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Prey Tell

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Oh for menel’s sake, they’re barely more than hatchlings, thought Landroval impatiently. The younger eagles, mere centuries old, swirled below him, rolling giddily on the dramatic thermals that roiled up east of the Misty Mountains. There is an unacceptably large chance they won’t be able to distinguish what’s in their talons now from the goats they’re used to eating. It is not as if Dwarves smell all that different when they have been on the march for weeks.

Landroval had lived long Ages of the world. That was long enough for him to know when to keep his wings high, tail straight and his beak tight and silent. Well did he remember the keening grumblings of his great forefather Thorondor, the first of the great Eagle kind to be called upon for desperate rescues. “Just pluck them from the jaws of fate at the last possible moment. Then carry them where they need to go and speak no more of it,” he had said. “For to complain is to invite the annoyance of Manwë, and very passive is he in his aggression.”

This hadn’t even been an Operation Eucatastrophe mission to start with. It had begun when - this had simply been the mighty Lord Gwaihir, Landroval’s brother, surveyed his domain from his dramatic craggy post, watching goblins and wargs wreak their havoc by pale moonlight. Movement had caught his eye, and fire nearly blinded him, for Eagles are sometimes too keen of sight. “Tis Gandalf the Grey in trouble again,” Gwaihir had said. “He’s handy at healing arrow-wounds, that’s certain, but he always forgets how many times I’ve carried him already. Well, carry him we must, or we’ll never hear the end of how we didn’t help poor little Olórin, and if anything happens to him then Aiwendil will be heartbroken and he’ll go crying to Yavanna, and . . . Well never mind the dull details, it’s a good night for flying. To me, Eagles, to me! On top of the wind, over top of the world!”

Into the cool autumn night they came, over a dozen of them, the subtle moon shining in the warp and the weave of their wings and the savage spark of their eyes, their spear-tip beaks and curved-dagger talons gleaming. By the reckoning of their kind many of them were young and eager, and they had not yet had their fill of opportunities to tear and rend orcs and goblins, to blind their eyes and slash them deep and pick them up and drop them from great heights, although such creatures were not much good for eating. The hunt for its own sake delighted them: the frenzied yelps and burning Warg fur beckoned, and screams of terror and pain from many voices - for Eagles are not kindly birds. Even the best of them have a taste for blood and war. Wondrous indeed it is that Eagles have proven so hard to corrupt - and yet perhaps not so hard to understand, for Eagles may choose to do favours, but they do not accept commands. In the good graces of Manwë, at least the winds are fair and the vistas boundless. And their bloodlust is rewarded oft enough in Manwë’s service.

So it was with the joy of the hunt that they swept down into the burning glade. They slew orc and goblin and warg alike, as the uncanny fire of Gandalf’s art danced and gleamed in their eyes and on their vicious claws, warming them for a moment even as they took to the cold night wind again. They dipped briefly before they launched high, bearing their burdens of one wizard and twelve Dwarves and one small creature who was neither, scarcely more than a rabbit’s weight.

With a death grip the little creature held on, fair to pull Landroval’s feathers out. At first its sobbing and sniveling was almost audible above the wind. Then it quieted, as if accepting its fate, or at least saving its breath: a show of wisdom, for they flew high enough now that the air was cold and thin. Landroval could feel it squirming about on his back, and crying out for its fellows. The fallen one seemed to worry him most, for when Landroval wheeled closer to Gwaihir, he could see the eagle lord’s burden lying limp in Gwaihir’s talons. The armored Dwarf dangled lifelessly. Landroval could feel his own passenger’s gasps and gripping when Gwaihir readjusted his cargo in his claws.

Clearly they care for one another, Landroval thought, thinking himself quite noble to spare a compassionate thought for these brief and wingless lives. To be fair, the little being had already survived being dropped and falling and no doubt accepting imminent death only to land with a thud on Landroval’s back. It had done so without its tiny fast-beating heart stopping dead of fright, so perhaps it deserved some credit. And Landroval’s keen eye had not failed to notice the smears of black Orc-blood about him, on his hands and the hilt of his uncleaned sword. That alone rendered him close to inedible.

Not that Landroval would have done such a thing. Almost certainly not. Gradually as the eagle flotilla found fine thermals even in the dead of night. They soared on beneath Tilion’s silvery light ringing the lacy edges of clouds. Landroval came to be bothered by the intrusion of the weight less and less, although he could have done without the sudden tugs on the feathers of his back and shoulders as he took entirely tame and reasonable dives and rolls. Eventually the squeaking ceased, as the little bring seemed to settle and accept his circumstances.

