LXII: The Skipper

I was standing knee-deep in rushing river water, my black jeans slowly soaking up water to the thigh. On top of that, my boots were flooded, sloshing every time I took a step. You would think the Skip would have the decency to drop me on the shore at least, but I suppose I should have lowered my expectations of the Skip after everything that'd happened during my search for Gandalf.

As I waded towards the rocky shore, I looked around. The late afternoon sun hung low in the sky, half-hidden behind gray clouds. Several wooden docks extended over the river with wooden fishing boats tied in place by molding ropes. There was a handful of men standing on one of the docks, drunk and chattering amongst themselves…about the local gossip, if my memory serves.

It took me a few seconds to recognize the docks and shore, and I realized that I'd been here before. Time had clearly passed, since one of the docks had collapsed and there were fewer boats than in my memory; however, this was definitely the river in which I had been knocked off the dock and then saved Bard from drowning.

Which meant I wasn't in the right place. As far as I knew, Gandalf had never visited this place. I glanced down at the rushing river water forlornly. Well, I might Skip if I tried downing myself…

"A girl! There is a girl in the water!" One burly man with a curling black beard pointed at me, and his companions on the dock turned to stare.

I smiled awkwardly and waved, aware that I must have looked like a drowned rat. "Hello. Nice afternoon for a swim, huh?"

They gawked at me.

"Though I think I've ruined my boots," I said, lifting one foot out of the river and watching as the water came down in buckets. "Damn. My aunt bought them for me. They were designer."

"Why is she in the water?" asked one of the men (who had startling blue eyes)

"Maybe she is a water maiden," muttered another (with a thick moustache). "The kind that seduce men and lure them to their deaths."

"I certainly hope I'm not seducing you," I said.

"She does not look like a water maiden," said the blue-eyed man.

"Then she must be a witch," concluded the man with a moustache. " She is using water magic."

"Why is it that whenever I show up in these parts, someone accuses me of being a witch?" I asked unable to keep the irritation from my voice. "I'm very sensitive to that word."

"She is just a girl," said the man with the black beard.

"Can we use the term 'woman'?" I asked. "Or at least 'young woman'. I know I'm short, but it's a little more flattering to a twenty-two year old. I like to think I outgrew the word 'girl' when I was legally old enough to join the army."

The four men stared at me in wonder, having exhausted all their ideas of what I might be. Grumbling a little over my ruined boots, I waded the rest of the way to the shore. It was there, as I was dumping the remaining water out of my shoes, that a deep, bewildered voice called out, "Aunt Ana?"

The men stopped watching me as if I were a one-woman show and turned to stare at the back of their group where there stood a slender man with long, brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. His eyes were wide as he stared at me, and he seemed unable to form words for a minute, his lips moving up and down without anything coming out.

I squinted, trying to place him, but when that failed, I settled for simply asking, "Who are you?"

The man gulped. "You do not remember me? Years ago when I was a lad, you dove into the rivers waters and rescued me."

Being me, I couldn't let him go that easily. Innocently, I said, "My memory is a little hazy…"

"I am Bard."

I tilted my head to the side as if thinking before I shook my head. "Nope. Still don't remember you."

He hesitated for a second and then released a heavy sigh. Then, as if it was the most painful thing he'd ever done, he said, "Bard the Brat."

A wide grin spread across my face. "Oh, Bard the Brat, I remember. Wow, brat. You've grown up a lot these last few years."

"You have not changed at all," said Bard. He paused as if fully realizing how unchanged I was for the first time. "What manner of witchcraft is this?"

I sighed. "How many times do I have to tell you not to use that word?"

"Bard the Brat?" asked the blue-eyed man, glancing from Bard to me.

Bard didn't look thrilled to see me, but he answered his companion anyways, with a grim, "She knew me when I was little. She was not the nicest aunt I had."

"But I was the funniest," I said, cheerfully.

I plodded my way along the rocky shore, slipping and sliding on the wet stones. When I reached the dock, I realized that the platform was too high for me to climb up onto. I didn't feel like walking around either, so I held up my arms to Bard and said, "Help Aunt Ana up."

With some reluctance, Bard reached down and grasped my hands. He lifted me—sending droplets of water flying from my hair and clothes in all directions—and set me down on the dock.

"You should not have gone swimming," said Bard. "The river is not safe."

