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More Dangerous and Less Wise  by daw the minstrel

AN:  This story is set right after "Fire and Shadow."  So Legolas is just over 100, the age at which Tolkien tells us many elves first reach their full adult growth.  He's assigned to the Northern Border Patrol, where his brother Eilian is the captain.

There'll be flashbacks in this story too. They take place right after "Wood-Elves," so early in the Second Age when Oropher takes some of his people, including Thranduil, to visit Lorien.

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this story.

*****

A Little Slip

Legolas edged along the maple's rain-slicked branch.  One more step, he thought, just enough to get to the more open space over the river.  He shifted his weight, and the branch sagged into a heart-stopping imitation of an otter slide.  He grabbed the branch just above him, jerked his skidding feet to a halt, and leaned toward the tree's trunk.

"Back up, you fool!" Beliond called.

Legolas looked down at his bodyguard, who peered up at him through the fan-shaped leaves.  Beliond's brows met over his nose.  Behind him, Maltanaur's mouth twitched, and Eilian grinned openly.

Legolas sent his brother a sour look.  It was easy for Eilian to laugh.  Maltanaur never ordered him around as if he were a stunningly slow-witted elfling.  To be fair, Maltanaur was probably trying not to undercut Eilian in his role as the Northern Border Patrol's captain.  Still, couldn't Beliond learn from watching Eilian's bodyguard?  If Legolas had stumbled on Beliond elsewhere, he never would have believed that he was a Wood-Elf.  There were days when Legolas suspected Beliond of being the re-embodiment of a bossy, little Noldor lady whose family had finally had enough and shuffled her off to see Namo during the kin slaying.

"Did you hear me?" Beliond said.

Legolas yanked on the higher branch.  Rainwater leapt off the leaves and pattered down.  Beliond gave his head a quick, dog-like shake, then regarded Legolas with narrowed eyes.  Drops gleamed on his forehead and cheeks.  He opened his mouth, but a gleeful Eilian shoved past him.

"What do you see?" Eilian asked.

Legolas steadied himself, stayed where he was, and looked across the river marking the end of the patrol's territory.  From this angle and free of the curtain of rain that had finally stopped, he could see behind the rocks that tumbled along the north edge of the gorge the river had carved.  Scuffed up grass surrounded a black fire pit.

"Just as you thought, Eilian.  It looks like someone camped there recently."

"Dwarves?"

"Probably.  There's not enough destruction for it to be Orcs, and they were too heavy-footed to be Men."  Dwarves were most likely anyway, Legolas knew.  Not surprisingly, they were fleeing the Grey Mountains, where dragons now dwelt.  A flash of fire burst in Legolas's mind.  His hand spasmed on the branch.  He turned his gaze determinedly to where he had glimpsed unexpected color between the rocks.  "The red and yellow blotches we saw look like clothes."

"Clothes?"  Eilian looked at Maltanaur.  "Why would they leave clothes behind?"

"They left in a hurry?"  Maltanaur hesitated, then tilted his face up to Legolas.  "Could it be a body?"

"Maybe, but I think not."  Legolas was gratified to hear how steady his own voice was.  "And I believe Dwarves bury their dead."

"If they have time," Maltanaur said soberly.

"How about the burned area?" Eilian asked.

Legolas raised his gaze to the distance.  Spindly trees dwindled to shrubs in the increasingly rocky ground that sloped up toward the distant mountains.  A league or so away, a tongue of scorched ground stretched toward him.

"Does it look like a lightning strike?" Eilian asked.  "Or are we talking about a dragon within spitting distance of the woods?"

"How would I know?"

"Let me see."  Eilian sprang toward a nearby tree and began to climb.

Legolas watched him scramble upward.  The branches bent under Eilian's slightly greater weight, and he halted a little below Legolas.  As Legolas had done, he inched outward.  The branch dipped further.  Legolas darted a look toward the ground and found Maltanaur with his arms crossed but silent.  Now, why couldn't Beliond be like that?

Maltanaur's hands flew upward.  "Eilian--"

A loud crack jerked Legolas's gaze back to where Eilian stood on the branch—or rather to where Eilian should have been standing.  A section of the tree was in motion and Eilian with it, scrabbling like a squirrel.

"Watch out!" Legolas cried, as if watching would do any good now.

The branch collapsed.  With a yelp, Eilian plunged feet first into a leafy sea.  He grabbed for a hold, missed, flew through space, and landed on his side at the edge of the river bank.  To Legolas's relief, Eilian was at least coherent enough to spin in order to soften the shock.  The novice masters who had trained him would have been proud.

Except for the way he rolled over the bank and vanished, of course.

Legolas hurtled to the ground nearly as quickly as Eilian had.  Fortunately, Beliond's back was turned as he and Maltanaur ran to look over the edge.  Legolas galloped up next to them and looked down.  Eilian lay, face up, in a nest of bushes on a narrow ledge about halfway down the twenty feet to the river shore.  He stared up at the sky, mouth agape, as if surprised to find himself looking straight at it.

"Are you hurt?" Maltanaur called.

Eilian blinked.

"Eilian?" Maltanaur said.

Legolas found a hand hold in the bushes and swung off the bank to plant one foot on a protruding rock and reach for a crack in the side with the other toe.  Intent on his next perch, he barely glimpsed Maltanaur working his way down a yard or two away.  Overhead, Beliond swore.

Legolas slid the last few feet to the ledge on which Eilian lay and dropped to his knees next to his brother.  "Are you all right?"

Eilian turned his head.  "I think so," he said weakly.

Maltanaur landed next to Legolas and crouched, grim faced, to run his hands lightly over Eilian's arms and legs.  He dropped his hands to his thighs.  "Nothing seems broken, unless possibly your head."  He glared at Eilian.  "Do you have enough brains left to realize that a moment's thought and planning might have saved you from a possible injury?"

"Sorry," Eilian said, his voice strengthening.  "I should have been more careful."

A rope slapped against the rock just above Eilian.  Legolas looked up to see Beliond peering over the edge.  "Can he climb up?" Beliond asked.  "Maybe you should tie him."

Eilian pushed himself up to sit.  "I can climb."

Maltanaur had already grabbed the end of the rope.  He passed it under Eilian's arms and tied it in front.  Legolas seized Eilian's elbow and helped him up.

"Can you really climb?" Legolas asked.

"I am a Wood-Elf," Eilian said, which would have been more reassuring if he had not just fallen out of a tree.  Still, when he pulled himself free of Legolas's grip, he stood without swaying.

"The Valar protect fools, they say."  Maltanaur let go of the rope and took a step back.

Eilian grinned, seized the rope, and pulled, walking his feet up the side of the river bank while Beliond braced him from above.  Legolas watched a little anxiously with Maltanaur at his side, face turned up.

Under Legolas's feet, the broken bushes gave way further, and he grasped an exposed tree root to steady himself.  Simultaneously, Maltanaur reached for a protruding rock.  The bushes dropped again.  Legolas looked over at Maltanaur, whose eyes widened.  Abruptly, Legolas realized that the bushes weren't what was giving way.

The ledge fell out from beneath his boots.  The bank slid past, snatching handholds out of his reach.  He skidded on his leather jerkin like a sled zooming fatefully down hill.  Then his feet jammed onto the river bank, and he bent his knees and tumbled to the muddy ground.  Fire flared in his right ankle.  He curled himself over and grabbed it, and lay there fighting to draw enough breath to moan.

"Are you all right?  Legolas!  Maltanaur!"  Eilian's and Beliond's voices blended in Legolas's head.  He forced himself to look up.  Beliond was already sliding down the rope, saying words in combinations wholly new to Legolas.

Maltanaur leaned over Legolas, face white, clutching one shoulder.  "Are you hurt?"

"Just my ankle."  Legolas prodded at his own injury.  "I do not think it's broken though.  Your shoulder?"

"Dislocated, I believe."

Beliond landed next to them in time to hear Maltanaur's assessment of his own injury.  "If that is all it is, you are fortunate."  Beliond's face was red with fury.  "Did it occur to either of you that a moment of caution might have saved you from injury?"

Legolas frowned.  Maybe his brains were more scrambled than he realized.  Surely someone had already said that.

***

His arm around Beliond's neck, Legolas hopped along, glad to see they were nearing the camp site Eilian had decided they would use.  Eilian and Maltanaur were just ahead, watching for it.  From Maltanaur's silence and the way Eilian kept having to check his pace, Legolas assumed they were eager to get settled too.  Beliond had popped Maltanaur's arm back into place and rigged a sling from a spare tunic, but the injury had to be painful.

Beliond's arm tightened around Legolas's waist.  "I understand that injuries are sometimes inevitable, but this was unnecessary."  Theoretically, he was speaking to Legolas, but his voice was pitched to carry to Eilian's ears too.  Legolas drew what amusement he could from watching his keeper struggle to respect Eilian's role as captain while still telling him he had been stupid.

"I suppose it should not be a surprise," Beliond went on.  "Your adar occasionally behaves rashly too."

Eilian whipped his head around to blink at Beliond, and Legolas had to grab a fistful of Beliond's tunic to keep from toppling facefirst.

"I think of my adar as rather…restrained," Legolas said.

"In some ways, he is."  Beliond glared at Eilian.  "But he is certain he is right and determined to do what he likes."

Maltanaur snorted.  "I know why you are really thinking of Thranduil."  He and Beliond exchanged a look.  To Legolas's surprise, they both laughed.  Under Legolas's hand, the muscles in Beliond's shoulder loosened.

"It did make me think of that," Beliond admitted, still smiling.

"What?" Legolas asked.

"Not for your ears," Beliond said.

Legolas's eyes met Eilian's.  Eilian lifted an eyebrow, and Legolas had to laugh because for a moment, Eilian really did look like their father.