Dawn was breaking as the eagles approached their aerie high on steep crags and cliffs sharply overlooking the jagged spires and grim rock-strewed valleys. To an eagle’s eye, the bare sides of the mountains are the loveliest lands, offering far vistas and a rich choice of winds - warm and cool, north and south and west, even if the east wind is not always to be trusted. From the plains of Dale and the blasted lands that marked the presence of Smaug, to the strange vapors rising from Mirkwood, to the place where there were men with arrows, and the place where eagles do not hunt because Beorn their ally forbids it, all was within their piercing gaze from these havens in the holy mountains. Made by the earthen arts of Aulë, not the meaningless tumults of Melkor, formed in purpose and harsh beauty, the home of eagle-kind for all the ages of the world, designed in perfect height and breadth. When the orcs and goblins of the Misty Mountains moved, they did not go unseen, nor did the comings and goings of prey. Landroval beat his great wings slowly, backing and braking, pulling on the air to lower his altitude and slow his speed as he aimed for his perch.

Landroval wondered at first what Gwaihir was playing at, leading his raiding party to bring their living cargo to their hallowed aerie peaks. But it was not nesting season, so no eggs or hatchlings were at risk, and it was the best vantage point to plan further forays. And of course well-placed in familiar hunting grounds, for the Eagles would be hungry after their long flight with baggage. The sheep flocks would see their numbers reduced this night.

And the little mewling, groaning creatures would probably fall quiet after a meal. Perhaps some had expired on the way and could be eaten once peeled of their coatings.

Carefully did all the Eagles watch as Gandalf assessed all his smaller charges, pausing for a moment to revive one who seemed at first departed or nearly so. Gandalf took in the cries and sighs of relief to find everyone present and intact. Fine, it would be mutton for supper then, thought Landroval. It was going to be a slightly irritating night, as far too many dinner guests scrambled about trying to find a place for themselves that wasn’t up against someone’s wings or at risk of catching in someone’s talons.

The bearded ones in particular kept gazing over the edge of the cliffs with what seemed to be both attraction and repulsion. They watched the night sky as if expecting something to drop on them out of it - as if they didn’t care for being so much closer to it than usual. Well, they are very short, Landroval thought. He let himself feel a moment of pity for them, being kept so far away from the sky their whole lives. He knew, of course, that Dwarves are quite content to build vast cities beneath the mountains. Often they cared little to see the sky at all. He gave a vast full-body shiver and worried at the feathers of his crop with his beak at that very upsetting thought.

The smallest one, the one without a beard, rose slowly from his place kneeling over one of the armored ones, as the black-bearded one who’d appeared dead carefully sat up and looked about him. It was almost touching to watch how they cared for one another, and how they disguised it. Eagles do not concern themselves with such matters in the same way, for family is never questioned and mating is signaled in flight and unmistakable.

Landroval probably should not have been so taken by surprise when the creature he had carried spoke to him. Nevertheless, he was.

It made a nervous little sound, clearing its throat. “Good evening!” it finally said.

“Greetings,” Landroval said, because he felt that he must.

The creature seemed nearly as surprised as he was. What’s the point of addressing me if you thought I wouldn’t answer? Landroval thought but did not say.

It swayed a little on its feet - flat and clawless as with all the creatures of this general type, but this one wore no shoes and had a thick coat of brown curly fur at the top of them. “Good evening,” it said. “My name is Bilbo Baggins, and I am a hobbit of the Shire. You probably haven’t seen a lot of those.” He gave a not-uncourteous little bow, and something in his eyes was merry and daring.

“The green lands far to the north and the west,” Landroval said. “I have soared over them.” Perhaps best to mention he had seen no pressing reason to land, beyond the region being known for the tender and well-fed quality of its sheep. “I am Landroval. I know little of hobbits. You are small. Are you full-grown? Is that as big as you ever get?”

“Ah. Yes. I’m fully grown,” said Bilbo, looking slightly offended.

“Are you a male or a female? Are your females larger, like ours?”

“I’m male, and no,” said Bilbo. “Wait, your females are larger?” he seemed impressed and not a little frightened at that thought. He clearly found Landroval quite big enough to be going on with.

“Yes, our sister Meneldor brings us Oliphaunts from the South to eat. She can carry a half dozen at once. But even she fears that which sleeps in the Lonely Mountain. Watch yourselves if you persist in this folly. We cannot and will not save you from that fire.”

Bilbo the hobbit sighed. “Everyone in the whole world seems to know our business. When we set out, we considered stealth and surprise our best allies.”

“You travel with the Grey Wanderer, who has long been well known to all of us. If he valued stealth so much he should have found a way to avoid stirring the goblin anthill and starting a forest fire,” said Landroval. Bilbo danced away in a squirrelly fashion at his first hearing of Eaglish laughter. “Anyhow, we are the eyes in the sky, and it was lucky for you that we saw you when we did.”

“Yes, that was what I meant to say,” said Bilbo, bouncing a little on his feet. “That was what I came here to say, I mean. Thank you. You saved all our lives.”

