payment plan.

That skeezy figment of her subconscious was an asshole—and she would have her revenge.

Fingers clawing at the ground, she grabbed her phone, tilting it upside down in what was likely a futile effort to drain the deadly moisture. As she tripped forward, pursuing the black-coated dude in vengeful haste, a steady hand grabbed her arm.

“Watch it, dearie!”

Liddy turned around in irritation to see two tired but warm brown eyes. Like the other villagers, the woman before her was smudged and bundled up with a medieval-looking coat and a scarf. She also wore what Liddy assessed to be a ludicrous designer hat. It was black with two long earflaps, weird metal notchings, and tassels. The collective effect was somewhere between fancifully Eastern European and tastefully ridiculous.

For some reason, this woman looked awfully familiar, too. So was that idiot’s proclamation about the "cripples," come to think of it.

Hat Lady put her tongue between her teeth as she tugged her cloak up. “Best be gettin’ on,” she grunted, nodding toward the large building. “Bard seems to think we can shore up in the Great Hall for a spell. ‘Tween us, I can’t see how long our men out there can hold ‘em off, but we might as well try.”

“…Bar—Bart? And I’m sorry, hold who off?”

Sweet Christmas. Why did Bart sound familiar, too?

The woman huffed. “The orcs, of course.”

“Orcs?”

“Yes, girl, big, nasty orcs!” cried Hat Lady, gesturing wildly to the city below. The woman shook her head, clucking her tongue with apparent sympathy. “Were you down by the front wall? Must have taken a bump when them dreadful war beasts came barging in.”

War beasts?

“But I don’t—”

“Enough chatter, now inside with you. Before we’re plum overrun!”

By the time Liddy strung together the words for another question, Hat Lady was already bolting toward the stairs.

Pursing her lips, Liddy glared at the entrance of the big stone building. That asswagon who’d pushed her was probably cowering in a corner somewhere. She shivered, her thirst for vengeance already drying on her tongue. Though she was in her hoodie, she was still underdressed by about 30 degrees.

Why did the snow—all of it—feel so damn real?

Ignoring that nonsensical train of thought, she stomped self-righteously past the fountain and up the stairs. If she saw that jerk, she wouldn't be leaving without giving him a piece of her mind.

She crossed the threshold, putting a hand to her face as body odor and the scent of sickly-sweet metal flooded her nostrils. Pinching the bridge of her nose, she inhaled and exhaled through her mouth. It was bad technique and her therapist would frown, but she wasn’t about to puke all over the floor.

(She also didn’t remember being able to smell in dreams, but whatever…)

After only about four more paces toward the back of the room, which was crumbling and drafty like everything else in this joint, she felt a wild flutter of urgency in her bladder. She tottered another step or two before squeezing her legs together hard enough to halve a watermelon. Leaning against a crumbling archway, she groaned in defeat.

Only she, like a damn genius, would guzzle an entire thermos of water before she went to a park.

Scrunching her lips, she tried to conjure up an image of a desert so dry the earth was cracking. If she relieved herself in the dream, there was a surefire chance she wouldn't make it to the bathroom in real life.

Tongue between her teeth, she dug her nail into her exposed wrist. The angry crescent it left behind was just shy of breaking the skin.

Sigh. Still not awake.

Leaning forward, she peered through a narrow window by the entrance. It gave her only a sliver of a vantage point past the courtyard and down below, but enough to see that the fires were flaring even higher toward the clouds. Low rumbles shook the foundation, sending pebbles clattering to the floor behind her.

Those 'orcs,' or whatever they were, were advancing fast.

Feeling disgusting and more than a bit helpless, she reached around into her backpack, fumbling for her mom's little hand sanitizer. Once she found it, she squirted a liberal dollop into her palm. She closed her eyes as she rubbed her hands together, sniffing deeply.

When she opened her eyes again, all of this would be gone. She’d be back in the park in the cave at Council Rock. The cleansing scent of Sparkling Pear would make it all go away.

She opened her eyes. Crumbly hall, smelly villagers, and still freezing half to death.

Thanks for nothing, Sparkling Pear.

She slumped against the window, sending quarter-sized stones pinging to the floor. Mike would always get on her about not thinking clearly enough in situations like this. 'Measure twice, cut once,' he’d scold.

He was right, usually. She wasn’t admittedly the greatest at planning things through.

...but Mike also wasn’t here in this very real dream where her mind was whirring with possibilities.

People in comas supposedly dreamt crazy, vivid things, she thought, her lungs aching with cold.

Maybe she wasn’t dreaming a normal dream. Maybe she’d been a dumbass, climbed Council Rock, and fallen.

...but why, then, wasn’t her brain coming up with somewhere nicer for her to be? She’d gone from the most beautiful park to this weirdo King’s Landing town.

It just made no sense whatsoever.

“Och, girl! Watch where ye be!”

She tucked her elbow, which had been sticking straight out, closer to her body. “S—sorry.”

Liddy barely heard herself mutter the apology to whomever she’d just bumped into. She clapped a hand to her mouth, fearing the noise that might come out of it.

She'd been too distracted to notice before, but they'd presumably been there the entire time. Standing by a flight of crumbling stairs on the other side of the main hall were three children. One was a tall blonde girl of about 15 wearing an apron. Next to her was a younger curly-haired boy in his early teens who was trying, almost convincingly, not to look terrified. In his arms was a girl of no more than nine who was just preciousness incarnate with her bright blue eyes. For whatever reason, they looked conspicuously less bedraggled than their fellow villagers.

Liddy’s stomach twisted as, impossibly, a sheen of sweat broke out on her forehead. It was a feeling too real to be a dream. If she was honest with herself, everything had felt too real to be a dream ever since she saw the snow.

Hat Lady. Asshole in the black coat. Bart.

Bard.

Her grunting exhalation, a futile attempt at measured breathing, sounded like a cow doing Lamaze. A little straw-haired girl was staring at her like she had three heads.

Purple and green stars whizzed in front of Liddy's eyes as she collapsed to her knees. The first time she'd seen it was with Mike had gone with a bunch of their friends at the IMAX at the mall. That last film, the third one, was always on TV lately, it seemed. The few times she'd caught it while channel surfing, it always seemed to pick up at the part where people were in a town that looked exactly like this.

A town that was this.

Where all of these exact events were happening.

Ohgodohgod.

Swallowing past a knot that had formed in her throat, Liddy sank deeper to the dusty floor.

If this was somehow real—if pigs flew and there were other dimensions—then she was in a fucking Hobbit movie.

She was in fucking Dale.

Harnessing tenuous control over the contents of her stomach, she looked up toward voices at the front of the hall. Hat Lady, brandishing a pretty badass looking spear with black, serrated teeth, stood before all the villagers.

Liddy winced with dread, waiting for the words she knew would come.

“I say we stand with our men in life and in death!”

With tears of shock, Liddy watched things unfold exactly as she remembered. She watched Hat Lady yell at the dude who’d shoved her—apparently and aptly named Alfrid Lickspittle—and who was also now wearing a pink dress. Liddy smirked with unmitigated triumph when he was proclaimed a 'weasel' in front of all the old and infirm brave enough to take up arms.

In a blink, the people were yelling battle cries and flooding the courtyard, armed with everything from shovels to hammers. Listlessly, Liddy surveyed the remaining few in the Great Hall. Most were dirty, sniffling children, looking as lost and hopeless as they had when their adults were with them.

Not fearing the judgment of kids, Liddy pulled her knees to her chest and circled her arms around them. She needed to think. Had to.

She didn't remember this whole scene in the movie, but it was a safe bet that the Lake-Towners wouldn’t be able to hold off those orcs. The disgusting monsters would swarm the Great Hall, and that would be the end of that. She forced herself not to look around the room again. The prospective fate of those poor kids should the worst happen was something she just couldn't handle.

Eyes narrowing in concentration, she chewed her lip. There had to be another way.

There was a decent chunk of battle left, if her memory served correctly. If it all happened in real time, maybe she and the children could hunker down and play dead.

No matter what, it would be ugly. There would be blood and screaming and pointy things amidst an onslaught of foul monsters ready to tear her in half if they thought she was alive. Those kids would need counseling (Middle Earth counseling?) for the rest of their lives.

But at least there was an end in sight. If everything went right, after all that gore those eagles would come and save the day. Then she could figure out how to get the hell home.

She could find Gandalf or something. Yes! The wizard! If there was anyone who could help her out of this colossal mess, it was that guy.

She looked out and up at the sky, now heavy with smoke from the burning homes. Her eyes prickled. She wished desperately it was just because of the sooty air, but she was sick of lying to herself.

Up until this point, everything had unfolded the way it had in the movie. If the "plot" continued to progress, that meant that the dwarves and men and elves would triumph. Azog the Defiler and that other scrawnier orc would be dead.

