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A King Not Of Their Kind

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The Lonely Mountain pierced the sky, the snow at its peak lingering even in summer. It was a spar of stone, black and dead; the bare bones of their world pushed through its living skin. From a distance it appeared desolate, yet Thranduil knew better. The thriving clan of dwarves who made it their home; the men of Dale; traders and visitors alike: they were only the beginning.

For too long the peak had stood silent, lost in the dragon’s thrall. Now, as the feet of his mount whispered along the well-travelled road, he could hear the song of a dozen birds: the lark’s refrain and the eagle’s cry. Rabbits bounded amidst grassy knolls and butterflies swarmed the heather, waltzing with the bees.

His elk snorted, its great head turning as it scented the air, never breaking its stride. Thranduil placed his palm on the side of its neck, feeling the pulse of magic beneath its hide. Though slain in the fighting – the Battle of Five Armies, as many called it – there was more to the mighty beast than most would assume. Life restored by the ancient power of the forest, only the scar of its injury remained, a streak of black fur upon its brow.

‘Sîdh, Alagos,’ he murmured, urging the creature to be at ease. Like Thranduil himself, the buck could sense the renewal around him.

Together, they marvelled at the change in the land. Not just the way it looked, but the way it felt. A year ago, this place had been like oil, black and slick in his mind’s eye, encroaching ever closer on his fading forest. The trees began to reek of evil, and their madness had started to cloud Thranduil’s judgement. His old bitterness towards Thrór became a weapon he wielded over Oakenshield without mercy, even as his kingdom took its last gasps.

If not for one, small hobbit, so it would have remained.

Thranduil lifted his face to the sun, relishing its caress as he offered his silent thanks for Bilbo Baggins and the string of circumstances that had brought him halfway across Middle Earth. His long aeons of existence had taught him much, including how the smallest decision could make or break the world they knew. The wrong fork in the road, and the future lay forever changed.

‘Ada?’ Legolas eased his horse up to Thranduil’s side, his mighty gelding dwarfed by the buck. ‘Is something wrong?’

There was much of his mother in Legolas’ face: the line of his jaw and the curve of his lips. However, in those eyes Thranduil saw himself – a cunning that could bleed to arrogance, and a pleasure that too easily soured with pride. He hoped that, in his long life, Legolas would favour the virtues of his character, rather than becoming entrapped by his vices.

‘Everything is as it should be,’ he promised, knowing that, subtle as it was, his son would hear the affection that underpinned his words. ‘Fear not, Legolas.’

The look he received made Thranduil smile, pleased to see that Legolas’ impetuous nature had survived the past months and years. It was easy to forget that he was young in elf terms. He often spoke with a wisdom that many would envy. Yet he remained naïve of the world beyond the borders of Greenwood. That would need to change, and sooner rather than later.

‘I can feel it, you know. What you have with you.’

Thranduil reached up to his heart, resting his hand over the package there and sensing the symphony of power. ‘I would be concerned if you could not.’

‘What does it do?’ Legolas frowned, tense in his saddle when his father raised an eyebrow. His steed snorted in annoyance, prancing sideways as it picked up its rider’s concerns. ‘Ada…’

‘You know it will cause no harm.’ Thranduil pitched his words low, making sure his voice did not carry as they approached Erebor’s bustling gates. Here, the road thronged with people and wagons, dignitaries and soldiers. They parted before them like trees swaying in a breeze, and Thranduil offered a nod of thanks to the captain of Thorin’s guard. ‘Close your eyes. Focus on it. Tell me what you feel.’

Grudgingly, Legolas did as he asked, trusting his horse to avoid any obstacles as he reeled in his senses, bringing them to bear. Thranduil felt the phantom of his son’s power ghost over him, so familiar yet utterly different from his own. It hummed around him, and he sensed the change in the air when Legolas’ doubt turned to wonder.

‘Deep roots,’ he whispered, meeting his father’s gaze. ‘It feels like deep roots and fresh water. Sunshine and starlight.’ He frowned, looking down at the pommel of his saddle. ‘It tastes of life.’

Thranduil inclined his head. ‘A dwarf’s days in this world are few, and a hobbit’s? Fewer still.’ His hands tightened on the reins, his pale skin bleached to bone. ‘I have known the pain of losing one I loved: an immortal existence cut to nothing and all the hours we had shared turned precious by her loss.’

‘You do not wish them to suffer the same.’ Legolas tilted his head. ‘The gift will protect them?’

Thranduil smoothed a hand down the front of his robes, taking a moment to consider his answer. ‘In essence, yes. I cannot say it would stay the fall of an axe or turn an arrow in flight, but the blessing should improve their chances of living out their days together, however many they are numbered.’

Up ahead, the gates to the huge stable-yard stood open, its walls lined with flags. Alagos picked up his pace, his nostrils flaring as he sensed a comfortable bed and a bucket of feed. Thranduil allowed him to pull at the rein, his grip falling loose as he surveyed his surroundings.

Reports had come to him of Erebor’s reconstruction, but their forthright words could not do the monumental effort of the dwarves justice. His knowledge may lie in the realm of root and branch, but he could appreciate good quality workmanship completed in so short a time. When last he was here, the stables were little but ruins. Now, they gleamed in pale stone and slate tile. Khuzdul carvings marked every lintel, and the creatures poking their heads out in interest were bright-eyed and healthy.

Yet it was the delegation that awaited him which brought him true surprise. In Thrór’s time, there had only been bleak-faced soldiers, ready to march visitors to the throne room. Their silent reception and the bared blades of their weapons made it seem like allies were prisoners, there to throw themselves upon the judgement of the king.

Those days were gone. This was the rule of Thorin, and Thranduil was reminded anew that even stubborn dwarves could change.

‘My Lord Thranduil, welcome!’ Dis pressed her closed fist to her heart and ducked her head, both graceful and precise. Those who accompanied her did the same, and Thranduil fought to conceal his astonishment. Dwarven culture was a convoluted mess of etiquette and ritual. In previous years, he had ignored it, but at Legolas’ urging, he had tended to his withered interest in diplomacy.

Now, he was glad that he had done so, if only so he could appreciate being greeted thus. It was a gesture reserved for brothers in arms; comrades who had fought alongside each other. Rarely was it offered to anyone not of the blood. The fact that he, an elf, could be acknowledged in such a way left him shaken.