“Yes, we did, didn’t we? I would say you’re welcome, except that you are not. Do not take us for granted.”

“I understand,” Bilbo said. “Of course. It would never have occurred to me to ask a favor of such as you. Not even once, let alone twice.”

“If we must do good deeds, we prefer to do them unasked,” said Landroval.

“But surely,” said Bilbo, as though he were no longer sure of anything. “you don’t want to go completely unappreciated. Anyhow. You didn’t have to save our lives, but you did, so I wanted to make sure you knew it was. Appreciated. And for your hospitality.”

“I accept your gratitude,” Landroval said. “I hope you will still feel the same about hospitality when the night reaches its full depth. We care little for warmth or cold, for we are creatures of the mountain ledges, and if the temperature where we are doesn’t suit us, it is a small matter to go higher or lower to find the most comfortable air. But of course you are quite stuck here for the night unless you want to climb sheer stone in the dark. You will huddle with your hairy companions for warmth, I take it.”

“Most likely,” Bilbo said, nodding. “Though your feathers look accommodating. Do you not keep your . . .do you call them chicks? Hatchlings? Your little ones, when you have them, do you not warm them in the nest?”

“We do,” said Landroval, unsure where this was going. “And we expect to no longer need such coddling once our mature feathers are grown in. Surely you have all the feathers you ever will have?”

“I’m afraid so,” Bilbo said, “and I’m afraid that’s none. We like a nice fire in the hearth when the cold winds blow, that’s how we face the cold, if we must.”

“I see your friends are working on building that up already,” said Landroval, the smell of wood smoke rising from the corner of the ledge where Gandalf and Bofur and Ori could be seen silhouetted in the little growing flame. “Clearly they have not had enough of fire for the evening.”

“Well, there are many different types of fires,” Bilbo said, smiling. “This is a very welcome one, particularly if there is supper to be cooked upon it.”

“Pity,” said Landroval at the surprisingly loud rumbling noise that came from the hobbit’s belly. “You could eat sooner if you didn’t always have to sear it through first. We have mutton and rabbit and beef, and all are fine straight from the bone if you ask me.”

“Well, if we hobbits are known for anything in the wide world, and it seems we are not,” Bilbo said, thumbs in his ragged waistcoat, “it would be our…appetites.”

Landroval tilted his head at the hobbit’s tone. Something there was in his voice that hinted at a double meaning. A startled chirp burst from him before he could quite catch himself.

“I only mean,” Bilbo said with a smile, a grin that widened. “I never thought I was much for adventures - until I got called away on one. Now here I am. And so far, it’s never done me any good to wish I were back home where it’s more comfortable, even though I can’t help it. I’m not at home. I am here. So I always have much better luck when I decide to . . . Be where I am.”

Landroval wondered if he were being led into some sort of argumentative trap here, but for the moment he could listen to see where these ramblings led. “Indeed, I don’t see how you should do anything else.”

“Just so,” Bilbo said. “If we were in my house - well, there is no way you’d fit, but you could perch on the hill and I’d bring you hot tea. Which you’d have to drink from a bucket, not my mother’s fine cups, and you might not even like it. But you seem like a polite chap under the gruffness, you’d at least put up with my blundering attempts at hospitality whether you liked it or not, at least for a little while. Now that I am in your house - do you see where I’m getting at?”

“I see you circling around the problem from high above, as if you aren’t ready to land on it just yet. If you thought it was about to get away from you, then you’d pull your wings in and stoop much faster, going in for the kill.” Landroval squeaked a little at this, disapprovingly. “You have to really want to get to the point, to get there.”

“Well, I haven’t got your same perspective on things, now do I?” Bilbo said, almost peevishly. “Seeing as how I haven’t got wings and I don’t fly. Well, the point isn’t going to run away from me, it’s going to keep being right where it is now. If you wouldn’t care for tea, then I’d have to find something else to offer you, now wouldn’t I? I’d have to raid the larders where the meat is kept. Now, my people, we like to eat it hot most of the time, but that’s probably not the way it’s done among your kind, is it? If you’d be so inclined, I’d be honoured if you’d show me.”

Landroval had to give an almost admiring little kree at this creature’s audacity. “I’d be careful if I were you, asking to go where the eagles feed,” he said. “For all my kind have the greatest eyesight of all beings, I would not put it past my wilder kin to mistake something moving for a meal. After all, we will eat the long dead like the vulture and the raven if we must, but we like it far better fresh.”

Bilbo glanced once back at the cheerful fire where Gandalf and the Dwarves were gathered around with their faces lit up in gold. Merry was the sound of their joking over the roaring fire as they tended to each others’ wounds and told their stories, sweet and sharp was the smell of roasting rabbit and mutton. Relief loosened all their tongues and brightened their cheer, for all had survived their ordeal. Even Thorin was merry, the healthy colour of life returned to his face, and Bilbo’s heart swelled warm and joyful. He’d join their company soon enough, he simply felt there was something more he ought to do first. His pre-journey self, soft and fearful with no sword at his side and no Ring in his pocket, might have sniveled in fear; shivered near to pieces in the mountain cold, and curled up helpless and faint in the firelight, barely able to eat the food that others had prepared for him.

