Bard picked at the gaudily colored uniform coat he’d been given to wear as representative of Laketown. Bile green and red stripes. Either the Master was truly color blind, or he was trying to punish Bard for some imagined slight by offending the Elvenking’s sensibilities enough that the ruler would kill him. Not that the Woodland King had shown any murderous tendencies in the past, and he’d been generous enough in his trade with the lakemen. But wasn’t that what kings did?
Bard huffed and shed the coat, folding and draping it over his arm. If he was meeting the Elvenking, he’d be doing it in his own skin.
He glanced over at his escort. “Can you tell me why your king wants to speak with me?”
The brunette ignored him, continuing on.
“Evidently not,” Bard muttered.
“Even if he could understand your words, he could not tell you,” the she-elf on his other side explained. “Our king keeps his own counsel.”
Bard blinked. It had never occurred to him that not all elves spoke the common tongues. “So, you understand me. But you cannot tell me either?”
She smiled. “I am afraid not, other than to say it was a matter of some urgency.”
“So I gathered.” He followed his escorts into an expansive cavern. Forgetting himself for a moment, Bard looked around in awe, taking in the smoothly curved arches, tall stone trees reaching to a ceiling high above, and the various woodland creatures carefully etched into the floor. The entire room was filled with bright, pale light that came from everywhere and nowhere. There were no lamps that he could see, and certainly not ones that would make a cave shine bright as midsummer. He wondered if perhaps the light came from the elves themselves.
In comparison, Bard felt small. A grubby blemish upon the pale perfection of the stonework.
Out of place.
Bard was led to the far side of the room, where his host sat in a tall chair draped in rich fabrics. He came to a stop before the Elvenking and wondered what he was supposed to do. Should he take a knee? Bow? Frankly, Bard wasn’t overly fond of either option. Baring his neck and kowtowing to authority had never been a favorite pastime of his, but the Master’s orders had been clear. Bard was not to give an inch on any negotiations that may occur, and he was NOT to annoy their only local trading partner. In fact, the Master’s words had been: “If you value your position among Laketown’s Archers and your neck, you will keep a civil tongue and make him happy in any way he requires.”
Much to Bard’s dismay, it turned out he valued his neck and his position as Captain of the Archers quite a bit. Clenching his teeth tightly enough that even elven ears could hear them grind, Bard knelt and bowed his head low. “My Lord, the Master of the Lake sends his humble regards.”
“Does he indeed,” the Elvenking replied coolly. “That would be a first. Come, you need not bow your head to me. You are my guest.”
Bard straightened. “You honor me, my Lord.”
“Perhaps,” said the king. “Do you know why you are here?”
The archery captain resisted the urge to fidget. “I… do not, my Lord.”
“You are here because I recall your ancestor Girion being an honorable man, and his descendents have been equally so.”
Bard took a moment to digest that. He knew elves were immortal, of course. Everyone knew that. But there were 200 years separating him from the likes of Girion of Dale. The idea that the being seated before him was well enough acquainted with his long ago ancestor to know his character was… mind boggling.
“Well, my Lord, I am honored that you think so, and flattered that you would remember those great men. But I am not sure how that has brought me here. I am a bowman, nothing more.”
The attendants and his escort shifted about uncomfortably, clearly not certain what to make of anyone openly questioning the king’s choice.
The Elf Lord’s eyebrow arched. “Well, I just may believe humble regards from you. But nonetheless, bowman, I do require your services.” He gestured to a she elf off to the side, who brought forth a bundle, carefully placing it in Bard’s arms.
Bard stared down at it for a moment, then looked up at the Elvenking, baffled. “A baby, my Lord?”
“Yes, that was our suspicion as well.” The King said dryly. “A boy child. My scouts found him in the remains of an encampment. They could not determine if his parents were killed by their attackers or taken captive. But either way, the child was left behind and is in need of a caretaker.”
Bard frowned down at the tiny wiggling thing in his arms. “My Lord, food and resources in Laketown are strained as it is. I cannot think if any good family who would be able to support another hungry mouth.”
“What of your own family, Master Bard?”
“I do not have a wife to care for him. If I may be so bold, he appears to be doing well enough here. He would be better off staying where he is now.”