‘You have my thanks, Lady Dis.’ He allowed the veil of disinterest to fall away, his voice rich with gratitude. Little had touched his heart, these many centuries past, but even that had changed when Thorin returned to claim his home. To pretend he did not understand – to disregard the honour she paid him – was unthinkable.

Dismounting gracefully, he hesitated, eying the dwarf who waited for him to hand over Alagos’ reins. Normally, he took care of his elk himself. If nothing else, many stables were too small to accommodate him. Yet the dwarves, it seemed, had given even that problem their consideration.

‘He will have all the comforts we can offer, my Lord,’ Dis promised, her eyes sparkling. She knew such kindness had caught him off guard. ‘Your steed is in good hands. This is Mida; our Beast Master. She will dote upon him.’

Thranduil seized on Dis’ pronoun use. In truth, he could often tell a female dwarf from a male, but never with complete certainty. He would dislike offending the sharp, competent-looking dwarf through his ignorance.

‘I thank you.’ He surrendered the tethers to her, noticing that her hands were callused, not from hammer and chisel, but from brush and pick. A stout leather apron stretched from her shoulders to her hefty boots, and she wore the silver streaks in her hair as if they were mithril. Yet in her face dwelt gentle respect. She seemed unconcerned by the size of his steed, crooning in admiration.

‘His name is Alagos.’ Thranduil swallowed, watching Mira taste the syllables on her tongue. She was enchanted, and the elk appeared equally enthralled, following her to his stable like a lamb.

‘A fine name for a fine creature,’ Dis murmured as she watched them go. ‘Wind-storm. Is that right?’

Thranduil hid his expression by checking the clasp of his cloak. He had not expected the word to mean anything to these people of the stone. ‘That is correct. I did not realise you spoke Sindarin.’

He followed where Lady Dis led, aware of the contingent of dwarves and elves who accompanied them. Years ago, it would have been a tense, silent walk, but now there was a sense of wary comradery between the two races, and more than one smile crossed the assembled faces.

Dis laughed: a hearty, musical sound. ‘Tauriel is a wonderful influence,’ she replied, her steps confident as she led the way along the well-paved approach from the stables to the mountain proper. It amused Thranduil to see that, beneath the hem of her fine gown, the shoes she wore were thick, sensible boots: the leather worn by the toil of many years. At heart, most dwarves were practical. Now that the gold-sickness had waned, it seemed Thorin and his kin were no exception.

‘She has been teaching you?’

‘She has been teaching Kili; the rest of us have merely overheard her efforts.’ She looked almost proud. ‘It is not unwelcome knowledge. Erebor is home to more than dwarves, these days. The more we know of other races, the better life will be for everyone.’

She gestured to the great doors ahead, flanked once more by mighty stone soldiers. Once, the twin figures had crouched, their hands on their weapons, battle-ready as they glared down the road. Now, different shapes rose from the rubble of their destruction, and Thranduil stared, intrigued.

The traditional dwarven style remained – bold geometry and strong lines. Yet these guardians stood at rest, the heads of the axes between their feet and their huge hands folded atop the haft. A protective air hovered around the new-cut stone, barely touched by the fall of water or the flourish of moss, but they did not threaten those who passed over Erebor’s threshold.

‘The speed and skill of your sculptors never fails to impress.’

Dis inclined her head, accepting the compliment as they stepped into the peak. Even at the height of its wealth, Erebor harboured an oppressive gloom within its caverns. Now, though supplies remained scarce, light shone everywhere he looked. Fires danced in open grates, and lanterns gleamed in front of polished metal, throwing aside the veil of shadows. Yet it was the lenses and mirrors high up in the roof that made the most difference. Whole at last, they were a triumph of engineering, seeming to collect the sun’s glow and bring it down into the mountain’s heart.

‘There is much still to do.’ Dis reached up to her beard, stroking down one of the braids in its depths. She traced the beads, her gaze distant before she returned from wherever her thoughts took her. ‘However, I cannot deny that every man, elf and dwarf has risen to the challenge.’

‘And hobbit.’

The brightness of her smile rivalled the elegant gems that sparkled on her fingers. ‘And hobbit,’ she agreed. ‘Though sometimes I forget he is not of dwarven blood. He fits so well, as if the stone has always had a space cut into it for him and him alone.’ She lifted the hem of her gown as she led him up a set of shallow, sweeping stairs. ‘From all I’ve heard – all I’ve seen? Bilbo has gone above and beyond for Erebor and its people. No one could ask more of him.’

No false politeness lay in her pride. Dis was resolute in a way that reminded Thranduil strongly of her mother – or perhaps her grandmother. Diplomatically, he could see she was talented and ruthless. Her words were a knife, perfect for spreading honey and drawing blood alike.

Yet it was there, he thought, that Bilbo had brought something different to Erebor. When he spoke, it was with honesty. He laid forth the facts with no subtle twists nor hidden agenda. If nothing else, he leant some transparency to the secretive nature of the dwarves. That could only be to everyone’s benefit.

‘And he is happy?’

Dis stopped by a set of double doors, giving him a shrewd look. ‘Would you believe my answer?’ She raised an eyebrow when Thranduil remained silent, desiring to neither lie nor offend, but her smile stole the edge from her retort. ‘I can only say that, if Bilbo were unhappy, then Thorin would move the mountain itself to put that right.’

It was hard to imagine Thorin so besotted. Even on his deathbed, he had seemed hard and unyielding. In the days and months since, Thranduil had witnessed desperation and desire both, but devotion? From a dwarf?

If she noticed his doubt, Dis saw fit to remain silent. She pushed open the doors and stood aside, allowing him to pass into the chambers beyond.

The light astonished him, and he turned towards the large balcony beyond the windows. The rugged land spread forth, the rock surging like waves upon the ocean. And there, in the very distance, he could just make out the far-off Greenwood.

A fresh breeze danced through the room, stirring the soft green drapes. A sumptuous bed awaited him, and here and there, saplings grew from large marble pots, their young leaves bright and full of life. Books filled elegant, scroll-worked shelves and the style of furnishing was more in-line with his own taste than that he knew the dwarves would favour.

‘I hope it’s to your liking?’ Dis smiled. ‘These rooms are for you and your kin, to use at your convenience. My brother wanted you to feel welcome.’ Some of her delight faded, tinged with remorse. ‘I know that has not always been the case for you within these walls.’

