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A Tale of Love and Longing (as Told by Galion)

Chapter Text

Galion had known Thranduil for quite a long while. By the standards of Men their friendship was ancient, and even their own kind occasionally commented on its endurance. Some 7000 years was an impressive length time to tolerate each other.

Not to say that Galion saw it as mere toleration. He’d loved Thranduil dearly since the King was a child. It’d been the honor of his life to watch Oropher’s son grow, and to have a hand in his education. To take the then-prince under his wing had seemed daunting, though now he couldn’t imagine his life otherwise. Their seasons were tied, and there wasn’t a moment in even distant memory untouched by the other’s starry glow.

Galion had been entrusted with the task of guiding Thranduil as he navigated the summery waters of adolescence, and to see him through it to his destiny: that of a husband, father, and King. He’d also been entrusted, though Oropher couldn’t have predicted it, with watching war and grief batter his friend like waves. Heavy ones, and returning, as if by tide or some ill fate. As if all the King’s years were to be smudged by it.

The first loss was that of his father, slain in battle, and not long after: his mother. Not by death, but consumptive grief. She’d faded to a wisp by the time she sailed for the Havens, and her son, Galion had thought, would never recover. He'd loved both his parents, but his mother had been dearest. Seeing her swallowed by sadness had broken his heart, and sending her away had been the source of bitter tears for many years after she’d gone.

His Lord did recover, though, if only just in time for new hurts to sting all the worse. Long periods of war left him scarred, body and spirit, and eventually robbed him of his wife. The loss of her love, strength, and radiance came down like a spike. It left him distraught, and drove a wedge between himself and his son, Legolas.

The Queen’s death might’ve weakened their relationship, but it was Thranduil’s long, hateful mourning that severed it. He was in no state to give love, and almost seemed to fear it, a fact that resulted in the most recent pain of all. Mere hours after the Battle of Five Armies ended, Legolas had fled. Gone North, as Galion understood, in search of companionship. The news had been bitter to receive, though not entirely unexpected. A gully had been deepening between the two for centuries, and something had always been bound to come of it.

Of all his losses-- if they could be measured in such a way-- this final seemed to be the most enlightening. His son’s departure cleared a fog that long ago settled over everything, and for the first time in many centuries, Thranduil was fully present. Perhaps it was because this loss in particular hadn’t been random. No act of war or ugly beast had taken his child. His own deeds and chilly demeanor had driven the prince away, and seeing that, the danger of his moods became clear.

All that was to say (if he meant to say anything) that Galion-- attendant and friend-- had come to know the King well. He could see into his heart; every last chamber of it, and had often held it safely in hand. He knew what made Thranduil wake weeping, and what he craved when sadness stole even his words from him. He knew all the almost imperceptible ways joy, anguish, and hate could change his face.

He also knew-- Thranduil’s denial be damned-- exactly how he looked when he was pining.

 

 

He’d wondered it first when the King took interest in the bargeman outside of what was strictly transactional. Bard was a low-level employee, and not even an elvish one. What good meeting with him would do, Galion couldn’t guess. The man had no pull with the Master of Laketown. Quite the opposite, in fact. He was destitute, and he and his children-- no wife; since deceased-- often found themselves on the receiving end of the Master’s anger. None of which Bard had told Galion personally, but as the King’s most personal servant, he took his job seriously. Before offering an opinion on hiring a Lakeman, he’d made sure the one in question had been thoroughly investigated.

There was no tactical value to employing Bard, which was fine. There needn’t be. He was a barrel runner, not a courtier or spy. The former was a privilege reserved for elves, and the latter not something Thranduil had any interest in. Colonizing was the ugly business of men, and outside of that, there was no reason to spy on Laketown. It’s current Master would live and die as quickly as his forebears; who rose to power after was none of Thranduil’s concern. Mirkwood and Laketown’s relationship had always been symbiotic, and he had no intention of tipping the balance.

And, as such, to bring Galion’s point around: there was reason to meet the bargeman.

“You’ll only succeed in bringing undue attention to a man already under heavy watch.”

Even as he said it, Galion knew there was no point. The King hadn’t asked for an opinion.

“His personal life is not our concern,” the King said, not looking up from his desk. He was set at it, pouring over a roll of delicate, aged parchment. “In any case, I doubt the Master will take notice.”

“The Master of Laketown notices everything, whether it has meaning or not. Your bargeman has a history of being--”

Mellon,” the King interrupted.

Galion bit his tongue. The word was soft but deliberate, just as he himself liked to say it. They used it pointedly, as if to say: I love you, and am doing so on purpose. It made his heart ache and, more often than not, made him go quiet.

“I value your insight,” Thranduil continued. “But my mind is made. It’s the business of the King to know what passes through his realm. Thorough though your reporting may be, I want to be doubly sure of it.” He looked up from his parchment, meeting the gaze of his adviser. “Arrange the meeting.”

Galion bent in deferment. “As you wish. And what else, My King?”

“Nothing more. Only see that I’m not disturbed.”

He’d done as he was asked without further question.

After posting a guard outside Thranduil’s study and giving orders to permit no entrance but his own, Galion had gone to his own desk and penned a letter, inviting the bargeman to the palace the following week. The King hadn’t specified, but personally wanting the business over, Galion made sure to establish a tight timeline.

Unfortunately-- or not, as he’d later think, though that was still many seasons away-- King Thranduil sensed his plan, and foiled it promptly.

He invited the bargeman back three more times.

“I don’t see what you mean by this,” Galion said after the third.

The King hadn’t called him into the throne room, but he’d come regardless, mere minutes after Bard had been escorted out.

“In speaking to those in my employ?”

Thranduil was on his throne, looking perfectly kingly. His long robe pooled on the dais around his feet, and his legs, crossed at the knee, were strong under his breeches. He looked like an animal set to pounce.

“In bringing the bargeman back and back again, when you have nothing of importance to speak about.” Galion knelt and rose quickly before approaching the dais. “Have I not reported on him faithfully?”

“You have.”

“And has his performance not been to your satisfaction?”

This was, Galion was willing to admit, rather a silly question. Bard was a barrel runner, and would have to work hard to disappoint. He asked it anyway, hoping to sway the King from this engagement. It was pointless and could only be making the Lakeman uncomfortable. Thranduil’s presence was famously imposing.

“It has.”

“What, then, do you mean by interrogating him?”

The King was silent for a long while after that, and Galion almost feared he’d offended him. As a long-time confidant, he could take liberties, but only so many. Thranduil was still King; that couldn’t be forgotten.

“My Lord,” he began, but Thranduil cut him off.

“I haven’t been interrogating him.” Which begged the question: what had he been doing? Speaking, certainly. The rumble of their voices could be heard through the door. What about, though, the King never said. “But, I suppose you may be right.”

“Lord?”

“I’ve learned all that I need, for a time.” He waved a hand dismissively. “Cancel the courier. Send him back to his post.”

It was a jarring shift in tactic. Too jarring, in fact. Thranduil wasn’t easily deterred, and Galion didn’t believe this marked the end of the King’s scheme, whatever it may be. His old friend still had secrets, and Galion didn’t doubt that they’d breach the surface again.

For now, however, he was glad to see-- if only nominally-- this one closing off.

Chapter Text

The thought didn’t nag again for several winters, during which Galion scarcely thought of Bard at all. Outside of passing off his payment, he never saw the bargeman. If the King was keeping up correspondence, he was careful about it. He didn't ask Galion to send notices, act as an escort, or anything else that might suggest the Lakeman was coming nearer than the docks. As far as he could tell, those three meetings had been the end of it. Which was good. He had more pressing things to worry over than a pot of mischief.

When they rode for the ruins Dale, however, with great carts of provisions in tow, intent on knocking down the door of Erebor if necessary, suspicion began creeping back. Because Bard was a touch too informal, and Thranduil not at all his recent usual self. Their meetings before and after the battle left little doubt in Galion's mind that something was afoot.

The bargeman’s-- but no, it was Dragonslayer now, and would be King if Dale survived the biting winter. His odd behavior might’ve been shock, or bald relief at the arrival of aid. Both plainly wracked him, and Galion could sympathize. The destruction of Laketown and death of his neighbors was a heavy grief. Capped off with the weight of being chosen to lead the survivors, it was a wonder the poor creature hadn’t buckled. But Bard was resilient, and needs must; what else was he to do? Had he succumbed to panic, the death toll would have only compounded.

Whatever the man had hoped would come from retaking Dale, Galion was certain the favor of Mirkwood wasn’t it. And it was a favor, regardless of how icily Thranduil denied it. There were other paths to Erebor, excluding this. All would’ve brought them more swiftly to its bridge and negated the need to drag along a charitable convoy. The King knew it, and so did Bard if his stunned gratitude was to be trusted.

It was that emotion Galion was willing to pin the man's irreverence on. He didn't bow or lower his eyes when greeting the Elvenking, or keep a respectful distance when visiting his tent. Thranduil had his warriors set up camp in the flanking fields, and when Bard wandered into it to hear Mithrandir's counsel, the man was less than deferential. He met his gaze, sure and level, stood rather close, and even plucked a cup from Thranduil's hands. The two drank and spoke in glances while the beleaguered wizard grumbled, either unaware of the slight of having not been offered a cup or ignoring it.

For his own part, Galion neither missed the cue or overlooked it. When their company left that night, he couldn't stand not to broach the subject. He waited until Thranduil finished off the last of his wine and asked for his attendant’s help in dressing for bed. As he stripped the King of day clothes, Galion hummed, feigning consideration, and hoped that Thranduil would bite the hook. Which he did. The sound snagged his attention near immediately, and he glanced back at the other over his bare shoulder.

"Something troubles you?"

Galion hummed again, this time in question, then shook his head as he folded Thranduil’s robe.

“No, mellon.” He draped it over the back of an empty chair and shook out the King’s lighter nightshirt. “I was only thinking of the Dragonslayer.”

“And your assessment?”

He considered the question as Thranduil threaded himself through the garment. It was open, good for nothing but lounging alone. Or, as was the present case, in trusted company, a category that numbered so few it was hardly worth counting.

“He is gruff,” Galion said, “but speaks well, and kindly, and seems concerned with fair dealing above all else.” When Thranduil’s arms were through the sleeves, Galion tugged the shirt up to cover his shoulders. “I believe he'll make a fine king.”

“One day, perhaps. He needs work.” The words were cool, but not unkind. It was true that Bard would need guidance. He had no experience with leadership beyond wrangling his own children. “But you’re right: his heart is good. That’s not insignificant.”

“Neither is the fact that he was elected freely. And yet--”

“Ah.” The King cut off his attendant. “Now we come to it. Tell me: what about him gives you pause?”

Pulling away, Thranduil turned to sit in bed: a sprawling pile of furs and pillows that he sank into. It sat low, and he had to tilt his chin to hold the other’s attention. Ashamed of looking down, Galion dropped to kneel before him. He settled just outside the nest and smoothed his tunic.

“He was familiar, don’t you think?” He paused to gauge the King’s reaction, but Thranduil hardly blinked. “I do. Too familiar. Had I not known either of you, I might have taken you for newly made friends.”

They were, in a way, Galion supposed. The King had offered help in the people of Laketown’s time of need. Even if it was truly done without care-- it wasn’t--, the gesture wouldn’t soon be forgotten. When he was able, Bard would start giving thought to repaying it. It was a conventional enough start to political allyship, if nothing else, an argument that Thranduil was prepared to make.

“Bard is grateful, and perhaps already battle-bonded.” He shrugged, causing one loose sleeve to slip. “Men are temperamental, and their feelings quick to tangle.”

“Yes,” Galion agreed, “but yours are not.”

It was a bold thing to say, given that there was no basis for it. Insofar as he knew, his King and Bard hadn’t met in years. And even had they done so, nothing untoward had passed between them that day. Nothing but stares, closeness, and sharing, all of which could be explained. Still, he couldn’t help but feeling--

“Forgive me,” Thranduil said, interrupting the thought. Just as well. Galion wasn’t sure where it had been going. “I must be mistaken. It sounded for a moment as if you were accusing me of something.”

The shift in the King’s tone was marginal. Negligible, even. Where he speaking with anyone else, Galion mightn’t have noticed. But over the centuries he’d become a skilled interpreter of Thranduil’s moods. A barely tangible line of tension had dropped between them and pulled taut. If either moved too quickly, the string was sure to snap and smack Galion’s cheek viscerally enough to sting. Thranduil didn’t care to be under the scrutiny of anyone.

“No, My King,” he said demurely. “I meant nothing by it.”

He laid a hand over his heart in a show of sincerity. The King regarded him, eyes flicking between his face and fingers. Fingers that minutes before had been on his back, and earlier still: in his hair, smoothing it out for riding braids.

“I didn’t think so.” Thranduil settled deeper into his furs, slacking the tension. His smile didn’t return, however, and he nodded to the tent’s entrance. “Find your bed. Sleep while you can. I shall be needing you earlier than usual.”

Galion nodded and bid his King good night.

 

 

The first week following the battle was the worst, if only for the fact that death was never more than a glance away. In the midst of fighting, such things were easily ignored, but at the close-- as pulses settled and hearts broke their horrible rhythm-- the grisly cost of making war was unavoidable.

It had been, as all before it, an abhorrent waste of life, and not only Elvish ones. Galion felt the sting of his fallen kin most keenly, but seeing the roots of Erebor wet with the blood of Dwarves and Men was also gutting. They had been brave, and true allies in the end. And what was worse: the ransacked streets of the refugee camp Dale had become. The alleys and old market square were littered with the bodies of elders and children. Every flagstone was smeared with gore, and the fields up to either bank of the River Running stank of the combined rot of their kinds and Orcs.

There was no escaping the smell. It had sunk into everything: their skin and hair, and the fabric of their tents. There was nowhere to slip away for a fresh breath, which made the mean work of cleaning up all the meaner.

On the orders of Feren, acting still as lieutenant, they broke into companies to aid in the effort. Some dragged off the bodies of Orcs, Trolls, and Wargs for burning, while others helped cart the allied fallen over the south-west arm of the mountain. There was an unsettled valley there, out of reach of seasonal flooding, that all agreed would be best for interring the dead. Along with Men and Dwarves, another of Feren’s allocated companies were tasked with digging graves on rotation. The rest of the Elves were scattered: tending the wounded and minding orphans, cooking meals in make-shift kitchens for the workers and citizens; washing out Dale and making habitable, repairing Erebor’s bridge. All of it hard work, but necessary. Fortifying, even.

In the shadow of a battle, it was easy to succumb to grief: a pit so wide it might take years to claw out. The long hours of work were a distraction from it, and afternoons spent caring for the children-- a privilege the companies took in turns-- broke up the sorrow. Sharing waterskins and meals in the open, filthy fields also served to soften suspicion and lingering animosity. Bonds formed more easily between Men and Elves of Mirkwood, but the Dwarves weren’t obstinate. Not in this, at least. The honor afforded their dead stitched a tenuous truce.

It took until sunrise of the eighth day of near continuous laboring, but by then all the dead were buried and enemies burned. The stink of blood and tack of viscera was scrubbed from all Dale’s broken cobblestones, and Thorin and his nephews had been given their lordly funerals. With the exception of the halfling and Tauriel, only Dwarves had been permitted to attend. Men and Elves had ringed the door, though, and listened to the dirges echoing out from somewhere deep inside the mountain.

Having already done much of the most hateful work, it wouldn’t have been considered abandonment for the Elves to leave then. But the King pledged to Bard to stay encamped for two more weeks, offering his medics, cooks, and best builders up for use. There was still much left to do to make the city safe, and not much time before Thranduil must leave on necessity. The last bright suns of Autumn were already not enough to beat back the encroaching chill. It cut the air, making the people of Dale shiver more each passing night. The snows would come soon, and when they did, Mirkwood would be impassable. In bygone centuries, before the Shadow began to lengthen again, it wouldn’t have been so. Snow was a handsome, star-white blanket on kind trees then. As it stood now--

“It is imperative that I return while I’m still able. I don’t like the thought of leaving my own kingdom unguarded.”

Bard swallowed thickly, still shocked at the intrusion. It was late, and unlike their meetings gone before, Thranduil had done the seeking out. Galion in tow, the King had left his encampment and called on doors until he found the one Dale’s Lord was hiding behind. It took nearly half an hour. There was a Grand House, but Bard wouldn’t be in it. It was disused and crumbling; one of the many things still left to repair. Thranduil could no easier have picked out the man’s apartment than a single grain of wheat from a heap.

When he found it, he and his attendant wasted no time. They slipped into the receiving room, dark but for one oil lamp and deathly quiet. His sweet children, Galion thought, must already be sleeping. Guessing the same, Thranduil spoke in hushed tones. He didn’t sit, remove his cloak, or even relax. The King stood straight-backed, hands woven in front of his belly. He delivered the news of his plan to stay with all the charm of an executioner. Bard blinked, looking between Lord and attendant; for his own part, Galion tried to smile warmly. His King was kind, but not overly personable, a fact that could hide even the deepest sincerity from one unfamiliar.

“My King,” Bard began when he at last found his footing. “I cannot stand to beg you for even one more favor."

“You aren’t begging. I'm insisting.”

“But why?” The words were tired and full of spit. “We have no coin or goods to trade. We are useless to you, and it will be many years before we can hope to be otherwise.”

“Perhaps, but we are allies. Should I need to beg you for something one day, I’ll find the words easier knowing I didn’t allow your children to freeze.”

Bard barked a laugh, and it was only millennia of training that kept Galion from doing the same.

"So far as I know, the great Thranduil has never been made to beg."

"He hasn't," the King agreed, offering up a smirk. The expression was faint, but wily, and for a shutter of seconds he looked centuries younger. "But I like to prepare for even the most unlikely possibilities."

"I am a poor man to bet on."

"No at all, but you are prideful. Don't let that disposition make you a fool of. Accept the help, Aran nin. I offer it freely."

For a moment, Galion thought the man would reject it. His jaw worked, muscles tensing beneath his beard. He chewed the offer, scouting out any shards of deceitful bone. Finding none, he finally nodded.

"Good." Thranduil unlaced his hands. "I'll send my lieutenant to you in the morning, and you and I can meet after at your leisure."

"What for?"

"Whatever I can do for you that he cannot."

Without offering an explanation, Thranduil turned for the door. He took the room in long strides, leaving Galion in his wake. The attendant bowed to Bard before making to leave himself, but was halted by the man calling his name.

“Yes, Lord?”

"That bit of Elvish; what did it mean?"

"You didn't know?" Bard shook his head, and Galion resolved to have him given lessons. "He called you his king. As allies, you each serve the other."

"His king," the man muttered. His brows knit tight for a moment and Galion shifted, wondering if he should ask for leave or simply take it. Before he was forced to make a decision, Bard shook himself. "Thank you, friend. Good night."

"Good night, Aran nin."

He only said it to reinforce the meaning, but when Bard winced, Galion wondered if he’d have done better to leave it off.

 

 

As promised, King Thranduil sent Feren to Bard every morning for the next two weeks. The Elf arrived just after sunrise, took his orders, then organized his troops into teams for better working. He set some on shoring up buildings, stocking storehouses, hunting and gathering; some on chopping wood for the Men to burn through winter. Some repaired garments or sewed new ones from excess furs, and others instructed those who had the skill in making new medicines.

The daylight hours were shortening and growing colder, but these weeks are undeniably more pleasant than the first. The citizenry was enlivened, laughing throughout the day, and while they worked, Men and Elves exchanged happy songs. An easy comradery bloomed between the two peoples; even Tauriel, grief-stricken as she was, made several new friends. Galion, by contrast, wasn’t granted the opportunity. He spent his time watching Thranduil shadow the new King of Dale.

Shadow, perhaps, wasn’t the fairest word. Thranduil wasn’t stalking him through the streets like a robber. He did follow the man, though, and spent most of their allotted time dogging his heels. The new King insisted that their lessons-- political, tactical, and Sindarin-- be conducted while he took the city in rounds.

Forgive me, My Lord, but as you say: there's more work now than time left to do it.

Thranduil, to his credit, took the flippancy in stride, resolving to instruct Bard wherever it was the man dragged him. As they walked, assessing damages remaining and making plans, he doled out basic tutoring on diplomacy, negotiations, and leadership. He made suggestions for establishing rule of law, rewards, and punishments, and how to ensure each was enforced when Dale was better established. If Bard suddenly sprinted ahead to break up a dispute or settle some trouble, the King didn’t halt his in his speech. He only carried on more loudly to ensure his charge heard it, and walked at his own pace to where the other hurried off to.

It seemed to help Bard to be in constant motion. If put to work or the heavy cadence of his boots, he could recall minor details on command, and often did to Thranduil’s carefully guarded delight.

When they took meals or drank together, the man would bring up something the other King had said before: an opinion on the role of a leader he disagreed with, or piece of advice on anything from taxing to cultural preservation. He was intelligent, thoughtful, and open, willing to change; not obstinate or brutish, as Men could be. It was refreshing, and if early success could be trusted, he promised to be a great improvement on the previous Master.

The only exception made for Bard’s preferred style was this: Thranduil reserved lessons in basic Sindarin for when the two were at leisure. At each midday when they broke off to practice archery-- a shared, favorite pastime-- he drilled the man on vocabulary and phrasing. It didn’t go as smoothly as their discussions of politics, and in fact, didn’t go very well at all. Bard’s aptitude for language learning was rather low. His native accent was thick, making pronunciations clumsy, and he struggled to recall even the simplest words. To say he butchered them would’ve been kind, and by their last day in Dale, Galion was grateful that the lessons would be ending.

Thranduil himself was less eager to quit. He kept Bard in the eastern field several hours longer that day. He kept the man shooting, coaxing him to repeat a word by stealing his quiver and passing the next arrow only after Bard attempted it.

“There are less heinous ways to torture me," the man grumbled, snatching a proferred arrow before the other could retract it.

He knocked it and drew back sharply, letting it loose with hardly a look to his mark. Still, it hit true. He was a good shot; far better than he was a student of languages.

"It isn't torture. It's education."

Bard rolled his eyes. "I have no head for it. Can we not try something else?"

Before the other could guard against it, Bard snatched an undue arrow. He knocked it with his bow still angled down. It's point parted blades of grass like the muzzle of a deer. Thranduil tracked it, appreciating the mindless ease.

"You have no head for it--” The King tore his attention from the arrow, dragging up the other’s arms a touch too slowly. Bard had stripped to his sleeveless tunic, and every precise motion came with a flex. “--only because you’ve hardly begun to practice. Do you imagine I learned Westron in a pair of weeks?”

“No.” He shot again, and when the arrow landed Galion could almost hear its metal head scrape the one next to it. “You’ve had many thousand years, which, as we know--” He held his hand out for another. “--is more time than I’ll have for anything.”

Thranduil bristled. Galion could see it from where he sat, some several feet back in a patch of Athelas. His King’s shoulders hardened, and Galion’s own pinched in sympathy. It was strange to be reminded of an ally’s mortality. The fact always hummed in some back recess of the mind, kicking up an urgency unfelt when dealing with fellow Elves. Until just then, however, Thranduil seemed to have quite forgotten it.