"I have my reasons," I said, trying to squeeze the water from my shirt and jeans as much as possible. Of course, my efforts weren't very effective, and I was still wet and shivering. As I emptied my boots over the side of the dock, I debated just jumping back into the water and hoping the Skip would take me somewhere where I could get a change of clothes.

"I still think her to be a witch," said the man with a moustache.

I stopped trying to dry the boots and instead glared up at the man. "I don't know who you are, but you need some lessons in manners. I've told you multiple times now that I don't like that word—it has resulted in me being sacrificed to a dragon before—but you insist on using it. I am not and never have been a witch, so can you stop bringing up that word."

The man opened his mouth, but no sound came out. In the end, he closed it and nodded his head.

Bard seemed at least faintly amused by me scolding his friend, his mouth twitching into a half smile. "Allow me to introduce my friends. This here is Holden." (The man with blue eyes.) "Gale." (The black-bearded man.) "And Fiorde." (The man with the moustache.)

"Hi," I said after shoving my drenched boots back on my feet. "I'm Aunty Ana."

"You are not from Laketown," said Holden.

"What gave it away?" I asked. I was not in the best of moods after being called and witch and ruining the designer boots my aunt bought me. "Was it my clothes? My weird way of talking? Or the fact that I didn't recognize my own nephew?"

"We are not actually related," explained Bard.

Holden, Gale, and Fiorde looked even more confused by that statement, but any questions they might have asked were interrupted by the sound of splashing water and a shout of "Grab the docks!"

The five of us turned to see what all the commotion was about, and when we looked up the river, we saw thirteen dwarves and one hobbit floating down the current. About five of the barrels were still intact with Kíli, Fíli, Dwalin, Balin, and Nori sitting in them. The rest of the Company were clinging to broken pieces of barrel and trying desperately to stay afloat. One of the pieces of wood, I noticed, had an elvish arrow embedded in it. I glanced at the men of Laketown and hoped none of them were observant.

"The dock, the dock!" cried Balin. "Grab to the dock, or we will be floating in this river until we reach the lake!"

"I'm trying!" shouted Ori as he, Bofur, and Bifur paddled through the water, trying to reach the docks on which I stood.

"Try harder," snapped Óin.

"Kíli," shouted Dwalin, "do not fall out of the barrel again!"

There was a splash, and then Glóin said, "Kíli fell out of the barrel again."

The men of Laketown looked just plain confused. Not that I blame them; it was not every day they were visited by a company of dwarves. Me, on the other hand, well, I was thrilled. A wide smile spread across my face, and I sprinted to the end of the dock.

As Nori grabbed onto the wooden pole at the end dock, the rest of the Company held onto one another to form a sort of chain, so that no dwarf floated away downstream and was lost forever. Kíli had, of course, fallen out of his barrel and was thrashing around in the water until his uncle grabbed him by the back of the shirt. Upon my arrival, all the dwarves stopped what they were doing and looked up at my beaming face.

"You," grunted Dwalin, always my biggest fan.

"I thought you had disappeared over the waterfall!" cried Ori.

"How did you beat us here?" asked Glóin.

"Skill." I couldn't stop smiling. In that instant, I forgot about what I'd witnessed in Mordor, I forgot that I was supposed to be looking for Gandalf, I forgot that the Skip was screwing me over—I was just happy to see the Company.

The men of Laketown joined me at the edge of the dock. Eyes wide with wonder, they peered down at the dwarves in the water.

"Dwarves…" murmured Fiorde. "Dwarves have not been seen in these parts for a hundred-and-fifty years."

Thorin caught the edge of the dock and pulled himself out of the barrel onto the wooden platform, dripping water everywhere. Then he got to his feet and, with all the dignity of a descendent of Durin, said, "I am Thorin, son of Thráin, son of Thrór, King Under the Mountain, and I have come to reclaim my homeland."

I smiled. God, I had missed him.

The other dwarves (starting with Glóin and ending with Bombur, who had to be pulled out of his barrel by seven dwarves, and Kíli, who had to be fished out of the water by his brother) wriggled onto the dock and joined Thorin as proud, albeit soaking wet, members of the Company.