Thranduil drew a breath, unsure what shocked him more: that Thorin Oakenshield wished to make elves, of all people, comfortable in his domain, or the acknowledgement that, in times past, things had been so different.

‘Your grandfather’s behaviour is not your burden to bear,’ he said at last. ‘He has returned to stone, and his mistakes die with him.’ He cleared his throat, squaring his shoulders. ‘Mine, however, bear the same long life as I. For that, you and your kin have my deepest apologies. And for this?’ He gestured to the room. ‘You have my thanks. Never have I been greeted so warmly into another’s realm. Not even by my own kind.’

Dis repeated the same gesture she had made on his arrival, her clenched fist resting over her heart as she bowed her head. ‘Thank you, Lord Thranduil. You honour the line of Durin.’

Straightening, she appeared to struggle to control her emotions, as if this exchange were as meaningful to her as it was to him. ‘There is a banquet tonight and the ceremony is tomorrow. If you or your kinfolk wish to leave the guest wing at any time, you are free to do so. We only ask that you take a guard with you in case you become lost.’

Thranduil nodded. He would not allow guests to wander unsupervised in his palace. Besides, a mountain hall was no doubt more dangerous than most forests, and he had no desire to fall victim to some unknown precipice or wander dark corridors for hours on end.

Dis slipped away, urging him to call upon any dwarf should he need something – though what more he could require escaped him. Already, a pair of his closest and most trusted elves were unpacking the robes he had brought, while a guard checked the layout of his chambers.

‘Ada?’ Legolas stepped into the room, closing the door behind him and looking around in admiration. ‘I did not think it was possible, but it seems your rooms are more fine than mine!’

‘It is not home, but I will admit it is closer to a sanctuary than anything I thought to find within Erebor.’ He sank into the armchair, noting how it accommodated his tall frame. This had not been made for any dwarf: that much was clear. Had these halls always had such furniture, or had artisans created it for his arrival?

The chime of crystal rang through the room as Legolas poured a glass of wine, handing one over before claiming the other for himself. The expression on his features was subtle, but Thranduil saw a reflection of his own surprise in the pinch of his son’s lips. Such a warm reception had caught them both off guard.

‘I did not expect – I –’ Legolas took a deep breath and started again. ‘I hoped for respect when we arrived. I did not imagine kindness – thoughtfulness.’

‘Perhaps Tauriel…’

‘No, Tauriel may have helped with all this, but she would not have the power to make it a reality. Someone else thought to ask for her help, if indeed she gave it. Someone else considered our comfort.’

Thranduil smiled into his glass, savouring the warm flavour. In his experience, dwarves showed their respect in gruff and often convoluted ways. In this welcome – their every need met and every desire satisfied – he sensed the hand of a hobbit. Oh, Thorin and his kin had made it happen, but he suspected Bilbo’s influence in both the concept and the details.

‘You are right. I believe we owe Master Baggins a great many thanks, and not just for all this.’ Thranduil indicated their surroundings. He did not have to tell Legolas how influential Bilbo had been after the battle. His son had borne witness to most of it, after all. ‘Without him, I do not believe this peace would ever have come to pass.’

‘Do you think Mithrandir knew? I heard he was the reason Master Baggins joined the Company.’

Thranduil could only offer an elegant shrug. ‘Who can truly know the ways of wizards?’ He sipped his wine, enjoying the soft, heady buzz of it. ‘Mithrandir is both whimsical and wise. His decision to recruit Master Baggins to Oakenshield’s quest could have been the result of impulse or insight. I doubt he himself knows the answer.’

Perhaps, Thranduil mused, they gave too much credit to Bilbo Baggins and not enough to the dwarves who claimed the quest as their own. Yet at every branch of possibility and in every moment of meaning, he knew that Bilbo’s influence had tipped the balance from failure to success. Even in his subterfuge – stealing Thranduil’s prisoners out from under his own nose – he had made all this possible.

To think of the alternative – of what could have been: Thranduil’s blood ran cold.

Absently, he touched his fingers to his chest, brushing over the pouch that contained his gift. To many elves, he knew it would be too great a blessing to bestow on anyone not of the Sindar. Yet Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves he called his friends had saved these lands, not just from the dragon but also from the ravaging darkness that had threatened to consume them all.

For his home, his Greenwood, restored to him once more, there was no prize too great to offer.

‘You are tired.’ Legolas got to his feet, setting aside his empty wineglass. ‘I’ll leave you to rest.’

Thranduil cast his son a quick, reproachful look. Anyone else suggesting that he appeared less than regal would feel the sharp edge of his tongue, yet he could not deny such a statement.

‘I shall see you at the banquet tonight.’ He raised an eyebrow as Legolas inclined his head in agreement. ‘Until then, your time is your own. Use it wisely and behave yourself.’

His son’s gaze glimmered, amusement shining bright, and with good reason. They both knew that, of the two of them, Thranduil was more likely to cause a diplomatic incident. He had not changed so much that he did not still delight in ruffling a few feathers.

‘I will,’ Legolas promised, ‘if you do the same.’

Thranduil waved his son away, hiding his smile behind his glass as he continued to savour his wine. A peaceful solitude enfolded him, and he allowed himself to revel in it. There would be plenty of time to show his face around the mountain in the hours to come.

For now, he would enjoy this short-lived tranquillity.

******

The great hall of Erebor thronged with people, the huge tables laden with food. Nor was it just the hearty meats that the dwarves so enjoyed. With some delight, Thranduil realised that there were breads and fruits, berries and lush, green leaves to eat. Yet the greatest achievement was the way all lines of segregation had melted away. At first, lingering uncertaint kept kin-with-kin, but good food and kind words soon set everyone at their ease.

Perhaps it helped that the head table did not only host the Durinfolk, but men and elves as well. They sat not in a single line, looking out onto the hall, but opposite one another, face-to-face and free to switch places at any time. It was far from the rigid isolation Thranduil used in his own court. Leagues different, too, from the arrogant superiority that had made Thrór seat himself high upon a pedestal, above all others in body and rank. This was, if not intimate, then amicable.

Though how he ended up seated opposite Dain Ironfoot was a mystery.

A languid sip of his wine gave him time to think, and his heart sank as he realised there was no way to switch seats without appearing both rude and intimidated. As if he would ever give the red-haired dwarf the satisfaction of seeing him so unsettled. It seemed the same thoughts were running through Dain’s head, and the silence around them turned thick as they stared at one another, frozen in a wasteland of resentment.

