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We Are Allies In This

Chapter Text

Thranduil’s hair is so fine it catches the calluses on Bard’s reverent hands. It flows between his careful fingers like silk, like starlight, like silver; pooling around Thranduil’s naked shoulders. It is so soft — too soft, Bard thinks, to be touched by a man whose hands are as worn and rough as his. The full moon hangs heavy in the clear sky, moonlight spilling across the sheets and painting Thranduil in cool white light and shadows. Thranduil is more fey than ever in the night, a creature knitted of air and ice, but his mouth is hot and Bard can taste the wine they’ve shared on his lips.

There is hunger between them, riding low and raw in Bard’s belly. He cards his hands through Thranduil’s hair, tangling it between his fingers. There is fear too, battle-sharp and sweet, coiling through his need. Fear that this is a game, a dance of velvet and steel, that it will be Thranduil’s laughter, and not Thranduil’s touch, that will break him. He is ill-prepared for this, for the slide of Thranduil’s fingers and the taste of Thranduil’s skin.

He wants to kneel before Thranduil, bare knees on cold stone, those slender fingers on his face, on his throat. And he wants to wreck Thranduil, watch the bruises blossom on that porcelain skin, unravel Thranduil like a spool of thread until Thranduil comes shivering apart.

Thranduil’s breath catches and Bard realises he has tugged on the elf-king’s hair, pulling his head back to bare the pale column of his throat.

"Forgive me," he breathes against Thranduil’s mouth.

"I do not break so easily, Bowman," Thranduil murmurs, and Bard feels his lips curve in a smile as their mouths meet again.

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Light creeps from beneath the flap of Thranduil’s tent. Bard hesitates on the threshold, but the guards do not move to stop him. He steps inside, blinking as his eyes adjust to the soft golden glow of the candles.  

The Elf-king is seated at the table, a goblet of wine in his hand. His loose hair turns to molten silver in the light of the candles, pouring down his back and falling forward to frame his face. He is studying a parchment – a map, perhaps – one slender finger moving to trace the whorls of ink. The arkenstone shimmers beside him.   

“You should be sleeping, Dragonslayer,” Thranduil says without looking up. “You will need your strength on the morrow.”  

“I would that you would not call me that, my lord.”

Thranduil does look up, then. “Some are calling you king,” he observes. The candlelight puts sparks of gold in his cold blue eyes.

Bard know he is being tested, somehow. Weighed and measured. “I am no king.”

Bard has never seen Thranduil smile. The elf-king doesn’t at that moment either, but something in his face softens. “Bowman, then. Wine?”

 Bard accepts and Thranduil pours the wine himself, moving with sinuous elegance around the tent. He is…beautiful, Bard realises with a jolt. Beautiful and dangerous, silver steel clothed in silk and velvet. He is air and starlight where there is earth under Bard’s nails and the stains of dirt and sweat on his clothes.   

“Your people need you rested,” Thranduil says, handing Bard the goblet. Their fingers brush as he takes it. Thranduil’s gaze catches his and holds, just for a second. Then the elf-king steps away, and Bard takes a sip of his wine to hide the colour that comes to his cheeks. It is thick and rich on his tongue; blackberries and summer sun.

“There will be no battle tomorrow.”

“Perhaps.” Thranduil brings the goblet to his lips. “If it comes to war you will lead people to their deaths, Bowman.”

It is not so surprising, really, that a creature who has lived hundreds of lifetimes can pierce the heart of his fear. The shadows fall across Thranduil’s face and Bard can see no pity there, no sorrow.  No grief.   

“I did not ask them to follow me,” he says. “And Thorin will see reason. He must.”

“Do not underestimate the stubbornness of dwarves.” Thranduil has not moved to resume his seat. Bard could close the distance between them in two steps.

“You see so clearly through the hearts of dwarves?” Bard sets aside the goblet. He can’t remember when he last ate and he can feel the wine singing through his veins, warm and seductive.  

“And the hearts of men.”  Thranduil’s voice is soft as silk, low and lilting. The faintest hint of a half-smile curves Thranduil’s lips as he raises the goblet again and drains it, his eyes never leaving Bard’s. The silence stretches taut between them. It has been many years since Bard last played this game.

 Bard knows, sure as the sunrise, that Thranduil will not step towards him. That the next move is his. He could turn and leave – should turn and leave – blame the wine for the colour in his face and the thudding of his heart, for the need that quickens inside him, sharp and unexpected. There is no shame in retreat, and he does not know what surrender will mean.  

He steps forward instead, taking the empty goblet from Thranduil’s hand and setting it aside. He reaches up to push a lock of hair back from Thranduil’s face. His fingers are trembling.

His thumb grazes Thranduil’s lips. “My lord Thranduil,” he breathes. He is not sure whether he is begging forgiveness or asking permission.

Thranduil does smile, then, and though it is not a kind smile it is not a cruel one either.   

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Bard knows he should sit down, should rest, should eat. The streets of Dale are empty of all but the dead. The men and women of Laketown are tending the wounded and mourning their losses, cries of grief and soft bursts of song tangling together on the night breeze. He should join them, but he cannot. Not yet.

The flicker of the torch pushes aside the shadows as he walks, the light rippling off golden armour on a still body, catching the point of an orc’s spear, threading light through a spill of elven hair, soaked in blood.

He catches a flash of movement and spins, one hand going to his knife. The light falls on a kneeling figure cloaked in black. His back is to Bard, but the spill of silver hair down his back is unmistakeable. Thranduil is on his knees by the body of his elk, a hand resting on its nose. His shoulders are bowed, and there is such weariness and grief in his posture that Bard steps back, an unwitting intruder on the intimacy of a private grief.

“You should take care, Bowman – there may yet be orcs in the shadows.” Thranduil says. The elf-king does not move or turn. He reaches out a hand instead and closes the elk’s unseeing eyes, his fingers gentle.  

“And you, my lord Thranduil.”

Thranduil comes to his feet as Bard joins him. The elk lies amidst the bodies of orcs, the bloodied arrows that took its life in a pile beside its head. It snuffled Bard’s pockets before the battle, searching for apples, and he can remember the soft velvet of its enquiring nose and the warmth of its liquid brown eyes.

“I am sorry,” Bard says.

Thranduil turns to him with a fey smile, sharp as a blade. “You sorrow for a beast when dead men and elves lie piled with the bodies of orcs?”

“Can I not sorrow for both?”

The golden light of the torch should soften Thranduil’s face, but the shadows catch in his blue-grey eyes and turn his pale skin to stone. “A man has only so much sorrow to spend.”

“And an elf?

Thranduil’s eyes flick to Bard’s face. They are as distant and alien as the stars that peek through the clouds overhead. “You should go to your people, Bowman. They will need you.”

It is true enough. His children are waiting for him as well. They have been working hard, tending the wounded and bathing the bodies of the dead. It is a heavy weight to fall on such young shoulders.

Thranduil’s gaze falls back to the body of the elk. Bard lays a hand on the elf-king’s shoulder. It is a simple, unthinking thing, but Thranduil starts.   

“Forgive me,” Bard murmurs, stepping back.  

Thranduil meets his eyes, his gaze unwavering. “You have a kind heart, Bard of Laketown,” he says.

It could be a compliment. But Bard, as he turns away, thinks that it is not.

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Bard’s skin is sharp with the tang of his sweat. Thranduil bends to taste it, his lips travelling down the side of Bard’s throat as Bard arches into the elf-king’s embrace, his hands curving around Thranduil’s naked shoulders. He flinches when Thranduil’s mouth finds the bruise blossoming on his shoulder.

“Tauriel should not have struck you so hard,” Thranduil murmurs. It has been many years since Bard first took to training with the Guard when he visited Mirkwood. He has out-shot more than one chagrined elf, but few are faster than Tauriel with a blade.   

“I should not have been so slow,” Bard replies, and Thranduil raises his head to drink in the smile he can hear in Bard’s voice.

Bard is dirty and sweat-stained, a shallow graze raised red across his breast, and he is so achingly alive that for a moment it stops Thranduil’s breath in his throat. The gentle morning sunlight smoothes the lines on Bard’s face, but it cannot hide the white that glimmers in his tousled dark hair.

Yes, they will die. Today. Tomorrow. One year hence. A hundred years from now.

Thranduil’s fingers trail down Bard’s throat, his palm coming to rest on the centre of Bard’s chest, and he thinks of the centuries that unspool in a silver stream before him and fall away behind. A thousand lifetimes past and a thousand more to come. What is this man’s life to him but a handful of heartbeats, a single spark that flickers and dies in a breath?

Bard’s hand comes up to cup Thranduil’s cheek, sliding back to tangle in Thranduil’s loose hair. Thranduil knows every callous on those fingers in the same way he knows every arch and curve of Bard’s body, every mark and every scar. He wants to turn his face away – longs to. He did not ask for this tenderness to blossom between them. He did not want it. Does not want it.

“Thranduil?” Bard says softly, and Thranduil realises that he has dug his nails into the skin of Bard’s breast, leaving five pink crescents on the tanned skin.

Thranduil bends his head to press their lips together and tells himself the salt he can taste is sweat.

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Thranduil catches Bard in the gardens on the eve of the coronation. The new king of Dale is seated on the edge of one of the fountains, careless of his fine clothes, turning the crown over and over in his hands. The soft rush of water almost drowns out the snatches of distant revelry.

There is no moon, but the gardens are lit by torches and the stars are bright in the cloudless sky. The crown is a beautiful piece of work — a simple circlet of gold set with a single, shining emerald that caught the sun in a blaze of green fire as it settled on Bard’s brow. The crowd had seen the flash of light and cheered, but Thranduil had seen the shadows too, settling over Bard’s shoulders like a cloak.

“King Bard…” Bard says, as Thranduil comes to join him. “It sounds like the bad end to a poor jest.” His smile is rueful.

“I did not see anyone laughing.” Thranduil sits, careful of his own robes.

Bard sets the circlet aside and trails a hand through the water, his eyes flicking to Thranduil’s own crown. “Does it not bother you?”

“I am accustomed to it.” In truth, he notices its absence more than its presence.

“I do not know whether I would wish to become accustomed to mine,” Bard admits. He pulls his hand from the water and flicks a scattering of droplets into the air. The brooch at his throat comes unfastened at a flick of his fingers and the heavy robes fall away in a soft slither of silk and velvet, taking some of the shadows with them.

"It becomes you well."

"A barge and a bow became me better." Bard catches Thranduil’s hands in his own, twining their fingers together for a moment. He reaches for Tranduil’s crown, careful not to catch a lock of hair in the curling leaves as he lifts it from the elf-king’s head. He sets it beside his own and cards his fingers through Thranduil’s loose hair. “My lord Thranduil.” The smile this time is sweeter.

“My King.”