Bilbo stood at the back of the group, trying to wring the water out of his maroon jacket. The poor hobbit was shivering, his face pale and clammy. All of sudden, my chest tightened, and I found it difficult to breathe. Bilbo's face was overlapping with that of another blue-eyed hobbit. A blue-eyed hobbit who lay at my feet.

I blinked the image away.

Bilbo was staring at me curiously, and with some effort, I found my smile again. Bilbo couldn't know the future. None of the Company could. I just needed to find Gandalf, and then everything would be okay.

"We have come to slay the dragon, Smaug," said Thorin. "We do not expect you to join our cause—we only ask for a night's food and shelter so that we may rest and recover before we venture to the mountain."

Holden's jaw was somewhere about river level. Fiorde kept glancing left and right, waiting for one of his companions to do something. Gale seemed too confused to even open his mouth, and Bard kept looking at me, as if I would somehow have the explanation. I smiled and said nothing; people's confused reactions were some of the best entertainment.

Finally, when it was clear none of the other men were going to take charge, Bard stepped forward and said, "We are not the people to ask for food and shelter. However, if you are who you claim you are, the Master of Laketown will be keen to speak with you. I can take you to his abode if you choose, and you may discuss such important matters with him."

I smiled proudly. "My nephew sounds so grown-up."

With a frown, Bilbo asked, "Nephew? I was under the impression that you are from another world. I did not know you had relations here."

I made a frantic shushing gesture at Bilbo before turning to the men of Laketown. Already, I could see the word "witch" forming in their minds. Bard was watching me, deep furrows between his brows as he tried to piece together who I was.

Thankfully, before the men could ask anything, Thorin said, "Take us to see the Master of Laketown. We have matters of fortune and fate to discuss with him."

"We can pay you for passage," added Balin.

Tearing his eyes away from me, Bard nodded once to Thorin and sad, "Very well."

Leaving Fiorde, Holden, and Gale to tend to their boats, Bard led the way down the docks to a wooden barge. The dwarves eyed the vessel suspiciously—they had just survived the barrels and weren't too eager to return to the water. It didn't help that it was evening, and dark mists had settled over the lake so that Laketown was little more than an orange blur in the distance. However, Thorin stepped onto the barge, and the rest of the Company followed the example of their king.

I settled on one of the crates and watched the Company. Nori and Fíli helped Bard cast off from the dock. Glóin, Óin, and Dwalin were muttering about how they didn't trust Bard. Bifur and Bofur tended to the wounds that Ori, Dori, Kíli, and Bombur had gotten during the barrel ride down the river. Thorin was discussing what they would say to the Master of Laketown with Balin. I watched them and smiled. Even now it's hard to explain exactly why simply being with the Company brought me feelings of comfort—they just did. And, right then, I needed that comfort more than anything else.

"How are you related to Bard?" asked Bilbo, taking a seat on the crate next to mine. "I thought you were from another world."

"He's not really my nephew," I admitted. "I made it up."

Bilbo opened his mouth to say something (probably about how crazy I was) but then he thought better of it.

"My dad's from Bree though," I said and then paused. I hadn't planned to say anything about my dad to Bilbo, but now that we were sitting next to each other, talking about my family, I found myself talking. "So for all I know, I have some long-lost cousins in Middle Earth."

"From Bree," repeated Bilbo unable to keep the surprise from his voice. "How did he come to your world then?"

"I don't know," I said. "I Skipped before he could tell me the story. And I've been waiting and waiting for the Skip to bring me back to Ohio, but—" I stopped. I couldn't reveal Frodo's fate to Bilbo of all people. Not that it was actually Frodo's fate. I was going to change that.

"You have not talked to your father since he revealed this information to you?" asked Bilbo incredulously. "That must be difficult."

I frowned, trying to calculate how long it'd been since I'd seen my dad. My guess was about two days, though it was hard to tell with the Skipping. But that would mean that I'd spent the last forty-eight hours Skipping about Middle Earth without so much as a wink of sleep. Great, just great. Just add that to the list of things wrong with my life.

"The Skip can be difficult," I murmured. My fingers curled around the edges of the wooden crate. "But my dad…and my mom…what both my parents have done…" I took a deep breath. "My parents have known about my Skipping all along, but they pretended to be ignorant. They watched me suffer all these years and said nothing. They said something about a promise. A promise to who? What could be more important to them than their own daughter?"

