Bard is going to die.
Thranduil, the Elvenking, sits atop his stag and stares at the man before him, unblinking. Bard survived the dragon’s fire, and he lets that thought warm him, however briefly.
Bard blinks. He does nothing but blink six times in a row, and then nods before he speaks. “My lord Thranduil, we did not think to see you here.”
The way he says ‘my lord’ carries throughout the open hall, but it holds a meaning only the Elvenking knows in the deepest, darkest places of his heart.
My lord. Please.
It holds memories of nude flesh and slick, wet tongues. The heat of a touch and the rich scent of sweat and wine. It holds passion. Perhaps even love.
Bard stands still, though his fingers hover above the sword at his hip. He keeps his chin tilted up and his eyes steady. Brown eyes. Warm as the wood whence Thranduil came. His hair is the same deep brown, wavy and tied back from his face, which is smudged with dirt and ash from the dragon’s fire. But for a scrape on his cheek, he is uninjured. Bard is dressed like any other of his station in a dirty tunic with a leather coat thrown over the top to keep out the chill. The tunic is blue and the coat brown. Like always, Bard is lightly bearded.
Snow littered the ground on the ride to Dale but none falls now.
That Bard speaks says volumes, as all the other men and women do nothing but gawk. It does not surprise Thranduil in the least.
“I heard you needed aid, bargeman,” Thranduil says and casts a sideways glance from Bard to the cart of supplies Thranduil’s elves brought. “Laketown has fallen and so has Smaug. The mountain is free. You are in charge?”
Bard gives a brief nod of his head. Then he eyes the wagon of supplies as most men would a bag of gold. He smiles – the smile that pinches the corners of his eyes and shows his age. However, his expression remains guarded. He is not the sort of man who would carelessly grasp at treasure. Bard understands, as does the Elvenking, that all things come at a price.
“You have saved us. I do not know how to thank you,” Bard says, his voice raspy with cold but grateful nonetheless.
Thranduil watches Bard slip closer to his stag as the crowd converges upon the cart. Gasps of joy ring hollow in Thranduil’s ears. It matters not that they are fed for this day or a month. Those supplies will not outlast the winter the way most men eat. And these people have no shelter save the ruined city of Dale.
They will freeze without Thorin Oakenshield’s aid, Bard among them.
Such is the way of mortals. A pity that this very moral looks straight into Thranduil’s grey eyes without a hint of fear. Uncertainty, perhaps, but no fear. It’s how Bard always looks at him, from the time he was a boy who wandered into the forest realm on accident.
Bard may have died if Thranduil had not found him. Bard’s boat had become tangled in the roots of Mirkwood’s great black trees, and Bard climbed out to free it. He did not know of the nest of spiders in the darkness above his head, and the vermin descended on him, all skittering legs and clacking fangs.
Bard, then a youth of seventeen, fought bravely for a child of man. His dagger served him well enough to pierce two of the creature’s bellies, but there were too many of them for one man to kill.
Thranduil left his palace that day on a whim, though now it feels less like a whim and more like part of a grander design. The twisted halls weighed on him, and Legolas hounded him with questions of his mother – questions Thranduil did not wish to answer.
A walk in the woods beyond his gates was all the respite he had.
The evil in the forest fled before each step of his grey leather boots. Then he heard the scuffle of movement by the waters edge. A cry and yelp. The hissing of the spiders.
He had not seen combat in hundreds of years, but Thranduil moved toward it. He sprinted over the tangled roots, his sword in his hand, and burst into the clearing as a spider descended on Bard, fangs ready to bite.
Thranduil sliced the monster into two neat pieces, and his very presence was enough to frighten off the others. They scuttled back into the trees. At that moment, Thranduil made a note to remind his captain to rid the forest of them sooner rather than later.
Bard gawked at him. Even then, his cheeks were rough with patchy stubble. His hair was shorter so the curls framed his jaw. “My lord elf. I do not know how to thank you,” he breathed and stood. He was only slightly shorter then, but thinner by far. He did not bow, and the way he jutted his chin out and up, as if he were greater than most men, should have itched at Thranduil’s nerves. That it did not struck him.
“Wherefore do you wander into my woods, boy?” Thranduil asked and frowned at the mess on his blade.
Bard pointed at his boat and smiled sheepishly. “Sorry about that. I’m a bargeman from Laketown and I came too deep into the forest. Before I knew it, I was stuck.”
“Free yourself and be gone lest the spiders will eat well this night,” Thranduil said and turned, gracefully, away.
“Of course,” Bard said and stepped back into the water. It rushed around his thighs, and he grunted as he pushed and pulled to free his boat.
The sound thumped on Thranduil’s skull until he was far too fed up with it to do anything but help. He swept back to Bard’s side, heaved the boat free and pushed.
Unfortunately, Thranduil pushed at the same instance that Bard pulled, and the sudden displacement of the boat upset Thranduil’s impeccable balance and sent him tumbling into the water.
The chill of it shocked him, and the next thing he knew was the sensation of hands. On his person. Hands grasping and helping and the muttered apologies of the youth whom he decided (foolishly) to aid!