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Bard ached from head to toe. The orcs had brought his horse down beneath him and he had fallen hard, a flailing hoof catching him in the side. The man who stared back at him from the mirror was almost a stranger; hair tacky with gore and clothes were soaked through with mud and blood. Not all of it was orc blood.

Bard bowed his head for a moment, fingers tightening on the edge of the basin. He should feel grief, he knew. Grief or rage or something. But he was only cold.

Footsteps echoed down the corridor — familiar footsteps, Bard realised, straightening and turning to the door. Thranduil froze on the threshold, his eyes sweeping from Bard’s dirty face to the long rent down the side of one of Bard’s boots and back again. He bore the marks of a hard ride. The wind had whipped colour into his cheeks and his hair was loose and tousled. Bard’s steward bobbed nervously behind the elf-king, wringing his hands.

“You live,” Thranduil said. “I heard only that you had been attacked and were missing. This person—” Thranduil gave the unfortunate steward a look that made the man flinch—“would tell me nothing.”   

 The steward bobbed nervously in the doorway. “My lord Thranduil,” he began. “I…”

“You are not required,” Thranduil told him.

The steward fled.  

Thranduil crossed the room in three strides. “I thought you slain,” he said, resting his hands on Bard’s shoulders as though to reassure himself that it was solid cloth and flesh he saw before him.

“I am filthy,” Bard cautioned. “I…”

Thranduil’s mouth stopped Bard’s words. Bard froze in surprise as the elf-king buried his hands in Bard’s hair, careless of the filth, and pinned him against the table. The kiss was hard and rough and raw, Thranduil’s fingers tightening in Bard’s hair as he bore Bard backwards. The basin toppled to the ground and shattered, caught by Bard’s elbow, and a sweep of Bard’s hand sent a jumple of soap and liniments tumbling to the floor.

Perhaps it was the fear and relief he’d seen flash for a moment in Thranduil’s cool blue eyes, or perhaps it was the glorious heat of the elf-king’s mouth against his own, pulling him back to the present. Everything he’d held at bay, choked down and hidden and numbed, burst free. The screams of the horses, the hum of arrows and the ring of swords, the terrible vertigo as his mount had reared and fallen, tangling them both in hooves and tack. Spitting out mouthfuls of grit and blood. The ruined bodies sprawled in the mud, the desperate struggle for his knife and the sick wet crunch of bone and armour.

Bard cradled Thranduil’s face between his hands, breath hitching as Thranduil’s teeth caught his lower lip. The kiss softened for a moment, Thranduil’s hands gentling in Bard’s hair, and they both stilled, lips a hairsbreadth apart. Bard’s fingers were still on Thranduil’s cheeks. Bard closed his eyes, Thranduil’s breath hot against his lips, and when he opened them again he didn’t see blood or death or shadows, just moonlight caught in silver.

The elf-king’s cheeks were stained with dirt and blood from Bard’s fingers, his hair falling wild around his face. Not a creature of ice or stone, but one of starfire, Bard thought, fey and wild.  Bard reached out a rueful finger to trace the silver embroidery that curled over Thranduil’s breast, now dark with dirt and the rust of blood. “I am not so easy to slay,” Bard murmured.  

The rent fabric of Bard’s ruined shirt parted beneath the Thranduil’s gentle fingers. Thranduil stilled for a moment as it fell away, his eyes marking the scratches and scrapes. “You were fortunate,” Thranduil said, voice even, laying his palm against the burgeoning bruise on Bard’s side. He lowered his head, his hair falling forward to curtain their faces. “I am glad of it,” Thranduil murmured against Bard’s mouth. “I am glad of it indeed.”

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The news came along with the first snow of the winter. Flakes of white drifted from the swollen clouds as the elves rode through the forest, the crunch of the horses’ hooves and the muted jingle of tack jarring in the stillness. Some trees still clung to the last remnants of their autumn vestments, flashes of red and gold against the bare purity of winter, but most were adorned only by icicles which glistened in the fading rays of the evening sun.

Thranduil’s robes were as white as the snow that eddied around him. He wore no cloak or gloves, but if he felt the cold he showed no sign of it. His bare fingers were light on the reins, his shoulders set. Tauriel rode beside him, though he had not glanced at her or spoken since they had ridden through the gates.

She had wondered, as she made ready for the journey, if he would wear the emeralds with their verdant gleam of spring fire.

His throat was bare.

“I am sorry,” she said, when she could bare the stillness no longer.  

Thranduil turned to her. “He was a man,” he said, face as still and cold as steel. There were snowflakes caught on his eyelashes. “Men die.” His eyes met hers, and she saw nothing in them but the smooth perfection of polished glass.

She looked away first.

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Thranduil should wear the emeralds. He knows it, yet he sets them aside. They run between his fingers in a rush of evergreen fire kissed by sunlight.

There is too much brightness in them. They sing to him of summer sun and heavy green branches stretched above his head, the soft carpet of the forest floor beneath his back, tanned fingers twined with his own. Sunlight sparkling off water, wet hands in his hair, lips against his own that taste of daylight and dying. Soft laughter and eyes gone wide and dark with need, the careful caress of moonlight on bare skin, breathless sweetness and calloused hands made clumsy by desire.

The bone-white robes of mourning come free of their wrappers with a sigh. His attendants dress him in silence, the long folds of silk sliding cold against his bare skin. He slips the rings from his fingers, one by one, then lifts the crown from his head and lays it with Girion’s jewels.

The attendants slip away, as quietly as they came. Thranduil crosses to the  window and watches the first flakes of snow settle on the sill. He breathes in the stillness, the silence, the bleak perfection of the winter chill. For a moment – just one – he thinks of fire. Not flames of emerald, but the flecks of gold in hazel eyes.   

Then he lets the breath out, and feels the cold settles deep in his bones.

Ice has served him well before, and will again.

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For a moment Bard almost lost courage. It was too soon. He couldn’t bear it. But then he looked into the solemn faces of his children and couldn’t bear to turn back either. Sigrid, trying to look grown-up, had Tilda firmly by the hand. Bain’s eyes were red-rimmed but his mouth was set and the hands that held the little wooden boat were steady. It was their first Christmas without their mother and he’d be damned if he couldn’t find the strength to watch them lay their gifts on her grave.

He was beginning to think he might be damned either way.

A howl split the silence and a huge grey shape burst from behind a monument and pelted towards them. Tilda screamed in fright and Bard flung himself between the dog and the children. He had a brief impression of wild eyes and white teeth as he tossed the bouquet of lilies he held aside and raised a hand to shield his throat.

The dog leapt.

It planted its feet firmly on Bard’s shoulders and licked him square on the mouth, tail wagging furiously, breathing the scents of old bone and raw meat all over his face. It was a wolfhound of some sort, huge and shaggy, with paws the size of plates. It was also extremely muddy, and in the process of gleefully transferring as much of the mud as possible onto Bard’s coat and trousers.  

“Dae, sit!”

The dog sat, with the air of a creature that knew it had done wrong.

A man emerged from behind the same monument as the dog.  His long hair – so pale it was almost white – was caught back in a loose ponytail. He had his hands thrust into the pockets of a long grey coat and a forest green scarf wrapped carelessly around his neck. The wind – or embarrassment – had brought a touch of colour to his cheeks.

Bard knelt to collect the scattered lilies as the man approached and, for a moment, despair rose up in his throat, hot and sick. It had been a paltry bouquet, in between the school fees and the rent, and Emily wouldn’t have cared about the flowers anyway, but… as he took a bruised blossom between his thumb and forefinger he felt tears spring to his eyes.

Sometimes when he sat down, or lay down, he wasn’t sure how he’d ever get up again.  

“I do apologise.” 

The stranger’s words pulled Bard out of his malaise. He rubbed his eyes on the back of his hand and straightened. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Dae, come here,” the man ordered.  The dog promptly collapsed onto Bard’s feet, rolled onto its back and waved its legs in the air, pink tongue lolling out of its mouth.

The stranger’s lips tightened. “He is usually more obedient.”

“It’s all right.” Bard leant to scratch the dog’s chest with his free hand. It made a delighted noise and its tail began to thump furiously against the ground. “He didn’t mean any harm.”

“But he did harm,” the stranger said, eyes falling on the disarranged lilies.

“Those were for ma,” Bain told the man, as Bard tried to put the flowers back into some semblance of order. “They were her favourites.”

Something changed in the stranger’s face.  He had not looked friendly before, not precisely. Now it was as though something had snapped shut behind his eyes. He opened his mouth to say something, but Tilda cut him off before he could begin.

“Are you an elf?’ she asked. She’d been staring at him with wide eyes since he’d appeared from behind the stone angel.

“Pardon?” 

“You have long hair like an elf.” She studied the man, brow furrowed. “But you don’t have a bow and arrow. Elves should have bows and arrows.”  

“Elves aren’t real, sweetheart,” Bard told her, ruffling her hair. “Now, why don’t you go with Sigrid and give your drawings to your mother?”

Sigrid retrieved Tilda’s hand and the three children set off in a sombre procession with their gifts. Bard stayed back. This was for them, not for him. The other man watched them go. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said, and though the words were kind there was a strange remoteness in his tone.

“Thankyou,” Bard said. It was all he could manage. Sigrid looked so like Emily already, her shoulders squared and her hair bound back in braids. She knelt down next to Tilda and kissed her little sister on the head as Tilda laid the envelope on the marble slab. Bain stepped forward and put the ship carefully beside the envelope, placing a hand on Tilda’s shoulder.

Bard had to look away.

“Come, Dae,” the man said, and this time the dog obeyed him. Bard waited for his children, the straggling lilies clutched in one hand, and watched as the stranger strode off with the dog bounding at his heels.

The next time Bard visited the ceremony there was a beautiful bouquet of lilies on Emily’s grave.  

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There is no grave or marker because Thranduil does not need one.  She is everywhere around him; in the morning sunlight that falls across the windowsill, in the soft laughter of the river as the spring melts the winter snow, in the twilight shadows. She walks beside him, always a little out of reach, and laughs at him when no one else would dare.

He once swore he would never again love someone who could etch themselves so indelibly into his life. Who could stitch themselves to skin and sinew until he felt them in every breath he took.

It is not a choice, though. It is a collection of moments that pile up, one atop the other, like autumn leaves on the forest floor. It begins with the farewells – the brief brush of fingers against his own, a spark in hazel eyes that might be something else but could be yearning.  He should stop it then, before he learns the curve and sweetness of the smile Bard saves for him.

He should, but he does not.

“There are some things even you cannot stop, my love,” she murmurs, and he can hear the laughter – and the sorrow – in her voice.

She was sunlight, sweetness, summer, and he knows that he will lose Bard as he lost her, but in increments instead of all at once; that Bard will fade and age and die before his eyes. 

He does not – cannot – regret knowing the taste of Bard’s mouth, the way Bard ‘s fingers trembled the first time he ran them through Thranduil’s loose hair, the way Bard sounds when his voice goes rough and desperate. But sometimes, in the hours of darkness before dawn, Thranduil wonders if he is not collecting shadows, one by one – the faint grey shades of people who trod bright and golden through the world.