Now, however, he stood to his full height. Courage was a heady rush to him, he was beginning to love the way it stirred his blood.

Landroval watched Bilbo’s spine straighten and his chin jut forward. “But with your noble company, I’m sure I shall be quite safe,” he said. “Or at least much safer than I was in Goblin Town beneath the mountains, or under attack from Wargs and fire.”

“On your beak be it, then,” said Landroval. “On yonder cliff face, a little further on. We have no fire, but the moon is fair and bright tonight.”

Bilbo swallowed once, reluctant to leave his fellows at the last, for now he was beginning to realize the extent of the trust he had put in a mighty predator. He bowed to Landroval in gratitude as the great Eagle began to bow to him, nearly resting his crop upon the stone as he laid himself down low enough for Bilbo to climb his mighty neck. “Not so much with the pinching,” he muttered as Bilbo settled into the thick, golden feathers of his shoulders.

Landroval barely felt the weight anymore as he straightened himself and stretched up his great wings, pinions aiming for the sky and his secondaries arching around the breeze that rose up from the valley floor far below. It was a fair-wind night, good thermals below and a strong but gentle carrying wind from the West, slightly snow-chilled from its pass around and over cold-hearted Caradhras, slightly dew-dampened by the brooding clouds of the Misties. Yet it was wholesome flight-lift for the Eagles of the Carrock-grounds. The winds of the East might be warmer and drier but they carried unwholesome reeks these days, and grit that stained the feathers when it took a southeast turn.

With a shriek of pleasure Landroval launched himself into the wind’s embrace, every feather caressed, every light bone lifted. And he noted with some glee that the little creature on his back whooped in answer, at last able to enjoy the sensation of takeoff and the panorama of the mountain peaks and valleys for many leagues all around and below, pristine in the white light of moon and stars.

In a curved cove in the cliffside, with no possible access by any means other than flight, within sight of the spot where the campfire burned, sat an Eagle feeding ground, and many of Landroval’s kin picked at the tasty red carcasses of cow and sheep. Eagerly did Landroval bend his massive wings to land, and if the scent and sight of food made him a little reckless about his passenger, so be it. “Stay close to me,” Landroval said, as Bilbo made a graceless dismount from his golden-feathered withers. “Very close. All of us who flew to your rescue are of the clan of the Windlord, and we remember our ancestors’ nests in the Undying Lands and our service to Manwë of the Air far better than most. There may be some here who have grown wild entire and care not that you have speech and spirit of the Children - they will care only for your warm blood and sweet flesh.”

The hobbit gave a little shiver, and then he straightened his shoulders and rolled up his sleeves as he watched the great eagles feed with their blood-streaked beaks. “Stay close to you, you said?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Landroval, as he began to walk towards the feeding grounds. Some of the younger wild birds exhibited mantling around the meat as the great elder drew near, but he paid the insult no mind. He gave a domineering display of his own vast wings, and the smaller eagles fell back. To his relief he saw that Bilbo was wise enough to stand within a leap of his legs.

“Did you think I’ve come to rob you? I who have hunted for you in these cliffs for many ages before your foremothers were hatched? Be at peace Braigwel, you will not hunger on my watch. I’ve had long hours of flying this night with my brother our king, and I bring a guest whom you will treat with courtesy. He is small and will not eat much, so you need not worry that he’ll steal. But he is also not to be eaten.”

Bilbo leaned a little bit forward then, feeling safer, although he was still very aware of being at the height of many eagles’ legs - their bright yellow scales were pretty, and their deadly curved black talons as big as his own legs reminded him of his constant danger. Now he was beginning to regret his bravado in asking to join the eagle customs as he contemplated the slimy red piles of torn raw meat, and the deadly sharp-beaked giants watching his every move.

Landroval walked over to the eviscerated cow - for even in walking, where the eagles were most awkward, he managed to be regal - and bent low, tearing a strip loose and swallowing it, affirming his right to take what he wished. Then he tore loose another smaller strip, and beckoned the hobbit forward.

Bilbo hesitated for just a moment. This went so far against his grain - oh, he was all in favor of a nice bit of brisket, or a rest-day roast…but to eat uncooked meat in such savage hunks?

Well, he had already had blood on his hands this night, and his shirt was still stained with it. There were no other hobbits around to watch aghast as he stepped forward and took a strip of meat in his hands - what had seemed small in Landroval’s vast beak was still big to him, and tore it smaller as best he could. The muscle resisted him. With an exasperated sigh he drew the little Elven sword from his belt and swung it clumsily to cut off a more manageable piece. The Eagles around him made strange interrupted keening noises, and Bilbo was certain they were laughing. Well, let them.