Goheno nin,” the King said, so suddenly that Galion thought it was sincere.

But no. Of course it wasn’t. Bard didn’t understand. The man sighed deeply and dropped his waiting hand.

“Have your way.” Turning from the target they had made of an old beech tree, Bard faced his tutor, attention settling on his mouth. “Say it again, and tell me what it means.”

Goheno nin. It’s a plea for forgiveness.”

Bard nodded. He mouthed the phrase to himself several times before attempting it. When he did, Galion winced. It was so stupendously mispronounced than he couldn’t guess how the man had managed it. Perfectly awful, and yet Thranduil praised the effort.

"You show improvement." He passed Bard another arrow. "Tell me, Lord: could you hit that topmost branch?"

Bard raised his bow, drawing slowly as he aimed.

"If it moves you to end my suffering, I'll hit what you like."

 

 

 

Later that night, as Galion escorted Thranduil to his tent, they discussed their plans for departure the following morning.

"The King asks that we make a final appearance in town square. His people consider several of ours new friends, and wish to say goodbye before the long winter."

"That can be arranged," Thranduil said. "The weather is fair enough that a delay won't cause much trouble."

“And, it will be nice to see the Men again before we go."

Thranduil's lips quirked. "I wasn't aware you had an eye for them."

It was a tease, and one that Galion leaned into comfortably.

"Only the ones with beards."

"Beards? Truly?" The King laughed, the edges of it splintering like glass. "What luck, then. The Men here come thickly furred."

"Too thickly, some.” Galion paused, considering his next words carefully. “The King's runs more closely to my taste."

"Bard?" Thranduil asked, as if he could mean anyone else. When Galion nodded, his Lord’s expression turned strange. "Is his nice, do you think? I can't claim to have noticed."

Galion didn't believe that.

"As they come," he said neutrally. "He'll have no trouble looking lordly on a throne."

"No," Thranduil agreed, tugging his heavy outer robe tighter to block out a whip of wind. "I don't suppose he will."

They walked silently the rest of the way back to the tents, each enjoying the distant rumble of voices in Dale. And, too, the brightness of the stars there, the view unimpeded by canopy as it was in Mirkwood. Galion studied them: the burning hearts of his favorites since childhood, as well as the constellations most visible this season.

He noted The Bowman, whose heavenly weapon seemed to grin, and thought of Bard.

He wondered if his friend was doing the same.

Chapter Text

The Elves rose long before daybreak to take down their tents and pack up camp. It didn't take long; they traveled light, save for what had been necessary to bring for war. The sky was only just graying when they finished, at which time the citizens of Dale began to stir. The people dressed and shuffled sleepily into the square as the Elves filed in, seeking out their companions in the brightening morning.

The King and Galion arrived just as the last stragglers of either kind were grouping. Their voices made a merry clatter, one that warmed the attendant's heart. It had been some time since the Elves of Mirkwood had made new friends. Their kingdom was isolated, in part by choice, though in another by necessity. The great forest wasn't as safe as it once had been. The paths were growing weird. It happened now and then with old forests; the souring of magic made them perilous to outsiders. Used to its tricks, no woodland native was likely to fall for them. A visitor, however, might find themselves snared. It was uncommon for those living in Mirkwood to see anyone but their neighbors, and it showed in how quickly they bonded with the Men of Dale.

“Heartening, is it not?” Galion whispered to his King.

They walked closely enough for their cheeks to nearly brush when he turned. Closeness was a privilege of his station, or perhaps only a byproduct of the fact that Thranduil had once been small enough for him to lift.

“It bodes well for any future diplomacy, certainly.”

Hard-nosed as ever.

“Friendship often does.”

“Should its early bud survive the frost, but that is something only the coming spring can tell. Don’t be so quick to bare your throat.”

Ah, there it was: the fatal phrasing he’d come to expect since the Woodland Queen had died. Thranduil had buried his softness with her, and though it broke ground now and then, it never gathered enough energy drag full out. These weeks in Dale had seen a long reappearance, and even that had been mild: a fleeting softening of his tongue and outstretched hand. Such small things, but Galion had grown accustomed.

“Don’t be so quick, yourself.”

Before Thranduil could hiss his displeasure at the words, they found themselves in the company of the new King. The man, run ahead of by his daughters, had been searching for them and caught the starry brightness of Thranduil’s hair over the crowd. The girls forced their way towards it, and in her excitement, the youngest nearly barreled into their legs.

“Watch it, Tilda!” her sister squawked, catching her by the collar. It was that instinct and nothing else that stayed collision. After snatching the littlest back, the elder looked up, still half bent. “Pardon, Lords. She’s in a tizzy, what with all the commotion.”

The chilly demeanor that Thranduil had adopted on their walk warmed a little. He loved children, and with Legolas gone-- who knew when, if ever, to return-- was even more susceptible to their charms. Little Tilda likely could have knocked him over and met with no consequence.

“Children needn’t ask,” the King assured, confirming the suspicion. “But you may have it all the same, Lady Sigrid.”

The young girl flushed. “I’m no Lady.”

“A candidate for Captain of the Guard, then.” Attention flicking over her shoulder, he tracked Bard as he wove near. He was less nimble than his daughters and lagged behind. “Your arm is quick. I hope your father hasn’t squandered it.”

“For what?”

“He means archery, darlin’,” Bard cut in, finally having forced his way through the last nest of bodies. He laid a hand on Sigrid’s shoulder, but spoke directly to Thranduil. “As the King doesn’t know you never took interest, we can’t blame him for trying to recruit you.”

Thranduil inclined his head, a gesture of greeting that Bard mirrored.

"I meant Captain of your Guard, but never mind. Perhaps one of her siblings, given proper training."

"Perhaps. Though, in the meantime, and to speak of giving--"

“Oh, Da, can I? Is it time?”

The joint attention of Bard, Galion, and the King were snared by Tilda’s little voice. They peered down to find her bouncing where she stood, hands cupped protectively around something. A delivery, Galion suspected, though what it could be he couldn’t guess. He and Thranduil had only visited Bard’s apartment once, and not for long enough to have left anything behind.

“Not yet.” Bard raised a finger, miming for her to settle. “Let your sister speak first, like you practiced.”

Tilda obeyed but tapped one boot impatiently. She jerked her head for her sister to get on with it, and Galion had to swallow a grin. She was precious, and he would miss seeing her over the winter.

“Perhaps you should, Lady Sigrid,” Galion prompted after a moment. Forgetting their purpose, the two had devolved into a whispered argument. “Before it bursts from her, or your father does it himself.”

That eventuality was likely only moments away. Hearing his girls bicker in front of the Elvenking seemed to mortify him. The man was wincing, cheeks pinker than morning chill could account for. Glancing over her shoulder and catching sight of it, Sigrid apologized. Straightening up, she smoothed the creases from her bodice and finally gave the other King her full attention.

“Great Lord,” she began, the words sharp and rehearsed. “For your aide, there can be no repayment. Dale has little, and what you’ve given is priceless, besides. But if you'll have it--” Here she paused to nudge her sister, who raised her cupped fists. “We would give a warrior’s gift.”

It must have been her cue, because Tilda’s little hands bloomed to make a cradle of her palms instead. Something freshly polished glinted there which the King bent to examine. Galion bent as well, peering over Thranduil’s shoulder. It was a hair clasp, he realized: hinge-jointed and delicately carved, large enough to close off a braid of medium thickness. The style was dated, making it either a family heirloom or something found while cleaning up the city over the last several weeks. The latter was more likely, as dragonfire came too swiftly for the people of Laketown to gather even the barest essentials. The girls must have found it in their apartment and cleaned it carefully; exceptionally so, to judge by the high, lovely shine.

The King studied the clasp in silence, eyes roving over the restored hinge and scrollwork. When Galion shifted to gauge his expression, he saw the other’s brows were pinched, fine tuned in appreciation. Thranduil adored little ornaments; had they not rode to make battle, a third of his luggage would’ve been taken up by them: rings, chains, and decorative circlets to hold the place of his seasonal crown. He fixed the new bauble with the same attention as he would a freshly commissed ring.

But Sigrid seemed to misinterpret. His long silence made her anxious. She cleared her throat and picked her script up somewhat less surely.

“It was once customary to receive a new one after each battle. The tokens denote valor and strength. Our greatest warriors were said to have whole heads of metal.”

“And you would give one to me.” He tore his eyes from the clasp and let them settle on Sigrid. The attention was soft, and her tension slacked. “It is an heirloom of your people. Are you certain?” When she nodded, Thranduil’s hand found his heart. “I am honored, then.”

The King knelt, reaching out for Galion’s arm for support. His attendant took it and bore his weight as he settled. Thranduil crouched before Tilda, whose excitement bubbled over now. Unable to contain her grin, she bounced hard on her heels.

“Will you attach it for me?” he asked. “I’m unfamiliar, and would not disgrace your gift with my ignorance.”

She squealed, a giddy young goat, then snatched the fat end of a riding braid.

“Pay attention,” she instructed. “I won’t be there to help next time.”

Thranduil agreed and watched her thread it through his hair. It took several moments, but when the end was through completely, she snapped it shut. The little bauble didn’t slip. It gleamed against his hair like a bead strung with silk and Tilda clapped, turning to beam up at her sister. Her sister who, picking up the pattern, also began to clap, though she slowed the pace of it considerably.

It was another cue, apparently, because their father matched the beat, stomping one heavily worn boot in time with their claps. Then he started up a song, and his daughters joined in on it, their voices cutting prettily through the morning air. It was some sort of verse, though Galion didn’t recognize it. It wasn’t Westron, but a few of the words sounded familiar. Likely it was sung in a regional dialect, as most everyone in Dale seemed to know it. Though Sigrid and Tilda belted loudest, many others joined. The disjointed chatter in the square died as they chimed in. Some altered the tune or added flourishes, causing the rounds to end in staggers. It sounded wild, but it was merry all the same.

When the final round closed, Tilda and Sigrid each gave shouts, grins spreading wide enough to make Galion’s cheeks ache.

Thranduil smiled himself: openly, honestly, and warm. Galion hoped it wasn’t for the last time that season.

 

 

It wasn’t the last, though none coming after were as genuine. Winter always served to make the King melancholy. Even as a child, untouched yet by any hurt destined for him, Thranduil had looked sourly upon the snow.

The season so far had been milder than the last. Only a few feet of snow lay at any given time, most of it melting away before the next storm. The winter before had been a misery of blizzards: damaging houses, ancient trees, and burying roads. Not even the most seasoned courier had been able to navigate the whiteouts, and communication in and out of Mirkwood halted. It had been a tense several months, made worse by stifling boredom. But then at least, Thranduil had his son to speaking to.

The conversations had been stilted, made awkward by deepening estrangement, but still, the two had tried. They dined together, discussed training, recent missions, and what new creatures had moved into the forest’s dark corners. They picked at members of the court, half-joking as they warmed, and for a few months, Galion thought they were on the mend. The King had crumbled in the wake of his wife’s untimely death, and had been too miserable for anything but barest necessity. His attendant had borne the weight, assuming care for the court and Legolas until Thranduil was well enough to reintegrate. But that had been a long, hard stretch of years, after which neither King or Prince were ever quite well again.

It had been too much to hope for a single winter of forced interaction to mend the Prince’s heart. Too much to hope, too, that Legolas would come home again. Still, Galion had hoped it. He loved the King’s son. He missed seeing him in the throne room or library, squinting at books. Legolas was a light in dark places, which the citadel was in winter. Even soft ones, such as this.

Thranduil, as expected, took his son’s absence badly. During their first month back at court, he was inconsolable. He hardly made appearances, ate, or spoke. It took every trick Galion knew to keep him active, but even that was only nominal. For several weeks, he haunted the palace as he had in the years following the Queen’s death. The regression was worrisome, and trying, and hurtful.

“I can’t help him,” Galion bleated, heartache peaking one afternoon. “I fear this season will undue the work of hundreds.”

“It won’t,” Tauriel assured, as if she could know.

She couldn’t, but Galion loved her for saying so. And loved her still, all the more dearly, for having returned. The King had rescinded her banishment, though Galion feared-- but no. She had chosen to ride with them back to Mirkwood. Kili’s death had been a blade to her, but she was recovering as expected. She was young, and if she was diligent, she would heal.

“I would like to think so.” Galion sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “But he has grown accustomed to sorrow, and makes no hurry to leave it.”

“So we must make him.”

He didn’t know what she meant by that. Not until the next evening, anyway, when he and the King were on a balcony off of the throne room. Thranduil was sitting, staring out at the snowfall with Galion next to him, reading aloud from a book of poetry. It was a collection of the King’s favorites, and hearing it lifted his mood. The reading halted, though, when they heard approaching company.

Both looked in time to see Tauriel coming into the doorway. She paused to bow in it, then, as if invited, took the spare chair on the King’s left. Crossing her boots at the ankles, she too surveyed the snow. It was still falling, filtering down through naked trees.

“I wonder if we will have blizzards again,” she muttered.

Before either King or attendant could make out if she wanted an answer, Tauriel pulled a book of her own from her cloak. She began reading and took no further notice of either of them. After a while, Thranduil nodded for Galion to do the same.

It became routine. Once a day, Tauriel joined them on the balcony, in the library, or for a meal. Often she did so silently, never speaking more than a few words. On occasion, however, the King started a conversation. He would ask if it was safe for the Guard to travel still; how the roads were, and if ice came down in sheets. If any homes had been damaged from the weight of snow as they had been last year or if it seemed the citadel was to be given a reprieve.

For her own part, Tauriel answered politely. She was respectful of her King, as ever. But there was an ease between them now that Galion had never felt before; one he suspected sprung from mutual grief. They both missed Legolas. He had been Tauriel’s closest friend, ever willing to make sacrifices on her behalf. Neither she nor Thranduil could forget him, and in light of that, seemed willing to settle for the company of one another.

No: not settle. There was love between them still. It had just been complicated, like many things, by ill fate. But it could return with proper tending and no small measure of softness.

Only spring would tell if either had it in them still.

 

 

Whether they would ever be as kind to one another as they ought, Tauriel's persistence seemed to fortify the King. During the fifth week of winter, he began making regular appearances. He attended meetings, walked the halls, and held afternoon hearings. With its routine reset, the court released a long-held breath.

The King, too, was glad to be free of the mood. Clear of the fog, he dedicated himself to the overseeing of a matter he had intended to deal with earlier: establishing contact with the Lords of Dale and Erebor.

He wrote two letters that Wednesday and passed them off to Galion for posting. The roads being clear, he called a courier immediately, paying him double to ensure both arrived by week's end. The delay in communication had dragged long enough. Bard might not have noticed, but Dain was unlikely to be as forgiving. Their only boon was that Thranduil had neglected to write them both. Even if the Dwarf was angry, there was at least no possible way for him to misconstrue favoritism.

Taking his orders to heart, the courier apparently made great haste; the following Thursday, he was returned. He came to Galion's office exhausted and bearing two envelopes: one with a Dwarfish seal, and the other tied with twine. Sending the weary thing to the kitchen directly for food, Galion took the letters to the King in his study.

"Dain isn't offended as you feared," Thranduil said, peeking up from his book at the two envelopes held aloft. "And neither is Lord Bard, it seems."

"Or they are, and wrote to say so."

Thranduil snorted.

"Shall we start with Dain's, then? Come, read it to me."

The attendant obeyed, laying Bard's letter on the desk before tearing open the one from Erebor. The envelope was thick, the parchment thicker, and both smelled of woodfire and hot metal. Dain must have penned it between swings of the hammer in his forge.

" 'To the King'," he began, smoothing out the parchment. " 'Erebor receives your wish, and returns it. Your people did mine great service when the battle was done. I count that as payment for any bygone ill dealings. As to discussion of terms, the King of Dale also asks for a meeting. We agreed to mid-March, the day following our first Spring Feast. I extend the offer to you. Should you agree, a seat will await you at the King’s table. I look for your swift response.' "

The end of the letter came abruptly. There was no sign off, or even a goodbye.

"Curt," the King said. "Still, better than expected."

That was true. Galion had rather expected Dain to refuse. Their people had never been firm allies. But death and mourning had bonded many, and there could be no denying that both kingdoms stood to benefit from a union with the other.

“We will go, then?”

“Of course. Under favorable circumstances, Dain can be reasoned with. Perhaps even generous, when flanked by good counsel. Anyway, I shouldn’t like to send Bard to him alone.”

“No?” Galion folded the letter and resheathed it before tossing it onto the King’s desk. It landed on a pile of other, older correspondences. “Do you not think the King of Erebor would treat him fairly?”

“I think,” Thranduil drawled, mouth turning up, “that Dain is accustomed to having his way. He butts heads with the voracity of a young buck, and those inexperienced are liable to have their skulls broken.”

That was true, Galion thought. His own experiences with the Dwarf were limited, but Dain’s reputation ran out in front of him like oil. He was a fierce, sure-footed warlord and tough negotiator. Even without meaning to, he would barrel Bard over. Unfamiliar with politics, the man stood no chance of striking a deal. He would need backing, which, luckily, Thranduil was willing to provide.

“Bard is fortunate to have a friend in you.”

"Friend," Thranduil repeated, his brow creasing. "You would say so?”

“Wouldn’t you?” Galion nodded to the letter from Dale. “His is next. Shall I read it?”

“No.” The King’s hand darted over the desk, pinning the envelope in place. Galion’s brow quirked and Thranduil bristled, clearing his throat. “I’ll tend to it later. You may go.”

Galion’s eyes lingered on the other’s hand: how his fingers curled on the edge of the envelope, his carefully groomed nails cutting shapes into parchment. It reminded him of a dragon’s talon cupping a jewel. Again came the thought: something was happening. But what could he say? He had no right to the King’s correspondences. He only read the ones he did on direct orders. If Thranduil wanted to keep a secret, he would.

Ducking his head, he promised to return for the King at dinner. The two said a polite goodbye, and he turned to leave.

As he slipped through the door, he thought he heard-- though, then, of course, couldn’t prove it-- the soft tear of an envelope coming open.

 

 

After confirmation was sent that they would attend Dain’s feast, no more correspondence came from Erebor that winter. Letters from Dale, however, came and went so frequently that a courier was tasked to the route specifically. Galion knew this because he had selected the courier, delivered his payments, and budgeted allowance for his lodgings in Dale. He also continued to be one to bring the King his mail, personally, though he still hadn’t been asked to read what came from Dale.

It was an anomaly, and only became more odd as the correspondence lengthened. It was rare for the King to engage in political discussion without advisory. Throughout his reign, he often used Galion as a filter. His attendant read incoming letters, edited those outgoing, consulted on wording. Of all his skills, these were the most often utilized. It had been so long since the other had neglected to do so that Galion could scarcely remember it.

No. That wasn’t true. He could remember such a time, though it seemed improper to do so. Those letters had been sent in courtship to Thranduil's future wife. Whatever besotted nonsense they contained had been kept private. Letters of that nature were sacrosanct, and he would never have dared to even think of reading them. It seemed strange, though, for these to be treated similarly.

They couldn’t, he assumed, only be discussing politics. Not in an academic sense, in any case. Bard was heartfelt when speaking to friends; Galion had seen this. More than once during their stay, he’d been alarmingly forthcoming with them both. While drinking in the warmth of Thranduil’s tent, he spoke plainly of his pains, hopes, and fears. Perhaps keeping the letters private was the King’s way of guarding the other's heart.

That, or of guarding his own.

That was it: the suspicion he couldn’t shake free of, which had taken root when Bard was their barrel runner. Thranduil had been too interested then, looking too long after him as he went; after the battle, he had only looked longer. And now these letters, stacking like evidence on the desk. They were kept neat and ever at hand, and more than one time Galion had entered to find the King rereading them. Enthralled, the intrusion would go unnoticed until his attendant spoke. When he did, Thranduil would stiffen and hastily discard it. It made him look like a child caught out of bed.

"He must give good counsel," Galion dared to observe once as he placed Thranduil's tea tray. "You study his letters like tractates."

The King grunted and sipped his tea, though it was still steaming, to buy time.

"It never hurts to search for something one might have missed."

 

 

 

During what would prove to be the last flurry of winter, a letter came from Dale that puzzled the King horribly. Galion delivered it on a Tuesday, and by Saturday he still hadn't been given one in turn. It was an unusually far piece of time. Typically, Thranduil responded within a day; two, if some trouble had come up. But the week had been calm, and there was no reason for the delay.

He meant to broach the topic as he dressed the King for bed, but Thranduil saved him the trouble. After dinner, he asked Galion to attend him in his office, and when they arrived, he handed off a letter. Not one addressed to Bard, as he'd expected, but the very same the King had been stewing over. His attendant clutched it, unsure of what the other wanted.

"What's this?"

"A letter," the King muttered unhelpfully.

Galion pursed his lips. "Yes, but why am I being given it?"

"To read." Thranduil shrugged, affecting disinterest. "As is your way."

"Usually, but you haven't asked all season. It seems late in this correspondence to--"

"Spare me. Please."

Galion gnawed his tongue, unsatisfied but unwilling to argue any further with his King. He slipped the letter free carefully.

"To myself?"

When the King nodded, he began to read.

Thranduil: I cannot say how thoroughly your words warm me. This season has been trying, to be sure. Every day brings some new mischief, and your kindness is one of too few lights in these dark days.

Still, despite the difficulty, Dale is doing well. The supplies you left will see us through to fishing season, and your seeds will be planted as soon as the ground softens. In the meantime, Dain helps as he can. He fashioned a few trinkets for me as a show of friendship, and as you suggested, I've been fit for new clothes. Sigrid says they look handsome. Perhaps you will agree, if you even recognize me when next we meet.

To that end, I would ask a favor. My children miss Tauriel, and have had a hard winter. To leave the city would do them good, and more than that: I would see you. It has been too long, and we have much to discuss. If you would have us, I would be most grateful.

Ever your friend, B.

“Well?” Thranduil prompted.

He didn’t immediately respond, though not for lack of wanting. There were many things Galion would have liked to say. The contents raised several questions, but none seemed wise to pose, as they would only serve to make the King defensive. So, biting back the urge to ask what Thranduil had said that was warming, he cleared his throat and tried something else.

“The King is to visit, then."

"Is he? Have I said?"

Thranduil paced behind his desk. Galion tracked him, wondering what had caused this agitation. Bard had been polite, and what's more: he was correct. Negotiations at Erebor were a little over a month away, and he would need coaching to have any hope of surviving the trial. At least one meeting with the Elvenking was advisable, if not more.

"No, Lord," Galion began, casually as he might. "But I rather assumed that you would. What Bard asks for us customary; allies often host one another."

"Custom." The word came soft as an early spring wind. "Is that all there is to it?"

Beneath his tunic, Galion's shoulders pinched tight. This was far from confession, but if Thranduil need ask, there could be no denying that something was going on between the Kings. He only wished he knew what it was; full knowledge would make advising less difficult.