"Here we are," Maltanaur said, and they entered the campsite.

Beliond lowered Legolas to sit against a tree.  Maltanaur dropped down next to him, and for a while, Beliond and Eilian worked peaceably together doing what they could for both injuries.

Finally, Eilian sat back on his heels.  "We will camp here tonight and tomorrow.  Neither one of you is badly hurt, but there's no point in traveling with an injury if we do not have to.  We are not due back at camp for four days yet anyway, so no one will be worried."

"That makes sense."  Beliond sounded surprised.

Eilian slapped Beliond on the shoulder and rose to his feet.  "Come on, Beliond.  You fetch water.  I will make a fire."  Beliond scowled but obeyed.

Feeling useless, Legolas watched as they moved around setting up camp.  "I can cook," he offered.

"You stay where you are," Beliond said.  "You will only make that ankle worse if you put weight on it."

"I can cook sitting down," Legolas said.

Beliond pointed.  "Stay!"

Eilian grinned, and Legolas glowered at him.  Eilian would go out of his way to be difficult if Maltanaur spoke to him like a badly-trained dog.

They ate, and Eilian and Beliond carried dishes off to be washed in the nearby stream Beliond had found.  When they came back, Beliond sat near Maltanaur by the fire, but Eilian paced around the campsite.  He glanced at Maltanaur.

"I feel much better," Eilian said, "as if I had not fallen at all.  I guess I really was fortunate."

Maltanaur crossed his arms.  Legolas looked apprehensively from him to Eilian and back again.  He had no trouble at all reading his brother's restless behavior.  The patrol had been told to leave the dragons alone, but today's little scramble showed yet again that Eilian was having a hard time doing that.  Partly it was that the idea of such creatures so close to the Woodland Realm made him frantic, but partly he was drawn to the excitement of pitched battle like a moth drawn to the flame.  Legolas grimaced.  The analogy was too apt for comfort.

"As long as we are going to be here," Eilian said, "I think we should check on that campsite and also on the burned area."

"By 'we,' I assume you mean 'you,'" Maltanaur said.

"Well, yes," Eilian said.  "You and Legolas need to rest, and Beliond can guard you."

Legolas threw Maltanaur a pleading look.  To his relief, Maltanaur said, "No, Eilian.  You are not going alone, and with this shoulder, I would be useless to you."

"Too right," Beliond said.  "You're not to use a bow until you feel better, and Legolas will not try walking until I say he may."

Legolas fought a strong urge to stand up and dance a jig.  Eilian must have seen his reaction because he took time from his pacing to shoot Legolas a grin.

"Beliond could go with you, Eilian," Legolas said.

His brother took a step backward, almost as if he were avoiding a blow.  Beliond and Maltanaur both gaped at Legolas.

"Why not?"  The more Legolas thought of the idea, the more he liked it, in an evil sort of way.

"I can't leave you and Maltanaur unguarded," Eilian said.  Beliond nodded vigorously.

"I can still shoot," Legolas said, "and if it will make you feel any better, we can sleep in a tree.  That sounds appealing to me, anyway."

When Eilian hesitated, Legolas knew he was seriously tempted.  Maltanaur must have known too because he hastily said, "Night is coming on."

"It might be even more useful to watch that area at night," Eilian said.  "We would be more likely to see dragon fire that way, and our night vision is better than that of most of the creatures you want me to stay away from."

As one, they all turned to Beliond, who had been unexpectedly silent.  Beliond rubbed his hand over his jaw.  He looked from Maltanaur to Legolas.  "I hate to leave you."

Legolas realized with a start that his keeper was considering the idea.

Eilian cocked his head.  "You know, Beliond, it would be disastrous if dragons were hunting in this part of the Woodland Realm."

Slowly, Beliond nodded.

Maltanaur let out a little moan.

"We should help them into that big maple there," Eilian said.  Legolas had the distinct impression Eilian wanted things to happen before Beliond changed his mind.  Eilian swung into the branches, and Beliond lifted both Legolas and Maltanaur up to him.  Legolas found himself on a broad branch with a blanket tucked around him and his bow and quiver hung nearby.  Maltanaur was soon settled next to him.

"We will be back by dawn," Eilian said.  He hopped to the ground, and he and Beliond slipped away into the gathering dusk.

Beliond shot one look backward.  "Behave yourself," he called, then vanished into the trees.

Legolas laughed softly.  "My only regret is that I will not be there to watch."

Maltanaur shook his head ruefully.  "I should have known Beliond would be tempted.  He likes an adventure once in a while, though he is unlikely to let Eilian have too much fun."

"If he can stop him," Legolas said.

Maltanaur laughed.

For a few peaceful moments, Legolas leaned into the tree's embrace, wondering what Eilian would find and reliving the moments at the edge of the river.  As he turned over the events of the day, he recalled something that had nagged him on and off since it happened.  He turned to Maltanaur.

"What were you and Beliond talking about when you said you knew why he thought of my adar?"

Maltanaur shifted.  "That was a slip of the tongue.  At one time, we all pledged not to tell one another's children about the less wise actions of our youth."

"Oh, come on," Legolas said.  "You know you want to."

Maltanaur looked down at his hands.  "When I think of it," he said slowly, "this story is really more about me and Beliond than it is about your adar."  He looked up at Legolas.  "You cannot tell Beliond I told you this story, but I suspect you need a little insight into the kind of Elf he is at heart."

Legolas leaned forward.  "Tell."

 

Chapter 2.  At the River

Twilight settling around him, Eilian peered across the river at the rocks screening the Dwarf campsite.  He extended his hand toward Beliond.  "Let me have the rope.  We can anchor the bridge to that pointed rock."

"I want to check for newcomers first."  The rope still around his shoulder, Beliond scaled an oak.

Eilian frowned after him.  Beliond might at least have left the rope so Eilian could toss a loop across the river and have the bridge ready when Beliond descended.

Beliond stopped a good five yards lower than Eilian had climbed earlier, took a quick look, and slid back down the tree.  "No one there."  He tied a noose in the rope's end and managed to slide it over the pointed rock on the first try.  He tied the other end to the trunk of the maple Legolas had been in.

Eilian bent and tugged on the rope to make sure both ends were secure, then straightened and put a foot out to cross.

Beliond nudged him aside.  "I will go first."  He skimmed across the bridge and turned.  "It's solid enough.  Go."

Eilian ran across, aware of Beliond watching his every step.  Legolas arranged this on purpose, Eilian thought.  Not the injuries of course, but Nana Beliond's hot breath sliding down Eilian's neck.  Legolas was completely to blame for that.  Eilian wondered if it would be an abuse of his position to make his little brother inspect the Northern Border Patrol's camp for neatness.  He suppressed a blissful smile.  Legolas would hate doing that.

He stepped onto the opposite bank and slid his bow from his back.  Beliond had seen no one, but warriors had been fooled before.  "We should look at those clothes first."

Beliond took his bow in hand, put an arrow to the string, and stayed at Eilian's side as they rounded the rocks and came into sight of the gap where they had seen the patches of red and yellow.  They both halted.  A leather pack lay on the ground, spilling out what looked like a yellow hood and an unidentifiable stretch of red fabric.  Beliond kept his bow ready, while Eilian went to look at the hood and poke through the pack.

"Dwarves for sure," he said, holding up a broad red tunic.  It felt odd to be handling this stranger's clothes.  This was a task Eilian ordinarily performed only when he sent home the body of one of his warriors.  At least he probably would not have to do that here along the Northern Border.  Not unless the dragons really were moving south.  He scanned the campsite.  "Let's see if they left anything else."

They moved through the campsite, Eilian eyeing the marks telling him where Dwarves had slept or sat or eaten,  Beliond swiveling to keep watch in all directions, ready to shoot anything that moved.  Eilian hoped a chipmunk didn't rashly choose this moment to appear and get turned into a pincushion.

"There were five."  He pointed to the well-made firepit.  "They left the fire to burn itself out."

Beliond lowered his bow.  "They went off in a hurry then."

"Yes," Eilian said, "and my experience has been that there is not much that will scare a Dwarf."  He looked toward the span of scorched ground in the distance.

"Dragon," Beliond said.

Mostly, Eilian felt as dismayed as Beliond sounded, but his whole body quickened with what he hated to admit was excitement.  He shifted uneasily.  If he was already craving danger, he was going to have to watch himself.  Ithilden would never consent to his going back south just yet.  To Mordor with his overbearing older brother anyway.

He looked again at the burned spot.  They should wait until full dark to cross that open area, he thought.

"We are not crossing that area until it is dark," Beliond said.

Eilian snorted.  "Do you always speak to your captain as if he were an elfling?"

"Only when I am also my captain's bodyguard.  I know what Thranduil told Legolas about my authority over him, and I assume he told you the same thing about Maltanaur, only just now, I am Maltanaur."

"Like spit you are.  Maltanaur has watched my back for years, and believe me, you are far, far more annoying that he has ever been."

"He has admirable patience.  Patience is not my best quality.  But I am your bodyguard, and that gives me absolute authority over matters relating to your safety."

Eilian longed to tell Beliond what to do with his authority, but both his father and Ithilden had made the role of his bodyguard plain.  Eilian did as he was told, or his father and brother took turns kicking him around and then locked him up some place safe.  "Of course we will wait until dark," he said.  "How does Legolas stand you?  I can see why he calls you Nana."

Eilian flung himself down to sit with his back against a rock and his eyes on the burned area.  Beside him, Beliond lowered himself with a grunt.  Eilian drew a little away, then felt childish.  "Beliond, I really do have some sense, you know.  I had no intention of going anywhere until night."

Beliond pursed his lips.  "I have observed that if you have other warriors with you, you take care out of concern for them, but you can be careless with your own skin, especially when something like a dragon is in the offing."  He shrugged.  "One does not see a dragon every day."  He paused, then piously added, "Thank the Valar."