Bilbo stared at me. Then, in a gentle voice, he said, "You should not stay angry with you parents for too long. If they made a promise, I am certain it was an important one."

I wanted to argue, to curse my parents, to never forgive them, but a small part of me agreed with Bilbo. I knew my parents loved me. I knew they would only ever do what they thought was best for me. If they made a promise to someone not to tell me, they would only do so if they thought it was for the best.

I closed my eyes and leaned back against the side of the barge. "I just want to see my parents again."

If Bilbo responded, I didn't hear him. My eyes fluttered, and for a moment, the world slid away. Instead of drifting on a lake, I was standing on white cliffs overlooking a salty sea. When I awoke a few minutes later, it was to the sound of Bilbo saying, "There it is."

Through heavy eyes, I watched as, out of the mist, rose the houses of Laketown. Blinking a few times to wake myself up, I sat upright and stared at the wooden town, lit by flickering orange torches and elevated above the waters of the lake. A maze of docks, platforms, and stairs wove together to form the foundation of Laketown. On the thick platforms rested thatched-roof houses that were as high as two or three stories. Hundreds of boats were tied to the docks, the only means in and out of the town.

With the help of Fíli and Kíli, Bard tied his barge to one of the docks, and with Balin in the lead, the Company entered Laketown.

News of the dwarves' arrival spread through Laketown. As the Company followed Bard through the streets, men, women, and children emerged from their homes to see them. Dwarves, I later found out, were legendary in those parts. The song about the king of carven stone (AKA Thorin) was often sung around Laketown fireplaces when the fish weren't biting or the weather was harsh.

The Company had very different reactions to the attention. Balin smiled politely to everyone he made eye contact with. Ori, Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur acted shy under all the curious gazes. Nori kept eyeing people's coin purses, while Dori warned him not to try anything. Glóin and Óin gave the occasional embarrassed bow, while Dwalin kept one hand on the handle of his axe at all times. Thorin was, of course, too proud to even acknowledge the attention, and then there was Fíli and Kíli who played up the whole scene, making what Fíli called "dwarvish warrior" faces for the children. Me? I just smiled and waved.

Bard led us through the streets to the Master's Hall. On the list of impressive places that I have seen in Middle Earth, the Master's Hall was somewhere near the bottom. The fact that it was the most impressive place in Laketown should tell you a lot about the condition of Laketown in the year TA 2941. The Hall was a three-story building at the far edge of town that overlooked the lake. The outside was little more than wooden walls, shutters, and doors. The front door, which the guardsmen opened for us, was painted a bottle green and was peeling in places.

Inside the Master's Hall was no better than outside. The ceilings were low and all the furniture was made of the same dark wood as the walls. The rooms were dimly lit and covered in every kind of fish decoration imaginable. Big Mouth Billy Bass (you're better off not knowing what that is) would have looked right at home here.

The guardsman had the Company, Bard, and I wait at the entrance. Seated at a table near the far end of the main hall was the Master himself. He was a fat, pockmarked man with stringy gray hair and yellowed teeth. He wore thick furs draped over his shoulders and held mug of ale in his right hand. By the look of him, the Master of Laketown could hold his own in a drinking contest with elves (and that is not said as a compliment).

"Bard, my boy!" cried the Master as we entered the Hall. "What have you caught tonight?"

By the fixed look on his face, I guessed Bard didn't like the Master of Laketown very much. In a low voice, Bard said, "Dwarves, Master, and a hobbit." He glanced at me and added, wryly, "And my long lost aunt."

The Master, however, didn't notice me at all as his eyes fell on the dwarves. For a second, the Master seemed at a loss as to what to do. Then he rose from his seat and said, "Well, may I drown in my ale if I be—dwarves?"

My eyes narrowed. I didn't like the Master's tone. It was as if he saw gold and jewels instead of the Company members themselves.

"Dwarves?" continued the Master, not noticing my scowl. "In Laketown? I thought the age of dwarves had come to pass."

"It has barely begun," said Thorin. He didn't give the Master time to consider this statement before saying, "Greetings, Master of Laketown. I am Thorin, son of Thráin, son of Thrór, King Under the Mountain. Me and my kin have traveled far to reclaim our seat in the Lonely Mountain. We ask that you grant us food and shelter before we embark on our journey to the mountain to defeat the dragon, Smaug."

