A/N: Well, well, well. What do we have here? Rhaella and Thorin are back! I promised another AU a few weeks ago and here is the first chapter, posted much sooner than I had planned but I was eager to get started. Since I have another fic in the works as well (World of Warcraft based) updates might be slow for a while. The beginning of this will look like other, very familiar beginnings to the Hobbit story, but I do hope that I've found a way to make it different from any of the others (at least, I haven't been able to find one that uses the twist I am ... which will be revealed a few chapters in). Any words in Tolkien's languages will be in bold italics and translated at the bottom. As always I hope you enjoy and let me know what you think!
Ella shooed the last of her students off with a smile and a sigh of relief. She loved teaching these archery classes but it was exhausting keeping up with ten teenagers full of energy. It wasn't exactly the life she had envisioned for herself in her naive younger years but she didn't really have much room for complaint. Sometimes she wished she hadn't had to turn her favorite hobby into a job but the money was nice and the college paid her well.
"Momma! Look! I hit the target!"
She turned and smiled at her five year old son. "That's what practice will do for you, David." Letting him aim at the targets a few more times she began putting away all the equipment and tidying up for the evening. Having an indoor facility available was wonderful during the winter and in the spring when storms would blow over the mountains unexpectedly. Of course it did make it hard to teach them to adapt to their environment when they were safely in an air conditioned building with no wind but she truly enjoyed watching their excitement as their skills progressed. Once the nightly clean up routine was done she called to David that it was time to go, pulling out her phone to check the weather forecast while she waited. There had been the chance for some wintery precipitation when she'd looked that morning and she hoped there would be some snow for him to play in when he got up the next morning. However when she saw the radar she frowned then glanced out the window. The cloudy sky was not completely black yet, more of a dark gray, but the ground was already wet.
"David, hurry up please. We need to get home." He tried to complain some, not wanting to leave, but she grabbed his small bow and tossed it onto its hanger before almost shoving him out of the building.
"Things are shiny, Momma!" he cried, the excitement in his voice unmistakable. After locking the door behind them she took a tight hold of his hand, sighing inwardly as she began to notice all the ice on the trees and signs. Why couldn't it have waited another half hour? After strapping him into his booster seat she slid behind the steering wheel, praying that the roads were still warm enough to keep from icing over. Weather in this part of Virginia was always a bit unpredictable.
Pulling out of the parking lot she was relieved to see the asphalt ahead of them didn't appear icy. Despite an urge to get home as quickly as possible she stayed just under the speed limit to be on the safe side; no sense in taking unnecessary risks. As long as they made it back to the house in one piece she didn't care how long it took. For several miles everything was clear however by the time they neared the river Ella could tell conditions were deteriorating. There was little light here, the lamp posts very spread out this far from Main Street, but she caught glimpses of what appeared to be wet patches on the road. She wasn't fooled; those weren't puddles. Gripping the wheel tighter she slowed drastically in the hopes that it would be enough to keep them from sliding off into the mud. With a frown she squinted her eyes, straining to see what was just ahead of them. There hadn't been even a mention of icy earlier in the day and she hoped her students made it home safely; many of them were still new to driving. When the turn off for their house was in sight she breathed in a sigh of relief.
"Are we almost home?"
"Yes, sweetheart," she replied, flicking a quick glance in the rearview mirror.
That was all it took.
In that split second a large truck came barreling towards them, bright headlights blinding her as she looked back at the road, and she slammed her foot on the brake. That abrupt action couldn't have come at a worse time. She felt the sickening sensation of sliding and then the back end of the car whipped around towards the left with no sign of slowing down as it headed off the road. In the glow of their own headlights Ella could see the furious rush of water rapidly coming to meet them. The last thought she had before the car hit the river and everything went black was a prayer that at least her son would survive.
"Wake up, my dear."
Was she dead?
"You are not dead. It is time to wake up. There are things to do."
She didn't feel much pain. Surely there would be pain from a car crash.
"Stubborn girl. You are not dead and must get up. Now that you are here time will pass much too quickly and you are far from ready."