That also meant, she thought as a single tear slipped down her cheek, that those three very sexy dwarves would also perish. Thorin, Fíli, and Kíli, if she was remembering it right.

She gritted her teeth against another wave of nervous sweat, tapping her fingers against the damp stone beneath her.

As far as she saw it, there were two choices. She could either cower like Alfrid the Asshole, or she could do something.

Unless there were a consortium of people dropped simultaneously into Middle Earth, she was likely was the only one around here with a direct line of sight into the future. Withholding help with lives at stake was just about the crappiest thing a person could do. Besides, if she were, heavens forbid, to be stuck here more than a couple of days, maybe she could use it to her advantage. Though she was a little rusty on her Lord of the Rings movies, she was sure some tidbits might be useful.

...like a prediction that a hobbit with a ring would set in motion a nearly cataclysmic chain of events…

Whoa, Liddy. One freaking trilogy at a time!

Swiping her hand under her nose, she lumbered back to her feet. What she was about to do would suck. She’d never been a particularly brave person, per se. Fire scared her. So did heights and dead bodies and enclosed spaces. After her self-imposed hermitage from the world, she had about zero arm strength.

But maybe, still, in some messed up oracular way, she could fix things and somehow escape this alive.

A tug on her hood yanked her from the infancy of what probably would have been a very ill-advised plan.

“Why aren't you out there, miss?”

It was only when she turned around that the girl released her tiny, clenched hand from the fabric. Despite imminent doom, Liddy felt a smile curl her lips.

It was the girl who was staring at her before—the teeny, tiny one with the stringy straw-blonde hair. Though Liddy hadn't noticed it before, she was clutching a matted gray-brown bear almost hard enough to force the stuffing from its seams. At this range, the girl's eyes seemed more gray than blue, flecked with a preternatural wisdom that would have been creepy if she hadn’t been so darn adorable.

Guilt and pity jabbed at Liddy’s heart. She couldn’t imagine what the girl had witnessed in Lake-Town when that dragon had come. There was a good chance her parents were dead. Even if they were alive, Liddy pondered darkly, they might not be for long.

Liddy swallowed, kneeling down until she was eye-level. Forcing a smile, she grabbed the bear’s hand, giving it a firm squeeze. “I’m going out there now.”

“Good,” the girl said gravely before looking into the eyes of her bear. “We’ll be fine in here, won’t we, Angus?”

Liddy nodded encouragingly, tamping down the terror welling in her stomach. “I think you will be.”

With a permissive pat on the head from Liddy, the girl scurried back into her corner. From her position at the window, she could see it wasn't going well, and she dearly hoped the girl stayed where she was. People were dropping to the ground every few seconds, their remaining limbs contorted in ugly angles. The snow was stained with rivulets of black and burgundy.

Hat Lady and Bard’s children, she realized with a flip of her stomach, were nowhere to be seen in the fray.

Determination rippling through her tired muscles, Liddy flipped her backpack over her chest. It was a Jansport and probably couldn’t withstand a letter opener, but it would have to do.

She took one last look back at the little girl whose eyes were still fixed on her. As much as her bladder and her sensible brain protested, it was too late to back down now.

“I’ll see ya soon, kid,” she called over her shoulder.

And so, with a very unheroic “unnnngh!” Liddy bounded from the safety of the Great Hall, down the stairs, and straight into the battle that would likely kill her.

Chapter Text

Liddy had never been a great battle tactician. Her only attempt at a first-person shooter on the Xbox had ended with she and Mike dissolving into giggling fits as she’d indiscriminately spewed ammo, hitting more trees than monsters. She’d lost about five lives in as many minutes.

About two steps into the courtyard before the Great Hall, Liddy knew her real life was equally destined for disaster.

Her only recollection of this battle in the movie was a fuzzy image of Lake-Towners moving in slow motion, jabbing their improvised implements of destruction at the oncoming wall of orcs. While scary, it wasn’t exactly the Battle of the Bastards where Jon Snow nearly suffocated in that circle stampede. That shit would have killed her short ass in three seconds.

But if she wanted to escape this courtyard, completely sans weapon, her chances weren’t that great. Pitchforks and shovels were dinging against the orcs’ sturdy shields in a shower of clinks and clanks. Blotches of soupy mud puddled in the spots where the stone had sunken in, the brackishness seeping into the clothes of the people who'd fallen. What snow wasn't polluted with soil was quickly becoming Jackson Pollocked with red and black splatters. In real time, everything was very ugly, very scary, and happening far too fast.

A tangy, foul odor—a heady mix of burnt ketchup and stinkbugs—forced a gasping cough from Liddy’s lungs. Her knees locked mid-stride, causing her to nearly topple over the lip of the fountain and into the murky water beneath the rear of the statue.

Silver glinted on the far side of the fountain. By the time Liddy craned her neck to look at whatever it was, it had disappeared, the statue's arm obscuring it. A man's voice yelped as a burgundy cap flew through the air and landed only feet diagonal to Liddy.

As she crouched, leaning sideways and straining to look around the statue, she glimpsed that same flash of silver. To her horror, it was an orc's axe bearing down on a defenseless old man. His back was bowed, face twisted in fear as the orc’s tarry spittle dotted his cheeks. Frail arms trembling, he held his gnarled staff above his neck in a futile bid to withstand the blade. Though Liddy was already bracing herself for it, the wood snapped like bone, so loud she almost felt it. Her clenched fist rose to her lips as the axe’s blade continued straight on its trajectory, lodging with a squish into the man’s neck. His windpipe snapped loose, making a hideous squealing sound as the body folded to the ground.

Fuck.

Liddy's wet eyes darted leftward just as the orc turned, its sneering maw widening. The statue’s arm obscured half of the foul creature’s face so that she could only see one of its yellow eyes.

An eye that was staring straight at her.

The orc bounded through the fountain, splashing droplets of frigid water onto Liddy's face and hands.

Tossing her backpack to the ground, she tried to run backwards, keeping eyes on the monster. With supernatural strength, it leaped through the air, closing the gap between them. Crossing her arms over her head, she clamped her eyes shut, tear ducts burning as the blade's shadow descended.

This is it. This is really it.

Liddy was still bracing herself for the agony of being torn apart when what felt like a coconut hurtled into her fingers. Hot, tacky wetness sprayed her lip as something huge and metallic clattered to the ground next to her. She winced, teeth digging into her lip as she uncrossed from her sheltered position. She was only able to hold her breath for a moment before spitting on the ground.

Gross as expectorating was, the flavor of the stuff was so repugnant it made her long for burnt ketchup. Or even stinkbug.

Her unmaimed hand swiped the remaining black liquid from her mouth. Flexing her mashed fingers with a tolerable amount of pain, Liddy shifted her foot, trying to avoid whatever round, wiry thing was snagging her shoelaces.

That wiriness, she realized as she peered down, was the hair on that orc’s now-severed head. That gross stuff was orc blood.

Entranced in macabre fascination, she watched its stumpy neck gush intermittently onto her shoe and the snow.

It was far too late to salvage her hiking boot by the time Liddy had the presence of mind to step away from the gore. Her lips drew to a frown as she turned in a circle, looking to thank her rescuer.

There were still Lake-Towners fighting, but they were all yards away. Whoever it was was already gone.

Heart pounding, Liddy tripped over a felled limb—she didn’t want to examine which body part or whom it belonged to—as she ran to retrieve her backpack. The second it was secure on her shoulders, she booked it for the far wall, praying there was nothing lurking behind her. A sigh of relief wheezed out of her as she rounded the corner, tucking herself a few feet away from the arch and hopefully out of the line of sight. It was safe and quiet, for now, at least.

She slumped against the wall as her vision began to swim with magenta swirls. Her teeth clenched in frustration. This was no time for one of her stupid low blood pressure episodes.

Taking a few long breaths, she noticed weathered steps immediately ahead of her. Below stretched a quiet street where the battle was already over. She could see the tops of bodies that were haphazardly piled, their clothing and mangled limbs already covered in a light dusting of snow. Liddy clutched her stomach as it contracted, her fingers smarting all over again.

She couldn’t die here. Not like them.

Her feet hammered the steps, her body swaying with lightheadedness as she ran down and past the large pile of bodies.

A consuming regret washed over Liddy as she glimpsed a woman’s face turned toward the sky, her eyes ghoulish and cloudy. A sad desperation made her wish she had time to close the poor lady’s eyelids to all this horror.

Using what felt like the last of her strength, Liddy bounded up some rotting steps of an abandoned building, her hoodie snagging on a jagged frame of the split door. It was bright enough outside that it took a minute for her eyes to adjust to the deep blue shadows in the room. Cups and tankards littered an old counter coagulated with grime and cobwebs. An old tavern, maybe.

She scrabbled for a dusty chair, managing to grip its rail just as her knees buckled under her. Pain seared through her eardrums despite the blaring suddenness of silence. Though the blood was finally rushing back to her head, her brain was still mush.