The king shook his head. “That will not be possible. Men raised among elves suffer queer fates. It would be better for the child to be raised among his own kind. By an honorable man such as yourself.”
Bard frowned, feeling the noose tighten. “And how am I to feed him, my Lord? I have no wife, as I said before. I do not know how it is for elves, but no matter how often I put him to my chest, he will get nothing from me.”
The Elf King’s look made it clear he would not tolerate much more sass from him, guest or not. “Aethwen has been using a hollow horn to feed him milk from a nanny goat, which will be sent with you.”
The bowman sighed and tried one last argument. “I know nothing of raising a child.”
“Neither did the first Elves. Nor the Dwarves, nor Men. They figured it out with less to go on, and so will you.”
“And how do I explain suddenly coming home with a brand new babe and no mother or wife in tow?”
“There are many reasons a man may suddenly come into possession of a child. I am sure you will come up with an appropriate excuse for his presence.” At another gesture from the king, Aethwen took the squirming baby from Bard. “A room has been provided for your use tonight. Rest. You will learn what you need about his care tonight, and then you will leave tomorrow at midday. The forest path is not safe for the unwary to travel between dusk and dawn.”
Bard stepped back and bowed again, wondering just what he’d done to earn this. “Yes, my Lord. Thank you for your consideration.”
As he was being led from the room, he glanced over his shoulder and was treated to the unexpected sight of the Elvenking cradling the babe in his arms, a wistful expression on his face. It made Bard wonder if perhaps foisting their foundling off on him had NOT been the first choice.
The next day saw Bard on a horse, being escorted to the edge of the forest by the king himself. The Elf Lord - Thranduil, he corrected himself - had surprised him by coming along. Bard was certain he probably had more important and kingly things to do than ride escort for a bowman and his new son. But the elf had insisted on coming along, and now rode tall beside him, the baby tucked safely in one arm.
Bard looked up at him. “My Lord? Yesterday you said that men raised by elves have strange fates. So I assume that means there HAVE been such cases?”
Thranduil nodded. “Tuor and Turin. Though many years and reshaping of the lands have passed since those men walked the forests of Beleriand.”
“Beleriand?” Bard frowned. He’d never heard of such a place.
“Aye. It is far to the West beyond the cliffs of the Grey Havens and beneath the crushing waves of the Sundering Sea.”
“The Grey Havens… the Bay of the Ship Builders?”
“So that used to be all land. And these men lived that long ago?”
Thranduil shifted his hold on the baby. “They did. Tuor married a princess of the Noldorin Elves. His father died protecting her father’s retreat during war. He was born a few months later, but his mother died soon after, leaving him to be raised by the Grey Elves living in the area. He met and loved King Turgon’s daughter Idril and eventually sailed to the Undying Lands, and by the will of Eru, he was the only Man to ever be counted among the Elves.”
“What does that mean, counted among the Elves?”
“He was granted their long life.”
Bard digested that. “And what of the other you mentioned. Turpin?”
“Turin,” Thranduil corrected. “His tale is long and full of much woe. Suffice to say, he was raised in the court of Elu Thingol, but eventually left. His father Hurin was imprisoned by the fallen Valar Morgoth and his family cursed.”
“What happened to him?” Bard was entranced.
“He was captured by Morgoth, killed his best friend, unknowingly married his sister, and they both killed themselves. Turin is destined to return at the end of days to slay Morgoth in the war that will end all wars.”
Bard hummed. “Right. Queer fates.” He looked over at the baby. “You realize I still have no idea what I am doing.”
Thranduil smiled. “No parent does, Master Bowman. That is part of the adventure.”
Two days later, Bard was ready to tell the Elvenking just what he could do with his adventure. The baby, who Bard was now calling Bain, had cried for two days straight. Bard had done everything he could possibly think of to soothe him. His nappy was clean, his belly was full, and yet still he cried. Bard was at his wit’s end.
A crow cawwed at his window. Having finally gotten Bain to a fitful sleep, Bard opened the window to shoo it off before it woke him. At the last second, he paused, noticing a slip of paper bound to its leg. Intrigued, he removed it and read.
How does the babe fare? There are many among my courtiers who have lamented his loss, myself included. Our elflings are rare, and all the more precious for it. But he truly is better off in the care of his own kind. Old as we are, the ways and needs of mortals are often a mystery to us.