"Th-Thorin…" It took the Master a moment to regain his wits. His small eyes narrowed as he surveyed Thorin, and then slowly, the Master bowed his head. "I am the master of this lake. How may I be of service, oh King Under the Mountain?"

I don't feel obliged to report to you the whole conversation between Thorin and the Master. It's one of those political I'll-Be-Nice-To-You-If-You-Be-Nice-To-Me conversations that don't actually have any real sustenance but are necessary for the sake of manners. Basically, the ridiculously long conversation of who can out politic the other ended with Thorin promising to do his best to rid Laketown of the dragon, and the Master promising food and shelter for the Company until the dragon had been defeated.

Then, the Master (being quite the party animal) decided to hold a last-minute feast for the Company. Within mere hours of our arrival in Laketown, the Company and I were given new clothes and new weapons, and then the hall was filled with food, ale, and people. The joy and excitement of the festivities overshadowed any of the poverty that haunted Laketown.

"You are not drinking," observed Dwalin, who was already on his third ale.

I nodded. As much as I would have loved to forget all my troubles and get drunk with the Company, I couldn't bring myself to touch the ale in front of me. I pulled the cloak that Fili had found for me closer around my shoulders and leaned back against the wall.

Dwalin, Balin, Thorin, and I sat in one of the corners of the hall, watching the festivities take place. Fíli and Kíli seemed to be having a good time, their faces red from too much wine as they told stories of travelers they had met in the Blue Mountains to Bilbo and some of the men of Laketown. Bifur, who never touched alcohol, followed his more social cousins, Bofur and Bombur, around the hall. It took me a minute to spot Nori at the far end of the hall, teaching two young boys how to pick locks. Dori, Ori, Óin, and Glion stood by a keg, and by the looks of it, they were beginning a drinking contest with some of the guardsmen.

A part of me wanted to join them. After all, when was the last time I passed on a drinking contest? But my legs couldn't move if I wanted them to. In the past five hours, I'd gone from just being tired to being downright exhausted. Over the last year, I had gotten used to have to live on the Skip's hectic sleep schedule, but over fifty hours without rest were more than I could bear. Every couple minutes, my eyes would flutter, and I'd have to shake myself to stay awake.

"I do not like this Master of Laketown," Dwalin was saying.

Through half-closed eyes, I watched as Thorin gave only a slight nod to acknowledge that he had heard Dwalin. Thorin's gaze rested on his nephews, who were laughing about some joke they had shared with Bilbo.

"He is weak," said Dwalin. "He would remain comfortably seated in his halls, while we dwarrows risk our lives to reclaim the Lonely Mountain, and you can be certain that when we once again sit in our home that this Master of the Lake will come knocking at our doors, asking for our treasure."

"He may not be a man of action," said Balin, "but that does not make him a bad lord to his people."

Dwalin scoffed. "You used to not be so soft, brother. I remember the days when you were as quick to use a blade as you were your mind."

"Those were long years ago," said Balin, "before the King Thráin called together the seven houses of the dwarrows."

"Why do you use that word?" I asked.

Balin and Dwalin both jumped in their seats; they hadn't realized I'd been awake. Thorin, however, didn't seem surprised. Slowly, he turned away from his nephews and regarded me carefully.

"'Dwarrows'," explained Thorin, "is the word we use instead of the Common Tongue's 'dwarves'. Once, 'dwarrows' was used throughout Middle Earth, but the tongues of other beings have corrupted the word, and now they call us 'dwarves'."

My throat tightened, and once again, I was reminded of how stupid I was. I walked through Middle Earth, praising dwarves and acting as though I knew everything about them, when in truth, I knew so little.

"Does it offend you?" I asked despite the thickness in my throat. "To be called 'dwarves'?"

"It is a term outsiders use for us," said Thorin. He hesitated and then, after a moment, said, "You should use the word 'dwarrows'."

I bit the insides of my cheeks to hold back the tears that threatened to spill. I doubted Thorin knew how much his words meant to me, how important it was that I belonged somewhere. Or perhaps he did know. After all, Thorin had been without his home for so long.

I pulled the cloak around me. It hurt, more than I could have imagined, to know that I knew so little about dwarves—or dwarrows as I would call them from that day forth. I had always imagined myself closest to dwarrows out of all the beings of Middle Earth. The Company was my sanctuary whenever I Skipped. And yet, I knew nothing about them; I didn't even know what they preferred to call themselves.

