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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.
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