Dawn was just lighting the frost on Bard’s window when, outside his door, four trumpets blew a loud single note in an extremely high register and woke him up.
Then the trumpets played a brief flourish, went silent, and someone began pounding on his door.
“Bard of Laketown! Here comes the beloved father of the Elves of the Northern Wood, Thranduil, Son of Oropher, King of the Woodland Realm and Master of the Eryn Lasgalen Appellation, Slayer of the Spawn of Ungoliant, who fought with Gil-Galad at Dagorlad! Stand back outside and open up within!”
So Bard got out of bed.
“Good morning,” said Thranduil, who was standing inside almost as soon as the door was open, clad in gemstones and the white pelts of northern minks. “I thought we might go for a walk.”
Bard looked at the straight lines of elves outside; pursuivants, officers and heralds of arms, followed by the royal guard’s halberdiers and cavalry.
“I need to find a shirt,” he said. His neighbors had been woken up by the trumpets and slowly began appearing outside, in coats and blankets, staring.
“I do not wish to inconvenience you,” said the King of Mirkwood, bright morning light flashing on his silver crown. “I will wait at your door, until you find the leisure. Be that today, this afternoon, tomorrow -- whenever in this lifetime you find it, I shall wait.”
“Don’t,” said Bard earnestly, and found yesterday’s shirt and his coat on a kitchen chair. Valuing haste over dignity, he put them on and discovered Thranduil still poised in the doorway, now holding a fresh white rose with dew freezing on the petals.
“For you,” said Thranduil, bending courteously, and handed Bard the rose. “Even though it is winter.”
Bard heard a sound outside that might have been one of his neighbors laughing, and he held the rose awkwardly in both hands. “Well, that’s -- cheers,” he said.
“He will come with us -- we shall walk to the river!” Thranduil shouted to his company, and gently put his hand on Bard’s shoulder.
As they left the house Bard saw Sigrid watching from her upstairs window.
My Dear Sister Aud,
I hope all is well in Bree and that winter is not too harsh, it is exceeding harsh here as our homes have all been burnt down by a dragon and now we live in Dale, while we rebuild, at a loss.
As the town was made of wood it succumbed easily to fire. I know you have heard this before. So no more about the dragon which destroyed our town very recently. Though if you find yourself with an embarrassment of wealth do not hesitate to send us a pittance to help.
The dragon destroyed our savings.
You remember my neighbor Bard, who has three motherless children? He has been financing a hefty part of the reconstruction of Lake Town. Previously Bard was a glum wine importer (though he is from one of our oldest families) but now is our foreman, our architect, and our chief patron. Since we purchase lumber from the Northern Wood he deals often with their King.
So now I, who saw elves before only once or twice, am absolutely pestered by them. This Lord of Mirkwood, whose name is Thranduil, is in Dale every day with trumpets and cavalry and a hundred elves with him to take Bard (still my neighbor) on walks by the river or play him endless songs on an elven lute whose noise penetrates my window. My neighbor suffers to be given this attention and no small amount of wealth; clothing and furs, furniture and a boat. Yesterday before my very eyes the King of the Mirkwood Elves made Bard a present of a horse cart laden with antique gemstones from the Blue Mountains. In spring he proposes to hold a tournament in Bard’s honor.
Clearly our fortunes, previously tied so firmly to the predictable tides of commerce, are in the hands of a mad elf! A generous sister, hearing about this and with the memory of the dragon which destroyed our homes so fresh in her mind, would ask what she can do to help. Let me set your mind at ease, I will tell you: Send money.
I hope your family is well and that no dragons have been sighted in your skies, for they will burn your city to the ground in minutes, as recently I have experienced. Hakon sends his regards.
Your loving and dutiful sister,
“I worry I am too courtly and insufficiently direct,” Thranduil told his son one night, his bottles empty, suffering the storied agonies of lonely love.
“It has been too long since you went courting,” said Legolas, and shrugged. “Just send him a bag of cash and a note asking if he’s … eager to lay.”
“Eager to what?” Thranduil asked, but dismissively enough that it was clear he did not care to hear the answer. “I have it, he is a man of action, a man who knows our enemies. I will kill a warg for him!”
So the next evening the King of Mirkwood and his retinue showed up at Bard’s doorway with the rigid, drying corpses of three of the enormous wargs of Mount Gundabad. They hit the ground with a thud that shook the windows, and Bard’s youngest daughter Tilda opened the door and shrieked.
Her sister skidded out then to turn her away, and in an instant their father put his hands on their heads and gently shut them inside.
“What is the meaning of this?” he demanded once he was outside the door and his children inside, raising his voice to King Thranduil enough that the halberdiers put both hands on their weapons.
“I have killed these fearsome beasts in your name, Bard of Laketown,” said King Thranduil, and he bowed to kiss Bard’s hand. “Unaided, though my retainers begged me not to put my person at risk. It was no risk at all, I told them, to act in love.”