My throat burned, and my limbs ached with exhaustion. I fell asleep a few minutes later with only thought of dwarrows in my head. You're going to be shocked, but you should know that I slept through the rest of the party. Honestly, I couldn't have stayed awake even if I'd tried. Curled up under the wool cloak Fíli had found for me, I went to sleep.

My dreams began with dead hobbits. Two dead hobbits lying at the feet of a party of orcs. And then there was me. Useless. Unable to help but also unable to die. All I could do was watch as the orcs took the Ring to Sauron. And then, there weren't just two dead hobbits. I saw the faces of Merry and Pippin turned towards the blackened sky, their eyes glassy and unseeing. The Shire was burning. Hobbits screamed and fled as orcs ran along the cobblestone roads, their weapons stained with red blood. And then, there was Minas Tirith. Faramir bleeding in his father's arms. Aragorn watching from afar as his city was consumed by smoke and fire. Legolas weeping to himself, and Gimli turning away from the sight, unable to look upon such horrors. I saw Gandalf's tarnished white robes as one of the ringwraiths drove his sword through Gandalf's chest. The world consumed in darkness. Burning, burning, burning. Black.

I woke up with a strangled scream.

The cloak fell away, and I sat, shivering, on a bench with my knees against the edge of a wooden table and my back against the stone wall.

The rest of the hall was silent. I should have expected as much. From what Bard had told me, the Master's parties had a tendency to end with three-quarters of the guests unconscious. The lights in the hall had been dimmed, the kegs of ale had been taken away, and the people who hadn't been able to make it home had fallen asleep there. Some on the benches, some on the table tops, and some on the stone floor.

The Company had claimed the corner where I slept as theirs. Bilbo slept on the bench beside me. Fíli and Kíli were sleeping underneath the table, and Bombur was drooling on the table top just across from me. I counted off the dwarrows and realized, to my disappointment, that Thorin was missing. He was the one I wanted to talk to. Even if I couldn't tell Thorin the future, I still felt as though he would understand me if I tried to explain.

I couldn't do anything right. No matter how hard I tried, I always failed. I had managed to get Frodo and Sam killed. I couldn't even Skip to the right place to save them. What had Thorin told me in the Gray Mountains? "If it is your fault, then they are not meant to die." It was my fault. Which meant I could save them…right?

I took a deep breath and stood up. As much as I wanted to spend my time with the Company, I couldn't afford to sit around doing nothing. I had to find Gandalf. I had to tell him to save the hobbits.

Careful not to make too much noise, I crawled over the table top and stepped over Ori's sleeping body. Thankfully, none of the Company had woken. No doubt, when they opened their eyes in the morning, they would think that I had just Skipped during the night. I turned away and made my way through the hall to the far door. Bard had given me the grand tour of the Master's Hall before the festivities began.

Gandalf wasn't in Laketown, which meant that I couldn't stay here. Even though every bone in my body wanted to remain in the hall, curled up under the cloak.

After stepping through the door, I took a right and found a flight of wooden stairs. Step by step, up I went, until I pushed open the creaking door and stepped out onto the flat, wooden roof of the Master's Hall.

There was only one way I was going leave Laketown.

The night air was still. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and yet I could see no stars. No wind rippled across the vast lake, and gray mists drifted across the water. The torches of Laketown cast murky orange reflections on the surface far below.

I would have to Skip.

As I stood on the edge of the three-story roof, I moved so that the toes of my borrowed boots stuck out an inch from the ledge. Below, I could see the dark water of the lake. Perhaps jumping off here wouldn't kill me, but if I did land in the water, I wouldn't be able to climb back up. I would probably have to swim and scream for help until someone came to rescue me or I Skipped away.

I was shaking. My feet hurt from the ill-fitting boots the Master had given me, my muscles were still tired from lack of sleep, my lips were dry and chapped, and my skin was covered in goosebumps. I tried not to look down, but it was hard not to. It was a long fall.

"I thought you were afraid of heights."

At the deep voice, I whipped around so fast that I almost fell of the ledge. Throwing my arms out, I managed to keep my balance. Deep breath. In and out. I took two steps away from the ledge, gasping for air. Then, only when I had regained my senses, I saw the other person on the roof. Thorin, his arms crossed and his face grim, watched me with an unreadable expression.

