He grows up on tales of the King of the Greenwood, but through all those years the king remains as distant and as intangible as the chill mists that settle on the lake in winter. A fiction and a fable. He seems no nearer now, no more tangible, even though they are standing in the same tent not five feet from each other. The weight of royalty settles heavily and what words of greeting he had thought to offer turn leaden in his mouth.
"Bard the Bowman. Your reputation precedes you." The voice is deep and silken, fearsome like the creaking of springtime ice under unwary feet, like the low howls of wolves.
He squares his shoulders. "I prefer actions to empty words." He knows what he is called, what tales are told of him, and rarely bothers to correct exaggerations. It can be a shield all of its own, the lie tangled with the truth.
The King holds out a goblet of wine to him, not even bothering to turn, and he hesitates. Doubt stays his hand. The gesture is far too casual, like that of equals. Not a King and a bargeman. In the end, he accepts the goblet, idly wondering if it has been a test.
The wine is strong, undiluted, and no doubt from the rich stores of the woodland realm. He has ferried the barrels often enough, hauled them onto the barge with aching hands while wishing he would be privy to their contents. Now he is, but oh, how he wishes he was not. It should be an indulgence, not a concession on a battlefield, in the ruins of his ancestral city.
When he raises his gaze, he meets that of the King. Something in the icy blue eyes tells him that this is no concession.
The King is richly dressed, his armour set aside in favour of cold tones of silver and dark red like blood on ice.
Bard is acutely aware of his threadbare clothes, of how they clash and contrast with the King's rich garments. The silk moves like water. His own coat is stiff and heavy, set over old chainmail that weighs his tread. All the same, he welcomes the pull of the weight as it keeps him firmer grounded.
"How fares your son?"
The question surprises him. He knows of the King's son, of course, but he has never before considered how his situation, his paternity, echoes Thranduil's own. "He fares well," he says. "Though he should not have been forced to go through this. Nor should Sigrid and Tilda." There is a stab of worry at the thought still, as though at any moment he might be forced out into the fray again.
Into the fire.
* * *
As the winter snows that blanketed the ravaged battlefields melt away, washing the last of the blood off the crags and cliffs by the Lonely Mountain, he is summoned to the court of the King, and a small troop of Elven scouts escort him. Though the summons is polite, it is clear he has been given no choice in the matter. He has been called. To decline would be diplomatic failure, and he is achingly aware of how the renewed Dale needs each ally it can gain.
He is given one of their horses to ride, denied the use of his own horse, and he considers the strangeness of it as he mounts up. Only two of the five scouts ride, the rest are on foot, running fleet and tireless by their companions.
As they reach the edge of the wood, they halt. The taint of the Shadow lies upon the Greenwood still, crackling in its branches, but if the scouts are concerned by this, they give no outward sign. Instead, they order him to dismount. As he stands there, wondering if he will be led on foot all the way to the Elven stronghold, one of the scouts seizes him by the shoulders. Without offering any explanation, another blindfolds him, tying the blindfold so tightly he has no hope of catching a glimpse of his surroundings.
Mounting up blind is a challenge that is not lessened in the least by the strange make of the Elven saddle, but he manages it without too much effort.
When they set out again, entering through the great gate, the absence of sound becomes more worrying than not seeing. They are not alone, and his fingers twist into the reins as he wishes for his bow, or for any weapon he might defend himself with.
"You will forgive the secrecy. The borders of this land are still not secure, and I much prefer to ascertain that those I would count among my allies are to be trusted."
He assumes the King is walking around him, since he cannot place the voice. "Traversing the Greenwood is perilous even without a blindfold. I doubt many would recall the path they took. All the same, I can see the sense in it."
He cannot tell if the noise that follows is reproachful or amused.
Fingers brush the nape of his neck, and the tension in the blindfold increases for a moment. "Did you count the turns?" The question is scarcely louder than a whisper, but strong enough to demand a reply.
He intends to shake his head, but finds he cannot. "No," he says, idly wondering if his lie will be called out. In truth, it is only a half-lie. He is certain some turns have been false, turns that turn back on themselves.
"Even if you did, it would not help you. We are well hidden."
He has been warned about the Woodland realm. About its inhabitants, who move like mist and shadows, but he has dismissed it as tales told to keep children obedient. What dealings he has with the Elves previously are real enough, and the coin they bring are what keeps his children fed.
* * *
It seems an elaborate game to him, moves within moves, but then he is used to subterfuge. Used to talking in code, in veiled references, used to slipping soft-footed into the night.
They are discussing alliances, borders and the mundanities of patrol, but there is a whole other layer to the conversation. It is a negotiation, oh yes, but the borders drawn up do not exist on any map.