He wonders how many more he can bear. 

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Wine?” Bard asked. It was foolish to be nervous, he knew, but he could feel his heart stutter and speed up as he reached for the decanter. He had shed his royal trappings in favour of a simple shirt and breeches, though Thranduil was still splendidly bedecked.

“Yes, thankyou.” Thranduil didn’t look up from the maps spread out over the table. The firelight turned his pale hair to gold and gleamed off the simple whorls of embroidery on the shoulders of his crimson robes. The long day had stretched into a long night and even the elf-king was showing signs of fatigue. There was a certain tightness to his mouth, a certain set to his shoulders, that made Bard long to pull him away from the maps and the anxieties that beset him.

“There you go, hîr vuin,” Bard said in elvish, setting the wine glass on the table. His tongue still tripped a little over the unfamiliar words, but Tauriel had assured him that his accent was no longer “an offence to the ears.”

“Thankyou,” Thranduil repeated, pushing one of the maps aside and pulling another forward. Then he froze, glancing up. His eyes found Bard’s. “You have been taking lessons,” he observed. His face betrayed nothing.

“Tauriel has been teaching me.” Bard glanced away, feeling like a sixteen year old with sweaty palms trying to pluck up the courage to ask a pretty girl to dance.

“Why?” Thranduil’s eyes hadn’t left Bard’s face.

Bard felt the colour rise to his cheeks. He glanced away, eyes chasing the shadows around the room. “We speak only in my tongue. I wished to speak to you in yours.” He drained his wine, painfully conscious of Thranduil’s gaze upon him, feeling more naked than when he stood before the elf-king without a stitch of clothing. He set his empty glass aside, took a breath, and spoke again

Thranduil choked on his wine. “What did you say?”

Bard repeated himself, slowly. It might have been the firelight, but he could have sworn he saw a faint touch of colour darken Thranduil’s face. Suspicion blossomed. “What does it mean?” he asked, in Westron this time. “Tauriel…”

Thrandruil came to his feet and crossed the room  in three strides. He crowded Bard back against the wall, one hand curving around the back of Bard’s neck, his breath hot against Bard’s lips. All the weariness was gone from those blue eyes. It had been replaced by something darker, something hotter, something that made Bard’s breath hitch as Thranduil leaned in

“I think, sweet King,” Thranduil said, tracing a finger down the side of Bard’s jaw, “that I should show you.”

Chapter Text

I’m here to see the elf-king.”

The woman behind the bar arched a meticulously styled eyebrow at Bard, her eyes raking from his dishevelled hair and patched clothes to his battered leather boots. Silver tattoos followed the curve of her throat, spreading tendrils up her jawline and curving sinuously over one cheek. The delicate chainmail beneath her leather bodice shimmered in the dim light, shifting on her skin like a living thing.

“Sure you’ve got the right bar?” she asked.

They’d made him leave his crossbow and his shoulder holsters at the door, but the familiar press of the knife in his boot brought him some comfort. The bar was packed and the dancefloor was a seething mass of bodies twined together beneath the frenetic pulse of the strobes. People felt safe in the Mirkwood. Safe enough to grind and rut to the boneshaking cadence of the music as though death wasn’t lurking just outside the doorway, ready to shamble forward and pounce.

 The steady thrum of the bass was working its way into Bard’s blood, finding the rhythm of his beating heart. “I can pay,” he said.

The woman’s glossy black lips curved into a smile. “They all say that.” She shrugged one shoulder and beckoned. A shadow detached itself from beside the bar and came towards them. “Just make sure you know what you’re paying for.” She was gone before he could ask what she meant. 

 “Come with me.” The newcomer was dressed from head to toe in black, her auburn hair braided and coiled at the back of her head. She wore knives on her belt. Only the elf-king’s men and women wore weapons openly in the Mirkwood.  She led him in silence up a flight of stairs and down a series of corridors which seemed to fold back on themselves, twisting and curving through the belly of the building. He tried to keep track of where they were going and failed.  

They stopped at last before an open door, flanked by two guards, and a gesture from his guide halted him on the threshold.

The man they called the elf-king was sitting behind a wide mahogany desk, a glass of amber liquid by his elbow. His hair gleamed pale in the half-light, caught back loosely to reveal the pointed ears that had given him his name. The light of the candles teased gold threads into the lavender silk of his shirt, the open throat revealing the muted gleam of a silver necklace. Bard had heard the elf-king called many things. Beautiful had never been one of them. He was, though – beautiful like the full moon on a winter’s eve; ethereal and terrible and somehow very far away. 

“I will see nobody else tonight.” The elf-king did not look up, only flicked a hand in a gesture of dismissal. He wore silver rings on his long fingers.

“As you wish. You will have to come back,” the woman said, turning to Bard.

“Please,” Bard tried to break her grip on his arm. “My children…”

“Tauriel,” the elf-king said. “I am weary.”

Tauriel’s grip tightened and despair sheeted through Bard, hot and harrowing. He thought of Sigrid, the toxin creeping slowly through her veins, dulling her eyes and turning every breath to a rasp of agony. Tilda, her hand trembling in his as he wiped the sweat from her brow and dripped water between her chapped lips. And Bain…

Something in Bard snapped. The elf-king would listen to him. Must listen to him. He jerked away from Tauriel and brought his elbow up, catching her hard in the jaw and sending her reeling back. Bard was ready for the other two guards when they leapt. The knife slid free from his boot and he rammed the hilt into the side of one man’s head, sweeping the other’s feet out from under him. He was through the door in an instant, knife still in hand, and he wrenched it shut and locked it behind him.  

Something stung across Bard’s wrist, sending the knife skittering across the room.  The elf-king was on his feet, a silver whip in his hand. The second blow caught Bard across the cheek and he tasted blood as he stumbled backwards. The lash sung through the air again, coiling this time around Bard’s throat and jerking him forward. He staggered, gasping for breath, as the elf-king tugged him closer.

The other man was as tall as Bard, and as broad across the shoulders. Any illusion of fragility wrought by the fine hair and smooth skin had vanished. Bard could read nothing in the eyes that measured him. The elf-king tugged the whip again and Bard stepped forward, the wood of the desk hard against his thighs. He could barely draw breath against the pressure around his throat and the world began to buckle and darken at the edges. Everything receded, until all he could see were eyes like blue ice veiled by long, pale lashes.

“That,” the elf-king said in a gentle voice, “was not at all polite.”

Chapter Text

Bard felt like a young bachelor climbing out the window to sneak a visit to a pretty barmaid. The stone floors were freezing beneath his bare feet as he slipped out of his room. He had wrapped himself in a heavy robe, lined with fur, but he’d foregone boots in favour of keeping quiet. The halls of Erebor were silent – even the most ardent of the merrymakers had fallen to slumber. He passed the unconscious form of a dwarf, snoring heavily, and slipped into a side corridor.

Thranduil opened the door at Bard’s soft knock and Bard’s mouth went dry. The elf was wearing nothing but a pair of loose drawers which rode low on his hips. The only light came from the sconces mounted on the walls, and it touched Thranduil’s smooth skin with amber warmth. His hair fell to his waist in a rush of pale gold and Bard longed to tangle his fingers in it.

“Lock the door behind you,” Thranduil murmurred, stepping back to let Bard pass.

The click of the door and the snick of the lock sounded loud in the silence. Bard leant back against the door as Thranduil’s eyes ran from his tousled hair to his bare toes.

Bard’s breath quickened as Thranduil stepped closer. He could feel the warmth of Thranduil’s skin, smell the woodsmoke caught in Thranduil’s hair and the faint spice of soap. The elf reached up and undid the tie of the Bard’s cloak. It fell free, slithering down to pool at Bard’s feet. He was wearing only a nightshirt, half unbuttoned, beneath it. Thranduil dragged the tip of one finger down the skin exposed by the loose garment and Bard shivered.  

“Your eyes did not stray far from me during the feast.” Thranduil observed. The finger traced the remainder of the buttons to the hem and slipped beneath the fabric, Thranduil’s hand settling on Bard’s hip.

Bard bit his lip, the heat of the elf’s fingers on his bare skin firing the desire that had simmered all day in his belly. He kept his eyes on Thranduil’s face, painfully aware of the press of his growing need. “No,” he managed.

“You might have been seen, slipping from your rooms like a thief.” Thranduil cupped Bard’s cheek with one hand and Bard’s eyes fluttered shut for a moment.

“Yes.”

 “Yet here you are.”

“Yes.” Bard’s voice cracked as Thranduil’s thumbnail ghosted over his hipbone. His eyes were still closed. He felt the warmth of Thranduil’s breath against his lips. He longed – ached – to close the distance between them but he held still, savouring the lengthening moments of anticipation. Then there were hands in his hair and Thranduil kissed him hard, pressing him back against the wood of the door.

Thranduil’s mouth tasted of blackberry wine. His teeth caught Bard’s lower lip and Bard clutched at the elf’s broad shoulders. The need that had been thrumming through him since he had first laid eyes on his lover burst into breathless, mindless desperation. The kiss deepened, roughened, and Bard’s breath caught in surprise as Thranduil’s free hand hooked the front of his nightshirt and tore it open. The press of the elf’s cool skin against his own made him shudder and press closer, his hands sliding to the nape of Thranduil’s neck and tangling in his hair. He had never met anyone who could unravel him so with a kiss, who could draw out the desires that hid and fretted in his heart until he was stretched and ragged with yearning.

Thranduil caught Bard’s wrists and pinned them above Bard’s head, his thigh pressing between Bard’s legs. Bard arched into Thranduil’s embrace, hands clenching into fists as he strained against the elf’s grip. It was overwhelming; caged between Thranduil’s hard body and the wood of the door, Thranduil’s lips hot and insistent against his own, the fingers on his wrists hard as shackles. He groaned into Thranduil’s mouth as Thranduil pressed a palm to his stomach, so close to where he needed the elf’s touch.

Thranduil broke the kiss and pulled back for a moment, looking his fill as Bard felt a flush creep across his cheeks. Then Thranduil lowered his head again, pressing his mouth to Bard’s jaw, his tongue darting out to flick against Bard’s pulse point.

“Sometimes I think you will drive me mad,” Bard gasped, as Thranduil’s lips tracked a hot path down the side of his throat. Teeth pressed against his jugular, hard enough to bruise. He would feel the mark tomorrow, he knew, and the flicker of pain when cloth brushed against the spot would drive him to distraction.

Thranduil released Bard’s wrists and Bard buried his hands in the elf’s hair, pulling their mouths together again. They kissed until Bard was dizzy with it, until he was drunk on the taste of Thranduil’s mouth and the glide of Thranduil’s tongue against his own. Thranduil’s hands slid down Bard’s bare back, cupping his buttocks and lifting him so his thighs bracketed Thranduil’s hips, his back pressed hard against the wood of the door.