Eilian shot him a look but could not read Beliond's profile well enough to know what he was thinking.  Was Beliond suggesting he, too, was excited about possibly encountering a dragon?  Not that such an encounter was a good thing.  Just that, as Beliond said, it did not happen every day.

Eilian leaned back and thought about the day's events.  "I am at least as unhappy as you are that Maltanaur and Legolas fell when they came after me."  He frowned.  What was the other thing he had been meaning to say?  Oh, yes.  "Why did that make you think of my adar?"

Beliond smiled.  "That's a long story, and as I told Legolas, it's not for your ears.  We once promised not to tell tales to one another's children."

Surely Beliond was taunting him.  He must have known that nothing else he could say would make Eilian want to hear the story more.  "The story is about my adar?"

"Yes.  Well, more about Maltanaur and me, really."  Beliond shook his head and chuckled, startling Eilian no end.  "Your guard was not always as sensible as he is now, you know."

Except for saying that.  "If it's more about Maltanaur, then you should be able to tell me about it."

Beliond hesitated, and Eilian's glee rose.  Beliond wanted to tell him and had just been looking for an excuse.

"I suppose it would be all right," Beliond said, "but you must not tell Maltanaur that I told you this."

"Of course not."

Beliond leaned back against the rock.  "Maltanaur, your adar, and I were part of an escort that went with Lord Oropher to visit Amdir in Lorien.  When we arrived, we found a number of Dwarves there too, and your adar had what you might call an 'encounter' with one of them."

"What do you mean, an 'encounter'?"

"Suffice to say it resulted in Thranduil cutting off a young Dwarf's beard."

Eilian gaped.  Beliond must be telling the truth, but try as hard as Eilian could, he was unable to picture his father doing anything so…well, like something Eilian himself might do.

"We had thought we would leave at the end of the evening," Beliond said, "but Lord Oropher decided we would spend the night in Lorien, so as you might expect, we were anticipating there might be some awkwardness with the shaven Dwarf."

"'We' being you, Maltanaur, and my adar?"

"Of course."

 

~*~*~

Beliond kept his face impassive under Captain Laegcened's glare.  If the stiff-stick Sinda thought he could outface a Wood-Elf, his arrows were short a few feathers.

"I want no more trouble from the three of you.  Understand?" Laegcened said.

"Yes, Captain," Beliond chorused along with Maltanaur and Thranduil.

Laegcened shot one more barbed look Beliond's way and said, "You are dismissed."

With Maltanaur and Thranduil in his wake, Beliond wasted no time scooting toward the path leading to the flets where Amdir's people dwelled.  He slowed only when the path veered toward the river, and he knew they were out of Laegcened's sight in the dark among the trees.

"I am not at all sure this is wise."  Thranduil's deep voice blended melodically with the sleepy nighttime rustle of the trees and the song of the Celebrant.

Beliond nearly laughed at the contrast between Thranduil's ridiculously overcautious words and his instinctive harmony with the forest.  A laugh would have made Thranduil ask for an explanation, though, and Beliond had no time for that right now.

"You are worrying again," Beliond said, "and quite unnecessarily.  Lord Oropher chose a campsite as far from the Dwarves' camp as he could get."

"But we are leaving that campsite," Thranduil pointed out.

"Of course we are," Beliond said.  "Arriel's flet is this way."  He flashed Thranduil a grin.  "Her friend Tamien is staying with her tonight.  Tamien is very pretty, and Arriel says she asked about you."

"Are you sure it was me and not Maltanaur?" Thranduil said with typical carefulness.  Really, the poor repressed Elf was fortunate that Beliond and Maltanaur had taken him in hand.

Maltanaur exchanged a grin with Beliond, then slapped Thranduil on the shoulder.  "Of course it was you.  Nindwen already has her claim staked on me, and it shows on my face.  I am just along to keep the peace while you and Beliond make friends with the natives."

"Arriel said she asked about the tall, handsome Elf with the gold hair," Beliond said, "so I assumed she meant you, though I supposed she could have meant your adar."

It was dark, but Beliond could see well enough to spot the color rising into his friend's face.  "Tamien, you say?  Was she the one in the green dress?"

Before Beliond could answer, three solid figures moved out of the shadows and blocked the path.  Beliond rocked to a halt, Maltanaur and Thranduil on either side.  They faced three young Dwarves, two of them the size of boulders flanking a third with a beard sheared off just below his chin.  Oh.  Him.  All three Dwarves were snorting like bulls, although, to be fair, perhaps that was their usual way of breathing.  The one on the right thudded a fist into his opposite palm.

"Triple Fart Face," Beliond muttered in Silvan.  How could these three have surprised him and his friends?  The Dwarves must have been waiting without moving, while the hum of the Celebrant covered the sound of their breathing.  In other words, they were lying in wait, and quite cleverly too, given they were Dwarves.  This section of the path was deserted, and anyone coming from Oropher's camp would likely come this way.

Beliond's hand hovered over his sword hilt.

"No weapons," Thranduil said.

Maltanaur elbowed Beliond, and reluctantly, he dropped his hand to his side.  He wouldn't have killed anyone, just nicked them.

The Dwarf with the drastically shortened beard took a step toward Thranduil and sneered.  "Afraid of a fight?"

Thranduil raised one eyebrow and peered down his nose at the Dwarf.  "If I wanted one, I would obviously have to go elsewhere."

He sounded bored.  If he was shamming, Beliond was impressed because the Dwarves were taking Thranduil's attitude badly.  On the other hand, if Thranduil really was bored, Beliond was worried about the effect his Sindarin blood might be having.

The stubby-bearded Dwarf colored.  His friend with the thumping fist started forward, but the beard-deprived one, put an arm out to stop him.  The third one said, "It sounded like they were looking for romance rather than a fight."  He glanced at the other two.  "Perhaps we should give these three some privacy.  You know what they say about Elves and trees."

Beliond growled low in his throat.  Thranduil murmured, "Easy."

The Dwarves surged forward.  "Clear the path," Stubby-beard said.  "We're going this way."

With rigid decorum, Thranduil stepped among the trees and gave a sweeping bow, gesturing to the Dwarves to proceed.  "Lord Oropher will be happy to see you," he said dryly.

Beliond made a different gesture, but alas, the Dwarves were turned toward Thranduil and didn't see.  Maltanaur was Wood-Elf enough to look unhappy, but he took Beliond's arm and drew him to join Thranduil under a tall oak.

Beliond expected the Dwarves to stroll smugly past, and Stubby-beard did.  But perhaps the mention of Oropher had made his two thuggish friends change their minds.  While Stubby-beard disappeared, they took a few steps, then stopped directly in front of Beliond and his friends and faced them, smiling broadly.  Beliond narrowed his eyes.  What was that about?  Why were the Dwarves so happy?  Was it just satisfaction at moving the Elves off the path?  How childish.  Fortunately Beliond was above that.  And really, what a joke given that these two wouldn't even walk further toward the Wood-Elves' camp.

For a moment, no one said anything.  The Dwarves' eyes shifted from Maltanaur to Thranduil.  Then both of them looked at Beliond.  He smiled.  They knew who the tough one was here.

"That's him," one of them said.  "The one who didn't even have the nerve to join in the sword play earlier."

Thranduil caught Beliond's arm.  In Silvan, he said, "He is trying to provoke you."

"He is succeeding," Beliond snarled.  The Dwarf was begging to be beaten until he puked.

"The captain and my adar both told us not to start trouble."

"We are not starting it.  They are," Beliond said.  "What's more, Lord Oropher didn't mean it."

"The captain did," Thranduil said.

Heavy steps thumped through the woods behind Beliond and his friends.  Something whistled through the air.  Beliond swung round in time to see an ax spinning through the dark far overhead.  It thudded into the trunk of the oak, which awoke with a grunt of pain.  A misshapen grey globe plunged to the ground and split apart.  An angry buzzing sent a warning jolting through Beliond's brain.  Hornets swarmed out of the ruined nest, and since there wasn't always justice in Middle-earth, they came after the closest targets.  Beliond was stung on arm, hip, and sensitive ear before outrage gave way to alarm.  And pain.  Especially pain.

The two Dwarves were already running back down the path like rocks going downhill, and Beliond glimpsed Stubby-beard take to his heel through the trees.

"Make for the river!"  Thranduil flung his arms over his head and bolted for the Celebrant.

Beliond stared longingly after the disappearing Dwarves.  Then Maltanaur grabbed his arm, and instead of going after the Dwarves, he towed Beliond into the trees.  A sting on the inner thigh cleared Beliond's head.  With Maltanaur clutching his arm, he charged for the river.

Together, they jumped from the bank.  The river closed over their heads.  When Beliond was an elfling, he had once fallen through the ice on the pond near his home.  The Celebrant was at least that cold.  Any pain Beliond felt from the hornet stings immediately gave way to the pain of the frigid water vindictively snaking into his clothes.

He swam a few feeble strokes underwater and could bear it no longer.  He surfaced and made for the shore.  There he found Thranduil, making noises that sounded like muffled shrieks.  Maltanaur sputtered out of the river too, and they slogged along the river's edge in thigh-deep water.  Fortunately, the hornets quickly retreated.  Beliond sent them mental pictures of Dwarves with fat backsides just waiting to be stung.

Thranduil led them to a low place in the bank, and they scrambled out to sit shivering in the dark.

"Orc spit," Beliond gasped.  "I think I have just been rendered unable to beget elflings."

~*~*~

"I think the pain of the stings confused Maltanaur," Beliond said.  "That was why he needed me to lead him to the river."