Bard recognized the captain of the guard Tauriel behind her king. When he caught her gaze she shrugged, and for a moment they were silently irritated together.
“Well. That is -- I have two daughters,” said Bard, “who beyond the loss of their mother have survived dragonfire and the ruin of their home. If I can protect them from -- from the corpses of monsters stacked six feet high an inch from their door --” he clenched his hands. “Well, if I can protect them from unreasonable terrors I will do it, and I am ashamed that I did not.”
“I understand,” said Thranduil, who did not have the facial expression for surprise and so reacted with princely contrition. “I shall have them flayed and their pelts made into cloaks for your daughters. Their bones I will use to build a statue of the girls’ beauty, worth nine times any princess’s dowry. Their eyes I will string on a golden filament and --”
“Just put them back on the cart,” said Bard.
“So that’s why my father was out hunting wargs,” said Legolas, when Tauriel told him the story. “Isn’t that what cats do to win your affection, dead mice at your feet? What did he say?“
“Bard of Laketown? He said that Thranduil traumatized his children, which was true.”
“Thranduil hasn’t traumatized his children already?” Legolas was incredulous. “They’ve lived on the borders of Mirkwood their whole lives.”
“It is a novelty,” said Tauriel.
“This bargeman should simply tell my father where he can stuff his warg carcasses. The whole scenario is getting far out of hand.”
“Lake Town needs lumber from Mirkwood,” said Tauriel. “As well as protection from the spiders who grow daily in size and number. They need our commerce, the license and revenue from wine exports; if Bard is a wise man he will not insult Thranduil so casually.”
“It’s embarrassing. This would be a lot easier if my father wasn’t taking up the antique and unfinished song, the Lay of Thranduil, after such a long time gathering dust,” Legolas muttered into his wineglass.
In two days Thranduil returned with one hundred and one horses bred from royal stock.
“To make amends!” shouted the Herald of Arms, “here comes the beloved father of the Elves of the Northern Wood, Thranduil, Son of Oropher --”
“Hold on, I’ll be down,” said Bard, interrupting him from the upstairs window.
It was late, and below his window were one hundred and one horses decked in ivy, with plaited tails.
When he came downstairs Thranduil knelt, as he had not done for uncounted hundreds of years, and took Bard’s hands.
“I am grievously sorry that I insulted your children. Here are a hundred horses I bred myself, of the finest lineage, to take away their fear. And I have written a poem for you.”
Thranduil reached into his pocket. Every window in the town was open. Thranduil unfolded his poem and Bard’s eyes widened at the size of the paper and the relative smallness of the writing.
“Perhaps now is not the time,” said Bard, quietly. “Those very same children are asleep upstairs.”
“The habits of mortals are strange to me,” said Thranduil. “I shall leave you, and these gifts behind with you. Good night, Bard of Laketown,” said Thranduil, and for once his retinue departed quickly.
When Bard came back inside Sigrid was waiting for him. “Is that seriously one hundred?” she said.
“I didn’t count them,” said Bard. “Which we’ll have to do when we sell them, ten at a time sounds right, but I’ll get someone to value them tomorrow. And perhaps you, Sigrid, can help me devise a fair profit for them. For I do not hold with the belief that a thing’s worth is what a man will pay for it.”
Sigrid was interested in how goods were valued but she was more interested in the personal specifics of her father’s predicament: “And he wrote you a poem?”
“I have told you this before: The world is a very strange place,” her father held the folded poem in his hand, and she thought for a minute he would throw it into the fire.
Instead, he put it in his pocket. On their kitchen table was the dried winter rose, the first and least ludicrous of all the gifts given to her father by the King of the Northern Wood.
When first one week and then another passed with no word or visit from King Thranduil, the people of Lake Town began to assume he had finally been insulted away. It was confirmed three months later, when Mirkwood sent Prince Legolas to renegotiate the Eryn Lasgalen Appellation wholesale permit, in place of the king.
“I had expected King Thranduil to be here,” said Bard.
“Then I know him better than you,” said Legolas, looking down at the papers. “Thranduil would not recognize a contract if it was made of emeralds. If it was murdering him at close range.”
Bard blinked. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t mean anything,” said Legolas. “Fathers and sons. There’s something new in here which you'll have to look, at, functionally making you an authorized distributor of record, which is not exclusive.”
Bard looked it over; it was a profitable designation. “That’s fine,” he said, and sighed. “Sometimes I wonder why we set such a high value on wine; simple enough that any family could make it, and yet --”
“-- Scarcity commands the price,” said Legolas, tartly, “and the skill of our vitners, who toil in the most dangerous and remote terroirs of our land, who risk ashlung from a lifetime of breathing the noble rot, and death from the spiders and orcs who seek easy prey! Well, we are almost finished. This requires any mark you can make of your own, and some witnesses for our contract.”
