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"When will he wake?" Sigrid asked, voice as steady as she could keep it. It had been almost a week since the battle began and still, her father lay unconscious. 

The elf healer looked up at her, a sad smile on her harried face, "I am sorry, little one. That is not something I can answer."

Behind her, her brother's expression morphed from fear to fury, "That's not good enough!" he yelled, voice trembling. Sigrid sent him a sharp look as the elf regarded him warily. 

"I am sorry for my brother," she said quietly. "Things are... difficult now." 

Since her father's body had been found the remaining people of Dale's alliances had been shifting. It had begun with Alfrid's return to the city, the old Master in tow. He had brought supplies with him, blankets, medicine, pledges of aid from nearby villages and towns. Of course, he had charged dearly for his supplies but the people were so desperate they had hardly noticed. 

"You see," Alfrid had crowed. "You see how benevolent your Master is, people? You see how he has brought with him aid where Bard only brought war?"

The elves had regarded the two with hostility but they had refused to get involved with the politics of Dale, no matter how Bain had begged for an audience with the King. The dwarves too had refused to help, but where the elves had refused out of disinterest - Sigrid assumed - the dwarves had refused because they had bigger concerns. Their king, his heirs, all were dead and Erebor remained in ruins.

Bain was furious, Sigrid knew. After all, it seemed they were once again suffering because of another people's war. First a dragon had destroyed their village, then a war, now a takeover.

"I only mean to say," Sigrid said carefully. "That it would be unfortunate if he did not wake soon."

The elf sighed; Sigrid knew by the look on her face that it was not good news. The elf's gaze flicked to Tilda, crouched over their father, one of his large hands clasped between hers. Sigrid understood and with a nod to Bain her brother sighed and put a gentle hand on their sister's shoulder, "Come on, Tilda."

Tilda shook her head, "No, no! I want to know what's going to happen to Da!" But she stood when Bain lifted her and allowed herself to be guided out, all the while protesting.

"Little one," the elf said, as soon as Tilda was out of earshot. "Your father's injuries were extensive - it is a miracle he has survived this long. This will not be an easy recovery."

Sigrid felt the tears begin to form, "But he will wake?" 

"He will," the elf confirmed, "But it could take weeks, little one. Months."

"Months?" Sigrid repeated.

"Yes, I am sorry, dear one. Truly," the elf reached out and put a comforting arm around her shoulder. "Now, come. I must show you how to properly change his bandages and bathe his wounds. I will not be here for much longer."

"When are you leaving?" Sigrid asked, panic rising in her breast. There was no telling what the Master would do when the elves left. Thus far he had kept himself in check but without the watchful elves about the city Sigrid knew he would not hold back in his campaign against them.

"As soon as the King decrees," the elf answered.

Sigrid shook her head, "You can't leave, not so soon. What if something goes wrong?"

The elf smiled reassuringly, "Nothing will happen, little one."

-

"Sigrid, if the elves leave..." Bain said in a hushed tone, much, much later. They had moved Da out of the make-shift healing house in the old town hall and back to their ramshackle little home. It was becoming too dangerous to leave him there without any protection. The elves hadn't seemed to take their concerns seriously.

"I know," Sigrid muttered. "I know."

She looked down at their sleeping sister, curled beside Da's limp form. It wasn't fair that they were in living in fear like this, their Da had killed the dragon, had lead the charge against the invading orcs, he had saved them all and yet the people were so quick to turn on him. She knew that it was mostly out of fear that the people had begun to follow the Master again, after all they had no way of knowing what Da would be like as a leader. She knew, but it still bothered her.

They deserved better than this and if the people of Laketown, of Dale, couldn't help them then there were others that would. That she would make help them.

She stood up, reaching for her over-coat, "I'll be back."

"What?" Bain spluttered, "Where are you going?"

"To get help," Sigrid said, as she opened the door. "Stay here, watch them."

Bain called after her but Sigrid didn't look back. This could be their last chance.

-

"You have to let me in," Sigrid repeated, fists clenched. "Please, my Da - "

"Yes, yes, your father was very important," the elf repeated, scathingly. "Look, I can't just let you in to see the King. It would be inappropriate."

The guardsman clearly had not fought in the battle and though her father had raised her better Sigrid found herself hating him for his cowardice. She was not about to turn back, she was not about to let her family down.

"Now, if you don't leave I'll be forced to summon someone to forcibly eject you from the camp," the guardsman said.

Sigrid was gearing up for another round of pleading and if that didn't work she could always try shoving him out of the way and making a break for the king. He wouldn't expect that, she knew he'd written her off as a weak willed little girl and she could be fast if she wanted to, it had a chance of working, but just as she was about to speak she spotted someone familiar approaching the tent.

"Tauriel!"

The red-headed elf smiled as she approached them, "Sigrid, what are you doing here?"

"Tauriel, you have to help me. I have to speak with the King."

Tauriel frowned, "The King? Why would you ever need to speak with him, little one?"

"Because I need..." Sigrid began but she fell silent, none of the other elves had believed her concerns but Tauriel looked as though she bore genuine concern for them. "I need his - and your -- help. The Master is back, he's trying to seize power again and with Da... with Da not around to defend himself... Tauriel, I'm worried about what will happen when you leave. There'll be no one to stop him from getting rid of us."

"Tauriel - " the guardsman began but Tauriel cut him off with a flick of her wrist. 

"Come on, little one, I believe the King will be very interested in hearing this tale," she put an arm round Sigrid's shoulders and fixed the guardsman with her strong gaze. "Especially because of how fond he is of your father."

With an embarrassed mumble the guardsman stepped aside and Sigrid smiled to herself as Tauriel escorted her into the tent.

The King stood with his back to them, silver-gold hair cascading down his back, impossibly straight. He was talking with another elf, heads bent together as they poured over documents spread over the table. They both turned as Sigrid and Tauriel entered and though Sigrid had seen the Elvenking before she was still taken aback by his ethereal beauty. She felt her cheeks begin to flush but steadied herself, she was not here to swoon. She was here to save her family.

"Tauriel," the King said, inclining his head in greeting. Then his gaze slid to Sigrid, "And...?"

Tauriel gave Sigrid a comforting squeeze before she gently pushed her forward.

"Sigrid, my King," Sigrid answered, curtseying awkwardly. "My f-father is - "

"I know," he cut her off, eyes alight with intrigue. "You are Bard's daughter. I hear he came out of the battle worse for wear." 

His gaze was far too intense; but Sigrid held it.

"He did, sir, that's - that's actually why I'm here."

The King cocked his head, "Indeed?"

"Y-Yes, sir. You see, he has been put in a healing sleep by your people and while he sleeps the old Master is trying to regain his power. I-I fear for my family and for my father. I worry that when you leave we will be all but defenceless."

The King looked as though he were listening intently and when Sigrid stopped talking he waited a moment before speaking, as though he was waiting for her to continue. "And?" he prompted.

Sigrid swallowed, steadied herself. 

"I think you should offer us protection - no - I think we deserve your protection."

The King quirked an eyebrow, "Do you, indeed?" His voice was far less chilly than Sigrid had expected, on the contrary it was almost warm. Amused, even.

Encouraged, she nodded, "Yes. So, what do you say?"

For a long while there was silence, or perhaps it was only seconds and it was the anticipation that made it seem longer. Sigrid held her breath, the King studied her.

Eventually, the King turned to the other elf, "Galion, make preparations for Sigrid, her siblings and her father to accompany us back to my halls."

The elf, Galion, spluttered, "My King - "

"Now," Thranduil said firmly.

Sigrid could hardly believe it, she could hardly contain herself. They would safe! She and Tilda and Bain and her Da would be safe! She smiled, she laughed, she turned to Tauriel who beamed back and she turned back to the Elvenking, "Thank you, sir, thank you! You have no idea how grateful I am!"

To her surprise the King laughed, a low, rich rumble, "You are most welcome, Sigrid. Now, I suggest you hurry back to Dale to inform your siblings of the good news. I will have a guardsman escort you; you will have nothing to fear."

Sigrid didn't need telling twice, with another few hurried 'thank you's' and a hug from Tauriel she hurried back to Dale, escorted by the suitably embarrassed guardsman who had denied her entry.

Perhaps things were going to be okay after all.

-

Tauriel waited until Sigrid was long gone and Thranduil had gone back to studying the dwarves proposed plans for rebuilding Dale to speak. The King still had a faint on his face. 

"So, we are to play host to Bard and his children?" she asked, tentatively.

Not unsurprisingly once the King was reminded of her presence the smile vanished, replaced by the icy mask Tauriel was used to, "Yes. What would have me do, Tauriel? Their father is our ally, he fought bravely and for that we at least owe him this." He went back to the plans and Tauriel smiled to herself.

Chapter Text

Luckily it would be Tauriel, not Galion, who would come to meet them on the morning of the elves departure. 

Sigrid wakes early, makes sure their meagre belongings are packed up and heads over to the make-shift healing house. 

As far as she can see there's been no change in her Da. He's still pale and still as death and Sigrid knows what death looks like, she's seen enough to last a lifetime.

"It'll be alright now, Da," she tells him, as the healers make their rounds. "The Elvenking is going to look after us..." She pauses, when she was a child her Da had told her many a tale about the darkness that lurked in the forests. She'd always sort of thought it was just to keep her and Bain from playing there but now that she's older she's not so sure. She's heard the elves talk about the giant spiders they have to fight off and even her Da would mutter to his friends every now and again about an uneasy feeling he got when collecting the barrels from the woods.

It would be a day or so's ride to the Elvenking's halls since they wouldn't be travelling on water and Sigrid wants to make sure Da's wounds are freshly cleaned and bound for the journey. The healers have assured her that they can take care of it but now that she knows how she feels like she ought to. He'd do the same for her, after all.

She's just finishing up when she feels herself being watched. The rooms are mostly empty now, the elves have drifting out over the last few days and since most of their patients have fully recovered the people they've been training to take over haven't really got much to do. 

She glances around slowly.

"So, word on the street is you and yours are scarpering,"

Sigrid stands, "Alfrid."

The Master's lackey smirks, taking a step towards her, "Wonder what the people'll think? Bard and his little family fleeing town? Leavin' us all in our hour of need?" 

Her father's always told her not to rise to Alfrid's bait, not to give him the satisfaction but this is different. 

"Da was here when the town needed him," Sigrid snaps. "He killed the dragon while the Master ran and hid."

The few people in the rooms are watching them now, staring unashamedly. 

"Nonsense!" Alfird grins around their newfound audience. "The Master wouldn't flee while his town needed him! He had a plan! He went for aid, for a safe way to bring the dragon down and what did Bard do, hm? He only crashed it into the town!"

There's a murmuring from the people around them, more and more of them are siding with a Master. It makes Sigrid's blood boil.

"My Da could have killed the dragon long before it reached the town if you hadn't locked him up! Where was the Master when the town was burning? Where was he when we were starving?"

"Oh, yes. We were starving and our homes were destroyed and Bard led us into a war! That, I might add, was nothing to do with us!" 

Sigrid clenches her jaw, if she were a little taller and they weren't in such a place she would have done what her father should have done long ago. "Without my Da you'd be dead, Alfrid," she snarls. "The whole town was howling for your blood! He's the only reason you're still alive, you slimy wretch!"

Alfrid's smirk vanishes, his lip curls into an ugly snarl and he advances on her, "Now, you listen here, you little - " He's reaching for something at his belt but Sigrid refuses to back down. Alfrid's too cowardly to actually -

"And just what is going on here?" 

Alfrid spins on his heel.

Tauriel stands in the doorway, flanked by two elves and Sigrid's siblings. Bain glances between Alfrid and Sigrid and without a moments hesitation he darts between them, drawing their father's sword, "If you so much as touch her..." He warns.

Alfrid backs away, "You see how quickly his children resort to violence!" He yells, "Is this who we want as our leaders? Wait until the Master hears about this!" He hurries out of the room, giving the elves as wide a berth as he can.

"You shouldn't have let him go," Tilda says quietly. "Da did that and now look what happened."

Tauriel lays a hand on her shoulder, "Don't worry, little one. He won't bother you, we'll make sure of that."

-

(Later, while their making sure Da is safe and secure in his wagon, Sigrid tugs at Tauriel's sleeve, "You needn't have saved me from Alfrid, you know. I can handle myself."

Tauriel smiles, "Oh, I know, little one. I was more concerned that he needed saving from you." )

-

Most of the elves had already left by the time Tauriel had the children ready, riding ahead to Erebor to bid farewell to the dwarves, so they set out alone. She and Tilda ridding up front, Bain steering the wagon gingerly and Sigrid riding with her father. They met with the rest of the company at the gates of Erebor and Tauriel was surprised to see Thranduil among them, making no attempt to hide his impatience.


"Tauriel," he greeted, with a raised eyebrow. "How kind of you to finally join us."


Tauriel inclined her head, “My apologies, there was an unpleasant matter I had to take of before we left.”


Thranduil narrowed his eyes and glanced between the children, as though checking them for injuries. When his gaze landed on Tauriel again he looked remarkably calmer, “Nothing too troublesome, I trust?”


Sharing a smile with Sigrid, Tauriel shook her head, “Nothing Sigrid couldn’t handle.”


The corner of Thranduil’s quirked upwards, almost a smile, “Excellent.” He said, looking towards Sigrid.


Sigrid flushed a little but she held his gaze impressively, “Th-Thank you. And thank you again for offering us your protection.” Bain and Tilda echoed her thanks.


Thranduil nodded, “You are most welcome, children.”


"Will we be leaving now?" Tauriel asked.


Thranduil rolled his eyes, “Sadly, no. It appears the wizard Gandalf will be gracing us with his presence a few weeks longer. He and his halfling are bidding their farewells to the dwarves and evidently are in no hurry.”


Tauriel bristled, she understood that the king found Gandalf meddlesome but there was no need for such rudeness, especially since Tauriel for one would find the halflings company agreeable for a short time more. She had spent much of her time in Erebor in his company but before she could speak her thoughts little Tilda had spoken up, “You know the wizard?” She asked, with quiet awe.
Thranduil glanced down at her, “I do, little one. Soon so shall you.”


Tilda squeaked. “And he can do magic?”

"Only when he deems it necessary," Thranduil muttered. "Which is apparently only when it's convenient for him."

"My lord - " Tauriel began but yet again she was interrupted by the wriggling child in front of her.

"I like your elk," she said, smiling at the beast. "He's beautiful."

The elk inclined his head in thanks and Thranduil reached forward to give its head a gentle stroke, "Thank you." He said proudly. Everyone knew the pride the King took in his steeds, he bred them himself and had done so, Tauriel had heard, since he and his father had first arrived in the Greenwood.

Tilda reached forward, and Tauriel had to grab her to stop her from toppling from the horse, "Be careful."

"Sorry!" Tilda said, continuing to lean forward until she could reach the elk to scratch it behind the ear. The elk huffed happily, leaning into her touch and Tauriel did not miss the small smile on Thranduil's face as he watched Tilda giggle in delight.

"Come on, Tilda," Tauriel urged. "Lean back now, we'll be on our way soon, little one."

She sat back with a huff and just as she did so one of the royal guard called out, "Mithrandir and the halfling are leaving, my lord! They shall be with us soon."

"Finally," Thranduil murmured. He made to turn his elk towards the front of the party but a small voice piped up from behind him.

"Can I ride with you, my Lord?" Almost as soon as she'd spoken Tilda seemed to know she'd crossed some sort of undrawn line and she clamped her hands across her mouth. Tauriel gripped her a little closer; she knew Thranduil would not a child and yet - 

Thranduil turned the elk back to them slowly, expression as cold and unreadable as ever. He looked down at the little girl and said, "But of course," as though it were the most natural thing in the world and before Tauriel had even processed what happened he leant forward and scooped Tilda into his arms, setting her down in front of him as she beamed ecstatically.

Thranduil quirked an eyebrow to Tauriel, as though daring her to comment. Tauriel bit back her smile, "After you, my Lord."

 

-


Thranduil had always been fond of children, the day of Legolas’ birth had been his happiest, they’d been young for elves, he and his wife. It had all gone so smoothly, they’d always talked about having more. 

That had never happened, though and Legolas had grown so fast while Thranduil was distracted by politics and the way his son smiled just as his mother had. He knew it did not do well to dwell on the past, he’d wasted years on his regrets, on going over the events of that day in his head, of cursing himself for not insisting it should be he who undertook the visit to Lorien. He was king after all, it should have been he who found himself and his party ambushed by orcs that fateful day.

It was no good to dwell yet at times, even now, it was difficult not to. 

He was still slightly unsure why he had been so quick to grant Bard’s children his protection, he had always been fond of the bargeman, well, perhaps not fondbut he didn’t actively dislike him, which was no mean feat. Perhaps it had been out of pity, perhaps he was just feeling lonely after Legolas’ departure, whatever the reason, he felt somewhat less empty while he rode with Bard’s little daughter and listened to her chatting about everything from the her home in Laketown to her thoughts on his crown. 

Occasionally, she would lean alarmingly to the side, so as to call back to her brother and sister who rode just behind them or with Tauriel and the halfling, who rode beside.

There was a warmth he felt, swelling in his chest, a warmth he had not felt for centuries.

Of course, Gandalf had to sidle up and extinguish that warmth almost as soon as Thranduil was becoming accustomed to it. 
"It appears, Thranduil, that you have acquired some children when I was not looking," he said, eyeing Tilda.

"Nothing escapes your gaze, does it?" Thranduil drawled. Truly, he bore the wizard no ill will; though he found him meddlesome there was grudging respect between the two of them.

Gandalf gave him an annoyed look but didn’t comment on his rudeness. He seldom did nowadays. “I have some questions about your new treaty with the dwarves and the people of Dale.”

"And they can wait until we reach my halls, can they not?" Thranduil replied, as Tilda tugged at his sleeve. He looked down at her, questioningly, "Is that the wizard?" she whispered.

"It is indeed, little one."

Tilda looked up at Gandalf, eyes wide, “And you can do magic, sir?”

Gandalf smiled warmly, “In a manner of speaking, yes." 

She seemed to be satisfied with this answer for she didn't press him further, instead, she smiled, satisfied and went back to chatting to Tauriel. 

"I do not see your son amongst the riders," Gandalf commented, when they had ridden a little further. 

Thranduil bristled, he assumed this was some round about way to get him to open up. Gandalf had always been somewhat perturbed by Thranduil's isolation. 

"He will not be returning to Mirkwood for some time," Thranduil said stiffly.

"Is that so?" Gandalf pressed, "And where have you sent him?" 

"North. To the Rangers, I thought it wise that he meet - " he broke off, at yet another instant tug at his sleeve. "What is it, child?"

"You sent your son away?"

"I - yes, but do not worry. He was far older than you or siblings, it will do him good to experience more of the world," as he spoke he noticed Tauriel's discomfort. He knew that she did not feel the same way about his son that Legolas did about her but the two had grown up together, close as siblings. She had been most distressed at the news he would not be returning.

Tilda seemed to study him for a few minutes, "That seems very lonely." She said.

"Oh, don't worry. He will not be alone for long." He wondered how far Legolas had got, they had remained in Dale for a week by now he had surely made some headway in his journey. 

"Oh, I didn't mean him," Tilda said, matter-of-factly. "I meant you, silly!"

Chapter Text

They bade farewell to Bilbo and the wizard before they set out that morning and took such a long time about it that the King sent half his company on ahead so they could begin readying things. Tilda had demanded that Bilbo finish his tale before he left them and much of the remaining company gathered to listen.

The King was nowhere to be found however, neither was the wizard. They were discussing matters of state, Sigrid presumed and Bain whined the whole time that he should be involved in such talks. After all, when Da was better they would be royalty, princes and princesses. It was a strange thought; they had gone so long being downtrodden Sigrid wasn't sure how she was supposed to act.

Not that it mattered right then, they still had a way to go, she thought as she absentmindedly brushed Da's hair. Perhaps the elves could give her a few pointers.

The ride to the Elvenking's halls was a far easier one than Sigrid had imagined it would be. In Laketown they had told tales of the enchantments lain on the forest, the roots that would rise up and entangle you, the giant spiders that lurked in the canopies and darkened thickets, the trickery of the light and the ease with which you would lose your way. She knew Da had been in before, to visit with the elves about his job. The Master had used it as just another reason to hate him, had spread rumours that Da was involved in black magic and that was the reason he had been able to pass unharmed through the trees.

To Sigrid however, there seemed to be no such enchantments, in fact it seemed that the forest bent and opened up around them but she could never be sure. She never had been able to catch a single tree moving and it was only ever when she glanced away and looked back that she realised something had changed.

They had rarely left Laketown before this; she and Bain had sometimes accompanied Da to the edge of the woods or too nearby towns on business but Tilda, as far as Sigrid recalled had never left. It was strange that she seemed to be coping the best, riding with the Elvenking chattering happily away to him. Stranger still that the Elvenking seemed to have taken an interest in her, listening attentively to every word she said, smiling kindly and telling her tales of the forest and the elves that had made it their home.

They reached the great halls a little before sunset, at least, Sigrid thought it was a little before sunset, it was hard to tell in the forest.

The gates themselves were enough to take her breath away, great heavy wooden things, intricately carved, and that was nothing to the beauty and majesty that meet them as they passed through.

All her life all she'd known was their tiny little shanty town on the lake, she'd never seen anything like this, not outside of the few fairybooks Tilda had.

The company came to a halt as the doors swung shut behind them and Tauriel, who ridden beside them, dismounted her horse in one swift movement, handing the reins to a waiting elf. Bain too, slid clumsily off the wagon horse, landing far less gracefully. His cheeks coloured as he gazed up at Tauriel.

"I saw nothing," she said, with a warm smile.

Bain ducked his head, cheeks even redder than before.

"Not too worry," came Thranduil's cool voice. "While you stay here I am sure we can teach you how to ride as well as any elf." He swung himself off the elk, pausing to lift Tilda down gently and take her hand.

Sigrid watched her brother carefully, there had been a time when the mere suggestion of him not being good enough would have a sparked a rage inside him but when he looked up he didn't look angry, "Truly, my lord?"

The elf inclined his head, "But of course. It would be no trouble and you may as well make the most of your time here."

"And could you teach me to fight, my lord?"

Thranduil raised an eyebrow.