It was strange, to be handled so easily. Perhaps, later, Bard would be ashamed of the noise it tore from him; low and rough and wrecked. But for now all he could do was throw his head back as his cock pressed against the hard line of Thranduil’s arousal.

Thranduil’s teeth caught Bard’s earlobe and Bard shuddered. “The bed?” Bard rasped. He could feel his bottom lip bleeding.

Thranduil smiled. “No.” He traced Bard’s lips with his thumb and it came away bloody. “No, my sweet king. I think here will suffice.” 

Chapter Text

It should make it easier. The hands clasped around the hilt of the sword resting on Bard’s still chest have never touched Thranduil’s. The lips, parted a little as though in breath, have never brushed against Thranduil’s own. He does not know how Bard’s hair, clean and white beneath the crown, would have felt beneath his fingers. He has never traced or tasted the scars that must lie beneath the ornate robes.

There is a young man – a younger man – trapped in the coffin beneath the skin of an elderly king. The lines smooth out as Thranduil looks, the skin darkens and tans, the white fades away to become threads of moonlight in dark hair.

A younger man who stood too close to him, one night, with his heart in his eyes.

“My lord Thranduil…”

“I cannot.”

Would not. Should not, perhaps. Did not.

Longing – that deep and poisonous ache – falls and breaks to yawning, sickening grief. He will never know, now, what it would have been like to catch Bard’s fingers in his own and twine them together. Will never know the softness of Bard’s lips and the rasp of Bard’s beard against his skin. Will never know the cadence of Bard’s breath in release, the way his voice might have broken or cracked in passion.

Bard would have been a gentle lover, he thinks, with little thought for his own pleasure. Clumsy, perhaps, when desire took him; those clever fingers tripping over buttons and laces. Too much in a hurry, as all humans were, in need of gentling, coaxing. A marvel, the burdens of his kingship teased free by feather-light touches, blossoming sweet and desperate in desire.

There is a stinging in Thranduil’s palm. He has dug a nail into the soft flesh hard enough to draw blood. It tastes of copper, bursting bright and red on his tongue. He could touch Bard, now, lay a kiss on his brow in farewell or brush careful fingers over Bard’s clasped hands.     

He steps away, his heavy cuffs falling to shield his bloody hand.

It should make it easier.

It does not.

Chapter Text

Bard sank his teeth into his bottom lip to keep from crying out. He longed to reach down and bury his hands in Thranduil’s hair but the length of silk around his wrists held him firm, fastened as it was around one of the curving antlers that arched out from the top of the throne. He flung his head back, hips pinned to the throne by Thranduil’s hard fingers, as Thranduil’s mouth drove him slowly to the brink of madness. He couldn’t look down – the sight of that long gold hair spilling loose over his bare thighs would surely be his undoing.  

He closed his eyes, lost to the heat of Thranduil’s mouth, the slide of the silk drapings beneath his bare legs, the kiss of the cool air against his skin. It was folly – sweet folly, but folly nonetheless – and he knew it even as his back arched and he strained against the silk that bound him. He could have resisted, though, when Thranduil had ordered his retinue away. He could have stood his ground, could have refused to succumb to eyes like the lake in winter and the soft commands that made his fingers tremble just a little.

He did cry out when Thranduil pulled away, then bit his lip harder to stifle a groan as Thranduil replaced his mouth with his hand. The elf-king’s lips were swollen, a faint flush touching his pale cheeks. His thumb traced the spot where Bard’s teeth were set against the curve of his lip.

“You would deny me the sweetness of your cries?” Thranduil’s smile turned wicked and he rose to press a gentle kiss to Bard’s mouth. “You will only hurt yourself.” The kiss this time was harder, and by the time he pulled away Bard was breathless.

“Someone will hear,” Bard said, parting his lips as Thranduil’s fingers pressed against them. He was caught; trapped between the inexorable slide of Thranduil’s hand and the press of Thranduil’s fingers in his mouth. The silver rings felt strange against his tongue, heavy and cold.

“Yes.” Thranduil’s murmur sent a shiver of heat curling to Bard’s belly. “But we will not be interrupted.” His teeth caught Bard’s earlobe as he dragged his fingers free of Bard’s mouth and trailed them down Bard’s chest, marking each scar. “Beautiful,” he whispered. Then both his hands were gone and Bard shuddered from the loss of it.

The fingers that curled around his thigh, lifting his leg, were slick, and Bard knew that this was madness, that they should…his voice broke on Thranduil’s name as the elf-king’s fingers pressed into him. He could feel the sweat trickling down his chest as he writhed in Thranduil’s grasp. “Please,” he whispered. “My hands, Thranduil. Please.

Thranduil pulled away, cupping Bard’s cheek with his free hand. His smile softened for a moment, his fingers light on Bard’s skin as he let his nails ghost up one of Bard’s arms, lingering to caress the inside of Bard’s wrist. The silk loosened and slipped free and Bard buried one hand in Thranduil’s hair, the other bunching in a handful of Thranduil’s heavy robes.  

The world dissolved into the taste of Thranduil’s mouth, the rasp of embroidered fabric against Bard’s bare skin, the slick slide of Thranduil’s fingers. Bard felt as though he was unravelling, coming about at the seams to spill broken and desperate at Thranduil’s feet.

Thranduil was murmuring against his ear, a long stream of lilting Elvish that Bard did not need to understand. He couldn’t have said quite how they managed it – his hands fumbling with Thranduil’s robes and laces, a few moments of weightlessness, his legs wrapped around Thranduil’s waist – but he could have sobbed in pleasure at the slow slide that seated him in Thranduil’s lap, the elf-king’s fingers digging bruises into his thighs.

Thranduil’s nails scoured tracks down Bard’s back and the sparks of pain fragmented into pleasure. If there had been a reason for silence, Bard could not recall it, everything swallowed by the raw, breathless cadence of their bodies and the fall of Thranduil’s hair around their faces. It was Thranduil’s hands sliding between them that made the world buckle and fade, Thranduil’s lips that found the junction of Bard’s neck and his shoulder and bit down.

And it was Thranduil’s name on Bard’s lips when he came apart, his fingers in Thranduil’s hair and Thranduil’s teeth against his throat.

Chapter Text

Sigrid had never seen her father look so terrified. He eyed the sheaf of letters as though they were about to burst into flames. She’d caught him on the way back from the stables, and the wind had whipped his clothes and hair into a state of disarray most unbecoming for the King of Dale. Then again, she thought, her simple dress and ink-stained hands were not those of a princess.

“Are those…” he choked.

“Yes.” She handed them to him and he tucked them hastily into one of the pockets of his coat, his cheeks flaming red. She’d seen him blush only once before; when he’d attempted to explain to her the things that would have been her mother’s province, had her mother lived. He had done well, all things considered, but she hadn’t been able to look him in the eye for some days afterwards.

“Did you read…” he began.

“Only until I realised what they were.” Sigrid was aware of her own cheeks colouring. All the young women sighed a little over the elf-king – or his handsome son – and envied her the frequent visits to the kingdom in the woods. It was one thing, though, to let her eyes linger for a little too long on pale hair and broad shoulder and quite another to read something so…intimate.

Yet she had been almost reluctant to stop reading, caught up in the beauty of the elf-king’s words. There had been something entrancing about the way Thranduil’s handwriting flowed across the page, curving in bold black strokes across the parchment. My sweet king, I have been too long without you…

She swallowed. “Tilda found them,” she explained.

Bard went from crimson to white under the darkness of his tan. “Does she…do I…do I need to speak to her?”

Sigrid took pity on him. “I explained.” They were, neither of them, as naïve as he thought – a father’s weakness, perhaps, to see children where there were two young women. Two young women who had not had a genteel upbringing surrounded by softness and servants.

“You explained,” he repeated. He looked as though he meant to inquire further, then thought better of it. His brows drew together and she read the sudden uncertainty on his face. “Sigrid, I…”

Sigrid flung her arms around his neck. “I’m glad for you, Da.” She breathed in the familiar scent of him as he hugged her back; wood and leather oil and clean wool. She felt like a child again, caught up in his strong arms, knowing that nothing in the world could hurt her. “And—“ she hesitated – “mother would be too.”

He stiffened for a moment, then his shoulders relaxed and he pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “When did you become so wise?” he murmured.

She slipped out of his arms and stood on tiptoes to press a kiss to his cheek. “I have always been wise. And I am late to the infirmary,” she told him. “I must go.” Brona had little patience for lateness, and no patience at all for princesses.

Her father’s voice stopped her. “You won’t…” he began.

She turned, cutting him off with a roll of her eyes. “Da, there is not a soul in this city who does not already know.”

Chapter Text

The mist hung low and thick over the cemetery, trailing lazy fingers across the headstones and tangling in the branches of the tall oaks. Most people were too sensible to be out and about at sunrise on a winter’s morning, but Bard liked the peace and quiet. Emily had loved the moments before sunrise, and in the silence of the deserted graveyard he could almost imagine her walking beside him, her hand in his. It was his time with her – without the children, without the sunshine or the birds, nothing but the frost and the dawn.

He was not, though, the only one who preferred the quiet of the morning. The pale hair was unmistakable, as was the dog bounding by the man’s side.

“Hey!” Bard called, breaking into a jog. “Excuse me, wait a moment!”

The man turned, his purple scarf a brilliant splash of colour in the hazy grey of the mist and the dark monuments. His tweed coat was belted at the waist and he carried a sturdy umbrella in one hand. His hair was loose, and the wind tossed it across his face as Bard approached.

Dae bounded forward, tail wagging furiously. Bard, prepared for the assault, managed to deflect the muddy paws. “Sorry about the “hey”,” he said to Thranduil, bending to scratch Dae’s ears. “I don’t know your name.”

The other man regarded him for a moment. “Thranduil,” he said, removing one of his leather gloves and extending a hand.

Bard straightened and fumbled to take his own glove, hampered by Dae’s enthusiastic attentions. “Bard. Pleased to meet you.”

Thranduil’s skin was cool, his handshake firm. “Likewise.”

Bard had caught Thranduil at the peak of the hill. The cemetery sprawled out before them, bordered by neat green hedges, and the town looked strange and ethereal in the morning light. The first rays of sun had begun to brush the mist aside and the soft pinks and burnt oranges of the dawn caught in the haze of smoke from the chimneys. They stood side by side for a moment, Dae lolling at Thranduil’s feet, watching the sunrise. The breeze lifted Thranduil’s hair again and he brushed it out of his face.

“Thankyou,” Bard said. “For the lilies, I mean. It was kind of you.”

“Kind?” There was a touch of amusement in Thranduil’s voice. “It was only fair.” Thranduil’s eyes met Bard and Bard found himself almost disconcerted by the steady gaze. Thranduil’s blue eyes were not unfriendly, but Bard had the distinct impression he was being weighed and measured.