“I am so sorry, my lord. So very sorry. I may have a dry blanket in the boat,” Bard said, and when Thranduil brushed the wet hair from his face he noticed the smile threatening Bard’s delicate lips.
His silver robe dripped into the water, the golden trim curling at the edges. For once, Thranduil’s carefully crafted control faltered, and he breathed in a great gasp of air. “You would laugh?”
“No! Never!” Bard said, but his mouth betrayed him as a chuckle spilled out and rang through the wood.
It tingled over Thranduil’s skin like a song, sweeter than any he’d heard, and he let it pull his lips up as well.
And now they’ve come to this.
“Why come all this way for our plight?” Bard asks. His voice is low, and his eyes dart from Thranduil’s to the cart. If one person took more than the others, Thranduil is sure Bard would stop them.
The question is a fair one, and Bard is not a stupid man.
Thranduil knows this, and he sees the urgency in Bard’s expression. The need. And Thranduil has only to say a few words to shatter Bard’s faith in him into pieces like a cheap trinket dashed on the rocks. “Your gratitude is misplaced. I did not come on your behalf. I came to reclaim something of mine.”
Bard’s eyes widen, their depth and warmth fill with hurt. It is not the cruelest thing Thranduil has ever said, but perhaps the cruelest to this man.
“There are gems in the mountain that I deeply desire. White gems of pure starlight.” He turns his stag away so he does not have to see Bard’s expression. He knows it all too well. The furrow of his brow and the way those delicately bowed lips thin into a line. Thranduil knows that Bard will be disappointed beyond measure at this answer – hurt even.
Looking upon him will do neither of them good.
“Wait! Please wait,” Bard calls, his voice thick with desperation.
Thranduil stops, his back straight and tall.
“You would go to war over a handful of gems?” Bard’s tone holds notes of accusation that should not sting coming from a man. A mere mortal. But they prick at Thranduil’s armor like slivers made of iron and sharp as a warg’s claws. They always do.
“The heirlooms of my people are not so easily surrendered.”
“We are allies in this.”
Allies in many ways – ways he does not need to explain.
“My people also have claim upon the riches in that mountain. Let me speak with Thorin.” It is less of a question. More a command.
When Thranduil turns, Bard’s hands are no longer near his weapon. They rest on his hips instead. He stares into Thranduil’s eyes. All hurt fled and only the bright fire of anger burns in his expression.
“You would try to reason with a dwarf?” Thranduil says, his voice as biting as the cold air.
“To avoid war? Yes.” Bard does not flinch, though he blinks. His face crumples at the edges. Enough that Thranduil knows he will have to seek forgiveness or forgo Bard’s company.
One of those things is not possible.
“I will have what is my right,” Thranduil says and turns his stag from Bard’s accusatory eyes. Very few of his own people, Silvan or Sindarin, cast that glance at their king. Yet Bard casts it as if it has no consequence.
“Let me speak with him!” Bard calls after him. His voice is hitched. Holds an air of urgency only possessed by mortals.
Thranduil pulls on the reins. Tilts his head just so. A smile twists at the side of his mouth. “Very well. But I will have what I came for if you fail, bargeman.”
Despite his better judgment, Thranduil’s chest swells and something stirs that much lower.
The negotiations fail, as Thranduil knows they will. However, Bard earnestly tries to convince Thorin Oakenshield to stand by his honor. The stubborn dwarf won’t hear it, and the disappointment paints itself across Bard’s fair brow as he turns to face Thranduil upon the bridge.
“He will give us nothing!” Bard spits into the cold air, puffs of fog come out of his mouth with it.
“Such a pity. But still you tried.” Thranduil offers a smile – a token, now that they are alone.
Bard’s shoulders bunch. “I don’t understand. Why would he risk war?”
“It is fruitless to reason with them. They understand only one thing.” Thranduil frees his sword, the same blade that saved Bard nearly twenty years before.
Bard eyes the blade, his chest heaving, and his tongue flits over his lips.
The same hunger rages in Thranduil’s groin no matter how he fights to contain it. That weapon is a symbol of their relationship, strange though it may be.
“We ride at dawn,” he says, for the benefit of the elves behind him. Then Thranduil’s eyes fall to Bard alone. “Come to my tent.”
Bard nods and rubs a hand over his rough cheeks. “And you will explain yourself?”
Thranduil’s hands itch to touch Bard’s hair. Feel it against his cheek. His mouth twitches into a smile. “Perhaps. At the very least, I offer you a drink with an old friend.”
“Is that what we are? Friends?” Bard asks.
So direct. He never learned to hold anything back.
“What more would you have?” Thranduil asks softly enough that none but Bard can hear. That he asks such a question at all, in this ruined land under the shadow of the mountain with an army at his back, is pure foolishness. Everything he wants is within his grasp if only he reaches for it, and yet he does nothing.
Bard is a man. A mortal.
“You know what I desire, my lord elf,” Bard says. Then he spurs his white horse to a trot and rides past the stag.
It reminds Thranduil of their first parting. When the youth climbed into the boat and carelessly gave away his name.
Then he waved and grinned. “Will I see you again, my lord elf?”
“I very much hope not,” Thranduil said under his breath.
He watched the boat disappear into the shadows before he returned to his palace.
Now, he follows.