"Properly, my lord," Bain amended. "With a bow or a sword I only thought - well, if I am to be a prince and one day a king then I - I should be able to fight well, shouldn't I? Da never really had time to teach me properly, he was always too busy working, you see and - "

Thranduil cut off his babbling, a small smile on his face, "Of course we can, young one."

"And me," Sigrid found herself saying, clambering off the wagon to stand beside her brother. "I want to learn too."

"But of course, Sigrid. Young elven women learn just as young men do to defend themselves here. I am sure you will both make excellent students," the King said and as though pre-empting Tilda's response he turned to her, "But you, little one, are a little young to be worrying about such matters, aren't you? I'm sure we can find something far more entertaining for you, anyway."

Tilda seemed to consider this for a moment before she nodded, eagerly.

The King smiled, "Now, come, I shall show you to your chambers."

"But what about Da?" Sigrid asked, glancing back to his still form on the wagon.

"He shall be taken to the healing chambers," Thranduil said, and as he did so a group of elves appeared. "He shall be quite safe."

Sigrid was torn, she knew that the elves wouldn't hurt him, if they had intended to they could have done so long before now but...

Tauriel took her arm, "You know we will not harm him, don't you, Sigrid?"

"Well, yes, but..."

"He will be perfectly safe," Tauriel said, comfortingly. "I will take you to houses of healing myself as soon as you have been shown your chambers. Straight after, okay?"

Sigrid sighed, "Okay."

And with that she allowed herself to be led through passage ways and across winding bridges, through great feasting halls and Thranduil's large, empty throne room. It appeared that they would be staying in the chambers nearest the king's own.

They had two large bed chambers, one for Sigrid and Tilda, the other for Bain. Both were large and furnished with such fineries that Sigrid felt very out of place amongst them. Connecting the two rooms were two small bathing chambers and a small common area with toys and books and large comfy chairs that Tilda delighted in throwing herself onto, giggling.

It was almost as though the rooms had been furnished for this very purpose. She said as much to Bain, who wriggled uncomfortably and pointed out that at best, the elves Thranduil had sent on ahead would have had an hour or two to prepare. They couldn't have done this in such a short amount of time, could they?

There was a smaller bed chamber across the passage to theirs that Tauriel volunteered to stay in until their Da had woken up. Just in case, she said. (And Sigrid was glad for it.)

"And now I must take my leave, children," Thranduil said, as soon as they had been settled in. There was something different in his voice now, something cooler. "There will be a great feast tonight, to honour those that fell in the battle. I must ensure everything is ready. I am sure Tauriel can show you around." His were folded behind his back and he had drawn back from them.

"As you wish, my lord," Tauriel said quickly, inclining her head.

Taking her lead Sigrid too bowed her head, indicating Bain do the same, "Thank you for your kindness, my lord." she said.

"Thank you for taking us in, my lord," Bain echoed.

Sigrid straightened up just in time to catch Tilda gently by the arm, she had been on her way to hug the elf, Sigrid knew but for some reason whatever good mood or spell he had been under on their journey here now he was home it had been broken. Tilda frowned up at her but said nothing.

"I will see you at the feast then, children," he said and with that he swept from the room, leaving Tilda staring after him, a little teary.

"I don't understand," she said, in a small voice. "Did I do something wrong?"

Immediately Sigrid bent, putting an arm around her sister and pulling her close, "Oh no, it was nothing you did, Tilly," she said, looking up at Tauriel for confirmation.

"It was nothing you did, children. The king is just... He can be very temperamental at times. In fact it is a rarity that he smiles at all, I expect he is a little in shock from it," Tauriel smiled.

After a few moments Tilda smiled back hesitantly.

-

True to her word Tauriel took them straight to the healing chambers, pointing things out to them as they went. "Now, there are many nooks and crannies in Mirkwood," she said. "Many winding paths so it's very important that you know where you're going, it's very easy to get lost here."

The chambers were far bigger than in Dale, far cleaner, far comfier.

Their Da was on a bed of furs and feathers, clean bandages and looking a little less pale.

They stayed a while, telling him about their journey and their chambers. The elves kept reminding them how important it was to talk to him. It was difficult to leave, Sigrid even asked if there was any way he could be moved up to be closer to them but the elven healer had gently shaken her head, "If at any point you wish to visit him simply ask someone. You are guests of the king, everyone will be willing to help you," she assured her.

Sigrid was satisfied and with that Tauriel continued her tour. She showed them the great libraries, full of elven lore older than Sigrid could conceive off, she showed them the armoury, the archery ranges, she showed them the stables and Tilda ran to greet the elk who nudged her affectionately.

She showed them down to the kitchens and the pantry then up again to tailors and cloth makers, who spun dresses so beautiful they made Sigrid's heart ache a little ("Don't worry, little one," Tauriel murmured to her. "I am sure you will get a chance to have a few of your own. After all, what kind of princess only has one outfit?")

By the time she had shown them everything of note it was time for the feast and she hurried them back to great hall they had passed through. Now, it was lined with tables and bustling with elves, talking amongst themselves in a low clamour.

"Where will be sitting?" Tilda asked, excitedly as they weaved through the crowd.

"With the king, of course," Tauriel said. Tilda faltered, after their frosty farewell earlier Sigrid didn't blame her for being a little hesitant.

"Don't worry," Tauriel added, "The Captain of the Guard dines with the king. I will be right there should you need me."

The king was already seated when they reached the raised platform in the centre of the room. A few other elves were too, all to the kings right, though the chair closest to his sat empty. It was grander than those around it and Sigrid tugged on Tauriel's sleeve, "Was that the prince's seat?"

With a tight-lipped grimace Tauriel nodded.

Sigrid still couldn't fathom why the king would send his son away when it so clearly hurt him deeply.

Tauriel took her seat to the left of the king, after bowing and murmuring, "My lord."

He gave her a look of cool disinterest and nodded back, looking to Sigrid and her siblings who copied Tauriel and took their seats, Tilda next to Tauriel, Sigrid next to her and Bain at the end.

After a few moments Thranduil rose to his feet and the hall fell silent.

-

The feast was a sombre occasion and Sigrid felt rather uncomfortable at witnessing it. After the king's speech the food was served and conversation at the high table was sparse. Luckily, Tauriel seemed to know how awkward Sigrid felt for almost as soon as they had finished eating, just as the wine was beginning to flow she asked for the kings leave and whisked them to their chambers.

Even far from the hall Sigrid could hear the elves mournful songs, many voices, many different melodies and tales and yet they all rose as one. Tilda slept, curled up on Sigrid's bed but Sigrid could not, though she couldn't understand what the elves sang about she found herself filled with their sorrow.

Tauriel sat beside her, stroking her hair gently.

There was a memorial now in Dale, for all those who had lost their lives and there had been talk of building a great tomb over the wreckage of Laketown to serve as a memorial for all those who had perished in the dragon fire. She had known many of them of course, it had been small town, everybody knew everybody.

Many of them had gone unburied, lost to the lake and there had been too many to bury after the great battle so they had simply been burnt, men, elves, dwarves, all together. Not all of them of course, some had been recovered, those less marred, less trampled upon.

She could hardly bare it sometimes, the thought that that had happened. That it could have happened to Da, or Bain, or Tilda -

When she sobbed Tauriel held her, "Do not cry, little one," she said softly. "You have lived through a great evil and enough sorrow for a life time but you must be strong now."

Through the sobs Sigrid managed, "Their singing is just so sad."

"Yes, it is. But it is not only mourning, it is also a celebration of their life, listen."

Sigrid did and though it was hard to make out here and there she could hear voices that were less sad, more proud, hopeful.

"How many elves died?" she asked quietly. "In the battle?"

Tauriel stiffened a little, "Many," she said eventually. "Far too many."

"Did you bring them all home?"

"Most of them, yes. They were buried before you got here. It is the family's duty to do that."

Their Ma had been buried, a tiny little cemetery in the hills near Laketown. It had just been her and Da and her siblings. "We do that too," she said.

Tauriel hummed, "We plant trees over our dead," she said. "So that they will always be present in some form."

Sigrid tried to picture a tree growing over her mother's grave, a mallos tree, she had always liked those.

"That sounds beautiful," she whispered.

"Yes," Tauriel said. "Yes, it is."

-

Tauriel waited for Sigrid to fall asleep before she left the children's chambers, making sure to tuck in the two girls and check in on Bain before she went.

Still her people were singing but she didn't turn to join them.

She headed directly to the king's chambers, slightly unsure of what she was going to say but certain she had to say something. It wasn't fair to little Tilda for him to act so warmly one minute and so coldly the next.

She found him in his library, but to her surprise he was not alone.

"It is not just me, my lord, that finds their presence unnerving," Galion was hissing, standing red faced in the centre of the room while Thranduil lounged on a low couch, regarding him with a remarkable lack of concern. "And to invite them to such a feast..."

The king arched a brow and Galion sighed.

"Look, my lord, I only mean... I - We understand why you offered them protection; we understand that a treaty with Dale would be more favourable if it were Bard who ruled rather than the Master but why bring them here? Why not just station a battalion in Dale?"

At this Thranduil snorted, "Oh, yes. Wonderful idea. Stationing a battalion in a human town to enforce our choice of ruler. I can see that going over well with the humans."

Galion spluttered, "I - Well - "

It was a wonder Thranduil hadn't taken action against him, Tauriel thought, though by the way Thranduil's left hand played across the hilt of his sword it would not be long before he did something.

She chose that moment to announce her presence, stepping forward as loudly as she could, "My lord, would you like me to escort Galion to the dungeons?" Closer now she could smell the wine on Galion's breath, better a night in the cells to sleep it over than a stay in the healing chambers.

"No," Thranduil said, standing. "I am certain Galion can see himself out."

Galion didn't need telling twice, in his haste he almost tumbled down the stairs.

Thranduil stared after him, a look of disdain clear on his face and once the thudding of his retreating steps had subsided he turned away, "What is it you want, Tauriel?" he asked.

"I, beg your pardon, my lord but I - " she paused, wondering how best to phrase her question. Luckily, he saved her the trouble.

"You too wish to know why I took the children in," he guessed.

That wasn't strictly true, she knew why he had chosen to bring them back to Mirkwood, he had been trying to fill the hole that Legolas had left. She even knew why he had acted cold to Tilda earlier; it had simply become too real for him. (Just as things had become real for her when she saw Kili in peril.) Seeing the children in Mirkwood, in his home had made it real, they were there and one day they would leave.

One day, one day soon, barely the blink of an eye in an elf's life they would be gone.

She knew that, she understood it and she was fairly certain that he understood his own actions but she still needed him to understand that he couldn't have it both ways. He couldn't be kind and attentive one minute and disinterest and cold the next.

"No, my lord, I do not need to know why," she said and at this he turned to her, looking faintly intrigued. "I just need you to know that you must... that you must treat them as children, not as subjects or guests."

Before the war, before the dwarves Tauriel would not have dared to speak to him thusly but now, he wasn't even surprised. If anything he looked impressed.

"Must I?" he drawled.

Tauriel held her head high, "Yes, my lord. I understand that it can be difficult they - they will be here only a short time and it is easy to grow attached but that is not their fault."

Thranduil studied her for a few moments, "I shall bare that in mind." He said, eventually. "Now, if that's all, Tauriel..."

"Yes, my lord, goodnight, my lord."

"Goodnight, Tauriel."

Chapter Text

True to the Elvenking’s word, Sigrid and her siblings made the most of their time in Mirkwood. She and Bain were taught spa, properly and to use a bow, like Da did. She and Tilda learnt the basics of elvish healing and met a seamstress who could make anything they dreamt up. They spent their mornings learning to ride, she and Bain on young mares, Tilda on a young elkling whose antlers were just coming through.

Winter had set in hard and even Mirkwood, sheltered as it was the thick tree canopy, was beginning to feel it but still, whenever the weather was pleasant Tauriel would take them out. She had been intending to teach them to climb as the elves did but unfortunately only Tilda seemed to have inherited their Da’s grace, so instead she was using the outings to teach them all she knew about the woods, about the creatures that dwelt there and the sickness that was slowly encroaching on their homeland. She never kept them out too long; however, lest they be missed for, as Sigrid learnt when Tilda spoke loudly about a certain spring that lay not far from the kingdom, the Elvenking had not been informed of their day trips.

Speaking of the King, he had been keeping his distance. The winter had changed his crown from autumn leaves to twisted, bare branches, hung with delicate crystals. He would speak to them at meals, in a bored tone as though it were his duty to speak with them rather than his pleasure. Occasionally he would drop by their lessons to correct their posture or stance or the way their eyes always betrayed their next move. More alarmingly though, every now and again - and never in view of anyone else - he would rebraid Tilda’s hair.

She had at first been worried about how Tilda would react to his suddenly cold nature, but though at first she had seemed upset she quickly bounced back to her smiley self.

Sigrid understood, she thought. There were still some amongst the elves who were uncertain about their presence, some who thought elves shouldn’t be meddling in the affairs of men. Luckily, those elves were few and far between, most were exceedingly kind to them, especially the healers.

They spent as much time as they could with Da, trying to make sure there was one of them with him whenever they could. He was getting better, the elves said. He had even spoken once but Sigrid hadn't been there, she and Tilda had been with Tauriel in the stables when Bain had barged in, yelling about it. Since then he'd been moving around a little and mumbling too.

 

Mostly their Ma's name.

 

She was determined to be there when he woke up. He'd be there for them, after all.

 

It was strange though, to think that when he woke they would return to Dale. She wondered how long the Elvenking would extend his hospitality; surely he would not force them out before winter was done? Looking at her Da now it would be a wonder if he were even well enough to travel by then.

 

She had asked Tauriel about how the healing sleep worked, about whether he would awake and still be in need of care and rest. She had assured her that it would not be long before he was back to himself, but Sigrid was not so sure. This elvenmagic meant for elves and Da was a man.

 

Who could say how this would affect him?

 

-

Thranduil had always loathed the winter; ever since he was a young elfling it had brought nothing but coldness and hardship.

His magic kept much of the forest immediately surrounding his halls alive but he could do nothing for the rest of the forest. The leaves fell and the trees quieted and with the snow and wind and gnarled bare branches the spiders grew ever closer. One would have thought that the cold would have driven them underground but alas they were granted no such reprieve from their endless torment.

It did not help that Tauriel insisted on taking the bowman's children out into the forest, yes, she thought he had not noticed but there was little in his kingdom that escaped his watchful gaze. True, the two elder children had been excelling in their combat training and Thranduil was certain they could handle themselves but if they were to stumble upon a nest unprepared... The thought did not bear considering.

It would be a diplomatic disaster.

(Not that Thranduil would even think of allowing that to happen, he always had a group of his most well trained scouts tail the little expedition party in case of such events.)

The sooner the bowman was recovered and his children were safely back in Dale the better.

Speaking of which...

He turned from his window. His chambers were the highest in Mirkwood, one of the few areas that extended above the tree line, offering him a view of the night sky. It had been his mother's design and Legolas had adored the view.

"You may come out now, Tilda," he said, to the apparently empty room. "I have been aware of your presence for quite some time, little one."

There came the sound of muffled giggling and after a fashion the little human scrambled out from underneath a table.

"But you didn't know right away, did you?" she asked, cheeks rosy with laughter.

Thranduil smiled, despite his best efforts the youngest of Bard's children had managed to thoroughly enchant him. "Perhaps not right away, no."

She laughed with delight. This had become an almost nightly occurrence since the children had arrived in Mirkwood and Thranduil had given up trying to shoo her away. She was just as tenacious as her father.

He had at first wondered why her brother and sister seemed not to know of her escapades (for if they had Thranduil was certain Sigrid would have put a stop to it out of respect for him) until he had realised that she waited for her sister to fall asleep before sneaking away.

How she ever found her way up here he was certain he would never find out. But still, he found he enjoyed her company.

"And how can I be of service tonight, dear one?" he asked.

By now she had clambered up into a chair she had claimed as her own (which was fairly annoying because he sometimes felt compelled to tell members of his council to not sit there because that's Tilda's chair.)

"It didn't snow today, that means you have to answer questions before you tell me a story," she informed him gleefully.

Ah, yes. That arrangement.

Cursing Gandalf for assuring him that there would not be a day without snow this winter, he seated himself across from her, "Very well. Ask away."

She hummed thoughtfully for a long while and Thranduil was beginning to hope that she would simply forgo the questions but alas, eventually her blue eyes came to rest on him and she spoke: "Have you ever been put into a healing sleep?"

Thranduil breathed a sigh of relief. Of course, he had not expected severely invasive questions per se, she was only a young child after all but he had expected something a little more...interesting.

"Like your father, you mean?"

She nodded, expression just a little tight. It was easy to forget that for all her cheerfulness she was just as worried as her siblings.

"Yes, twice."

Tilda was watching expectantly, "And?" she prompted, when the silence stretched too long.

"The first was briefly during a great battle long, long ago. I was gravely wounded in a charge," here he paused and took a breath. Though it had been almost an age ago the memory was still raw, it had been the first time he had seen such destruction, such death.

The first time he had felt such despair at the inevitability of it all.

"Along with my father."

Tilda cocked her head at him and he knew that she had never really considered that he had had parents, in that he had found children did on occasion. "Your father, my lord?"  

"Yes, Oropher, who was king before me. He had led the charge early, you see, without the permission of the High King." Though Thranduil remembered being so certain the signal had been given, in chaos of war it had been an easy mistake to make.

Her eyes were wide now, "What happened?"

He looked away, towards the window, towards the stars. "When I awoke I was told that my father was dead and that I was now a king. Much of our company had been slain and of course, the High King was furious with my people and I for being so rash."

"And what did you do?"

"What could I do? I led our people through the rest of the war and when all was said and done I led us home."

"Did many die?" she asked, in a small voice.

"Oh, yes."

"More than at the battle Da was injured in?"

Thranduil's voice softened, "Yes, little one."

There was a moment where she simply regarded him, eyes a little glassy.

"You don't have to - " he began, meaning to suggest they simply go back to the stories he had been telling her, about the creation of the world and all the good that came after it but just as he spoke she asked, "What about the second time?"

"A dragon," Thranduil said, after a beat. "It was after I fought a dragon."

Again, her eyes were wide, but this time it was awe, not fear that bled through into her words, "You fought a dragon?"

"I did," (His scars ached.) "It was a long time ago, when I was much younger and much, much more foolish."

"Foolish?"

"Yes, difficult as it is to believe I was, once, foolish. I once believed you had to be, to challenge a dragon. Your father changed that."

Tilda beamed, "You don't think it was foolish of him?"

"Not at all, I thought it was incredibly brave. The dwarves though, they were foolish to think they could handle such a beast alone."

"Da handled it alone," she pointed out, with a smug grin.

"That he did, little one. Now, if you're quite finished with questions...?"

Tilda nodded, "I am. For now," she added, with a smirk.

Thranduil felt himself relax slightly, "So, to the story then. What would like to hear about today?"

"The dragon! I want to hear about you fighting the dragon!"

He heaved a great sigh of resignation (one hand going unconsciously to the ruined side of his face). It seemed he was powerless to deny this small human child anything; "Very well," he began.

-

"Sigrid! Sigrid!"

Sigrid awoke to the sound of someone calling her name (for a moment she felt she was back in Dale on the day of the battle, Bain calling her name, Da calling her name, Tilda screaming it - ) she jerked upright.

"Tauriel?"

The elf was bent over her, one hand gently shaking her shoulder, she smiled hurriedly when Sigrid sat up, "I am sorry to wake you at such an hour, Sigrid, but I have good news. Your father has awoken!"

It took a few moments for Sigrid's sleep addled brain to process what Tauriel had just said to her but once had she sprung out of bed, "I must go to him! We must go to him!"

She turned, dashing across the darkened room to her sister's bed, "Tilda! Wake up!" But when she reached the bed her hands only grasped bedding and pillows. "Tilda?"

She spun to face Tauriel, "Did you already wake her?"

Tauriel frowned, "No, I assumed she had gone to your brother's room perhaps? Or..." but then she shook her head, "No matter, Sigrid, your sister is in a safe place. Go wake your brother and go to your father. I will find Tilda."

Sigrid was torn, Tilda was her little sister and though she knew no one in Mirkwood would harm her that did not mean Tilda was safe. She could have gotten lost in the winding hallways, stumbled upon an unsafe drop or perhaps some foul creature from outside had found its way in and -

"Sigrid," Tauriel jerked her out of her thoughts. "Your sister is safe. I will find her. Now go."

And Sigrid went, though she was still unsure of her decision.

-

The king's chambers were the first place she checked after all, it seemed they had shared the beginnings of a bond on their ride from Dale and sure enough, she found Tilda tucked up in the King's bed while the king himself sat reading.

When Tauriel entered he lowered his book a fraction, fixing her with a cold stare, "Tauriel," he said, sounding distinctly less than impressed. "Too what do I owe this visit?"

She bowed, "Sorry for the intrusion, my lord, but I thought you should know that your guest's father is awake."

For a brief moment, or perhaps Tauriel only imagined it, Thranduil's cheeks coloured and his gaze darted towards the little girl asleep on his bed. "Perhaps you should wake her then," he said.

Tauriel hesitated and the king arched a brow, "Take her to her father, Tauriel." he said, going back to his book.

He did not look up as Tauriel scooped the sleepy child up and left, explaining to her as she did so. At first Tilda did not believe her but as they neared the healing rooms and her father's voice, rough and groggy with sleep became audible, she sprang from Tauriel's arms, quaking with excitement and ran the last few feet to her father's bedside.

Tauriel watched from a distance as the children crowded their father, hugging him, all talking over each other about what had happened and why, while Bard blinked around at them all in bemusement and though it made her feel somewhat lonely she could not help but smile.

Chapter Text

When Bard first awoke in the elves' great healing houses he believed it all to be a fever dream. After all, the elves of Mirkwood were famously stand-offish and Bard would know, he had been in their employment since Sigrid was born. The Elvenking never did anything unless he knew he would be getting something in return, it was absurd to think that Thranduil would have taken in he and his children in their hour of need.

True, the King had ridden to their aid after Smaug's attack but that had only been so he could retrieve his precious gems from the dwarves' treasure troves as soon as the battle looked to be a lost cause he had sought to back out. Bard did not blame him in truth. It had not been their battle; it had been his and Thorin Oakenshield's.