What the hell had she been thinking going out there like that?

Where was Gandalf?

Did any of that even matter anymore?

Her head felt like it weighed a hundred pounds as she tilted it to rest against the filthy seat.

Forming a coherent plan out of her racing thoughts felt impossible, but she had to try. Making her way back to the Great Hall would mean braving heaven knows how many orcs. The only reason to attempt it, Liddy thought with a pang of guilt, was that she’d left that little blonde sweetheart all alone up there.

She sniffled, wiping her nose with her sleeve. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but that kid had grit. Should the orcs attack, the girl would probably have the temerity to play dead or hide somewhere exceptionally clever.

Those dwarves, on the other hand, were still up on that hill. As the timeline stood, no amount of grit or playing dead would save them.

She nibbled her nail, dry heaving at the cocktail of residual hand sanitizer and grime. With a grunt, she struggled to her feet, her backpack soaked and heavy.

Enough was enough. She could sit here and feel sorry for herself or do something about it. She’d come out here to warn the people in charge about the trap waiting for the dwarves.

That was what she was gonna do, no matter how utterly fucking terrifying it was.

With a silent prayer to God, on the off chance he was real, she walked out the front door, dodging the gaping hole in the steps she’d apparently made on her way in. A few of the buildings on the street were taller than the houses, casting long shadows in which little slicks of ice were rapidly forming.

The street was iciest, she eventually noticed, right in front of a small alley between two of the buildings. It was a nice, shadowy crevice—the kind that orcs happening by might not look in.

A nervous giggle almost burbled from her lips as the Pink Panther theme cued in her head.

She was gonna sneak through Dale like a spy.

As she wove through the alleyways, hugging corners and trying not to trip over severed limbs, Liddy racked her brain for everything she could remember about this damn movie. Grand though her plans were, it was time to admit that she had absolutely no idea where in Dale Gandalf or Bilbo or Bard would be.

If the children and infirm were sent up to the Great Hall, the only direction that made sense, she supposed, was down.

Liddy had lost count of the stairways she’d descended when she finally came upon what seemed like a main thoroughfare. On either side, it was lined with two long walls with archways, very similar to those of the courtyard. The white path between shone wet, lit by a single ray of sun piercing through the overcast sky.

A few men staggered past, clutching their shirts as blood bloomed angry flowers on their tunics and pants. Stragglers and the wounded, Liddy assessed, biting her lip.

Her neck shrank into her collar as a thud crunched against stone. Wet squelches and the sound of shattering wood carried down from higher ground behind the wall. Luckily, she hadn’t taken that way down, she mused with a shudder.

Just as she was about to make a break for it, hooves clattered on the causeway.

A cloud shifted, bathing the riders’ respective waterfalls of wheat-white and russet hair in golden light. Even astride the horse, their leather-clad legs stretched for miles. It was probably courtesy of a trauma-induced hallucination, but they legit looked like an “I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Butter” Fabio montage. Had she not currently been transported through space and time into a war and all, she probably could have spent just an hour looking at them. And their…

…pointy ears…

Oh damn.

A premonitory tingle, the same as when she’d seen Bard’s children, zapped her from head to toe.

Legolas and Tauriel.

This was it. Her ‘big break’ where she had to start fixing everything.

She stumbled over the fetid cobblestones, trying to not look like total clod in front of the Gorgeous Elves of Middle Earth.

“Wait, you two. WAIT!”

They stared straight ahead as though neither had heard her. Mouth rumpled, Liddy was about to call again. She stopped cold as she followed their line of sight.

Orcs had breached the wall and were spilling through the streets and buildings—not fifty feet ahead.

The horse’s thin hind legs reared, the elves’ swords gleaming as the orcs charged, their thudding feet quaking the stone beneath Liddy's feet. Her head spun, neck cramping as she jerked her backpack around the front of her body again.

She couldn’t handle another battle right now. She also didn’t have a choice.

The orcs were gaining far more ground than she was as she sprinted toward the horse. One with mottled skin sneered diabolically as he locked eyes with her, his lips pulling over a clutch of broken teeth and a froth of black saliva.

Liddy’s shoulders were on fire, her backpack straps digging in with every impact of her heels against the ground.

“Please!” She hopped upward desperately near the horse's flank, her nail nicking the saddle’s leather.

They had to let her on. Just had to.

Tauriel’s fishtail braid lashed the wind, her fern eyes flashing before they softened with surprise. It was an unusual thought, but Liddy was in that moment exceptionally grateful she didn't look like an orc.

The elf leaned over, her arms outstretched.

“Hold tight.”

In a swirl of hunter green, lithe yet incredibly strong arms hoisted Liddy up by the shoulders. Her incisors dug into her lower lip as her pelvis slammed into the rigid part of the saddle. Silken hair tickled her nose as the orcs’ blades whizzed passed her leggings. She was, for better or worse, about eye level with Legolas’ arm pit. She sniffed lightly. Amazingly, he still smelled like cedar.

Despite the unpleasant throb in her pelvis and the soundtrack of battle, it became increasingly hard not to think about the attractive elf sandwich in which she found herself the further they jounced up the sloping street.

Wait.

Up?

“What are you doing?” Liddy yelped, blinking frantically against a spray of orc blood.

Did they really have to go straight into the sea of orcs?

“Fighting,” Legolas grated, his sword cleaving across two necks. “And there is someone we need to—”

With perfectly angled arms, he curved the blade in the other direction straight through an orc's thorax.

“—find.”

At a sudden stop, her head pitched into his shoulder. For a moment, in the haze of his sweat and cedar, his voice vibrating her sternum, she thought she was going to faint again.

Her neck snapped upward as the plane of his back angled forward, his hands pulling the reins. “Gandalf!”

“Legolas Greenleaf!”

The pleasant tingle of Legolas' voice became a distant memory as the gray-robed wizard stepped forth, arms wide in welcome.

They were at this part already? She was late.

Way too late.

Not waiting for the elves, she swung her legs around, her cotton leggings sliding down the horse’s buttery coat. The weight of her backpack tipped her a little too far, however. She screamed as she fell, her palms flat on instinct as her skin met the stone and debris with brutal force.

“Here, miss.”

A small hand cupped her shoulder as another wrapped around her arm, helping her to her feet. As she plucked out the gravel superficially embedded in her hands, two blue eyes peeked up at her through a mop of dirty blond curls. The corner of Bilbo’s mouth twitched, as politely as possible, as he silently appraised her leggings.

The elves had dismounted, the troupe forming a half-circle in front of her. For all his sexiness, Legolas' sky blue eyes were flat with suspicion.

All of theirs were, she realized with a gulp.

“I need to get this right,” Liddy warbled, flicking the last of the grit from her hands. Gandalf’s bushy white eyebrows nearly took flight as she pointed at him.

“Legolas is going to tell you that there’s going to be an invasion of orcs.”

She turned to Legolas, his brow bowing into a deeply suspicious (but still deeply sexy, damn it) 'v'.

“And Gandalf and Bilbo here are going to tell you that Thorin and his peeps are already up there.”

Bilbo's eyes widened with alarm. “Wait, what about the orcs?" He scratched his chin, eyes narrowing dubiously. "And I suppose we rather were going to tell them that,” he murmured.

"Indeed," Gandalf said, his finger rubbing the jewel of his staff.

Liddy looked past the parapets at what she could see of the jagged, dark ruins on the hill far above. It was enshrouded in mist and now impossible to discern anyone up there, orc or dwarf.

Come on, idiot. Out with it!

“...and what you all need to know is that the Gumball or Gunbad invasion or whatever is going to kill—”

Before she could form another syllable, daggers were scissoring Liddy's neck. Those pretty fern eyes of Tauriel’s were now raging like an angry forest.

“What do you know of Gundabad, spy!?” Legolas demanded.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa! I’m no spy. I swear.”

“We’ll not believe your oaths,” Tauriel hissed.

The steel was digging in now, and something was wet on Liddy’s neck.

Think fast!

“I’m—I’m an oracle. Of Westeros”

She swallowed, sending one of the blades shifting over her larynx with a threatening scrape.

Seriously? Westeros?!

“Never heard of it,” mused Gandalf, his eyes twinkling with equal doses of intrigue and mistrust. His curly white thicket of hair looked sadly incomplete without that pointy hat, Liddy thought offhandedly.

“As for being an oracle, I’ve not seen one of your lot in an age.” The wizard squinted at the top of her head with obvious disapproval.

“Though you have no ritulla, I see.”

“No what?”

“She has none because she is no oracle at all,” Legolas snapped, drawing and nocking his arrow in a single, fluid movement. The business end of said arrow was, to Liddy's chagrin, now pointed straight at her temple.

Liddy forced her mouth open though it was dry with fear. “If you would stop elf-and-wizard-splaining, MAYBE you could do something about the bunch of dwarves who are about to get chopped to bits!”