He finally had a piece small enough to manage with his teeth, he thought, though his hands were red to his elbows. With a defiant little smile, he bit and tore. Blood flooded his mouth, rich and coppery, and at first he felt ill, and then he felt exultant. It wasn’t so bad after all.

The other great eagles turned back to their meal, satisfied, but Landroval watched Bilbo intently as the hobbit worked to savage the tough strips of red flesh, and chew and swallow as best he could. It really took a good deal more chewing than he had expected.

“You really are not good at that,” Landroval said, shaking his great head. “It’s a wonder how you two-leg wingless ones survive, much less breed with such frequency.”

Bilbo looked up at him crossly, the lower half of his face smeared red. “I daresay if I brought you home to the Shire and challenged you to a pie-baking contest, I would win the day blindfolded.”

Landroval conceded that one as he dug deep into the bloody supper, filling his belly and his crop with fresh beef from the bone as he joined the other eagles at the kill, still turning his head from time to time to make sure that Bilbo was not being accidentally - or not so accidentally - devoured by his kinfolk. More than once he had to stretch out his wings in a display, cupping them around the hobbit, who took the opportunity to retreat between Landroval’s great feet, his head not even up to the eagle’s belly. At last Landroval chirped in satisfaction and gave a satisfied shake of his great bulk, wiping his bloody beak first on the cow’s hide and then on his chest feathers.

Fluffing his wings to feel the cool breeze, Landroval hopped away from the cluster of feeding giant eagles and found a shallow stone niche, just the perfect spot to have a nice long thorough preen. His feathers were starting to itch, feeling effects of smoke and fire and wind and blood - good strong sensations, nothing fearful. Down beneath, just before his talons, he saw Bilbo watching him curiously as the hobbit wiped his hands in vain on the stone, looking remorsefully at the two types of blood that now stained his nails. Bilbo was smiling, though, clearly proud of himself as though he’d achieved some rite of passage.

Landroval would bring him back to his friends soon enough - and let them wonder about the hobbit’s even more fearsome appearance now. He twisted his body around, arching his back so his beak could get at the oil gland near the top of his tail. His feathers fanned out in glee as he spread the soothing oil over his back and out to the edges of his wings, chirping a bit in pleasure as his feathers absorbed the cleansing, restoring balm.

Bilbo watched in surprise as the great eagle bent and twisted to bathe and oil himself. The vast bird was more flexible than anyone would have thought, itching at his belly with claws and using his beak to drive the substance deep into the flanges of all his feathers one by one, spreading out his great flight pinions like fingers, adorning his own neck and combing the neat pin-feathers of his chest.

Landroval seemed caught up in enjoyment. As he worked, his feathers took on a greater shine in the light of moon and stars. Yet though this was clearly an ancient practice of eagles, as instinctive as flight and hunting, there were some spots he seemed to struggle to reach, especially the center of his back between his wings.

Landroval had almost forgotten that Bilbo was there, and startled slightly when the little hobbit spoke up again. “I say, if you don’t mind…. Would you like a hand with that?”

The eagle craned his head, feathers on the back of it standing up almost comically. He gave a questioning cry as he tried to make sure he’d heard correctly. Occasionally eagles do help to preen one another, but this intimate gesture was most often performed between mates or sometimes kin. Landroval hesitated a moment, for he guessed that Bilbo did not know that, and yet - was it done between his own kind, when they’d only just met?

Perhaps hobbits have no such scruples. Landroval decided that he didn’t either. Bilbo’s hands were small and soft, and they danced with clever agility when he gestured. The cracks of blood in the creases of his skin did not make them less appealing - not for the first time this night, Landroval wondered how they would feel parting and caressing his feathers, and perhaps to delve deeper into more secret places. “If you wish,” he said. “Right there on my back, almost the very places you were hanging onto for dear life.” He bowed low to the ground again to let Bilbo climb on. The hobbit was getting better at it - he didn’t pull nearly so much, and his slight weight felt better-balanced. “There now, if you feel that slightly slippery oil - Oh!” Bilbo had slid down towards Landroval’s tail as the eagle righted himself, and his bare, hairy feet had landed nearly right at the source. It felt squelchier than Landroval had prepared for. But not unpleasant.

“It’s quite slick there,” Bilbo said in wonder. But not disgust. “A pleasant scent, I think.”

Landroval chirped in laughter. Oh, the little hobbit didn’t quite know what he was about, not yet. Fortunate it was for him that it was still early in the season, for even at the very nearby touch, Landroval’s vent beneath his tail had taken on a warming and tingling. It was not yet quite to the time when his desire would be hard to control. It would be enough now to feel Bilbo’s tiny but surprisingly strong and steady hands massaging the soothing oil into his feathers, restoring moisture to dusty skin beneath, strengthening the shafts and binding the barbules.