“You’re an archer,” Thranduil observed.

“How’d you know?”

“My son. He has callouses like yours.”

Bard turned his bare hand over and ruefully examined his palm. “It’s hard to avoid them.”

They fell into silence again. It was strangely comfortable. Bard fossicked in his pocket and extracted his thermos. Thranduil eyed it with some interest.

“It’s hot chocolate. Would you like some?”

“Thankyou, but no,” Thranduil said.

Bard took a sip, feeling the warmth spread from his head to his toes. He wasn’t much of a cook, but he made a mean hot chocolate.

“It was a drunk driver.” Bard couldn’t have said what prompted him to start speaking. Perhaps it was because Thranduil was a stranger, and Bard had never been able to speak to anyone about Emily’s death who hadn’t had their own grief to endure. Or perhaps it was just the loneliness that always bubbled up and lodged in his throat when he stood still for too long.

“We were on our way home from parent-teacher interviews,” he continued. “I was driving and Em was in the passenger seat and…” he swallowed hard. “He came out of nowhere. Ran a red light and…she was killed instantly.”

“It is a hard thing, losing a wife and mother.” There was an odd remoteness in Thranduil’s voice. .

“Did you…I mean, is there someone here who you visit?”

“No,” Thranduil said. “There is no one here.”

The way he said it made Bard wish he’d never asked. There was a beat of silence, but this time it was not quite as comfortable.

Bard cleared his throat. “I should head off, I don’t like to leave the kids for too long. Thankyou again for the lilies.”

Thranduil inclined his head. Bard was conscious of an odd reluctance to leave. It wasn’t quite peaceful, but there was something pleasant about sharing the sunrise with someone, even a man he knew nothing about.

“My wife,” Thranduil said, as Bard made to walk away, giving Dae a final pat, “does not lie here. They never found her body.”

Bard turned back. Thranduil was looking into the distance. His voice was even, his face as smooth and still as porcelain. The sun was rising behind him, a glorious golden halo against his pale hair.

“I’m sorry,” Bard said.

“Yes,” Thranduil’s smile was so sweet and sad it made Bard blink. “So am I.”

Chapter Text

The guards at the entrance to Thranduil’s rooms stepped in front of the door as Bard approached. The morning’s headache had become an insistent thrum behind his temples, and the day’s negotiations had stretched far longer than they ought to have. He knew he should return to his rooms, bathe, eat something, but the frustration that had been simmering in his breast all day had finally boiled over when Thranduil had dismissed his entire delegation with a flick of his fingers.

“The King will not be disturbed,” one of the elves told him.

“I have no wish for trouble, but I will see him. Now.”

The guards exchanged glances, and Bard felt colour rise in his cheeks. The elves of Thranduil’s guards were no fools, and Thranduil had taken no pains to hide their liaison. After a few beats of silence they stepped aside and Bard pushed the door open. It closed with a thud behind him.  

Thranduil was standing by the fire, clad in a simple silver robe belted round the waist with an intricately embroidered sash. His feet were bare, his hair falling long and loose around his shoulders. He was holding a goblet of wine. He arched an eyebrow at Bard, as poised and infuriating as he had been all day, draped in his opulent finery and smirking down the table at a man who still felt like a fool every time he put a crown on. The anger that had faded to fatigue kindled again.

“I thought I was not to be disturbed,” Thranduil observed, taking a sip of wine.

“I wished to speak with you.” Bard swallowed, trying to choke down his annoyance. He was not here on behalf of his pride, or his temper. He was here for his people.

“Yes?”

“When last we spoke you made no mention of payment.”

“Did I not?”

“Our offer is fair. Why do you still refuse?”  

Thranduil crossed the room, setting his glass on the table. “Perhaps you have not yet learnt the art of diplomacy.” He came closer, until Bard could read the faintest touch of cruelty in his smile. “After all, you have not been a king for very long.”

Bard could almost – almost – have struck him.

Bard kissed him instead.

It was hot and rough and raw with anger. Thranduil started for a moment, then opened his mouth to the kiss, his hands hooking around Bard’s waist. Bard spun them and slammed Thranduil back against the wall, tearing open the delicate silken robe with one hand while the other caught a handful of Thranduil’s hair. The silk fell away to pool at Thranduil’s feet. He was wearing nothing beneath it. Bard let his hands slide down Thranduil’s chest, his nails leaving pink trails on the smooth skin and Thranduil’s breath caught.

Bard had never touched Thranduil in anger before, had never felt the need mark Thranduil, to see Thranduil wrecked and raw and wanting. Thranduil reached for the laces of Bard’s shirt and Bard pushed his hands away.

“No,” Bard murmured. He pinned Thranduil’s hands against the hard stone of the wall, his mouth finding Thranduil’s again as his leg slid between the elf-king’s bare thighs. His teeth caught Thranduil’s lower lip and he bit a little too hard. The noise Thranduil made sent heat thrilling through Bard’s blood. He could feel the swiftness of the elf-king’s pulse beneath the thumbs he had pressed against Thranduil’s wrists.

Bard tightened his grip on Thranduil’s hair as his teeth found the side of Thranduil’s throat. Thranduil choked on a groan and Bard pulled back for a moment. Thranduil’s lips were swollen from their kisses, his eyes dark with need.  Bard traced one hand down the elf-king’s side, letting it settle on Thranduil’s hip so his thumb could tease the jut of Thranduil’s hipbone.

“You would deny me the sweetness of your cries?” Bard said, leaning in, his teeth catching Thranduil’s earlobe. He loosened his grip on Thranduil’s hair, letting his fingers slide through the soft locks. The anger was still there, hot and sweet, but his desire had risen to meet it.

He propelled Thranduil backwards until the back of the elf-king’s legs struck the table. One shove and Thranduil was sprawled back, his naked thighs bracketing Bard’s hips. A sweep of Bard’s arm sent the papers scattering across the room. The wineglass teetered and toppled, a pool of crimson spreading across the table and catching the ends of Thranduil’s hair. Bard’s mouth found Thranduil’s again as one of his hands slid down the elf-king’s bare thigh, curving around Thranduil’s knee. 

-

Bard touched one of the bruises blossoming on Thranduil’s throat. “Forgive me,” he murmured. His anger had fled, to be replaced by a growing feeling of shame, even as the last remnants of pleasure still thrummed through his body. They lay on the bed in a welter of sheets, both sticky with sweat. Bard still had his boots on.  

Thranduil stretched, languid as a cat. The firelight bathed his long limbs in amber warmth. There was still wine in his tousled hair. “You think I would have permitted it if I had not desired it?”

“I hurt you.” Bard’s fingers brushed the pink half-moons his nails had dug into Thranduil’s shoulders. There were scratches down Thranduil’s back as well, and a little blood on Thranduil’s lip where it had split while they kissed.

“Only a little.” Thranduil’s hands found the bruise where his throat met his shoulder. “There is sometimes pleasure in pain, nîn meleth.”

Bard remembered the way Thranduil had shuddered when he’d bitten down on that spot, the way his beautiful body had bowed and trembled in Bard’s arms, and heat sparked low in his stomach.

Thranduil rolled to his feet, unashamed of his nudity. “I will cede to your terms tomorrow,” he said, crossing to his bath chamber. “There is little to be gained from further delay.”

Bard froze. By the time he’d come to his senses and stood, Thranduil had vanished. He padded across the room, sparing a rueful glance for the mess they’d made of the table. Thranduil had just sank into his bath, the water closing over his body as he reclined back in the tub.

“You never intended to insist on payment,” Bard said. It was only half a question.

Thranduil opened one eye. “Did I not?”

His smile was as wicked and fey as Bard had ever seen it. 

Chapter Text

Thranduil caught Bard at the mirror, leaning against the table on which it stood and examining the white threaded through the dark waves of his loose hair. There was more of it than there had been once, though not as much as there might have been. Bard’s clothes were still scattered where they had fallen in the breathless haste of the previous evening; he was clad in one of Thranduil’s robes, the blue silk sprinkled with whorls and loops of gold.

“I will be an old man one day soon,” Bard said as Thranduil slipped his arms around his lover’s waist and pressed a kiss to the nape of Bard’s neck.

Thranduil met Bard’s eyes in the mirror. “Not so soon.” Kingship had carved lines in the corners of Bard’s eyes and around his mouth, but his shoulders were as broad and strong as ever and he moved with the grace and energy of a younger man.

“You will throw me from your bed, no doubt, before I am too grey and wrinkled.” Bard’s tone was light, but there was a touch of melancholy in his eyes.

“What do you think me? A faithless woodland sprite?”

That teased a smile from Bard. His face softened for a moment, then hardened anew. “I would that I die in battle and spare us both.” He looked away from the mirror, his fingers tightening on the edge of the table.

“I would not have you taken from me a moment before you must be.” Thranduil set his hands on Bard’s shoulder’s, gently turning his lover to face him.

Bard sighed, his eyes fluttering closed for a moment. “And you will want me still, when I am old and stooped?” There was harshness in his voice that Thranduil had never heard before. “When I can no longer rise without assistance? When I cannot string a bow or raise a sword?”

There was an easy lie, but they had not built what they had on easy lies. “I know not,” Thranduil raised a hand to cup Bard’s cheek. “But I know also that I will not cease to love you.”

“We are both too old to believe that love will triumph over all things,” Bard said.

“Yes,” Thranduil conceded. “But not too old, I think, to hope it might.”

Chapter Text

It takes Thranduil some time to become accustomed to the way Bard’s stubble rasps and scratches. The prickliness when they kiss. The roughness beneath his questing fingers when he traces the line of Bard’s jaw and the curves and arches of Bard’s cheeks and neck. He is used to smoothness and coolness, not the hard heat of Bard’s mouth and the stinging press of Bard’s cheek against his throat.

The faint pink marks on Thranduil’s skin linger after Bard has left.

Bard arrives one day, shaved clean and close, and Thranduil is startled into silence. Bard’s hair falls in neat waves beneath his simple crown, and he has taken unusual care with his clothes. His boots are polished, his new coat stretches becomingly across his broad shoulders and there is a heavy silver ring on the index finger of his right hand.

“Sigrid,” he explains as he dismounts. “I am powerless against her.”

They make love in the forest, cushioned by Thranduil’s heavy robe, tangled together beneath the round spring moon with nothing but the rustle of the trees and the raggedness of their breath to break the silence of the night. Thranduil misses it then – misses the exquisite tease over his flushed skin and the rueful touches and soothing kisses that always followed.

Thranduil catches Bard the next morning at the basin, razor in hand. Bard’s brow is furrowed, his touch delicate. “’Tis a lot of trouble,” Bard observes, splashing water over his cheeks.

“Sigrid’s tastes run, no doubt, to callow, beardless youths.”

One of Bard’s eyebrows quirks but he says nothing,

He does not shave the next day, or the one after that.

Chapter Text

“My lord Thranduil!”

