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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.
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?"
"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."
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