Dain wrinkled his nose, grabbing a tankard and taking a gulp. His eyes darted to his left, and his ruddy countenance pale. A quick glance along the table offered Thranduil a glimpse of Prince Fili and his mother Dis, both watching Dain with the same forceful expression, like parents forcing their truculent child to apologise. Clearly, they were a force to be reckoned with, because Dain turned back, his jaw tensing under his impressive beard before he inclined his head.

‘Lord Thranduil.’

‘Lord Dain.’

An awkward silence fell between them. If they were on a battlefield, their hands would be on their weapons, waiting for the moment that the fledgling truce fell to pieces. Retreat would be an insult, and besides, Thranduil had his pride. He would not run. That left him with little option but to make an effort.

To his chagrin, Dain Ironfoot beat him to it.

‘Fine work on that clasp,’ he muttered, his blue eyes resting on the silver swirl of leaves that kept Thranduil’s artful cloak from pooling on the floor. ‘Delicate smithing. You don’t see much like that, anymore.’ There was no sour turn of greed to his expression, only genuine admiration for the intricacy of the crafter’s skill.

Slipping the metal loose from the cloth, he draped his cloak over one arm. Turning the trinket around, he allowed Dain to inspect the marks of the two artists who had brought it into being.

The noise Dain made was pure amazement, and the awkwardness between them turned to mist as he pulled a lamp closer and peered at the workmanship. He made no effort to snatch it from Thranduil’s grasp, instead pressing a loupe to his eye to get a better look. ‘Samariel and Brig. Mahal! I thought they had all been lost! I had some hope that there might be a piece or two of theirs somewhere in the wretched hoard, but…’ He shrugged, waving a dismissive hand. ‘It’ll take Thorin’s lot lifetimes to sort all that.’

‘This is the only piece that remains in our possession.’ Thranduil closed his eyes in regret. ‘There were others, once, but –’

A brief flash of sympathy pinched Dain’s face as he nodded. ‘Time takes its toll, whether we like it or not.’ His gruff voice rasped over the words. ‘Aye, treasures such as this – they slip through the cracks, sometimes. Lost back to the earth or into the waters, like the ground itself is jealous of them.’

Removing the lens from his eye, Dain sat back, patting his belt and pulling free a small scabbard. He did not unsheathe the knife within. Perhaps that was just as well. Thranduil knew that no dwarf would tolerate a blunt dagger, not even if it was meant for decoration.

‘It’s not as fine,’ Dain acknowledged, placing it between them so Thranduil could see the detail. ‘Still, Maraliss pieces are hard to come by. Brig had returned to stone long before she was born. She sought out the dwarves in Moria to learn their ways. Put it to good use, too.’

Thranduil re-attached the clasp before leaning closer, taking in the exquisite etching. Samariel and Maraliss were names he knew well, elven as they were. Though smithing did not come as naturally to their kind as it did the dwarves, there was still talent enough. ‘She was very young,’ he murmured, remembering the inquisitive, dark-haired elf who had once visited his realm. Too wild, too reckless, too full of wonder for an eternal life. She did not have the time to grow weary of the world. ‘Her forge lies cold, now.’

Dain bowed his head at the dwarven phrase, his pinched brow showing that he had not missed the underlying meaning. Maraliss, as well as Samariel before her, had lost her life: a shocking waste wrought by cruel fate. These items were the marks they had left on the world, and all the more precious now that their creators were gone.

It must be how dwarves felt all the time, Thranduil realised. All they had to remember those, like Brig, who returned to stone when their years were done were the items they had crafted with their own hands. To Thranduil, it was a paltry consolation that bruised his knowing heart. To be the one left behind…

His hand rested over the gift that still dwelt in the pocket over his breast. That cruel knowledge had been the inspiration for the subtle enchantments on his offering to Thorin and Bilbo. The torment of a lost love was, with any luck, not something they would have to bear.

Dain cleared his throat. ‘Now, if there’s one thing I know, it’s that before long Erebor and Dale will be heaving with merchants. In a month or two, we’ll barely be able to move for the bastards.’ He smacked the table with enthusiasm. ‘Who knows, maybe some of those old treasures will find their way home.’

It was a slender hope, but Thranduil appreciated it, raising his glass in quick toast as Dain waved someone closer. ‘Bard. Maybe you can keep an eye on the markets?’

‘You have my word.’ The bench shifted as Bard straddled it, his face as serious as ever. A thin band of leather crossed his brow: his only concession to his status as Thane. That and, Thranduil noticed, he seemed better fed than the last time they had met. Some of the sharpness had eased from his features, and though his lips did not smile, there was a spark of humour in his dark eyes.

‘How goes the reconstruction?’

Bard took a sip of his ale as he nodded. ‘Better than it would be without the help of the dwarves.’

‘Aye,’ Dain boasted, ‘there’s none who can make stone dance quite like us!’

‘It’s just as well. We have carpenters and fishermen aplenty, but put a chisel in our hands?’ He shook his head, his frustration apparent. ‘There is little we can do but stand and watch.’

Dain snorted in disbelief, waving a thick finger in Bard’s face. ‘Liar,’ he said, a brash chortle rumbling in his chest. ‘I’ve seen you crawling through the mud, mixing mortar and the like. You and your kin will be better than us come the day that Dale stands strong.’

‘A day that swiftly approaches.’

Gandalf smiled at them, his eyes twinkling in the lamp light. He declined Bard’s offered seat, choosing instead to lean on his staff. The room was raucous with celebration, but Thranduil had no trouble hearing Gandalf, though he did not raise his voice. ‘Thorin will be good for these lands, but he cannot bring them back from the ashes alone.’

Thranduil surveyed the wizard, noting the way he looked not at the three of them, but up the table, to where Thorin was whispering something in Bilbo’s ear. For his part, Master Baggins appeared delighted: not lost and overwhelmed, but as if he had truly found his place in the world.

‘He won’t be alone,’ Dain promised, the wizard’s subtlety going over his head. ‘Erebor’s best days are still to come. We’ll make sure of it.’

‘Of that, I have no doubt.’ Something shadowed Gandalf’s face, gone as quick as it came. ‘Lord Thranduil, I believe your elk is causing some concern in the stables.’