Eilian sprawled on his back, laughing so hard he couldn't stay upright.  Beliond had said Maltanaur wasn't always as sensible as he currently seemed, but both Maltanaur and Eilian's father sounded plenty sensible to Eilian.  Indeed, the Thranduil in Beliond's story sounded very much like the father who frequently found fault with Eilian's sense.  The beard cutting must have been an anomaly.  He wished someone would tell that story.

For the first time, though, it occurred to him that under the right circumstances Beliond himself might be an amusing companion.  In an annoying kind of way, of course.

He gave a last hoot.  "So you are saying Maltanaur was the one who lacked sense, while you were a model of discretion?"

Beliond looked at him primly.  "Instead of laughing, you should be learning a lesson here.  Both Maltanaur and your adar were too circumspect.  That's how the dwarves got the idea they could kick us around.  One cannot allow that."  He looked toward the burned spot, faintly visible as a dark smudge in the moonlit distance.  "If foes cannot be defeated, then they at least must be convinced to leave one alone."

Eilian sobered.  "Truth enough in that."  He'd spoken his honest belief when he said few things frightened a Dwarf.  The story Beliond had just told bore that point out.  Yet here they sat in a campsite from which had fled Dwarves who were perhaps the descendants of Stubby-beard and his friends.

He eyed the moon, low on the horizon and sliding toward it.  "We will wait until the moon sets before we go."

Beliond nodded.  "Good."

"So was landing in the river what you thought of today?" Eilian asked.  "None of us went in, and the river here is not that cold anyway."

"No.  It was not that.  It was what happened next, and that was all Maltanaur's fault.  He failed to take the battle to the Dwarves the first time, and then he tried to make up for it with his crack-brained idea."  Beliond looked thoughtful.  "Not that it wasn't amusing, of course."

***

TBC

AN:  The story of Thranduil's earlier encounter with the Dwarves is told in "Wood-Elves."

Many Thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter.  Too bad I'd already written myself into such a corner that I couldn't do what she so wisely suggested!

*******

Chapter 3.  Keeping Friends Close and Enemies Closer

Legolas leaned back in the maple and laughed at the tale Maltanaur was telling him.  "The river may have been icy, but really, Beliond is fortunate you led him to it.  Once hornets are angry, there's no reasoning with them.  Rather like Beliond," he added and laughed again.

"His mind was on Arriel at first and then on his desire to punch a Dwarf or two, so he was slow to heed your adar's advice."

Legolas thought of that evening so long ago in Lorien.  What a fascinating glimpse of his father as a young, single warrior, intrigued and put a little off-balance by interest from a maiden who was not Legolas's mother.  Still, his father sounded like the same self-controlled, disciplined Elf Legolas knew.  On the other hand, Maltanaur was showing him a Beliond whom Legolas had rarely suspected of existing.  He shook his head.  "Beliond has nerve urging me to be cautious."

"You should be cautious," Maltanaur said matter-of-factly.  "You are young in a more dangerous time, and a good many people would be devastated if anything happened to you, Eilian not least among them. We were fortunate in the Greenwood.  Of course, your adar had seen war in Doriath, though he was an elfling at the time.  I always thought that marked him."

"He has never forgotten," Legolas said.  "Ithilden would like him to take the Dwarves returning to Erebor as allies, but he will not hear of it."  The moment the words were out of his mouth, Legolas wondered if he was being indiscreet.  He was supposed to hold his tongue about things he heard in the palace. Still, Maltanaur knew Legolas's father well, and he looked unsurprised.  "Even given my adar's normal restraint, I am surprised he was willing to tolerate the Dwarves' needling.  He has a temper."  Legolas grinned.  "As both Eilian and I can tell you."

Maltanaur laughed.  "Even then, Thranduil was too wily to let himself be needled.  He guessed that, like us, the young Dwarves had been told not to make trouble.  If we had let ourselves be provoked into starting a fight, they would have been happy, for a while at least.  The hornets were just something they had in reserve."

"So was the jump into the river what you thought of today?  At least we all stayed dry."

"No," Maltanaur said.  "The real problem came later after Beliond had his idea.  He could restrain himself only so long.  Fortunately for him, I went along to be sure things went well and watch his back."

"And my adar?"

Maltanaur slid him a sideways look.  "We felt it would be better if we got rid of him for a while.  He was involved only later."

 

~*~*~

Barely managing to refrain from running, Maltanaur led his friends to the remnant of the fire on the Green where the dancing had been.  Most people had left by now, and the few still around were too engrossed in their own amusements to pay any attention to three shivering, dripping Elves from the Greenwood. At least, Maltanaur hoped they were too busy.  It would be better if word didn't get back to Captain Laegcened that he, Beliond, and Thranduil had been sloshing around in Amdir's back garden.  He supposed they could tell the captain they'd decided to go for a swim.  He might believe that.  Laegcened tended to think Wood-elves did inexplicable things as a matter of course.

The warmth of the fire embraced him like a lover.  He edged closer and stretched out his arms, Beliond crowding in on his left and Thranduil on his right.  For a few moments, no one said anything.  Wisps of steam rose from their clothes.  Beliond's ear was swelling, and Thranduil had a welt on the back of his left hand.  They would have to think up some explanation for those too.

"Your toe is singed," Thranduil said.

Maltanaur glanced down to see the toe of his right boot turning black.  He put a finger's width between himself and the fire and turned so his back could share the goodness.  He wiggled his shoulder blades, trying to loosen the tunic clinging to them.

"Devious little diggers," Beliond fumed.  "Ruthless rock rutters.  They attacked us with no provocation—"

"Well—" Thranduil said.

"No provocation," Beliond repeated, "and they threw an ax at an innocent tree!  They have to pay."

"What kind of payment did you have in mind?"  Maltanaur wouldn't mind seeing the Dwarves suffer, but he'd spent enough time with Beliond to know that it wasn't a good idea to jump in without some notion of what lay ahead.  Things could get out of hand.

"I am still thinking," Beliond said.

"I would enjoy kicking them around some," Thranduil said slowly, "but much as I hate to do it, I think we need to back away, and not just for our own sakes.  If we start a real fight, Amdir is likely to think we have violated his hospitality, and the king is looking for Amdir's cooperation in matters of trade."

Thranduil's jaw was tight, and his voice was strained.  Maltanaur could see that he was struggling and, not for the first time, felt sorry for him.  Thranduil had a temper as hot as Beliond's, but because of who he was, he always had to think beyond his personal desires.  Being loaded with Sindarin inhibitions would cramp an Elf's style all by itself.  Add being the king's son to that, and you got pinched in from all angles.

"You think those nasty little nose pickers should get away with what they did to us?" Beliond asked.

"No," Thranduil said, "but things do not always work out as they should."

"We could go see Arriel and Tamien instead."  Maltanaur dangled the thought in front of Beliond like honey-cake offered to an elfling contemplating a tantrum.

Thranduil grimaced.  "You two go on.  I would only frighten the poor maiden.  I look like a drowned rat."

Maltanaur wasn't surprised.  It had been clear to him that Thranduil's heart hadn't been in pursuing Tamien and the scuffle with the Dwarves obviously still weighed heavy on his mind.

Beliond opened and closed his mouth.  After a thoughtful moment, he said, "Perhaps I will just go and spend a little while with Arriel.  That would be all I would do.  See Arriel.  Nothing else."  He grinned horribly and trotted off, humming to himself.

Maltanaur watched him go with narrowed eyed.  That was far too easy.  Beliond should have squealed like a cat deprived of its mouse.  He was up to something.  Maltanaur shifted uneasily.  Leaving Beliond on his own was a bad idea.  Besides, Maltanaur really wanted to know what Beliond had in mind.

"Thranduil, I believe I will go with Beliond after all.  Perhaps we can rejoin you later."

Thranduil continued wringing the water out of a braid and nodded.  Maltanaur suppressed a twinge of guilt.  Thranduil deserved a chance to squash a Dwarf if he could get one.  Maltanaur resolved to come back and get Thranduil if Beliond's plan sounded workable.  If not, Thranduil was better off not even knowing about it, much less joining in.

Maltanaur hurried toward the place in the trees where Beliond had vanished.  There, he found a path and ran lightly along it until he saw Beliond ahead of him.

At the sound of Maltanaur's running footsteps, Beliond turned, fists raised.  When he saw Maltanaur, he dropped them and looked over Maltanaur's shoulder.  "Is Thranduil coming?"

"Only if whatever you are planning is unlikely to cause trouble."

Beliond scowled.  "What would be the point of that?"

Maltanaur laughed.  He had told himself he was only going along with Beliond to keep him out of trouble, but he had to admit excitement was singing through his veins.

Beliond's face relaxed.  "I think we will leave Thranduil out of this, just for now.  Maybe later we can give him a present."  He chortled maniacally.

Maltanaur rolled his eyes.  "What are we doing?"

"The first thing we need to do is get that loutish Dwarf's ax."

***

With his eyes on Beliond's back, Maltanaur crept silently along the path, still rubbing at the new hornet sting on his neck.  He'd hoped in vain that the hornets might have calmed down by the time he and Beliond returned, but all in all, they hadn't been attacked too badly.  The hornets were apparently less interested in revenge than Beliond was.

A rumble of deep voices came from ahead, and Beliond halted.  He slid Stubby-beard's ax into his belt, glanced at Maltanaur over his shoulder, and gestured to a nearby oak.

Maltanaur nodded, and the two of them swung into the tree and went branch hopping toward the Dwarves' camp.  In the trees, Maltanaur's body settled in harmony with itself and the world around him.  He felt like a bird, soaring through the forest's leafy top, unable to put a foot wrong, sure of the rightness of things that would be even more right once he and Beliond had carried out the plan.