“Oh, that’s quite nice, isn’t it?” Bilbo asked as he worked. “It has a lovely texture. It really brings out the shine in your feathers, your lovely golden edges there. Pity I can’t get further out on your wings. Perhaps if you bring them in a little, and hold them just so - if you don’t mind me standing on your back here a moment. Of course you don’t mind, you can barely feel me, can you?”

“I can feel you, Bilbo,” Landroval said, and his voice was sharper than expected.

“Is that the first time you’ve called me by my name?” There was mirth in Bilbo’s voice, no malice, as he stroked the sensitive secondaries from bases to tips. “So you do remember, Landroval. I am honoured.”

“I did not forget,” Landroval said, bringing the arch of his wings lower over his back to allow Bilbo access to his middle coverts. He had to admit, the hobbit’s nimble little hands did at least as well as his own beak and claws if not better, and with far less affront to his dignity. It was pleasant to be stroked so. A few deadened feathers drifted to the ground, and though Landroval couldn’t see exactly what Bilbo was doing, he thought it possible that his little face was rubbing up against Landroval’s feathers, enjoying the soft smoothness. Well, that was rather cheeky of him. He wondered if the hobbit would continue taking liberties if Landroval didn’t speak up. Was he even aware that eagles had certain customs and conventions about feather-stroking of this sort?

Landroval decided that he wasn’t going to say anything, not until or unless Bilbo got even more . . . suggestive with his petting. Perhaps not even then. Not if he continued to enjoy it so, anyway. And Bilbo did not even ever have to know that he had gone beyond the bounds of what was considered merely friendly.

Bilbo continued to slip lower and lower as he worked on the parts of the wings Landroval found hardest to reach, and the cheeky creature dug in deeper to try to massage huge, knotted muscles where Landroval’s wings joined his torso. “Careful there, don’t bend those the wrong way,” he muttered.

“Sorry,” Bilbo said, though he didn’t sound like he meant it. “Mine bend the other way.”

“No wonder you are hopeless at flying then,” Landroval said peevishly, to disguise the growing pleasure he was feeling. With each press of his hands into Landroval’s muscles and feathers, Bilbo slipped a tiny bit further down the great eagle’s back, closer to the sensitive areas around his tail, and the hobbit did not seem to be tiring or winding down any time soon.

Indeed, as if to confirm Landroval’s hope and fear at once, he piped up and said, “I can see why you asked for this. Your back is getting to be all right now higher up, but down here-“ he ruffled his hands lower, and now Landroval could feel the slight press on his sides where Bilbo straddled him to hold on - “you need a bit of work.”

Landroval nearly told him that preening on this scale was work meant for another eagle - a parent in youth, later on a mate - but caught himself just in time, for that was the kind of talk most likely to make his odd companion ask nosy questions, or even stop working lest he fear impropriety. Well, this was highly improper, but as far as Landroval was concerned, that was no reason not to do it. Long had it been since he had a decent preen, and his feathers had been showing it. He was not one to question a gift.

“I suppose I shall never be considered a proper eagle, even an honorary one,” Bilbo said a little sadly.

There was no point in lying to him, after all, at least other than by omission. “I’m afraid not, little one, but you can certainly be an Eagle-friend.”

“Am I well on my way to becoming an Eagle-friend?” Bilbo asked, and from his tone Landroval shivered a little to realize he was possibly not quite so innocent as at first thought.

“Yes, you are - eeeep!” Landroval cried, and his sudden sharp cheep was enough to make one or two of the other eagles look up from their bloody meal and glance over in their direction. One of them even arched her vast wings over her haunch of meat as though it been a warning of an incoming thief.

Landroval glared at her and hopped some yards away, fluttering his wings to obscure the sight of the hobbit on his back.

“And if I should slide down a little bit lower, would I be yet a better Eagle-friend?” said Bilbo, and at that Landroval had to bend his great neck, glancing behind him to see the gleam in Bilbo’s eyes in the moonlight. The hobbit knew exactly what he was about, after all.

“You would,” Landroval said, wondering how Bilbo could have known that. It did not quite seem fair. “You would indeed.”

Bilbo laughed quietly. “Let me work my way there. What a lovely tail you have.”

Landroval couldn’t help but wriggle it a little, and just that small movement sent Bilbo slipping further down. One by one Bilbo worked the oil into the great steering feathers of Landroval’s great fan, feeling it spread as the giant eagle leaned down in pleasure. This would be radically different from the act with another eagle of course - Landroval had fond memories of balancing on a female’s great back, feeling her tail flicker aside for him, and then the hot, quick fluttering press of vents together, soothing the tingling burn. It was a quick affair with much chirping and rubbing and shaking of tails and wings.