The man they were calling the King of Dale held his wine well – or perhaps he had too much on his mind to risk even that brief solace. His cheeks were a little flushed but his stride was steady and his eyes were clear. He bounded up the stairs with easy grace. The revelry had spilled into the streets of the city and the riotous clamour drifted on the night breeze. The walls were a blaze of torches and the wine flowed as freely as the laughter and singing.

Thranduil had not taste for it.

“I had hoped to speak with you,” Bard said, joining Thranduil on the edge of the parapet. Someone had bullied Bard into laundered clothes; not his own, Thranduil thought, by the way the shirt pulled across his shoulders. He had lost his cloak – or perhaps he had never worn one – and his shirt gaped a little as he leant forward against the stone, exposing the scrapes and scratches on his tanned skin. They stared together towards the orange glow of the braziers burning at the gates of the Mountain.

“I should think of those who live, not those who are slain,” Bard said. The long plain would bear the scars of battle for many moons to come and the pyres of orc dead still smouldered beneath the night sky.

“Yet you do not.”

“No.” The sorrow in his voice was as familiar as an old friend. There were shadows in his face too, where once there had been none, and something in him was colder, harder – the iron melancholy of hard truths and heavy grief. Bard had laboured long on the battlefield, searching for the dead and dying, carrying his people to the great hall to be bathed and prepared for burial. It had been his children, finally, who had bullied him into washing off the blood and dirt and sitting long enough to have his own wounds tended to.

“It will drive you mad if you allow it,” Thranduil cautioned.

The faint strains of a song drifted to them, sung with more enthusiasm than tune. “The elven king with his silver hair, and his blades of starlight just as fair, came down to the field like the winter cold, ice and fury as the kings of old….”

Bard’s mouth twitched. “I will not allow it. He glanced at Thranduil. “My lord, I would,” he began. He hesitated. “I have—” he fumbled for something in his pocket. “You rode to save the city, my lord. I – we – will not forget that.” He held out a simple velvet pouch.

Thranduil took it, turning it in his hands. “The men of Laketown have paid their debt to my people, if any were owed,” he said.

“This does not belong to the men of Laketown.” He held Thranduil’s gaze for a moment, then glanced away, his eyes once more falling upon the lonely climb of the Mountain where it pierced the night sky.

Thranduil upended the bag and the emeralds slithered over his fingers in a rush of muted green fire.

“They would look well upon you,” Thranduil said, lifting the necklace. It seemed to catch the very starlight and glisten.

“Not as well as they will upon you,” Bard said. He inclined his head, stepping back and gesturing to the celebrations below. “I will be missed if I am gone too long,” he explained.

“You should be with your people,” Thranduil agreed. He looked at the emeralds for a moment longer. They should have been cool and heavy in his hands, but there was life in them. Warmth. “But do not tarry here too long before visiting my halls – we have much to discuss.”

It might have been the moonlight that put a spark in Bard’s dark eyes. “As you will, my lord.”

Chapter Text

It was not a wise thing to do. Bard told himself that, even as he uncorked the bottle and took the first sip. The flavour burst on his tongue with velvet richness and he took a second, and a third. It was heady stuff, made for an elf-king’s table. The warmth unraveled through his veins, chasing away a little of the chill.

He had not been drunk in years.

The voices quieted as he drank again – the men and women he’d led to their deaths, the children he had not been able to save. They were a constant clamour in his mind, fading by the light of day and surging forward again when he lay down to rest. They saved their choicest words for the night, hissing pleas and rebukes from the blackness.

Nobody, he reasoned, would find him. They were too busy mourning their losses or celebrating the victory. It might be shameful, but it was a shame only he would know of.

He was halfway through the bottle when the footsteps came. The tread too light to belong to a man of Laketown. Bard was halfway to his feet, one hand pressed against the wall for support, when someone rounded the corner. It took him a moment to recognise Thranduil; the sudden movement had sent the wine thrumming through his veins, the world buckling and spinning.

The elf-king came to a stop, his eyes falling to the bottle in Bard’s hand. “That is poor treatment of a fine vintage.”

Bard straightened and raised the bottle. “Our glorious victory.”

Perhaps it was the wine, too, that threaded moonbeams through Thranduil’s hair. The moonlight smoothed the edges of his beauty, rippling through his hair and softening the sharpness of his cold blue eyes.

“I have heard it said that men should not drink alone,” Thranduil observed.

Bard proffered the bottle. Thranduil crossed to join him, taking the bottle from his outstretched hand. The elf lifted it to his lips and took a sip. Bard watched Thranduil’s throat contract as he swallowed.

“A fine vintage,” Thranduil repeated, setting the bottle on the edge of the wall. They stood in silence for long moments, staring down at the city below.

“Half of them were boys,” Bard said. The words fled his mouth before he could think to stop them. They were poison in his throat, burning and choking. “Boys who should have been flirting with pretty girls and sneaking to the taverns, not dying on the edge of orc blades and arrows, pissing themselves with fear.” His voice cracked and he turned away.

Thranduil said nothing.

“How do you bear it?” Bard asked, turning back.

Thranduil’s face was impassive. “Think of those who would have died if the battle had been lost. Think of the living. The dead will drive you mad.”

Bard reached for the bottle and Thranduil pulled it away from his fingers.

“Thankyou,” Bard said. He let his head fall back against the stone and closed his eyes. He would not weep. Would not. Tears burned in his eyes and he swallowed hard. The exhaustion had coalesced into a crushing, pressing pain. He wanted – needed – to sleep. He could not bear it any longer.

“You cannot sleep.” Thranduil’s voice was soft. “You have not slept since the battle.”

“No,” Bard confessed. He opened his eyes and Thranduil’s face swam into focus.

“I will help you, if you permit.” Bard did not think it was kindness in the elf-king’s voice. Understanding, perhaps.

“Please.” He would have begged, if Thranduil had asked it of him.

Thranduil did not, though, taking Bard’s wrist with gentle fingers. “Close your eyes,” he murmured.

Bard obeyed. There was a moment of stillness, then cool lips pressed themselves to his forehead. It was as though everything loud, everything rough and raw and bleeding, was draining slowly away. He was falling – no, flying – the ache in his muscles and the pressure in his head replaced by a glorious languor. An arm curled around his shoulders, supporting him as he slid down the wall.

Thranduil’s voice seemed to come from very far away. Bard did not understand the words. His eyes flickered open for a moment. He looked into Thranduil’s eyes and drowned there, for a moment, sinking down into blue ice which reached for him like a lover’s arms.

Then sleep rose to claim him and he thought no more.

Chapter Text

Thranduil turned away as Bard entered the tent – not swiftly enough, for Bard caught a flash of what the elf-king sought to conceal. He could not stop his catch of breath. It had only been a glimpse, but he needed no more than an instant.

“My lord Thranduil, you are hurt.” They were not wounds from the battle, though, not those. Such ruin could have been wrought by one thing alone. He had seen wounds like that of late, on men who screamed and begged for death. He had smelt the reek of burning skin and flesh.

Dragonfire.

Thranduil did not turn around. “They are wounds of the flesh no longer,” he said. “They do not pain me.”

Bard thought it a lie – the falsehood of an elf, deceit spun with the truth. He knew well enough that it was not only wounds of the flesh which ached.

“Why are you here, Bowman?” Thranduil asked.

“The blood of your people was spilled in defence of mine. The men of Laketown would offer you some recompense, if we are able.”

Thranduil turned, his skin smooth once more, his eyes clear and bright.

“Recompense? I have spent the lives of elves who would have lived a thousand years hence and a thousand years again.” The elf-king’s voice was even but the skin of his cheek rippled, his left eye flickering to white sightlessness and back again to blue. The air in the tent seemed to thicken, the shadows shifting restively in the corners. “There is naught in that mountain or on this earth that is just recompense for that.”

Bard met Thranduil’s eyes. “It is true that their lives cannot be counted in gold and gems. I come only to acknowledge our debt to you.”

“Debt?” Thranduil reached for the pitcher of wine and poured himself a glass, the wine as thick and dark as blood. “What worth are the debts of men and dwarves, who breathe one moment and die the next?”

Bard thought of the boys who had traded hammers and fishing lines for swords and spears, the women who had lifted knives and axes and stood unshaken before the great hall. He had bathed the bodies of children, taken weapons from the dead fingers of men and women he had laughed with over a mug of ale. “You cannot measure the worth of a life by its length.”

Thranduil took a long sip of the wine. “You are a man. You must believe that. Yet I look at your people and I see a handful of years bought with the sorrow of ages.” There was no spark of anger in his eyes, no sorrow on his face. He was as stone, smooth and cool and ageless.

“You did not come on our account, and yet now our hands are stained with your people’s blood?” Bard fought back the sudden heat of anger. “How many would have fallen against Dain, had the orcs not come? Would their lives have been better spent for white gems of pure starlight?”

Thranduil went still. “I grow weary, Bargeman,” he said, voice light and pleasant. His eyes fell to the bag in Bard’s hands. “If you have something to offer me, offer it and go.”

“I have naught to offer but my word that we will give you succour, as you did us, if you ask. Whether today or a thousand years hence.” Bard dropped the box on the table. “I do not offer these because they are yours already, my lord Thranduil. It is on their account you came. I wish you joy of them.”

He turned away as Thranduil stepped forward. There was something in the elf-king’s face, then, as vivid and visceral as the scars had been. Bard heard the click of the latch on the box as he reached the entrance to the tent.

He did not look back.

Chapter Text

Bard did not doubt the elves had slackened their pace on his account. The slopes of Ravenhill were steep and he was not as agile as the woodland folk. Still, they made good time, thrumming with the fire of battle and driven on by anxiety and doubt. They spread out as they went, picking their way between the scattered corpses. The wind tore at their clothes but the sun had chased away the mist, the sky stretching blue and clear above them.

He could do little more in Dale. The dead and wounded had been carried from the field, the great hall had been equipped to tend the injured and the dying, and the last of the orcs had fled or been slain. He should have rested, perhaps, but he could not sit. There was something snapping at his heels, he knew, and he was loath to let it catch him. There would be time to rest, time to mourn. That time was not upon him yet. He was needed still.

He came upon Thranduil by chance, picking his way along a stretch of stone corridor. Thranduil’s face was splattered with black blood and for a moment Bard saw a great weariness in the blue eyes that locked with his. It was gone in an instant, smoothed away.

"I thought you would remain with your people," Thranduil said. It did not sound like a rebuke.

"I wished to see you safe, my lord, and to discover the fate of the dwarves and Mr Baggins. The work below is for healers, not soldiers."

“You count yourself a soldier still, I see.” Thranduil’s lips curved into what might have been a smile. “I am unharmed. Thorin Oakenshield and his nephews are dead.”

Bard bowed his head. “There was no love between us, but they fought valiantly in the end.” The sorrow came on him as a heaviness. The scrapes and scratches that had not pained him for all the long day began to throb. “Your son,” he began.