After a short distance, Maltanaur glimpsed someone moving below them and gave a soft owl's hoot.  When Beliond turned, Maltanaur pointed to the bored looking Dwarf leaning on his long-handled ax and scanning the undergrowth with what looked like outright distaste, poor fool.  The Dwarves had apparently trusted Amdir's security so little that they had set sentries.  Of course, Oropher had set sentries too.  Or rather, Laegcened had.  Laegcened and the Dwarves apparently thought alike.

Beliond leapt to the next tree, with Maltanaur in his wake.  The Dwarf sentry never looked up.  It must be terrible to be a Dwarf.  They missed so much living in a flat world.

Through a gap in the leaves, Maltanaur caught a flash of movement.  At the same time, he smelled smoke, ale, and the mixed perfume of leather and sweat.  He jumped across to land on the branch near the one where Beliond stood, studying the Dwarves' camp.

The Dwarves had come prepared to stay in some comfort.  Tents ranged around a large fire pit, where various Dwarves sat, warming themselves inside and out, stretching feet toward the fire and slaking their thirst with mugs of ale.  A small barrel of the stuff sat to one side.  They'd gone to some lengths to see to their own security too.  In addition to the sentries, they'd set up camp at the edge of a gorge where an arm of the river had probably once run.  Greenery filled it now, showing black in the darkness.

Maltanaur scanned the Dwarves around the fire, but didn't see Stubby-beard or his friends.  These Dwarves looked older, and one on far side of the fire wore a hood with a tassel that almost brushed the ground.  Given the way the others listened attentively when he spoke, Maltanaur judged him to be the leader of this little band of ale swillers.

Beliond beckoned, and Maltanaur followed him from tree to tree, circling the camp.  They saw two more sentries, a string of ponies tied to a line, and four more barrels of ale, waiting near the ponies who had undoubtedly carted them here.  No sign of Stubby-beard and his friends, though.  Beliond eyed the tents, and Maltanaur was entertaining visions of using the ax to slice viewing holes in the canvas when Stubby-beard and his two cronies came into sight lugging buckets of water, which Maltanaur judged was intended only for washing.  Certainly no one in the camp looked ready to drink it.

Beliond let out a long breath, and Maltanaur caught himself smiling.  It was such a good plan.  It would have been a shame if he and Beliond hadn't been able to use it.

The three young Dwarves set the buckets near a tent and trotted toward the fire, where they picked up mugs that had been set aside on a flat rock.  Stubby-beard drained his and strode toward the barrel to refill it.  The Dwarf sitting next to the barrel put his hand over the tap and said something that sounded like a question.  Stubby-beard's two friends laughed, but Stubby scowled and held out his mug.  The older Dwarf shook his head but topped it off with ale.

As Stubby strolled back to sit down, the important looking Dwarf looked up from his conversation and said something sharp.

Stubby responded submissively enough, but as soon as the leader turned away, Stubby shared a grimace with his friends.  He glanced at the group of older Dwarves, then jerked his head toward the tent over which Maltanaur and Beliond were crouched.  The friends rose, and the three of them ambled off to sprawl on the grass behind the tent, out of their elders' sight.

Maltanaur cocked his head.  "We could distract his friends and grab him now," he murmured.  "That might be simpler."

"Simpler but not good enough."  Beliond looked severe.  "Our honor must be redeemed, and his elders need to learn that he has misbehaved."

Maltanaur had to admit it was a view he shared.

The Dwarf elders seemed uninterested in learning much of anything at the moment.  The conversation around the fire ceased, and the leader stood up, stretched, and ducked into the largest tent.

Beliond's teeth flashed white in the darkness.  "There you are.  When the Valar give you a chance, you have to take it."  He leapt to the next tree, a maple with a branch stretching over the leader's tent, right where an Elf with a grudge needed it to be.

Heart singing, Maltanaur was already flying toward the line of ponies, but he saw Beliond run out on the branch in plain view of anyone who thought to look up.  Beliond yanked Stubby's ax from his belt, and with one clean cut, he severed the rope anchoring the top of the tent to the maple.  He flung the ax toward Maltanaur and leapt back out of sight among the leaves.  The tent folded over unmoving lumps that were probably a cot and a chest and a bellowing, thrashing one that was undoubtedly the Dwarves' leader.

Maltanaur snatched the ax from the air and kept going.  Beneath him, Dwarves jumped to their feet and hastened to extract their leader from the hungry maw of the tent.  The sentry near the ponies ran toward the center of camp.

Maltanaur jumped to the ground and cut the line holding the ponies.  He drove Stubby's ax into the top of one of the spare barrels of ale, abandoned it there, and lunged at the ponies, flapping his arms.  "Go, go," he urged.

When the ponies bolted toward the tents, Maltanaur vaulted off one of their backs, scrambled into the trees, and raced back to the place where he and Beliond had kept watch on the camp.  As he flew along, his ears told him the camp had dissolved into noisy chaos, ponies and Dwarves dodging one another and squealing their alarm.  He found Beliond waiting, his satisfied gaze on the three young Dwarves, just coming to their feet and scuttling to the side of the tent to see what was going on.  They gawked at the collapsed tent and their milling elders and started forward.

Maltanaur and Beliond dropped softly to the ground.  In perfect synchronization, they lunged, seized the lagging Stubby, and dragged him into the bushes, like wolves cutting off a young moose from the herd.  Maltanaur clapped a hand over Stubby's mouth, while Beliond conjured a dagger from his boot and held it at the Dwarf's throat.

Stubby's eyes grew huge.  He struggled and grunted, and Maltanaur tightened his hold.  Valar, Dwarves were strong.  He kept his face cool, trying to look as if he were exerting the amount of effort it took to cuddle an elfling.

"Quiet."  Beliond flicked the dagger, and a tiny stream of blood trickled down Stubby's newly bared neck.

Stubby fell silent except for his breathing.

Maltanaur looked at Beliond for some indication of what they were going to do now.  Beliond looked back.  Then he opened and closed his mouth.  It occurred to Maltanaur that this part of the plan might have needed to be made more specific.

"Now what?" he asked.

Beliond brightened.  "We should take him to Thranduil.  He may have talked about backing away, but I could tell he was angry by the way his teeth were grinding.  This will cheer him up no end."

 

~*~*~

Legolas laughed so hard that the maple woke up and quested out to see what was happening.  The pain in Legolas's ankle eased at the tree's touch.  He patted its trunk and struggled to speak around his guffaws.

"Beliond has nerve!  And in more ways than one.  He would smack me silly if I did something like that."  For an instant, Legolas considered his past and added, "Assuming he found out, of course."

Maltanaur laughed.  "He wants you to have the benefit of his experience without suffering for it."

"Or having the fun either."

"True enough," Maltanaur said easily.  He looked up at the emerging stars, smiling at some private memory.

Legolas eyed Maltanaur.  His brother's guard appeared to have been wilder in his youth than he encouraged Eilian to be now.  Legolas found himself somewhat in awe of the daring and showmanship Maltanaur was describing.  It reminded him of an adventure or two that Eilian had managed to have despite Maltanaur's oversight.  Not that his brother had let Legolas take part, but word got around.

He shifted a little uneasily and looked north toward where Eilian and Beliond had disappeared.  Surely Beliond would be as careful with Eilian's safety as he was with Legolas's.  If Eilian let him, of course.

"I wonder how Beliond and Eilian are doing," Legolas said.  "I hope they ran into no trouble."

"They will be fine," Maltanaur said.  "Shall I tell you the rest of the story?"

Legolas had the distinct feeling he was being distracted, but he rose to the bait anyway.  "Do!  What did my adar say when you showed up with the Dwarf in tow?"

Maltanaur grinned.  "You will never guess.  And really, when I think about it, the final plan was neither mine nor Beliond's.  It was your adar's."

***

Eilian shook his head in wonder.  "So Maltanaur suggested going right into the Dwarves' camp?"

"Your guard can be very bold," Beliond said placidly.  "Once he agreed that avenging ourselves was a good idea, there was no stopping him.  I just went along to watch his back."

Eilian grinned at him.  "I don't know.  You sound like you were a more than willing participant."

"It was a good plan.  It worked well.  Of course, we had to change it around a bit once your adar joined in.  It turned out, he had a plan of his own."

"What did he say?"  Eilian could not imagine his father reacting with anything but rage at kidnapping the guest of a fellow Elven king, even if the guest was a Dwarf.

Beliond sighed.  "At first, he had trouble joining in the spirit of the thing."

"You are joking."  Eilian kept his face straight when Beliond threw him a suspicious look.

"Do you want to hear this or not?" Beliond asked.

Eilian glanced at the moon, hovering over the horizon.  "We have a little more time, and I would like to hear what my adar said or did that you thought of earlier today."  As a matter of fact, Eilian's curiosity had grown along with the wildness of Beliond's tale.  What in Arda would his father have made of all this?  He'd been unhappy enough over some of Eilian's adventures.

Beliond looked in the same direction.  "I can tell you the next bit anyway.  If there is not enough time for all of it, perhaps I can finish later."

 

~*~*~

Beliond lounged against an oak, tossing his dagger into the air and catching it again.  Tied to the tree opposite, the Dwarf watched the spinning blade.

"I wonder what your elders will think when they find your ax near the cut pony line," Beliond said.  "You and your friends had just gone off in a huff.  At least, that's how it looked to me.  Do you think that's how it looked to them?  And then, the ax had been used to hack a slice out of a barrel of ale.  They probably will not like that at all."

Stubby didn't answer, of course.  His company was much more bearable now that Beliond had gagged him.  But Beliond saw the flicker in Stubby's eyes and smiled.

"I suppose how they judge you depends on your past behavior.  Are you something of a hothead, perhaps?  Been a bad boy before?"

Behind his gag, Stubby growled.

"Believe me," Beliond said, "no one knows better than I how that can prejudice those in charge.  I have found they can be quite unreasonable sometimes."