Tauriel quirked her head, retracting one of the blades and sheathing it. Multitasking as only an elf could, she kept the lone blade hovering over Liddy’s throat while putting her free hand on Legolas’ arm.

“Do you really think her a spy?”

“She knew of Gundabad, that Bolg was leading that army.”

“Bolg?” Liddy squeaked, still squirming under the threat of the dagger. "Who's Bolg?"

“Do not play the fool with me!” Legolas redirected his arrow from Liddy’s head, the tip flicking a Nine Inch Nails button on her backpack. “And these markings. They do not appear to be Black Speech, but—”

“It’s a fucking band!”

Tauriel’s grip tightened on Legolas' arm as he lunged. “Foul-tongued witch!”

“It is indeed not Black Speech.” Gandalf stepped forward, flipping back his voluminous sleeves as he handled the pin, its shiny casing flashing a reflective white. The wizard’s moustache did the cha cha as his gaze chanced her leggings before returning to her face. “Nor is it any speech known to me...”

As his gaze bored into her, Liddy got the feeling he was rummaging in her mind. Something in his liquid blue eyes, something very deep and very old, made her want to laugh and cry and shake all at the same time.

He shook his head, ending whatever weird moment of wizard telepathy had just happened. “I do not think there would be great harm should you unhand her,” he pronounced, an air of dubiousness and mystery lingering in his voice.

“No harm yet, anyway,” he muttered, as though he’d forgotten to keep the opinion to himself.

Legolas ticked his head reluctantly at Tauriel. The second blade made a very comic book-esque ‘schnick’ as it returned to its holster.

“Thank you.” Liddy spent her first second of freedom yanking her hoodie as far over her ass as it would go.

Had these people never seen legs before?

“Let’s try this again, OK?” she said, flipping her hand up at Gandalf with exasperation. “In a few minutes, seconds—whatever—you’re going to ask Thranduil to help the dwarves on the mountain. He’s not going to listen.”

“And what do you know of King Thranduil?” the wizard replied, not ungently.

“Yes,” Legolas interjected. “What indeed.”

“Lots of things. He’s very shiny and flouncy and has those Cara Delevingne eyebrows and…”

Focus, Liddy—Jesus!

“The point is that he’s not going to help us. Us here—” She gestured in a circling motion. “This is all we’ve got.”

Gandalf shook his head, leaning his weight onto his staff. “It is not enough! If there is an invasion—"

Legolas nodded, his mouth a grim line. "There is."

"—then we must answer with commensurate force.”

“Perhaps we should listen to her,” Tauriel piped up.

“And walk into a death trap?” Legolas shook his head. “You truly have lost your senses over that dwarf, haven’t you?”

The three of them began, once again, to argue over each other as Liddy watched in numb disbelief. Here she was, trying to save the dwarves, and they were moving with the urgency of sloths on Xanax. Without help, she might as well forget the whole rescue mission, the only reason she’d left that stupid Great Hall in the first pla—

“—Excuse me, all of you, if you please!”

Everyone looked at Bilbo as he stepped forth, his face apple-red and lips tight to his teeth. He’d been unusually quiet, Liddy realized. To the point she'd almost forgotten he was there.

“Listen, I—I don’t care who she is.” He folded his arms over his chest, only to uncross them as if he’d decided something. “If Bolg is headed for Ravenhill, my friends will die regardless.”

Liddy slapped her hands on her thighs in triumph. “Thank you, Bilbo! See, at least someone’s being reasonable around here.”

She frowned as his mouth twitched again. He was rubbing his pocket.

His pocket.

Oh.

Oh holy, frigging duh.

Ignoring his yelp, Liddy grabbed him by the arm of his coat, whisking him through one of the archways.

“Sorry, Gandalf!” she called behind her, trying not to trip over the enormous feet beside her own. “Need to borrow your burglar for a sec. Just a quick chat!”

“Where are you taking him? There is nothing you can say in front of him that you cannot…” Liddy backed Bilbo into the wall as the wizard’s words disappeared around the corner.

“I beg your pardon!” Bilbo groused, his bulky feet tripping over one another. “I was trying to help you out there and I—”

She crouched, ensuring she was at eye-level with the bewildered hobbit.

“Listen, I know what’s in your pocket.”

That expression, that awful, ravenous toothiness, glimmered for only a second. It was long enough to see beneath his fear, in flecks of gold, that yearning covetousness Bilbo would be fighting as long as he had that ring.

Not a full-on Gollum.

Not yet.

Suppressing a shiver, Liddy collected herself. Danger of the One Ring or not, he was the best shot those dwarves had considering that every other character's heads, save maybe Tauriel, were up their asses at the moment.

She leaned close enough that his hair tickled her cheek.

“I told them Thranduil won’t help, and I meant it. You’ve gotta slip that ring on and get up on that hill, got me?”

“Invisibly,” he whispered. The surprise Liddy expected on his features never came. He’d already thought of it, of course, she realized belatedly.

“If you see Thorin, tell him it’s a trap.” Her waving arms formed an X. “Scratch that. It’s already way too late. Go in and find Fíli and Kíli. Get them out of that fortress.”

Bilbo closed one eye, staring down the barrel of his finger at her as he shook it. “But how do you know all of this?”

“There's no time!” Liddy hissed. “Do you wanna save your friends, or what?”

He paused, his brow furrowing. There was something struggling to break forth, something he wanted to say. Liddy could guess well enough, but now wasn’t the time for a therapy session for One Ring addicts.

“More than anything,” he said, his voice cracking on the last word.

Looking at his precious—erm, adorable—face, Liddy couldn’t help but melt. The poor guy had sacrificed so much only for his king/BFF to practically chuck him over the ramparts.

One cracked out on the One Ring and the other detoxing from dragon sickness. What a freaking pair, those two.

And, unless Bilbo left now, she thought darkly, they’d mend their friendship only as Thorin lay dying.

“Go, go!” she hissed, her palm flat on his back as she shoved him forward.

Instead of taking umbrage at her jostling him, Bilbo kept his chin high and brave. In a single motion, his finger curled into his pocket. Between Liddy’s blinks, the hobbit evaporated into the thin, smoky air. She waited for a moment, listening to the heavy feet slapping the ground.

Good luck, buddy, Liddy thought. With a roll of her eyes, she walked back out to the street to face what she was sure would be a very put-out wizard.

“What have you done with my burglar?” Gandalf bellowed predictably.

“I…was just—just...”

A storm brewed on the horizon of the wizard’s brow—like he was about to do that creepy thing where he got super tall and his voice got boomy.

She winced internally. It was a lie, but a lie for the greater good.

Sorry, Bilbo.

“He wouldn’t listen to me.” Liddy shook her head with mock disappointment. “I tried to stop him, to tell him, but he went to save them.”

Gandalf cocked his head in a very knowing way that made her feel about as big as a molecule. "Curious that he would go just after you...consulted...with him, though, wouldn't you agree?"

"Well..."

Freaking wizards.

“Well maybe if you," she cried, turning to Legolas, "had gone when I told you to, I wouldn't have had to 'consult.'"

“I do not take orders from spies!”

Liddy put her hands to her hips, glaring at the elf's bowed sneer. It was mind-boggling how an individual could be so devastatingly gorgeous and stubbornly infuriating at the same time.

Lord of the Rings Legolas was way more chill.

Just as she was about to unleash a torrent of vitriol way worse than Black Speech on said elf, a hawk screeched overhead. That weird ESP-type chill spread its branches over her back again.

There was something else she was forgetting.

Like birds.

Her eyes narrowed.

Birds...

Within a bounding pounce, she was on Gandalf, gripping fistfuls of his dusty sackcloth and clinging to the wizard like a deranged barnacle.

There had been no need for Bilbo to run up there. No need for this entire wacko quest that involved a bunch of dwarves taking forever to trek across Middle Earth.

Because anyone who watched any of these damn movies always wondered the same thing: Why, oh why, couldn’t…

“…YOU JUST SUMMON THE GODDAMN EAGLES, GANDALF?!”

For a moment they were situated nose to nose, the two elves gaping at this tiny woman now shaking one of the most powerful beings in Middle Earth like an apple tree.

Liddy sniffed, keeping her eyes stubbornly open until she was forced to blink. She'd just assaulted the being who could twirl his staff and end her with a flash.

The wizard looked at her for a long moment, the thoughts in the reservoirs of his eyes unreadable. Her mouth popped open as with admiring gentleness and a half-grin of amusement, he unlaced her fingers from his robe. Her cheeks were iron-hot as the thick rubber soles of her hiking boots clicked on the ground.

“Alas, I cannot,” the wizard grumbled with regret. “Gwaihir the Windlord comes as he wills.”

Liddy blanched. “Gw—gwenivere? Is he their king or something?”

“For well over an Age now.” Gandalf drummed his fingers on the spire of his staff. “He might come at Radagast’s behest, perhaps.”