"What else could it be? Has he said something to make you doubt--"

"No," Thranduil interrupted. "No, of course not.” He shook his head, seeming to think better of this meeting. His moment of forthrightness had come quick, and gone quicker. “Thank you. That will be all."

Galion obeyed the dismissal, only returning that night to gather the King for bed. It was late, and though he hadn't been sent for, he came anyway. Left to his own dealings, Thranduil would stay up until morning. He could pass whole evenings reading, but it left him exhausted and in no mood unsuitable for court dealings. Having made the mistake before, his attendant wasn’t eager to repeat it.

When he entered, Thranduil was closing an envelope, and with his other hand melting wax for his seal.

"Bard's answer," he explained, when Galion asked.

"Which is?"

"That he and his children may come with my blessing." He poured the wax, letting it puddle wide before stamping it. "When you meet the courier, pay him double for haste, and have the staff begin preparing the guest suites."

Galion nodded, taking the letter when he was offered it. He slipped it into his robe before taking the King’s hand, playing at helping him from his chair; an old formality.

They walked to Thranduil’s suite in a silence that wasn’t quite comfortable, each gnawingly aware-- for differing reasons-- of the letter.

Chapter Text

The King had been right to order preparations start early. Barely three days later, the courier came sprinting back into the citadel. He bore news instead of an envelope this time, and it was this: Bard had accepted his invitation. As the courier told it, the family began packing before he had even left Dale. They were expected to arrive Friday and stay in Mirkwood for ten days following, if that were not so long as to impose on hospitality.

It wasn’t, of course. The palace was spacious, and it’s stores of food, wine, and clean water overfull. Bard’s family could feast like devils every night without denting it, and likewise never run short of things to do. Though winter-- even mild ones-- left whole swaths of Mirkwood impassable, the palace gardens and standard Guard patrol routes were safe. There was much to explore, especially for those who had never before visited the Woodland Realm.

Still, ten days was rather many when considering logistics. It had been decades since the palace had hosted visitors. There had been prisoners, yes, and messengers, and dignitaries from the few Silvan tribes that operated outside of Sindarin society. But the first two hardly counted, and the third only came when there had been an encroachment on their boundaries. Otherwise, they avoided it as pointedly as Men and Dwarves did, and the longest any member had stayed was overnight.

The length of stay Dale’s King requested, while welcome, required no small amount of coordination. As expected, Galion was put in full charge of it and spent the ensuing three days in a fuss. Though thanks to the King’s foresight the guest’s suites had been dealt with, he had them touched up every morning to ensure freshness. He organized menus, arranged guard details, planned courtyard events, had extra barrels of wine brought up, and sourced welcome gifts for all the children.

That last was most difficult, as he knew little about them. Still, to neglect the custom would have been churlish. The tradition of leaving gifts in visitor’s suites had held for millennia, and Thranduil had no intention of foregoing it. While Galion would have liked more insight into their interests firsts, the King assured him traditional staples would do: a boot knife for Bain, and circlets for his sisters.

Moonstone, perhaps. I believe it would suit them.

Not fond of the idea but having none better, Galion resolved to scour the market for the presents. It took most of Thursday evening, but he was able to collect it all, and as the sun set, placed the last on its respective pillow. To see it there abated some of the attendant’s anxiety. They were impersonal gifts, but pretty, and he doubted they would fail to please. If nothing else, surprise alone would prevent that.

As for the King, Thranduil saw to that gift himself, and accompanied his attendant on the final walk-through to place it. When they reached Bard’s suite, and while Galion inspected every nook it, he pulled it from his robes.

“What are you giving him?” Galion asked.

He was balanced on his toes, stretching high to break a cobweb. This wing had gone too long disused, and despite all efforts, the evidence lingered.

“A few books from our library, that he may begin rebuilding Dale’s.”

“Truly?” Thranduil hummed, and Galion dropped to his heels. “That is a kingly gift. May I see which, and wish them well before they go?”

The King laughed. “You needn’t fear; I haven’t given away any of your favorites. But yes, you may look all the same.”

Having received permission, he turned and approached the sprawling bed to examine the books laid out at the head of it. There were three of them: one a history of Mirkwood and the surrounding kingdoms, which included several chapters on old Dale. The original manuscript had been thinner and penned by the late Oropher, but that now rested safely encased in glass. It had been copied several times over the centuries and expanded on; this particular edition appeared to be the most recent.

The second was a field guide: lists, drawings, and descriptions of local flora next to recipes for medicines and spells. It would be useful for Dale’s healers, and interesting for anyone, really, that had softness in their hearts for growing things.

As for the third, it was far less academic than its brothers. In fact, it wasn’t scholarly at all. It was a children’s book: squat, square, and written in Sindarin, which the others were not. The original copies were, as were most stored duplicates, but as a courtesy, the gifted copies were in Westron. All save for this one, whose cheerful illustrations were sure to be vexing next to words Bard would struggle to even mimic.

“What do you mean by this?” Galion tapped the smallest book’s cover. “You heard him practice. It was awful.”

“It was, wasn’t it? Stupendously so. But, perhaps this will more closely match his speed.”

A joke, in other words. The Elvenking was making a joke, and the fact caught the other off guard. The list of those with whom he was close enough to tease had always been short, and only ever seemed to grow shorter. When had Bard’s name been tacked on to it? Had it been in Dale, or over the winter, cemented by something in one of their furtive letters?

Galion couldn’t be sure, but resolved to watch them both closely for the duration of Bard’s stay.

 

 

When the King’s family drew near, they were run ahead of by several scouts. The guards assigned to the road had apparently elected to act as escort. A decision which, in hindsight, Galion was grateful for. The forest was wily, full of deadlights and magic no longer tethered to anything. Dale's royal family disappearing into it would have been difficult to explain, but thankfully that wasn't to be the case. The main party was a brisk ten minutes behind the lead. The announcement hardly left time for the King and Galion to reach the bridge gate.

The clear, bright sound of a horn blowing signaled the coming of the guard just as the two reached the landing. Seconds later, a party of horses ran out of the trees, at the head of which was Tauriel. She signed over her shoulder to her scouts as they neared the bridge. Whistling back their understanding, they tugged their reins and veered off, staggering to let their charges to pass. The King and his children trotted out from their center, stopping short of the landing to dismount and greet their host. As Thranduil returned it, Galion allowed himself to study the family, eyes sharp for any change since their last meeting.

The children didn’t look to be starving, as he had feared. They were lean, but not so as to be unhealthy. They were bright eyed, clean, and all their hair neatly brushed: Bain’s loose in curls and his sisters’ plaited. Their clothes, too, seemed new. The girls wore dark winter dresses belted with chains of hammered metal disks, and their brother fresh leathers and a fur-lined tunic. They looked lordly, and Galion was relieved to see evidence of a burgeoning friendship between Dale and Erebor. There was nowhere else, after all, such materials could have come from.

Bard, too, looked well, and of all the party was most handsome. His beard was neatly cropped, covering his jaw in a thick, dark bristle, and the hair framing it was studded with war clasps. His tunic was blue, with the neck, sleeves, and hems of it embroidered with silver scrollwork to match the baubles in his hair. His boots and breeches were new and sturdy, though the most impressive additions of all were about his arm and the top of his head.

They must have been what he meant when he said Ironfoot had fashioned trinkets, though that word wasn’t one Galion would have chosen. On Bard’s head was a crown: a thick, peakless iron circle, the surface of which was hammered in a dragon scale pattern. At its middle, the pattern broke around a large inlaid emerald; one of Girion’s, suggesting his necklace had been looted. The arm cuff matched it, and was studded with smaller gems that glinted like dewy grass. They were lovely samples, though where the remaining hundreds of them were, Galion couldn't guess.

“Trinkets,” Thranduil spat aside to his attendant, the tone a sharp contrast to his welcoming wave. Bard bowed to it, and he and his children set forth over the bridge. “Dain shames us. He quite literally crowned the King.”

Galion was certain that wasn’t Dain’s intention. The Dwarf had likely not thought of Thranduil once while making it. But knowing better than to argue, he chose another tack instead.

“But not his daughters. See how their heads are bare?” He nodded as subtly as he could to the approaching children. “And how his eldest, the Prince, is weaponless? Erebor gave no thought to them.” He paused to wave at Tilda when she shrieked his name. “The King won’t soon forget which of his allies honors his children.”

Thranduil sucked his teeth, a gesture most unkingly, but the words seemed to soothe him all the same.

“Perhaps you are right,” he muttered. “And there is time yet to make up ground.”

Before Galion could ascertain what he meant, company was upon them. Tilda came first, gathering her dress to run ahead. She skittered to a halt with bare slivers of space between her boots and Thranduil’s. The King smiled down at her, dour mood quickly forgotten.

“Welcome, Lady Tilda, to the Woodland Realm.”

“Welcome!” she parrotted, too thrilled to realize it wasn’t the correct thing to say.

To their backs, Galion heard an adoring chuckle start up. It came from the gate’s guard, who were watching the exchange. They had children of their own, but all were grown, and no doubt she stirred fond memories.

“You can’t welcome him, Tilda. You don’t live here.”

It was Bain that said it, rolling his eyes as he approached. Tilda ignored him, peering between King and attendant to wave at the gate guard. The only recognition came from Sigrid, who jabbed him with an elbow and muttered something fierce before addressing the King.

“Greetings, Lord. I see our gift still suits you.”

She gestured to the clasp in his braid, and Thranduil’s hand went up to fiddle with it. He rolled it, warming the metal between his fingers.

“It does,” he agreed. “And your father’s suit him.” He met the other King’s gaze as he approached, coming to a halt behind his children. “Already he proves himself like a war king of old.”

“Which he would not have been able,” Bard interjected, “without the generosity of the fabled Elvenking.”

Fabled was an odd word, and set Galion’s mind wandering. What stories had been told of them on the lake over the centuries? Perhaps later, once fed and watered, he could coax the children into repeating them.

“A generosity,” Thranduil countered, “he more than earned.”

There was a breath of silence before Bard laughed and shook his head. The clasps in his hair clinked together like wind chimes.

“My King,” he said, raising a hand to cover his heart. “You are a welcome sight after so long a parting.” Squeezing between his children, Bard approached the landing. “Thank you for hosting us.”

Thranduil smiled, and it was impossible to guess how much of it was decorum and how much else was genuine.

“There is no cause to thank me before your children are warm and rested.”

Bard waved off the words, finally stepping full onto the landing, and then-- oh, but Galion could have shrieked.

Of course, the misstep was unintentional. Forgivable, even, as Bard knew little of Elvish custom. He lived among Men, only coming to Mirkwood on business, and even then rarely nearer than the docks. On the few exceptional occasions, he had seen no one but the King, and the Elves, when come to Dale, had foregone custom. It was a useless trapping in battle, and afterward, there was too much to do to worry much about protocol. As such, there was no reason for the King of Dale to suspect that what he made to do next would dumbfound the bridge.

Still, when he took Thranduil’s hand, he did dumbfound, and only did so further when he kissed it.

He brought Thranduil's great moonstone ring to his lips first, then adjusted his hold to peck at the back of his hand. He squeezed it between both of his own, which were dark and horribly scarred by comparison, before letting it drop to Thranduil's side once more. To the Elvenking's credit, he didn't snatch away. He allowed the gesture, though his shoulders knit anxiously at the unexpected contact. The kissing of hands was a show of loyalty only common among Men. Though Elves knew of it, it wasn't practiced. It was rare for anyone but spouses and their children to touch. Even close personal attendants usually didn't. That Galion himself was allowed spoke volumes of the level of relation the King considered him. For Bard to even dare-- but then, what did he know? The poor creature was only a Man.

And a more oblivious one than Galion had previously thought. That Bard hadn't felt Thranduil go rigid was a miracle. No less a one, though, than his ignorance of the collective murmur among the guard he had caused. When he released the other's hand and raised his head to speak again, he was grinning and careless as a babe.

"I should like a rest, myself," he said, picking up the conversation. "And will make more pleasant company after a bath."

"Yes," Thranduil muttered, then seemed to gather himself. He clasped his hands in front of his belly, perhaps to guard them. "Yes," he repeated, more surely. "You must be road weary. Galion will escort you to your suites."

Bard gave his thanks while wrangling his children, who had split to peer over the bridge. Little Tilda had very nearly tipped the ledge when he snagged her, and the sight of him hauling her back by the collar broke the tension. He was a kindly man: an honorable father and widower, and plainly hadn't meant any harm.

As Galion led the pack inside, the escort guards waved and sang goodbyes to them.

The King only watched silently and thumbed his ring.

 

 

Gossip had ever tore like fire through the palace. Such was the price of keeping a small central court. Hardly half an hour after Galion dropped off his charges, the halls were scratchy with whispers about the event on the bridge. Courtiers lounged in waiting rooms, chattering merrily about the misstep, goading Galion into recounting it whenever he passed. Thankfully, however, interest died down just as quickly. By the time the welcome feast began, all their minds had turned.

They wanted to hear of Dale and the friends they had left there: how were all faring, and had the Elves aid been enough? How many Orc raids had there been, and how was winter in the valley? At this, Bard and his children performed beautifully. They arrived to the feast with many stories prepared, and from the King’s high table took turns telling them while the courtiers toasted their honor. One of Bain's featured Sigrid who, though not so skilled in archery, had pierced a wolf through its eye before it could attack a forager. At the end of that one, the hall erupted into song: an old hunting ballad into which they slotted her name. It ran for a raucous few rounds, and even Thranduil joined in on the happy clatter. His honeyed voice snaked the hall, warming everyone it reached; particularly Bard, whose eyes never left him all while he sang.

It was well after midnight when the feast finally began to fizzle. By then, the food had long since been cleared away. Those left in the hall had only their drinking bowls and sloppy grins, and conversations had turned inward. Questions were no longer shouted up to the guests, but passed more calmly between the low benches. Those seated on the dais at the high table may as well have been alone, which seemed to suit the visiting family fine.

“Your people are lively,” Sigrid muttered, resting one elbow on the table. “Do they ever sleep, I wonder?”

She bit back a yawn, and Galion felt a surge of fondness. The feeling only deepened when he peaked around her down the table and saw Tilda propped against Bain, breathing evenly. Her brother leaned back in his chair, not far from drifting himself. Too many more minutes, and all three would need carrying.

“You needn’t wait for them," Galion assured. "In fact, I advise against it. Those left are hardy, and could last several more hours."

Sigrid groaned and rubbed her temple, knocking against the arm of her circlet.

"Even half of one more would kill me. Can we go to bed, please?"

He wasn't the one to ask. Guests of the King's table traditionally only came and went on his command. Galion had no right to dismiss her, but the girl was weary, and the sight of her nodding brought his heart to his mouth. He couldn't bear to keep her trapped there. Besides, to ask the King was at present not an option.

So deep was he in conversation with Bard that, when Galion waved, Thranduil did not so much as glance up. The two kings had turned together, forsaking view of the dwindling crowd, and leaned in close with goblets in hand to mutter privately. The Elvenking’s attention was undivided, and though Galion could only see the other’s back, he guessed by stillness that Bard’s was as well. Whatever they were discussing had taken hold of them both entirely.

“Of course, Lady,” Galion said, rising from his own chair to offer Sigrid a hand out of hers.

She took it gratefully, stumbling a little from the strength of the wine, but righted soon enough for Galion to trust her to walk unmediated. It was good luck, for little Tilda slept so sweetly he dared not wake her. Rounding to her chair, he knelt to scoop her up instead. She grumbled at the disturbance, but once cradled against his side, settled back to dreaming with her chin in the crook of his neck.

“Come, Prince Bain.” He held his free hand out for the boy, who, seeing his sisters beginning to rise, downed the last of his wine. “It’s far too late for children, and the drink, perhaps, not watered down enough.”

Bain’s unsteadiness as he allowed himself to be dragged up confirmed this, and Galion made a note to more heavily dilute their goblets next time.

Litter in tow, Galion tried once more to snare the two Kings’ attention. Some fatherly awareness caught Bard’s, and he glanced over to ensure all heads were accounted for. Seeing them all well guarded, he bid them good night and thanked Galion for seeing them off. Thranduil echoed the sentiment, then the two turned back to each other. They closed in again, half drunk and smiling, and beam of Thranduil’s was so alluring that Sigrid had to tug Galion’s sleeve to kick him in motion.

“Thank you,” she yawned when they had made it out of the dining hall. With the door shut behind them, the wing they walked was quiet. Moonlight streamed its windows, splashing the stone walls and casting odd shadows. “Though, I’m sorry to take you away from the feast.”

He shook his head. “There’s no call for apologies. There will be other feasts. Besides--” He broke off to heft Tilda high again. “Arrangements have been made to start before noon tomorrow. I should like for all of you to be rested, so that you may enjoy them.”

Sigrid hummed, too weary to be interested at present, and on his left, Bain echoed the sound. Asleep as she was, the youngest girl stayed contentedly silent. Several times throughout the journey, however, she nuzzled his shoulder.

It reminded him of distant nights spent caring for Legolas, and ones even more distant of hugging the young Thranduil. He tightened his hold around her, wondering if it was possible that he loved her and her siblings already.

 

 

 

Their stay marked the ten softest days of the season. Late as it was, no snow or ice fell. The air was cold and clear, and the sun at its high brightest. It was lovely weather, and allowed for all scheduled performances to run unhindered. Had some magic been employed, Galion thought it still couldn't have gone better. Bard's coming seemed to have been fated, and kindly so. He and his children raised the spirits of everyone at court, who had missed over winter all the Men of Dale.

The children were most excitable, and woke each morning filled with thrill. They hurried through breakfast, eager to get on with the day. They attended demonstrations in the courtyard, watched the guards spar and climb and shoot arrows, and in the evenings went out with the astronomers to observe stars. Bain spent much of his free time with Tauriel: joining her scout rides, learning how to read animal footprints and throw his new knife. He rode out with her company for several hours most afternoons and came back beaming, pink cheeked and sore from climbing.

Tilda preferred the gardens, though this time of year they were sparse. She liked to walk them, though, and ask questions about what spring filled them with. She loved flowers and trees, and better than those, the great carven fountains that, once the frosts were over, would run with water. Galion escorted her some days, though many courtiers bullied him for turns. Of all Bard's children, Tilda seemed to be the favorite. She was well tended, and wherever she wanted to wander, she never went without a gaggle of company.

When she wasn't with her siblings or attending demonstrations, Sigrid could be most often found in the library. She poured over books, absorbing histories, star studies, and poetry; with the help of a librarian, she even began learning Sindarin. She picked it up swiftly, and when she mimicked her tutor-- a handsome young scholar, who she seemed to have more than a pupil's interest in-- the words came more prettily than when her father hacked them. Her tongue was as soft as her mind was sharp.

As for the King, he and Thranduil spent most of their time together. At feasts and demonstrations, stargazings and meetings, they were next to each other always. Bard spoke to any who approached him, and happily, often chatting for long spans of hours. To tear him from the Elvenking's hip, however, seemed quite impossible. The same was true for private hours. When there was a lapse in the day's schedule, the two Lords retired to Thranduil's suite or study. Galion attended them, bringing teas and sweet sticky treats, monitoring conversations that never seemed to run dry.

They spoke most often of the coming negotiations with Erebor, a matter over which Bard was most worried. He didn't mind Dwarves, and in fact grown to like them, but having to treat with them gave him pause.

"Caution is wise," Thranduil said one afternoon as they lounged in a cushioned window of his suite. "Dain isn't an altogether bad sort, but will take you for a fool if you allow it."

Bard laughed, tilting his head, and when Thranduil asked what he found so amusing:

"Only, Lord, that he says the same about you."

Thranduil snorted.

"I believe it. Though, if you will forgive my saying so--" Thranduil propped on his elbow, shifting incrementally closer. "He fibs. He would have you distrust me, and thereby take a greater portion of your loyalty."

Bard's fingers curled into his palm, stroking the skin there. Galion didn't think it was an idle twitch. When the other King shifted, a great lock of hair fell against his knuckles. If Bard had wished, he could have taken it in his fist.

"Pity, that," the man muttered. "Dain makes handsome trinkets, but you have too many desirable qualities to trade for that alone."

Thranduil blinked owlishly, and Galion choked on his tea, refusing to even consider what manner of traits the man could mean.

But of course, there were times when the two were left alone. He had other duties and couldn't always act as guardian. Sometimes he spied them walking the gardens or coming out of the forest paths, elbows nearly touching as they spoke. Now and again when fate willed it, his work brought him near the wanderers, though the snatches of conversation he caught then made him wish it hadn't. These were private, vulnerable moments, and listening in felt awfully much like peeping.

One such occasion came the final day of their guests' stay. A somber mood was on the children, who had grown comfortable there. Sigrid studied glumly, getting cross often with her tutor, and Bain's shoulders were slouched as he rode out with Tauriel's company. Even Tilda, whose smile had warmed the citadel since her coming, was down-spirited and pouting. To combat it, Galion had taken her deep into the back gardens, showing her the evergreens and hardy grasses there. He was guiding her through a maze of conifers, pointing out the statuary nestled in its walls, when he realized-- and too late, for the girl was enjoying herself-- they weren't alone in it.

From what sounded like just beyond the next turn, in the clearing that marked the heart of the maze, came the voices of Bard and Thranduil, who Galion had to warn her against interrupting.

"Let them be," he whispered, guiding her by the shoulder to a cluster of statues. "Here: see the bears? Perhaps you are tall enough to climb one."

The suggestion distracted her, and she immediately set to trying to scale a massive, laughing bear. While she struggled, Galion watched and, as they were too close for it to be helped, listened to the kings as they spoke.

"This woman,” Bard said. “I have seen statues of her everywhere. The gardens and forest paths are dotted with them.”

Galion winced, knowing he meant the statues of the Queen. Thranduil had commission many dozens during her lifetime. In some, she lounged in elaborate royal costume or read books; held the infant Legolas, picked flowers, or gazed at the stars. The one Bard spoke of presently was a war memorial, and more often than not littered with gifts from its visitors.

She had been, among other things, a celebrated soldier, and known to be the bane of Orcs. The statue was rendering of her in full armor, brow pinched and furious, bringing her weapon down to take the head of an unseen enemy. It was the last one she posed for, and had still been underway when her body was carted back from the battlefield. Once finished, it was placed above her grave and ever since had served as a headstone and pilgrimage site for the kingdom.

“As are many of the forest’s corners and riverbanks,” Thranduil said. His voice was thin, and Galion wondered what had possessed him to bring Bard here. “She was a common subject in days passed. Once, all our sculptors adored her.”

“I can see why, though: who is she? Some fabled war queen?”

“A war queen, yes, but not a fable.” The Elvenking paused, and Galion could picture him chewing his cheek. “She was Legolas’ mother, felled in battle.” Another pause, this one thick with the mounting tension of two now. “The other renderings are decorative, but this one serves as--”

“Forgive me,” Bard interrupted, sparing his companion from finishing. “I meant you no harm in turning this way or speaking so lightly.”