Beliond would have said more, but he'd heard the soft brush of Elven feet coming through the woods.  When an owl hooted, he hooted back.  A moment later, Maltanaur led Thranduil into the clearing.

Thranduil stopped in his tracks, gaping at Stubby.  "Oh, Sweet Valar," he murmured.

Beliond glared at Maltanaur.  "You did not tell him?"

"I thought it would be better if he learned what happened only once he was here," Maltanaur said.

Thranduil spun to face them.  "How did you get hold of him?"

Beliond glanced at Maltanaur, who shrugged.  Beliond scowled.  Maltanaur had been supposed to explain everything.  Typical to leave it to Beliond.  "That is a long story."

Thranduil wiped a hand over his face.  "What are you going to do with him?"

"We thought we would let you decide."  Maltanaur looked hopeful.  "Wouldn't you like to be the one to name his fate?"

Stubby yanked at the belt binding him to the tree and made rude noises in his throat.  It sounded as if he was trying to spit, but the gag left whatever he'd hawked up gurgling in his mouth.  Of course, being a Dwarf, maybe he didn't care.

Thranduil threw the Dwarf a disgusted look.

"We could let float him in the river for a while," Beliond suggested, "assuming Dwarves float."  He pictured icicles hanging from Stubby's most intimate parts and smiled.

"We could strip him naked and leave him in a patch of fireweed," Maltanaur said.

"Oh yes," Beliond said, "that's better!  Fireweed will leave him with a nasty rash for a month."

Thranduil sighed.  "Good ideas, but what we are going to do is put him back without anyone knowing we were the ones who had him."  He moved toward Stubby, head craned to see how the Dwarf was tied.

"How?" Beliond asked.  "No matter what we do, he is sure to say it was us, so we might as well enjoy ourselves now."  His eye caught on the dagger still in his hand.  "Unless we cut out his tongue."  He grinned at the Dwarf.  He would never really cut out anyone's tongue.  Not unless they were a whole lost nastier than Stubby had managed to be so far.  Of course, the night was young.

Stubby watched Thranduil with malevolent little rodent eyes.  He waited until Thranduil was within a foot of him, heaved against the tree, and kicked out with his great, clumsy boots.  The soles landed in Thranduil's gut.

Thranduil reeled back, clutching his middle, and gasping like a broken bellows.

Maltanaur barked a surprised laugh.  "Change your mind, Thranduil?"

Beliond jumped forward, jammed his forearm across Stubby's throat, and flicked his dagger to cut off the top button of Stubby's trousers.  Stubby went gray and held very, very still.

Thranduil straightened himself out.  "I have just had an idea for how to return our guest to the loving arms of his people," he wheezed.

Beliond relaxed.  Thranduil might occasionally hold himself back from adventures, but he was wily as they came.

***

Beliond clutched Stubby's arm and dragged his half of the struggling Dwarf toward the camp where they'd snatched him.  Maltanaur tugged slightly to the right, following Thranduil.  They all halted behind a screen of underbrush, the rumble of Dwarven voices a dozen yards away.  Stubby grunted behind his gag and thrashed around more violently in Beliond and Maltanaur's grip.

Thranduil eyed the Dwarf coolly.  "Knock him out."

Delight flooded Beliond's Wood-elf heart.  He knew Thranduil wouldn't let them down!  When Beliond brought the hilt of his dagger down hard on the back of Stubby's head, the Dwarf folded like a fallen foe's war banner.  Maltanaur looked at Beliond over the Dwarf's head.  Simultaneously, they let go.  Stubby plopped in a heap.

"Not too hard," Thranduil said too late.

Beliond judged that meant Thranduil wasn't too worried.  "He will be all right.  The jolt will do his wits good."

"Watch him," Thranduil said.  "We want no surprises."

Beliond nudged Stubby with his toe, then stood over him with the dagger.

"Now we need ale," Thranduil said.  "I assume there is a supply in their camp?"

"I will be right back," Maltanaur said.

Before Beliond could claim the adventure for himself, Maltanaur vanished among the trees.  Beliond, Thranduil, and Stubby waited, Stubby making the most noise with his raucous breathing.  What was wrong with Dwarves' noses that they snorted like that?

The Dwarves must have recovered at least one pony because Beliond heard it whinny in the distance.  A moment or two later, he smelled ale, and Maltanaur reappeared with a small barrel on his shoulder. It was evidently the one he had axed earlier because ale dripped down his back from a crack in one end.

Nose wrinkled, Maltanaur lowered the barrel to the ground.  "That stuff's got into my hair and on my clothes."

"Oh, stop being fussy," Beliond said.  "You sound like a maiden in a new gown."  He looked at Thranduil, awaiting orders.

Thranduil apparently wanted this task for himself though.  He heaved the barrel into his arms and slopped ale all over the unconscious Dwarf.  Then he stepped back, set the barrel down, and studied the Dwarf with a critical eye.  "Does he look like a passed-out drunk to you?"

Beliond smiled.  What a leader Thranduil was going to make.  "Except for being tied up, he does."  He bent and cut Stubby's bonds.  "There.  That's perfect.  Where shall we leave him?"

Before Thranduil could answer, the sound of someone moving through the woods came from their left.  Beliond dove behind a bush, then darted out and grabbed Stubby by the heels to drag him into hiding too.  Maltanaur and Thranduil crouched nearby, peering from opposite sides of a hawthorn.  Not five yards away, an Elf strolled past, dressed in Amdir's livery.  He was being chivvied along by one of Stubby's friends, whose face was creased in an anxious scowl.  They vanished along the path to the Dwarves' camp.

Beliond looked over at Thranduil and Maltanaur, who looked back.

"We need to see what this is about," Thranduil muttered.

He crept toward the camp, moving carefully because they were on the edge of the gorge.  Maltanaur slinked along behind him, leaving Beliond to hoist Stubby and haul him along by himself.  Beliond staggered under the load.  What did Stubby eat anyway?  Rocks?

Thranduil reached the vantage point Beliond and Maltanaur had used before and scaled an oak, while Maltanaur climbed the next tree.  Beliond hesitated, then knotted his fist in Stubby's tunic and dragged the Dwarf up onto a branch that crossed near the one on which Thranduil stood.

Thranduil rolled his eyes.

"We do not want him discovered too early," Beliond whispered.  He propped Stubby near the tree's trunk, then scuttled out further on the branch to take a look at the Dwarf camp.

The Dwarves had straightened up most of the confusion Beliond and Maltanaur had left in their wake, but Beliond noted with pleasure that he could still see some signs.  The leader's tent had been re-erected, of course.  Around the fire pit, though, were marks of the ponies' passage.  A log the Dwarves had used as a seat had been rolled over to show its grubby underside, and one of the older Dwarves had a bandage wrapped around his hairy head.

Near the fire pit, Amdir's representative stood with the Dwarves' leader, two other older Dwarves, and Stubby's two friends.  The leader's hair was mussed into tufts like a giant baby bird's, and he wore something that looked like a night-robe.  He'd probably been roused from his bed and did not look pleased about it.

The friend who'd been pounding his fist into his palm while Stubby maneuvered them under the hornet's nest was rumbling on in a series of complaints.  Beliond was unsurprised to hear that they were directed against himself and his friends.

The Elf listened with an impassive face as Fist-pounder ranted.

"I tell you," Pounder said, "those three must have taken him.  He was here, and then he was gone.  What else could have happened?  The one called Thranduil is undoubtedly responsible."

Next to Beliond, Thranduil let out a soft breath.

"You may have heard that he attacked Kebur earlier on the Green.  You need to look into that.  And his two friends?  One of them took part in the attack, and the other one said disgusting things.  Another Elf translated them for us.  I think he wanted us to hear them."

Beliond blinked. He had disgusted a Dwarf?

"I will ask Lord Oropher about the actions of his people," the Elf said pleasantly.

Pounder grunted.  "It wouldn't surprise me if Oropher was involved too.  He's hostile to us.  Anyone with an eye could see that today."

The Elf ignored him and spoke to the Dwarves' leader.  "Perhaps it would be best if you and your people stayed in your camp for the rest of the night."  He bowed and left the camp site.  In an irritated voice, the leader said something to Pounder in Khuzdul and retreated to his tent.  The older Dwarves drifted away.  Pounder and the other friend flung themselves onto seats by the fire, Pounder still talking under his breath.

Beliond eyed Pounder.  "We want him too."

"Oh, yes," Maltanaur said.

"Perhaps we should—" Thranduil began.

"We will go," Beliond said.  "You watch the prisoner."  He lifted Stubby up onto Thranduil's branch.  Later, Beliond decided that the incident happened because Thranduil was big for an Elf.  Under his and Stubby's combined weight, the branch creaked a warning.  Then it broke, and both Thranduil and Stubby rolled down it, through the underbrush, and over the edge of the gorge.

 

~*~*~

Eilian leaned forward.  "That's what my fall today reminded you of .  What happened next?  You cannot stop there!"

Beliond raised an eyebrow and gestured to the horizon, where the moon had finally vanished.  "We should go.  If you use reasonable caution, I will tell you the rest later."

"Is that meant to manipulate my actions?"

Beliond looked genuinely surprised.  "Of course not.  If I want to 'manipulate' your behavior, I will tell you."

Eilian looked toward the burned place, and all thoughts of the story slid from his mind.  Something had happened out there, something bad enough to scare Dwarves.  The need to scout out what it had been took all his attention.

He rose.  "Let's go then."  He set off, with Beliond at his back.

In the distance, a wolf howled.

TBC

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.

***

Chapter 4.  Wood-elves to the Rescue

Beliond was close enough behind that Eilian sensed the warmth of his body.  Eilian lifted his head and sniffed at the night wind.  The scent of scorched grass and shrubs mingled with something wilder.  He supposed lightning could have started the fire.  He hoped it was so.  But there was no way to tell.  Whatever the night creature was that he smelled, it was still nearby.