“But will Radagast know the dwarves are in danger?”

“Well, Radagast can sense a great many things and is a very great wizard, but at times he…”

“He is decorated in bird poop,” Liddy rejoined wryly.

Gandalf's puffed cheeks deflated with surprise. “Ah, so you know of him as well, it seems...”

A horn trilled, its echo flattened by screams of the people still getting slaughtered.

“My father.” Legolas gestured toward the square to their left. “He is calling his forces back!”

The wizard reached to straighten the hat that was no longer there. When he felt nothing but air, his hands clasped this staff with ceremonial importance. He stared at Liddy in a way that gave her neither confidence in his trust nor certainty of his scorn.

“If anyone knows how to reason with Thranduil…”

Not caring to finish his sentence, Gandalf rushed toward wherever the hell in the city Thranduil apparently was.

Liddy stared at his back, flabbergasted. After all that, he was totally ignoring her.

It was a huge missed opportunity, she thought, nervously munching on the only clean knuckle she still had. Yeah, she’d gotten Bilbo up there, but he’d never be able to make a dent in those orcs by himself. Especially not, she thought with a shudder, the ginormous pale one that looked like one of Dr. Frankenstein’s creations or the skinnier one (Bolg?) who was somehow even creepier.

The ones that were going to kill those dwarves.

Her tongue was like sandpaper as she swallowed, surveying Tauriel. The frustration in the elf’s eyes was already percolating as she too looked toward the misty mill.

If she was going to pull off this rescue mission, Liddy thought with determination, she was gonna need to play dirty and leverage her newfound 'oracle' abilities.

Her arms were spread wide in armistice as she walked up to Tauriel. To her relief, the elf's fingers didn’t flit to her holsters again.

“I know what he said to you—what Kíli said.” Liddy licked her lips. She had to get this right.

“You were in the dungeons and he gave you a stone. He told you something about starlight when you were in Lake-Town. You walked in it and…and he was sick.”

Tauriel’s lip curled, as if Liddy had intruded on the most private of memories (which, in a sense, she thought with sudden shame, she supposed she had).

“You don’t get to say goodbye!” she blurted. “He’s going up there to die and you never get to say you love him back.”

The elf’s jaw was hard, but her lip trembled. The amber flecks in her eyes sparkled under a sheen a water.

Liddy struggled not to blink as her vision got a little misty, too.

Forbidden romances always got her.

Tauriel shrugged Liddy off, her posture tall with resolve.

“She speaks the truth, Legolas. You and I have seen what is coming, and I am leaving here now, with or without you.”

Smirking at the elf prince, Liddy’s unshed tears of sympathy dried. If ever blondie had a weakness, it was Tauriel asking him to do something.

A thousand thoughts, some of which were probably quite murderous toward a small-dark-and-handsome dwarf, played across his face. After what seemed like interminable silence, he extended his arm toward Tauriel.

“We shall go now.”

A horrendous bang out of nowhere, probably one of those giant troll things, sent their horse tearing away toward the upper part of the city. With a frown as if to say, ‘on foot it is,’ Tauriel nodded toward Ravenhill.

Liddy exhaled a sigh of relief, feeling the tense urge to punch something retreat from her fists. “Cool. So the two of you get up there, take out those orcs, and everything will be right as rain.”

“The two of us?” Legolas' perfect hair whipped as he turned.

Uh oh.

“Emmm…yes. You and Tauriel. You’ll be just fine.” Liddy shuffled her feet, pushing around a tiny snow pile. “I, uh, saw myself in more of a directorial role, really. Gonna stay here with Gandalf and such.”

Legolas eyed Tauriel and then Liddy, his blue eyes twinkling. “Oh no. You are coming with us, little witch-spy.”

“Listen…” she started, only to trail off. There was nowhere she could go with this. She couldn’t very well say, “Hey, you guys are all in a movie. That’s how I know stuff.”

She also couldn’t bring herself to say that when it came to anything physical, she was utterly useless. It had been ingrained in her since she was laughed off the field at soccer tryouts when she was 12.

It had just been proven however many minutes ago when she chickened out during the most terrifying battle she’d ever witnessed.

Air guttered out from her lungs. It was only supposed to be a few hours in the park. She hadn’t wanted any of this.

…and then again, she pondered, neither had Bilbo. He was just sitting there getting ready for dinner when his world was turned topsy turvy. Even though he’d signed up for an adventure, he never could have fathomed the crazy crap that had befallen him while in the service of Thorin and his dwarves.

He’d become a brave soul. Though it would probably just make her dead, maybe battling orcs would make her braver like he was.

“And, if I die?” Liddy asked in a scraggly voice.

Legolas reached for his upper back, drawing his daggers. “If you die, we will have seen to it that you enact no more treachery.”

A sarcastic smile twisted Liddy’s lips as she recalled the one line from this goddamn movie she always remembered.

‘You started this, Mithrandir. You will forgive me if I finish it.’

Her spine straightened with a swell of confidence. Yeah, she didn’t make the soccer team, but she also survived hanging out in North Philly during her rebellious period of high school, not to mention a bunch of other crap she didn’t want to think about right now. If she’d lived through all that, she’d live through this.

And she sure as hell wasn’t gonna start anything that she didn’t intend to finish.

Chest puffed and eyes dry, she gave Legolas her best ‘don’t fuck with me’ eyebrow for good measure.

“Well then, by all means lead the way.”

Chapter Text

Legolas yanked Liddy by the arm, pulling her to his back and nearly jamming her nose into the quiver.

He cocked his head over his shoulder, fixing her with a glacial eye despite his protective posture. “You’ll do nothing unless I command it.”

Liddy suppressed a snicker, saluting up at the elf's hair as he drew his daggers from just above her head.

“Sure thing, Legs.”

“First command is to never call me that again,” he grunted as he began running.

“Yessir, Legs.”

A soft laugh sounded in Liddy’s ear as Tauriel kept pace at her back, daggers unsheathed. “I don’t think a human has spoken to him that way in five hundred years.”

“Well,” Liddy whispered back to Tauriel, huffing between strides, “he’d better get used to it if he keeps bossing me around.”

With as much grace as she could manage, Liddy tried not to penguin-waddle as she ran between Legolas and Tauriel, once again feeling like the useless pickle of a human in an elf sandwich. Buildings whizzed by her in a blur of brown, the longer strands of her asymmetrical haircut catching on what remained of her lip balm. Her lungs were an inferno of cold and overexertion.

Familiar mongrel shouts and screeches sounded ahead as a team of scrawnier orcs, the ‘B team’ from the looks of it, headed upward into the city. Parallel to the fray, Liddy glimpsed the once stalwart iron gates, the waffled metal long ago warped and curling inward from Smaug’s incinerating breath. The orcs weren’t charging straight toward them, this time, at least, but battling through was the only apparent way out.

As though her body was now programmed to flee from orcs, Liddy was already slowing to a jog.

“Too fast for you?” Legolas chided as Tauriel gently grabbed Liddy’s shoulders to steady her.

Liddy nodded with despair, too exhausted for a witty comeback. If her legs didn’t fall off from all this running, she was going to hit the elliptical whenever she finally got out of Middle Earth.

Glancing back up toward the Great Hall, she groaned. She hadn't had the chance to think about it, but if this was like any other time-space travel situation, getting back to Philly was going to be a whole other problem unto itself.

As the first slicing noise of Legolas’ blade, Liddy was pulled back to the present conundrum of trying not to get herself killed. She preemptively laced her hands over her eyes as a shield against the blood spatters, blinking in wonder through the lattice of her fingers. While no expert in the laws of physics, Liddy was pretty sure that daggers couldn’t function as buzz saws. With thousands of years to train, you got pretty damned good, she supposed.

Bile rose in her esophagus as she shifted her gaze, trying not to throw up on Legolas’ lustrous hair. They were feet away from the gates now.

“Legolas!”

With the flick of Tauriel’s wrist, a dagger lodged in the lunging orc’s ear, its arms juddering violently as it collapsed to the ground. The creature’s sword had been poised to strike right over Legolas’ head.

Nodding in gratitude at his companion, Legolas rushed to the gates, grabbing the bowed-in lock. With seemingly effortless strength, he unjammed the bolt, pulling the gates apart in a a small dustcloud of coppery rust.

“Come!”

Liddy craned her neck, darting a glance behind her while trying not to trip. Tauriel was finishing off the last of the orcs, the tail ends of their shrieks bouncing off Dale’s thick outer walls. The elf shook her head.

“I’ll get the last of them!” She crooked her neck toward Legolas as she kneed one of the orcs where, Liddy presumed, its balls were. “You two go on!”

The stern look Legolas gave Tauriel evaporated after a moment of wordless communication between them. With obvious reluctance, he grabbed Liddy by the arm, leading them toward the bridge between Dale and Ravenhill.