“You haven’t harmed me, Aran nin. I knew where the path led.” He shifted, and Galion heard the crunch of berry branches. He must have invaded her ring of offerings. “It isn’t so dismal this time of year. My people bring gifts to brighten her winter. Though, of course, we may leave whenever you like.”

Neither King said any more for a long while after that. Their silence tore at Galion's throat like claws. Breaking beneath the pressure, he shifted to peek around the last turn to fully spy on the clearing. And just in time, for as his eyes fell on Bard, he caught sight of the man taking out one battle braid. Freeing the clasp, he relocked it and approached the statue, laying it down on one of the Queen's stone boots.

A small, wounded sound rumbled in Thranduil's throat, and his hand darted to Bard's on the sculpture. Galion worried he would shoo him, reject the gift and break the moment, but no. He let his fingers come to rest on the back of the other's hand. He stroked slowly, dragging his nails from the ridge of knuckles up to the wrist. Bard stared down at their meeting, and seemed ready to do something. Something rash, something his teeth cut into his lower lip to guard against, something--

"Galion," a little voice hissed. "What are you looking at?"

He jumped, caught out, and felt his heart stutter even as he realized it was only his charge. Tearing away from the sight, he spun to face her, smiling down innocently.

"Nothing, Lady. Nothing at all." He nodded to the stone bear in the wall of the maze behind her. "Give up?"

"Too tall," she huffed, and he clucked his tongue.

"Next visit, then, perhaps, after you’ve grown."

He knelt to scoop her into his arms, but Tilda evaded him, clambering onto his back instead. He grunted when her knee knocked his ribs, but otherwise bore it. It would be easier to carry her on his shoulders, anyway.

"Settled, Lady?" he asked when her calves came to rest against his chest. "Hold tight; I can't catch you, should you fall backwards."

He waited until he felt her grip the collar of his tunic before leading them quietly out of the maze again.

 

 

 

"I should thank you again," Bard said the next morning as Galion helped him saddle his family's horses. They had left the children with Thranduil and Tauriel on the bridge. "You make a fine guardian. Tilda, especially, will miss you."

"And I, her. She is a treasure." He tugged the saddle strap before buckling it. "All of them are. You have been blessed with marvelous children."

"Far better than I deserve, that is for certain."

The man hefted a large sack and hooked it onto the saddle horn, motioning for Galion to toss him the next. The Elf did so, and for the next handful of minutes the two worked silently. They secured the largest packs onto the two sturdiest horses, belting them off when each was fully loaded.

"Could I ask you something?" Bard said, breaking the silence. He waited for Galion to nod before continuing. "Thranduil's Queen: was it long ago that she died?"

Ah. He might have guessed this was still on his mind.

"Not so terribly by my count, but I suspect you would call it so."

“Is he still in mourning?”

“Not formally, though as you know, some losses always sting.”

The man grunted, nodding slowly, then began loading the smaller horses.

“Have there been others since her passing?”

Galion could have laughed.

“Heavens, no. My King can be--” He paused, passing over words such as demanding, stubborn, and vexatious. All were partly true, but painted him badly. In truth, Thranduil was only: “--particular, which complicates matching. But his heart is good and the world is wide, so I remain hopeful.”

“As do I,” Bard said, though Galion guessed it was more in answer to some unspoken musing. “I have grown fond, and wish him happiness.”

“I believe we all do.” He stooped to heft the last bag and secured it himself before Bard could take it. “And will be glad when he finds it, wherever it may be that such a blessing comes from.”

They found silence again; a comfortable sort that lay easy. He and Bard split the taking of the reins, guiding the horses out of the barn and down the path. It was a short, pretty walk that led them by a river that in spring would run like thunder. But just now it slugged, running low and trickling softly as a stream. They followed it to where the bridge of the citadel crossed over, and where his family waited.

Once the young ones were saddled and waiting by the trees, the goodbye was unceremonious. Tauriel’s troop rode to flank them, offering to act as escort through the forest and onto Dale. The King accepted, and after bending to kiss Thranduil’s hand-- less jarring this time-- mounted his own horse and joined the waiting party.

“Until our next meeting, honored King,” he called over his shoulder.

Thranduil returned it and waved in parting.

He stood stiffly on the bridge, watching the horses as they went. He continued to stare long after even the most distant hoof beat was gone. Galion stood next to him, resolving to stay as long as he wished, though he hoped it wouldn’t be until the stars came out.

Chapter Text

To look back on the days leading up to the feast and subsequent negotiations, Galion couldn't say how he had expected them to go. Or no, he could. He only could not say why. He had known then that Dwarves were pig-headed, Bard tender footed, and his own King fierce in a corner. To have all three locked in a mountain bent on having their way had been an idea doomed from inception. Still, when he, Thranduil, his advisers, and Tauriel's squadron rode out from Mirkwood five days before the feast, Galion remembered feeling quite hopeful.

Daylight take him like a troll for the sentiment now.

The feast itself had gone well. Marvelously, in fact, to which Galion attributed his lingering optimism. They arrived at the root of the mountain the noon of it, and passed the early afternoon riding at leisure to Erebor’s gate. It was an easy journey; spring was new, but winter had gone quietly, and no treacherous bits of ice clung to the road. Their mounts trotted merrily up the pass, stopped frequently by their riders so that all could marvel the valley below. It was dry, not yet swamped with the cyclical floods of April, grassy bright and studded with wildflowers and medicinal weeds. The trees were budding, and in a few months would fill the holler with their fragrance. It was a lovely view, and adoring it much slowed progress.

On their way, after perhaps three hours of idling, they caught sight of Dale’s approaching delegation. Bard’s men, living nearer, set out far later than Thranduil’s, though their pace promised to see the Elves overtaken. The Men, headed by a herald hoisting a banner, rode hard enough up the pass to kick up dust.

“They ride like devils,” Tauriel joked. “Perhaps they believe they are running late.”

“Not late,” The King called back. “Only later than us.”

“Does such a thing matter?”

“Not in the least. However--” He clucked his tongue, urging his mount to move along. “Men have odd sensibilities.”

Whether that was the reason for Dale’s haste or no, it turned out to be too late for them to pass. With another delegation on their heels, the King urged his to make for the bridge with all speed. Already having half the climb behind them, the Elves made it to the flattop first. Reaching it, they found the plain before the entrance to be bustling and full of commotion.

The feast, it seemed, was to be an outdoors one, and the Dwarves were hard at work setting up. Sets of fours, already in finery and with their beards braided intricately, carried long tables across the bridge and into the grass. They laid them in rows like a mead hall, and women came behind with stacks of linens and dishes. While several scores managed the seating, many others minded a smoke pit. It was covered with great hunks of wood, which were moved now and again so that the meat could be fussed over. Whenever it was, the scent of a slow roast caught on the wind.

Their party wasn’t left to stare at the chaos long. As they had ridden up, someone went to fetch the King. After only a few minutes, he came across the bridge himself in full regalia and pink cheeked from an early drink.

“He comes!” Dain bellowed, arms wide in welcome. Fair weather and beer had made him amiable. “Shrewdest fairy of the Wood, and he brings his finest.” At this, the Dwarf nodded to Tauriel. After she returned it, he carried on. "Tell me, Elf, how your gnarly trees grow."

"Ever more gnarly and fat," Thranduil returned, not so put off by the jeer as Galion had feared. "As our lauded host grows in kind."

Dain cackled, seeming to have gotten the manner of answer he wanted. Galion gave silent thanks for his King's understanding of this peculiar custom. It would not have done well to fumble like children at the gate.

“Welcome," Dain said more plainly. "Leave the beasts and have a drink. We have such beer as to turn even your besotted blood to honey."

The party did as instructed, leaving their mounts with a group of Dwarf boys. As they lead the animals down a side path, the King's host to follow Dain. The great Dwarf led them beyond the tables and over the bridge to huge stacks of barrels. All were unopened and some still dusty, as though brought up from deep stores. A group of women gathered next to them, their shorter beards full of beads, chains, and dusted with gem powder. As Dain approached them with his guests, he called ahead in Khuzdul, and presumably for drinks, because at the word, all set to filling tankards.

One was given to each member of Thranduil's delegation, though only after the Elvenking had been served. A wonderfully painted woman-- Dain's Queen, Galion later learned-- gave him the tankard herself. He accepted it with a grateful word then drank deeply, after which his guards and ambassadors were given their own. They all drank and chatted happily, but the tankards were so deep that they had barely skimmed them by the time Dale arrived.

Dain excused himself from a polite, albeit stilted, conversation with Thranduil to greet his other guests. He called to the king, and Bard beamed across the plain as he dismounted, jogging towards the Dwarf as soon as his horse was taken care of. The two met on the bridge, and by the look of it exchanged a warm and easy welcome. It ended quickly, however, as Bard seemed eager to reach the Elf company. After patting Ironfoot on the shoulders, he slipped around him to approach the barrels.

“You came early,” the man hissed, waving for a tankard. Recognizing him, the Dwarf Queen filled one to sloshing.

Thranduil didn't turn his attention from the women, but he smirked. The expression was fiery, and he sought too late to bury it.

"Did I, Aran nin?" The words were sticky, and Galion doubted now what Thranduil said on the path. He and Bard had obviously discussed arrangements before coming, and the Elf had undermined them. "I assure you, on my honor, it was unintended."

"Your honor," the man repeated. He took his tankard with a smile, thanking the woman before turning to face the other king. "Unimpeachable, I am sure, but if you will forgive my saying so--"

Whatever came next, Galion couldn't hear. Not for lack of trying, understand. Only, the man made it impossible, and lewdly so. Rather, had they been in Mirkwood, it would have been. But here, on a mountain scores of miles from home and with the Elvenking's guards distracted, there was no one but the attendant left to be shocked. And, as he had come to learn over the centuries, his shock meant little.

Raising his free hand, Bard took Thranduil by the nape. He stiffened, but Bard hardly seemed to notice. He gripped firmly, thumbing the column of Thranduil's neck through silken hair, and tugged him close to whisper something in his ear. The Elf’s mouth hardened and jaw worked, but the ear Galion could see twitched with an emotion far less severe. It fell and perked rhythmically, betraying him as surely as the color along his cheeks. After a moment, the man retreated, though his grip lingered. His fingers worked, idly burrowing in hair. He took another pull from his tankard before releasing him entire.

“I must go. My men need instructing for a time. But I trust, most honorable King--” He cast a glance to Galion, winking roguishly, and the attendant couldn’t help but feel scandalized. “--that we will meet again at the feast.”

It would be many long minutes after Bard took his leave before Thranduil began to relax. Thankfully, the feast was still hours from beginning then, and there was time for he and Galion to soak in ale. While they drank, they watched with amusement as the Mirkwood delegation succumbed to drunkenness, surrounded by friends they had not seen since fall. All the King’s guards and advisers were delighted, and to see them so drove out the last of winter’s chill. Even Tauriel, whose temperament lately had been saturnine, brightened when a group of Dwarves hailed her. They were some of the late Thorin Oakenshield’s company, with whom her bond, though swiftly forged, had remained strong. She joined them at a table where they drank, laughed, and sang, miming absurdly now and then to drag a cackle from their comrades.

It was that sight, Galion thought, that finally put the King at ease. As he watched her, Thranduil’s shoulders lost their pinch.

“She is well,” he observed, not troubling to guard his relief. “I worried in the beginning that she would not be.”

“And she for you.” It didn’t feel like a betrayal of confidence to say this. By way of persistence, the Captain had made her feelings plain. “You have both greatly aided the other these past months. She will not forget it.”

“Nor shall I.” He drained his tankard, attention scanning the plain over its rim. “It is good to see her smile again, and so many others. It bodes well, I believe.” He put aside his empty cup. “Take heart. We are all due an easy bargaining.”

Galion smiled at the words, and felt more hopeful for the trip than ever.

 

 

 

Luck, as it turned, was not wholly in their favor. The merry meeting and raucous feast were now a fortnight gone, and the Kingdoms of Erebor, Dale, and Mirkwood were no nearer to reaching an agreement than they were when they had started the morning after.

The fact was due in part to the difficulties that arose from dragging new players onto stage. It had been centuries since Dale and Erebor had hosted kings. While some of Mirkwood’s policies with Laketown could carry over, a great many more were no longer practical. That relationship had been built on a two Kingdom system, which Erebor, by virtue of existing, disrupted beautifully. Even were Bard and Thranduil to decide on their own engage as was historical, Dain’s own interests would have made such a thing unsustainable.

Matters that before had been left in the hands of Lakemen-- river and land tolls, fishing trade, and road maintenance, to name a few-- were now points of bitter contention. As Dain frequently reminded: Bard’s people were no longer water dwellers, nor the only ones living near enough to have a claim on it.

The Elvenking may have been content to let your folk run rampant, but Erebor is not.

Ironfoot and Bard, along with their shrewdest advisers, spent nearly five days in debate over the Long Lake and River Running alone. Both were key trade routes, and tolls along them paired with fishing rights were likely to be the spine of one or the other’s economy.

“You have your forges,” Bard argued. “Your iron, silver, and gem works, and a lucrative trade in weapons already. Your people have less need of fishing and toll booths than mine, who have for generations have made their bread on these waters.”

“And who still could,” Dain countered, “without wetting their toes in the river that now marks my doorstep.”

In the end, the matter resolved in a close, near even trade. Dale was to keep control of the Long Lake and the branches that stood between it and Mirkwood. Thranduil would, of course, still manage the river that fed from the Woodland realm, leaving Dain to do what he saw fit with the River Running.

“Within reason,” the Elvenking amended at the tenuous end of that negotiation. “Should you overly toll it to the detriment of our neighbor--”

“Spare you threats, pretty Lord,” the Dwarf interrupted. “I am no cheat, though time has now come to see if the same can be said for you.”

Thus marked the beginning of Thranduil’s greater involvement in negotiations. It also, not incidentally, marked their downturn. Dain and Bard’s discussions, though tense, had ever remained civil. The Dwarf had shown remarkable restraint in dealing with the new king. Knowing the man’s inexperience, and given that the two had over winter began building social bridges, made Ironfoot more kindly disposed. To the Elvenking, however, no such courtesy was shown. Understanding the King of Mirkwood to be on equal, rooted footing, Dain had no qualms about knocking horns with him. Their discussions quickly and often devolved into shouting, scowls, and pacing, an outcome neither Bard or their advisers could prevent.

After the relatively peaceful settlement over waterways came the heated feud over all else. Road maintenance, taxes, tariffs, imports and exports, and movement between the three kingdoms; potential treaties of fealty, where they would renounce infighting and agree to send aid; and a number of many other things that, after a while, grated Galion’s ears so much that he stopped attending. To hear the two creatures squabble was tiresome, especially considering that he had not been brought to smooth negotiations. He often advised Thranduil, but that was private counsel. As attendant, Galion would never be considered as serious adviser.

Having reached the limit of his public efficacy, he excused himself and left his Lord to it. Not to say, of course, that he abandoned Thranduil entirely. Each day after the meetings adjourned, he was a waiting ear. As he escorted his King to the suite that Dain had provided them, he listened patiently to the Dwarf being torn apart. Thranduil kept his attendant knowledgeable, and in the evenings when they retired, probed his mind for potential tactics to employ the next day. To say Galion was uninvolved simply because he forewent meetings would have been a gross underassessment his and the Elvenking’s relationship.

Also, it would have been said in ignorance of the tentative bond knitting between himself and Bard.

Galion’s care for his children had endeared him, and many times throughout their stay in Erebor, the King of Dale sought him out. Typically, such visits came in the wake of an explosive meeting, cut short by Dain and Thranduil fleeing in rage. Bard and the advisers would sit awkwardly a moment before resigning to leave themselves, hoping against all precedent that tomorrow would fare better.

“They will each be the death of the other. I know it.”

Bard all but bleated the words one afternoon on the gate’s rampart. Galion had been standing there, looking out over the mountainside and valley. Far below and across the river, he could see the bustle of Dale. He had been wondering where in it Tilda, Bain, and Sigrid were when he was interrupted by their father’s anxious coming.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” the attendant said, leaning against the wall and lacing his fingers. “They have as yet had many chances and still resisted.”

“By bare breaths only.” The man mirrored him, coming to stand close and glare out at the valley. “Many more days of this, and I do not see how they could part as friends.”

“Friends?” Galion chuckled, though when Bard’s head whipped, he bowed his own submissively. “Pardon, Lord, but neither of them care to be that.”

The man grunted, digging his knuckles into his temples. “What, then? Tell me, for I cannot guess.”

The attendant tongued his teeth, considering carefully before answering. The other was plainly in need of reassurance, and he didn’t wish to worry him more if he could avoid it.

“What Dain and Thranduil want,” he began, foregoing titles, “is a lasting allyship between their Kingdoms. One that would withstand war, times of trouble, and shifts in leadership; chiefly Erebor’s, as it is unlikely to outlive the Woodland’s.” Turning from the view of the valley, Galion faced the man brooding at his side. “Pursuit of friendship, while noble, is better reserved for like-minded persons. Which, as you have seen--”

“They are not.”

“Not in the least, and to try to force such a bond would be detrimental. Their personal feelings, such as they are, are irrelevant. Once they grow tired of posturing-- and rest assured, Lord, that’s all they are doing-- they will come to as fair a settlement as they can stomach.”

Bard gritted his teeth and released a long, slow sigh. “What am I doing here, Galion? I am no real king. I haven’t the head for it, and cannot even keep the peace between my friends.”

“Your friends happen to be two of the most stubborn creatures in creation.” Before he could reconsider, he laid a hand on the King’s tense shoulder. He squeezed it, digging in the heel of his palm. “I do not think you can consider their moods your responsibility.”

Bard glanced at the hand resting on his shoulder, but Galion didn’t retract it. He held firm, patting it as he would Thranduil’s. It seemed to please the other and he leaned into it, relaxing somewhat.

“Thank you,” he said sincerely. “You have a clear head. The Elvenking is fortunate to have you.”

“I have had centuries to learn, and if it will help, I would advise you on dealing with him.” He paused to retract his hand and Bard perked in interest. “The King is easier to sway when alone. He is prideful, and will not thank you for any public contradictions. On his own, however, I find him to be quite tractable.”

“Tractable.” He chewed the word, swiping his tongue over his lip to chase it. Galion wondered if perhaps he should have chosen another. “I had wondered, but-- thank you. I will take your advice.”

Bard straightened fully and clapped the attendant on the shoulder. It landed friendly, and Galion smiled.

“You are always welcome to it,” he assured.

The man squeezed him, kneading the muscle, before turning to leave the rampart, stepping more lightly than when he had come. Galion watched him go, only looking back to the valley when the other’s steps fully receded.

He honed his attention on the Dale once more, and wondered what little Tilda was doing.

 

 

In the days following the conversation on the rampart, Thranduil was more cooperative during meetings. He still bickered with Dain bitterly, but no longer stormed from the room, and more often allowed decisions to be reached. He bowed to the expertise of his advisers, bidding them to treat with Ironfoot’s panel directly. Dain followed his example, and the two Kings fought amongst themselves while their aides hammered out the details of allyship. All points still required the approval of them both, which was given more readily when asked for by their own advisers. They still vetoed suggestions liberally, gumming progress when their moods turned darker, but there could be no denying that this new method was an improvement.

“I see my advice availed you,” Galion muttered to Bard in the heat of one meeting. The turn of the tide had renewed his interest in attending.

The man glanced aside to him, flashing a grin too toothsome for comfort. The expression reminded Galion of a wolf chief.

“In part, though I must admit to amending it.”

“Is that so?” He scooted his chair in to rest his arms on the table. “Well, whatever it is you’ve done, I applaud it. Long has it been since I have seen such stark improvement.”

“Do not applaud yet. There is still work to be done, but rest assured, friend: I will see it through.” He paused, clenching his fist around some imagined prize. “We will leave this mountain if I have to drag him out myself.”

Something odd lit Bard’s eyes then, warming them to low burning embers. He looked impish, and perhaps even predatory. The sight was jarring, though not because Galion found the glint unpleasant; quite the opposite. It was alluring. It reminded him of the looks Thranduil and his late Queen once exchanged when she returned hot blooded and hungry from battles. Reminded him, too, of younger days when he himself tangled with fellow courtiers, making sweat in darkened sitting rooms.

What troubled him about the look was that it implied a level of intimacy that Galion had thus far seen no evidence of. Apart the singular touch the two had shared before feasting, they had neither given him reason to suspect. The two were rarely alone here, and how could they be? Thranduil and Galion had been given a suite to share, and the Elvenking had yet to call on Bard in his own. They sat together at meals and meetings, and walked touching elbows during free hours. Where they might be stealing away to for privacy, though, he couldn’t guess. Erebor was cavernous but foreign, and every corner of it seemed to be populated. And if they were reckless, if-- stars forbid-- they were caught…

Galion suppressed a shudder, not caring to think of the accusations Dain would level if his fellow kings were to be caught in a tangle of limbs.

"You are ambitious," he muttered, taking care to mask suspicion. "You must be confident in your new mastery of my Lord."

"I am," Bard agreed. "Your words were illuminating."

Galion hoped one day to be at liberty to ask what sordid tactics his words had inspired. Until such a time, however, he resigned once again to watch his careless Kings closely.

 

 

“You vex him intentionally,” Galion heard Bard hiss from around the next bend in the Erebor’s belly. “And why? Are you not weary of being holed up in this mountain?”

"Not yet so as to bend that brute."

Thranduil's own words were no less biting. Had Galion not known better, he would have thought the two were squabbling. But they weren't, or at least, not with one another directly. This was, as many things of late, about Dain.

Negotiations were slugging through their third week. Only, no: negotiations had ended. All their aides had managed to work around the Elf and Dwarf's colossal tempers, and the day before had copied thrice the final agreement. All that was left now was for each of them to sign it. For his own part, Bard had done so immediately, relieved to have the affair's end in sight. When he had laid the pen between the others, however, neither reached for it. They spent the rest of the meeting glaring at one another instead, and Galion could have screamed.

He later did, in fact. Once safely in their shared suite, Galion forewent all pretense of office and lit into him. The flash of temper did little good, though. Thranduil smirked through it, wholly unfazed, and when Galion was winded, muttered only: you grow ever more like Oropher.

The complete dismissal flustered Galion so terribly that he stormed from the suite, intending to only return after dinner. But, minutes before the meal he caught sight of Bard and the King slinking off and knew the time to spy had come. Careful to stay a hall's length behind, he trailed them deep into the center of the mountain. He had just begun to wonder if they meant to reach the root of it when they stepped into an alcove ahead. He gave them time to distract each other before creeping to peer around the corner. When his eyes found them, they were nestled in a corner: Thranduil with his back to it, half swallowed by shadow and brow scrunching as his company closed in.

"Our host is no brute," Bard said, sounding weary, and took a final few steps to trap his friend. The shift brought them awfully close, and if Thranduil wanted to slip by, he would have to suffer brushing chests. "Nor is he deserving of this resurgent animosity."

