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