A long howl split the night.  Eilian stiffened, then looked over his shoulder to meet Beliond's hard eyes.  "Warg," he whispered.

Beliond nodded.

Without speaking, they shifted their course to be more directly downwind from the cleft between the rocks from which the burned area spread.  Eilian already had his bow in his hand, but he drew an arrow and set it loosely to the string.  Oddly, he felt more relaxed now that he knew what lay ahead.  At least wargs were a familiar enemy.  Of course, wargs had nothing to do with fire, so that mystery still waited to be solved.

He crept along the rocks piled near the canyon's entry, flinching even at the sound of the blackened grass crunching under his feet.  The wargs would not have heard though because the sounds of growling and snarling rose on the air.  He concluded three unpleasant things:  the wargs were close, there was more than one, and they were in a bad temper with one another.  Not good.  They might all decide to take their fury out on a couple of Elves.

Heart pounding, he peered around the edge of the gap, aware of Beliond sliding out a little from behind him so he could see too.

The moon was gone, and in the canyon, night lay darker than dark.  But he still saw the hulking shapes nosing at something in the ashes lying knee deep in the canyon.  A warg snapped its jaws and something crunched.  It plunged its muzzle into whatever was in the ashes.  An instant later, Eilian heard the sound of it eating.  The others stretched toward the place, but the warg stopped feeding long enough to bare its teeth and snarl.  The others drew back, scuffling ashes into a cloud.

All Eilian's attention drew in to focus on destroying his enemies.  Six of them.  The first few would be easy.  Then he and Beliond would have to watch themselves.

He followed his instinct and training by waving Beliond toward the tumbled rocks.  No trees grew here, but he and Beliond could still shoot from overhead.  The two of them scaled the rocks and picked their way across the uneven surfaces until they stood balanced on a rounded boulder only three yards above the wargs' heads.  They both drew their bows.

"Now," Eilian said.  He sent an arrow into the top of the biggest warg's skull.  The arrow still quivered and the warg was still on its feet when he shot a second one through the eye.  Beliond too shot quickly.  The two remaining wargs scattered.  Eilian sighted down his arrow at the one running to the opposite side of the canyon.

"Look out!" Beliond cried at the same moment when a warg's claw swept Eilian's feet out from under him.

Like a repetition of a nightmare, he tumbled forward into the canyon, brushing the back of the warg stretched up against the rocks to get at him and Beliond.  He landed on his belly, ashes choking and blinding him, arrows shaken from his quiver raining down around him.

He heard the twang of a bowstring, then Beliond cursing, then the rumble of a warg's growl within a yard of his head.  Desperately he grabbed for his knife, but as he swept his hand through the ashes, he felt something he recognized, maybe because he'd just heard so much about one.  He grabbed the Dwarf's ax and rolled, swinging it blindly upward.  He felt the resistance as it sliced through flesh.  Hot stickiness flowed down his arm and spattered onto his face.  The smell of blood soaked into the clog of ashes in his nose.  Something heavy collapsed on top of him.

For a terrible instant, it flashed into his mind that he might have just killed Beliond.

Then a strong hand grabbed his arm and dragged him aside.  "Are you hurt?"  Beliond shook his arm.  "Answer me!"

Eilian spat ashes and blinked tears that were trying to wash out his eyes.  "Are they all dead?"  He realized he was still holding his bow in one hand and the ax in the other.

Beliond let go of him.  "Yes, though it was a near thing.  I was afraid to shoot so near you.  I couldn't even see you in those ashes."

Eilian squinted at him.  Beliond's trousers were black with ashes.  Eilian assumed he himself must look like that from head to heel.  He spat again and struggled to his feet.  "What were they feeding on?"

Beliond waded through the ash to brush at the place where they'd first seen the wargs.  The ashes were heaped up there, burying something.  Eilian snorted ashes and went to join him.  Beliond gave one more swipe, and a smoothly rounded surface appeared.  Beliond stared at it, then circled it until he was at the place where one of the wargs had cracked it.

"An egg," he said in a flat voice.  "A dragon's egg."

With a kind of horrified reverence, Eilian touched the hard shell.  The egg's top came just above his waist.  Darkness had leached its color and shine, but under his fingers, it was slick as glazed pottery.  He raised the Dwarf's ax and chopped down hard, cracking the shell still further.  He hacked away for a few moments, Beliond watching, until slime from the egg ran out into the ashes.

"The mother must have laid it here in the ashes to keep it warm," he said.

"She probably created the ashes first.  I only hope the Dwarf who owned that ax was not here at the time."

In the narrow canyon, Eilian couldn't see much of the sky, but he looked up anyway.  "Does the mother tend them?"

"If they are like lizards, then no.  We should make sure this is the only one, though."

They hunted through the ashes, retrieving Eilian's arrows but finding no more eggs.  Their methodical search took them to the mouth of the canyon, where Eilian looked up into the night sky and saw only stars. "Perhaps this one was south of their normal nesting area."

"I hope so," Beliond said.  "We need to report this anyway."

"Of course."  Eilian shouldered his bow.  "If we had known what the wargs were feeding on, I suppose we could have left them."

"No, we couldn't," Beliond said dryly.

Unexpectedly, Eilian found himself grinning.  "Well, not us, but some warriors maybe."  They walked back toward the woods.  "Tell me about what happened after my adar and the Dwarf rolled out of sight."

***

Legolas could scarcely contain his glee.  "My adar rolled off the edge of the gorge?  And Amdir's representative had already promised to tell my grandfather that the three of you had been up to something?  What happened?"

Maltanaur shook his head, smiling. 

~*~*~

Maltanaur rushed to peer over the edge of the gorge.  Thranduil perched about halfway down, though the Dwarf had rolled all the way to the bottom, leaving a trail of crushed weeds.  He nestled face-down in a bed of more weeds.  For a moment, Maltanaur feared Stubby was hurt.  Then the Dwarf inhaled a long, rattling breath, and Maltanaur relaxed.  Stubby was undoubtedly bruised and maybe even a bit broken, but he wasn't really what a Wood-elf thought of as hurt.

Maltanaur shifted his attention to Thranduil, who seemed to be holding himself awkwardly, clutching a tree root to hoist himself a little way off the narrow ledge that had kept him from joining the Dwarf.

"Climb up," Maltanaur said.  "We need to get hold of Pounder before he ducks into a tent or something."

"Perhaps you have not realized that this hillside is covered with firethorn," Thranduil said in a strained voice.  "I would rather not climb through it.  Can you get some rope?"

Maltanaur sniffed.  Now that Thranduil mentioned it, the crushed weeds did smell like firethorn.  Not that Thranduil was likely to be mistaken.  If he'd slid through firethorn, he was already squirming under the burning itch that was breaking out anywhere it had touched his skin.

Beliond's face lit up with delight.  "The Dwarf rolled right through the nasty stuff!  And surely, he's wallowing in it even now!"

Maltanaur squinted down at Stubby.  "I do believe you are right!"  His gaze met Beliond's, and the two of them burst out laughing.

"Rope?" Thranduil's voice came from the gorge.

Maltanaur struggled to be sober.  "The Dwarves are sure to have some.  As a matter of fact, the ponies were tied to some rope.  Hang on.  We'll get it."

He wheeled to trot toward the Dwarves' camp, Beliond beside him chortling, "'Hang on.'  Good one, Maltanaur."

Maltanaur waved a hand, modestly shooing away all credit.  He drew a steadying breath, and he and Beliond crept to the line of bushes closest to the camp.  Maltanaur parted the branches and took a look.  Pounder and his friend still sat by the fire, sipping ale.  Beliond touched Maltanaur's sleeve.  Maltanaur let the branches close and moved back a little to listen.

"I know we need the rope," Beliond murmured, "but Pounder is right there, and we all agreed he needed to join his friend."  He looked at Maltanaur with hopeful eyes.  "It would only take a few moments, and Thranduil isn't going anywhere."  He laughed at his own joke.

"What did you have in mind?" Maltanaur asked.

"You go get the rope and draw off the one who is not Pounder.  I doubt we could manage them both at the same time," Beliond said regretfully, "but once he is gone, I will take care of things here."

Maltanaur nodded, leapt into a tree, and once again made his way toward the place where the ponies were tethered.  There, he lay flat on the branch of a maple and studied the situation.  The guard near the ponies looked considerably more alert than he had earlier.  That could be useful, if Maltanaur was clever enough.  As he'd expected, the Dwarves had used slip knots to tie the rope to the trees and the ponies to the rope.  That simplified matters.  He'd still have to be quick, but the day he was too slow to run circles around a Dwarf, kick him in the backside, and escape into a tree in time for tea was the day he'd be ashamed to call himself a Wood-elf.

He moved back through the branches toward the fire, stopped in an oak, and plucked an acorn.  From the corner of his eye, he glimpsed Beliond jittering with impatience behind the bush near where Pounder and Not-Pounder sat.  Maltanaur edged out on the oak's branch until he was still screened by leaves but the night breeze flowed more freely through them.  He took aim and tossed the acorn to bounce off Not-Pounder's head.

The Dwarf jerked, put his hand to his head, and spotted the acorn bouncing away.  He jumped to his feet and scanned the trees, saying something to Pounder.  Pounder too stood up and turned in a half circle studying the trees.  Maltanaur waited until Pounder was looking the other way and his friend was looking toward the oak.  Then he sidled out into the open.

Dwarves didn't see well in the dark to start with, and these two had been looking at the fire, so they were even more night-blind than usual.  For an instant, Maltanaur feared he might have to wave to attract Not-Pounder's attention.  But then Not-Pounder looked straight at him and stiffened.