"You seem over concerned with his inconvenience."

"Because I share it, as do you. You cannot say you enjoy this." He jerked his head, gesturing to the alcove. "Sneaking meetings in dark holes. Would you not rather see me in sunlight?" He paused to rest a hand on the wall by Thranduil's arm. The other he raised slowly, as though expecting a bite. "Would you rather not be free to call on my chambers without being spied on? And once there, have a bed that fit us both?"

Galion could think of no reason, apart from the mortifyingly obvious, for a bed to be in any way necessary. Thankfully, the Elvenking spared him from dwelling on it. Unwilling to be cowed, he set his jaw stubbornly.

"You grow bold, or perhaps take me for a fool, to think I would stumble so easily into your witchcraft."

Bard's shoulders shook in barely suppressed laughter.

"Witchcraft? You think so?" The hand that had been hovering between them made contact. His fingertips brushed Thranduil's jaw, tenderly tracing the line. "What malice do you imagine is in my touch?"

"Perhaps none. Still, you would seek to control me with it." The Elf swallowed as Bard's hand traveled back further, thumb coming to rest beneath the hollow of his jaw. Its pad circled the pulse point, and other thick fingers curled to disappear into his hair. "You would have me wrapped around your knuckles."

"Only long enough to ease the ache that coils you so tightly. An ache you feel even now. Don't deny it." Bard pressed in his thumb, and when the other hissed, pressed his advantage. "Your blood runs like a rabbit through your throat."

“And yours?” Thranduil asked, too wispish to be accusatory. “Or are you made of stone?”

“You know I’m not. I have told you how I feel.” Bard’s grip relaxed and his thumb resumed it’s idle circling. The touch was gentle, and chariness aside, the Elf leaned into it. “Do you doubt my honesty?”

"No."

"Then give your signature and be done with it, please. Let us go down to the city and have a few days' peace before you must leave again."

Bard's words were plaintive, and Galion wasn't sure if they or Thranduil’s breathlessness cut him deeper. He wasn't sure, also, what he had been thinking in following them here. Had he not suspected that these moments were private, and to intrude would wrack him with shame? Had it not been so, even to see them touch hands like boys in the garden maze? And now this: the two pressed close in repressed longing, the alcove they hid in so full of heat that they were sure to leave sweating. That, or be struck when the air broke around them in veins of lightning, which grew the more likely the longer Thranduil declined to answer.

Not to be deterred by his companion’s stubborn silence, Bard put his tenderness back to work. The hand resting on Thranduil’s throat slipped full in his hair, threading through the roots to guide him closer. He must have tugged, because the Elvenking sucked sharply through his teeth. But he made no other protest, allowing himself to be jostled. Rewarding the pliancy, Bard brushed their noses and muttered something so low that Galion missed it. Whatever it was, however, it hit its mark. Even in the gloom, Thranduil’s cheeks burned bright. His eyes fell closed in answer to it, grim set mouth finally softening. Lips parting, he gave a small whimper-- a question or plea, or both at once-- that Bard silence by pressing a kiss to their corner.

The Elvenking went rigid, but only for a moment. Wits recovered, he made to turn into it. But Bard stayed him, holding fast to hair at his nape, and took his time planting chaste kisses along the other’s pout. They were small, closed mouthed things, and horribly soft, good for nothing but churning up a heady fog. Thranduil’s breath caught ragged from them, and Galion’s own throat cinch in sympathy. He should leave, he thought. This was progressing, and his heart was sure to burst from it, and--

“End this,” Bard said, interrupting the thought. The words were a whisper, but they would suffer no further argument. “Win us time, and we may waste it however you wish.”

He paused to tug Thranduil’s hair and angle him anew. The shift better exposed the line of his jaw, and Bard nipped it, teeth catching on the taut skin. The Elvenking swallowed a sound, but couldn’t suppress his shudder. The man gave a hungry, half feral groan to feel it and bit again, this time earning a gasp. Again came the thought that Galion should leave, and he obeyed it, this time not daring to wait to see if either would speak again.

Careful not to disturb any loose rubble, the attendant retreated fully into the hall. Thankfully, it was deserted still. Even if Galion strained his hearing, there was nothing to catch beyond the frantic breathing in the alcove. And that he had no vested interest in listening to. He had only come at all to confirm suspicion, and that was done. Well beyond done, in fact.

Regardless of where the tryst went now, he had lingered over long.

 

 

Many hours passed before he saw Thranduil again, a fact for which Galion was grateful. The shame of having spied on so intimate a meeting dug in thorny, and having to face his Lord any sooner would have turned his stomach. He needed time to settle before they spoke, so he followed the footpath back to where it forked off from the mead hall.

When he reached it, he found the room to still be full. The food had been cleared, but beer and wine were still making their rounds. Waving down an ale maid, Galion secured a tankard for himself and circled the hall slowly as he drank. It took several laps of the raucous room to drain it, at which time he called for another, hoping the warmth of the drink would damp his sparking nerves. He emptied three more tankards this way, and at the bottom of the last felt he was calm enough to return to his suite. He took the longer, more windy path to it, and upon entering, found the King on the edge of the bed, unlacing his boots.

He lingered in the door, one hand resting on the frame. He should help; this he knew. It had long been his duty. He had readied Thranduil for bed every night since the King was a princeling. The ritual was old, well-worn, and comforting, and their singular constant. Long millennia had brought them both upheaval, death, and sorrow far more often than it had ever brought them joy. And yet, at the end of even the bitterest day, there had always been this.

“Have you forgiven me yet?” Thranduil asked. He looked up from his laces, mouth turned in a smile that said he had already guessed the answer. “Say that you have. My fingers are clumsy. I drank too much from Dain’s personal reserve.”

“Of course I have,” Galion answered. He slipped through the door, shutting it behind himself before crossing to the bed and kneeling. Swatting away the King’s hands, he took up the messy laces and patiently set to undoing the damage. “Were the two of you at the high table? I don’t recall seeing you there.”

The King shook his head. “I called on our host personally.”

“Oh?” He undid a few secondary knots that the other had somehow made before pulling the laces slack. “Should I ask what for, or will the answer make me regret doling out forgiveness so quickly?”

Thranduil laughed, and the deep, honeyed rumble of it rolled like a balm to soothe the last of Galion’s nerves.

“You would forgive me even if I brought Erebor down around us. As I said before, you are much like Oropher.”

He glanced up from his work to meet the tease. “Old and foolish, I take it you mean.”

“Fatherly,” the other corrected, so sincerely that Galion’s heart lurched. “You adore me beyond all sense and my own deserving.”

Galion had no rejoinder, and wouldn’t have offered it if he did. The King guarded his feelings jealously, rarely giving voice to even the palest of them.

“What did you say to him?” he asked instead, biting back fondness to spare his Lord embarrassment.

“That I had perhaps been unfair, and would have his pardon.” The King lifted his foot, pulling back to wriggle free of his troublesome boot. “He accepted, and we made settlement over a few drinks.”

“A few dozen, more like. Your laces are ruined.”

“Perhaps, but relations with Ironfoot are mended.” He helped kick off the second boot, then leaned back on his palms. “I signed the agreement, as did he, so you may stop fussing.”

Galion tossed the boots aside before rising to his feet. He motioned for Thranduil to do the same as he considered his words. When the other Elf was up with arms held out to facilitate stripping, his attendant carried on.

“I am glad to hear it, though I wonder what changed your heart. Just this morning you were prepared to turn to dust here."

The King shrugged, half expression and half to help Galion roll the robe from his shoulders.

“Your shrieking moved me, as did the counsel of the King of Dale.” While his attendant draped his robe over a chair, Thranduil undid the clasps of his tunic. It was open in a deep cut over his chest when Galion returned for it. “Between the two of you, I would never have heard the end of it.”

“Well, it is good to know one of you has sense.” Then, hardly knowing where the daring came from: “One partner must ever be the fairer, I suppose.”

The King’s head whipped, attention cutting over his shoulder so quickly in spite of drunkenness that his attendant started.

“Partner?”

The word was hot with low burning panic. Galion let it glow like an ember between them, but only for a moment. He wasn’t cruel. He cocked his head in a feint of bemusement, then clarified.

“Allies, if you will.”

“Ah.” Thranduil swallowed slowly, tamping down whatever denial he had been preparing, in horror, to make. “Of course. We are that.”

“I know. Now, lift your arms. You must hurry to bed.”

The King did as he was asked, allowing himself to be bent and pulled this way and that for the rest of the routine. He was docile, and almost seemed lost in thought, though perhaps it was only the heaviness of drink. Whichever it was, he was far less helpful than usual and after redressing him, his attendant all but tucked him in bed.

“Sleep well, mellon,” he said in parting, and waited for the King to repeat it before making for his own bed in the adjoining room.

He undressed quickly and in the dark, having already doused most of the candles. But, it was no matter. His robes could rest where they fell. With any luck they would be packed in the morning, ready to be trotted, along with their company, down the mountain and into the city between its arms.

He was unsure of what to expect to come of staying in Dale, even if it were only a day or two. Not when the two Kings' intentions were so obviously salacious. That couldn’t be worried over just now, though, he supposed. It was late, and for the moment, three Kingdoms were at peace. In his own bed, Dain was likely dreaming deeply, as muddled by drink as Thranduil was. As for Bard-- well, the attendant couldn’t say. But, as he burrowed under his own blankets, he imagined the man was doing the same.

Was he lying, too, in the dim glow of dying candles, feet hanging off his squat bed and wishing for home? Or was he only wishing for company, and counting the hours until he may have it?

Whichever it was, Galion hoped his sleep came easily.

Chapter Text

The end of their stay in Erebor came as swiftly as Galion hoped it would. After the signing of the treaty was made public, Dain was eager for his guests to be shown the door. The haste might have been rude had the Dwarf not spent an entire month playing host to two full delegations. Delegations who had, admittedly, been a deep drain on shallow resources. The Mountain’s stores of food and drink, which had been sent from the Iron Hills, had not yet had time to be bolstered by trade or farming. What Elves and Men had been cutting into was foundational, and likely meant to provide security until the upcoming harvest. Ironfoot could request more, but it was doubtful his cousins any to spare themselves after winter. Hosting had been a gamble, and though securing allies balanced it, the ensuing months threatened to be lean.

In a show of good faith, Thranduil pledged to send such relief as his own people could spare. It would be little, as much of their surplus had already gone to Dale. Still, if he could help it, Erebor wouldn’t suffer. Any excess of dried meat, grains, and vegetables the Woodland had would be en route to the Mountain within two weeks. He would take no payment, and though discomfited, Dain eventually accepted the offer of help.

With promise made and business concluded, there was little reason to linger. Bard and Thranduil gave Dain their goodbyes and joined their convoys, leading the groups down the pass they had last climbed weeks ago. It had been pleasant then, but now was even more so. A month was time enough to deepen the blooms of all the handsome, growing things down in the valley. The grass was verdant and dotted with patches of bright flowers, and the trees were beginning to give their fragrance. Light rains had risen the river, though it was still safely below the bank. It ran quicker, filling the holler with the tumble of water.

“To think,” Bard mused as the path leveled into the valley. “That not five months ago the air here was bloody, and these trees made better headstones than home for bees.”

On his own mount trotting just behind his King, Galion frowned. It was a morbid thing to say. But, he could hardly blame the man for thinking it. Looking out from Dale’s ramparts would daily remind him of death. The city faced the plain and side of the mountain the battle waged on, and the far valley in which now rested hundreds of graves. And, too, the burning field where Orc and Warg carcasses had been cremated. It must be strange to see it breaking in daffodils now.

“It is strange,” Thranduil agreed, “but no small comfort that your children see flowers now instead of waste. There are other, less lucky fields still scarred from old battles. Dale is fortunate that one of those doesn’t rest on its doorstep.”

“Aye, though we still hear the echoes of war.” The man raised a hand to trace the winding river, following the loop it made around the outskirts of Dale. “And it is often from these newly healed banks the sound comes.”

“The Orc raids, you mean?”

Thranduil’s attention caught in Bard’s hair. Galion suspected he was counting the war beads. Their number had doubled since his visit to Mirkwood, and though they made him look storied, the growing collection was disconcerting.

The man nodded, tugging the reins of his mount to guide it downriver. There was a newly built horse bridge a few miles south that would ease their crossing. With the sun still high, there was no call yet for haste. They could ride for it leisurely, enjoying the weather and freedom.

“They have been less frequent of late,” he said after a moment, “but still, they come now and again. Winter was far more perilous than Bain’s dinner party stories let on. I often wonder what would have become of us without the weapons you left.”

“I advise against that. Such thoughts are frivolous, and only serve as a distraction. When under attack, it is best to mind the horizon.”

Galion agreed. Worrying over won battles did no good, especially when another could come in the night. Both he and Thranduil had suspected that the royal family downplayed their troubles. Why that had been though, the attendant couldn’t guess. Pride perhaps, or fear of troubling one to whom they already felt indebted. Whatever the reason, Bard’s words confirmed the suspicion. As quickly as he had uncovered it, though, he sought to bury it again. He shook his head, then waved dismissively at the river.

“As I said, they grow infrequent. I kept an eye on the valley each night of our stint in Erebor, and not once did I see even a hint of movement outside of the city.”

Thranduil hummed, not sounding as though he was ready to abandon the subject. But Bard was grinning again, and pointing out new growth on the river. He named a plant he remembered reading about in the book the Elf had gifted, which sparked a story about the pitfalls of training new healers. The man dived into it so quickly and theatrically that he couldn’t be stopped. Had Thranduil tried, he would have only come over as cross.

“Lord Bard dissembles skillfully,” Galion whispered after urging his mount ahead to ride beside his King. The man in question had fallen back to be with the others, who were content to chuckle along with his story.

“Not skillfully enough.” The Elvenking’s eyes scanned the river. “The mongrels must be following it from the Wilderland, hoping to make an easy meal of those living along it.”

“Perhaps. Though, packs come just as often from the mountains, and as we have seen, have no fear of crossing our borders.”

That was to say: the Orcs that troubled Dale could be coming from anywhere. To guess their point of origin was not so easy as it had once been. They roamed more freely than ever, and though their ranks were closing, where they migrated from was often unknowable.

“No matter,” Thranduil said. “Tauriel’s squadron is large enough to ring the city.” He glanced over his shoulder to ensure that Bard was still distracted. Seeing he was, he instructed Galion thus: “Go to her and say that she should divide it into watches, and set rotations for the next three nights.”

“And what else?”

“Nothing, but that you be quick.” His brow pinched as he guessed the distance left between their party and the city. “I should like her to have the full next hour to plan.”

Bowing his head, Galion slowed his mount’s trot. He let the King and chortling middle company go ahead, working back to Tauriel as discreetly as he may.

When Lord Bard passed, he ducked his head, hoping the man hadn’t spied and guessed his purpose before he could even deliver the directive.

 

 

Whether it was true or not that Orc raids were falling off, the luck Dale had been enjoying held a while longer. Tauriel did as instructed and posted a watch each sunset, but the services of her squadron proved unnecessary. Not so much as a hare was caught moving in the moonlight, and the three days they spent waylaid in the city were peaceful.

The short stay recalled the fairness of Bard’s visit to Mirkwood, which he and his children seemed eager to repay the King for. They arranged for his delegation to be housed and fed as magnificently as the slowly recovering city could afford. Thranduil and Galion were kept in the Great House, which over winter had been passably restored. After accepting, they were escorted there and given rooms off the receiving hall, where a great fire pit coughed wood smoke through the chimney. It kept the rooms warm, as did the furs and pillows heaped along the walls to make up their beds.

Sigrid cooked all their meals, and much to Galion’s dismay, accepted no help, though her father assured it was her way. The girl had apparently claimed the kitchen, and between studies in the library spent most of her time in it. Her affinity for kitchen craft showed, as did her affection for her guests; each plate she laid before them was mounded high. She roasted venison, fried vegetables, honeyed fruits, stuffed cabbages, and baked such wonderfully fluffy breads. Early in the day she brewed pots of wildflower teas, and in the evenings mulled wine for all to share. And, when they were done, accepted due praise with a smile so beaming that Galion’s own cheeks ached to see it.

When they weren’t being fattened like calves, Galion and Thranduil were paraded through the city and shown its progress. Sigrid and Bard took this in turns, walking them through the growing market wings, high and low streets, and sparsely populated perimeters. Bain and Tilda rarely joined, as they were most often stuck to the sides of Tauriel and her men. The pair goaded them into exploring and volleying arrows by the riverside. It seemed good fun, though Galion didn’t mind instead being probed for critiques, especially since Bard and his eldest daughter were so eager for it.

“We spent all winter at this,” the man said on their second afternoon. Just then, he was leading his charges away from the flower market. It was small yet, but colorful, and its sweet stench stretched like fingers down the low streets Bard was guiding them to. “Sigrid has a good head for planning, and I needed a bit of distracting, what with the raids.”

“Understandable,” Thranduil said. “Times of trouble are more palatable with something to look forward to.”

“Such was her thinking.”

They came upon a side street and Bard turned sharply to take it. The other two followed, tucking their elbows to account for its narrowness. On second look, it was more of an alley; some sort of short cut. The King seemed to already have an intimate knowledge of Dale’s intricacies. They followed it for only a handful of minutes before their lead veered off again, cutting right into an equally narrow pass. Thankfully, this one widened no more than twenty paces ahead.

It spilled out suddenly onto a secondary square: a handsome space built around a central fountain. Long ago it would have run with clear, drinkable water, but it was decrepit now, and all its spigots caked with grime. Centuries of disuse had not been kind to the feature. Apart from it, however, the space was largely unharmed. Smaug’s original wrath had struck the center of the city hardest, and while evidence of it was here, the damage was minimal.

“If I read your book rightly--”

“Your book,” Thranduil corrected. “It was a gift, as will be others, now that your library stands.”

“Others?” Bard echoed, and Galion could appreciate the sentiment. Thranduil had yet to mention such plans to him. Had he ever intended to, or were the chosen books to be pilfered? As a precaution, he made a note to hide his favorites. “Ach, but never mind. From what I could gather, this seems once to have been a music square.”

It was. Galion remembered it. The chirp of flutes, chiming bells, and soft percussion used to float across the Long Lake. Many lifetimes of Men ago, when his King was more social, Galion would paddle him there to enjoy the sounds skipping over the water.

“In the high days of the city, it was one of many. Would you have it be so again?”

“No. Sigrid believed that to be a poor use of space. She would see this made a fish market, close a march as it is to the lakeside.”

As happened often when she was mentioned, the Elvenking raised a hand to fiddle idly with the war bead Sigrid had given him.

“Your daughter is brimming with ideas. Did she not also oversee the library and main market arrangement?” Bard nodded, and Thranduil hummed. “Then perhaps you should name her chief architect, and stop troubling with the minutiae yourself.”

The man barked a laugh, only to realize moments later that the Elvenking had not spoken in jest.

“My little Sigrid? You think so?”

“Do you not? Her eyes are keen, and barring her resolvable lack of education--”

“Resolvable how? We are not yet so recovered.” Bard waved an arm, gesturing to the lingering ruin. “Half of our city is still desolate, not to speak of its citizens. We are fisherfolk and petty tradesmen; nothing grander. Who do you imagine could apprentice her?”

“My own could. He is not so busy.”

That was true. The Woodland’s chief architect had been enjoying a lengthy repose. Nothing new had needed building in decades. Apart from approving restorations, there had been little for him to do but make academic studies. He’d published several books on the history and mathematics of Elven construction, but otherwise his drafting desk had been disused. And he was growing bored, Galion knew. He made no secret of it, and more than once had tried goading the King into a frivolous commission. It would be no matter for him to travel between the Kingdoms, and having a new student would brighten his mood. The challenge, too, of learning Dale’s artstyle would satisfy him. Not being privy to this, however, Bard hesitated.

“You are generous, but I don’t think that I could ask this of you. Already my family is wading in your debt. The kindnesses you have shown these last few seasons--”

“Were of my own choosing,” Thranduil interrupted, and none too gently. The King did not care to have his will impeded. “I am no cow-eyed princeling, that you need shield me. My management of resources has ever been careful, and should I desire to use them to secure your house’s future, you may assume I do not make the offer lightly.”

A few terse moments of silence lapsed between them. Bard’s eyes darted between the King and Galion. He tracked for disagreement, but the attendant had none to offer. He thought it wise to advance Bard’s children wherever possible. It would be them, after all, that oversaw Dale in time, and education would prove vital to preserving it. Bear-hearted determination may have been enough to reclaim the city, but building a lasting Kingdom required more.

“Forgive me,” the man relented. “It was unfair to question you, and Sigrid would be honored, I’m sure. You may ask her yourself over supper. Which--” Bard squinted at the sun’s height. “--we should already be getting back for.”

“So early?” Thranduil asked. “Midday is only a few hours gone.”

“It is, but tonight is the New Moon Bonfire. You should be fed and rested before it begins, as it is likely to run through most of the night.” The man waved a hand before turning back to the alley, bidding the Elves to follow. When they were once more squeezing through it, he called over his shoulder. “Did I not tell you we would be celebrating, My King?”

Thranduil glanced back at his attendant in turn, who shook his head. Galion often vetoed invitations, but this hadn’t been one.

“It appears you didn’t, but the surprise is welcome. I was unaware that your citizens had such festivals.”

Bard turned them suddenly, forking off from the path they had initially taken. The new road was wider, and Galion unpinched his cramped shoulders gratefully.

“Ours are not so elaborate as the Woodland’s, perhaps.” Just ahead, the other man shrugged. “And our star lore wouldn’t impress you, but as you must know, all waterfolk have special fondness for the moon.”

Bard still had little understanding of what impressed the Elvenking. If he had, he'd have known that any star lore would do. Thranduil was a Woodland creature, and fond as that made him of deep, dark growing things, love of the light that pierced his Kingdom's canopy was second to nothing. The night’s festivities, though unlooked for, were most certain to thrill him. And, for that matter, to thrill Galion. The two had missed one of their own people’s celebrations while locked away in moonless Erebor. While Dale's customs were surely incomparable, they would make fair substitute.

 

 

 

The sky was star studded before the King's family and guests took their leave of the Great House for the festival. The fields they headed for were peppered with small bonfires, laid in a ring around a great central pyre. They roared, licking out with long, blue hot tongues, casting the Men and Elves weaving between them in shadow.

Most of Dale's citizens and visitors were already gathered somewhere in the fields. They would be drinking and merrymaking, Bard assured: dancing and singing traditional songs for the occasion. Young children would have their faces painted with dots like stars, and the elder ones in costumes that mimicked constellations. There would be one also-- a coveted position-- that came dressed and painted like the moon, who would act as storyteller when all settled down around the central fire.

This month, to her delight, it was to be Sigrid. In her excitement, she skipped ahead of their party, white linen dress hiked to free her feet. They were bare, and her ankles ringed with silver chains to match the ones clinking about her wrists. Galion had painted her face, dusting her eyelids to complement her circlet, and Thranduil had plaited her hair to keep it safe from the fires. Running toward the light of them, she already looked ethereal. It was a fact neither he nor Thranduil could resist giving voice to. Bard smiled fondly after her and agreed, saying he thought her to be the highlight of the evening.