Thranduil shot Gandalf a sharp look, seeing through his ruse in an instant. Alagos would never cause “some” concern. He was either a docile dream or a chaotic nightmare; there was no in-between. Clearly, the wizard wished for a private meeting, and Thranduil drained his glass, nodding his farewell to his companions as he rose to his feet.

The noise from the dining hall faded as he and Gandalf slipped through the doors, traversing the hallways of the mountain. It seemed they were, indeed, heading towards the stables, and for a moment Thranduil wondered if he had misjudged Gandalf. A shiver rushed through him as the cool night air enveloped them both, and the sweet scent of hay and oats filled his nose.

All was quiet. The soft sounds of horses sleeping, their heads nodding in their stalls, were all that punctuated the silence. In the distance an owl shrieked, calling out for its mate. The mellow light of guarded lanterns turned the shadows to a golden haze, and Gandalf sank onto a bale of hay before digging in his pocket.

‘Alagos seems content, as I knew he would be.’

‘And yet you followed.’ Gandalf’s bushy eyebrows lifted as he puffed on the stem of his pipe, stoking the spark inside. Gnarled fingers cupped the battered pottery, and the ruddy light cast deep shadows across the lines in his face. In that moment, he looked ancient: older than the seas, the sky and the stars themselves. A heartbeat later, the impression faded, leaving nothing but a man in its wake.

‘Is he happy?’ Thranduil perched on top of an upturned barrel, not bothering to explain himself further. Gandalf knew of whom he spoke.

‘Do you think I would let this wedding take place if he were not?’ Smoke wreathed the wizard’s hat like clouds, and Thranduil watched the blue haze drift. There were few things on which Gandalf spoke with neither guile nor ulterior motive, but Bilbo Baggins, it seemed, was the exception.

‘You do not doubt it any more than I.’ Gandalf’s accusation held no rancour, and Thranduil had to resist the urge to argue simply for the sake of it. ‘If you had any misgivings, you would not have brought them such a gift.’

‘I wondered if you would sense it.’ Thranduil reached into his robes, pulling the small parcel free without any urging. To most eyes, it would seem inconspicuous, yet Gandalf set his pipe aside, accepting the offering with gentle reverence. ‘It is a blessing: little more.’

The cloth protecting the treasures whispered as it parted, and two gems tumbled into his palm. They shone in the lamplight, flawless.

A twinge of pain made Thranduil look away. Grief left its scars and pained him still. Once, the treasures would have encircled his beloved’s throat, their allure only surpassed by her own. Now, they were nothing but a painful memory of all the love that he had lost and the resentment that had festered within him for far too long.

‘Jewels of Lasgalen,’ Gandalf murmured, his rugged face soft with understanding.

‘I have plenty of them.’ Thranduil leaned back as if the crude barrel were a throne, his nose lifted in regal disdain. Gandalf’s huff of amusement made him glare at the wizard, both daring him to argue and begging him not to speak of it.

‘So you do,’ Gandalf conceded. ‘Yet none left in the Greenwood are quite like these.’ His fingertips drifted over the gemstones as if he were coaxing a tune from the strings of a lyre. Thranduil watched them flare, their clear faces turning misty as Gandalf read the power held in their hearts.

In all his years, Thranduil had never seen such an expression on the wizard’s face. Pride and awe seemed to make up the most of it, but underneath lay a shadow of the same sadness that Thranduil knew all too well. The knowledge that all things came to an end, and for many beings of Middle-Earth, that end came too soon.

Gandalf let out a breath, inclining his head towards Thranduil with more respect than he had ever shown before. ‘The churlish among the people of Erebor may say this is offered for your own benefit: something to help bring stability to your kingdom and those around it.’

‘They would be right.’ Thranduil drummed his fingers on the barrel. ‘You know dwarves. They pick fights every other week and fall to the blade as often as not. I would have Thorin live long enough to fulfil the promises he made, not just to his people, but to elves and men as well.’

He closed his eyes, blocking out Gandalf’s amusement. The wizard knew better than to believe him. At this point, Thranduil was certain that even Thorin would simply smile at his bluster like an elder tolerating the tantrums of a child. A faint heat gathered in his cheeks at the notion, and he tightened his jaw before pinning Gandalf with a piercing glare.

‘I know the agony of loss.’ His low voice made his tight throat ache. ‘I have fallen prey to its ravages, and my kingdom has succumbed to its darkness.’ He swallowed, hating to admit his frailty and his failings. ‘Neither Thorin nor Bilbo will live an immortal life; I cannot offer them such, but this…’ He trailed off, gesturing to the diamonds sparkling in Gandalf’s grasp. ‘I can offer them this.’

The wizard sat silent, his face unreadable and his thoughts his own. Yet it was not an expectant peace, as if he were waiting for Thranduil to explain himself further. Blue eyes grew distant, as though seeing a place few could ever hope to glimpse. Did he commune with the Valar? Did he surrender himself to the wheel of the stars, seeking their counsel? Thranduil could not begin to say. He could only wait for the moment that Gandalf’s mind returned to the warm haven of the stables.

He did not have to wait long.

‘I see.’ Gandalf smiled, benevolent. ‘I know of few elves that can work power such as this.’

Getting to his feet, Thranduil flicked straw from his sleeve. He refused to be swayed by the admiration in Gandalf’s tone. His gifts were his own. Some elves mastered foresight and others possessed abilities beyond the knowledge of most races of Middle Earth. Though many knew of his talent for illusion, there were other skills within his grasp.

‘Well, if I have satisfied your curiosity…’ He held out a hand in imperious demand, feigning indifference as Gandalf wrapped both diamonds in their shroud of cloth anew. Yet the wizard did not lay it once more in his palm. Instead, he grunted, bracing his weight on his staff as he hauled himself to his feet. If the weakness of age was an act, then Gandalf had long since mastered its performance. Anyone who did not know him would struggle to believe that this could be one of the powerful Istar.

‘You took two crystals, valuable to you in ways that exceed their worth in gold, and made them unique from the others that share their name. For all your protests of the lands around your kingdom and the peace within your care, the roots of your reason creep deeper.’ Gandalf straightened, and Thranduil struggled not to cringe from his words. ‘Name the power that lies in these stones.’

He grimaced, hating the way the answer rushed to the front of his mind as if compelled. ‘You can sense it. Is that not why you brought me out here in the first place? You know what the jewels will do.’

‘And yet, I would hear it from you.’