Maltanaur leapt back into hiding among the leaves and was jumping to the next tree before Not-Pounder had time to squawk.  He heard Not-Pounder's boots thumping and Pounder's boots echoing them.  As Maltanaur swooped over the top of the pony line, the double set of running feet became singular.  He smiled.  You could always count on Beliond to take out a straggler.

Not-Pounder shouted, and the guard near the ponies ran toward him.  Maltanaur dropped to the ground, tore along the line of ponies to set each one free, yanked the far end of the rope loose, and bounded back to the near end, coiling the rope in his hands as he came.  He released the second knot and jumped into the trees to fly back to Beliond, waiting with Pounder lying unconscious at his feet and a mug of ale in his hand.

Shouts from Not-Pounder and the guard had apparently spooked the already nervous ponies because Maltanaur heard their hooves thundering away in the other direction.  He flung the coiled rope around his shoulder and grabbed Pounder's left arm while Beliond grabbed the right one.  They dragged the Dwarf to the edge of the gorge.

Maltanaur peered down at Thranduil, who looked as if he might be sagging toward the firethorn on the ledge.  "We will have you up from there very soon."

Thranduil grunted.  "That would be best."

"We just have to do one thing first," Beliond said.  He emptied the mug of ale over Pounder, glanced over the edge to see where Thranduil was, dragged Pounder a yard to one side, and carefully rolled him over the edge.

Maltanaur leaned out to watch him go.  The Dwarf spun through the firethorn and landed sprawled on his back next to Stubby.  Beliond tossed the mug after him.  It bounced once and landed next to his hand, nested in firethorn.  Beliond had always had an accurate throwing arm.

Thranduil had watched Pounder twirl past.  He looked up, desperation in his eyes.  "Now that you two have had your fun, can we get on with this?"

Hastily, Maltanaur lowered the Dwarves' rope.  Beliond grabbed the end to anchor him, and Thranduil pulled himself up, hand over hand, mostly avoiding the firethorn.

Not all though.  When he clambered to his feet, the first thing he did was scratch the back of his right hand and then the rash flaring across his right cheek.

"Wash that hand before you touch anywhere else," Maltanaur advised.  "Otherwise, you will just spread the poison to places your clothes have protected.  And it's undoubtedly on your clothes, so you should not touch them either."

Thranduil yanked his hand away from his face.  "We should return to our own camp then, so I can wash and change."  Without waiting for agreement, he strode off.

"You could at least thank us for rescuing you," Beliond called.

Thranduil hunched his shoulders and kept going.

"It's possible he believes you should not have put Stubby on the branch with him," Maltanaur said.

Beliond shrugged.  "Too late now, so why worry about it?"  He grinned.  "And you have to admit, things could not have turned out better."

Maltanaur laughed.  Then he and Beliond trotted after Thranduil.

***

Maltanaur braced to attention and looked straight ahead.  From the corner of his eye, he saw Captain Laegcened, hands behind his back, stalking away to give Thranduil and Beliond their turns being pinned by his best dagger-sharp glare.  Beyond the captain, Oropher waited, looking faintly amused.

The captain cocked his head at Thranduil.  "You look like you have been tangling with hornets.  And what's that on your cheek?"

"Firethorn, sir."

"There's a lot of it around here," Beliond said.  "You should be careful, sir."

Laegcened wheeled to bark at Beliond.  "When I want your advice, I will ask for it."

Beliond put on his bland, Wood-elf face.

Laegcened turned back to Thranduil.  "One of Amdir's guards was here a little while ago.  It seems the Dwarf whose beard you shortened is missing, Thranduil.  Am I to believe that is just a coincidence?"

Thranduil hesitated, and Laegcened's eyes narrowed.

Maltanaur scrambled to the rescue.  "That Dwarf is no more missing than I am, sir."

Beliond and Thranduil both blinked.

Laegcened whirled toward Maltanaur, but Oropher spoke first, sounding intrigued.  "Not missing?  Where is he then?"

"The last we saw him, he was laid out cold, stinking of ale."  Maltanaur had the satisfaction of seeing everyone else's mouths drop open.

Oropher was the first to recover.  "Drunk, was he?  And I suppose you three had nothing to do with it?"  He laughed.  "Go on to bed, all of you."  He slapped Laegcened on the shoulder.  "They are Wood-elves, Captain.  Would you want them to be other than they are?  Come.  I will pour you a last cup of wine."

The king led Laegcened away, the captain scowling back over his shoulder.

Maltanaur bolted for his bedroll, Beliond and Thranduil hard on his heels.

 

~*~*~

Legolas flung his head back against the maple and whooped until tears ran down his face.  "Who could have guessed my adar would act so wildly?" he finally gasped out.  "Or Beliond!"  Beliond was the one who really amazed Legolas.  His keeper was a Wood-Elf after all, beneath all his caution for Legolas.  Far beneath.  "And you got away with it.  You are unbelievably fortunate my grandfather was there."

Maltanaur smiled.  "We loved Oropher from the moment he walked into the woods.  The trees knew he belonged, and so did we.  Remember now," he added, "don't let Beliond or your adar know that I told you this story."

"Neither one will hear it from me."  Legolas rubbed his ankle, which felt better already.  The sky was lightening in the east, he realized.  He sat up.  "Eilian and Maltanaur should be back by now."

"They would have taken the time to search thoroughly," Maltanaur said easily.  "They will be here soon."

At that moment, Legolas heard the sounds of someone tramping through the woods.  His relief lasted half a heartbeat before turning to alarm.  No Elf ever walked that heavily.  He grabbed his bow as Maltanaur jumped to his feet on the branch, sword held awkwardly in his left hand.

***

Eilian finally managed to stop laughing.  "I wish I had seen the look on my adar's face when you put the Dwarf next to him and that branch broke."

"That was not my fault," Beliond said.  "Thranduil is big for an Elf.  Like Ithilden.  When Ithilden was my lieutenant, he once had a branch give way under him."

"Oh, tell me!"

"No.  Ithilden is your commanding officer."

"Laegcened was yours!"  In the dawn light, Eilian glared at Beliond's smiling profile.  Could Beliond be teasing him?  "You three must have had the Valar on your side!  If my grandfather had not interfered, you would have been on clean up duty that lasted until yesterday."

"Oropher was born to live among us.  We would have followed him anywhere."  Beliond's smile faded.  "I suppose we did in the end."

Eilian, too, sobered.  "I am sorry I never knew him."

"He would have like you," Beliond said, surprising Eilian.  "You are like him, a Wood-elf through and through, which I suppose is what frightens your adar.  Oropher was for another time.  Thranduil would worry about you far less if the times were different."

Eilian waited to feel annoyed as he always did at being reminded of how his father worried, but instead he felt only sadness for the loss of that other time, when his father and his friends were young and carefree.  The tale Beliond had told seemed innocent, though Eilian knew the animosity toward the Dwarves had come from a source that was no such thing.  He put his hand on the ax tucked through his belt.  "Are the times ever different?

Beliond shrugged.  "Some day they will be.  For now, you and your brother need to take care of yourselves."

Eilian pictured the way Beliond had come to his aid when he fell into the ashes and the warg attacked.  At that moment, Beliond had been as far from taking care of himself as…well, as Eilian might have been in the same place.  "Watch over Legolas for me, Beliond," he said impulsively.  "I would do it myself, but I have to go back south soon, and Ithilden has far too much sense to send Legolas there, thank the Valar."

"No need to worry," Beliond said.  "The boy is learning all the time, and I keep a good eye on him, more than he likes sometimes."

"True enough."  They were drawing near the campsite where they had left Legolas and Maltanaur.  Eilian hoped they had had a comfortable night.

"Thranduil would be unhappy if he knew I had told you this story," Beliond said.  "Maltanaur too, for that matter."

"I will keep my mouth shut to both of them."  Eilian tensed and lifted his head to the trees.  He slipped his bow from his shoulder.

Beliond instantly did the same.  "What is it?" he asked in a low voice.

"I am not sure."  Eilian ran lightly and silently, weapon at the ready, until he could see the clearing where they had built their fire and eaten.  He blinked, uncertain for a moment, then lowered his bow and stepped into the campsite.  "What have we here?"

The three Dwarves whose backs were to him all spun, eyes wide, hands reaching for the axes in their belts.  Or rather, in two of their belts.  The third Dwarf closed his fist over nothing.

Maltanaur had been facing them, and Eilian noted that his sword was still in its sheath.  From the corner of his eye, he could see Legolas was still in the tree.  Eilian was uncertain if the Dwarves had spotted his little brother, and for the time being, thought it best not to call attention to him.  Beliond came into the clearing too, carefully not looking up into the maple.

"We have guests, Captain," Maltanaur said.  "It seems they have had a run in with a dragon.  I offered them shelter, thinking you might want to hear their story."

"So I would, and they are welcome to warm themselves and eat with us if they need food." 

"Thank you," one of the Dwarves said stiffly.  "We will not stay long."

"Stay as long as you like," Eilian said.  "Is this yours?"  He pulled the ax from his belt and offered it to the Dwarf who had no weapon.

The Dwarf's eyes widened.  "It is.  Where did you find it?"

"I will trade you story for story," Eilian said, "but at the moment, I want to get rid of some of these ashes.  I will not be long."

He grabbed his pack, moved off into the underbrush, and cleaned up as best he could.  Before going back into the campsite, he swung himself up the back side of the maple where Legolas sat, watching the scene below.  "How are you?"

"Fine."  Legolas scowled at him.  "Do I have to stay up here?"

Eilian mussed his little brother's hair and grinned when Legolas swatted at his hand.  "This is a very nice tree.  You should be happy to stay here."  Eilian watched a newly scrubbed Beliond rejoin the Dwarves and Maltanaur.  "Legolas—"

"Eilian—" Legolas said at the same time.

Simultaneously, they both murmured, "When we have time, I have a story to tell you."

The end





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