But a babe is a babe, and some things hold true no matter the race. You will not know more than an hour’s sleep for a while yet. My suggestion would be to rest when he does, and try to get him to feed and sleep at the same times during the day. If anything, a routine will provide the illusion that you are in control. Eventually, if you are lucky, you will be able to fool yourself into believing it, as well.
If he is fussy without cause, try movement. My son Legolas cried ceaselessly for days until my father strung a sling between two poles and stuck him in it. The swaying soothed him. Perhaps the rocking of a boat? If that does not work, Aethwen said gentle bouncing worked for her daughter.
Keep in mind that parenting is exhausting and often thankless, but has many joys if you can be patient. Just keep in mind that, as long as both you and the child are alive, you are doing fine.
Do make an effort to keep me updated as to his progress. But only after you sleep. The bird will wait for your response.
~Thranduil, son of Oropher
Bard stared down at the letter, then over at the bird. “Well, I suppose you should make yourself comfortable for now. I’m doing as your master suggested and taking a nap.” He slumped down into his chair and dosed off.
Thranduil, son of Oropher,
My lord, your letter could not have come at a more fortuitous time. He had indeed been crying since we arrived home. The bouncing worked, but my neighbor below objected to it, so I will look into your other suggestions for a long term solution.
I have taken to calling him Bain and have told any who ask that he is my son. His coloring is dark enough that he could pass for my blood, at least for now.
I did not know you had a son, but I suppose every king, even an elven one, needs an heir…
And thus began the tentative correspondence between Bard the Bowman and King Thranduil of the Woodland Realm. They were stiff and formal at first, involving only discussion of young Bain’s growing pains, and even including a small bag of tea leaves when the young boy had begun to teethe, or had caught the sniffles that were inevitably part of life on the Lake.
But gradually, as friendship began to grow between the two fathers, their letters branched out into more personal areas. Thranduil talked about losing his own father and gaining his crown on a long ago battlefield, and the trials of being a ruler. Bard told him about growing up in Laketown under the shadow of a dragon-infested mountain.
Conditions in Laketown began to improve, for Bard and for the other residents. Trade with the Woodland Realm increased, adding money to the Master’s coffers, but also putting more food into bellies that would have otherwise gone without. The cheeks of children grew rosier with good health, and backs bent under the weight of too much work for too little pay began to straighten again.
After a rather close call with a group of vagabonds, Bard found himself in a new profession. No longer was he a bowman. Now, he ferried barrels of goods back and forth between Laketown and Thranduil’s realm. Though Bard could never prove it, and he’d certainly never told the Elvenking about the incident with the rogues, the change in roles had Thranduil’s handprints all over it. Bard couldn’t find it in himself to be properly angry over it for more than a few days. He missed being a bowman and disliked being manipulated, but his new career allowed him to spend far more time with his wee Bain, who had finally reached the age when he became fun (and slept through the night more than once a week).
Much to his surprise, Thranduil occasionally met him on his trips to the Woodland Realm. He was treated to tea or wine and peppered with questions about how Bain was doing, and if old Ezra had been able to create the cloth teething ring that could be soaked in chamomile tea to soothe Bain’s gums. After a time, Bard had simply begun to bring the baby along on his trips, much to the delight of Thranduil and his court.
Bard’s good cheer began to earn him more than a few lingering glances and flirtatious smiles from the ladies in town. He didn’t mind the attention. It was a rather nice ego stroke after years of suspicious glances and sneers. But if he were being honest with himself, and he did always try to be, he had begun to secretly wish the lingering glances came from eyes full of starlight and the light touches from long, elegant fingers comfortable wrapped around the stem of a wine glass and the hilt of a sword alike. Or other things, if only in the most heated of his dreams.
Thranduil’s soft query pulled him from his thoughts. He flushed, having been caught wool-gathering. “Sorry, what?”
The Elvenking’s eyes glittered in amusement. He reached over and eased the glass of wine from Bard’s fingers. “I do believe that is enough wine for tonight, my friend. Best to stop now, else you will be unable navigate a boat in a bathing pool come morning, much less down the river.”
Bard snorted. “I’m hardly that far gone, my Lord.”