But the second time Bard awoke, his children snoring beside his bed and elves bringing him food, changing his bandages, he was forced to accept that this was, indeed, reality.

At first he had feared that Thranduil was attempting some sort of power play, perhaps the elf intended to keep his children as hostages so that when Bard was named King of Dale he would have some sway. But that didn't seem to ring true; there would be no advantage for Thranduil if he held power in Dale, it was no stronghold, it was no great market town or port and besides, as far as Bard was aware Thranduil rarely took an interest in things that lay outside of his forest.

So perhaps, this was simply out of the good of his heart. From what the children said it certainly seemed so, they had been given riding lessons and new garments and toys, the likes of which Bard would never have been able to gift them with. Bain and Sigrid had been taught to use swords and bows and now it seemed, had a far better grasp on politics than he could ever hope to attain.

Regardless of Thranduil's intentions Bard knew thanks were in order, but it seemed the King was loathe to meet with him in the healing houses.

"I'm sure he's just busy," Tauriel would assure him. "He has been meeting with the council often these past few days." She could never quite meet Bard's eyes when she spoke of this and Bard knew that the meetings were probably about his presence in Mirkwood.

Sigrid had told him that not all of the elves approved and now that Bard was conscious there was probably a great deal of pressure from them to send he and his family back to Dale. This was obviously a great cause of concern for Sigrid, who always worried far too much but Bard too, knew that it was too soon for them to leave. He was far too weak to defend them all and though he had faith in their new found combat techniques he somehow doubted they would stand a chance against whatever the Master had planned for them.

"I wouldn't worry about that," Tauriel would say, "We're not about to toss you out in such a state and besides, even if my lord willed it I would not let it happen."

Bard rather liked Tauriel. She appeared to have been the children's main caretaker during their stay and though she was still somewhat awkward with him Bard found her great company, especially since he was still too weak to leave his bed.

Apparently sleeping so long wasn't as good for your body as Bard had been led to believe.

It took him several days to regain enough strength to walk again and even then it was with Bain and Sigrid supporting him but still, he was not about to spend one more hour lounging in bed. His healers disapproved of course, hovering nervously and fidgeting, "We really must insist, my lord - "they kept calling him that, it was beginning to grate on his nerves - "You must rest."

He shooed them away, "I've been resting for weeks. A little exercise will do me good."

Tauriel met them in the great hall for breakfast. It was more crowded than Bard had assumed it would be, mostly soldiers and guards, he guessed from their uniforms. He supposed it made sense, meeting in one place so that the days tasks could be shared out.

Tauriel led them to what was obviously the King's own table, raised above all the others. The children seemed used to this and little Tilda chatted away to him about what kinds of elvish food she liked best and insisted he try everything. Bard obliged her, though he had to negotiate with his stomach to keep down each bite.

The throne at the centre of the table remained empty during their meal and as soon as Tilda had turned to Sigrid, to discuss a book they had been reading, Bard looked to Tauriel, "Does the King not frequent breakfasts then? Or should I assume this is because of my presence?"

Tauriel smiled a little bashfully, "Actually, my lord often dines with us. The council met early this morning."

Bard arched a brow, "Oh, I bet it did."

-

"My lord, I think it only polite that you at least acknowledge his presence," Tauriel said, head held high.

Thranduil rolled his eyes; she had been at him insistently since the Bowman first awoke. "I have allowed him to stay in my kingdom, is that not acknowledgment enough?"

"You know what I mean," she insisted. "It would make diplomatic sense to befriend him - "

"Oh, diplomacy,"He heaved a great sigh, in days gone by he would have simply sent her away, forbade her from speaking of this to him again and she would have obeyed. "And what, precisely, would you have me say to him?" he muttered, eyeing her coldly.

She was not intimidated by him, not anymore.

"Perhaps tell him how long you intend to let he and the children stay?"

"Perhaps I have not decided yet."

The corner of her mouth quirked upwards, as though she were amused and she eyed him as she would a misbehaving child, "He wants to thank you, my lord."

Thranduil let his head fall back, "If I promise to meet with him tomorrow will you leave?" He asked, defeated at last.

She smiled and bowed her head, "Of course, my lord. Good night." And with that she left the room.

Finally.

Thranduil dropped into the chair nearest his window, gazing up at the stars blankly. Eventually, he became aware of another presence in his chambers and he knew who it was almost immediately. He stood, turning towards the entrance.

Tilda stood in the doorway, hovering, one hand balled in her nightshirt. She had made no attempt to sneak in and hide as she usually did and Thranduil regarded her silently. She had not been up to visit him since her father awoke and Thranduil had assumed she would not resume them.

"Tilda," he greeted eventually, when it became apparent she would not speak first. "Shouldn't you be in bed?"

At this she took a few hesitant steps into the room, "I can't sleep without a story."

"Can your father not tell you one?"

"He's asleep," Tilda explained. "The elves say we need to let him rest, they told us we had to leave him."

"I will have a word with them in the morning," Thranduil said, taking a few steps towards her, meaning to shepherd her from the room. "Your father shall be moved up to your quarters, now if that's all - "

She cut him off abruptly, "Now that Da's awake are you going to send us home?" Thranduil blinked and she continued, "Bain says you will."

"Your brother has always been quick to believe the worst."

Tilda cocked her head, "But is he right?"

Thranduil sighed; clearly he would get no peace tonight. Wearily, he moved back to his seat and lowered himself into it, "I will not send you home before winters end, unless, of course, your father is well enough before that."

"You promise?"

"You have my word."

At this she beamed and, apparently taking this as an invitation, she crossed the room and clambered up into her chair. "Da wants to meet with you, you know," she said as soon as she was settled.

"Oh, not you too," Thranduil mumbled, passing a hand across his eyes. It had been a long few days, what with Bard's awakening and Tauriel's badgering. The Necromancer influence seemed to again be growing, despite what Gandalf said about his vanquishing and the spider attacks grew more frequent each day.

"Oh, I'm sorry, are you tired my lord?"

When Thranduil again looked at her she looked so apologetic that he immediately found himself smiling to comfort her, "No, no, dear one. I'm quite alright."

She looked unconvinced so to prove himself he sat up straighter, "I will meet with your father on the morrow, little one. Tauriel is already arranging it."

Her expression brightened, "Oh, good! He'll be pleased."

"Mm. And is he well?"

"He is getting stronger," Tilda told him excitedly. "Tauriel says he will be back to his old self in no time! Sort of, anyway... He will have scars now."

Thranduil's ruined cheek twinged. "Scars are not so bad, dear one."

"But you hide yours," she said and it sounded accusatory but Thranduil knew (hoped) that she was too young to know the impact of such loaded statements.

He smiled, "Mine are more visible than your father's will be."

There was silence then, no sound but the soft murmur of the fire in the grate and the distant howling of the wind outside. Tilda smiled at him and Thranduil smiled back, "Now, did you still want a story?"

She nodded so eagerly that Thranduil could not help but laugh, "And what would you like to hear about tonight?"

"Tell me about your father," she said and with a moment's hesitation Thranduil did.

-

It was well into the afternoon by the time Tauriel came to collect him for his audience with the Elvenking and Bard found himself looking forward to it. Though at first he had been intimidated by the king, during their time preparing for battle against the dwarves he found the elf to be a lot less humourless and distant than he first thought. Thranduil had been guarded true, but he had also been reasonable, helpful even and he'd had a wit about him that had had Bard biting his tongue to keep from snorting.

At first he thought he was simply an amusement for the elf, he certainly had been when he collected their empty barrels but now he was not so sure.

He had been expecting to be led to the throne room, as he had been many times before when Thranduil was bored and wanted to play silly games about wages or bewilder Bard by asking about his family, but instead Tauriel led up and away from the hall.

"Where are we going?" he asked, as they passed by the children's quarters.

"To the King's rooms, he's meeting you in the council chamber."

Bard wasn't really sure how he should feel about that. Flattered, perhaps, that Thranduil no longer wanted to meet him while he lounged in his throne high above them all or worried that he was meeting him alone, in an enclosed space.

"Don't worry," Tauriel said, smirking back at him. "He'll be on his best behaviour."

Bard was definitely not sure how he should feel about that.

Tauriel left him at the intricately carved wooden door, with a short bow, "I will wait here," she said, gesturing for him to enter the room.

Bard took a breath and stepped in in one fluid movement, swinging the door shut behind him.

The Elvenking stood at the head of the table, hands clasped behind his back. He looked every bit as cold and intimidating as Bard recalled but there was an uncertainty in his deep blue eyes, a hint of nervousness in the way he stood just a little too straight.

Bard took no time to consider this, however, for as soon as he laid eyes upon the King all he could think about was how grateful he was. The elf had saved the life of him and his children several times over, he had offered his children a home, an education, everything their hearts desired and he had done it all apparently out of the good of his heart.

What he did next was definitely not an advisably course of action. It was not dignified or kingly and there was some part of his brain that was saying, perhaps a simple handshake would suffice, even as he strode across the room but it was drowned out by the roar of he saved them, he saved you, he gave them clothes and books and care and he made them smile again.

Thranduil froze when Bard pulled him into a brief, rough hug and luckily some part of Bard's brain was still functioning enough to let him know that he should cut this short.

"I'm sorry, my lord - my king," he said, as he stepped back. "I am just so grateful for everything you have done for my children. Had you not taken them in then I - Well, the thought does not bare thinking about."

Bard knew the elf was flustered, and for that he felt sorry, but no emotion showed on Thranduil's face, only the tips of his ears burning red gave him away, "That is quite alright," he said stiffly. He shuffled rather awkwardly backwards and sat down at the head of the table, indicating for Bard to join him.

"Really," Bard said, as soon as he was seated. "Thank you."

"Really," Thranduil insisted, "It's quite alright. They were no trouble; they are very well behaved children."

Bard quirked an eyebrow, "Really? You must teach me your secrets; they certainly aren't well behaved at home."

The ghost of a smile passed across Thranduil's lips and he relaxed a fraction, "Perhaps they simply respect me more, I am far more impressive than you, after all."

"Yes," Bard agreed. "That must be it."

"But you did not ask to meet me simply to discuss your children, did you? If you had I would not have agreed to this." His tone was smooth and businesslike again and though Bard knew that they were diplomatic allies before they were friends (were they friends?) he still found himself feeling a little disappointed.

"No, you are right, my lord. I did not only come to discuss my children's wellbeing."

"Then speak, I will listen."

-

By the time Thranduil retired to his chambers that evening he already knew he would be in for another sleepless night. Though elves did not need to sleep as often as men or dwarves did it was still something they required and the long, sleepless hours were beginning to get to him.

Oh, he would tell himself that it was simply the stress all the recent upheavals were causing, the stress that came so often with winter as they patrolled the forest less and dark things built up. He told himself it was nothing to do with the little girl who so frequently fell asleep in his bed, the little girl who would surely scream and cry were she to see his true face.

It was flimsy magic, the charm he used to conceal his scars, it faded completely in sleep, no matter what he seemed to do. He had asked Galadriel once if she could heal it, Elrond too, back when he had been much younger and still on generally good terms with the rest of his people but they had both shaken their heads and given him infuriatingly vague advice about truly needed healing.

He had not believed them at the time, headstrong young thing as he had been but now it is not sure. The scars have gotten better and worse over time. After his father's death they ate further down his face, to his neck and down across his shoulder, stiffening his joints and making him wince with every thrust of his sword. They receded eventually, only to spread again with the death of Legolas' mother, this time down to the curve of his hips. So it has gone.

They were creeping down his throat again with Legolas gone. He did not think they would get very far though, his son was still alive and Thranduil would see him again someday, even if it was not until they both crossed the sea.

Not many had seen them, he had slipped up with Thorin Oakenshield, wanting to intimidate him, wanting to stop him, he was not sure. Perhaps it had been an accident, so blinded by fury he had been.

It was definitely not a sight for children, though and Thranduil found Tilda perched on her chair waiting for him.

"Does your family not worry about where you go so late at night, little one?" he asked as he breezed past her.

Tilda shook her head, "Da knows now, he caught me sneaking out," she informed in.

Thranduil felt an uncomfortable warmth spring to life within him at the idea that Bard was privy to his bond with Tilda. It made him feel rather ill for reasons he did not like to think about.

(He knew of course what was growing inside his chest for the mortal, how could he not? That was their curse, they felt things so deeply, but it was not a feeling he would nurture, it was not a feeling he would entertain. He would not go down that cursed pathway. If he could bare it he would send Tilda from him for he knew that if he were cruel to Bard's children the human would no longer be pleasant to him, would no longer smile at him, would no longer - )

He sat down in his chair slowly, "So, what kind of story are we having tonight?"

"Have elves and men worked together before?"

Thranduil nodded, "Often."

"Tell me about that, then."

Chapter Text

Bard’s first few weeks amongst the elves had been interesting to say the least.

It seemed his children had the run of the place, most everyone enjoyed their company, even those who pretended they didn’t. The elves were a little more awkward around Bard himself, some seemed unsure of how to speak to him, others simply didn’t take much notice of him. Bard was fine with that, it afforded him dome well deserved peace and quiet and though he’d never been the kind of person to go for that sort of thing he’d always wished he was. Life might have been easier if he’d just disappeared quietly the first time the Master suggested it.

He healed depressingly slowly, even with the elf’s endless herbs and enchantments. By the time he was strong enough to even consider making the journey back to Dale the weather had grown so harsh and unpredictable that he dare not risk it. The patrols had reported that there were orcs moving in on the forest, not in large enough numbers to threaten the kingdom but enough to pose a threat to anyone caught off guard. There had been calls from the elves for Thranduil to give the order for the orcs to be slaughtered but so far none had been given. The orders were to leave the orcs be unless they strayed too near to the settlement.

It was a decision, Bard knew, that had gone over well with all of the elves. He had been there the morning Thranduil had denied Tauriel’s request to take a group out to find the Orc encampment. The King’s “no” had resounded and though everyone had held their tongues from that moment on there had been a shift in the atmosphere of Mirkwood.

It was suffocating and everybody felt it well, everybody but Tilda.

The elder two of course had noticed and Bard had turned it into a lesson of sorts, discussing it late one night around the fire place of his new quarters; he’d finally been allowed to leave the healing rooms after his refusal to be helped had begun to grate on his healers.

(Tilda had been away with the king, something Bard was still trying to understand. At first he had thought the king was simply humouring her, that he didn’t feel he could deny her. But he had followed her up one night and Thranduil had been so engrossed in the tale he was telling Tilda that he hadn’t even noticed Bard watching.)

Sigrid had understood Thranduil’s decision, it was too much of a risk to send out soldiers in such weather. Even though elves did not suffer the cold like men did the snow still caused visibility issues and it wasn’t a stretch to imagine the orcs being organised enough to launch a sneak attack. After such great loss of life in the battle it really wasn’t worth risking more over something so trivial.

Bain, however, took a different stance. He felt that allowing the orcs to remain so close to the kingdom without intervention would simply encourage more to gather. The orcs were probably poorly armed anyway, probably runaways and survivors of the battle, hardly a threat to the highly trained elves. And besides, it would be a show of strength, an easy victory to bolster spirits.

They bickered for hours over the problem, only stopping when neither could keep from yawning anymore. It gave Bard great hope, for if he was again crowned King of Dale they would, some day, be rulers in their own right, at least now he knew they would take such matters seriously. They would both make good advisors.

Since the shift however, Bard had been spending most of his days alone. The children all had lessons and though Bard joined them from time to time, sparring with Bain, riding with Tilda, archery competitions with Sigrid, he understood their need to do things by themselves on occasion, after all he would not always be there. They took their meals together, spent their evenings joking and talking in their quarters and made sure to spend a day together out of every few.

For the first week he had spent much of his time in Thranduil’s company, the king had seen fit to give Bard an extended tour of his great halls, pausing at to fill Bard in on the history of every room, every intricate detail of design. Tauriel had accompanied them to Bard’s surprise and he had questioned her one evening, surely this was history she would have known well by now?
She had flushed a little and looked away, “I know most of it, I know the bits and pieces the prince told me. After my parents died I - he was my only friend. My foster family were often busy and though the king tolerated my continuous presence he rarely went out of his way to inform me of things.”

Bard frowned, he had heard of the Elvenking’s cold reputation but from the way he had acted towards Bard’s children he had assumed he had a soft spot for the young.”That sounds awful. I am sorry that happened to you.”

Tauriel smiled, as if to reassure him, but there remained a sorrow in her eyes, “Not so awful. He could have ignored me completely and don’t be sorry, it was a long while ago.”

"And what happened to your parents, if you don’t mind me asking?"

"I don’t. They were accompanying the queen on a diplomatic mission to Imladris when their party was ambushed by orcs. I was among them, the soul survivor. I was too young to remember this, of course but Legolas told me many times. I always thought he would be angry with me for living. The King is. But Legolas never was."

Bard patted her on the shoulder comfortingly and she smiled again, though her eyes glistened a little. “And he is still angry at you for this?”

"In a way, yes. You see, he led the rescue mission, and when the cry had gone up that there had been a survivor he had thought…" She shook her head, "Elves love deeply, Bard. Losing a lover can kill us."

"Then he must be strong," Bard said. "As are you," he had added, with a comforting smile.

But eventually Thranduil had pulled away, distanced himself again, he had ordered Tauriel back to her duties and Bard was alone to ponder on the King’s strange nature. Sigrid had suggested that he was growing bored of them, Bain thought he was simply trying to uphold his cold reputation, Tauriel had shrugged.

Normally, Bard wouldn’t have obsessed over something so trivial, after all, it was not his concern that Thranduil shunned company and friendship in favour of brooding solitude. But there was something he felt drawn to, some need to connect with the other king. Perhaps it was simply stubbornness, he had decided when he was lying in the healing rooms that he would do all in his power to befriend the elvenking. It was all he had to offer and, fever-addled as he had been, it had seemed a worthy gift.

Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe the king was best left alone.

But Bard wasn’t about to give up that easily.

At every opportunity, he sought out the king’s company and, for presumably the same reason he never denied Tilda, Thranduil would never directly order Bard away. At first, Bard attempted to keep things diplomatic, he had discussed potential aid for reclaiming Dale, the threat of the orcs that had scattered after the battle, what should be done with the Master when all was said and done. But soon he had exhausted those topics so he settled for questioning the king about his kingdom, about his forest and in return he told tales of his youth, of his children. He was careful not to pry too much into the king’s life but every now and again he was rewarded with a small detail here and there, the mention of a favourite story, a brief tale from Legolas’ childhood, a soft smile and a murmured detail.

Making the king smile had become a strange goal of Bard’s and he wasn’t ignorant as to why. He understood his growing feelings for the elf, just as he understood that they would never be reciprocated. He was fine with that, he had lived much of his life knowing he could look but not touch. In Laketown his family name had been a curse, they had been the poorest of the poor, he had grown up used to not having much.

He was more open with Tilda, every now and again she’d share whatever great epic Thranduil had been telling her in a hushed voice, keep it quiet, Da. King Thranduil doesn’t want everyone to know. She had told him about Oropher, Thranduil’s father and about Thranduil fighting in wars, fighting dragons. That last tale he wasn’t so sure was true but if it was then perhaps it shouldn’t only be Bard who held the title ‘dragon-slayer.’

It was not quite a friendship, but Bard couldn’t think of another word that suited it.

-

By mid-winter the constant snow storms had begun to slow which was lucky for Tauriel, unused to being underground so long, the children had begun to get restless. The king had ordered her back to her duties as Captain of the Guard but it was easy enough to take Bard and the children along with her on the patrol. The children needed the exercise and the air would do Bard good.

Spirits in Mirkwood were beginning to lift again, the mourning period was over and the festival of Turuhalme was fast approaching.

"We have a winter festival too," Bard told her as they rode. "A celebration for the new year. We would have parities and feasts," he frowned, "When we could afford it, at any rate."

"Well, this year you need not worry," Tauriel said. "There will be more than enough for all of you."

"Will there be a party?" Tilda asked, excitedly.

"Oh yes, a big one! If the skies remain clear first there will be games in the snow," she replied, wuth a warm smile. As children she and Legolas had enjoyed this celebration the most, it had been a chance for Legolas to shrug off his princely appearances and be a child. As she’d grown older and the woods had grown more dangerous, more sick, the festival had only become more precious. "We collect logs to build sleds and then there’s a great feast in the evening."

Tilda squealed, “I’ve never been on a sled before! Tauriel, you’ll teach me right?”

"Of course, little one."

Tauriel was just turning back to Bard, meaning to question him more on the human’s festival but there was a a sudden scuffling from up ahead and automatically Tauriel drew notched an arrow to her bow. “Get behind me,” she barked.

They didn’t of course, Bard, Sigrid and Bain stayed level with her, drawing their respective weapons. Tilda sat behind them on her elk, ready to dash back for aid at a moments notice. Tauriel found herself analysing the sounds, too small for a large group, too loud for a single entity, could be a spider, an Orc straggler, travellers lost and disorientated in the snow -

"Captain Tauriel," came a voice in elvish, "Captain Tauriel!"

One of the scouts emerged from the shadowy trees and Tauriel breathed a sigh of relief. A dark haired elf on a mount looking worse for wear accompanied him, smiling sheepishly. “A messenger from Imladris,” the scout explained.

Tauriel frowned, it was rare that they were visited by other elves, especially in such trying weather. Her grip on her bow tightened a fraction, “You rode her all the way from Rivendell? That is quite a journey.”

"Not from Rivendell," the messenger corrected, "My lord Elrond and a few of us have been spending the winter in Lothlorien, it is from him and the Lady Galadriel that I bring tidings and a message for King Thranduil."

"And what does this concern?"

The messenger’s gaze flickered warily towards Bard and the children.

"They are my lord’s guests," Tauriel explained waving away his concerns. "Anything you tell Thranduil will very probably be repeated to them anyway."

The messenger swallowed, “It concerns the necromancer.” He said, in a hushed, low voice.

Tauriel drew back. Last she heard the necromancer had fled. The wizard Saruman had sent word that he would not be a bother anymore, that whatever foul corner of the world he had sequestered himself in he would be staying there.

"In that case," Tauriel said, ignoring Tilda’s, "what’s a necromancer?" and Bard’s frown. "We better hurry back, this is something the king will want to hear."