As soon as they cleared the black gates, Liddy violently jerked her shoulder away from Legolas’ grip, stumbling backward. The air in the city was full of smoke, but this was clear, crisp air and her lungs adored it. It was only when she happened to glance a few feet to her right that she froze.

Her clammy hands webbed over the stone as her knees hit the ground. Below the bridge on either side stretched layers upon layers of rock, lighter and weathered at the top giving way to stripes of slate blue. The striations were absolutely breathtaking.

Or would have been if they weren’t stretching hundreds of fucking feet down.

It was going to be that ski lift incident all over again, Liddy thought with an internal wail. Though she’d been petrified of heights since infancy, Mike and a few of their friends had gotten pretty toasty on Bailey’s and hot cocoa one winter—the kind of toasty where thousand-foot ski lifts aren’t so terrifying. About 50 feet up, she’d taken one look at her feet dangling over the pines and had buried her face in Mike’s parka. He’d laughed, but in that nice, sweet pitying way. So had everyone else on that six-person ski lift.

Not without a sense of humor, she’d laughed too.

But not for a long, long time afterward.

Forcing her knees to inch a crawl, she took stuttering breaths, tears flowing hot over her cheeks.

One-knee, two-knee…

“Is there a problem, spy?”

Liddy looked up through blurry eyes at her taskmaster. Though his hands were on his hips like a very sexy schoolteacher, she swore a softness had stolen over his features.

She wasn’t making a very ‘splendid figure’ at the moment, she thought with shame.

Legolas’ tall shadow was bending over her. Why the hell was he squatting and—

“Awk! What are you doing?” she squawked, sounding like a wounded parrot as he hoisted her over his shoulders. Her backpack flopped precariously forward as she tried to shrug it back toward her. When she finally managed to wiggle the strap back onto her shoulder, he resituated his hand, very modestly, on her inner thigh just above the knee. Heat flamed over her collarbone.

Was this elvish fool honestly fireman carrying her ass across a damn bridge?!

He chuckled deep in his throat. “I’m making this a great deal faster. Or,” he said, tilting his head with a look of utter cunning, “I could probably just toss you to Ravenhill.”

Liddy snorted. “Wrong trilogy, pal.”

“What?”

“Erm, forget it.” She flushed as her hand inadvertently brushed against his pec, which drew nice and taut with each stride of his run.

Like a damn rock, naturally.

“So, since you’re carrying me like a maiden in distress or whatever, I guess we’re cool, then?”

If Liddy didn’t know better, she’d say there was a hint of laughter in those perpetually grave baby blues as he side-eyed her.

“I do not know if we are ‘cool’ but I am starting to believe Tauriel is right.”

“Oh yeah, and why’s that?”

He winked, the bastard not even close to huffing. “No spy I know is as craven as you.”

Liddy smirked back through her drying tears. Guess she didn’t really have a 'leg' to stand on, there…

Tauriel finally caught up to them as they reached the foot of the icy crags crowning the cliffs. If Liddy squinted, she swore she saw a few orc limbs dangled over the ledge of what looked like a frozen waterfall. Still, she couldn’t see either Fíli, Kíli, or anyone.

Had Bilbo made it up in time?

She was both relieved and a little dizzy when Legolas set her down at the base of a small outcropping of ice. To their right, a small flight of stairs zigzagged up to the ruins.

Before Legolas could bark another directive, Liddy leaped for the stairs, anticipation thrumming in her nerves as her backpack thwacked against her. As she cleared the last step, her heart was thumping like a crazed bunny.

Her eyes darted left and right, hoping against hope for the best.

In the middle of the ruins and several demolished flights of steps stood a small courtyard. Several distinct shadows stretched onto the snow as the sun made a momentary appearance. Head swimming, Liddy started counting them.

One, two, three…

“You guys?” she called excitedly.

Five pairs of eyes blinked at her.

Woohoo!

“Wait!” cried Tauriel from just behind her.

In a flurry of joy, Liddy made a break for it—totally not seeing the patch of ice.

“Oof!”

Something, hopefully a snack bar and not her iPhone, cracked in Liddy’s backpack under her shoulders. She was still facing the sky, her elbow smarting from the impact, when a thick tattooed arm reached out for her.

“Not the most graceful creatures, hobbits.”

Liddy tilted her neck back to look at the bald-headed man peering over her, his beard and hair suspended in the air and his features all upside-down. Those eyebrows, she thought with an internal snort, were caterpillars in their own right. And those forearms helping her to her feet, rippling with faded blue-gray tattoos, were the circumference of her thighs.

Dwalin, at my service.

“I’m not a hobbit,” Liddy said slowly, tongue between her lips as she pushed herself up to stand.

Dwalin regarded her very small, very shoed, and not hairy feet, his eyes flinty with mistrust.

“Whoever you are, the king’ll have questions for you.”

“…I may have had something to do with that, sorry.”

“Bilbo!” Liddy cried, sweeping him up Beauty and the Beast style into the air. She ruffled his hair with her knuckles a few times for good measure as she finally set him down.

“You genius hobbit, you! How did you do it?”

He turned a lovely shade of primrose. “Told Thorin,” he said, still a bit breathless. “Found them on the bottom floor.”

“Aye.” Liddy’s heart skipped a beat as Kíli’s dark eyes captured hers. He tossed his molasses flow of hair over his shoulders.

That movie really wasn’t doing any of these guys justice.

“I wasn’t inclined to follow,” the dwarf prince continued, “but when Bilbo’s banging on about something—”

“We listen,” finished Fíli. Liddy felt her cheeks go bright crimson as he eyed up her leggings, an apparent favorite pastime of males in this world. His lips parted in a way that was best categorized as charmingly snarky.

Light footfalls padded behind her before he could unleash whatever smartass thing had come to his mind.

“Kíli!”

The dwarf prince’s eyes were blown wide as Tauriel ran to his side. Their hands hovered in the air, framing each other’s bodies as they stared at each other with wondrous disbelief.

For a moment, Liddy thought with an utterly Disneyfied heart, she was dead sure that Tauriel was going to whirl the prince into her arms and kiss him.

“Much as I hate to interrupt these reunions,” a low voice rumbled, “But who in Mahal’s name are you?”

Every tiny hair on the back of Liddy’s neck stood straight up as two fissures of demanding blue glared her down.

Oh, sweet everloving Hannukah.

A weird floatiness lightened her, like she’d just drank the soda the from Willy Wonka movie. When she’d concocted this harebrained scheme of changing the plot, a whole whopping hour ago, she’d known in the back of her mind it would involve meeting the King Under the Mountain face-to-face.

But being prepared in theory simply wasn’t preparation enough, she realized with a gulp.

Oh yes, it was those eyes currently pinning her wobbly legs to the ice but also just his overwhelming…kingliness. Despite his compact musculature, he prowled, circling around her with jaguar-like grace. She shrank back when he lunged near, so close that she could see the little silver hairs escaping the little bead at the end of his beard braid—a beard so thick, it was a wonder the braid wouldn’t get in there lost forever. And the whole backdrop, all stark white lingering fog and snow against that perfectly texture mane and dark leathers, wasn’t helping matters.

He had only two inches on her, but still she felt like a hobbit, Liddy thought dizzily.

So very, very small.

So, so very blue…

“I asked you a question,” Thorin growled, baring pearled teeth.

A breath stuttered out of her. “I’m Liddy.”

He cocked an eyebrow. His were bushy too, but still somehow kempt. She frowned, looking somewhere at his shoulder.

That area, she hoped, was relatively safer.

“Liddy of where?”

“Um, of West Chester.” She coughed. “Originally of Philadelphia.”

“I know of neither,” he growled, his voice rumbling from her head down to her toenails.

Her mouth felt like it was clogged with cotton.

Blue, blue, blue.

Maybe it was just the sheer contrast of Thorin to every other guy she'd ever seen or the tiredness, but for whatever reason it hit her—a left hook of sudden, clenching sadness. Through time and space, she remembered those warm, chocolate brown eyes, Mike smiling as he pulled her to his parka that snowy night on that damn ski lift.

Tears prickled her eyes. Granted, there was a whole lot of crazy shit going on, but still, she hadn’t thought of Mike much.

Not much at all.

She straightened, resolving herself to not get sucked into the disarming whirlpools that were Thorin Oakenshield’s eyes.

An adventure was nice and all, but she needed to wrap this shit up and get the hell home.

“Where I’m from isn’t important,” she sputtered. “I’m here to tell you that you need to leave before Bolg’s army sweeps in and ends every last one of you.”

Thorin blinked, his broad shoulders tightening. If he stared at her any harder, Liddy was sure she’d immolate, despite it being about 10 degrees in the thin mountain air.

“Bilbo apprised me of your warnings, but how do you know of this army…” he looked her up and down as though she were chattel for sale. “…woman?”

“An oracle, so she claimed,” Legolas interpreted. Liddy shot him the blackest look she could muster, though, she noted to her relief, he was finally cracking a genuine smile.