Landroval supposed he’d have to be the tail-lifter in this union, not that it would matter much for even had he been an egg-bearer, that tiny little non-eagle wasn’t going to have anything of use to give him. It would be more for the relief of it, he supposed, for he was having some places touched that hadn’t been for quite a while, and certain results followed. And, he had to admit to himself, for the novelty.

“After all,” Bilbo said, and by now the great eagle didn’t have to see Bilbo’s cheeky grin to be able to nearly hear it in his voice. “You’ve been very hospitable to us. As you said, you didn’t have to save our lives. You didn’t have to refrain from eating us. You didn’t have to bring us to your eyrie and then feed us. You did all of that, and honestly among my people it’s considered polite to offer.”

Landroval had heard of similar hospitality customs among some creatures, but he’d never heard of the largesse being extended to one so unlike in size and shape. Still, he wouldn’t question it. It would be nice to have a little tail-shake, and he found the thought exciting that Bilbo was so small and discreet that he could go about this business very close to all his feeding cousins and they would barely look up from their kill.

“So it goes like this?” Bilbo said, squirming down and nearly falling to the ground, sliding on Landroval’s oil-slick feathers, as Landroval flipped up his tail. He would normally be the one mounting and bending down his flanks toward his partner but that clearly wasn’t going to work here, so he did his best to recall how his past partners had played the little twist and shake and bend. He leaned over towards the ground, straightening out his back to give Bilbo a better purchase upon him.

“Oh, that’s how it is, is it?” Bilbo said, laughing. “Let me hold on to your feathers here - why I’m surprised you can feel me at all - but you’re sensitive, aren’t you? Look how you twitch. Are you ticklish? You’ll have to let me know if I do something you don’t like, I don’t exactly know my way around giant eagles’ rumps. I didn’t know it was the season yet, but of course it is, you must be ready for it for such a long time. Here, here, oh my goodness, just let me…well, I suppose I should use my feet, really. I’ll try not to fall in completely.”

“Oh get on with it,” Landroval muttered, leaning forward and shaking as the hobbit rummaged around under his slanted tail, rooting through feathers that were nearly as long as he was. At last Bilbo got close to the spot, and Landroval heard him gasp at the sight of it. He shivered, trying not to dislodge the little passenger making first sweeping round strokes and then hesitant little thrusts against the eagle’s cloaca. “You can go harder, do you really think you’d hurt me?”

His bold words belied a slight shiver of surprise, for Landroval was not used to receiving anything inside that little opening nestled in a swirl of protective feathers, not even anything as slight as the first explorative push of a hobbit’s little fingers. But he could not deny the pressure gave some relief to his restlessness.

“You wouldn’t do it this way with another of your kind, would you?” Bilbo asked. “I supposed you’d be the one, er-“

“On top? Yes, that’s how it would be done if I were with a female to prepare eggs. But obviously this is not that, and it’s rude to assume.” Landroval gave an offended little keen.

“Oh!” Bilbo cried. “Of course. Yes. It is very rude to assume! I do apologize. It’s just that I wonder where the . . . Oh, bother, I do apologize again. This feels good, does it not? Right here?”

“If you’re expecting me to be built like one of your own kind or one of the fur-beasts, you’re not going to find anything of that sort,” Landroval muttered. “Take it up with a duck if you require a painful spiral tool to enjoy yourself.”

“I meant no offense to your magnificence,” Bilbo said, quite sincerely. His voice was a little muffled now in feathers as he devoted his attentions to Landroval’s flushed pink cloaca tucked beneath his tail, a compelling pucker that seemed to flutter beneath his hand. “I must say, it’s . . . It’s beautiful. You are stunning, and I’m beyond honoured to have such an opportunity, even if I can hardly give you anything like you’re used to.”

“If I wanted what I am used to, I would not be wasting time with you,” said Landroval, in a surprisingly kindly manner. “I suppose you expect to do something with that little flesh-prong of yours, don’t you? If I had one I imagine I would as well. Get on with it then, it’s not as if you’ll hurt me.”

Bilbo made a strange little sound in his throat. “Well, my dear eagle, gladly I would if I had a place to balance on. Shall I just hang on to your tail and hope for the best? It’s not your, um, lovely little opening here that worries me - oh, right there, nice, did you like that? You must have done, you almost shook me off - I’d never forgive myself if I damaged your feathers.”

“Here, hold on at the base right there,” Landroval said, feeling quite put upon as he leaned forward nearly even with the stone floor of the cliff roost. “And if you fall perhaps it is not too far, is it?”

Bilbo looked down, a little uneasily, but Landroval was right, the distance was easily survivable although a fall was most definitely something to be avoided. He opened the buttons of his breeches while he still had use of his hands and let out his cock, nearly all the way hard at the sensuality of Landroval’s self-offering, the mysterious opening that had been so sensitive and responsive, the slickness inside that promised there was indeed excitement and seed to release even if it was not in the manner of creatures at all like himself.