She turned her horse, spurring it into a swift canter. From Bard’s confused look it appeared the king had not made mention of the necromancer and though Tauriel had no idea why it seemed to be of great annoyance to him. It took Bard only a few moments to draw his horse level to hers, “The necromancer?”

She glanced at him, “A dark wizard, he raised an army of orcs in Dol Guldur. The White Council banished him.”

"Banished? Not destroyed?"

"As far as I know, yes."

Bard fell silent, a troubled look on his face, and remained so for the rest of the ride back.

-

"The king is ready and waiting for you," a guardsman said, as soon as Tauriel’s party crossed the bridge. At her frown he waved a hand, "The scouts sent word ahead," he explained.

Tauriel nodded, beckoning the messenger to her, “Come, the king will see you immediately.”

The messenger look slightly apprehensive but he looked a lot less pale than most who were set to meet Thranduil. Perhaps that was just the exhaustion, after all it was not an easy road to travel and it was certainly not easy weather.

With a quick wave to the children she began to lead him through the entrance hall, towards the throne room but she hesitated when she realised that Bard was following after them, pace brisk.

"As a political ally of the Kingdom of Mirkwood I feel like it is my right to be present," Bard said, a little bitterly. The messenger did not miss his tone but he had the good sense to not comment.

Tauriel too, avoided pressing him further, there would be plenty of time to try and figure out Bard’s strange game with the king later. “Hurry, then,” she said.

Thranduil stood as they entered his hall, expression cold as ever, “Greetings,” he boomed. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”

The messenger stepped forward, on slightly quaking legs. With a bow he said, “Greetings to you, Thranduil, King of Greenwood the Great. I bring tidings from my Lord Elrond and the Lady Galadriel. I-I apologise for this intrusion and the short notice of my arrival - “

Thranduil waved off his concerns with impatience, “Yes, yes. You may stand.”

"I - yes, my lord," he rose to his feet, head still slightly bowed.

Thranduil sat, “So, what is this message?”

The messenger swallowed, “It concerns the Necromancer, my lord.”

"I was under the impression that he had been dealt with."

"In a manner of speaking, he has been," the elf said, carefully avoiding the King’s gaze. "He was banished and had fled. Previously it was not known where but it appears he has taken up in Mordor."

Tauriel could see that Thranduil’s attention, which had been waning, was beginning to grow.

"Mithrandir had previously voiced his opinion that the necromancer was in fact," the messenger broke off, glancing briefly up at the king. He licked his lips nervously, "Mithrandir was of the opinion that the necromancer was in fact Sauron."

At that Thranduil’s entire demeanour changed, he sat forward rather than lounged, his gaze was bright, fixed rather than dull and fleeting and briefly, very briefly, she thought she saw a flicker of fear.

"Sauron was destroyed," he said, firmly. "Mithrandir is mistaken."

The messenger quaked under Thranduil’s cold gaze, “It appears not, my lord. The White Council met and-“

"What proof do they have of this?" Thranduil snapped.

"Well, they discussed it at great lengths and - "

"Did they all agree?" He interrupted.

"Saruman the White was uncertain at first but - "

"Then it is not certain?"

The messenger sighed, “I am sorry, my lord. But all signs point to it being true.”

For a moment the hall was silent, the air was thick with tension. Thranduil looked furious, then briefly horrified. There was a chance, Tauriel thought, that Thranduil might strike the messenger down. Luckily, he thought better of it.

"And is this all Elrond wishes me to know?" He asked, through gritted teeth.

"No, my lord. He also wished me to tell you of the ring. Obviously if Sauron were to regain it then…" Again he trailed off.

"The ring was lost, was it not?" Tauriel found herself questioning.

The messenger glanced briefly at her, “Not so. It was last in the possession of the creature, Gollum. Do you know of this creature, my lord?”

"Unfortunately, yes."

"Then all Elrond asks is that if you happen upon this creature you ensure he does not fall into enemy hands."

Thranduil sighed, leaning back, “Anything else?”

"No, my lord."

“Good,” he sat up again and waved to the two guards at the entrance. “Make sure he has a room for as long as he needs it.”

The guards nodded and the messenger bowed, “Thank you, my lord. It is most appreciated.”

Thranduil shot him a hollow smile, “I do hope you will be joining us for the festivities.”

The messenger beamed, looking relieved, “Thank you, my lord,” he said again. “I will, my lord.” And with one last bow he followed the guards out, leaving the king to fume silently. Tauriel made to turn and follow them out, expecting Bard to join her but instead, he took a few steps towards the throne.

"A word, my Lord?"

Thranduil, who had been standing and massaging his temples, looked down at Bard with a mixture of annoyance and exasperation, “What now, Bowman?”

Part of Tauriel desperately wanted to leave and she would have done, were it not for the ever present fear that Thranduil would one day snap and do something regrettable.

"I only wish to inquire as to why the Necromancer was never mentioned to me."

With a sigh Thranduil dropped back into his throne, “And why would I mention such a thing to you?”

"Because from what I have been told he was a very definite threat."

"A threat that had been dealt with."

"A threat that had fled," Bard said, in a clipped tone. "Which, as you just pointed out, is not the same as being dealt with."

Thranduil exhaled and when he spoke he did so very slowly, as though he were speaking to a very slow child. "Yes, I agree. It isn't. But I was given word that he had been dealt with - "

"You were under that impression because you were not concerned enough to find out differently," Bard cut him off, swiftly and Tauriel held her breath. No one interrupted Thranduil. No one that wasn't sent to the dungeons or worse, at least. "Especially since he was so close to your kingdom."

"And what would you know of it?" Thranuduil snapped, he was glowering now, sneering. "You are not a king, you are not a ruler."

This was the moment that Tauriel knew she should intervene; she stepped forward and put a hand on Bard's shoulder. Bard at least would see reason, she hoped. "My lord - "she began, Thranduil attempted to silence her with a glare but she continued, "My lord, I understand that Bard is being impertinent but - "

"He is being more than impertinent, Tauriel! And I do not recall your opinion being required." He turned his cold gaze back to Bard, "You are a guest here and yet you question my rule?"

Bard shrugged Tauriel's hand off, "I question what kind of king would not only ignore a threat so close to his own kingdom but would not inform his allies of such a threat."

The king scoffed, "Ally? Do not speak to me as if you are an equal here, Bowman. You are here out of the goodness of my heart, I could easily have left you and your children to the mercy of that disgusting man your people call Master but I didn't. I took you in and this is how you speak to me? You are but a mortal man, you could never hope to be my equal."

There was silence then and Bard swallowed, audibly. "If that is truly how you see me then I apologise for speaking out of turn," he said, forming each word carefully. "I spoke to you as an equal because I believed that that was how you viewed me, my lord. I will not make such a mistake again." He turned, brushing by Tauriel as he left the hall.

"I should hope not," Thranduil called after him, words laced with malice.

Tauriel sighed. The next few months would be difficult.

-

The king was drunk.

They were in the midst of the elvish winter celebrations which, as far as Bard could tell, mostly involved drinking large amounts of wine. Though Bard had spent almost a decade transporting the barrels to and from Mirkwood he had never had a chance to sample the wine. It was powerful stuff, the kind of stuff that could very quickly lead to serious lapses in judgement and Thranduil had consumed almost an entire barrel to himself.

Bard had only allowed himself one glass, after it became apparent that no one else was exercising such restraint. Even Tauriel had drank a little too much, she was dancing now, rosy cheeked and giggling on unsteady legs. She looked happier than Bard had seen her for a good few weeks though. The children had been sent to bed sometime ago, Tilda because she was young and the elder two because Bard had allowed them each a small glass of wine and, unaccustomed to alcohol as they were, it had taken its toll.   

So Bard sat alone, at the table nearest the king's, watching him make his way through a second barrel. They had not spoken since their disagreement about the necromancer, except for frosty pleasantries exchanged over meals. Seeing him drunk was somewhat disappointing; the dark, vindictive part of Bard had hoped the king would do something outlandish, embarrassing. Instead, he simply sat, a flush across his pale features, chin propped up by his hand, crown slowly slipping sideways.

He had spoken but for the opening speech and to give a few toasts as the meal progressed and at first, it seemed his silence had not gone unnoticed. There had been worried murmurs and a few times Tauriel had left their table to whisper in his ear but nothing had come of it and it had soon been forgotten in the festivities and merriment.  

And what festivities they were. There was more food than Bard had ever laid eyes on, there was music and singing and dancing and great tales told.  Things were winding down now, some elves had begun to stumble back to their quarters, some had simply dropped where they stood or sat, snoring loudly. Many still danced though, the music continued and the wine flowed and the king drank.

When it became clear that Thranduil had not only reached the bottom of his second barrel but that he had every intention of starting another Bard sighed resignedly and stood. He wasn't sure what compelled him to cross the short distance to the king's table, to step up to him and bend down before him, so that they were eye to eye. All he knew was that there was something inside him that drove him, that insisted that he should ensure the king got safely up to his chambers.

"My lord," he began, hesitantly.

The King's eyes met his and for a brief moment they lit up and he smiled, "Bard." He quickly corrected himself, however, and rearranged his features into a frown, "Bard," he repeated dourly.

Bard realised with a jolt that this was the first time the king had referred to him by name and it made something deep within him rumble with pleasure.

"I believe you have had quite enough to drink, my lord," he said.

The king frowned, "Oh, do you? Well, as far as I can see you have no control over me." His words tumbled together, slightly slurred. Extremely un-kingly. Bard knew how to deal with this, he had dealt with many a drunk man in Laketown.

Bard smiled, despite himself, "Oh, yes? Well, by all means," he stepped back a little, so that Thranduil could rise freely. "If you can stand and make your way across to fetch yourself some more wine I'll leave you be."

Thranduil narrowed his eyes, opening his mouth, no doubt to call for a servant.

"I think all your subjects are busy, my lord," Bard pointed out, indicating the state of the elves before them.

Thranduil huffed angrily, "Fine," he snapped and with great effort he stood, though he clutched the arms of his chair to keep himself steady.

"Halfway there, my lord," Bard said, trying very hard to keep a straight face.

Thranduil glared at him and took a breath, experimentally he let go of the chair and took a step forward. For a moment it looked as though he might make it but just as he was turning back to Bard, grinning smugly he lost his footing. He caught himself on the table but his crown slipped free and he gasped, "No!"

Bard caught the crown with ease, "Not to worry, my lord."

Thranduil made a small noise of relief and leant heavily against the table, "Thank you," he said, in a strained voice. He made no move to take the crown back or to sit back down, instead he regarded Bard, warily.

"Do you agree then that you have had too much to drink?"

The king sighed, "It appears that you may be right."

Stowing the king's crown safely in the large pockets of his jacket, Bard tentatively reached for the King, putting a guiding arm around his shoulders and when the king did not shrug him off Bard pulled him with him, "Come on then, my lord. Let us get you back up to your chambers."

It wasn't until they left the hall that Thranduil collapsed into him with a sigh. The king was surprisingly light and warm against him and Bard again felt that suppressed warmth deep within himself stir. By the time they reached the king's chambers he was mostly deadweight, one arm slung about Bard's shoulders, feet dragging lamely, face half pressed into Bard's hair (for reasons Bard did not like to think about.)

"Here we are," he said, more to himself than to the king, who mumbled unintelligibly in response. He dragged Thranduil across to the bed and deposited him as gently as he could. The king sprawled inelegantly, eyes fluttering open, hazy and unfocused. Bard wondered idly whether he should turn the king onto his side as he would a man but the king was blinking now, becoming more aware of where he was. He would be fine.

Bard pulled the crown out of his pocket before he left, glancing around for a place to put it before settling on the bed-side table. He set it down carefully, "It is a beautiful crown," he said, conversationally.

"Mm," Thranduil glanced up at him. "It was my father's, but my mother was the one who enchanted it to change with the seasons."

Thranduil had never mentioned his mother before, not even to Tilda, to the best of Bard's knowledge. He needed to leave, he would not allow himself to become enthralled with the king once more. He gritted out a rough, "Good night," before turning to go but Thranduil caught his arm.

"You do not have to - You did not - " he stammered, trailed off. He sat up and stared at Bard, mouth half open as though he were not entirely sure what to say next. "Thank you," he settled for.

Bard swallowed, "You are welcome, my lord."

For a moment they simply stared at each and Bard found, to his dismay, that this was as open and honest as he had ever seen the King's expression before. Usually the King wore a mask of arrogance and distance, it was rare that his emotions showed - beyond anger and mirth that is but now, now Bard could see all. Confusion in his bright, wide eyes, longing for something and vulnerability - so clear. His hair was messier than usual and here and there a few wayward strands had fallen across his forehead, across his forehead. The King always looked young but there, half-sitting, half-lying amongst sheets that Bard could probably sell and buy two homes for, there he seemed young, young and uncertain.

It was too much. Bard couldn't -

He looked away.

"If that's all, my lord," he said.

"Wait," the King said, hurriedly. He scrambled up, crossed the room clumsily until he stood before Bard. "I feel I should... I feel I should apologies for our," he paused, casting about for the right word. "Our disagreement earlier."

It wasn't much but Bard was sure that that was the best apology he'd get but that was the least of his worries. The king was standing very close to him and those bright eyes were darting about his face, searching for something Bard was unsure he wanted him to find. Bard could hear his breathing, was suddenly hyper aware of how long the King's eyelashes were (absurdly long) of how he had begun to worry his bottom lip, something Bard had never seen him do before.

He was standing so very close.

"I - " the King said, lamely.

This was absurd.

He would end up in the cells for this or worse, would be kicked out of the elven halls. Or executed.

But he couldn't - He couldn't not -

Bard shifted closer, so that they were practically nose to nose and when he looked up and searched the King's eyes he found the same indecision he felt inside. With that he made his decision, reaching up with one hand to brush back the stray hairs from the elf's face and with the other, pulling the King down to press their lips together.

He expected to pushed away but he wasn't.

The King's hands came up slowly to frame Bard's face and he kissed back, slowly at first but then desperately, messily.  He bit down on Bard's bottom lip, demand entrance which Bard gave happily with a groan. All coherent thought had left him and Bard found himself gently pushing Thranduil towards the bed. When they reached it Thranduil fell backwards and Bard clambered atop him. It had been far too long, he thought, as he bent to reclaim the elf's mouth and judging by the hungry way Thranduil pulled him closer he was in a similar situation.

His hands began to wander, as did Thranduil's, running down Bard's back, as Bard pushed his hands through the King's robes to stroke at his bare skin. The elf hissed at the contact and pressed closer and Bard found himself smiling. Perhaps wine had its uses; the King would surely never allow himself into such a position if he were sober.

Bard froze.

The King would definitely not allow this if he were sober.

Bard pulled away and the King blinked in surprise, "What?" he panted.

Bard sat up, ran a hand through his hair, "You - You are not - not in your right mind."

"I'm - what?" Thranduil spluttered, "I'm fine," he insisted, "I'm fine."

"No," Bard said gently. "No, you're not."

Thranduil growled in frustration, "I know," he muttered. "I just wanted to..." His gaze met Bard's and all Bard found there was despair. "I can't," Thranduil said softly. "Not without wine convincing me but I - I need - I want... And you do too."

"Yes, but you said yourself, you can't. I can't."

Thranduil was still blinking with confusion, Bard could still smell the wine on his breath, still taste it. "Will you even remember this come morning?" he wondered aloud.

After an age it seemed Thranduil looked away from him, down at the sheets and his own hands. "I can only hope I don't," he murmured.

Bard wanted to reach out but he knew if he did he would not be able to bring himself to leave.

"I am quite weary," the King said, "If you would not mind..."

"Yes, yes, of course," Bard said, standing. "Good night, my lord."

"Yes," Thranduil said faintly. "Good night."

-

There was something wrong. Tilda wasn't sure what it was but it was there, hanging heavily in the air like the bad smell that had clung to Laketown. Of course, no one would tell her what was wrong, no one else even seemed to notice something was wrong but there was.

Da was sad. She hated when Da was sad he would smile more, laugh more, as though he were trying to convince himself he wasn't sad but it wasn't working.

The King was sad too. Of course, the King was always sad but now he seemed sadder. She'd asked over and over again whether he was alright and each time he'd assured her that he was fine, that he was just tired. Da used to say that all the time, that he was tired instead of sad. She had begun to wonder whether adults could tell the difference between the two. Or perhaps if they knew what terrible liars they were.

She had resolved to try and get some answers out of the Elvenking though and so, as he absently braided her hair one evening she set about questioning him.

"Why are you always so sad?"

"I'm not sad, little one. I'm just tired." He answered.

Tilda rolled her eyes and tilted her head back so that she could see him better, "I know you're lying."

He smiled faintly, "Do you, now?"

Tilda nodded and turned around so that she was facing him, "Is it because it's almost Spring?"

"And why would that upset me?"

"Because we'll be leaving," Tilda said matter-a-factly and ah! there it was. A flicker of something crossing the King's gaze. "You know we'll only be in Dale. It's only a day or two's ride, you can visit all the time. Or we can visit you."

He was smiling absently again and Tilda frowned, "You will visit, won't you?" she asked.

"Of course," he said. "And you'll visit here. It'll be nice for you to be home again, won't it."

Tilda thought about telling him that Dale wasn't home, Laketown had been but that was gone and Mirkwood was more a home to her than Dale, after all she'd only been there a week or so, but she didn't. Instead she said, "You won't be lonely when I leave, will you?"

At this he chuckled, "Of course not. I'll be fine, dear one."

Tilda frowned again, it didn't seem like he was sad they were leaving. Well, more sad than he should be. Perhaps Sigrid was right. She'd asked her sister a few days before what made adults sad most often and Sigrid had shrugged and said, "Love probably."

"Is it love?" she asked abruptly.

The King jerked a little, "What?"

Tilda rolled her eyes, "That's making you sad," she explained. "Is it love?"

The King stared at her for a time but eventually he sighed, "Perhaps. A little."

Tilda was intrigued, who could it be? Tauriel? One of the council? "You know," she said, leaning forward. "My Da always says that talking about your problems helps solve them."

The King smiled, "Your Da is a smart man." But he didn't elaborate. Tilda sighed, she didn't understand love. Of course, she loved her family, her Da, her brother, her sister. But this love was different then that love, she knew that much.

"What is it like?" she asked, "Love?"

The King sighed again, "It is the most wonderful thing in the world. But also the most painful."

"Did Tauriel love that dwarf?" she asked, for she had often wondered.

The King nodded.

"And Da loved Ma and that silly elf from the kitchens says he loves Tilda."

At that the King laughed again, "Which elf?"

"Elunir. He's silly, he doesn't really love her, does he?"

The King shrugged, "Probably not. Elves and humans never end well that way."

Tilda cocked her head, "You mean elves and humans can fall in love with each other?" The King nodded and Tilda continued, "Why does it never end well."

The King swallowed, "Well, you know that elves are immortal and that men are not? Imagine loving someone and having to watch them age, having to watch them succumb while you remain unchanged."

That did sound rather awful. "Is there nothing that can be done?"

"Some elves, very special elves, can choose to give up their immortality and die alongside their partner. Most cannot."

"And it's happened before?"

"Oh, yes."

"Tell me about it then, that can be my story for tonight."

The King gave a heavy sigh, "These will not be happy stories, Tilda."

"I know, that doesn't mean they're not important though."

Chapter Text

"Tilda," Tauriel said. "Am I to do all your packing for you?"

For the past day or so Tilda had been sulking. Tauriel understood why, these past months must have been like a dream to her, she had said as much to Tauriel on several occasions, and now it was almost over.

"Tilda," she repeated, folding yet another of Tilda’s dresses. The girl didn’t look up, instead she continued to lie on her bed, bunching her fists in the bed sheets. "I know you’re not due to leave until your father sends word but you do have so many things!"

At this Tilda rolled over and fixed Tauriel with a mournful gaze, “I don’t want to pack.”

Tauriel dropped the dress into the heavy chest that Tilda would be taking back to Dale, “I know,” she crossed to sit down on the edge of the bed. “Tilda, you knew this would be happening eventually.”

"I know," she sighed. "But I just…"

Tauriel reached out and put a gentling hand on her arm, “Don’t you want to go home?”

She rolled away, “Dale isn’t home. We didn’t even have beds there. Just mattresses on the floor.”

"Things will be different now," Tauriel said gently. "You and your sister will be princesses and your father will be king."

Tilda wound a stray strand of hair around her finger and hummed thoughtfully, “I know but it’s so much nicer here.” She said quietly.

"You can make it nice there," Tauriel assured her. This was met with silence so she leant forward, closer to Tilda. "Your father has a duty to his people, Tilda. You understand that, don’t you? You want to help them too?"

She huffed, “I know and I do but…” She rolled over again, to face Tauriel. “Da’s happier here. He was sad in Laketown.”

"I’m sure that’s not true."

"It is," she insisted. "He’s happier here. Or he was until he had that fight with the king." Abruptly, she sat up, "Do you think they’ll ever make up?"

Tauriel frowned, “I assume so. Why are you so concerned?”

Tilda opened her mouth to reply but seemed to think better of it, closing her mouth and sitting back a little, so that she had peer up at Tauriel, coyly.

Intrigued, Tauriel cocked her head, “Tilda?”

She twisted her mouth, fidgeted and looked away, towards the half packed trunk, “Uh…”

Tauriel followed her gaze. Oh. “Are you worried that you won’t be able to come back here if they don’t settle their differences?” It seemed the most logical explanation, it was the sort of thing she would worry about but Tilda shook her head.

"No, I know Da will let me," she said, almost distantly. Then she narrowed her eyes, "You’ll still be here, won’t you?"

"Of course, in fact I doubt they’d cope if I left."

Tilda nodded, “Then Da won’t mind me coming if you’re here.” She sighed glumly, truly too world weary a sound from such a young girl.

"Then why do you worry about your father and the King?"

Tilda shrugged, “It’s just nicer when they’re not angry at each other. They’re happier when they’re not. Da’s lots happier…” She trailed off, lost in thought and when she looked back at Tauriel she was frowning, “Tauriel, what do you think about love?”

Tauriel was thrown, “Love?”

"Yes. In Laketown all the girls I knew talked about it all the time, they said it was wonderful but it doesn’t seem wonderful. King Thranduil told me all these sad stories about it and Sigrid says it’s silly and you - " she broke off, looking up at Tauriel nervously.