“I can write my name,” Bard said, offended, but Legolas was ignoring him to call Tauriel away from the door.
“Tauriel,” he said, “I’m sorry that the Lakemen haven’t got their own notebinder, have you leisure to make us legal?”
“Yes,” said Tauriel. “Bard of Laketown, you are of full age and capacity to undertake this contract?”
“Of course,” said Bard.
“And Legolas of Mirkwood, you?”
“Yes,” said Legolas.
“Then you may both sign -- Bargeman, any mark will do as long as long as someone’s seen it before,” she said, kindly, when Legolas had finished with the pen. His signature was some two paragraphs longer than the three syllables of his name.
“I can sign my name!” said Bard. “Right here, you sat for two hours as I read the contract.”
“Then do so now, if you please,” said Tauriel. “How fare your children?” she asked, because it took Bard a few minutes to write out four generations of his family for the contract.
“They are well, thank you,” he said, and was curious enough to ask: “How fares your king?”
“You would know better than I,” she said, and for a minute the three of them watched the ink dry.
“I have not heard from him these two months,” said Bard.
Tauriel met Legolas’s eyes, and he rose abruptly from his seat. “Unbelievable,” he muttered. “Thranduil is unbelievable.”
The elves left before the signatures were dry.
The next day Sigrid brought Bard a letter from Bree, bearing a name he did not know, with a cheap wax seal.
He broke the seal and read it:
Bard of Laketown,
Hail and hello, I am told we are related.
Though barely, I am something like a third cousin or fifteenth uncle, this was explained to me very briefly. More surprising to me were the circumstances of the explanation, Thranduil the King of Elves found me at my tavern (the Hobbit’s Farandole, which I own) and with an elven cavalry guarding the door said the following to me in some greater detail:
First, that according to the royal genealogists of Mirkwood, I am your closest living relative. So I am indeed pleased to introduce myself.
Second, that your weight is precisely equivalent to the weight of the chest of gold which he presented me. It is a hefty sum.
Third, that he proposes to wed you and because I am as previously said, your closest surviving relation, he sought my permission.
In light of the pomp of this question as well as the bribe he presented me, I of course agreed and so now you are to be wed. I wish you both happiness. Thank you for the gold.
Beard the Barman of Bree
Bard set the letter down.
“What was it?” Sigrid asked.
“A distant uncle from Bree,” he replied. “Saying hello.”
He had not seen Thranduil for four months. Already the foundations of Laketown were complete, the familiar patchwork of ramps and roadways remade with new pine and tempered oak. He wondered how Thranduil had known how much gold to send.
The next morning King Thranduil of Mirkwood arrived, unannounced, in Bard’s kitchen.
He was as stained as Bard had ever seen an elf from travel, in boots that had been worn before, and a minimal crown of spring leaves.
“Bard of Laketown,” said Thranduil, presenting him with a jade box the size of a loaf of bread, “I have returned from my quest.”
Bard opened the box. Inside were five stems of something like white immortelle blossoms.
“Quest?” said Bard.
His children appeared at the top of the stairwell.
“To cure you,” said Thranduil gently, putting his hands on Bard’s shoulders. “The blossom of the frounsbane plant, plucked from the marshes of the long cape of Ras Morthil, cure the unintended scowl that has so troubled you through your short life. The blossom blooms in sea-caves, guarded by a Balrog who does not understand irony -- and the tales of my people say he must be made to laugh before the herb may be collected.”
“So you made a Balrog laugh?” said Bard, sniffing the blossoms.
“I slew him.”
“I am an intelligent person,” said Thranduil. “And so I did not bring his searing, flame-ridden corpse to your home as proof. Please, the frounsbane.”
Bard frowned, and gently took a blossom from the box. “What, eat it?”
Thranduil didn’t seem to know what to do either, so Bard grimaced and swallowed the small flower with water to please him.
And then, he did not smile, but stopped glaring.
Thranduil, for the second time in his reign, got to his knees.
My Dear Sister Aud,
Thank you for your letter which took three months to reach me. Much has happened since last I wrote though happily no dragons have yet burnt our small city flat to the ground a second time.
For one, my neighbor Bard has wed the Elf-King of Mirkwood and their wedding feast will reach a second week tomorrow. There have been tournaments every day, and wine every night from the caves of Mirkwood itself.
Bard is no longer glum, in fact his natural expression is now happy. I think he partakes of strong elvish tobacco.
If only my own fortunes were so made. Unfortunately they are not. The rebuilding of Lake Town proceeds apace, and although the elf king has taken the expense we are not rich with time, before it is winter again and the ice too thick to build, and then likely another dragon will come along. If you are flush I hope you will think of your dutiful sister and all her family. Hello from Hakon.