"He lives." Thranduil’s tone betrayed nothing.

Bard pressed a hand to the ache in his side. There was dampness there, and when he pulled his hand away his fingers were dark with blood. He stared. It had been a scratch, that was all. A scratch. He pulled his coat aside. The right side of his shirt was tacky with dried gore. A new stain of crimson was creeping steadily outwards. He watched it in fascination as it blossomed across the sweat-stained linen.

"You are wounded," Thranduil took a step forward.

"It was but a scratch." Everything began to swim. The world rippled and went dark at the edges, receding suddenly before Bard’s eyes. Someone was speaking — words he could not understand — and then there was something behind his shoulders, taking his weight as his knees buckled.

-

Bard eyelids flickered. He was moving, yet his feet were not on the ground. He blinked, and the rough steps of Ravenhill came into view, white with snow and treacherous. He was being carried, he realised, caught up like a child in a father’s arms. Pale hair, light and smooth as silk, brushed his face.

"What…" he began, turning his head to look up at Thranduil’s face. He shifted, his fingers finding a rough bandage wrapped tight around his torso. His chest was bare but for the bandage, and the warm fabric that cushioned his body was not familiar.

“Do not move” He could feel the rumble of Thranduil’s voice against the cheek that rested on the elf-king’s shoulder. “You have watered me sufficiently with your blood already.”

"I..." he began.

"Do not speak either," Thranduil ordered.

It was a weakness, he knew, but he let his head fall back against the elf-king’s shoulder. Thranduil’s steps were steady. It was a strange thing, to be held so effortlessly. His mother had caught him up thus, cradling him in her arms and carrying him up the stairs to his bed. She had sung to him of great battles and kingly deeds while he drifted off to sleep. There had been no warmer, safer place than her strong arms. He thought of her as exhaustion rose up to swallow him anew.

He could almost feel her fingers stroking his hair.

Chapter Text

My sweet King,

 I have been too long without you. I have seen ages pass in the blink of an eye, yet every moment when you are not by my side stretches long and hollow. I would that you could tarry here for long years, to watch the ebb and flow of the seasons by my side. The autumn comes swiftly and the forest is carpeted in red and gold. I would have you in the leaves, meleth nîn, beneath the heavy moon. I would taste the sweetness of your mouth and take the pleasure of your cries.

Tell me how it is in Dale. The winter, I think, will be a long one. You will endure, though, as you have endured before. I have never thought men wise, but wise were the men of Esgaroth when they named you their king.

Do you not wonder, sometimes, what it would be if we were free? If the crown did not weigh heavy on your brow? If I were not tethered to my people? My king, my love, I do not think on it, for such thoughts are sweet and poison. 

You know already what I would give to you, if I were able. The long unfurling of eternity has never seemed so grey, so born of shadows and despair. I have never been so tempted.  My people fade. I fade.

I do not fear death. I fear – I will not speak of what I fear, for such is not your burden to bear.

I will not forsake my people. Not when the shadows grow ever longer, creep ever nearer. My life is theirs. It has always been so. I have begrudged it not ‘til now. I would hoard what time I have with you. I am greedy. I am selfish. You make me so. I would have you love none but me, if I could.

Yet would I love you, were you other than what you are? I will share your love, as I must, and in that you make me more than I have been.

 Come to me when the snow melts, come to my halls and rest awhile. We will bathe in the springs and let the budding sun dry our skin. Naught will come between us then. Let me chase away your cares, let me sunder you with passion. We will lay aside our crowns, for a day, and be just as we are and as we will never be.

T.  

Chapter Text

Bard knew the length and breadth of his rooms too well; he felt as though he should have worn a path on the smooth stone floors. He had slept little since the battle, but it was not the memory of steel and blood that kept him from his bed this time.

“I do not offer these because they are yours already, my lord Thranduil. It is on their account you came. I wish you joy of them.”

It had been a cruel thing to say to someone who had offered him only friendship. But perhaps his words had mattered not, if Thranduil did think so little of men.

He sighed, crossing to the window and leaning against the sill. Dale lay before him, shrouded by night. A few lanterns were still kindled in the houses, flickers of amber against the sprawling blackness. Light spilled from the windows of the great hall. He felt the press of guilt every time he walked amongst the wounded, every time he saw a man or woman who had lost a child, a husband, a lover, a brother, a friend.

How great a burden must it be, to be responsible for people who would live forever? To send them to battle knowing some must die? Thranduil’s words had teased at the last strands of his fraying temper. They had been meant to, perhaps.

He should have known better than to have been goaded.

There was a light knock on the door. Bard had become accustomed to being called at all hours of the night and day. He did not expect to see an elf on the threshold.

“Lord Thranduil bid me bring you this,” the elf told him, holding out a long shape wrapped in silk and bound around with silver chords. He took it, knowing by the curve and heft of it what it was.

The knots parted easily and the silk slithered free. He had never seen such a bow. It was longer and heavier than those the elves favoured, carved with skill the likes of which he had never seen before. A longbow fit for the glorious kings of myth and it fit his hands as though it had been made for him. He could not read the words that twined their way up the shaft, but they had been inlaid in silver and they gleamed softly in the firelight.

A piece of paper fluttered to the floor and Bard picked it up. The handwriting was bold and strong.

This is not a gift — it is yours, as it was ever meant to be.

He opened his mouth to speak, but the elf who had delivered the bow was gone.

Chapter Text

The axe blow caught Thranduil square in the chest, even as the elf-king’s sword bit deep into the orc’s throat. The head of the axe came free in a gush of blood as the orc fell. Thranduil staggered. He held his feet for a moment, chest heaving, crimson spreading steadily across the silver of his robes. The afternoon sunlight pierced the heavy veil of the forest, casting a halo of gold around his pale hair. His gaze swept the clearing -- their assailants all dead or dying -- and he smiled, wild and fey. Bard could almost have believed the blow had not landed, that the blossoming of blood was not Thranduil's own. He opened his mouth to speak. 

Thranduil's swords slipped from his fingers and thudded to the ground. The elf-king swayed and went to his knees in the mud. He held fast again, his hands pressed to the gash on his breast. Then he fell, toppling sideways and hitting the ground with a dull thud.

Bard flung himself down, pressing his hands over Thranduil’s. The blood welled thick and fast beneath his fingers and he could see the whiteness of bone under the torn flesh. None of them had been in armour, the orcs swarming out of the forest with the shocking swiftness of a spring flood. 

“Ride for help!” Bard yelled to their remaining companion. “Damn you, ride!”

The man obeyed.

“Help is coming,” Bard said, the blood pulsing hot over their entwined fingers. The wound was deep. Too deep. He pulled away for a moment and ripped off his cloak, wadding it into a ball and pressing it against the gash. The fabric was soaked through in moments.

“There is no help that could come swift enough for me,” Thranduil said. His voice was steady, though his eyes were bright with pain.

“No,” Bard said, pressing harder on the wound. “You cannot. You must not.”

Thranduil smiled. His lips and teeth were stained with blood. What little colour there usually was in his face had fled. “You do not command me, Bowman.” 

“Then I beg you.” Tears burned in Bard’s eyes. “Please.

Thranduil said nothing, reaching up to touch Bard’s cheek with bloody fingers. 

“That blow was meant for me,” Bard said, voice breaking. “You…”

“Chose,” Thranduil cut him off. “It was my choice, and it is done.” He smiled then, his face softening. “Legolas,” he said. His voice was weaker, and there was a terrible bubbling in his breath. “Tell Legolas…tell him…” Thranduil swallowed. “Tell him it was not only his mother who loved him.”

“Yes,” Bard said, tears scalding in the corners of his eyes. “I swear to you, I will.”

“I had not thought to see you weep for me,” Thranduil murmured. One of his hands rose to cup the nape of Bard’s neck. Bard bowed his head and brought their lips together, tasting salt and copper. Thranduil sighed – a long, shuddering exhalation – and stilled.

“No,” Bard whispered. “Please, no.” He pressed his lips to Thranduil’s forehead, his blood stained fingers cradling the elf-king’s face. “Thranduil, please.” He pulled Thranduil’s head to his breast, his face buried in the elf-king's hair. “Please.”

The only answer was the low moan of the wind through the trees.   

 

Chapter Text

"My lord Thranduil."

Thranduil glanced down. The girl could not have been more than fourteen or fifteen. She was a pretty thing, with thick dark hair and a firm chin. Her hands and arms were stained with dried blood and her curls were caught back in a neat plait.

“Yes?”

”It is my da.” She didn’t hesitate to meet his eyes, though the top of her head was some inches beneath his chin. He guessed from the state of her clothes and hands that she’d been helping the healers. She was pale with strain and there were dark shadows beneath her eyes, but she did not seem daunted.

“Who is your da, that you think him my concern?”

"Bard."

Thranduil studied the girl with new interest. She was looking at him just as intently, her hazel eyes wide and curious.

”Your da?” he prompted.

Her cheeks coloured a little. “He does not sleep. He does not eat. He will not let a healer see him. He is wounded, I know it, and yet he will not stop carrying bodies from the battlefield.”

“I do not command your father, child.” He had burdens enough, seeing to the elven dead and wounded. He did not need to add a mortal man to the list of his cares.

“He will listen to you, my lord. Please.” She hesitated. “I am afraid for him.” Such a simple thing, so plainly spoken. There were no tears in her eyes and her voice did not tremble.

She was very like her father.

“Very well,” Thranduil said. “Though I doubt he will hearken to my words.”

-

Bard straightened and for a moment the world swam before his eyes. He had been able to offer the man no more than a hand to hold as the life had fled his ailing body. He did not think he would ever get the smell of death from his nostrils or the soft moans of the suffering from his ears.

The great hall was full of the cries of the wounded and the dying, those men and women who had been spared flitting from bed to bed, helping where they were able. Even the children toiled, carrying water and bandages. Sigrid had proved herself a deft hand with a needle and thread, and Bain and Tilda toiled uncomplaining beside the healers.

Bard inhaled slowly, willing himself to steadiness, and crossed the hall again, jogging down the steps and heading back towards the field. He ducked through an arch and was making his way down a narrow street when the fatigue hit again. He staggered.

A hand caught his arm, steadying him, and he looked up into familiar blue eyes.

“My thanks,” he said to Thranduil. The elf-king was accompanied by a dark-haired elf he didn’t recognise.

Thranduil raised one eyebrow. “You will do your people little good if you drop in your tracks.” He released Bard’s arm.

“It was the loose ground, that is all.”

Thranduil frowned. “If you will not seek aid in the great hall then come to my tent – we have healers enough.”

“I will not rest while my people still lie on that field,” Bard said. Not while there were men and women who might still live, who could still be saved. They brought back fewer living and more dead with every hour that passed.