What in the world was she not ready for? Who was talking to her? A doctor? The voice was firm but kind with an accent she didn't recognize.
As she tried to open her eyes she thought she saw ... her mother standing before her. The woman had long dark hair and dark eyes and was watching her closely. Yet it didn't look quite like what she thought she remembered her mother looking like. She attempted to lift her arm and the pain she'd been expecting shot through her causing her body to curl into the fetal position as she clutched at her side. Perhaps she wasn't dead. Slowly her senses began to catch up with her awakening. Water running, birds twittering, leaves shaking in a gentle breeze, the feel of dirt under her cheek.
She wasn't dead!
And she certainly was not in a hospital.
Her eyes shot fully open as the thought raced through her brain. There were trees around her, green grass under her head, but the woman she was sure had been talking to her was no longer standing there. The air didn't feel cold which she found odd; they had slid off the road because of ice. She slowly sat up, finding that the water she'd heard was a pretty river flowing behind her and not the angry, muddy rush of what she recalled seeing before the crash. A warm breeze brushed against her cheek, no sign of winter weather anywhere. How had she gotten out of the car? Where was - ?
"David!" she screamed. Somehow she scrambled to her feet, her legs shaking underneath her and her head spinning, and scanned the riverbank for her son and their car. There was no sign of either. She screamed his name again, panic starting to fill her gut and stumbled to the riverside, ignoring the pain in her side as her eyes trying to focus further downstream. What if he hadn't gotten out of the car? He couldn't really swim even if he had. As her desperate cries echoed around her she staggered along the waterline searching for the only person in the world left for her. He couldn't be gone! He couldn't!
"You're awake, momma!" She turned and found David behind her with a few sticks in his arms. Heedless of any injuries they might have sustained she wrapped her arms around him tightly, silent sobs of relief shaking her body. When she was able to regain control of her emotions she began checking him for injuries.
"Does anything hurt?" she asked, anxiously running her hands over his limbs.
"My arm stings but nothing else," he said with a shrug. Pulling up his sleeve she saw a cut across his upper arm, just below his shoulder, but other than that and a few bruises he appeared to have come through the crash unscathed.
"You're bleeding, momma," he said, his voice full of concern.
Until then Ella hadn't given a thought to her own injuries. Glancing down at her left arm, where her son pointed, she saw a nasty cut through the tear in her coat. There was also something burning on her forehead and reaching up she could feel the stickiness of blood. Neither of those would have caused the pain she'd felt and with a frown she carefully sucked in a deep breath. Before she'd gotten her lungs full that searing pain ripped across her again, confirming her suspicions: bruised if not broken ribs. There wasn't anything she could do about that at the moment; she just hoped they'd find their way back to the road or a gas station quickly. If her car was near by there was a first aid kit under the front seat but it seemed to have vanished. Digging in her pocket she found a napkin and began dabbing at the cut on David's arm.
"How did you get out of the car?"
"I don't know. I woke up next to you on the ground."
"What were you doing?"
"Gathering firewood," he said proudly. "That's what Mr. Greg always said to do if you were stuck in the woods."
Ella grinned and hugged him to her again. "You are quite right, my dear, and how smart of you to remember." The previous autumn their next door neighbor had let David join him when he taught his Cub Scout den about hiking and what to do if you got separated from your group.
"I don't remember how to start a fire though." There was clear disappointment in his voice. She ran a hand through his hair.
"That's alright. I don't think we need one at the moment."
"Why is it warm, mamma? Isn't it winter?"
She frowned as she looked around them. "That is a very good question. One I do not have an answer to at the moment. However, I think its time we find our way back to the road and see if we can't find some help to get home." With his hand firmly in her own they started down the riverbank, following the direction of the water. Ella could feel frustration bubbling up as nothing familiar appeared that could tell her were exactly they'd ended up after the crash. There was no way their car had been carried so far down the river that they were far enough away from town as to not see any street signs or the road. That would have been miles! And why weren't their clothes wet? The car had crashed into the water. There was no way they would have been able to get out without getting at least their jeans wet. It was also broad daylight. Had she been knocked out all through the night? Nothing made sense at the moment and she wondered if she might have a concussion.