Restless energy crackled beneath Thranduil’s skin. His robes fanned around him, sending oat husks and straw skittering over the cobbles as he began to pace. He cared not for Gandalf’s motives. Whether the wizard demanded answers for his own petty satisfaction or some greater purpose mattered not. Already, Thranduil felt off-balance and raw – overwhelmed.

In his stable, Alagos snorted, tossing his head. Thankfully, his antlers had yet to grow in for the year. Still, the elk was big enough to cause plenty of damage with his weight alone, and Thranduil ceased his prowling. A gentle hand on Alagos’ nose brought the beast back to some semblance of calm. His velvet nostrils tickled as he huffed in sympathy.

Closing his eyes, Thranduil let himself be soothed. The stables were peaceful, with only the animals there to witness his confession. The beasts would never speak of it, and Gandalf…

Thranduil sighed, knowing all too well that the wizard would use any weapon he had in his arsenal if it suited his purpose. If the need arose, he would not hesitate to remind Thranduil of this selfless act. Still, if that moment came to pass, then so be it. He would deal with Gandalf when that time came.

‘I am known for my ability to cast illusions,’ he began, raising one finger to the mauled side of his face. Even to his own touch, it felt normal: unharmed. ‘However, I am not limited to altering appearances. By focussing my will, I can have some limited influence over what the future holds.’

Gandalf hummed, the slant of his expression unreadable. ‘Interesting. Yet you did not choose to prevail upon Thorin directly. You did not bind him to his vows, or his throne.’ Gandalf looked down at the package in his hand, a stained finger rubbing at the cloth. ‘You did not bind him at all.’

‘Such is not my nature.’ Thranduil narrowed his eyes. ‘The power in those stones will help Master Baggins and Thorin Oakenshield to share their days. All of their days.’

‘One will not die before the other.’ Gandalf tilted his head, the brim of his hat casting shadows across his face. ‘Yet there is more to it than that: protection, of a sort.’

‘On which neither one should rely.’ Thranduil pressed a fingertip to his brow, longing for another glass of wine. ‘It has not the power to turn aside a blade, nor to force life into a body that can no longer contain it. I would not have them think they are invulnerable to harm.’

The lanterns flickered, painting the silence in aureate tones: a different kind of gold. An elegant wave of his fingers drew Gandalf’s attention to the lamp, and he listened patiently as Thranduil drew his comparisons.

‘My blessing protects them as the glass protects the fire. It blocks the winds that may buffet the candle, flooding the flame with wax or extinguishing it entirely. Yet, should the wind knock the lantern from its place, the glass will break, and the light will die. Do you see?’

Thranduil sighed in relief as Gandalf offered a slow nod. Explaining it to the wizard was challenging enough, full of potential misunderstanding. He dreaded to think how he would describe it to the dwarves, who were likely to treat any magic with suspicion at best. In fact, he rather hoped that they would accept the gift without question.

‘It will not act against their wishes,’ he murmured. ‘Should their love wither, the power within the gems will do the same.’

‘And if one should find themselves at the mercy of a sword? If one should die of unnatural causes, what happens to the other? As they share in life will they share in death before their days are done?’

Smoothing a hand down his own sleeve in absent comfort, Thranduil swallowed. The sharpness in Gandalf’s words made him feel exposed: naked without his crown on his brow or his throne at his back. ‘Is there any power in Middle Earth that would weave two lives together so cruelly?’

‘Love,’ Gandalf answered, ‘but then love is beyond the understanding of us all. Strong enough to move mountains yet a harsh word can break it.’ He waved a hand, indicating the far-flung horizon and the great sky above. ‘However, I wish to be sure. To hear it from your lips, Thranduil, bound in all the honour of your kin.’

Of course, Gandalf knew how to make an elf speak plain. Why, many were almost as fond of vague allusion and double meaning as the wizard himself. Still, Thranduil also knew that he would not demand such an oath without good reason.

‘You have it. Should one die from accident or injury, the other will not follow as a result of this magic. There is not much, in such circumstances, that the power could offer beyond a little time to the wounded party: a day or so – no more.’

The sly twist of Gandalf’s smile was a secret shared between them. Many would not understand the value of such borrowed time, hovering on the brink of death. Yet Thranduil knew its worth, as did the wizard. A day was enough to turn even the darkest of tides, and should that be impossible, then those precious few hours could give others a chance to say their farewells.

‘I see.’

Thranduil shifted, longing to be free of the weight of Gandalf’s scrutiny. ‘You see too much,’ he grumbled under his breath, scowling deeper when Gandalf chuckled. ‘Is there more you require of me, or may I return to my drink?’

Gandalf’s staff scraped across the hay-strewn floor, underscoring the sincerity of his words. ‘You have my thanks. There are few in this world who could offer such. Though it is but a small gesture, it is often the little things in this life that bring about the greatest change. I suspect your gift may be more valuable than even you can imagine.’

He almost threw aside the experience of centuries and asked Gandalf to explain, but common sense stopped him at the last minute. When had Mithrandir ever offered anything but riddles: clear as bog-water?

Folding his hands inside his trailing sleeves, he murmured a quiet farewell to Alagos and turned towards the door, only hesitating when Gandalf held out the jewels. He did not regret the creation of his gift, yet with each passing hour, the dread of explaining them to the dwarves only increased.

‘I suggest you give them to Balin.’ He hid a smirk at Gandalf’s confusion. ‘He will know where they came from. More is unnecessary.’

‘You will not tell them?

He shook his head, stepping out into the night air. Even though summer blessed the day, winter held sway in the hours of darkness. His breath clouded in front of his face, and he looked up at the stars, letting their distant light soothe the tattered edges of his mood. ‘It is perhaps best that they remain unaware. The magic cannot work against their will, but knowing it is there may influence their behaviour. Let it be a diplomatic platitude and nothing more.’

‘And should they refuse them?’

Thranduil gave him a disbelieving look. Thorin may be stubborn, but even he would understand the offense such a snub would cause. ‘It is of no matter. The jewels are a wish given physical shape. They need not be worn to work their influence. They need not even be in Erebor. As long as Thorin and Bilbo’s hearts are as one, the blessing will offer its strength.’

Thranduil adjusted his cloak, pulling the material around his shoulders and settling the collar just so. ‘Now, if you will excuse me?’

He did not give Gandalf the opportunity to protest as he swept away.

The feast awaited.