Thranduil’s look was measuring. “Very well.” The elf-king turned to the dark-haired elf. “Take your company and find the men of Laketown who still lie on the field,” he ordered. “Convey the dead and wounded alike to the great hall.”

The elf nodded and slipped away.

Thranduil turned back to Bard. “Will that suffice?”

“I led them here, and I will care for them.”

Thranduil sighed. “Do you have so little faith in my people? They will find the dead and the wounded, and they will carry them back more swiftly and lightly than you could hope to. Will it not distress your people further if you fall?”

“I will not fall,” Bard insisted.

“You will,” Thranduil said, without pity. “And they will lose courage to see it. You are a solider no longer, Bowman. A leader cannot always follow the call of his heart.”

Bard sighed and let his eyes slip closed for a moment. The elf-king was right, as little as he might like to admit it. Bard knew his body well, and he had pushed it far beyond the limits of its endurance. Every muscle ached and he had been perilously disdainful of the scratches and cuts on his arms and chest. “Very well,” he said.

He stumbled again as they set off towards Thranduil’s tent, and again it was the elf-king’s hand on his shoulder that steadied him. He had done the same for so many over the long hours since the battle — it was strange to have someone offer him that comfort. He did not know much of the customs of the woodland elves, but he knew they did not touch with the casual ease of men.

Bard reached up and clasped his fingers around Thranduil’s wrist, hoping he would not cause offence. “Thankyou,” he said. Bard had never been close enough to the elf-king before to see the way stormclouds and blue ice mingled in his eyes or the pale gold brush of his long lashes. For a moment his breath stopped in his throat. The skin of Thranduil’s wrist was cool beneath his fingers.

“It was Sigrid, wasn’t it?” Bard asked, breaking whatever it was that had begun to stretch between them, taut as a bowstring. He couldn’t decide if he despaired of the loss or was glad of it.

Thranduil didn’t quite smile, but there was amusement in the corners of his eyes. “She will be a woman to contend with one day.”

“She already is.”

Chapter Text

Bard slammed his fist into the side of the stables. He shook out his hand and wiped his grazed knuckles on the side of his breeches.  

“I see the negotiations proceed much as they did yesterday.” Thranduil stepped out from the concealment of the shadows. His elk poked its head from its stable to snuffle at his hair and he raised an absent hand to stroke its nose.

“I will not barter my away daughters like…like broodmares,’ Bard snarled. His anger did not surprise Thranduil. The constant suggestions about Sigrid had frayed Bard’s temper well enough, and he had no doubt they had started on Tilda.

“Few fathers would show such consideration,” Thranduil observed.

“Then they are fools,” Bard snapped. He sighed, raising a hand to push his hair back from his face. “Forgive me.”

“A father should not ask forgiveness for loving his daughters.” Thranduil removed his robes from the elk’s questing teeth.

“They will marry eventually, I suppose,” Bard said, digging in his pocket and extracting a carrot. “But I will see them happily wed or I will have their husband’s heads on stakes.” It was half a jest, Thranduil thought, but only half. Bard had not been raised to rule, had not been taught to put his kingdom before his loves, his loyalties, his family.

Bard offered the carrot to the elk, palm flat, and was rewarded with an appreciative snuffle.

“And you?” Thranduil asked.  

“Me?”

“Will you not marry?”

Bard blinked at him.

“Marry?”

“Marry,” Thranduil repeated.

“I have no desire to wed,” Bard managed. “I have obligations enough. I will not take a woman I do not care for to bed to fill my coffers or secure my throne.” He reached up to stoke the elk’s neck. “I am not brute enough for that,” he continued. “They are children, half of them, prodded forward to curtsy and flutter at me. I am hardly an object of girlish fantasies.”

In that, Thranduil thought, Bard was likely mistaken. He was not young, it was true, and he was rough-hewn still, despite the trappings of kingship. But he had a handsome face and the silver in his hair did not detract from the strength of his shoulders or the warmth of his eyes.

 “I have obligations enough,” Bard said. The anger was gone from his voice. He sounded only tired. “I would not be free to wed where I chose, and so I will not wed.” He had turned away from Thranduil, his face in shadow. “I married for love. I will not dishonour that.”

“What would you do if you were free?”

Bard glanced back to meet the elf-king’s gaze. There were shadows beneath his eyes, and lines of strain around his mouth. “I do not think I will ever know,” he said. 

Chapter Text

The muscles of Bard’s back bunched as he drew the bowstring. His sweat-slick skin gleamed in the sun. He had his hair caught back from his face and sweat trickled from his brow and down his naked chest. He’d discarded his shirt while fencing and was clad only in trousers and boots. For all the silver in his hair he had the form of a young man, his belly smooth and tight, the muscles of his well-muscled arms taut with effort. Thranduil heard one of the watching young ladies gasp aloud.  

I am hardly an object of girlish fantasies.

In that, if in little else, the King of Dale was sorely mistaken.

Bard loosed the arrow and it sped straight and true, splitting one of its brethren down the centre. He brushed the sweat out of his eyes and reached for another, heedless of the smattering of applause. He sent three more arrows soaring to their target before he stopped, rolling his shoulders and shaking out his arms. The young ladies descended, crowding around him to express their admiration.

“They are like hounds on a fox.” Sigrid came to stand beside Thranduil. She was wearing a simple green gown that set off her neat figure and a plain silver coronet. Her fingers were stained with ink and her hair was bound in a neat braid and coiled at the back of her head. “Perhaps you should sally forth in his defence, my lord Thranduil.” Her tone was very dry. “I did my duty yesterday.”

“Perhaps he does not wish to be defended.” It was a patent untruth – Bard looked as hunted as the fox Sigrid had spoken of.

Sigrid laughed. “Da? Marry one of them? He thinks them children, and treats them as such.” She pursed her lips. “He is too free by half with his smiles, and he wonders then why they flock to him.”

“They are not all so young. Would it be so ill a thing for him to seek companionship?”

“A man need not be wed for that,” Sigrid observed, with a worldliness that would have given Thranduil pause had she been his daughter. “Besides, he favours none of them.”

Something in her tone piqued Thranduil’s interest. “Does a daughter know the heart of her father so well?”  

She arched a brow. She had been shy of him once. Now her smile was almost teasing. “A father may not speak of his affections to his daughters,” she told him. “But a daughter might have her own suspicions.” She glanced at the sun. “Forgive me, my lord, I will be late if I do not hurry.” She slipped away, heading in the direction of the library.

Thranduil watched Bard for a moment longer. Bard was splashing his face with water. Thranduil suspected he was resisting the urge to upend the entire bucket over his head. If he did, Thranduil was quite certain he would have at least one swooning young woman to contend with.

Thranduil removed himself from the fence and crossed once more to succour the King of Dale.  

Chapter Text

“Legolas” Bard hailed the elf as Legolas crossed the courtyard. “I would speak to you before you depart.” The eleven delegation were almost all ahorse milling before the gates. Their green finery was strikingly bright against the white purity of the snow. 

Legolas stopped, turning to wait for Bard to catch up with him. “Of course,” he said. Bard fell in beside him and they crossed into the gardens. The winter had stolen much of their greenery, but they still had a certain stark beauty. Snow had come early, falling to blanket the city in white. It would be a long winter, though they were not so vulnerable to ice and frost as they had been the year before.

“What troubles you?” Legolas asked.

Bard hesitated. He had been loath to broach the subject with Legolas. “I had believed your father esteemed me well enough,” Bard said, choosing his words with care.

Legolas frowned. “You have cause to believe otherwise now?”

“He came often to Dale, once. Now it has been nigh on a year since last I saw him here.”

“He has many responsibilities – he cannot always leave the woods,” Legolas said. He lacked some of the elven talent for dissimulation. Bard tried to ignore the plummeting feeling in his belly. It was true, then. It was on his account that the friendship between he and Thranduil seemed to have faded. 

“Of course. Yet the last three times I have visited the woodland kingdom he has been gone.” Bard tried to keep his tone light. It mattered not – he told himself every day – what the elf-king thought of him, as long as trade was maintained between their people. “If I have caused some offence,” Bard continued. “I would make what amends I can.”

“You have caused no offence,” Legolas said. “Believe that.” Legolas paused, turning to admire a fountain draped in icicles. Bard let the silence draw out.

“I think, perhaps, my father esteems you too well,” Legolas said finally, avoiding Bard’s gaze. “And so he seeks to keep a distance between you.”

“Esteems me too…” Bard blinked.

“He…his affection…he…” Legolas’s cheeks were pink. Bard had never seen the elf look do discomposed. 

Legolas turned back towards to the courtyard, head tilted. “Forgive me, someone calls for me.” He inclined his head and strode away.

It was an ungraceful an exit as Bard had ever seen him make. Bard stared after him, Legolas’ words echoing in his head.

I think, perhaps, my father esteems you too well.

Bard walked back to the courtyard without haste, wondering. It might be wise, he thought, to spare time for a visit to the woodland kingdom soon.

Very soon.

Chapter Text

“Do they look as well upon me as you thought they might?” Thranduil asked. His tone was teasing, his eyes alight with wicked fire. He was naked but for the emeralds gleaming green against the bare skin of his throat and his hair fell about them both in a glorious cascade of pale gold.

“Well enough,” Bard managed, breathless, running his hands down the elf-king’s side. Thranduil’s skin was smooth as stone polished by water, but warm and living beneath his fingers. It was so different to his own. Yet Thranduil always seemed intrigued by the callouses on Bard’s fingers and the scars that peppered Bard’s chest and back, the hair on Bard’s chest, the way Bard’s beard teased the elf-king’s skin until it was flushed pink.

“Well enough?” Thranduil’s lips brushed the side of Bard’s jaw. “I am damned by faint praise.” His lips found Bard’s and they kissed, long and languorously, until Bard’s fingers were wound in Thranduil’s hair and Thranduil’s nails bit into Bard’s hips. They had time enough, but the taste of Thranduil’s lips was as intoxicating as the wine they had shared.

Bard hooked his leg around Thranduil’s hips and rolled them over, tumbling Thranduil onto his back. He traced the emeralds with one finger. “You know I am no silver-tongued poet.” Were there words, Bard wondered, which could capture Thranduil like this? With his tousled hair long and loose against the pillows, his lips swollen and his eyes dark with need? He was snow and fire and starlight made flesh, the emeralds blazing at his throat and the moonlight turning his skin to alabaster.

Thranduil reached up to trace the seam of Bard’s lips with his thumb. “No poet, perhaps, but poetry enough.” His fingers traveled down Bard’s throat, his palm coming to rest in the centre of Bard’s chest.

“I care little enough for gems,’ Bard admitted. “Though these are very fine. They are but stones.” He pressed his hand over Thranduil’s, entwining their fingers. “And there are many things of greater value.”

Thranduil smiled, and the sweetness was almost painful. “Show me.”

Bard bent forward, their lips a breath apart. “Aye,” Bard said against Thranduil’s mouth. “I will.”