"And I...?" Tauriel prompted.

She bit her lip, "Well, you loved that dwarf, didn't you?"

Tauriel took a sharp breath, even now, months after the battle the wound was still fresh. Perhaps it was the unknown nature of it all, that fact that she hadn't allowed herself to feel - to really feel - for Kili until it was too late. But why would Tilda be asking about that now? She hadn't before though she'd wanted to. Tauriel knew she had been skirting around the topic.

"It's complicated, dear one," she settled for.

"When adults say complicated usually they just mean painful," Tilda muttered.

Tauriel smiled weakly, "Yes, I suppose we do."

"But it was worth it?" Tilda pressed, "Even though he died and it hurts you, it was worth it?"

"I - " Tauriel began. "It's...It's complicated again," she said, smiling apologetically at Tilda's annoyed expression. "You see I barely knew him. We spoke but a few times and we had never - we had never been given opportunity to know each other properly, do you see?"

It was evident by her expression that Tilda didn't see, not really. She screwed her face up, pondering Tauriel's words and then, eventually, she said, "But if you could, you'd do it all the same?"

Tauriel had always hated these types of questions. It was something she had thought of often in those first few weeks after the battle, after he had been laid to rest. It would have been so easy to simply ignore him that first night in the dungeons and things would have gone so differently.

That poisoned arrow would have killed him. Legolas would not have left.

Perhaps none of this would have come to pass. She would not have left, after all, to seek out Kili after their escape, Legolas would not have come after her. They would not have fought off the orcs in Laketown.

After a certain point it did not bare thinking about.

"I would," she said quietly.

"Even if it meant losing him?" she asked, brow furrowed.

"Even if it meant losing him," Tauriel confirmed with a sigh.

Tilda nodded, as if she had known this all along. "There, I knew it," she said and her tone was somewhere between pride and weariness. "If people love each other they should be together even if it might not go right. Don't you think?"

"I suppose..." Tauriel said and she was still trying to work out what this had to do with anything, why Tilda was suddenly so curious about love and love stories and heartbreak when she'd never been before. Maybe she had a crush, she was at an age when such things would start developing and for a young girl among so many elves it would not be unexpected. Perhaps on the King. It would certainly make sense but then -

Oh.

Oh.

Oh?

She frowned at Tilda. Tilda stared placidly back.

It couldn't be. There was no way the King would - and Bard surely had larger concerns than - but then again, it would explain a lot. Their initial closeness, the King's foul temper of late. But how had no one but Tilda seen? She was an observant little soul, to be sure but...

Perhaps she was mistaken.

Tauriel hoped she was mistaken.

-

Sigrid held her father's horse steady as he finished strapping his pack to her saddle. Truth be told, Sigrid needn't have; the mare was a calm old thing, trained to be stoic and obedient, but at least she felt a little less useless.

Her father's eyes met hers and he smiled warmly, "You can come you know, Sigrid. I'm not going to stop you."

As if you could, Sigrid thought. Her time at Mirkwood had taught her how to fight but also how to persuade, how to be convincing enough to get away with most anything she pleased. She knew she could go with him, join him and Bain and the few elves that had pledged them their support. Fight and reclaim Dale.

"You know I can't, Da," she said, smiling back. "Someone should stay here for Tilda." She stopped herself before she added "just in case." She didn't want to think about just in case but she had to.

Just in case the Master was better prepared than they thought he would be. Just in case the people of Dale decided to support him. Just in case her Da didn't come back.

She tightened her grip a fraction on the horse's bridle.

"Hey," her father said, gently, placing a hand over hers. "It will be fine, Sigrid. You know it will be fine."

Sigrid wasn't so sure. She caught her bottom lip between her teeth, "But Da, the winter might have changed Dale. What if they don't want you to lead them anymore? What if the Master has more supporters now? What if this is exactly what he's expecting?"

He had smiled all throughout her worries, that calm, fond smile he always had when she was worrying too much. But someone had to worry; someone had to think of these things. Someone had to be ready for the worst.

He reached up and stroked her cheek, "Oh, Sigrid, what would we do without you, hm?"

"Die, probably," she muttered. She hated when he spoke to her like a child.

He chuckled, "Yeah, probably."

"Da!" Came a cry from across the hall, "I'm all set! Are we going yet?" Her brother sat astride his horse, sword strapped to his back, fidgeting impatiently.

"One moment, Bain," their Da called back and then he glanced around, as though her were looking for someone.

"Tilda's with Tauriel," Sigrid said, "Remember? You didn't want her here in case she got too upset about you leaving without her."

"No, I wasn't looking for - " He started to say but then he stopped himself and before Sigrid could question him he was kissing her on the forehead and swinging himself up onto the saddle. "I'll send word as soon as I can," he assured her.

And Sigrid wanted to tell him to stop, they didn't need Dale. They could stay here, they could go somewhere better, somewhere bigger but she knew it was no good. She knew they had duty to the people of Dale, she knew her father would never leave here, after all he'd stayed put in Laketown all those years, allowing the Master to treat him as the lowest of the low.

"Be careful," she said.

He smiled, "I will." He studied her a few minutes more before smiling once more and turning his horse towards the open gates. "Come then, to Dale." He called and Bain cheered, and galloped after him, and the elves followed, thundering over the bridge into the bright forest.

Sigrid stood at the gates, staring out at the path long after they had disappeared. Eventually though, she backed away and as soon as she did so the gates swung shut.

She took her time walking back up to their quarters, unsure of why at first but knowing immediately when she was greeted by her sister's tears.

It was just like before, before the battle, after the battle. The waiting, the unknowing.

They had already had to endure this, had to wait anxiously for news while soldiers searched for their father's body.

"It'll be alright, Tilda," she said, quietly. "They'll be alright."

And Tilda appeared to be caught, as she so often was, between the optimism of a child and the knowledge that one day their luck would surely run out.

Tauriel was there as ever, doing her best to distract them. It worked on Tilda after a fashion, when Tauriel decided to take them down to the stables.

"I don't understand," Sigrid said to Tauriel, while Tilda brushed and whispered to her elkling. "Why the King didn't send more men just in case. I thought he liked Da."

Tauriel looked at her curiously, "Well, not everyone thinks we should be meddling in human affairs. Remember, he cannot simply do as he pleases; he has to take in to account the wishes and needs of his people as well. Your father will have to do that when he reclaims his crown. You will too one day, if you become queen."

"Bain is older," Sigrid said, "He'll be ruler before me. I don't want to rule. I don't think Da does either, not really."

Tauriel put a comforting arm around Sigrid's shoulders, "I don't think many who have to rule really want to rule, dear one. In fact, wanting to rule might be an indication that you are ill suited to a throne."

-

"The Bowman and his party have left for Dale, my lord."

Thranduil snapped his book shut and gazed impassively up at the elf at his doorway, "Yes, and?"

The messenger spluttered, "I - well - Tauriel asked that we inform you when they had left."

Thranduil arched a brow, "Tauriel did?"

"Yes, my lord."

Thranduil hummed, "Very well. You may go."

He waited until the guard was out of sight and ear shot before tossing his book aside with a growl of frustration. He had known this day would come, he had known when Bard made the somewhat awkward request for support (awkward because neither of them would meet the other's eyes) that this day was coming soon.

He had also known that just because Bard had left the ache in chest would not disappear. It would remain for a while longer and perhaps there would be echoes of it in the years and centuries to come but it would fade eventually. Just as his memory of the precise shade of brown Bard's eyes were or the way his forehead creased when he frowned.

 

It would be easy to avoid him now. They would see each other at formal gatherings, diplomatic meetings but nothing further. Theirs would be a purely political friendship, a mutually beneficial relationship.

And one day perhaps Thranduil would stop jerking awake at night, half-hard and writhing. Oh, how he wished he had never kissed that human. He was certain that Bard believed he did not recall their little discretion and he was content to keep it that way. In days gone by Thranduil would simply have called upon one of his many willing subjects but there was something about this time that set it apart, every time he began to consider it an uncomfortable feeling came over him.

It was beginning to get irksome.

Of course, knowing that Bard's time as a regular fixture in his life was coming to an end came with it's own ache, the bone-deep kind that was difficult to ignore. But it wasn't as if he had a choice. He had gone over every possible scenario in his mind.

There was no way for it to work. If there even was an it.

Soon there wouldn't be. Soon it wouldn't matter.

Now he just had to wait for news of the Master's fall and he was certain it would come.

-

Her Da and brother had been gone two days and Tilda was beginning to get nervous.

Of course, she had been nervous this whole time, throughout the whole thing. Nervous about what would happen when her Da sent word of victory, nervous of what would happen if he didn't. Sigrid was nervous too, she was snapping at Tilda constantly and then apologising and then snapping again. Tauriel was stressed too, she spent most of her time hovering around the gate.

Tilda didn't understand why they couldn't have gone with him, or gone after him, it would have been much easier, that way there wouldn't be so much waiting around.

It felt like everyone was floating, like nothing that had happened over the past two days had really happened. Not that much had happened; she and Sigrid had mostly stayed in their room, only leaving for meals and once to go with Tauriel to the stables.

She hadn't even been up to see the King since Da had left. She wasn't sure she wanted to.

Well, that was a lie. She wanted to but she wasn't sure she should.

Part of her was angry; she knew the king loved her Da, no matter what Sigrid said about her making it up. She knew he did, why else would he be so sad about them leaving? And really, she didn't see what the big deal was, so what if King Thranduil was an elf and Da was a man? They would be happier together than apart.

Tilda didn't understand why they couldn't see that.

Sigrid had told her once that adults didn't always know they loved each other, maybe that was why. Maybe the King needed telling and that was what Tilda had spent all day thinking about.

She had thought about the stories he'd told her, he'd tried to make them sadder than they were, she thought. He'd talked about Beren and Luthien who died, but they had been reborn, they had been allowed to love each other. About Idril and Tuor who sailed West together.

It might have been hard for them but it worked,they made it work.

Technically it was none of her business so she shouldn't meddle. Technically. But it did involve her Da and if it involved Da it involved her family and Da had always said meddling was okay where family was involved.

But then again, Thranduil was a king and Da had told her to obey him.

But Thranduil hadn't told her not to meddle.

And Tauriel had agreed that two people who loved each other should be together.

This would be so much easier if Da were here.

She made her way up to the King's chambers later that evening without fully knowing what she'd do and when she got there she hovered outside for a long while before she went in.

She stood in shadows, watching the King read for a long while before the King sighed, "I know you are there, Tilda."

He sounded tired and when he looked at her there wasn't even the ghost of a smile in his eyes.

Tilda stepped forward, "Good evening, King."

"Good evening, Tilda," he snapped shut his book. "If you're here for a story - " he began.

"I'm not," Tilda decided.

The King arched a brow, "Then to what do I owe this pleasure, Tilda?"

Tilda again, she noticed, not little one, not dear one.

She shuffled her feet awkwardly, "I - I wanted to ask you something."

That made him smile softly, "You always do," he said.

For a moment Tilda was unsure what to say, telling the King directly that he was being silly probably wouldn't be a good plan. The king was a proud elf, she knew that much. Instead she'd have to show him how stupid he was being, that was the only way to avoid being rude.

Thranduil was watching her thoughtfully, "You know, Tilda, you look so like your sister right now, demanding that I give you and your father protection."

Tilda smiled, "She was brave to do that."

"She was indeed," he stood, crossing to one of his many shelves to put away his book. "Your questions, Tilda?" He prompted, when he turned back.

"How old are you, King Thranduil?"

That seemed to throw him, for a few seconds he stared blankly at her but then he gave an inelegant snort of laughter, "Old. Unspeakably old, Tilda. I was born at the end of the First Age, do you know how long ago that was?"

Tilda didn't, Sigrid might but Tilda had never been a very good history student. She shook her head, "Is it lonely to live so long?"

"It can be. Friends die, friends leave, elves feel things more deeply than humans."

"Like love?" She asked.

"Love?" He echoed. "I wonder, Tilda, what is this new obsession you have with love born from?"

"Suppose," she began, licking her lips. "Suppose there was an elf, an elf my Da was in love with?"

The King's expression darkened immediately, an angry red flush rise across his pale cheeks and when he spoke it was with a voice that could tear through dragon-hide, "What elf?"

"It doesn't matter," Tilda said quickly. "But suppose there was one."

"Did he tell you there was one?" The King snapped.

"I - " she had to think quickly now, he was getting angry. "Not in words so much but I think there is."

Thranduil dropped back into his chair, sulkily, like Bain used to when Da told him he couldn't do something he'd wanted to. "And?"

"Well, the thing is I know my Da loves this elf, even if he doesn't know it yet but since we're leaving I don't know if he'll tell this elf. See, I'm pretty sure the elf is kind of - kind of scared," at that the King's eyes narrowed, "And Da doesn't want to - "

Thranduil stood, "Enough."

Tilda stammered to a halt, this was the elvenking the children of Laketown had told scary stories about. The King rose from his seat slowly, eyes cold and hard.

"I have heard enough of your nonsense," he said, enunciating every word carefully, terrifyingly. "Your father is an adult, Tilda. I am certain that he can handle his romantic affairs on his own."

"Y-yes, but - " this was not going the way she wanted it to at all. Maybe she should just leave.

"No buts, Tilda. I have more important things to do than listen to your worries."

Tilda crossed her arms, "That's not very nice."

"Nice? I am a king, child. I have concerns far greater than your petty nonsense. Now, I have been patient, infinitely patient with you, but now my patience is wearing thin. I have been kind to you, I have indulged your whims and your probing questions but no more. Go, child. Go back to your sister and leave me."

Hot tears burnt the backs of Tilda's eyes, she had known he might be angry but she had not expected him to be like this. "You're awful!" She yelled, without really meaning to and then, "Maybe Da will be better off without you!"

She definitely didn't mean to say that.

But it was too late, she didn't stay to watch the King's reaction, she turned and ran back down the stairs. She didn't stop running until she got their rooms, eyes blurry with tears.

She didn't go to her own bed, instead she clambered in beside her sister, pressing herself as close as she could to her. "Mm," Sigrid stirred, rolling to face her. "Tilda? Are you crying? Why are you crying!?"

Tilda couldn't speak, the words wouldn't come. She shook her head tearfully and Sigrid held her and whispered soothing nothings into her ear.

-

The King was fuming, that much was obvious. He had taken his morning meal alone in his chambers, had snapped at the elves who had brought it to him and was now angrily looking over the proposals for the resumption of the rebuilding of Dale. He huffed more often than usual, turned pages with more force than was necessary and held his pen as he would a sword.

Usually, Tauriel would avoid him on days like this. Days like this were days that his bite was innumerable greater than his bark.

But unusually Tauriel was fuming too. Far more enraged than Thranduil could be surely.

She stormed in to the room, arms crossed, "Out." She barked, at the few council elves hovering awkwardly about the place. The elves scattered, glad to be given a reason to be out of the line of fire.

Thranduil fixed her with a look of distaste, "Tauriel you may be Captain of the Guard but you hold no real authority here, certainly not to give orders to the council members."

"I could call them back in, if you prefer," she said, meeting his gaze.

"No," he said, looking back at his papers. "That is quite alright. And what can I do for you this morning?"

"Tilda," she snapped and he looked up at her, looking faintly surprised.

"What about her?"

"Whatever you said to her yesterday - "

He cut her off, "What I said to her yesterday is of none of your concern."

"I'm not here to tell you to apologise," Tauriel continued.

"Don't be absurd - "

"She's a little girl," Tauriel reminded him. "A child, not even ten. I understand that you may be having difficulties with - "

"Difficulties?""

Tauriel ignored him, "You can't just take out your anger on her."

Thranduil looked suitably embarrassed by this point but Tauriel knew he would never admit that, least of all to her. Tilda hadn't told Tauriel precisely what the King had said to her, or why, but Tauriel had an idea that it in someway involved Tilda's great theory.

"Is that all?" He snapped, when the silence between them dragged too long.

Tauriel would have liked to say no. She would have liked to question Thranduil over what exactly Tilda had said to make him snap so. Over his thoughts on Tilda's theory. But she couldn't, he would never speak so openly with her, he would never speak so openly to anyone.

It must be lonely, Tauriel thought, to have so little trust in all those around you.

She was about to speak but there came an insistent knock on the door.

"Enter," Thranduil barked.

An elf leant in, "My lord, we have word from Dale. The Master has been apprehended, the dragon-slayer was successful."

Tauriel felt a great weight being lifted and she gasped, laughing breathlessly. She had known this would come, she had never doubted Bard but still, this was a welcome relief. The King, for his part, sagged a little, closing his eyes briefly before nodding, "Make preparations to leave for Dale. We will depart as soon as all is ready." He looked to Tauriel, "Tauriel will go on ahead with the children."

The messenger nodded his assent and hurried off.

"Now, if you don't mind," he said to Tauriel. "There is much to prepare. I must send word to the Mithrandir." And with that he swept out leaving Tauriel staring after him.

Chapter Text

"I don't see them yet," Bain said, craning his neck to gaze from the tower across to the path that led from Mirkwood. He turned back to Bard, brow furrowed, "Word has definitely reached them by now, yes?"

Bard smiled, "I'm sure it has. They should be here any minute."

His son nodded and turned back, to look out once more, "Any minute," he echoed.

In the end, taking back Dale had been fairly easy. The Master had been attempting to prepare a force for weeks, feeding the townspeople stories of how the elves had poisoned Bard's mind, of how Bard would take back the city not for the people, but as an outpost for the elves. Luckily, his supporters were few and far between and, with the great battle still fresh in everyone's minds, upon seeing Bard and the small host of elves marching towards them they had scattered.

Even the Master's most loyal cronies had chosen life over a futile fight.

They had taken the Master and Alfrid (once again) captive and were holding them in a recently refurbished jail.

The people celebrated, throughout the winter the Master had taken control of the town by hoarding things like firewood, food and blankets. He'd sold them back to the people of course but after the destruction of Laketown and the battle, most had naught to offer but the clothes from their back. His solution had been labour, the harsh winter had driven the dwarf's reconstruction efforts to a standstill but the Master wouldn't have that. Much of the town had had to brave the snows and gales to rebuild the ruined castle of Dale, where the Master had taken up residence.

There had been a sickness, a fever that ran through the workers and left them hacking and gasping for breath but luckily, few had succumbed to it. Alfrid it seemed had it now and sat sniffling in his cage alternating between whining pathetically and raging had his elven guards.

Bard would hold a vote a few days after his coronation to see what the people thought should be done to the two. He was still loathe to execute, he did not wish to start his reign with bloodshed but he and his children had spent their winter months with full bellies and freedom, his people had not.

It was strange to think that in a day or so he would no longer be commoner, no longer a mere man, he would be a King and his children would be royalty. It made him feel uncomfortable in the strangest of ways; he did not want to rule as Thranduil did, as Dis did, he did not want to leave his children with such a burden when he passed. But it was not a responsibility he could shy away from, he would not abandon these people, his people.

He would find a better way to do things, a fairer way. Motions and proposals would be voted on, verdicts would come from consensus not from absolutism, his children would reign one day, yes, but they would reign alongside every man, woman and child who lived in Dale.

There was a voice that sounded strikingly like Thranduil in the back of his mind, laughing derisively; you think they will see you as kind and fair, they will only see you as weak.

Perhaps they would, Bard thought. But as he stood on the tower where his grandfather had tried to save their home and listened to the laughter and music that drifted up from the town square, he knew that there was no other way he could think to rule.

"I see them!" Bain cried, pointing. "They're here, Da! They're here!"

 

-

They heard the music and the general buzz of laughter long before they could clearly see the city. Tilda could barely contain herself; she had ridden her elkling from Mirkwood and practically trembled with excitement in her saddle.

They were travelling with a small company, Tauriel and a few of her rangers were accompanying them with the rest of the elves following a day or so behind.

Sigrid herself had always assumed she would feel more excited about this day, they were coming home, they would be a family again without the threat of the Master hanging over them. Perhaps it was just that she didn't quite believe it. After all, he'd found them after Laketown, when they were supposed to be safe and she knew her Da wouldn't sentence him to death, it just wasn't in him.

And there would be others like the Master, Tilda was sure. She had read books of history in Mirkwood, books on kings and queens and usurpers and assassins. She couldn't help it; there was always a niggling fear in the back of her mind.

Someone had to think of these things and she'd rather it not be Da. Tilda was too young, Bain too stubborn. Better it be her.

Her subdued attitude had not gone unnoticed, however.

"Cheer up, dear one," Tauriel had said to her often in their journey. "Things will all fall into place." She'd said it with a smile each time and each time Sigrid heard it she felt she believed it a little less.

Maybe it didn't matter that things were bound to fall apart again though, that was what Tilda would say. It didn't matter that things might be awful in a month or a year or a decade, it mattered that they weren't awful now.

The gates of the city were insight now. Of course, there were no gates to speak off, they had been destroyed long ago but there was a figure, running towards them. The figure was yelling something but he was too far off to hear clearly and then, "Bain!" Tilda yelled, spurring her elkling into sprint. "BAIN! DA!"

"Tilda!" yelled Tauriel, alarmed. With a quick look to Sigrid she too spurred her horse into a gallop and Sigrid was left, hanging back, worries swirling in her mind.

Tilda reached the figure and jumped clumsily down from her steed to embrace him. Now there was another figure, running, laughing, her Da.

Tauriel had reached them too and it seemed they turned as one to her, "Sigrid!" she recognised her brother's voice and the worry seemed to just fall away.

"Bain! Da!" she yelled, overwhelmed with relief, spurring her horse on.

She did not even have a chance to dismount before her Da yanked her down into a hug, sweeping her off her feet though she was much too large for this kind of affection. "I missed you," she told him. "Let's not do this again."

He chuckled, pressing a kiss to the top of her head, "I will try my hardest."

As soon as he released her Bain pulled her into tight embrace.

When all the hugging and relief was done her Da turned to Tauriel, "Tauriel," he greeted, with a fond smile.

Tauriel bent low in a bow, "King," she greeted, grinning up at him.

He laughed, gesturing her to stand, "Please, don't."

She straightened up, still beaming, "But you are a king now, Bard. You deserve my respect." she said, honestly.

Bard waved away her sentiment, "No. Truly, it is you who is deserving of my respect. Thank you, for all you have done for my children."