They walked for a couple of hours. At first David was excited, pulling at her arm whenever he saw some new rock or interesting stick on the ground, but that enthusiasm had quickly waned and the past thirty minutes had been full of whining about being hungry. Ella could feel hungry gnawing at her stomach as well. There was no indication of the town, the road, anything and the frustration she'd initially felt was giving way to concern. Where were they? After at least fifteen more minutes of her son's whining she brought them to a halt. There was no sense in continuing on as it was obvious they weren't getting anywhere and the shadows were starting to get longer on the ground. Night would be on them soon.
"How about we find some sticks to make a fire?" she asked him, hoping a diversion would stop his complaining. Thankfully her tactic worked and it didn't take them long to make a nice sized pile of sticks and branches. Once she felt they had enough to last a few hours Ella picked a spot near a couple of trees, cleared a small circle of grass and weeds, and piled several of the smaller twigs in the middle.
"Do you know how to start a fire, momma?"
"I think I remember." At least she hoped so. The last thing she wanted was to be caught out in the woods with no light. Adding a handful of grass and a couple strips from the napkin in her pocket she began striking the two rocks together she'd picked up for that purpose, praying that somehow it would produce enough of a spark to light the fuel they'd gathered. After several moments and countless tries and just when she was about to give up David gave a happy squeal.
"I see smoke!"
She almost squealed as well then told him to sit absolutely still, afraid that if he moved too much it would create just enough of a shift in the air to put out the tiny little flame that was now visible. Carefully she began adding a few more the smaller sticks, giving them a chance to begin burning before putting another one on top. Once there was a decent enough fire going Ella felt like she could breath normally again. In the time it had taken her to get that little blaze going the sun had sunk beneath the horizon leaving the dark sky above them dotted with brightly shining stars. Now all she had to worry about was -
"I know, David, so am I. Unfortunately I don't have any food with me." An idea struck her. "Why don't you check your pockets? You usually have some candy or snacks you snuck from my office in there."
His eyes lit up in the glow from the flames and he shoved his hand deep into one of his coat pockets. A second later he proudly held up an oatmeal cream pie, a lollipop, and a sleeve of peanut butter crackers. Ella didn't know whether to laugh or scold him. Putting the candy and the crackers in her own pocket she let him enjoy the cream pie, taking only a small bite for herself. When he was finished David curled up next to her, laying his head in her lap.
"Will we go home tomorrow?"
"Yes." Someone would have reported them missing by now and the truck that had caused her to swerve on the road had to have seen them crash. Hopefully they would be found before morning. The gash on her arm needed to be cleaned, possibly stitched up, and after walking however many miles they'd covered her ribs ached. She gently eased herself against one of the tree trunks in the hopes that having her back supported would ease the burning pain in her side.
David quickly fell asleep leaving her to ponder their situation throughout the night.
The twittering of birds was the first thing she heard the next morning. She had determined to stay awake throughout the night just in case of trouble but it appeared that plan had failed ... though she didn't feel at all rested. Looking down she saw that David had burrowed up next to her side, his head no longer in her lap, and he appeared to still be sleeping peacefully. Their little fire was long since out though the scent of smoke still hung lightly in the air. Coming to her feet slowly she almost cried out. Her back ached from where she'd fallen asleep against the tree and the pain in her side now felt like someone was stabbing her with a knife. After making use of a nearby bush Ella stared across the river, watching as the sunlight sparkled on its surface. What should they do? She was torn between staying put until someone found them or continuing on in the hopes of coming upon civilization again. David seemed to have come through the crash relatively unscathed but she knew she needed to see a doctor. All it would take was one wrong move, one slip or fall, and she would have a punctured lung. Her stomach growled and she knew her son would be up anytime saying he was hungry. The pack of crackers he'd had stashed in his coat wouldn't last.
Only a few moments later he was up and spouting off questions faster than she could even consider answers. They shared the six peanut butter crackers, washing it down with water from the river. Ella could only pray it was safe. Sitting down next to the remains of their fire she let him roam around within her line of vision. He needed to burn energy and she needed to be still. She tried not to think about what would happen to them if the police didn't find them before nightfall. How they hadn't been located already was a mystery. Yes, they lived in a more rural part of Virginia but it wasn't that remote.