Though, I would prefer if none of the boys were to notice.

His wish was to be in vain, if for no other reason than she would be the center of later attention. For the moment, however, she was content to be fawned over by friends. His other two children, in their own costumes, ran off after her to find their own packs. With the litter disbanded, the Kings and Galion were left alone.

Bard walked them around the perimeters, mapping out the farthest bonfires before tightening their patrol. They spent a few minutes by each of the blazes along the way, chatting with those gathered there, then moved on to weave closer to the focal pyre. Ahead of it was a table stacked with barrels of wine and beer bearing the stamps of Dorwinion and the Iron Hills, respectively. All had been previously opened but carefully restoppered, and Galion supposed these were special, festival reserves.

As they progressed, the Elvenking and his attendant scanned the crowd, taking in the happy chaos of the night. All around them people sang, danced, and drank, or made cozy with their partners on large blankets, pointing up at the stars. Children chased one another between the fires, and at the center of it, Sigrid commanded much attention. She lingered by the barrels, filling tankards and directing the new arrivals to the fires with room still left about them. Whenever she found herself alone, her mouth still moved ferociously, as though she were committing a script to memory.

"It's the story she'll be telling," Bard said when Galion asked. "She's been practicing it for days, and driving her brother mad. But--” He gestured to the crackling blaze and dozens of decorated posts squared about it. "-- I believe the full dramatics will banish his annoyance.”

Galion believed so too, and already he was anxious to see the moment unfold for himself. The girl reminded him of the players that performed in the citadel's courtyards for solstices. He loved to collect their stories, and was looking forward to doing so with hers.

Fortunately, there wasn't much longer left to wait. The arrival of the King's family and the storyteller honed the crowd's focus. Much as Bard had, it began to close in on the great pyre. Before they could be overtaken by it, the man lead his guests to the far end of the long table. Two chairs waited there, presumably for the Kings, though Bard insisted both of the Elves take one. Galion objected, though for all the ground it gained him, he might very well have said nothing at all. Ignoring his protestations, Bard left his guests alone and jogged back to the barrels to secure them all drinks.

"Where will he sit?" The attendant asked of his Lord, who was eyeing the man strangely.

"Who could say?" Thranduil shrugged, settling into his own seat. "But he is Lord of this land, and you best obey him.”

The idea didn't settle, but not wishing to offend their host, Galion took the offered chair next to his King. Moments later, when it came whizzing down the table, he also accepted the sloshing tankard Bard had fetched for him. Thranduil's soon followed, and at no less a speed. The Elvenking only just managed to catch it on the ledge. Some spilled onto the table, but thankfully missed his robes. Still, the near fatality annoyed him. As Bard walked his own tankard down to rejoin them, Thranduil’s mouth twitched. Galion could almost hear the scold he was preparing to hiss. Bard, though, perhaps sensing it, cut the trailing thought off skillfully, and answered the question of his own seating by coming to kneel at Thranduil’s side.

The position flummoxed the Elf so terribly that he forgot his complaint. He squinted down, mouth a taut, suspicious line. His grip on the tankard neared white, and Galion cracked his own knuckles uncomfortably, unsure of what Dale's King meant by this.

It was most likely indicative of nothing, he decided. The man had not been King for very long, and while he had been tutored on the immediately relevant aspects of his station, decorum had not often come up. Though Galion considered it common sense for Kings to take care to whom they bent, Bard did not appear to have given it much thought. He offered the chairs out of politeness, and as for his position-- well. He considered the Elvenking a friend. What did it matter, then, which of them knelt and sat; who peered up and who looked down the line of their nose?

It was a lighthearted decision, tender and unencumbered, and to see it so easily made swelled Galion’s heart. Thranduil’s too, if how fully the Elf relaxed after scenting no jest was any indication. His hold on his tankard slacked and he nestled it against his belly, smiling down at the man by his knee. Bard returned it, then gave his attention fully to Sigrid, who had come out to the front of the fire to start her scene.

Along with the rest of those gathered, King Bard and his companions watched her raptly. Earlier restlessness aside, she settled into the role swiftly, weaving gracefully between the posts while she sang. Now and then she rang bells hanging from them in clusters, and their tinkling cut the mournful lilt of her voice. The bright sound softened the story’s sadness, though not by much. Galion’s chest still ached to hear how it played out.

Two sisters, she sang, sneaked out of their beds one evening, hoping to find Elves dancing somewhere in the Wood. But that night the moon was missing, and in darkness they became separated, wandering off into separate, cave-dark groves. They screamed for each other, tripping over roots and rocks, and through great nests of trees, could each faintly hear it. Not well enough, though. They never were reunited, and their shouting only served to draw out predators. The girls were killed, and their spirits forever bound to the Wood, tearing like wind through it as they made their eternal search.

“A cautionary tale?” Thranduil whispered to his companion.

High as he sat, the Elf had to bend to keep his voice down. A lock of his hair fell, tumbling to brush the crook of Bard’s neck. The man shivered, or perhaps it was only the flickering light that made it seem so.

“I suggested something gladder, but she proved impossible to sway.”

“As she should be; such stories are valuable. In any case, sorrow makes wonderful music, and Lady Sigrid's voice is a handsome gift.”

Bard’s smile stretched wide to hear her complimented.

“You should tell her so in the morning. Though, in the meantime, and speaking of gifts: I wonder if you might accept one from me.”

Galion, who had only been half listening before, felt his attention sharpen on the Kings. Though her song had neared its end, he had been enjoying the last of the performance, which had become something of a group improvisation. A few girls had gotten up to join her in spinning, taking turns calling the names of the lost children. Their voices weaved together dolefully and from somewhere in the crowd, a few boys joined in on the game. They bayed like a pack of wolves so convincingly that Galion felt his covered arms break in goose flesh. The noise was captivating, but he abandoned it immediately in favor of prying. Any gift Bard meant to give was worth seeing.

"I might," the Elvenking said, running his thumb over the lip of his tankard. "Though I would ask what I had done to warrant it."

"Your very presence warrants it, though it shouldn't need saying that you have been more than that. You are--" The man paused to gnaw the inside of his cheek and look down into the depths of his own tankard. He sloshed it, gauging emptiness, or perhaps more accurately, how sober he was. Tonguing an eyetooth, he redirected. "I am fond of you. Very fond, as a fact, and would like you to recall that when we must be apart."

If he meant to dissemble, he had failed. He sounded like a love sick boy. Galion flushed, and the Elvenking, too, seemed affected. He bent further to afford them both a sliver more of privacy. The proximity would protect them from the creeping ears of men, but Galion's hearing was infinitely more acute. But, Thranduil knew this, and did not seem to consider being overheard by his oldest confidant any great harm.

"I would remember the warmth of your favor if we were never again to meet. A gift is unnecessary, but, as you have already been so thoughtful: present it. Please. I would be honored.”

Bard shifted and set to digging through his pockets for the prize. As he did so, the Elvenking sat his tankard aside. He also cast a questioning glance aside to his attendant, which Galion met, though he had nothing to offer but a shrug. He had no idea what the other man meant to give. If Bard had consulted anyone on the matter, it had not been himself. His eldest daughter, perhaps, or one of the local craftspeople. Regardless, he was as eager to see it as Thranduil.

“You will recognize,” Bard began, recalling their attention, “the hand of its maker rather quickly, though I hope it will not upset you. There are few craftsmen of his caliber so near to hand.”

“Dain, then.” Thranduil smirked. “You could have said. I am not so petty as either you or he thinks.”

Ach, well.” The man chewed his cheek again, both hands cupped around a thick linen wrapping. It was tied off with twine like his letters, though Galion suspected something far more precious lay inside. “Seeing as you’ve guessed, take it and be done. I would have your honest opinion, whatever that may be.”

After all but dumping the bundle into Thranduil’s lap, he pulled back to reach for his tankard. Taking it up again, he gulped down his ale’s dregs, then whistled for another to be sent. It came swiftly, slung by an ale maid whose arm’s sturdiness rivaled her King’s. The fresh tankard rocketed towards them and Bard caught it expertly, taking a few pulls as the Elf fussed with his gift’s wrappings.

He nursed his drink, attention darting between the grass, stars, and fires, apparently too anxious to await the reveal. Galion, however, watched the King’s fingers work fixedly, and when the cloth was finally parted, leaned in. Peering over his Lord’s shoulder, he took full stock of the gift: a strung set of metal disks, delicately hammered. They were colored a warm, ruddy gold, as was the chain that linked them, and he suspected the metal had been mixed to create it. At the center of each disk was a small, grassy emerald; more of Girion’s, if Galion’s eyes weren’t cheated. Which accounted, at least, for a dozen more of them.

“Rather large for a bracelet,” the King said, holding it up by each end to ascertain the length.

He was right, of course. Still, Galion winced. The words were impersonal, and not the first he would have said.

“Aye,” Bard agreed. He had turned to watch the King’s assessment, a decision he already seemed to be regretting. Galion could understand. Thranduil’s feelings were difficult to parse, and the pinched glare with which he fixed the gift was surely unnerving. Never mind that it was his way, when given a gift, to scrutinize it tip to root before speaking plainly. Bard couldn’t know that, and the intensity of Thranduil’s gaze was certain to worry him. “It’s meant to be worn about the ankle. Since you are so often barefoot, it seemed fitting.”

“These emeralds belonged to your ancestor.” Thranduil turned the chain, allowing its disks to catch firelight. It deepened their reddish color, and the Elf hummed appreciatively. “They made his neck gleam like the belly of dragon. He ever looked handsome in them, as do you.” His attention flicked to Bard’s crown and cuff. “Would you not rather keep them? I fear such a gift would be a blow to your royal treasury.”

Bard shook his head, and even dared the faintest smile. Thranduil’s contended hum had soothed his nerves, as had the softening of his gaze. The Elf looked at the gift almost adoringly now.

“I had my choice of them, as did the children, before the remaining hundreds were put in reserve. Those that you hold came from my portion, not the treasury. Are they thus not mine to do with as I will?”

Thranduil’s fingers worked over a few of the disks. Catching them between the pads, he circled their faces. He wasn’t looking at the anklet, though. He was looking only at Bard, who in turn was gazing unblinkingly up at him. The two sat like that for a while, searching the other’s eyes for something unspoken. When they found it, they shared a smile and Thranduil muttered thank you.

Relieved by the acceptance, Bard’s shoulders finally slacked. He gave a laugh, baring the points of his teeth.

“It is thanks enough, Lord, to know that you will wear it.”

“Is that so? Well, never mind, then.” The Elvenking rewrapped the anklet for safekeeping. “I had planned to give you something in return. But, if you are so easily pleased, I shan’t bother.”

“Did you?” Bard’s head cocked. “What is it?”

“Something better shown than spoken of, which I am still quite happy to do. However, you must forgive the walk it will cost you. I had intended to give it later, and as such, I’m afraid it must be retrieved from my bed.”

Galion choked on the last of his ale, but did his best to cover the indiscretion. Swallowing hard around a cough, he buried his mouth in the hem of his sleeve. Apparently, however, that failed to dampen the sound. The Elvenking’s ears twitched and flattened irritably, and he kicked back against his attendant’s shin in warning.

“Not so high a price,” Bard teased, seemingly unaware of the exchange. “Provided that our friend will mind my children for me.”

“He will,” Thranduil assured, sparing Galion the trouble.

“Then I thank him.” Bard leaned over to peer at the attendant. He gave a nod, and after Galion returned it, rocked onto his heels and stood to wipe the grass from his trousers. “And will follow you to whatever end you have planned.”

Thranduil didn’t keep him waiting. After giving instructions to Galion, he rose from his own chair and straightened his robes. They both bid the attendant goodnight and, after waving to Sigrid, set off together across the darkening fields.

Galion watched their backs, tracking their journey as they went. It didn’t take long for them to begin blending into the darkness. Most of the far bonfires were dwindling, and long before they reached the perimeters, they were little more than teases of color in the gloom. Still, the other Elf watched, unable to put the myth of the wandering little girls from his mind.

He willed them a safe walk, free from both pitfalls and prying eyes, and resolved to keep the children in the fields for as long as possible.

Chapter Text

It was an omen, Galion would come to think in the months that followed, that the flooding rains began the day they left Dale. What started as a pleasant morning drizzle became a downpour just as the party was packing the last of its horses. It was miserable, nasty weather, and though all had waterwicked riding cloaks, they would have liked to delay their leaving until the rain slacked. Unwelcome as departure was, however, foregoing it was impossible. The Elvenking had been gone from the Woodlands too long already.

They were to ride through the storm, only stopping to seek shelter at the utmost end of need. Even then, Thranduil would rather press on until the delegation had crossed over the Woodland’s borders. The outskirts of the forest were dotted with villages that would happily house their King for a few hours, if so required. But that, he plainly hoped would not be necessary. Great mounds of work were sure to be waiting at the citadel. There would be over a month of correspondence from various kingdoms, and then the matter of arranging Erebor’s aid, not to speak of resuming court. Whatever squabbles had erupted in his absence had had weeks to reach a boil, and tamping down tempers would require much mitigation. If there was to be any hope of reestablishing equilibrium before the summer ended, it was of the utmost importance than the King return immediately.

"A shame to see you go.” Bard’s voice was nearly swallowed by rain. He had come out to help them pack, and was soaking through. "I fear you take much of our people's happiness with you."

"They needn't fear, Lord, and neither do you." Galion smiled, hoping the sheeting rain didn't obscure it. "Winter is gone, and the roads between our Kingdoms clear. I suspect you will be seeing more of us quite soon; at the very least, Sigrid’s tutor will be visiting."

"But not you, or your King. I suspect you both will be busy."

He suspected rightly, though Galion had not the heart to confirm it. That he and Thranduil had been able to be away so long was a miracle, and such a one was unlikely to come again soon. Still, there were other ways for the Kings to keep in contact.

"Perhaps you could resume your correspondence,” he suggested. “Your letters never fail to brighten his mood.”

“Is that so?” The man smiled. “I had hoped that, and have cherished all the ones I’ve received in return.”

The attendant resisted asking if Bard, too, kept them stacked in a place of great importance on his desk. Or if, like the Elvenking, he poured back over them in the night, teasing out meanings that hid between each pen stroke. Now wasn’t the time for such things. One day, perhaps, Galion would ask all he wanted of this secret object of Thranduil’s affection. At present, however, there was hardly time to say goodbye.

“It is settled, then.” Taking hold of his saddlehorn, Galion hauled onto his mount. The seat was soaked, and he winced, already uncomfortable. “Though, I would suggest waiting to send a courier until the storm breaks.”

“Actually, I wondered if you might deliver this.”

Reaching under his shirt, Bard pulled out a bundle: waterwicked wrappings around a small parcel. It was a letter, he assumed, though why he was being given it, Galion couldn’t guess. The two Kings had been together all morning, and spent the hours following breakfast joined at the hip. There had been a dozen opportunities for the letter to be delivered or its contents discussed in person. When he said as much, Bard shook his head.

“I did not wish to trouble him.”

“Trouble,” Galion repeated. Not trusting the bundle’s wicking, he tucked it beneath his cloak. “I hope that you would not make me an unwitting bearer of ill news.”

“No.” The answer came quickly, and Galion was relieved. “Only of words that I’ve come to know worry him, and that I would give him time to think about before responding.” He paused, sucking his teeth. “Not too much time, mind, for I have less of it than he. If you notice him tarrying, try reminding him of that. He won’t thank you for it, but--”

The man trailed off, then gave a shrug. It was heavy, both from emotion and rain. He would catch sickness if he dallied too much longer in the weather, but Galion couldn’t let him go just yet.

“My Lord,” he said carefully, horribly aware now of the weight of the letter in his lap. “May I ask?”

"You could," the other allowed. "But I wonder that you would need to."

Galion cocked his head, and Bard’s laugh cut through the rain.

"Spare the play of ignorance. I’m no stranger to being followed, and not so used to your presence that I could overlook it."

It took several seconds for Galion to find his voice. At the word followed, it slipped deep into his throat, chasing a heart that sought to plunge even lower. Had he really been so careless in Erebor?

“I assure you, My Lord, that I meant neither of you harm.” He shifted on his horse, wishing that he hadn’t mounted yet. Having the King look up now was awkward, and Galion would rather have been low enough to bend his head to him. “Thranduil is like a son to me, and you and your children--”

“I know,” Bard interrupted, though not unkindly. “Which is why I did not bring it up sooner. Nor, you will be relieved to hear, did I tattle.”

That was a relief. The Elvenking would not have forgotten it, nor would he have allowed Galion to.

“Thank you.”

The man waved it off. “If you truly wish to thank me, see that I am not kept waiting.”

The attendant hesitated, for there was truthfully little he could do if the King hesitated. Not without revealing that he knew more than he ought, which would only make the stubborn Elf defensive. He didn't care to have his personal affairs fussed over, and more than once had scolded Galion for doing so.

I'm not a child, he'd spit irritably. I need an adviser, not a father.

"I will badger him when I can, though I hope it will not be necessary. I cannot imagine what you have written that would challenge him so."

"I ask for the full honesty, which can be frightening." Bard glanced just beyond Galion's horse to look at Thranduil. The Elvenking was mounting his own, calling directions to his rearguard. "Isolation is comforting in its own way, as I know. But, if he can stand it--"

Galion held up a hand for silence. There was no need for Bard to bare himself. And it was better, really, that he knew as little as possible. It would make evading the Elvenking's suspicion more feasible. Thankfully, the King took no offense. Inclining his head, he thanked Galion for his service.

"I hope to see you soon," Bard said warmly, then jogged off to give a final farewell to Thranduil.

The attendant watched him go, wincing at how he sloshed up mud. Great splatters speckled the hem of his cloak and breeches. He was filthy and wet, like a dog caught in this storm. If Thranduil took notice of the filth, however, he was unbothered. He and Bard gripped hands, sharing words that must have been tender, for both their faces were drawn with the sadness of parting. Neither made to delay, though. It was far too late in the miserable day already.

When the Kings had finished their goodbye, Thranduil whistled for his delegation to form ranks. Once filed and ordered, he and Galion rode for the front of it. They took the lead, trotting slowly to keep their mount’s hooves from slipping on the cobblestones that made a broken path back toward the lake.

“He gave you something,” Thranduil said, perhaps an hour into their riding.

It was far longer than Galion had expected him to wait. The King’s attention never left him for long, and he hadn’t bothered to hope the exchange had gone unnoticed.

“He did,” Galion agreed, taking his reins into one fist before reaching under his cloak to fish out the parcel. “A letter, as he told.”

“Did he say what about?”

The Elvenking’s voice was calm, but beneath the stillness was something. Some sort of thrumming that tinted his tone with suspicion. Not wishing to stoke it, Galion held out the bundle for him. Not surprisingly, it was snatched almost immediately.

“No, Lord.” And that was true. “He only asked me to impress upon you his desire to have an answer as soon as you can stand to give one.”

Thranduil made no response, and Galion couldn’t resist turning his head to gauge his Lord’s reaction. When he caught sight of him, the Elvenking was staring pinch-faced at the parcel, ears flattening as though catching wind of some distant threat. Tonguing his teeth, he tucked it away then pointedly changed the subject.

Galion’s hope of Bard being mistaken washed out with the rain.

.

 

.

Life in the Woodland Realm carried on much as it always had. The Elvenking’s return brought along with it the flooding rains, and for most of the ensuing weeks its streets ran with it, and all the creeks and rivers swelling fat. Even the citadel’s fountains overflowed, spilling out into the gardens and market squares. The deluge bothered few, though, for when it slacked came what they had missed all throughout the fall and snowy winter.

Nourished by the spring storms, the canopy above thickened, choking down sunlight to bony fingers. What little pierced it stretched thin, casting the city in a glow that those unaccustomed might have called eerie. But the heavy gloom was comfort to citizens of the realm, for it meant that the kindest seasons were upon them. With it came the creeping growth of enormous mushrooms and shade-loving flowers, whose scent, trapped beneath the canopy, laid like a mist. It hung in the air, coaxing courtiers and villagers alike into long walks along the guard routes and footpaths. These were soft and lovely seasons, best for camping, star-gazing, and hunting. If there was sadness anywhere in the Greenwood, it was fleeting.

Much like the rest of his people, Thranduil adored these months, for they allowed him freer movement throughout the wood. When the rains slowed enough for the materials to be collected, he had Galion weave a new summer crown for him: berry twigs, vines, and ruby red flowers enchanted to prevent wilting. And once donned, it banished the last of his dreary winter mood.

Bolstered by the warmth and Tauriel’s company-- she had, to Galion’s relief, not given up-- the Elvenking dedicated himself wholly to the court. He lingered long after the daily administrative affairs were ended, engaging courtiers and helping Galion plan events. He organized hunts, splendid feasts, and more than once road out with a guard detail to see about repairing the long-neglected trade roads. When he wasn’t busy with internal matters, he was most often in the library, where lately he liked best to do his personal work.

He wrote to Rivendell and Caras Galadhon, probing Elrond and Galadriel for news of his son, and to Erebor to ensure that aid was sufficient. It was, Dain confirmed, and while the two would never be cordial, the free giving of much needed food smoothed relations. As for Dale-- well. Galion supposed that all was well there. Thranduil was as gracious as ever in his minding of it. He had given his chief architect leave to seek temporary housing there, so as to better oversee Sigrid’s education. He had also tasked his librarian to scour the archives and deepest shelves for whatever could be spared from their collection.

“I would like Dale’s library to be full of more than dust,” Thranduil told the librarian personally one afternoon. “Lady Sigrid is mindful, and will see to the books’ well being. Though, even if all the volumes were to have their spines broken, I should still prefer it to them never being read again.”

The librarian didn't look as though he shared the sentiment. Still, he did as the King commanded. The first shipment of books went out within days of Erebor’s aid detail, and several more over the course of the ensuing seasons. As summer approached it's muggy height, hundreds at least had crossed the borderland.

What hadn’t crossed, however, was a letter.

Galion knew the King had read it. The morning after their return, he had seen it resting atop the pile of Bard’s others. It’s seal was broken, and the flap of it torn at the corners, as though it had been opened in haste. Now and then he even caught Thranduil reading back over it, just as he sometimes caught him reading all the others. When he brought him tea or came to collect him for bed, his nose would be deep in it. Still, a response never seemed nearer to being penned.

Throughout the first two weeks, he had held out hope that the King was busy. He was, after all, catching up from a long time away. Many squabbles had cropped up in court during his absence, and between squashing them and arranging aid, there was much to do. But as the second week rolled into a fourth, sixth, and eighth, remaining hopeful became increasingly more difficult. Barring some deep and hateful mood, the Elvenking’s replies were typically prompt. Bard had never had to wait more than a week for a response; to go months now was nearly outrageous.