"Please, it was my pleasure, Bard." She said, with a wink to Tauriel.

Bard nodded to her, clapping her once on the shoulder in a gesture of camaraderie and thanks. Then he turned back to Sigrid and Tilda, "Come, girls. The whole town has been eagerly awaiting your arrival! We must join the celebrations!"

He put an arm around Sigrid's shoulders and led them into the city. Tilda led the way to the town square in skips and bounds, "I'll see all my friends again! Rosie and Ashling! And Neela! Oh! And will there be strawberries? I love strawberries!"

There was a great cheer from the crowd when they entered the square and Sigrid found herself enveloped in the arms of people she'd known all her life and people she'd scarcely met.

"Princess," they kept calling her. "Princess."

-

Thranduil stood before the mirror, staring at his marred flesh. The scar had grown once again in Bard's absence, creeping down his chest a beginning to envelop his arm.

It would recede in time, he told himself. It would. It had to.

But if it didn't?

It was only after his wife's death that it had spread to his cheek and remained there. Before the only lingering mark was his blind eye. His ruined cheek was a mark for her, a constant reminder.

But he and Bard were never - had never -

Curse that human. He did not deserve to bare a mark for all eternity for someone he hardly knew.

There came a knock at the door and Thranduil quickly shrugged on his robes, "Yes?"

"My lord, the company is ready to depart when you are," an elf informed him.

Reaching for his crown Thranduil nodded, "Ready my steed."

-

The coronation was to be held on the day of the annual Spring festival, it was a little later than some of his citizen would have liked but it would give time for the emissaries from other realms to arrive.

And there had been another problem; the crown of Dale had been lost long ago. Sold by his grandfather to pay for the construction of Laketown.

"If I had more time I am certain I could find it," Gandalf had told him. "I am certain I have seen it in my travels, if only I could remember where..."

"Nonsense," Dis said, with a wave of her hand. "I will have one made for you. It will be a gift, a symbol of the renewed friendship between the dwarves of Erebor and the men of Dale."

Bard inclined his head, "I thank you, my Queen. It will truly be a gift greater than any I could have hoped for."

Dis beamed at him.

Gandalf and the dwarves had arrived in Dale within hours of each other. Gandalf with the hobbit Bilbo in tow, Dis with the remainder of Thorin Oakenshield's company. Bard had given them all rooms in the castle which they had graciously accepted.

"Dain and his company should arrive on the morrow," Dis told him. "Though I have told them there may not be room in the castle for them!"

Bard smiled, "I'm sure we can fit them somewhere."

She laughed, "You shall be overrun with dwarves, Bard! Last time that happened I hear it didn't go so well for you."

"Oh, I don't know. I mean I did eventually end up King from it," he said, taking a long swig of his ale.

The merriment had continued every night since his liberation of the city, each day had been the same: the morning and afternoon were spent rebuilding, the evening was spent feasting and dancing and for Bard, talking diplomatically with the dwarves, Gandalf and Tauriel.

Apart from that last part it had been truly wonderful.

It wasn't that politics didn't interest him, it was that he hadn't fully realised just hadn't fully realised how many things he would have to concern himself with and how deeply personal much of it could be.

"Marrying again would be wise," Dis told him. "Even if it is simply a marriage for show. The people always feel more secure with a King and a Queen."

Everyone else present agreed to Bard's annoyance, only Gandalf remained silent on the matter, but this was not something he wished to discuss with so many he barely knew so the topic was dropped. Forever, he had hoped but as was ever the case, he was not so lucky.

"There is a rumour," Gandalf said, voice tentative, when they sat alone together by the fire, the night following his arrival, "that you have become quite..." he paused, casting around for the correct phrasing. "Enamoured with one of the elves of Mirkwood," the wizard finished.

Bard, tired from the long hours he had been keeping and having drunk far too much ale tried and failed to come up with a swift rebuttal. Besides, it wouldn't have done any good, he knew the wizard far too well. Gandalf wasn't asking him to confirm the rumours, he was simply letting Bard know he knew and giving Bard the option to talk to him about it.

Part of Bard wished to tell the wizard that his romantic endeavours were none of his business, as he was sure Thranduil would do if their places were reversed but the ale had loosened his tongue. With a sigh he sat forward, burying his head in his hands.

"I take it that means yes," said the wizard.

Bard nodded, a little helplessly and looked up again. Gandalf was surveying him. Bard had never felt quite so exposed as when he was under the wizard's searching gaze.

"Is it, by any chance, the red haired captain?" he asked, eventually.

Bard considered lying but he found himself shaking his head without really knowing why. Gandalf sat back with a sigh, "Ah, that is most unfortunate."

Bard narrowed his eyes, "You know for whom I carry affection?"

Gandalf smiled, a little sadly, "There are only two people I have known to make you smile so fully, Bard. Aside from your children, of course." He shook his head, "I had feared this might happen..."

"Feared?" Bard echoed.

"When the two of you first met I saw Thranduil's interest in you," he said wistfully. "I was not too concerned though, I assumed that it was simply your looks he was interested in which is not unusual for him. Even then he was able to make you smile but I knew that you would not be so foolish to yearn for such an elf if you thought your affections weren't returned. It was only after the battle, when he took you and your children in that I began to wonder."

"You speak as though you know King Thranduil well."

Gandalf gave a little snort of laughter, "I have known Thranduil Oropherion for longer than he would care to admit." He was gazing thoughtfully into the flames, "He was once much like you, you know, before his father's death. He became king far too early for one such as he."

Bard had no idea how to respond to this so he simply nodded.

"Have you two discussed your affection for each other?" Gandalf asked.

Bard swallowed, thinking of the King's drunken kisses, "Not in any great depth. We have been avoiding it."

Again, Gandalf gave him one of those long, searching looks. "Perhaps that is wise," he said.

"You think so?" Bard asked.

Gandalf looked back to the flames, "I think that there could be much that would come from such a relationship, for both of you and as much as Thranduil irks me it would be good to see him happy once again. But it could also end disastrously. You are both Kings now, your people need to come before everything."

"Dis said she thought I should get married," Bard said, hollowly. "You stayed quiet on the matter."

"It is true that some see a kingdom with a married king as stronger, more secure and it is true that you could marry for political gain. It is even true that a union between you and Thranduil could be seen as such."

At that Bard sat up straighter, "I thought you did not approve?"

"I did not say that," the wizard said, with a small, sad smile. "I said it would be unwise. If you were anyone but who you are and he was anyone but who he is things would be different. There would be some amongst your people who may come to see you as little more than a puppet for the elves, just as there are some amongst his people who would see him as turning soft. Would you risk that?"

"I would," he said without hesitation. "I would trust that my people would have enough faith in me to see past that. I just...I do not know if he would, though."

Gandalf made a sympathetic noise, "You must understand, Bard, that Thranduil had been a king far longer than you. His kingdom is his priority beyond all else and it has cost him dearly in the past."

"I know, and I would not ask him to change if he does not wish it," Bard said and Gandalf was nodding encouragingly until Bard said, "But I feel he does wish it. I, too, would like to see him happy and if I can, if he allows it, I will do my utmost to make it so."

Gandalf sighed, "I knew there would be knew talking you out of this. All I can say is be careful, Bard. Elves view romance and such things differently than mortal men do and I would hate for you both to get hurt."

"As would I," Bard muttered.

-

The elves arrived the evening before the coronation though the King did not meet them until the morning. He sent a messenger to the castle, conveying his apologies for not coming in person because he was tired from the long journey. Personally, Sigrid thought he was being childish.

She knew, as everyone knew, that the King and her Da had had some sort of falling out during their final weeks in Mirkwood. They rarely spoke to each other and if they did it was in that overly polite tone people only used on people they loathed. What she did not know, however, was why they had had their falling out, at least, at the time. Now, she had an idea.

There was a rumour amongst the townspeople that her Da had fallen in love with an elf. At first, Sigrid had dismissed these rumours but now she was rethinking it. She'd seen the easy way her Da talked to Tauriel, how close they stood, how much they laughed together.

It made her a little giddy, to think that Tauriel and her Da might get together. Tauriel would make a beautiful queen and she was sure her Da would be happy. She assumed that King Thranduil wouldn't approve, that would explain the rift.

But she knew there were more important matters focus on, if there was to be a wedding it probably wouldn't be any time soon which Sigrid was fine with. These things couldn't be rushed after all.

Tilda would love it though, Sigrid was sure. Since they'd got back to Dale her spirits had soared, gone was the sour mood of the past week and though she often spoke of their time in Mirkwood she never seemed particularly distressed until the morning the King was due in Dale.

Da had gathered them all in the main hall, dressed in their newly sown coronation dresses. Da stood in front of his throne, she and Tilda to his left, Bain and Tauriel to his right. Much of Dale had joined them, the dwarves too, lining the hall and filling it with the gentle murmur of hushed conversations.

They stood on the dais which had been specially decorated for the coronation. Two tables had been brought up, one for elves, one for the dwarves and chairs had been brought for the citizens. Everyone was dressed so beautifully and it was such a lovely day outside.

Sigrid was so excited she could hardly bare it.

Tilda was unfortunately fidgeting, "Do you think I'll have to give my elk back?" she whispered. "Do you think he and Da will be nice to each other?" She had begun to worry the hem of her dress, picking at the stitching.

"Stop that," Sigrid hissed.

Tilda looked up at her, brow furrowed.

"Put your hands behind your back," Sigrid instructed. "That'll stop you fidgeting."

"But Sigrid," she whispered back but she didn't have time to finish her sentence because the doors to the hall swung open and King Thranduil was announced.

He swept into the hall, in flowing silver robes, his crown adorned with spring blossoms. A company of elves followed behind him, carrying with them gifts of food and wine and weaponry and in a small, glass case, three crowns for she and her siblings.

Bard bowed and the whole hall moved with him, "The warmest of greetings to you, Thranduil, King of the Woodland Realm. I am honoured to receive you in my halls."

Thranduil arched a brow, inclining his head, "I am received." he said. "My greetings to you, Bard of Dale and congratulations on your new found crown. I have bought with me supplies for the merriment that is no doubt about the ensue, as well as gifts of weaponry and other essentials for your people and reconstruction efforts. And - " he paused, beckoning the elf that held the glass case forward. "Crowns for you three lovely children."

There was no emotion in his voice as he spoke, except perhaps the general air of haughtiness that seemed to cling to him regardless of the situation.

"You are too kind, my lord," Bard said, bowing once more.

"Please," Thranduil said. "It is less than you and your people deserve."

It was at that point that Gandalf stepped forward, "I believe we are finally ready to begin," he said, blue eyes twinkling.

A hush fell about the hall and there was a great flurry of movement as people sat, as the musicians readied the old tunes of Dale, as the scribes and record-keepers readied their quills.

The elves bowed as one and moved to take their seats at the table; Tauriel too, gave a swift bow and joined her people. Tilda gave a little squeak of excitement and Sigrid shushed her, just as their Da turned to wink at them.

"Queen Dis," Gandalf said, turning to her, "I trust the crown is ready?"

Dis inclined her head, "It is, Gandalf. Balin, if you would be so kind."

The old dwarf nodded, smiling in that warm of his and stood. Sigrid held her breath; she could not wait to see the crown was to look like. Would it be large and angled like the one Dis wore, or delicate and branch-like as Thranduil's was. Would her father like it? Would she?

The crown was brought forth.

It was a dark silver band, etched with swirling patterns that in the right light looked a little scales. It was simple, it was elegant.

"We retrieved the black arrow from the hide of the great dragon Smaug," Dis said, beaming with pride as Bard gaped. "We thought it would be a fitting crown for such a king."

"I - " Bard began, spluttering a little.

Gandalf cut him off, "Let us begin."

.

The ceremony was longer than Sigrid had thought it would be, there was a lot of talking, a lot of her father swearing oaths and the people clapping. Finally, after what seemed like hours but probably was only a matter of minutes, Gandalf had Bard kneel before him and in his deep rumbling voice he pronounced Bard King of Dale and set the crown gently atop his head.

A great cry of joy filled the hall and just before the band began to play Gandalf called her and her siblings forward to receive their crowns. Bain's was simple gold band, inlaid with a single gleaming ruby. Her's and Tilda's were spun silver, hers inlaid sapphires, Tilda's emeralds. And once they were crowned they took their places with their father, she and Bain at his side and Tilda on his lap and when the celebratory music died down her father gave his first speech.

People whooped and people cried and there was such a sense of joy and freedom in the room that Sigrid began to wonder how she had ever dreaded this day.

When the speech was done the spring festival began. There were games and dances around the pole and elven food and dwarven food and elven and dwarven music and as the sun began to set there was a memorial service for those who had perished in the battle.

Throughout the whole day Sigrid had noticed that King Thranduil's gaze rarely left her father and his gaze was rarely pleasant. Tauriel for her part stuck close to Tilda and but whenever she spoke to Bard, Sigrid noticed, the King's expression darkened further and he called for a serving elf to bring him more wine.

The whole thing was intriguing to say the least.

Perhaps more intriguing was the conversation she overheard in castle after the memorial service. Despite the sombre nature of the past hour spirits remained high and Sigrid had left the festivities in the main hall, intended to retrieve a particularly beautiful elven book to show a friend when she heard the unmistakable sound of Tauriel's voice.

She had paused, pressed herself into the nearest doorway and peeked around it, as carefully as possible. Tauriel and her father were standing in the entrance to the room they were hoping to make into a great library, heads bent together, speaking in hushed voices.

"Look, I understand that you may not feel up for discussing this with me," Tauriel said, "but believe me, it is as important to me as it is to you."

Her father sighed, "Tauriel, I - "

But Tauriel cut him off. Annoyingly.

"Not now. Tonight is a night for celebration," Tauriel said with a warm smile. She patted Bard on the shoulder and her touch lingered, "Just know that I am here for you."

Bard returned her smile, "I know. Now, let us return to the feast before we are missed. People will talk, you know," he added with a wink, leading the way.

Tauriel chuckled as she fell into pace beside him, "Oh, and we wouldn't want that, now would we?"

Sigrid stood for a few moments, still pressed into her hiding place, grinning from ear to ear. It was just as she had thought! She allowed herself a small cheer of joy before running up the stairs to her room and retrieving the book.

Things seemed to be on a continuous upswing.

She returned to the party, her friend loved the book as she knew she would and Sigrid met all the hushed whispers about her father's love life with a knowing smile. There were some who were vicious about it, some she heard in the darker corners of the hall mumbling about race traitors and puppet governments and this whole thing being a power grab by King Thranduil, Erebor would probably be next. (That last part was from a particularly surly dwarf who was swaying so violently that he sloshed almost all of his ale on the floor.)

Even Bain had heard it seemed, for as they sat together on the dais, Sigrid idly braiding Tilda's hair as her sister struggled to keep awake, he spoke, "So, you heard about Da and this elf yet?"

Sigrid nodded, "Mmhmm. Everyone's talking about it."

He wrinkled his nose, watching Da chat with Bilbo, "What do you think of it?"

Sigrid tried her best to look impassive and shrugged, "I dunno. If it makes him happy."

"No, I mean who do you think it is?"

She looked up at him, trying to gage his emotions. She couldn't. She risked it, "Everyone's saying Tauriel."

Bain nodded, "Yeah, I heard that too. I don't think I believe it though."

Sigrid frowned, "You don't?"

Bain shook his head, "Nope. I mean, you've seen the way he looks at her? It's not like - like that. It's just like she's a good friend."

"You really think that?"

 Again, Bain nodded, "I mean, he looked at Ma completely differently."

"Maybe he loves her in a different way," Sigrid suggested.

Tilda shook her head, completely messing up the braid Sigrid had been working on, "No," she yawned, voice heavy with sleep. "'S not Tauriel he likes, it's the King."

Bain snorted, "I think you should probably go to bed, Tilda." He said.

"I'm fine," Tilda protested.

"Da doesn't love the King," Sigrid said. "That's absurd."

Bain agreed, "It's more than absurd," he said, standing. "Now, I'm going to see what food is left. You want anything?"

Sigrid shook her head.

"Honey cakes," Tilda said, the cakes part swallowed by a great yawn.

Bain smiled, "No more sweets for you, Tilly. You really should go to bed."

"I'm fine," she protested, before slumping into Sigrid's lap. "And it's not absurd, it's true."

Sigrid stroked her hair, "You don't even know what absurd means, Til."

"I do too," she mumbled.

Sigrid glanced away, scanning the crowd for father; she was going to get to the bottom of this. It had to be Tauriel he loved or else this was just an empty rumour. But then what could they have possibly been discussing in the soon-to-be library earlier? Nothing Sigrid could think up fit quite as well as a hidden romance. She was not sure what she expected to see but there had to be something.

The party was beginning to wind down though the hall was still heaving.  She spotted Tauriel easily enough, talking earnestly with Gandalf, making great grand gestures to accentuate whatever she was saying while he looked on in mild amusement, but she could not find her father anywhere.

She was beginning to think he'd left, stepped out for air or been pulled away on business when she spotted him being yanked out of the room by the Elvenking.

Sigrid frowned but before she could follow there was insistent tug at her sleeve, "Take me upstairs, I'm tired," Tilda said, rather pathetically. "I wanna go to bed."

"Have someone else take you," Sigrid said, annoyed.

"No," Tilda whined. "I want you to take me."

There would be no winning here, Sigrid knew, "Fine, but be quick," she said, in a defeated tone.

Tilda was anything but quick, she stopped every few steps, whining about how tired she was until Sigrid gave in and carried her the rest of the way to her bedroom. She and Tilda had a whole wing to themselves, the best in Sigrid's opinion, with windows that over looked the mountains and in the distance the forest.

She dumped her sister inelegantly on the bed and turned to go, "Wait!" Tilda cried, sitting up. "Can I have a story?"

Sigrid sighed; she supposed that whatever clandestine meeting had happened between her Da and Thranduil would be long over by now. She dropped onto the end of Tilda's bed, "A short one."

Tilda beamed, "I want to hear about the Fisher King."

Sigrid rolled her eyes, at least it was short.

-

Bard watched the Elvenking pace, shifting nervously from foot to foot. The King had dragged him in here in such a rage that Bard had, for a few minutes, actually feared for his safety but now the rage was gone, replaced with a kind of nervous desperation that suited the elf ill.

"Who did you tell?!" Thranduil had hissed, once the door had been securely shut and Bard had been crowded up against it.

Bard had been staring, wide-eyed, waiting for his brain to catch up to what was going on, eyes darting nervously about the place. They were both unarmed and though he was stockier than the king, and more obviously muscled, he knew that should the King attack him, he would be hopelessly out-matched.

"Who did I tell?" he echoed. "Who did I tell what?"

"Don'tplay cute with me, human!" The King had roared. "You know what!"

"Thranduil," Bard had said, trying to keep his voice steady. "Thranduil, I truly have no idea what you're speaking of."

The King had taken a step back.

"Truly," Bard insisted.

The King's resolve crumbled then, the rage had vanished, "Your daughter knows," he said quietly. "She knows."

It had taken Bard a few moments to connect the dots. "Oh," he said finally. "Tilda? She's just a child, Thranduil. No one will take her seriously." And then he frowned, "Wait, you remember that?"

The King glanced at him and shook his head despairingly, ears reddening, "Of course, I remember." He looked away again, "I can think of little else."

There had been silence then and the sounds of the party drifted faintly in. What Bard would give to still be out there. True, he had told Gandalf he wanted this and he did, but watching Thranduil bite his lip, fidget, look away, he wondered if it were truly worth it. He loathed the idea that he could make such an elf feel so insecure.

"Thranduil," he began gently, without quite knowing where he'd end. "Thranduil, I -"

The King cut him off curtly, "Spare me." he'd said, beginning to pace.

"You don't know what I was about to say."

"Whatever it was," Thranduil said, with a dour look. "I can assure you I would not take the slightest bit of comfort from it."

Bard took that as his cue to stay silent.

Still, the King paced and then, abruptly, he spoke, more to himself than to Bard, "Just think what my people would say if - "

Bard cut him off with a frown, "Are you saying you're ashamed of me?"

Thranduil blinked, flustered, "I - no - I just - "

Bard sighed, there was no sense in picking a fight, "It's fine," he said, wearily. "I know what you meant."

Thranduil went back to pacing.

"Just so we're clear," Bard said, "We are acknowledging that there is something between us."

Thranduil shot him a withering look, "What do you think?"

Bard clenched his jaw, "Look, I know this isn't the simplest of situations but it's hardly the most challenging."

That was met with a short, derisive little laugh, "You are so naive."

"I'm not being naive," Bard protested. "I've thought about it. I've thought about it a lot, from all angles." Thranduil was still now, watching him with curiosity, Bard continued, "I know that there are those among Dale and Mirkwood who would not look kindly on our - on such a relationship, but I trust that there are enough good among them that would..."

Thranduil was shaking his head, eyes wide and amused as though he truly couldn't believe how dense Bard was being.

Thranduil laughed again, "You truly are so naive. Though, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. You are so very young.

"Or, we could just not say anything. Keep it a secret," Bard added, rather lamely.

"That would be even worse. Imagine the gossip: the two Kings found secretly abed together. My kingdom would oust me."

"Your people love you," Bard said, and it was true. He had seen their love for their king. He could be difficult, yes, but he was also fair.

"Most of my people love me," Thranduil corrected. "And after I supported your cause and led them into such a disastrous battle, I am on thin ice with even those that love me."

"They'd want you to be happy," Bard insisted.

"Happiness brings distraction."

"Not always. Besides, I imagine we'd spend much of our time apart, I mean, I can hardly move back to Mirkwood with you and I doubt you'd consent to living here."

"You're correct, I wouldn't."

"Look, this doesn't have to be as difficult as you're making it," Bard said.

"Yes it does,"Thranduil huffed, "And besides you would not want me," he insisted. "Not truly." He was pacing again now, hands clenching and unclenching at his side as though itching for a fight, itching for something to break, for something to just stop this.

Bard was taken aback, there was no way Thranduil thought of himself as unappealing, "And on whose authority do you make such claims for me?"

"Mine," Thranduil snapped.

Bard crossed his arms, "You know I want you. I know you want me. I don't see - "

"You don't want me," Thranduil ignored him. "You don't even know me."