The wine is still as strong. When the King reaches across the maps scattered across the table and grasps him by the wrist, Bard does not flinch. Instead, he turns his hand palm-up so that the King's thumb rests over the inside of his wrist.
There is a flicker of silver, candlelight reflecting off a knife-blade. He is surprised to find his heartbeat remains steady, but as soon he looks up, there is a flutter in the pit of his stomach. The King's eyes are bright even in the low light, bright with something akin to glee. He lifts the blade slightly higher, sweeping it in over the table with a deft flex of his arm, and his hold on Bard's wrist remains firm.
The blade is curved, a wicked curve that shimmers with sharpness.
"There are many kinds of oaths," the King says, the briefest of smiles flickering around the corners of his mouth, "some more potent than others. Some mere words, others deeds."
He knows where this is heading. "Some stronger than others," he says, splaying his fingers wide to bare the palm of his hand. "I will take this oath."
The edge of the blade is so keen he feels no pain. The pain only comes when the King presses his palm to Bard's, lining up the identical cuts. Though the cut is shallow, blood wells up readily, warm against his skin, and though he knows it is but a trick of his mind, he feels a strange energy simmer in the temporary bond. It is cold and hot all at once, running through him like the vibration of a released bowstring. It settles very low, too low, and a short surprised breath escapes him as he realises what it is. It is not awe, but something much baser. He has to stifle the urge to shift in his seat, and focuses instead on the King, who regards him calmly.
"This oath is binding. Made in flesh and not words."
It surprises him that the Elves should favour deeds over fair words, but at the same time, he is pleased it is thus. It has been some time since he has felt like this, felt the thrum of arousal in each limb and the beating of his own heart. "Signed and sealed," he says, voice catching slightly.
The King inclines his head slightly but does not break eye contact, and now there is a smile curving his mouth. He says nothing as he lets go of Bard's hand, turning his own palm up to show the vestiges of the bond.
Bard swallows thickly, reaching for his goblet of wine. He resists the urge to drink deep, for he is addled enough. Instead, he draws the topmost map closer, feigning interest in it for a moment to have a reason to shift his gaze.
* * *
The face is ageless, unmarred, and if there is a slight tilt away when he brushes his fingertips over the left side if it, he pretends not to notice. The skin is warm and smooth, and as he slides his palm over the tall column of throat, he feels the steady thrum of a strong pulse.
"Does it surprise you that I am alive?"
"I have seen you in battle," he says, the memory still stirring his blood. "I know that you are no ghost."
The kiss that follows is likewise not a ghostly touch, and he leans into it eagerly, keen to forge stronger bonds than those afforded by words alone. He can taste wine in the kiss, but it has nothing to do with how they have found their way to an accord, for that had been long in the making. He has little love for elaborate ceremony and protcol, not after having spent so many years tangled into the web that was of the Master's making, the web that choked the life out of Laketown. Now that that yoke has been lifted off him, he find that he is keen to be as plain as possible. The King, however, is well set in his ways, and truthfully, he wields enough power to demand that those he has concomitance with should follow the protocol he had set out.
Should swear the oaths he demands. The cut on his palm has healed long since, but the thrum in his body had remained for days. His memories of the rest of the negotiations are hazed, overlayed with the memories of the night he had spent restlessly tossing and turning.
He will not deny that the steps of this dance still make him ache, different though the steps are. He wonders if it is the same for the King, if they are two unmoored souls drifting together. It is a strange comfort to him, comfort bound up in sadness over what he can never regain. He sees her daily though she is long gone, mirrored in their daughters, in the flicker of silver light on water. In the Greenwood, she likewise follows him, but only as the shadow of her laughter. The sorrow cuts a little less keen then.
* * *
Then, there had been no question of agreeing on who would lead. He did not mind it, not even when his hands knotted into fists and his teeth savaged his lip. The pain had been fleeting, eclipsed in moments by the heady rush of being claimed. By the weight of another body atop his, a new set of angles to learn. He had carried the bruises unseen, hid under his clothes as he returned to Dale to oversee the rebuilding. Over time, they became his favourite gifts to carry home after each turn, above what material things he might show off as signs of the steadily strengthening alliance between the Greenwood and Dale.
* * *
Hithlain. Mist-thread. It slips through his fingers as smoothly as the silk of the blindfold. There is silk all around them, rich tapestries amid the elaborately carved pillars, riches of a hidden kingdom he now counts as an ally.
The greatest of its riches sits facing away from him on a bench of carven hart's-bone, head slightly bowed. Blue silk breaks the sleek flow of his hair, a blindfold like a circlet tied tight enough to keep from slipping.
"Did you count the turns?" he asks, tying off the rope with a carrick bend that nestles close to the crossed bare wrists. He is grateful that the smile he cannot keep off his face does not show in his voice.
"Yes," is the simple reply.
"Even if you did, it would not help you."