A sound in the bushes brought her quickly, painfully, to her feet. She peered into the trees, praying it wasn't a bear, but couldn't see anything out of the ordinary. Thinking it had just been the wind in the leaves she prepared to lower herself back down to the ground when she heard it again. She called David to her and he reluctantly left the hole he'd been digging at the water's edge. As soon as he reached her the rustling, the unmistakable sound of movement, began again and then an elderly man, dressed in grey and with a tall walking stick in hand, stepped from between the trees. He halted when their eyes met and she edged backwards several steps.
"Do not be afraid," he called, his voice gentle. "I mean you no harm."
Ella frowned as she took in his appearance. He was dressed in what appeared to be a dirty bathrobe, a belt around his waist, and a hat on his head that looked somewhat like a witch's hat. His hair and beard were long and grey and blue eyes peered at her from a worn but not unkind face. The entire picture he presented was odd and reminded her of the advertisements she'd seen of a Renaissance Festival. However the closest one was over a four hour drive from where they lived so there was no reasonable explanation for why he was dressed in such a way. Her wariness of his sudden appearance warred with her relief at finally being found. There was something vaguely familiar about the man, though. Recognition, a name, floated just out of her grasp, nipping at the edge of her memory.
"What are you doing out here? You appear to be injured," he said after several moments of silence.
"My car hit a patch of ice on the road and crashed into the river. We walked for a while last night in the hopes of finding our way back to town but finally had to stop and rest."
His head tilted just slightly to the side as he listened to her. "And your injuries?"
"My son is fine but I think I might have some bruised ribs."
"A rather nasty cut on your arm, too, by the looks of it."
Ella nodded but before she could say anything further there was another loud rustling from the bushes.
"What did you find, Gandalf?" A tall brown haired man with a black cloak swirling around him appeared from the tree line. As he approached he pulled down the black mask that had covered the lower half of his face. That was all she noticed as the words he had uttered froze her where she stood, her hands gripping David close to her side. Her eyes darted between the two, confusion and disbelief clouding her thoughts. What had he just called the elderly man? That name was recognizable to anyone. "Who is this?"
"The creator of the fire you smelled last night it would seem."
The tall man rolled his eyes. "Who is she?"
"We haven't been introduced just yet." Grey man looked back at her, a hint of a smile peeking through his beard. "Apologies for my lack of manners, my dear. I am Gandalf, Gandalf the Grey."
She was having some trouble breathing - had to have been because of the ribs - and her heart was beating almost uncontrollably. There was a sick, panicky feeling in her gut. What was going on here? Had these men lost their minds traipsing through the wilderness dressed for a Renaissance Fair and one calling himself after a character from Lord of the Rings? Perhaps she had hit her head hard in that crash. That would explain what was happening to them now.
"I'm David and this is my mom Ella." She gripped at her son's shoulders, wishing he hadn't revealed their identity to these strangers.
"It is a pleasure to meet you," the one calling himself Gandalf said with a short bow of the head. The other, younger one turned towards them.
"Araden," he said, peering at her with narrowed, thoughtful eyes. When she still didn't say anything he huffed a bit before looking back at his companion. "What is wrong with her? Can't she talk?"
"From what she told me before you popped up she and her son have been in some sort of accident."
Araden took a couple of steps closer. He looked her over for a moment and then the hardness in his eyes seemed to fade.
"Aye, she certainly has a nasty enough cut on her face. We should probably get her back to camp. Once you've patched her up we can take them back to Bree."
If it was possible her eyes widened even further. She had to be hallucinating. That was the only explanation. "Bree?" she whispered, her voice ragged.
"Of course. That's where you are from, isn't it? Its the closest town." He frowned a bit. "You are dressed rather strangely but I know its not in the way the ladies dress in Rohan or Gondor."
At those words Ella felt her throat close up and as blackness swept into her vision she heard David cry out in alarm and saw Araden hurry to her side.