But, to tell Thranduil so never did much good. The Elvenking ever had an excuse at the ready. He was tied up in court or parlaying with Silvan tribes, overseeing repairs to the trade roads or hunting; collecting news of his son or gathering resources for Lady Sigrid. The delay was nothing, he assured. Bard would understand it, or if he didn’t, later forgive the indiscretion.

“To forgive you,” Galion countered on once such occasion, “would require him eventually receiving something worth the trouble.”

If the Elvenking heard the words, he made a good show of ignoring them. Not surprising, of course. Galion was accustomed to being ignored.

Much as Thranduil valued his counsel, he was prone to overlooking it when what was said was something he didn’t care to hear.

.

 

.

“You’re cross with him,” Tauriel guessed, hopping a low balcony to join him on the bench overlooking the King’s training ground.

Thranduil had been on it for an hour, and just finished with his warm ups. The handful of guards on it with him grabbed their own weapons, deciding who among them would face the King first. Not to say that it mattered. He would soon enough beat them all.

“Is it obvious?” Galion asked, turning to face her.

She was out of her scouting uniform, draped in a robe that Thranduil had given her. It was silver, detailed in a deep, summery green. Embroidered vines climbed her arms, ending at her shoulders in a nest of leaves.

“Only to one who has often felt the same.” She grinned at him, eyes narrowed in understanding and mirth. “What now? Has he done something?"

“It is more what he hasn’t done this time.”

“Are you at liberty to discuss it?” When he shook his head, Tauriel hummed then leaned over to mutter lowly. “Something to do with Bard, then.”

Galion’s mouth slacked before he could school himself. Had they really been so obvious? He hadn’t thought so. Still, the King’s courtiers were awfully nosy. Perhaps he should have guessed it would come out.

“Who else suspects?”

There was no point in trying to deny it.

“No one.” Tauriel met his gaze honestly, and the attendant felt his shoulders unpinch. “But you should have known that I would. I’m not blind, Galion. I know my f--” She broke off, biting back a loving word. He wished she wouldn’t, but already she was redirecting. “I know my King well.”

“Why did you not approach me?”

She shrugged. “I didn’t wish to pry.”

Well, that made one of them. Galion felt that all he had done was pry. His life for the last nine months had been marked by the discomfiture of it. He had stolen private moments, and wished sincerely to return them, especially now that the Thranduil had forced an impasse. What the attendant owed to Bard, he worried he could never make good on. The Elvenking was particularly good at maintaining deadlock.

“Is it something Bard has done?” she asked after a moment, shaking her company from his brooding thoughts.

“The King of Dale’s only crime is honesty, which makes Thranduil’s-- inaction, I suppose. I wonder if he cares that such a thing can choke a life out.”

“I don’t believe lack of care is why he ever hesitates. I would venture to guess that it is actually an overflow of it.”

“Do you think?”

Tauriel hummed, turning to stare out across the training ground. Galion tracked her gaze until his own settled on the King, who brought his practice sword down like a cleaver on his partner. It landed on a nerve and the guard cussed, fumbling his weapon while his arm played dead. It was enough time for Thranduil to gain advantage, which he took, backing his opponent into the wall with a blade to his throat. It was an old trick, and one that Galion had often been on the receiving end of. It was more entertaining to see acted out on someone else.

“I remember,” the captain began again, her eyes still on the field, “that once, when I was a girl, there was an awful spring. It rained every day for two months, and all our roads washed out to the river. Do you remember?”

Galion did. It was a nasty year.

“I seem to recall a certain young Elf nearly being washed out with them, though she had been told many times to stay indoors.”

Tauriel grinned. “I had nearly forgotten that. What I was thinking of just now was how fatal the King’s mood turned that season.” Her arms weaved tighter across her chest, almost protectively, and the curve of her smile flattened out. “It was stupendous. I can’t recall it ever being worse. He wouldn’t eat, or sleep, or bathe, and only ever left his suite to disappear for days into the Queen’s maze.”

Galion remembered that too, and how pitifully he’d begged Thranduil to come to his senses. Most evenings, it was all he could do to force him to drink a thimbleful of water. Anything more seemed to make him ill. That alone would have been bad enough, but having to drag him from the Queen’s headstone-- He had been sure each time that he would find him dead there. Though he never did, it was still terrible to see him crumbled at the muddy base of it, wailing refusals to come inside.

“More than once,” she continued, “Legolas and I thought you were carrying his corpse in from the rain. He was so filthy, and sickly pale. He was half-dead for months, and sometimes I thought it might be better if…”

She swallowed the thought, but Galion could guess it. How could he not? Had he not thought it, too? Had he not, in the deepest pits of his own misery, wanted to guide his friend to the shores and watch him sail away? It would have taken the last of the light from his own life, but he had wished it. Anything at all would have been better than seeing him suffer. But it hadn’t come to that. Despite all signs indicating otherwise, the Elvenking managed to crawl out of the ugly hole. Many months too late, unfortunately. His poor children had seen much, and as Galion suspected, such sights still haunted them.

“Tauriel,” he began, then bit his tongue and trailed off.

What, really, could be said? The memory couldn’t be taken from her. It was an unliftable shadow, and one that darkened the room whenever she and Thranduil met. There would always be something of a sadness between them, though Galion wanted more than anything to beat it back.

Tauriel took a deep breath of morning air. As she released it, she reached across the bench for his hand. Galion allowed it, even turned it palm up to meet her, and for the first time since she was a girl, she held him tight.

“He will never be the boy you remember,” she said softly. “But it should comfort you to know that he’s not who I remember either. He is much changed, and for the better, though it comes slowly.”

“Too slowly, I fear.” Galion closed his fingers around hers, rubbing her knuckles like worry stones. “Bard’s life may be spent before the King gathers himself, and what then?”

“We’ll do our best to never find out.” Giving his hands a final squeeze, Tauriel shook free of his grip. She stood, smoothing out her robe before continuing. “There are other options than to wait. Sometimes what’s needed most is a shove in the right direction.”

Before the attendant could ask what she meant, the captain turned, taking leave of the training grounds. She hopped over the balcony ledge again, leaving him to wait out the last of Thranduil’s drills alone.

.

 

.

The words nagged him for days. Shove, most particularly. Galion could not banish the frightful ring of it from his head. He thought of it when serving tea, advising on court hearings, and rummaging through the King’s wardrobe.

He was also thinking of it when his patience finally wore thin.

Twelve weeks after their return saw the King in his study, penning a batch of letters to be delivered. Galion had been hopeful open arrival to collect, but as he shuffled them, his frustration reached a pitch. There was one for Elrond, one for each Galadriel and Celeborn, one for Gandalf and one for Balin, Dain's adviser. There was even one for Sigrid, but an answer to Bard was nowhere to be seen among them.

"What of the King? Is there yet nothing for him?"

Thranduil shook his head, not even bothering to speak. At that, Galion huffed.

"Why are you doing this?" he asked shortly, slapping the letters down on Thranduil's desk.

The Elvenking started at the sound before his eyes narrowed. "Doing what? And I would advise you to take care how you proceed."

He glared pointedly at the papers his attendant had ruffled, but Galion didn't walk back from the action.

"Why do you abandon him so coldly? Has he not been a friend to you?"

"Abandoned? Is that what you think?" The King laughed, though it lacked any warmth. "Perhaps you have not been paying attention." Reaching across the desk himself, Thranduil reorganized the letters before tossing them to Galion again. The other Elf caught them on instinct, though he should have liked to let them fall. "I have filled his library, fed his hungry, shored his defenses. I have even secured the education of Dale's future Queen."

"And raked his heart across the coals all the while." He shoved the letters into his pocket before he was tempted to throw them again. "Would you see him choke on the love he bears you, and bury your own?"

Whatever Thranduil had expected him to say in such an outburst, that potentiality had plainly not occurred. His smirk fell to pieces, replaced by a dumbfounded irritation.

"Whatever that man said to you--"

"He needn't say anything. I know your heart; seen all your griefs and passing infatuations. What do you imagine any man could tell me?"

Thranduil pursed his lips, deflating somewhat.

"How long?"

"Since I have known for certain?" The other Elf nodded, and Galion thought back on their interactions. "Since his family came to visit near the end of winter.”

The Elvenking forced a hissing breath through his teeth, but didn't bother to say any more. After several moments of silence, Galion pressed on uncertainly.

"What went wrong, Lord? From what I could see, all was well and both of your feelings were blooming. Was it something he said?" Thranduil shook his head. "What, then? Tell me, please. Let me help you."

The King refused to elaborate, biting his lip like a child. It was bothersome, and Galion pinched his nose. Fine, then. Let the stubborn creature have his way, but he had no intention of leaving without an answer.

"Give it to me," he ordered, hardly knowing where such boldness sprang from. It had been thousands of years since he had presumed to command the King. "The letter," he clarified, upon receiving a puzzled look. "If you will not tell me, I will see for myself."

For a moment, it looked as though Thranduil would refuse, and it would have been his right to. Galion had no authority to demand this or anything of him. He wasn't his father, no matter how often he felt so. But Thranduil didn’t refuse, though his compliance was infantile. The letter in question all but smacked Galion across the chest when it was pitched to him. Not deigning to scold him for it, Galion slid the letter from its package and smoothed it out, scanning the lines while Thranduil glared into the hearth.

Dearest friend,

I suspect that upon receiving this, you will be cross with me. You may even think me a coward for waiting until you’d gone. I hope not. I only did so as not to spoil your visit. You are uncomfortable, I know, with such discussions.

I will not waste time by baring my throat again. You know how I feel; I have told you many times. As many times as you yourself have spoken so tenderly, which is why I insist we reach resolution.

I do not ask for more than you can give. We are kings, and with that comes other obligations. Our families and people must come first, and I don’t wish to further complicate your relationship with Erebor. I don’t ask to be made a spouse, or for you to be paraded like a bride through the streets for all to see. I don’t ask for any rights to your name, house, or country. I only ask not to be hidden away in shame. To bite my tongue in my own city is exhausting, when all I would do with it is speak my love for you. I grow weary of sneaking, and would know your touch in sunlight. All I wish for us is to meet without fear of being seen.

To read this back, I wonder if even this is too demanding. If that be the case, tell me truly. You are not bound to me. If friendship is all you can offer, I will take it gladly and never again trouble you with this. Your companionship would be enough, for you are faithful friend. But if that is your wish, you must say so. I cannot stand to be kept in waiting much longer.

Yours, B.

Galion stared at the letter, fixating on Bard’s initial. The paper felt heavy, and his tongue quite suddenly dry. Buying himself time, he recreased it and stuffed it carefully back into the envelope. When it was sealed, he placed it on the pile of all the others.

“My Lord?” he tried, though to no effect. The corners of the King’s eyes creased, but otherwise he was unresponsive. Sighing, Galion rounded the desk to kneel in front of him, settling with hands on the other’s knees before speaking again. “Mellon, please. Look at me.”

The word broke Thranduil’s resolve. He tore his eyes from the fire, gazing down at his attendant with no small amount of apprehension. To see it wounded Galion’s heart. What did his Lord have to fear from him?

“Tell me honestly,” he said gently. “What about this worries you?”

“Can you not guess?”

He could. Still, he would rather him speak the words. “Indulge me.”

Had anyone else asked, Galion was certain the King would have refused. He looked even then as though he wanted to refuse his attendant. But, he didn’t. As often, Galion was eventually granted his way.

“They are nothing,” Thranduil muttered, “The handful of decades left to him now. His life will dry up faster than the floodplain his city faces. Today he is healthy, but how long until standing to greet me brings him pain? How long until even breathing is a labor too demanding?”

His attention shifted back to the fire, eyes glazing over. They reflected light, taking in nothing of its warmth. Beneath Galion’s hand, his knee began to bounce in an anxious rhythm, which ran for several long minutes before he gathered himself enough to continue.

“Lord Bard will be dead before my son next thinks of me, leaving nothing but these letters as a sign. My grief would outlive his children, and perhaps even theirs. What could come of such a thing but misery?”

Galion gnawed his tongue. He didn’t have an answer. Not one sufficient enough to quell Thranduil’s fears, anyway. This was the burden of growing attached to mortal creatures. Elves were ever left to grieve the loss of such companions. When it was a friend, the pain was terrible enough; to lose a lover, though, was certain to make a keener ache. The hurt of yet another passing was a fearsome blight on the horizon, and he couldn’t fault the Elvenking for flinching.

“Thranduil,” he said softly, recalling the King’s attention. When he had it, Galion reached for his hand. He took it as Tauriel had taken his own days prior, cupping it between his palms. “I love you, like a son; like a brother. Do you believe this?”

“Of course I do.”

“Then listen to me.” He squeezed the King’s fingers, feeling the cold press of the face of his ring. “This pain you fear-- it will find you, regardless. He will die whether you look on or not. Do you think it would be easier to hear of his passing from some herald, sent to tell Dale’s allies of the funeral? You may hide from him here, but your heart has already opened. It will not thank you for abandoning him so lightly. Not when there were decades left you might have shared. And what of his children?”

Thranduil’s hand stiffened. “What about them?”

“They will not wither along with their father. Could you not love them as your own, after he’d gone?”

As your own. The words stung the King, and Galion wished he could retract them. He knew well how Thranduil’s children had suffered in the wake of the Queen’s loss, and wondered if fear of repeating the pattern weighed on his mind now.

“What would you have me do?” Thranduil asked, sparing his attendant further worry over it.

Not though, of worry over what to say next. He tongued the backs of his teeth and took time to consider. It wouldn’t do to misspeak now.

“I cannot tell you what to do,” he settled on eventually. “Only, that you must not mishandle his heart. If you truly can’t bear the weight of it, give it back and be done with this. If you can, tell him honestly and make your concessions. But regardless of your answer--” He nodded to the desk. “Have it ready by morning. This has gone dragged on long enough, and I must insist.”

Thranduil’s attention darted between his attendant and the desktop. Each time it cut to the flats of parchment, his captured hand twitched. Apprehension tightened his knuckles, and Galion suspected that whatever he said, he would be up fretting over it through the night.

“Yes,” Thranduil said flatly after a moment. “I have been selfish. I should never have--” He swallowed thickly, blinking out a treacherous mist from his eyes. When it was gone, he bent to kiss Galion’s head, then spoke the rest of his words into the softness of his hair. “Would you have some tea made, and sit up with me awhile? I should like your company, if you aren’t too nettled to give it.”

There had been many times over the course of their long friendship that he had been furious with the King. Never so much, however, that he had refused to wait out the night with him. The two had sat through to many sunrises in this study. Whether they were drinking, watching the fire, or muddling through some painful discussion, Galion had born each watch gladly. And he would do so again now, if it would help Thranduil do what he must.

Promising to return, he unweaved their hands and left to make tea.

Chapter Text

The last notes of summer still trilled the air when word next came out of Dale. It was, quite truthfully, sooner than Galion expected. Bard would have been within his right to make Thranduil wait. After being kept in suspense for months, none could have faulted him. But that wasn’t to be the case. The man was either too kind or too eager, and either way, the attendant was grateful for it. Whatever the final outcome was to be, better that it come soon. Even the threat of heartbreak now seemed better than this awful stasis, for the former at least was something to move forward from.

Whether the Elvenking agreed, he still greeted the courier warmly when he returned to the citadel with news. He came sprinting directly to the study and he was offered a chair, which he collapsed into, still panting from the strain of his journey. His face was flushed pink and strings of dark hair clung to his forehead. He had run without rest for days, and when asked why:

“He said it was urgent, My Lord.”

“He,” Thranduil echoed, leaning back in his own chair. The great horns at the head of it broke over him like a crown. “The King of Dale, you mean.”

“Yes, Lord. Forgive me.”

Thranduil waved it off.

“Come: give me what he deemed to be so pressing.”

He held a hand out over the table, but the courier made no move to fill it. Shifting uncomfortably in his chair, he cast a glance to Galion before responding.

“Pardon, Lord, but I have nothing to give.”

The King stiffened, and his hand curled into a fist. Carefully groomed nails bit into his skin, marring its smoothness.

“What is it that you have? Some sort of message?” The courier nodded, and the Elvenking dropped his fist to the desk. “Speak it, then, and quickly. Spare me these semantics.”

“Forgive me, My--”

“And further niceties,” Thranduil interrupted a touch too harshly, and the courier flinched. Plainly regretting the unkindness, the King bit his cheek. “Fulfill your duty,” he pressed on more calmly, “and I will grant you leave. As much as a week’s worth, should you like. You have earned it.”

That was true, Galion thought. The courier had been instrumental to the progression of the Kings’ affair. He had been the bearer of all their most tender writings, which had come and gone for months by the week. The Elf had run himself ragged between the forest and Dale, often having only a day to recuperate. Though Galion paid him additionally when he could, there could be no recompense for the rest such a duty cost him. But, the courier had never complained or petitioned for reassignment. He accepted each letter graciously, and it was good to hear the King acknowledge it.

“If you could be without my service so long,” the other said carefully, not wishing to ruffle the Elvenking again, “I would be grateful.”

“I could manage. Provided, of course--”

Thranduil trailed off and inclined his head expectantly. After a moment, the courier picked the thread up. Clearing his throat, he straightened to deliver the message.

"Lord Bard thanks you for your answer, and impressed upon me to assure that his lack of one is not reflective of his mood. Only, he believes it would be wiser to discuss the matter further in person. It is, as he put it: quite delicate."

The Elvenking hummed, gleaning more from the missive than Galion did. He had the advantage, of course, of knowing what he'd written. Despite sitting up with him all that night, the attendant hadn't been allowed to read the final draft. Whatever Thranduil had decided upon-- to spurn Bard's affections or accept them-- he had not seen fit to involve his attendant any further.

"He said where, I trust, that such a discussion should take place?"

“At the farthermost border village, in the last bend of the river. He plans to go there alone and lodge at your convenience, which he said--”

The courier trailed off, seeming to weigh the merits of withholding this information. The King, however, refused to let the matter lie.

“Said what?” he prompted, and the courier gnawed his lip.

“That he hopes your arrival is prompter than your last letter. Too much longer a wait will have you meeting a toothless old man.”

Galion winced. It wasn’t a very kind message, but neither was it wholly uncalled for. Bard had likely passed the time between letters battling embarrassment. While he could understand the desire to retaliate, he wished the man had written a note instead. For the words, such as they were, prickled Thranduil’s nerves. Upon hearing them, both his brow and nose scrunched, all the color in his pale eyes turning frosty. He glared at the courier with such ferocity that Galion worried he had forgotten that the true speaker was miles away. Laying a hand on the King’s shoulder, Galion squeezed it to stay him.

"Thank you,” the attendant said, addressing the courier directly. “You may go. I will speak to your Captain about leave-taking.”

Grateful for the intercession, both with the King and his Captain, the courier sighed heavily before muttering his thanks.

“Thank your King,” the attendant corrected, “then be off with you.”

The courier did, and quickly, glossing over traditional words of parting reserved for private royal audiences. He seemed eager to be free, and if Thranduil noticed the abridgment, he was less offended by it than Galion’s overstep.

“There was no need to nanny him,” the Elvenking said when they were alone again. “I had no intention of calling for his head.”

“You also had no intention of granting Bard the last word. Don’t deny it,” Galion cautioned. “I know that look.”

All of Thranduil’s expressions were deeply stamped in his memory. This one in particular, however-- the furious pinch foretelling a outcry-- had been one of the first he’d learned to identify.

“All the same,” Thranduil muttered, shrugging out of Galion’s hold. He stood and tugged the creases from his robes. “I prefer that dismissal be left to me. I am King, and no more in need of a nanny than my staff.”

That was debatable. Thranduil often relied on his attendant for great and little things. Galion did not begrudge him this; in fact, he enjoyed it. His personal uses were more satisfying than the official. To be of direct assistance to his oldest friend was the most noble aspect of his work, in his opinion. Thranduil, however, would not agree, so Galion bit back the urge to argue it and bowed his head in submission.

The gesture was accepted without much thought, and before even stepping away to pace the study, the King seemed to have put the squabble from his mind. There were, after all, more pressing matters now.

“It would have pained him, I suppose, to be more clear on the meeting’s purpose.”

“Is it not plain? He means to discuss your letter.”

“To what end? Why not write, and spare the trouble of travelling?”

Such a short excursion could hardly be called trouble. Even riding leisurely, the King could make the journey in two days; three if the weather turned or he was assailed, but that was a difference of mere hours. Between them, Bard had the only right to fuss, for his most direct route was the river. Reaching the village would require paddling against the current, and when he arrived, he would be exhausted, sore, and reeking.

“Perhaps he thinks it more reliable. His last letter, if you recall--”

“I do.”

The Elvenking’s interruption was swift and biting, its edge a match for his icy gaze. The attendant cast down his own, but pressed on regardless.

“Then you understand his reluctance to send another.” After a count of five, he lifted his eyes, allowing them to settle on the King. Thranduil had circled back to his desk to lean, hands braced widely. “You cannot expect to be given the same out twice.”

“I do not look for one,” he spat. “My only wish is to see this reach a tolerable end.”

“Then you should be relieved. Whatever you said, it did not so terribly offend him. If it had, he would have written and been done with it.” Rounding the chair, Galion came to lean beside the King. “His wanting to see you suggests an intent far less prosaic.”

The King grunted, not bothering to look up from the desk. His eyes were trained on the stack of Bard’s letters. The top-most was offset, looking to recently have been reopened. Galion wondered how often over the last few days Thranduil had unfolded it. Had he poured over it nightly since penning his reply, drinking in the plaintive words and second guessing his own? Not for the first time, Galion wished that he had been allowed to know them. If he had, perhaps he could assuage his Lord’s anxieties.

He sighed, and at that the other’s head turned. His braid fell, coming to brush the face of the desk. The end of it landed near an inkpot, and the attendant buried the urge to toss it over Thranduil’s shoulder.

“My Lord,” he said instead, “I do not ask to be intrusive, but still, I must ask. What did you say?”

The King scoffed. “Would you have me recite it as poetry for your entertainment?”

Galion grimaced.

“You know I wouldn’t, and to even suggest so is unfair. Have I not always guarded your privacy?” After a few moments, Thranduil gave a grudging nod. “I do not ask for intimate details. Only, tell me if you spurned him. I should like to know if we’ll need guards for this excursion.”

“We,” Thranduil repeated, and at the word he softened. “You would come with me?”

“Unless you mean to forbid it.”

“No,” he assured. “But I thought you would be weary of this. My affairs have often been the cause of your grief.”

Galion briefly considered denying it, but there was no point. Thranduil’s younger years were a matter of public record. As a princeling, long before ever meeting his future Queen, he had courted many palace familiars indiscriminately. Each affair was more ill-gotten and scandalous than the last, and often incited Oropher to anger. He could not stand to see his heir, as he had phrased it, passed like a bottle. Contempt for his son’s disobedience had been the source of many arguments, all of which Galion had the duty of mediating.

“Your calf loves were troublesome,” he admitted, “but they passed without much lasting harm. What grieved me were the conflicts; to see your heart openly only ever gladdened me, and such is the case now.”