At that Bard smiled, "I know you better than you think." He had expected that to lighten the mood, to lessen the tension instead, Thranduil went rigid. He stopped pacing, back facing Bard and he murmured something, something broken and angry under his breath.

"Do you really?" the elf said, biting out each word as he turned slowly back to face him.

Bard drew a breath.

The King had changed.

Half of his face was gone, sunken in, held together by sinew and scar tissue. The scars continued down his neck, disappearing under his robe and one of his eyes was a blind, milky white. Burns, Bard realised. They looked as fresh as if they were newly healed but Thranduil had not faced Smaug so how - old wounds, they must have been old wounds. Old wounds not yet healed.

Abruptly, Thranduil sneered, "You see?" he said, and Bard found himself mesmerised by the way the flesh and scars stretched and shifted as he spoke. "Even you, our shining beacon of morality, shies away."

It took Bard a few moments to process Thranduil's words and when he did he swallowed, steeling himself, "Those are old wounds," he said, taking a few steps towards the elf. He stopped abruptly when the elf took a step back.

"Yes," Thranduil spat, as though Bard's statement had need conformation.

"They are - " Bard swallowed again, "How old were you?" Again, he moved forward.

"Young, very young," Thranduil said, still frowning as though he were somewhat disappointed Bard had not run from the room in terror.

"And you keep them hidden with magic?" Almost unconsciously he found himself reaching to cup Thranduil's injured cheek, wanting to sooth, to comfort.

Thranduil flinched away from his touch, "Yes."

"That must take a lot of energy," Bard said, withdrawing his hand with an apologetic smile.

"Sometimes," Thranduil murmured. When Bard cocked his head to the side in a silent question he sighed and continued, "They are not always so extensive. They shrink and grow."

Bard frowned, "Why?"

Thranduil shrugged, "Who knows? It is an ancient magic, how it works was lost long ago."

"So you don't know?"

"No, I don't," Thranduil snapped, clearly not pleased by his lack of knowledge. "Even the Lady Galadriel could not give me a suitable answer for why it happens. All she said was that not all wounds were physical."

"She'd be right there," Bard said, quietly. "Will they ever go completely?"

Thranduil shrugged and just like that the scars vanished, "I thought they had once, when I married for the first time. They were almost gone and then she died." He looked back at Bard, eyes narrowed, "They truly don't frighten you?"

Bard shook his head, "I only want to help you with them."

Thranduil stared at him.

"You know," Bard said quietly. "When I was young my grandmother would tell me stories. One of them was about a man called the Fisher King, who lived during the First Age." Thranduil opened his mouth, no doubt to remind Bard that they were not children and neither of them was in need of a bedtime story, but Bard continued on:

"He ruled over a great kingdom and had a great many treasures but prized among them was a cauldron that had the power to grant life. The Fisher King had a son and one day a rival king arrived with an army to take the cauldron. The Fisher King and his son fought well and the battle was won but the King was injured and his son was slain. The King, in his grief, neglected his injuries and soon they began to affect his life, affect his kingdom and his magic cauldron stopped working.

For you see just as the King was wounded, so was his kingdom and as he grew darker, sicker, so too did the land around him. Over the years many tried to claim his cauldron but none could for the cauldron could not work without the King and the King could not make it work, injured as he was. It wasn't until a young man came and healed him that the cauldron began to work again and his kingdom once more prospered."

He drew closer to the elf as he spoke and Thranduil, who had looked away moodily when Bard began to tell his tale, didn't seem to have noticed. Bard stopped, half expecting to be shoved away or worse but he wasn't, in front of him, close enough that he could feel the warmth of Thranduil's breath.

"What are you doing?" Thranduil asked, the tips of his ears were red again and his gaze kept darting to Bard's mouth.

"What do you want me to do?" Bard replied.

Thranduil was quiet for a long moment but he was, at last, still. Eventually he sighed and leant forward, so that their foreheads were pressed together. His eyes fluttered shut, "One day you'll die," he said quietly. "It might feel like an eternity away for you but for me it will be over in the blink of an eye. You'll die and I'll be left. I won't - I can't do that again, not again."

"Then push me away," Bard said, honestly. "Tell me to go and I will."

Thranduil opened his eyes, "If you don't leave now I won't be able to help myself."

"Tell me to leave," Bard repeated, meeting the elf's gaze.

"No," Thranduil said, so quietly he might have mouthed it. "I cannot. I don't want you to."

This time it was Thranduil who pressed their lips together, who licked hungrily into Bard's mouth, "If we do this," he panted, when they broke apart, "I won't be able to stop, I won't be able to -  It's different for elves, this means something - "

Bard kissed him again, running a hand roughly through the soft, silver-gold hair, "I know," he said, between kisses. "I understand."

Thranduil pulled back once more and the two stood, staring at each other, panting. "Scared?" Bard rasped, because he himself was terrified.

Thranduil smirked and leant back in.

Chapter Text

Bard awoke alone.

It was not particularly unexpected, he had known the night before that there was a very small chance that Thranduil would still be there in the morning but still it stung.

He yawned and stretched; by the weak light pouring in from the small windows he assumed it was early morning. For a few moments he lay, sprawled on the floor of some unknown spare room, strewn with couches, chairs, curtains and tapestries; Thranduil had chosen well it seemed.

He wondered what the manner of Thranduil's departure had been, had it been hurried? Had he awoken sick with regret and left, never to return and relive the shame of lying with a mortal man? Had he left with reluctance, knowing that if he spent a night in the castle rumours would begin to fly? But if that had been the case would he not have left a note of some kind? A playful reminder? An ardent promise?

Bard sighed, scrubbed at his face with his hands, tugged at his hair.

Why could he not have simply fallen for a nice Laketown girl as was intended? Even Tauriel would have been less trouble.

He sat up slowly and dressed. It would not do well dwell on Thranduil all day, there was much to do. A council had to be elected, then there were discussions on the rebuilding, trade routes and prices to agree on.

The Master and Alfrid's fate had to be decided.

But as he walked swiftly through the silent castle, passing the slumped figures of elves, men and dwarves alike who had drunk a little too much the night before, he found his thoughts occupied by the thousand tiny movements, sounds and gasped little words  Thranduil made the night before .The way his eyes had fluttered shut, the way he caught his lower lip between his teeth to swallow back a moan, the way he turned his head to expose his throat -

It was impossible not to dwell on it.

He returned to his room, drew a bath for himself (for though he was now king he could not fathom letting someone else do it for him - why wake a servant when his own hands were perfectly capable?) and dressed for the day. By the time he was ready the castle was beginning to wake up, he could hear distant chatter and the clatter of the small band of servants he'd hired beginning to clean up downstairs. He should probably offer to help, not that they would let him of course, but he could not bring himself to face anyone just yet. Instead he took a walk up to the ramparts, finding himself brooding atop the tower he had spied his daughters from just a few days previously.

He could see almost everything from up here - everything important that is. The city spread out beneath him in the bright morning sunshine, mostly still but with movement here and there as people began to shuffle into the streets. The lonely mountain, a stark dark shape against the brilliant blue of the sky, the great forest, a sea of bright new leaves and back towards the river, the charred remains of Laketown.

The elves camp lay just outside the city and he found his gaze drawn constantly to the grand tent that sat in the centre of it. He wondered idly what excuse Thranduil had given his people for the late hour of his return, or if, indeed, an excuse was necessary.

Perhaps they had come to expect that of their king, perhaps it wasn't that unusual -

Bard stopped that trail of thought as soon as he realised where it was going, as soon as he began to recognise the pangs in his chest as bitterness, jealousy.

He had known going into this that there were no guarantees, this would be no fairytale romance, he had not  even thought it would get this far but he had forgotten how intoxicating it could be. How he let it swallow him whole.

He jerked out of his thoughts when he heard the light tip-tap of footsteps on stone, he was about to turn when a familiar voice spoke, "You forgot your crown, my King."

Bard turned to find Tauriel smirking at him, his crown dangling from one finger, "It's alright. You've only been king one day," she told him, as he took the crown from her with a small smile. "You're forgiven."

"I'm glad," Bard said, reaching up to put the crown on. It sat heavily on his head, not uncomfortable but somehow not entirely right.

"Your daughters are asking where you are," Tauriel said, leaning against the wall behind her. "Sigrid said last she saw you and King Thranduil were leaving the hall together." There was a knowing looking in her eyes but her smile was gone, now there was apprehension, concern.

He could lie, shrug it off and say they were only talking politics but he knew Tauriel would not believe him so there was no point in lying. "She's not wrong," he said quietly.

Tauriel made a sympathetic noise in the back of her throat, "It went poorly, then?"

Despite it all Bard smiled, "No, not at first at least. But now ..." he trailed off, turning away again to gaze out across to the mountain. He can't look at the forest or the camp without gritting his teeth.

"You knew this might happen," Tauriel said softly. "You knew it wouldn't be that simple."

Bard nodded, "I knew. That doesn't mean it doesn't hurt though."

They fell silent then, looking out over the city as it came to live. Eventually, Tauriel clapped him on the back, in a rather awkward display of camaraderie, "Come on, people will be wondering where their King is."

-

Breakfast was a fairly quiet affair, only Tilda seemed fully awake - Tilda and Dis who made a point of laughing at everybody's hang over every few sentences. Bard didn't have the heart (or the courage) to scold her; instead he focused his attention on trying to get Tilda to use her inside voice.

Bain too seemed to be in high spirits, Dwalin and some of the other dwarves had promised he could help with the repairs to what had been the main square of the city and later, Bard had gathered, they'd be teaching him some dwarven combat moves. Tilda would be spending the day riding with Tauriel or with her friends in the makeshift school they'd put together.

It had amazed Bard how quickly things had fallen back into place in Dale.

Only Sigrid would be spending the day with him, though he'd told her several times she didn't have to. They would be spending the morning overseeing the council elections, Bard had decided even before leaving Mirkwood that this would be the best way to rule. He would have representatives for every issue, for the farmers, the builders, the healers. It would be fairer that way. He had hoped it would be simple but politics, he had found, never were.

He'd been distracted all morning, not just because memories of Thranduil writhing, moaning, laughing breathlessly, expression so light and free, kept walking unbidden into his mind but because at the meeting after lunch Thranduil was expected. There was a great, uncomfortable knot that had formed in his gut at the prospect of seeing the elf again, a mixture of fear and anticipation and bitterness. He had no idea how he was supposed to act natural after last night, after this morning. How would Thranduil act, he wondered, and then cursed himself for thinking like a young boy. Thranduil would probably act how he had always acted, cold but dedicated, there would be no room for bitterness, not here and certainly not in the company of Queen Dis.

He had been expecting more input from Sigrid as the people bickered amongst themselves but she seemed subdued. Sigrid had always quieter than her siblings, not quiet by any stretch of the imagination, but cautious, more reserved. The silence was unusual, especially through something so important, something Bard knew she would care about deeply. There was something different even in the way she held herself, the way he kept finding her eyes on him when she thought he wasn't looking.

It wasn't as though she did not have a myriad of reasons for being a little distracted, she'd been through a lot the past few months, the past few years, far too much. It made Bard's heart ache to think of her, she'd had to grow up fast when her mother died and then there'd been Smaug and the battle. She'd been so strong through it all, maybe Bard should have insisted she spend her day doing something other than sitting in on political discussions, maybe he should have insisted she go with Tauriel and Tilda.

Not that she would have listened; her stubbornness seemed mostly intact at least.

The council elections were finally decided in time for a late lunch and as they walked together to the main hall Bard put an arm around his daughter's shoulders, "Is everything alright, Sigrid?" he asked, gently.

He was half expecting her to shrug it off, like she normally would, not wanting to burden him and he could tell by the way she bit her lip she was considering it.

"You can talk to me about anything, you know," he reminded her.

She glanced up at him, eyes troubled and then glanced behind them, at the small crowd of chattering people that followed them. Bard nodded his understanding and turned to them, "My good people, you'll have to excuse me a moment. Go on ahead, begin lunch without me, Sigrid and I will join you momentarily."

There was a murmur of "yes, your majesty" and Bard's skin crawled at the title but no one seemed overly concerned. He steered Sigrid towards a corridor that only had so far unfinished rooms in it, hoping it would be empty. Happily it was. As soon as they were clear from prying eyes Sigrid wriggled away from his grip.

Bard frowned, watching as his daughter fidgeted, "Sigrid," he prompted.

Sigrid looked up at him, biting her lip again, "I - I don't know if it's - if it's my place to - "

"Sigrid," he said firmly. "Whatever it is you can talk about it with me."

Sigrid took a steadying breath, "There's a rumour," she said, heavily. "That you are - that you like an elf." Her cheeks were burning and from the way she said it, biting out every word carefully, as though it were a truly filthy thing, Bard felt a pang of annoyance but before he could comment she caught herself, "I don't mean -" she sighed, "I don't mean it's wrong to like elves I just - " she trailed off.

"Sigrid," Bard began. "People talk and now that we are - "

"It's not Tauriel," she cut him off, miserably. "Is it?"

Oh, Bard thought. Oh.

He had never truly considered what his children would think of his - his dalliance with the Elvenking, had not even spared a thought to how he would tell them. If he would tell them.

He wondered how long Sigrid had been thinking about it, when she had decided Tauriel was the one for him. He wondered if Bain knew, if Tilda knew.

"Sigrid - "

"Da, just tell me, please," her voice trembled a bit. Bard's resolve crumbled.

He reached out, brushing her hair off her forehead, cupping her cheek, trying to soothe her, but she shook him off. He sighed,  "No, it isn't."

Sigrid nodded once, licked her lips nervously, nodded again, "Is it the King?" she asked so quietly he thought he had imagined it at first. "It's okay if it is," she added, rather hurriedly. "I'd just...." She looked away, fidgeting with the hem of her dress.

"It's nothing, Sigrid," Bard said eventually. "Nothing. I assure you."

She looked up at him then, head cocked to the side, "And are you okay about that?"

Bard paused. The obvious answer was no. No, he was not. But telling Sigrid that would only distress her more. "I will be," he settled for, giving her a reassuring smile. "And besides, it's probably better this way."

Almost as soon as the words had left his mouth Bard regretted them, but then he thought about it. It would probably be better this way, easier. He would not have to worry about Thranduil attacking Dale if they ever broke up at least, not that he truly believed the king would do that but... if anyone would go to war over a broken heart Bard was fairly sure it would be Thranduil.

Yes, better this way. Less messy.

His smile widened a fraction and Sigrid, though clearly not entirely convinced, nodded and smiled weakly back. "Now, let's go to lunch, hm? And I'll send someone to find out what Tauriel and Tilda are up to, I think you've had quite enough politics for one day." He put an arm around her shoulders and this time she relaxed against him.

"Yeah, okay."

-

Lunch was a much livelier affair than breakfast had been, most people had shaken off the worst of their hangovers or simply started drinking again. Spirits were still high from the coronation and from how well reconstruction was going; Dale would be fully rebuilt within a week or two, it sounded almost impossible. Laketown would be next, he'd promised and the dwarves had already pledged their assistance.

One of the newly elected council members was trying to speak to him about it, wanting his permission to take a small band out in the next few days and start the clean up, but Bard found he couldn't concentrate on what the man was saying to him. Again, he cursed himself, for all he could think about was how Thranduil was due to arrive any second now, any minute now, to discuss their official treaty.

Never trust an elven maid, his father had warned him, the first time they ventured into Mirkwood. They have a way about them - more than just their beauty, lad, - it gets under your skin. Fall for an elf and you'll never be able to pick yourself up again.

He wondered what his father would say if he could see him now. His mother would laugh fondly and clap him on the arm, only you, Bard, she'd say, only you would fall for the Elvenking.

He was wriggling in his seat by the time lunch was over, nerves, anticipation? He wasn't entirely sure how he was feeling but there was something great and heavy sitting in his chest that made it hard to breathe.

He stalled as much as he could in the hall, staying to ensure the council knew of their tasks for the rest of the day, calling and sending messengers to and from the various builders, carpenters and craftsmen in the city to check up on quotas and materials. But eventually a messenger arrived from the meeting chambers baring the message that Queen Dis was growing impatient.

The messenger had made no mention of whether or not the elves had arrived and Bard did not think to ask until the messenger was already out of earshot. Reluctantly he followed, heading through the castle to the meeting chambers.

The heavy feeling in his chest had been joined by a coiled creature in his stomach, writhing and squeezing. Surely, if Thranduil had already arrived his displeasure at being made to wait would have also been conveyed. Unless he too was hoping to stall.

Maybe he could excuse himself. He was king, if he wanted a break he could take it.

But this alliance needed to work, not just for Dale.

He could ask someone to step in, Gandalf maybe, he seemed to know enough about Dale and Laketown and he certainly knew more about the wider politics of the land than Bard did.

But Gandalf would just know why Bard was backing out. He probably already did and Bard cringed at the thought.

Gandalf would be there anyway, Bard had asked him to sit in, though there was no chance of him being on time.

The feeling in his chest was building now and he had reached the heavy oak of the room.

There was still time to back out, still time to -

Better to do it quickly. To do it before he thought more about it.

He carefully schooled his features into something a little less like abject terror and pushed open the doors.

Dis was seated at the left end of the table, flanked by Balin and Dwalin, with Ori next to Balin, quill and parchment at the ready. She looked over at Bard as he entered, "Your elves aren't here yet," she said, conversationally.

"Clearly, we're not high on their priority list," Dwalin grumbled.

"Come now, you two," Balin scolded. "I am certain there will be a reasonable explanation for their lateness."

"Well, I can at least offer apologies for my lateness," Bard said, crossing to his seat in the middle of the table.

"Not at all," Dis said, with a warm smile. "You have a new kingdom to run, I understand how hectic it can be."

Bard smiled weakly, "Yes, it can be rather manic."

"So, how long do we wait before we start without them?" she asked.

"Well, we should at least wait for Gandalf," Bard said.

Dwalin snorted, "You could be waiting all night for him, laddie. I say we just get started, we can always fill the elves in later."

"I - " Bard began, intending to say they should at least give them a while longer to arrive, but he was cut off by Dis.

"I wanted to discuss something with you, anyway. It doesn't really concern the elves though," she said.

"Go on," he said, apprehensively.

"There are some amongst my people who have expressed an interest in staying in Dale."

Bard blinked, "But you have Erebor back, why would they want to stay here?"

"You see, lad, there are many among us who never knew life in Erebor," Balin explained. "And they became used to a life above ground. It's just what they know."

"Well, I'm hardly going to stop them from living here," Bard said.

"I know," Dis said. "But what we wanted to discuss was rebuilding some of the lower city."

The lower city had been the most damaged in Smaug's attack and in the years Dale had stood empty it had poured over by every kind of unsavoury character imaginable. It was little more than a pile of rubble and charred wood now; he had been intending to simply to strip it for the materials.

"The lower city?"

"Yes, for a dwarven quarter. Think about it, we could set up permanent traders, teach Dale of our ways and be taught in return."

Bard's hesitance must have shown because, rather hurriedly, she added, "Think it over, obviously. I know it's not just up to you."

"I will," he assured her and he would, it sounded like a fine idea if his people agreed to it. After all, it was the dwarves who had, inadvertently as it was, uprooted their lives, caused the battle.

Dis smiled and just as Bard was about to ask how she felt about dwarves wishing to remain in Dale the door swung open, revealing Gandalf and an elf Bard recognised from Thranduil's council.

"It's not good news, I'm afraid," Gandalf said, crossing to sit beside Bard.

The elf bowed, "King Thranduil extends his sincerest apologies, King Bard, Queen Dis, but he will be unable to attend today's meeting."

"This is how it starts," Bard heard Dwalin mutter. "Soon enough he'll have retreated to his cushy throne in the forest. Typical."

Bard was unsure how to feel. Did this mean Thranduil, too, was ashamed? Did this is even have anything to do with him?

"There has been an urgent message from the prince," the elf was saying.

"A message urgent enough to occupy him all afternoon?" Dis asked, eyes narrowed.

From his son, that made sense Bard supposed. But Prince Legolas was too far to have come in person, surely, so what could possibly have occurred?

The elf's ears turned red, "I...Yes, as regrettable as that is. I am sure he will explain all when next you meet."

This was childish. Bard was doing his utmost to not allow what had happened between them to bleed into the politics of their kingdoms, he had hoped Thranduil would do that same.

"So what are we to do?" Bard asked, finding his voice at long last. "Reschedule? Does he believe we are all simply here to meet his every whim?"

"Of course not," said the elf, rather stuffily. "I am well versed in all aspects that will be discussed for the treaty and I - "

"But you are unable to speak with any authority on such matters," Dwalin cut him off. He turned to Bard, "You see I told you you couldn't trust those pointy-eared bastards. I always thought it was kind of suspect that all of a sudden the Great King Thranduil would emerge to meddle in the affairs of men and dwarves. He was just after those gems, lad. Nothing more."

Bard swallowed.

"Now, now, children," Gandalf rumbled. "We are not here to bicker, we are here to forge new alliances and - "

"Yes, we are here," Dis said, "But Thranduil thinks himself so far above us that he sends this errant boy in his place!"

"King Thranduil would never - " the elf began.

"Please," Gandalf boomed. "I am sure that Thranduil would be here if he could, he is not one to shirk his duty to his people. Besides, today was merely for laying the groundwork, nothing was to be signed."

The dwarves grumbled their assent and Bard found himself nodding.

"So, Bard, with your leave I would like your permission to officially begin this discussion," Gandalf said.

Bard nodded and indicated for the elf to sit down, "Very well, let us begin."

-

"Am I to understand," Gandalf said, quietly, as the dwarves left the room. "That you ignored my advice?"

Bard glanced up at the wizard; he did not wish to have this conversation. Not now, not ever. The meeting had not been as straight forward as Bard had hoped it would be. There had been a lot more to the trading agreements than he had assumed and though Balin and Gandalf had tried valiantly to keep the peace between the elf, Dis and Dwalin they had been mostly unsuccessful.

"You should understand that this is not of your concern," he muttered.

Gandalf gave him a withering look, "I am going to choose to ignore that sentiment."

Bard inclined his head. He should apologise, irritating Gandalf was probably not wise especially at a time such as this, but he knew by the lack of venom in Gandalf's tone that the wizard understood.