“Mrrrph,” Dwalin harrumphed, his sausage fingers grinding on the hilt of his axe as he sidled next to Thorin. “Sounds fishy to me. Could be leading us into a trap down the hill.”

The king’s hawkish profile cut the sky as his sword sang from its sheath. A strange and uncomfortable force tugged in the pit of her stomach as he leaned forward, his breath warm on her ear.

“Do not think that, because you are female, I will not cut you in twain if you prove false.” He turned to Bilbo, his dark, thick locks sweeping her shoulder as he prowled again.

“We are leaving.” Thorin scanned her again with naked contempt.

“And someone bind her wrists.”

“Aye, you heard the king, lass.” Dwalin’s hulking shadow stood over her, rope looping about his arm as Liddy jerked away.

“I don’t think so, buddy!”

Thump.

Tauriel gestured toward the sound reverberating across the ice. “Do you not hear—?”

Thump.

“Look! Look! Up there!” cried Bilbo.

Thump.

Liddy’s eyes fluttered closed and open again. The loop of rope in Dwalin’s hand dropped to the ice with a slap.

Here we fucking go…

“BAAAAHHZUUUUL!”

A ball of fear plugged her throat as the horn sounded long and low from above. Looming over the ledge of the fortress’ upper floor, in the same spot where he had dangled a doomed Fíli, the Pale Orc stood.

His head was at least four times the size of hers, Liddy wagered, feeling for the thousandth time as if she might lose the contents of her stomach.

“I’ll have your head on a spike, filth!” Dwalin bellowed, pulling both of his axes from their straps.

Thorin’s hand moved in front of the dwarf’s barrel of a chest.

“No.”

All eyes shifted to Thorin as he glared coals at his mortal enemy. An enemy, Liddy thought with a sinking heart, that had the total tactical advantage.

“Thorin, please,” Liddy whimpered. She was ready to get on her knees and beg, if that’s what it took.

He strode forward across the slick ice, a gust of wind ruffling his braid. “Durinsfolk do not flee from a fight. And if he has brought the fight to me, I will be the one to finish him.” He nodded to Legolas and Tauriel.

“We have the help we need.”

Legolas drew a sword, one Liddy hadn’t noticed before, from a hidden sheath strapped over his back. “You might need this also.”

A breathtaking, curved blade, etched in beautiful elvish script, skidded on the ice between Liddy and Thorin. It was the one, she vaguely recalled, that the elf had stolen during the time in Mirkwood’s dungeons. The one they found in that troll cavern.

Thorin’s thick fingers closed around its hilt, his chin drawing to his neck.

It was her fault, really, she thought, resisting the urge to smack her palm to her forehead. She’d forgotten that dwarves, the people who had to buy into her bullshit, were stubborn as hell. There wasn’t going to be any talking them down.

A noise sounded from the rolling clouds above as Liddy frowned with confusion. It sounded like rubber on a wet windshield.

Not eagles, but...

As the mist lifted, a swarm of claws and pointed wings popped into view. Everyone ducked as the air fluttered thick with flapping blackness and ear-piercing squeaks. Liddy watched through the slits of her fingers as war bats flew over the precipice of the frozen waterfall, headed for the great battlefield before Erebor.

“Mwwwwraawwg!”

Azog flexed his tree trunk of a neck, roaring something else that was completely indecipherable. Whatever it was, the gist was that there was now a waterfall of orcs descending upon them.

“Here,” Tauriel whispered, handing Liddy one of her paired daggers.

She wanted to run, to hide. But it was already too late, she realized, as the foul wave of creatures spilled over the crumbling ruins.

Her legs bowed as she stood, not even bothering to flip her Jansport around this time. If she was going to fight for real, this was definitely the end of the line.

Still, she thought, her stomach doing a rollercoaster drop as she glared at the oncoming orcs, she was tired of running. Maybe she would get luck—

Liddy’s shoulder blades slammed onto the padded part of her backpack as the orc’s fist swung. It took a second for the signals to travel to her brain, making the jolting pain in her rib cage all the more unbearable as she began to writhe.

Her limp wrist strained as the creature’s greasy-foul stench choked her. The thing grinned with rotted, chipped teeth as it raised the blade over its shoulder, readying for the kill. She had no idea what possessed her, but she thrust forward with an aimless scream and ohholyew...

Her fist was still closed around the handle, her knuckle thumping the bottom of the thing’s chin.

She’d apparently driven the entire blade straight up through its jaw and into its face.

With a crazed yelp, she yanked it out, leaping backward as its disgusting-smelling blood flooded the ice. As she rounded on her heel, she came eye-to-chest with another orc, its saliva trickling onto her head. She was about to try the same move again when an arrow entered one side of its cranium and shot out the other, felling it to the ground.

Liddy looked back to see Legolas, straddling the rocks in some majestic yoga pose she could never imitate, his bow nocked and ready.

“Thanks, Legs!”

Though he said nothing, she watched long enough to see a ghost of a grin before she turned back to the icy battlefield.

They’d made a dent, but there were still about twenty orcs out there.

She looked down at her small dagger, the realization hitting her of how lucky she’d gotten. Considering that she had zero battle training, one orc would have to be good enough.

Shimmying on her knees, she scurried under an outcropping of rock. Her back slumped against the damp stone, heart still floating somewhere around her pancreas as she watched the spectacle of everyone finishing off the orcs.

Blades tore through flesh and clothing and muscle in angry rips. Even Bilbo was being a badass, weaving between the dwarves and taking the creatures out at the backs of their knees. Tauriel moved with a deadly fluid grace as she slid her daggers through orcs like butter, while the Durin nephews severed arms and legs and thoracic cavities in single blows.

As for Dwalin, he was making absolute crushed watermelons of the orcs’ heads in a way that made Liddy never want to eat again.

And Thorin…

…Well, he was currently cleaving through two orcs, leathers flexing and his eyes alight like hellfire.

…And looking away now.

Kíli looked up at his brother, brown eyes shining as he hoisted the head of a huge orc planted on his sword, its tongue still slithering around over its lips. “We’ve got ‘em!”

“Aye, nadad,” Kíli called behind him, a megawatt smile on his face as though this was the best fun of his life. “We got—”

A loud crunch, one Liddy was now too familiar with, echoed across the ice. Wrenching his blade from the chest of a slain orc, Kíli was suddenly running, his brown eyes black with terror and what looked like utter rage.

Through the tangle of skirmishing bodies, Liddy glimpsed a flow of auburn spilling over the snow. When an orc crumpled to the ground, she saw the long shadow stretching over the ice.

The skinny orc—that Bolg guy—wore a gash of a grin as he stood yards away. A blade, rusted at the end, was coated in blood. She followed its trail to the stone by one of the many broken flights of steps that led nowhere.

There, at the bottom, was Fíli drowning in a fountain of his own blood.

She didn’t remember rushing to the ground where he lay. Blinking, the snow soaking through her leggings at the knee, her mouth dropped open, her chest heaving with desperate gasps as though her lungs were the ones suffocating. His muscles were twitching, each breath rattling and gurgling.

With a surprising surge of strength, he grabbed her hand.

“Do not—don’t—”

Blood leaked from the corner of his mouth. Liddy choked out a sob. His fingers were already going cold.

His body wriggled once more before the last of the fight drained from him. A lone snowflake settled on his pupil.

He didn’t blink.

For a long moment, she held his freezing hand, squeezing it as if warmth would bring him back.

“Nadad, no!”

She slumped into the snow, releasing Fíli’s hand as Kíli cradled his brother’s lifeless head.

The hands cupping her cheeks were shaking. It felt like another person was touching her face.

No.

No.

No.

Through hiccuping sobs, her back stiffened as she felt the ground vibrate. Something was lumbering toward them.

A combination of fury and gratitude flickered in Kíli’s umber eyes as Liddy looked up at him. For a moment, she wasn’t sure whether he was going to hug her or strike her down.

His lip curled as he looked over her shoulder. He scrambled to his feet, his sword angrily stabbing the ice as he leveraged it to stand.

I will end you!” he roared, his head jutting forth like a mad bull in a charge.

Liddy blinked through the burn of her clearly not-so-waterproof mascara as a giant ham of a hand grabbed the young dwarf. Dwalin’s eyes were raging but glassy as he held Kíli by the scruff.

They had all loved sweet Fíli so, so much.

“Let me go, damn you!” Kíli screamed. His jerkin ripped as he ran, chest jutting out. Dwalin stared with resigned regret as Kíli’s boots thundered, each step cracking the ice with twig-like snaps.

A brick of black leathers and furs flew through the air at Bolg. It was Thorin, now attached to the orc’s back like a shell, tendons in both their necks straining.

Liddy sprang to her feet.

No, no, no! This wasn’t happening!