Landroval most likely would barely even feel him, but he would feel it, and it called to him. Bilbo held on at the base of Landroval’s tail and braced his feet in the thick ring of feathers below surrounding the cloaca, and shivered as Landroval spread his great, spear-clawed feet on the stone to hold himself steadier as Bilbo pushed.

It was quite ridiculous, and not fully satisfying to either in the manner of pleasure either was accustomed to. Yet Bilbo was so delighted at the sheer oddness, the wondrous unexpected adventure of it all, the alien musky scent of giant bird and the luscious tickle of feathers on his skin, that Bilbo decided to risk taking one hand loose and simply stroking himself, desperate to leave his mark inside his partner, however tiny and fleeting. Mere moments of wild pumping had him reaching his frenzy, yelping softly as he emptied himself inside, and felt a rewarding flood of answering fluid around him as Landroval shook so hard that Bilbo was at last dislodged, and fell limply upon the stone in a stream of eagle seed.

Alarmed, Landroval fluffed his tail and turned around with a comical, cliff-shaking hop. “Are you all right?”

“I am,” Bilbo said, for he had landed in a pile of old nesting sticks. The wind was knocked out of him, though, and he lay there grinning happily with his breeches around his knees and his shirt hiked up past his belly, wet with mixed emissions. He put up his hands behind his head to rest for just a moment while he made sure that all of his pleasantly tingling body was really in order.

Bilbo was making himself frightfully vulnerable before a great bird of prey, he well knew, and that gave him a delicious little thrill of fear, for he knew full well how hungry his own sort of creature became after acts of pleasure. Were he a giant predator, he was sure he’d feel a strong temptation to pounce on any pretty morsel laid out before him.

“You’re a mess,” Landroval said at last, sounding relieved and not terribly tempted to eat him. “If you had feathers to preen, I would do so.”

“I don’t have feathers, that’s true,” Bilbo said. Something about Landroval’s tone let him know this was a matter of great courtesy among eagles. “If you could manage it even so, I’d be willing to be preened.”

Landroval made a cheeping noise and leaned down in with his head that was as big as Bilbo was long, his razor-sharp bladed beak as big as Bilbo’s head, and set to work nuzzling the tenderest parts of Bilbo’s body - his soft exposed belly, his now-flaccid sleepy little cock, his downy-haired pale thighs. Bilbo gasped up at the moon, half-aswoon at the level of pleasure the danger gave him.

“Oh, I do so wish I had my handkerchief,” Bilbo lamented.

“I don’t even know what a handkerchief is,” said Landroval, his voice now gone unusually kind and drowsy as he cleaned off Bilbo and turned around to preen his own hindquarters. “Is that a name for a mate?”

Bilbo laughed softly. “No, no. I don’t have a mate, or else I might not carry on so with my - gratitude to all.”

“Not even any of those Dwarves that you travel with? They appear to be better fitted to you, unless they’re hiding something very drastic underneath that armor.”

“Not so different, no,” Bilbo said. “Granted I’ve shown a few of them my gratitude and imagine I might have to cause to do again, but I had been feeling a bit taken for granted. They really could have worked a bit harder to find me back among the goblins. I look forward to collecting the apology Thorin owes me.”

“You are a persuasive one. Shall I return you to your companions on the south ledge? They might be wondering where you have scarpered off to. Gandalf should certainly assure them that we haven’t eaten you. Though I must admit that some of my folk have said that there are so many of you, and rescuing you was a proper night’s work, you’d hardly have room to complain if someone had a nibble.”

“I thought you said rescuing us was a great lark for you,” Bilbo said. “If it’s not an insult to compare you to a smaller bird, that is. You need not have done it.”

“Must we go over this again?” Landroval sighed and gave his vast wings a flutter that drew a small wind over Bilbo, drying out his skin and chilling him enough that he pulled his breeches up and buttoned his shirt as best he could. “We will not be commanded, but there is good trade to be had in favours. And besides, yes, it is always fun for us to kill Orcs and Wargs, and we welcomed the opportunity. We will even take you somewhere else in the morning as well with very little complaining, although we avoid the settlements of Men. You at least have been a most agreeable guest.”

“And you at least have been a most agreeable host,” Bilbo said, getting to his feet and wobbling only slightly.

He realized then that he was much closer to the cliff-edge than he had ever wanted to be, and stood back - and not all his shaking was from exhaustion or the night’s chill. Landroval shook his great head fondly as he watched the hobbit’s boldness vanish. “Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear,” he said quietly as he contemplated his closeness to death. Trying not to seem frightened and failing utterly, Bilbo edged closer to Landroval, sideways, and stepped among the mighty talons to cling to Landroval’s leg. Landroval clicked beak and clap in soft laughter. “We shall return when you’re ready, little one.”