******

Had dwarves always been capable of surprising him so? Even now, several days after the ceremony, Thranduil struggled to contain his disbelief. A royal marriage was one thing: an alliance in and of itself, but to share the power of rule? If Master Baggins had been a dwarf it would be shocking enough, but the fact he was not had the potential to cause uproar.

Beyond Erebor’s sturdy walls, perhaps it would, but Thranduil had not seen a single scowling face. Jubilant and joyful, the dwarves welcomed Bilbo with open arms: a king not of their kind.

Thranduil shivered, overwhelmed anew by the flood of an emotion he had not felt in an age. Hope. Blinding, desperate hope.

His endless years had tainted his view of the world. He knew all too well how virtuous ideals fell to wrack and ruin. He had seen how quickly a bright future could turn to the dark days of the present.

Perhaps he was a fool still, after all this time, but he could almost believe things would be different.

Swallowing, he shivered, his hands wrapping around the balustrade that marked the border of his balcony. White-knuckled, he clutched the stone, so cold compared to the yielding bark of his trees. Yet here, too, there was life.

Perhaps it was his imagination – foolish sentiment seeping through the ice of his façade – but where he had once seen the Lonely Mountain as a pinnacle of rock and nothing more, he could now sense its presence. Ancient strength resonated beneath his touch, stirring as the dwarves who called it their home threw themselves into its restoration.

This land, held too long in ghastly thrall by the dragon, had awoken once more. Not because of the secluded presence of his own race or the miserable existence eked out by the men. No, a dozen dwarves and a single hobbit had stormed the battlements of Smaug’s lair. They had fought for Erebor, and so Erebor would fight for them: a stalwart home for all who poured their devotion into its care.

If he were not here, bearing witness, he would believe it a fanciful story for the entertainment of children. A small hobbit and an exiled king; a dragon and its riches; the wicked winter with love’s warmth growing at its heart.

‘Are you well, Lord Thranduil?’

He turned, his brow lifting as he saw Thorin’s white-haired adviser, Balin, watching him from the doorway. He had not heard the old dwarf approach, which was unexpected considering the size and weight of his boots.

‘Indeed.’ He inclined his head, determined to hide his moment of incredulous introspection. ‘Merely lost in thought.’

‘Aye, it’s taken many that way.’ Balin nodded, and though to Thranduil he was little more than an infant in terms of the years he carried, his wisdom lay plain for all to see. ‘It’s made people think twice about the things they once believed could never come to pass: a dragon slain, madness defeated and a hobbit ruling at the side of a dwarf.’

‘So that is the truth of it?’ Thranduil examined Balin’s face, searching for any trace of a lie. ‘It was not a fabrication?’

‘What do you think, Lord Thranduil?’ Balin asked mildly. ‘Knowing what you know, not just of Thorin and his kin, but of Bilbo Baggins?’

Thranduil narrowed his eyes, hating the internal war of his pessimism versus the truth he could read in everyone around him. No deception lay in what he had seen during the ceremony. Bilbo’s power was not a veil to make him more acceptable. Anyone, no matter what their race, would see that he had earned it. He held the respect of the people, and by sharing his rule, Thorin had acknowledged Bilbo’s importance not just to himself, but to the realm.

‘Forgive me.’ He pressed his hand to his chest and bowed as deep as his pride would allow. ‘I spoke in haste. You are right. Even the blind could have seen the honesty in their union. It is simply –’

‘A shock?’ Balin’s smile took on a kindly edge. He urged Thranduil back into his rooms and offered him a warm brew: some kind of tea, though he did not miss the faint burn of something stronger beneath its floral flavour. ‘We dwarves are stubborn. Our ways are bound in stone, but like the stone, any change is sudden and absolute.’

‘And catastrophic?’ Thranduil took a sip, not taking his eyes off Balin’s face. ‘Earthquakes, collapses… Few could be seen as a blessing.’

‘Ah, but what treasures such shifts can reveal! Aye, they may be painful and shocking, but the land is often left the better for it. Besides, I referred to more controlled change. We dwarves, at least, are experts in making sure the earth only moves so much.’ His dark eyes twinkled. ‘We want to strengthen Erebor, not destroy it.’

Thranduil nodded. The metaphor may be tenuous, but he understood the thrust of it. The act of sharing power with Bilbo may go against what many dwarves held dear, yet it was not done without serious forethought. It was not an explosion to bring down the mountainside, but the well-placed blow of a chisel revealing the jewels within the rock.

‘May they both rule long and well.’ He smiled into his tea, the vines of tension that bound him withering to nothing.

‘May it be so.’ Balin reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of letters. One was little more than a note, hastily penned on a scrap of parchment. The other bore the heavy seal of Erebor. He placed both on the small table in front of the fire before bowing his farewell. ‘I shall leave you in peace, Lord Thranduil. If there is anything you need –’

‘I will ask. Thank you.’

He did not watch the dwarf depart, equal parts intrigued and anxious over the correspondence that awaited him. He would have thought Thorin and Bilbo too busy with other, more intimate affairs to bother with any official edicts so soon after the wedding. Yet there could be no denying the authority of the seal.

With a huff of irritation, he shoved aside his dread, putting down his tea and reaching for the heavier parchment first. Breaking it open, he cast his gaze along the few, perfunctory lines, his brow creasing. He suspected that this was not the work of a scribe. It lacked the flourishes that so often embellished their craft. In fact, this was probably written in Thorin’s own, angular hand.

“The gift offered by Lord Thranduil has been gratefully accepted with the full knowledge and awareness of all parties. The king of the Greenwood honours the line of Durin and the lands of Erebor with his generosity.”

Beneath it lay two signatures. The gentle, fat curve of Bilbo’s name enhanced the power of Thorin’s mark, making the sharp letters all the more striking. Idly, he wondered if he held the first official document of their joint reign. It seemed likely, yet the curt contents of the proclamation left him baffled.

Turning to the accompanying note, he unfolded it, smiling to see the hobbit’s softer penmanship. He wrote to him as one friend might to another: familiar and emotional, rather than in the stilted authority of the dwarves.

"Lord Thranduil,

You have our deepest thanks for the gems for our wedding beads. We will wear them with pride. Words cannot express what it means to have something so symbolic and at the same time wholly our own: never touched by the dragon’s greed.

Gandalf informed us both of the blessing you laid upon them. I know only a little of elvish ways, but I know it is no insignificant thing to work your power. I only hope that we can offer something small in return. Before you leave, please speak to Ori, the head librarian. He has something that has been in Erebor’s keeping that may be of interest to your kin in the Greenwood.