Bolg sneered, his elbow jutting into a thick triangle as he jammed it into Thorin’s side. An awful “ooph” came from Thorin’s lungs as his brow creased. Miraculously, he held his grip and took the opening to drive a dagger into Bolg’s kidney.

Cocking his head as if to say ‘this is all you’ve got?’ the orc smirked, ripping the dagger out with two fingers, like sliding a toothpick out of cake. With a roaring grunt, the orc jutted his elbow again—straight into Thorin’s ribs. Liddy’s hand flew to her mouth as he hit the ground with what sounded like a back-breaking crunch.

Kíli hovered feet in front of them, blinking rapidly. His sword sang as it sliced the air, the orc ducking and dodging. A vicious swipe at Kíli’s legs sent him to the ground.

The orc sneered as he strode up, raising his sword high above Kíli’s head.

“No!” screamed Liddy. “You can’t, you asshole orc! You just can’t!”

One second she was staring dead at the orc’s hideously frankensteined face, sure he was going to charge her.

The next, she was staring at air as the body knelt in slow motion.

Something was lodged in his chest. She looked down at her shaking hand to see the same handle.

The second Bolg was on the ground, he tried to rear up on his legs, but it was too late. A pool of black oozed around him, so thick it started immediately coagulating over the snow. Liddy held her breath as, finally, his eyes drew closed.

She turned to see Tauriel pulling out her bow with one hand and holding Kíli, who’d staggered back over to her, with the other.

Never had she seen such gloriously feminist revenge, Liddy thought, turning with renewed conviction as Thorin got back to his feet.

“BOLG!”

The ruins shook as Azog roared, rumbling down the steps of the fortress.

Thorin’s legs widened in a fighting stance, his teeth bared against the spatters of blood on his lips.

“Rêdûn khama rêdûn!” the king roared. He wiped his mouth with his wrist, his sword gleaming almost white as it reflected the virgin ice around him. “Come down here and face me, you spineless filth!”

The Pale Orc emerged from the shadows. He sneered, stepping down from the rock at the edge of the frozen river separating him and Thorin.

Liddy ran up to the edge of the ice as the outline of Azog lumbered over the icy shore.

“Thorin, I’m begging you!”

The king flinched, but did not turn.

“Your help did not save my sister’s son,” he bellowed. He shook his shoulders as though shrugging away a fly. “You can do nothing for me,” he said more softly.

Liddy’s heart was cracking into little splinters as he rushed the ice, his sword swinging madly.

Lips still pursed with guilt and anger, she turned toward a soft shuffling noise. Her brow contorted in horror as Kíli stumbled over a rock.

“Uhhn…”

Tauriel knelt by his side as he lie as prone as he could over the bumpy stone. Liddy hadn’t seen it before, but there was a dark, slicker wetness on the left side of his armor. When he shifted, teeth gritted with a wince, the stone beneath him immediately bloomed with red.

God knows how long he’d been hurt.

“I will not lose you now, not after all this,” Tauriel whispered, a tear rolling down the side of her nose. Brandishing her dagger, she sliced through Kíli’s tunic.

Liddy’s head got a little floaty as she snuck a peek, immediately wishing she hadn’t. The gash was deep over his ribs, aubergine in the blue, cloudy light. It wasn’t his lungs, she thought. Not fatal, but there was blood everywhere.

“It is not so bad,” Tauriel proclaimed with false cheer, uncorking a small vial with her teeth.

“Were it me instead of my…” Kíli clamped his lips together, unable to finish his sentence as his sweat-matted head lolled onto the elf’s arm. His teeth clenched in agony as Tauriel poured brown liquid onto the wound. She was muttering something in elvish that Liddy had no hope of understanding, her voice soft and soothing.

Legolas landed with a crouch from the rocks above. He stood, hands still and limp, as he watched Tauriel tend to Kíli.

Please Tauriel, Liddy prayed. Please don’t let him die.

Dwalin’s axe sparked as it hit the stone behind the head of the last standing orc. His grim expression brightened as a boom resounded throughout the ruins.

“Get him, Thorin! Get the filth!”

Liddy watched in astonishment as Thorin, just as he had in the movie, ducked swing after swing of Azog’s gargantuan mace. The ice beneath them was seesawing, but both held their balance with feral determination.

A crack sounded before a dull plop. Instead of glee, Liddy felt like she was going to be sick.

Thorin had, apparently, gotten his bright idea ahead of schedule. The ice tore apart, its edges jagged as Azog’s giant mace thing sunk, the weighty chain wrapping over the beast’s shoulder. Just like in the movie, the Pale Orc flailed before sinking beneath the water.

For a moment, everything was still. As though rooted there, Thorin stood motionless over the ice.

Liddy leapt to her feet, finally throwing down the backpack that had essentially become both her carapace and shield.

Fíli’s body was already cold and Kíli might bleed to death, wonders of elvish medicine and all.

This was the last straw. She wasn’t going to watch Thorin get himself killed, too.

“Thorin, come back here!”

He was still looking down at the ice beneath his feet, as though he did not hear her. Eyes intently scanning, he swayed, the bloodlust of battle clearly wearing off.

A shadow passed below the surface of the ice.

“For fuck’s sake, Thorin, watch your—”

“Arrrrrrcgggh!”

Even from her distance, she could see the bright red blood trickling over Thorin’s boot.

“That would be Azog’s sword arm going straight through your foot, you big doofus,” she muttered to herself as she rushed forward, hoping her hiking boots had better traction this time.

Azog exploded upward, spraying icy water over Thorin, who was still clutching his calf in the throes of pain.

Out of the corner of her eye, Liddy saw Dwalin racing toward the scene beside her. He was heavier on his feet than Kíli had been, his arms waving all over the place as a chunk of ice beneath him completely split.

She watched in terror as Azog’s blade arm locked with Thorin’s sword.

“Somebody!” Liddy shouted.

An arrow sailed through the air, hitting just above Azog’s heart. His chin rumpling, the orc pulled it out, glowering with mere annoyance.

Fear flooding her chest, Liddy closed one eye, glaring down the shining triangle of her borrowed dagger. She didn’t know what the fuck she was doing, which usually spelled disaster.

‘Measure twice, cut once,’ be damned she thought, wanting to yell at the sky. Right now, more than anything, she wished she could hear Mike's real voice to calm her down.

“Hey!”

Azog’s yellow-blue gaze locked on her. She remembered the pristine trajectory of Tauriel’s dagger as it felled Bolg, channeling whatever girl-elf power remained in the air.

Yeah, Liddy had gotten laughed off the travel soccer team, and basically every other sports team. But her white trash uncles had shot darts at the bar, and fortunately she'd learned a thing or two.

“Take this, you big, bleached asshole!”

Her lungs deflated with a moan of desperation as she flicked her wrist. Throwing a dagger from really far away was a dumb thing to do, she realized, closing her eyes in dread as Thorin’s jaw dropped.

She was going to impale the glorious king and have to answer to a legion of dwarves.

Instead, against all odds, the Pale Orc roared in agony.

And oh God, she was going to be sick. It wasn’t a kill shot, but the blade was lodged straight in his eye socket.

“Not bad,” Dwalin shouted from his mini iceberg.

Liddy snarled with vengeance as Thorin straddled Azog. His teeth were gritted, black hair falling over blue eyes as he jammed the sword into the orc's chest. After a few moments of gurgling, Azog's giant limbs slipping all over the ice, his eyes finally stilled.

With a grunt, Thorin tore the sword from the dead creature's lungs.

The blade probably made a very noble, warrior-like sound as it dislodged. As it was, Liddy couldn’t hear a thing over the screeching caws from on high.

Her eyes narrowed as the shape of something unusual flew by her. It was Radagast, resplendent in his bird droppings, riding one of the eagles—maybe King Gwen. As the eagle swooped, a werebear dropped from the sky. Bae-something. Whatever his name was.

Liddy’s clenched fist kissed the clouds, her veins still pumping with adrenaline.

“SUCK IT, you orcish motherfuckers! DEUS EX FUCKING EAGLE, BABY!!!”

Victory inflating her soul, she proudly watched as the eagles clawed at the war bats, sweeping their talons through the field of orcs.

They’d done it, she thought, staggering backward. The dwarves and men and elves had won.

She turned with exhilaration only for her face to fall as the reality of her failure came crashing down on her.

Tears were splashing from Kíli’s dark lashes onto Fíli’s tunic sleeve. The younger brother was holding him to his chest, as though to shield him from the onslaught that had already ended. Tauriel’s hand was smoothing the hair at Kíli’s neck.

Liddy’s nostrils flared and contracted, trying to hold in the sob that no one wanted to hear coming from her.

The person who couldn’t save the dead heir to the throne of Durin.

The outline of a figure limping toward her was the last thing she saw as her knees gave out from under her. A distant, tinny voice that sounded like her own whimpered:

“I really, really have to pee.”

And that’s when everything went bottomlessly black.