"Definitely still afraid of heights," I said. "I'm about to throw up."

"Then why are you up here?" asked Thorin. His voice was almost gentle.

However, I didn't want to listen to gentle Thorin right then; he only made me want to go back downstairs and rejoin the Company. It wasn't too late for me to curl up on the bench, close my eyes, and pretend that none of this ever happened.

I bit my tongue. I wasn't allowed to think like that. I had to focus. I had things I needed to do. Looking somewhere over Thorin's head, I said, "You should go back down to join the others. I'm really ugly when I throw up. You don't want to see that."

"I have already seen you cry."

I opened my mouth to respond, but then I stopped. Somehow, despite how miserable I felt and despite my overwhelming sense of terror, I managed to smile. "Yeah, I'm ugly when I cry, aren't I?"

"Very," agreed Thorin. His words contained no sting, and in fact, it seemed more like he was complimenting me. I gave him a weird look. Sometimes I didn't understand Thorin any more than I understood this stupid Skipping.

The lake waters were barely visible from where I stood, and I took a ste closer to the ledge, but then, Thorin said, "You do not have to jump, Ana."

I glanced down at the dark water below. Throwing up was still very much a possibility. However, I made no more movements to get closer to the edge, and instead, I asked, "What does 'If it is your fault, then they are not meant to die' mean?"

Thorin stared at me, his eyes widening a fraction.

Right, I had forgotten that Thorin said those words to me in his future, after the reclaiming of the Lonely Mountain took place, which meant that the current Thorin didn't understand them any better than I did.

"Sorry," I muttered. "Never mind."

"I should never have told you that," said Thorin.

It was my turn to looked stunned. "What?"

He didn't answer. Not that I really expected him to. It seemed as though no one liked telling me anything. They—Thorin, Galadriel, Gandalf—liked to give me half-truths and then act as if they were smarter than I was.

"This would be a lot easier if people just told me what was going on," I cried. "I'm trying my best with what I've got!"

"I am sorry," said Thorin.

He sounded so genuinely apologetic that I was thrown off guard. But then that surprise was replaced by anger. "Don't just apologize! Explain this to me! When did we meet in the Gray Mountains? I thought it was far in the future, but that's not true, is it?"

Thorin gritted his teeth. He seemed to be struggling with something before he said, "I cannot tell you. I made a promise, and I intend to keep it. But, Ana, you do not have to jump. You know the Skips will happen in their own time, so there is no need to put yourself through this. Return to the hall with me. Get some rest. There is no need to put yourself through this." He stared at me as if willing me to believe his words.

Before that moment, I had never realized how blue Thorin's eyes were. They were the kind of cold, piercing blue that made me wonder if he could read minds, if he knew what I was thinking at that very moment, if he knew that I would give anything to be able to step away from that vomit-inducing ledge, go back down to the hall with him, and leave any responsibilities I had towards saving Frodo and Sam and all of Middle Earth until a later time.

I had never been so tempted to abandon Frodo and Sam before. Thorin didn't move towards me at all, he only stood there, watching me. He was my rock, for lack of a better word. In this sea of shifting worlds and times, I could always find my way back to Thorin, and he would be there, perhaps sometimes a little begrudging, but in the end, he would always look after me. He would probably never know how grateful I was for that. However, I couldn't repay everything he'd done for me by returning to the hall with him. N

"You're wrong," I said, my voice little more than a whisper. "I have to Skip. I have to find Gandalf so I can tell him to save Frodo and Sam. I think I can change it. I think my presence was the reason they died in Mordor. If I hadn't… If you know…" I took a deep breath. "The point is that I have to do something. I can't just sit around and wait for things to come to me or wait for things to right themselves. I refuse to. It doesn't matter that I was born in Ohio. It doesn't matter that my dad's from Bree. This is my world, and these people are my friends. So I have to jump. Even if I'm afraid. Because I can do something to fix this. Because I can save Frodo and Sam. Because I'm the Skipper."

And with that, I jumped off the ledge.

It was only when I was plummeting towards the water below that I realized Thorin never told me when in time we met in the Gray Mountains or explained what he knew about the Skipping.

Well, questions would have to wait for later.