Thranduil sighed. “I have asked you repeatedly to call me by my given name. Yet you insist on addressing me so formally. Why? Are we not friends?”
“We are, for my part, at least.”
“And mine as well. So why?”
Bard smiled. “Maybe I just like the way it sounds. MY Lord. Yes, my Lord. I do like it..”
Thranduil shook his head. “You have definitely over indulged. You should go rest and recover yourself.”
“What about Bain? I still need to give him his bath and walk with him.”
“Bain will be well cared for tonight, my friend.” Thranduil escorted him to his rooms. “We will talk more tomorrow.”
“Are you sure?”
“Oh… right then. G’night, I guess.”
Thranduil reached and smoothed a rogue strand of hair back from Bard’s cheek. “Sleep well, Bard.”
The very confused (and only slightly inebriated) man watched his host disappear into the next room, where Bain was tended to during their visits to the Woodland Realm. Moments later, a nursemaid exited the room, closing the door behind her quietly before moving down the corridor.
Shaking his head, Bard closed his own door and just barely remembered to remove his boots before collapsing into his bed.
Bard woke from an intense dream with a start. He glanced over at the fireplace. The coals there had burned low, but still provided light and warmth. He’d only slept for a few hours.
He closed his eyes, determined to get a few more hours’ rest, when he heard it. A soft humming filtering in from the room beside his. Bain’s room.
Bard rolled to his stockinged feet and followed the sound of the low, male voice to the door that separated the adjoining rooms. He peeked inside.
The singing stopped. The Elvenking looked up from where he lay on a wide, swaying cot, little Bain fast asleep on his chest. Thranduil frowned. “You should be asleep,” he said softly.
Bard shrugged. “Habit,” he whispered back. “He only just started sleeping through the night.” He stepped closer and settled into a nearby chair. “What was it you were singing just now?”
“Well, your son has little interest in songs of great battles and glory. But the mortal man Beren’s love for Luthien the elf maid… that one he likes.” A squeak from the sleeping babe on his chest made Thranduil set his cot to swaying again.
“Beren and Luthien.” Bard wracked his brain, trying to remember. “More heroes of legend, then. What happened to them?”
Thranduil sighed. “She was the only child of the King of Doriath, and he a son of the House of Beor. Elu Thingol did not care for the idea of his only child binding herself to a mortal man, but could not outright deny his child’s choice. He set Beren to impossible tasks to earn the right to wed her.”
“Is it that hard to earn an elf’s love, then?”
“An elf’s love? No. But a father’s approval… you would have better luck capturing moonbeams in your hand.”
Bard grunted. “So this king did not fancy mortal blood polluting his line.”
Thranduil gave him a sour look. “I never asked Thingol why he disapproved the match, but the lifetime of a Man is barely a flicker compared to an elf’s. If you knew your only beloved child was destined to know great sorrow and loss, possibly even fade and die from grief, would you be any less hesitant to approve?”
“I suppose not. So what happened to them?”
“Beren had allies in the right places and pulled off the impossible, though he was mortally wounded in the process. Luthien followed him in death to the Halls of Mandos, where she sang of her love. He was so moved that he granted her a wish. She and Beren were returned to life, but only as mortals. When they died again, she would not return to His Halls and wait with her kin for rebirth. Her fea - her soul - would know true death and follow Beren’s beyond the boundaries of Arda to a place unknown to even the Valar.”
Bard digested that. “So she gave up her immortality for him? Hardly a fair trade.”
“Some would think that,” said Thranduil. “I did once.” He glanced over at the window. “You should return to your bed and rest. Dawn is still a few hours off, and you’ve a long journey home ahead of you.”
“I suppose I do.” Bard headed for the door to his rooms. He hesitated, his hand resting on the doorframe. “Thranduil?”
“Hmm?” The Elfking lifted his head.
“You said you thought that way once. That Luthien’s sacrifice was not a fair trade.”
“So I did.”
“What are your thoughts on it now?” Bard’s fingers tightened against the wood
Thranduil’s eyes were unreadable. “Now, I think even a single moment of time is better than none at all. Good night, Bard.”
Bard smiled, a tiny flicker of hope lighting in his breast. “Good night, my Lord.” He shut the door to his room…
...and opened the door to Maybe.