Thranduil’s smile curved sweetly, and for a moment he seemed on the verge of saying something: a word that the weight of sorrow had crushed, and that Galion had not heard him speak in many centuries. He didn’t say it, however. He swallowed it down. But it had been there, a fondness so pervasive it had nearly overcome him.

“Have our mounts prepared,” he said instead, when his wits recovered.

“Only ours?”

The other nodded. "The road is safe, and Bard poses no great threat."

Whether that was a mere matter of strength or because Thranduil had followed his heart, he didn't say. It was left to Galion's imagination, which as ever, perceived him kindly.

Hoping for the latter, he excused himself to make ready the horses.

 

 

 

Leaving the citadel without a guard proved impossible. When Galion and the King neared the bridge, they were spotted by a scout. Apparently acting on a standing order, he called through the door of the guard house, and moments later, Tauriel came bolting through it. She hopped it’s fence to intercept them, demanding to know where they were heading without an escort.

"One of the border villages," Thranduil answered. "No more than a two day's ride, unimpeded."

It could be credited to him that he said this without so much as blinking, as though for a King to go off alone was not reckless. But Tauriel was in no mood to dole out credit, and outright refused to let him pass unguided.

"I am King," he reminded, hoping to cow his Captain. "This realm is mine to wander, alone or otherwise. And, if you look, you will see I am not unaccompanied."

He jerked his head toward Galion, and when Tauriel followed it to glare at him, he did all that he could to appear apologetic. He was in part, for he did not wish to worry her. In another part, however, he was delighted. It had been many centuries since he and the King had ridden alone.

“You are King,” she agreed, though any hope of deference withered in the heat of her tone. “But I am the one on whom blame for your disappearance would fall, and whose head would be called for should your body be found cold.”

This wasn’t strictly true. She was not so highly ranked that the fate of the King rested on her shoulders. But, she was his ward, and that she would be ignorant of his plans would be difficult to believe. If something were to befall the King, Tauriel would be the first the council looked to for information. Had her father not hinted at such a plan? And if so, why had she not prevented it, or else told someone that might?

Though it was more likely to only be the death of her career, the argument still gave Thranduil pause. His hand tightened on his reins, and he cast a hard glance to the scout who betrayed him. A poor creature he was, to be caught between them both.

“Your head is safe, Captain. I have no intention of disappearing.”

“None do, but there is only one way to prevent it.”

The King grimaced. “I will not drag a full host out for a vanity.”

Undeterred, the Captain shrugged. “Just myself and my best spotters, then. We travel light, and will not even need to pack.” She gestured to the guard house. “My choices are gathered already, and could leave without further delay.”

“I may leave when I chose, and say again: I have no need of a guard, reduced or otherwise.”

Tauriel sighed and pursed her lips, as though what she meant to say next troubled her. Some underhanded trick, Galion didn’t doubt. She would not be the first to make such an attempt. Even he had, over the years, needed to resort to such tactics.

“So you wouldn’t,” she continued, “but I would worry every moment, and couldn’t sleep until you passed the gate again. If only for my sake: take me with you, ada. Please.”

Her face was pinched and her eyes shone wetter than before, reflecting a sadness that, while sudden, did not seem feigned. Rather, it was as if it had been called up from reserve. One that ran deep, as her guardian’s did. It was a wounded expression, and to see it brought Galion’s heart to his mouth. Thranduil’s too, apparently, for his face slacked and he swallowed in a play for time that his attendant suspected was futile.

“To speak thus is unfair,” the Elvenking said, confirming the suspicion. “And I must wonder where you learned such raffish tricks.” How his attention cut to Galion left no doubt that he didn’t wonder, actually. “Go,” he commanded. “Pick your company and be quick.”

This, then, was how they found themselves on the road: Galion and Thranduil on their horses at the lead, ridden behind by Tauriel and flanked by scouts on foot, running silently through darkening trunks of trees. It was a larger party than either King or attendant had hoped, but not so cumbersome as it could have been. The additional weight hardly slowed them; paired with the delay at the gate, it cost no more than an hour’s progress. Such a delay was negligible, and after half a day of riding, the fact of it brightened the King’s mood. The dour expression he had worn since being bullied faded, and he began to chatter with Galion about the scenery. The trees, flowers, and passing animals all snared his attention, and if they happened upon a rare example of one, he halted the entire party to marvel at it more closely.

In the end, this slowed them more than the guard did.

But such a practice did not bother Galion. It warmed his heart to see the King so enraptured. To know the Woodland was to delight in it, even now that darkness choked it. The low light brought on by suffocating ivies and ropy spiderwebs leant an unnatural, ceaseless twilight. Even this, though, added something to the realm’s beauty, which was something the Enemy could never have foreseen. Over the last few centuries, new strange lichens had begun growing, redressing the old trees in greens and yellows. All manner of jewel-spotted mushrooms had cropped up, and various shade flowers. Oppressive night had not been the death of the Woodland’s majesty. There was enough Elvish magic to keep it at bay, preventing a total eclipse by Sauron’s shadow. What came of it, then, was something not unlike existed everywhere: danger, yes, but new things yet to marvel at.

They discussed the tension this created at some length as they rode, peppering it in between their studies of flora. It was, after all, a dreary topic, and one only suited for the vigor of riding. When they stopped each night to camp, they dropped it entirely, opting instead to sing songs of history and myth. The voices of King, attendant, and guards melded together around the fire, rising with the sweet smoke of what they cooked.

It was, all considered, a wonderful two days. As they neared the borders of the river village, Galion was almost saddened. Not because he wished to delay the two King’s conversation any further, but because he knew such a ride was unlikely to come again soon. The Elvenking was busy, and unsociable these days besides. It was rare for him to venture without cause. He had been touched by Shadow, and it made a reclusive of him.

“You’re despairing,” Thranduil muttered aside to him the third morning, just as the trees began to thin into a clearing.

Galion almost didn’t hear it. The sound of the river, which had the night before been a distant trickle, now beat like thunder against the shore to the left of them.

“I am not,” he insisted, straightening in his saddle to correct any gloomy slump that the King may have detected. “How could I? The morning is handsome, and our travels have been easy.”

“It is their end that troubles you, I perceive. Don’t deny it.” Turning his head, he gave the other a wily smirk. “I can guess what puts your lovely braids in knots.”

The attendant flushed, averting his eyes. That this magnificent creature should call him lovely, even in jest, was thoroughly disarming. It tangled his tongue, and for long enough that Thranduil was able to continue without so much as a half-hearted disagreement.

“But, I cannot blame you.” His grin faded, settling to a somber line, and he guided their horses closer before continuing. “I have been a shrew, and repaid your loyalty poorly. The threat of my fading caused you much pain, and I am sorry. If I could take it from you--" He trailed off and chewed his cheek. "Know, please, that I never meant you harm."

Galion’s throat cinched, as useless as his heavy tongue. He ached to respond, but the words were caught in his chest. They beat against it, seeking an out, or perhaps it was only his heart thudding. Whichever it might be, his pulse fluttered in time with it.

“It is past,” he said at length. “As should be your worry over it. Your breaking of the world could not turn me against you.”

Thranduil’s smile returned, and all the brighter.

“You are a greater friend than I warrant.” He tugged his reins and separated them. “Though I hope to prove more deserving going forward."

Not bothering to explain what he meant, he urged his horse to trot ahead to greet the villagers expecting them.

Galion stayed with the guard, enjoying the warmth of lingering affection, and followed the curl of it like a trail leading home.

 

 

"I always loved this bend in the river," Bard mused, attention bent on it.

He stood on the docks with his back to his company: arms crossed, stance wide, and squinting at the water. Light broke its surface in glistening gems where it peaked; it was nearly blinding, but the man did not seem bothered.

"I cannot imagine," Thranduil said, "that it is much different from any other."

"Then you do not know it as I do, despite your years. Each bend is unique, and this one most so, for it marks the beginning of your realm." Bard paused to shift his weight, and the dock moved with him, bobbing in the softness of waterlogged earth. "Even if I could not tell by sight, I would know it. The very water reflects the magic of your folk; how it runs and makes light, even how it sounds. As a woman laughing, I always think."

Attuned to the water as Bard was, it wasn’t surprising to hear him speak of it so. He had whiled his years on it, and come to know its personality.

“Lovely praise,” Thranduil said. “But I wonder that we need to meet for you to deliver it. Was I truly summoned to discuss the local geography?”

Bard barked a laugh. “Summoned, you say. Why speak of this as if it were ominous?”

“Because it may be. You still have not explained, or even turned to greet me.” The Elvenking straightened, and raised a hand to adjust the lay of his diadem. Fussing, like a maiden before her suitor. “What am I to think when met with such ambiguity?”

“Not that I am deceptive, for I have never given reason.”

Uncrossing his arms, Bard dropped them to his sides. His fingers flexed and creased his breeches, and again came the word: fussing. Galion wondered if they would posture all afternoon.

Thankfully, Bard did not leave him wondering. Still palming his thighs, he turned from the water to face them. He did not, however, come join them on the banks. He stayed on the docks, apparently emboldened by the distance. That was understandable, for to come closer would have required him to tilt his head. He wasn’t a short man, but a man all the same. In spite of his kingly colors and beaded hair, he was still dwarfed by the creature tangled up in his affections. Love of him had not made Thranduil less imposing. Remaining back several feet forced a false perspective: one in which the Elf was not so towering, and could be met with a square and steady gaze.

“Did you mean it?” the man asked, then when Thranduil’s brow creased, amended: “What you wrote in your last letter.”

The Elvenking bristled.

“And you would scold me for doubting your sincerity?” He sucked his teeth, and Galion winced. Most unseemly. “Tell me, Lord, what would be gained from such deception?”

The man didn’t answer immediately. Instead, he stood peering between the two Elves on the bank. He tracked their faces, as if hoping to determine some hidden purpose.

“An easy conscience, perhaps,” he said after a time. “The knowledge that, even if it be by a lie, you made a short life far more bearable.”

Thranduil recoiled from the reminder of mortality, knocked on his heels by the suddenness of it. But the unpleasantness of shock faded swiftly, replaced by a curious sadness. Whatever the Elvenking had expected, such an answer hadn’t been it.

“It would not be so great a sacrifice,” he continued, either having overlooked the Elf’s discomfort or not caring for it. “A handful of decades is but a blink, and to condescend for such a time would not be so inconvenient.”

“You are my King,” Thranduil insisted, turning talk away from the creeping passage of time. “As I am yours. There is no call for condescension among equals.”

“And no call, either, for dancing around a question.”

Bard’s fingers made anxious pleats in his breeches. They would be a ruin of wrinkles if he didn’t stop soon, and would have to be pressed before he could make another royal appearance. Or would, if the man cared about such things.

"No," Thranduil agreed, though Bard did not immediately recognize it. His sunburned face waned, mouth slacking in horror. Realizing the confusion, the Elvenking raised a hand in placation. "No call, I only meant. But please, come closer."

He extended the hand in invitation, but the man still hesitated, his own remaining knotted in the slack of his breeches. His eyes narrowed on Thranduil’s palm, as though expecting at any moment for it to be snatched away. It was strange to see Bard so apprehensive when he had ever been the more open of the two. But then, what had such a disposition granted him? Only months of fretting, and fear of never meeting again. That he was cautious now came as no shock, though perhaps he would be less so if they were alone. To that end, Galion dared to clear his throat for attention.

“Perhaps I should go,” he suggested. “You may both be more at ease without--”

“No,” Bard interrupted. Spurred to action, he flattened his hands and crossed the length of the dock. It bobbed beneath his steps, and when he hopped off, sprang up noisily. “I should like a witness. Does Lord Thranduil object?” The Elvenking shook his head. “Then perhaps he will answer, and spare my heart these dramatics.”

Dropping his outstretched hand, Thranduil pursed his lips, no doubt considering a rebuttal. Galion could guess what he would say: that the dramatics were Bard’s doing, for who had called the meeting? Thankfully, he refrained from doing so. His jaw worked, and after a moment’s reflection, he finally did as the man had asked.

“I meant them,” he assured, “and regret to have kept you waiting. I was--”

He paused, as though wracking for an excuse. Galion’s breath caught. Precious few would suffice, and those that would, would not be true. The King had been attending no great matters since their last meeting. It had been a mere avoidance, which Bard surely knew. To lie would be an insult, both to the man’s heart and intelligence. The attendant hoped his Lord would not be so crass.

“I was frightened,” he decided upon, and Galion released the fearful breath. “As you know, I am fond of privacy. To speak so openly is difficult, though I wish it were not. If I shared your courage, perhaps you would not now be so skeptical.”

Heartened by the honesty, the man’s eyes lost their defensiveness. They softened, and his stiff arms relaxed. His fingers curled into his palms and he stroked them, perhaps regretting that he hadn’t taken the other’s hand. But, there was nothing for it now. Thranduil had rescinded the offer, and as he spoke had laced his fingers over his belly. It was a fretful pose, one that allowed nails to catch in his sleeve threads. For the sake of the tailor, the attendant hoped he wouldn’t shred them.

“There is no void of courage in you, Thranduil.” He said the name with such tenderness that Galion flushed. “You are bear hearted, and a bright star of hope. Your strength and grace have saved my people many times over.”

Slowly, giving the Elf time to retreat, Bard stepped closer to where he stood on the bank. Thranduil tensed but held ground, even when the enclosure forced him to tilt his chin down to hold the man’s gaze. Undeterred by the position now-- the Elvenking’s candor soothed his fears-- Bard lifted his own in turn. His hair fell over his shoulders, beads clinking together like river stones, and he only stopped when their boots met.

“I am sorry,” Bard continued, “to have caused you trouble. Such was not my wish. I love you, truly, and would have you if you’ll keep me. My only stipulation is--”

“No further sneaking,” Thranduil interrupted. “I recall.”

“And you could honor this? You could be seen with me?”

The Elvenking huffed a laugh as helpless as it was breathless.

“I am often see with you, Aran nin.”

“Aye, but that is different. Until now, all but our friend--” He nodded to Galion, who was appalled to be referenced just then. “--have thought us only allies. To be seen as lovers changes our weight, and will, I think, erode much of your coveted privacy.”

That was true. When they were discovered, the eyes of their citizens and Erebor’s would be fixed wholly on the Kings. They would be under constant scrutiny, and not only out of nosiness. The revelation would raise questions of political corruption in the minds of Dain’s advisers. Bard and Thranduil would have to answer and endure many unsavory accusations before the Dwarves were satisfied, and there was no guarantee that satisfaction would be forthcoming.

No doubt thinking as Galion did, Thranduil considered the question. He stood still, gazing fixedly at the man before him. The man who until a year ago had been a mere passing amusement. It was strange to think now that he had recently been their bargeman, to be summoned with hardly a thought. He had settled so completely into the role of King that it was difficult to imagine him ever having been otherwise. He had been, though. Bard had endured much hardship in fighting for his family and fellow citizens. It was that disposition, more than all else, which had secured the throne for him. Long before slaying Smaug, he had sown the seeds of ascension.

Though neither he nor Thranduil had known it, this moment had always been on the horizon, waiting to the reached on the other side of tragedy. Both had suffered and wept more bitter tears than could be counted, and now had shared a tender blooming. In private letters and stolen moments they had tilled each other’s hearts, softening the ground to allow love to grow. And here was the culmination: a wonderfully fragile shoot that could be crushed if either stepped too carelessly.

“I have preserved my privacy,” the Elvenking finally said, “for many lifetimes of Men. And you have seen the fruit of it: isolation and resentment. It has brought more pain than it has allowed me to avoid.”

Thranduil broke the tight weave of his fingers and dropped his hands, reaching to take Bard’s into his own. Their palms kissed, and Thranduil allowed himself a moment to enjoy the warmth. He curled his long fingers over the backs of Bard’s hands, rubbing circles into the roughened knuckles.

“My people long ago forgave what threatened to be my darkening. Perhaps, given time, I shall even forgive myself. But that, I think, will only come after change.”

“I have heard rumors,” Bard said, though he was careful not to say exactly what or from whom. “And by them I see that much has changed already.”

“Not enough for my children.” The words hung heavy between them a moment before Thranduil shook his head. “But never mind.” Giving Bard’s hands a gentle squeeze, he pressed on. “I only mean that things cannot be as they have. To live in fear of loss any longer will undue me, and more than that: shame the gift you give.”

It was Bard’s turn to huff. “I haven’t brought you anything.”

“You brought your heart,” Thranduil corrected. “And if my earlier mishandling can be forgiven, I would gladly give my own in return, regardless of what may come later.”

Later might mean in the following days when news reached Erebor and Dain began cursing his obliviousness. Then again, it could also mean decades hence, when Bard was bent under the compounding weight of age. But whichever the Elf meant, mean it he did. His fingers drew tight around Bard’s to quell their trembling, and his eyes were wide and wet as the river’s surface. He looked frightened, and Bard himself not much better. Had it not been for Thranduil’s grip, he might have stumbled, so unstable did he seem on the bank. The tilt of it towards the water him perilously, and he appeared likely at any moment to fall into it. He teetered, brow creased as he turned the words over in his mind, seeking any point of weakness. When he found none, however, the expression smoothed and he huffed again, the sound of it more triumphant than the first.

“Forgive it? More than that.” He shook his head and gave a wide, endearing grin. “I have forgotten it already.”

The man raised a hand, dragging the other’s up with it. Bringing it to his mouth, he kissed each knuckle then turned to press his lips to the back. The touch bled into a nuzzle, and he dragged his coarse stubble over the skin before letting their hands drop again. Then, leaning on the Elvenking’s strength, he stretched up to peck adoringly at his chin. It was a boyish display of affection, but it pierced Thranduil’s heart. His eyes fell closed and he gave a small, wounded sound. Bard pecked again before falling back to his heels and nodding through the window of the Elves’ shoulders toward the village.

“With that settled,” he said cheerfully, “perhaps you will join me at the inn. They promised much food and wine upon your arrival. We could have it in the main hall, or if you’d rather, the room I ordered. Which, if I may say, would be my preference.”

Galion wished he wouldn’t, for he did not think it possible for his face to be a brighter shade of red. His cheeks would never cool again; he was sure of it, and wondered if he could beg one of them for dismissal now.

Sensing his discomfort, Thranduil clucked his tongue. “Careful, Lord, or you shall scandalise my attendant. His poor old heart is not so sturdy as it seems.”

And he was wrong, apparently, for his blush could be deeper. The Elvenking’s teasing saw to that.

 

 

They spent the following three days in the village. Bard and Thranduil passed most of the time alone. They shared the room the man had ordered, only leaving it for meals and meetings, and the occasional walk beneath the stars.

Their closeness, as expected, did not escape notice. The villagers and guards-- excluding Tauriel-- were flummoxed by it. Whenever the Kings joined them, they stared openly, seeking a reason for the seemingly sudden development. What they found only perplexed them more sincerely, however. Emboldened by the remoteness of the village, the pair dipped their toes into the warm pool of public affection. While never lewd, their fondness was unmistakable. They brushed hands, linking elbows as they walked, and even once were purportedly caught kissing by several villagers. They could not have caused a greater uproar had they tried to.

The King’s guards, accustomed to biting their tongues, made a valiant attempt to overlook the affair. The villagers, however, were far less disciplined. Though they had the good sense not to approach the Kings directly, they badgered Galion whenever they could. As such, he spent the majority of his time vetting queries and downplaying the displays of intimacy. It was, after all, not really the villagers’ business, though he couldn’t begrudge their curiosity. It had been many centuries since the King had taken company. The Woodland’s citizens had long hoped for such a turn, and though Bard was unlikely the match they envisioned, that a match had been made at all stirred up excitement. The poor creatures were beside themselves with it.

Bard, as much as he could, strived to take the attention in stride. As Galion had expected, Thranduil fared better. He and his former Queen had been on display near constantly, and this, unlike impending Dwarven insinuations, did not agitate him. The Man, however, had no such experience. He and his late wife had enjoyed a quiet existence, and though the turmoil of the last year had prepared him somewhat, it was nothing next to such greedy attention. Still, his mood did not dip or even falter. He was a picture of infatuation, and nothing but the most vicious response could have broken it, which they were not to be faced with here.

“Better than expected,” the man mused the third night, as though he had been waiting to make the assessment.

He, Galion, and the King were all in the inn’s dining hall, and had been for several hours. Having finished their meal some time ago, all now were nursing their tankards of ale. The Elvenking himself had recently abandoned their table in favor of speaking with the village’s official, and the two were at present in conversation by fire.

This had left Bard and the attendant to themselves for half an hour already, time which they had passed largely in silence. Not the uncomfortable, strained sort they might have suffered through a year ago. It was companionable, breaking only where needed. Between swigs of ale, the two made passing comments on the village or shared stories of their time on the river. What well this latest thought had sprung from, however, Galion was uncertain. Neither had said for nearly ten minutes.

“The villager’s reactions, I take that you mean.”

“This entire visit, actually.” Bard raised his tankard and pulled deeply, wiping his mouth on his sleeve when he had finished. “But I suspect that is largely your doing.”

Galion sipped from his tankard more delicately. After he had swallowed, he gave half a shrug.

“I might have nudged him.”

Which was putting it mildly, but there was no need for Bard to know how vocally the Elvenking first resisted. The details were irrelevant. What mattered was that they’d made settlement, and the tug of their wills had finally gone to bed.

“More than once, I suspect.” Bard winked over the lip of his cup. “Your Lord is difficult to persuade.”

“And even more so to dissuade, I should say.” Galion turned in his chair to face the other fully, propping his elbow on the table. “He is not fickle, and I hope you realize you are now saddled with him.”

Bard sat aside his tankard and mirrored the other’s pose.

“I do,” he said sincerely. “And I wish you would let me thank you. I’m aware of how this would have gone without interference.”

Galion waved the suggestion off. “He would have come around on his own, eventually.”

“Perhaps, but I am grateful all the same.”

The attention with which Bard fixed him was warm and horribly friendly. Galion shifted, rather unsure of what to say. He had acted out of duty and love for Thranduil, and that hardly warranted thanking.

“The King is the son of my heart.” Straightened up, he reached for his drink again. Taking it in hand, he brought it to cradle in his lap. “I would have dragged him here, though fortunately it wasn’t necessary.”

Bard barked a laugh at that, then the two settled back into comfortable silence. Nursing their drinks, they turned their attention to the hall again. Or, no: to Thranduil’s place in it. Both of their eyes fell on him and the official. Their conversation, while still unfolding, seemed to have turned from matters of diplomacy to something more personal, if how they hunched together was any indication. The official had put aside his tankard to guide Thranduil close and whisper in his ear. Whatever he said first caused a blush, then a merry peel of laughter, followed by a playful clap on the shoulder.

He looked happy, Galion thought, as he often did when Bard was present. As he hadn’t in quite some time before the Man had come. The sight was rousing, and warmed his heart down to its root.

“Better than expected,” Bard mumbled again.

And Galion quite thought that he agreed.