Thorin has also enclosed an official proclamation. I hope you never have need of it but if, in the years to come, anyone says you influenced us through the magic in the stones, then this is your answer. Gandalf already vouched for the power he sensed within them. While dwarves of the past may have looked upon such a gift with suspicion, please know that Thorin and I feel nothing but awe and thanks.

Bilbo Baggins of Erebor.”

Folding the sheaves, Thranduil slipped them into the pocket of his robes. In truth, he had never thought that the dwarves might cast doubt upon the intent behind his gift. Nor, he suspected, had it crossed Bilbo’s mind. It was to Thorin’s credit that he offered a royal decree, for use should his kin cause trouble in the distant future.

A twinge of pain ran up his neck and bloomed across the ruined half of his face. The glamour concealing the damage did not so much as flicker, but the old injury still made itself known. His stay here in this cold harbour of stone had been short, but already the woods called him home. He and the forest, both tied so tight, were healing from the Necromancer’s corruption. It would be some time yet before he could bear to be long from his throne.

Reaching for a small, silver bell, he rang it once. A moment later, Cillewen, his valet, stepped into the room.

‘Please inform our hosts that we will take our leave on the morrow,’ he instructed. ‘Prince Legolas may protest; he may delay his departure if he so wishes. I must return to the Greenwood.’

Cillewen bowed. ‘Of course, sire. Is there anything else?’

Thranduil paused, already half-turned towards the door. Normally, he considered himself too old to concern himself with rudeness, but he would not wish for his leaving so soon to offer offense. ‘Please also assure King Thorin and King Bilbo that they may visit the Greenwood at any time. They would be most welcome.’

If shocked, Cillewen’s training did not permit him to show it. Still, Thranduil could not recall when he had last sheltered anyone within the bower of branches he called his home. Maybe it had not always been so hostile, but visitors had never been encouraged. Perhaps that, too, should change.

‘As you wish, My Lord.’

******

Alagos huffed as he stepped into the shadow of the trees, picking his way through the broad, wide path that made itself known to the elves. His feet stirred last autumn’s fall, and the scent of good dark earth curled in Thranduil’s nose. An ethereal greeting whispered in the breeze. Leaves decked the boughs like jewels: his own kind of wealth, greater in value than anything in Erebor’s halls.

Well, almost anything.

He had not known what to say when the head scribe – young and earnest – had greeted him with stammering enthusiasm. Etiquette and diplomacy seemed irrelevant to Ori, or perhaps they were lost beneath the tide of his obvious happiness. He was as much a king as any who wore a crown, ruling over the tall stacks of scrolls and books with a compassionate hand. Ink and glue stained his skin: evidence of his healing efforts to the treasury of history that had failed to catch Smaug’s interest.

Thank the Valar.

Behind him, a bulky cart rumbled, pulled by a pair of steady, solid ponies. In it, individually wrapped in oil skins, were a number of books. More than two score, by Thranduil’s counting, and every one of them written in Quenyan or Sindarin. Histories, ballads, biographies and treatise.

As valuable as the books were – first editions and copies of documents long thought lost to the repository of the elves – they could not compare to the small, folded page that Ori had handed to him. Time had aged it, but even the passing of the years had not dared to blur the neat, elegant script.

The dwarf had said they found it tucked between the pages of a book of poetry. Perhaps he had noticed Thranduil’s stunned silence or seen the way the page whispered in his trembling fingers, because he did not press for an explanation. Instead, Ori bowed with a mournful little smile and left to secure the other treasures for their departure.

He appreciated the discretion. It had been many a year since Thranduil had wept. An audience to his emotion would have been intolerable. One glance and he knew whose hand had penned this note. One breath and joy collided with grief, tightening his throat until he could barely manage a sip of air.

“Thranduil, na-melethron gildin…”

His Lallaniel. No one else would name him with such playful tenderness. He could see her with ease, her hair glimmering like spilled ink in the candlelight and a smile playing upon her lips as she wrote. He had watched her thus many times before she was lost to him. Memories that had begun to lose their clarity returned full force, bittersweet and beautiful.

Blinking himself back to the present, he drew a deep breath, letting the fragrance of the forest steady him. She had written nothing of real importance. No great meaning lay within her words. It was a passing moment captured for eternity. The dwarves could well have overlooked it, casting it aside as so much rubbish. No one would have blamed them. It looked so ordinary.

Yet someone had hesitated. Perhaps they had taken note of his name or observed the paper’s age. Maybe they knew enough Sindarin to realise the truth of it. What, to them, carried no meaning was worth all the jewels in Middle Earth to Thranduil. He had so little of Lallaniel left, and he cherished every piece still in his possession.

They could have held it ransom to some political request or saved it for such a time that they needed his cooperation. The Valar knew that was what he would have done if the situation were reversed.

His realisation humbled him. Too long had he struggled in the harsh, cold climes, letting his kingdom fall to ruin. Too long had he honed his character into a blade. Lallaniel would not admire the elf he had become. Would she love him still? Yes, but it would be with grief in her gaze as she witnessed the poison his pain wrought.

Up ahead, the walls of his stronghold stood, as patient and solid as ever. His throne awaited, but Thranduil knew he would sit upon it a different elf than he had been a year ago. The woods were not the only thing that needed to heal. He had not realised how deep the agony festered still. It cleaved at him, leaving a shadow-king and a failing father, snapping at everyone like a creature caught in a trap.

He could not undo the past. He could not rewrite the story, but he could play his part. Thorin was already doing his bit, with Bilbo Baggins at his side. Bard, too, had grasped the responsibility of his position with determination. The rank may embarrass him, but he shrugged aside his personal discomfort to put his people first. Each had their reasons – their own ghosts to lay to rest. Now, Thranduil could see that he was no different – no better – though he had believed himself such.

At least they could blame Smaug for the state of their realms. He had no such excuse. If he were being charitable towards himself, he would point to the Necromancer. His evil tainted the land and, inexorably tied to it, Thranduil had suffered the same.

Except it would be another excuse, another failure, another reason to perch upon his throne and sneer at the misfortune of others. He could not afford to keep his distance from those who bordered the Greenwood, nor, he realised, did he want to. He could feel change in the air as sure as the turn of the seasons.

And this time, he would do everything in his power to ensure that it was change for the better.