Gandalf sighed as they made their way from the room, "Look, my dear boy, I understand how consuming matters of the heart can be but you must see that this alliance is not only key for the elves, men and dwarves of this region. Dark times are coming and all of you could use all the allies you can get."

"You're right," Bard said quietly. "And I know you're right, but you need not worry. What transpired between us is... most probably over. Things will be back to normal soon enough."

He glanced up to find the wizard watching him carefully, "It does not do well to dwell on the past, Bard. You of all people should know that," he said eventually. "What has happened has happened and there can be no changing it."

Bard sighed.

"For what it is worth though," Gandalf added, clapping Bard on the shoulder sympathetically. "I know how it feels to yearn for one such as Thranduil. It may not get better but it will get easier to deal with."

Bard arched a brow, the thought of Gandalf falling in love with someone, anyone, was unsettling. He was a figure larger than life, a figure of myth and legend. To think of him as having such human emotions... He opened his mouth to question, to ask whom could have possibly captured his attention but Gandalf was already speaking: "Now, I have been meaning to ask about your kitchen arrangements. Would it be possible if -"

-

It was still dark when Bard awoke and for a moment he lay, disorientated, unsure of why he was awake. He rubbed his eyes and as they adjusted to the low light he could just make out a figure standing by the windows.

Tilda, he thought blearily. She must have had a nightmare.

But that figure was far too tall for Tilda and Sigrid and Bain were far too old for such things.

The hair on the back of Bard's neck began to stand up. Alfrid. It could be Alfrid, escaped from dungeons, intent on revenge.

He reached for his sword.

"Ah," the figure said softly. "You're awake. I was just about to..."

Bard sat up, "Thranduil?"

The Elvenking stepped forward hesitantly. He was dressed in a simple tunic and breeches, an outfit more befitting one of Tauriel's rangers than a king. His hair, usually free flowing, was caught in a loose braid, though one long strand had escaped and hung by the side of his face.

Bard swallowed, "You look - "

Thranduil glanced down at his outfit, "Ghastly, I know. Alas, leaving the camp in my usual clothes would have drawn too much attention."

"I was going to say - " Bard stopped himself, he was supposed to be angry at the elf, not excited. He steeled himself and as the silence grew Thranduil grew less and less comfortable. "Why are you here, Thranduil?" He asked; when he felt he could finally keep his voice steady enough.

Thranduil drew back a fraction, "I thought we should talk."

Chapter Text

"So, talk," Bard said, when the silence between them stretched too long.

Thranduil looked younger out of his grand sweeping robes, Bard noted absently. It suited him, making him look far less an ethereal creature of the woods and much more real. With his hair swept back Bard could see the pointed tips of his ears colouring.

He looked uncertain, not the frantic nervousness of the evening before, something quieter. His fists clenched and unclenched, he stood awkwardly straight.

There was a part of Bard that wanted to stand up, cross the room and sooth him, take Thranduil's hands in his and make him calm, but that part was barely a whisper against the cold roaring inside his chest. The King had left him, had refused even to see him, embarrassed him, put an essential alliance at risk all because of a drunken mistake.

He was tired of this, this perpetual back and forth. Teetering on the edge of something but never quite making it real. And he was angry.

"Would you like me to begin?" Bard asked, coldly.

Thranduil looked up at that, frowning slightly.

"I had expected not to see you in the morning," Bard began. "I understood there would be too many questions asked of you and I had anyone noticed. I had expected there would not be more transpiring between the two of us, I left that up to you and had made peace with it. But I expected you would at least continue to attend meetings."

"There was a - "

Bard cut him off and Thranduil flushed angrily. He was not used to being interrupted, he looked hurt. Good, some dark part of Bard thought.

"Yes, yes. A message from your son. We were told." He snapped, then, added, rather bitterly, "I must say, I'm surprised you and the elves haven't already packed up and run off back to Mirkwood."  

Almost as soon as he'd uttered them, Bard regretted those words. It was the exhaustion, he wanted to say, I didn't mean it! But pride held his tongue.

The effect was instantaneous. Gone were the nervous flutters, the uncertainty and hurt in the elf's face, the veil had been dropped and Thranduil drew himself up, his expression reverting to the impassive coldness he had worn for so long.

He spoke coolly, "Very well, my King. If that is what you wish us to proceed, I shall oblige. I will see you at council meetings and when our business is concluded I shall 'run off back to Mirkwood.'"

He paused a moment before leaving and Bard knew he was waiting to see if an apology would be offered. Bard considered it, briefly, but what good would it do? Thranduil had made it perfectly clear by his actions that there would be no happiness between them, that all this would achieve would be to sully their kingdom's relations.

Better to end it now.

Bard wavered.

It's different for elves, everyone had told him. Some elves don't survive losing a lover. But this wasn't love, not yet and Thranduil had already told him the risks. When he died Thranduil would  be alone again.

This was better.

This was safer.

This would hurt less in the long run.

Thranduil left without another word.

-

Bard dreamt of the throne room in Mirkwood. Great and cavernous and empty.

Thranduil sat on his carved wooden throne but now the wood had wound itself around his arms, around his legs. His crown had sprouted roots that wove through his dull silver-gold hair.

Bard was trying to extract him, trying to get him to stand up but the roots and the branches wouldn't let him and Thranduil was limp.

-

"This is becoming a bit of a habit for you, isn't it?" Tauriel asked, rudely interrupting Bard's brooding.

He was atop the ramparts once again, this time he had stopped by the kitchens for some breakfast first, leaving a message for the dwarves that he wanted a walk before a long day of meetings and deliberations. It was a grey, overcast day so Bard had taken shelter in one of the sentry towers, leaning out of the carved window to stare bleakly at Dale coming to life beneath him.

His crown hung loosely in Tauriel's grip and with a sigh, he took it from her, setting it awkwardly atop his head. He was still not used to it, it was surprisingly weighty.

"I know you didn't ask for this," Tauriel said quietly. "You didn't ask for any of this but you will make a good king, someday."

Bard looked at her, "Someday?" he repeated.

She grinned and settled against the wall beside him, "Shouldn't you be at breakfast?"

"Shouldn't you?" he countered, indicating the half eaten bread roll he'd taken.

"I ate at the camp," Tauriel said. "Your food is delicious but far too filling to eat so often."

There were things Bard would miss about Mirkwood and things he would not, the food definitely fell into the "would not" category. He did not hate their love for vegetables as much the dwarves did, but heartier meals would not have gone a miss.

"I hear you made poor Amdir almost cry yesterday," she continued, conversationally. "He's refusing to attend anymore sessions."

Bard winced a little, "That was Dis, actually." Her treatment of the poor elf at their last council session had made Bard infinitely glad he was, for now at least, on her good side. "I think she took Thranduil's absence personally."

"There was a message from the prince," Tauriel explained.

"Yes, we were told," Bard said tightly. "I trust all is well?"

Tauriel nodded, gazing out across the plains to Mirkwood, then she smiled, half-fondly. "He's such an idiot." Seeing Bard's confusion she added, "Legolas, I mean. The Rangers thought he'd gone missing after a little skirmish they were involved in, so they sent a message to the King. Except, he hadn't actually gone missing, he'd stopped to talk to a band of wandering elves in the forest and not told anyone. He sent a message as soon as he realised, it arrived a little while after the ranger's one."

Oh, Bard thought.

"Oh," Bard said.

"He used to do that a lot when he was younger," Tauriel continued. "It drove his father mad with worry."

"I bet," Bard said, trying and failing to sound light hearted.

Tauriel frowned at him, then her eyes widened a fraction, "You thought he was lying."

Am I that easily read?

He gave her a meek smile, "Can you blame me?"

Tauriel hummed, "Well, I suppose not. But the King would not put such an important alliance at risk, you should know that."

Bard sighed, "I suppose I did, at least partly." With one hand, he scrubbed at his face, "I may have ruined all chance we had at a..." he paused, relationship was the word he wanted to use but it felt too intimate. Even if it was only to Tauriel. "Bond outside of the political."

They lapsed into silence and after a beat or two Tauriel reached out to pat Bard rather awkwardly on the shoulder.

"I would like to say that I'm sure it will all work out," she said softly. "But honestly, the two of you are so stubborn - not to mention the other complications. I am certain though, that things will get easier."

Bard smiled at her gratefully.

"Now, I must go. I promised a certain princess I would begin teaching her the basics of swordplay."

"You don't mean Tilda, do you?"

Tauriel smirked, "You only have two daughters, my lord, and one of them is quite proficient at the art already. But who am I to deny a princess?"

Bard groaned.

-

This time, Bard was the first to arrive in the council rooms to discuss the alliance.

It had rained all morning and rather than letting up or remaining the misty damp it had been this morning, it had grown steadily heavier throughout the day. Bard rather enjoyed the rain, always had. Back in Laketown rain like this had meant no one going out, staying in doors with a roaring fire and whatever game Tilda invented for them to play. The rain had always made him feel safe, cosy, even in this cavernous room. The soft murmur of the fire in the grate and the patter of the rain made him feel more comfortable than he had in a long time.

Sigrid would be joining him today; she had a better head for most of this than he did and certainly looked more the part. Bard still wore the clothes he had when he was a simple bargeman, he'd had no need for new ones, they kept him warm and dry and were comfortable but Sigrid had taken to wearing the long, flowing dresses the elves had made for her.

She took her seat, beside him at the head of the table, almost quaking with excitement, "Oh, Da! I can't believe it, this'll be historical!" She said, over and over.  Each time, Bard's heart swelled with pride.

Between the four them, they might make a halfway decent monarch.

Sigrid quieted down as the others began to arrive, Gandalf first, taking the seat to Bard's right, then Dis, Balin, Dwalin and Ori, taking up the left side of the table. A few men and women that had been elected to Dale's new council took the rest of the seats to the right and finally, King Thranduil arrived, flanked by a few elves Bard vaguely recognised.

He did not offer any greetings, instead he dropped into the seat at the other end of table with his usual dramatic air and drawled, "Shall we get on with it then?"

"Nice of you to have finally joined us, Thranduil," Dis said, leaning forwards and peering down the table at him. "We have so missed your sulky flouncing."

Thranduil rolled his eyes, "Just as I have missed your dim-witted teasing, Dis."

Both Dis and Dwalin leant forward at that and Sigrid reflexively gripped Bard's arm.

"Dim-witted!" Dis repeated. "I'll - "

Gandalf intervened, grumbling like an old school master, "If you two continue to act like children I shall have to ask you both to leave."

"Yes, let's show a little restraint, please," Balin added.

The meeting went surprisingly smoothly after that, Dis made a few snide comments here and there and Thranduil replied loftily and just as snidely until Sigrid asked Bard very loudly why the pair were acting worse than Tilda when she's stroppy.  Thranduil was courteous to Bard, no colder than he was to the dwarves or to Gandalf or even to the other elves in his party, the only one he showed any warmth for was Sigrid.

(Though Bard couldn't help noticing that he favoured his right side more and more and that, on occasion, when reaching across the maps to indicate something with his left he would barely manage to conceal his wince.

Gandalf, it seemed, had also noticed because he kept shooting the elf odd looks that Thranduil pointedly ignored.)

-

When all was said and done they had drawn up trading routes and agreements, had begun to talk about building dwarven and elven quarters in Dale (though Thranduil had been rather sceptical that elves would want to leave Mirkwood) and had begun to discuss future war time situations. Almost everything had been agreed upon, now they would each have a few days to talk it over with the rest of their people before they reconvened.

It was all looking hopeful and Sigrid had loved it.

"Da! It was so interesting! And just imagine, if we have a dwarven quarter and an elven quarter, it'll be like we're all one people! And just think of the things we could learn! And the stories! Dwarven stories are so interesting, Da, and the elves have such an amazing history!"

She continued to chatter as the two left the room and headed up to their quarters to freshen up for supper. Bain, Tilda and Tauriel were already up there, Bain bathing after a hard day building in the rain, Tilda tracking mud everywhere after practising with Tauriel.

"Sigrid, take your sister for a bath," Bard pleaded, wondering how long it would take the servants to clean the rugs and cushions and walls.

Sigrid sighed, "Alright, come on."

When they were alone Tauriel shot Bard an apologetic look, "I did try to keep her out of the mud."

Bard held up a hand, "That is one thing I'm sure even Gandalf couldn't achieve."

She laughed. "How did the council meeting go?"

"Well, I think. Nothing is set in stone yet though, I'm fairly certain your King will have a few changes he wants made by the time we next meet," Bard said. "I..." he sighed. "I have to speak to him."

 -

"This had better be important," Thranduil growled, settling himself into to his stand-in-throne.

Gandalf the Grey stood before him, miraculously dry despite the tempest currently raging outside of the tent, "Your arm," the wizard said.

Thranduil glowered, "What of it?"

"I haven't seen it this bad since your late wife passed."

Thranduil had been expecting this, of course Gandalf would notice him holding it stiffly, favouring his right side more than usual. "What's it to you?" he snapped.

Gandalf sighed and fixed him with the look he so often used on Thranduil these days, the face one might wear with a particularly trying child to contend with. Despairing, pitying, pained. "Oh, Thranduil, when are you going to allowyourself to heal?"

Thranduil's eyes narrowed, "You've got no - "

"Oh, spare me," Gandalf interrupted. "You know as well as I do that the malady that affects you is no longer physical. It ceased being physical long ago and pretending you don't know that will only make you worse!"

"It's none of your concern," Thranduil snapped.

Gandalf gave a very small, very sad smile, "No. I'm sure to you, it isn't. But remember, Thranduil, there are those in this world who care for you and for whom your wellbeing is a concern. I, for whatever reason, continue to count myself amongst them. So please, for our sakes at least consider listening for once."

Thranduil stewed silently for a few moments, "If there's nothing else?" he growled, eventually.

Gandalf shook his head, "No, there isn't."

"Then please, leave."

With one last sigh, Gandalf did as he was bade.

Chapter Text

They spared Alfrid the noose, it was a decision Bard knew he'd regret sooner or later but he had to set an example for his children. He was to be exiled, never to set foot in Dale or the surrounding lands again. Mercy was always the best option.

The Master though, that was a whole other matter entirely. The whole of Dale wanted him to pay; they had lost so much under his rule, so much because of his selfishness and though it had not been his fault truly that Smaug had attacked, there were many that blamed him. Exile would not be punishment enough, they felt.

But Bard was not sure about condemning him to death.

"You could imprison him," Gandalf suggested.

"Then we'd have to find somewhere to keep him, assign someone to guard him, feed him, clothe him and hope the more vengeful citizens didn't find a way to kill him anyway," Bard sighed, head in his hands.

"Well, that might solve our problem," Bain muttered.

Bard gave him a sharp look which Bain returned stonily. Sigrid, Bard had noticed, was being unusually quiet about the whole affair. She probably felt the same way as her brother and Bard couldn't blame her, it was their youth that made them hate so passionately, they'd outgrow it he hoped.

"We could put him to work," Sigrid suggested, eventually. "Make him help rebuild Dale and Laketown."

"An excellent idea," Gandalf boomed.

"We'd still have to find him guards," Bard mused. "But it's better than having him rot away in a cell, I suppose. Would the two of you like to write up a proposal for it?"

Bain made a face that would indicate he would most certainly not like to do that, but Sigrid looked excited and dragged him out of the room to help anyway. Bard sighed.

"You are teaching them well," Gandalf observed.

Bard reached up to run a hand through his hair, stopped when he remembered the crown perched there and let his hand fall back onto the desk, "I hope so."

"Bain will make a fine king one day," Gandalf assured him. He fixed Bard with a fond smile, "So, I think, will you."  Bard offers him a tired smile and Gandalf continues, "Now, we need to look over the final proposals for this agreement, do we not?"

It had been over a week since the alliance talks began and what Bard had once thought would be a fairly simple process had been anything but. First, it seemed that whenever the dwarves were happy, the elves were not. Second, they had, so far, had to halt discussions twice because of the escalating bickering between them. Dis and Dwalin took issue with everything, the suggestion that they must return all elven jewels and artefacts, (yes, even those you took as spoils of war!) the idea that they would have anything to learn from the elves. Thranduil was calmer, though no less bitter about things, complaining loudly about the treaties that dictated what sort of aid should be offered to the other kingdoms in the face of war, about whether the agreed reparations were enough to cover the amount of lives lost.

Bard was seriously considering scrapping the whole thing. It would be far easier that way. Then he could get on with managing Dale.

"Must we?"

"I'm afraid so," Gandalf said. "You three must come to an agreement soon or we will still be here come next spring!"

"It's not me who disagrees," Bard pointed out with a sigh. "There's nothing I can do to make Dis and Thranduil see eye to eye."

"Yes, well, the stubbornness of dwarves knows no bounds I'm afraid and Thranduil is difficult to treat with at the best of times," this last part, Bard assumed, was directed at him.

He narrowed his eyes, "And just what is that supposed to mean?"

He hadn't spoken to Thranduil; he was still uncertain whether he should. He was rather hoping it would all go away if he allowed it to. Thranduil would not meet his eye during meetings and he avoided speaking to Bard directly, something that hadn't gone unnoticed.

Dis had pulled him aside one afternoon and asked him about it. Asked whether Thranduil was treating Bard differently now that he was working with the dwarves as well as the elves, whether they had had a falling out over it. Bard had assured her that wasn't the case but she hadn't believed him. At least, Bard thought she hadn't believed him, judging by the grin and the rough clap on the shoulder she had given him afterwards.

"I had not grasped the depths of Thranduil's affection for you," Gandalf rumbled on. "It seems to be weighing greatly on him."

Bard would have protested that Gandalf felt the need to talk so openly about Bard's private life were he not used to it by now. Instead, he sighed and readied himself for another long talk about the romantic lives of elves.

"I take it you two haven't spoken much?"

"He will not even look at me," Bard muttered.

"In meetings, yes, but have you tried elsewhere?"

"No," Bard admitted. "But I don't see that he would - "

"How can you know without at least trying?"

Bard frowned, "Gandalf, every time you've brought this up previously you've told me what a bad idea it was to pursue."

"Yes, but like I said, I had no idea of the depth of Thranduil's feelings for you. I am not suggesting the two of you embark on some great romance, merely that the two of you..." he paused, casting around for the correct phrasing. "Settle things on better terms."

Bard chuckled, "I'm not sure whether I should be flattered or deeply disturbed that you feel the need to involve yourself in my personal affairs so boldly."

Gandalf harrumphed. "Do not be flattered or disturbed, just heed my advice so we can finally get these treaties signed."

-

"I am sorry, King Bard," the elves guarding the camp said. "But our orders are to allow no one in. His highness does not wish audience with anyone outside of the meetings. He does not wish to discuss politics."

"Nor do I!" Bard insisted, "I merely wish to exchange pleasantries, that's all. Which I would do at the feast had he attended."

The guard shifted, he was getting impatient, Bard could tell, "My lord," he said, slowly and carefully. "I am sorry, but my orders are clear."

Bard was about to give up when from behind there came a familiar voice, "And just what is going on here?" Tauriel asked, coming to a halt beside Bard.

"Guard-Captain," the elf greeted, bowing slightly. "The King of Dale has requested an audience with our King, I was just telling him that - "

Tauriel held up a hand, "I shall escort him."

"But our orders were - " the elf protested, as Tauriel took Bard by the arm and guided him into the camp.

"Not to worry, Rumil, I shall talk to the King personally," Tauriel called after them. "What are you doing here?" she hissed to Bard, once they were out of earshot.

Making a huge mistake, Bard thought.

"You know what I'm doing," he muttered back.

Tauriel stopped, an unreadable expression on her face, "I am unsure whether he'll see you or not."

Bard knew. He had known that coming here and had spent far too long dithering over whether he should even bother. But he had to, for both their sakes.

"I have to try," he said. "You know that."

Tauriel studied him then, after a few seconds she started walking again, "Alright."

She led him to a grand tent, "Wait here." She said softly, before disappearing inside.

It was almost too much.

Here he was, about to...about to what? He was still uncertain. On the one hand, he could go in and throw himself at the elf's mercy, beg forgiveness for assuming the worst, or he could go in, crisply explain that he believed this was better. That they try to ignore their feelings for one another.

If indeed Thranduil had feelings for him.

(He knew he did. He knew in the way Thranduil's entire left side seemed to half seized up all because of Bard. It weighed on him, kept him awake long into the night imagining that agony. And oh, how he wanted to make it go, make it recede, make it vanish into memory.)

But it was easier to pretend.

Wasn't it?

-

"Bard is here to see you, my Lord."

Thranduil looked up from his book with a sigh, "I told the guards not to let anyone in."

"You did," Tauriel agreed. "But I thought it might do you good to speak to him."

Thranduil rolled his eyes, he should have fired her for insubordination long ago. "I'm so glad you felt you had the authority to do so," he muttered.

"So, shall I send him away, my Lord? It might not look favourable to send away our gracious host without at least seeing him."

Perhaps he should skip firing her and send her straight to the dungeons instead. He sat up straighter, "Fine. Send him in."

-

"Good luck," Tauriel whispered to him as she shoved him unceremoniously into the tent.

Bard took a deep breath.

Thranduil was sat upon his would-be throne, lounging carelessly, an openly disdainful look on his handsome face, "King Bard," he drawled. "To what to I owe this pleasure."

He was trying so desperately to look cold, Bard thought. To look like he was above this, like nothing had transpired between them. Like they hadn't fought a war together, like Thranduil hadn't taken in his children when no one else would, like he hadn't saved Bard's life.

Like they hadn't -

Bard cleared his throat, "I thought we should talk."

Thranduil sneered, "Did you? I seem to recall that last time that ended rather messily."

"I..." I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, Bard wanted to say but he fell short, tried again. "I came to apologise. For thinking the worst of you. It was - I was... It was childish and petty and I'm sorry."

"Don't trouble yourself, I did not dwell on it," Thranduil said impassively. "Now, if that is all," he began to rise out of his seat, with some difficulty, wincing as it tugged on his left side.

Bard had stepped forward before he could stop himself, "Let me help - " he began.

"I do not need help," Thranduil snapped, though he looked a great deal paler. He shuffled across the tent, with his back to Bard.

"Can I - " Bard swallowed thickly, "Can I see?"

Thranduil laughed bitterly, spinning to face him, "Oh, yes. I suppose you would like see your handiwork, wouldn't you?" The spell was lifted; Thranduil's ruined cheek sank in, his eye clouded over. The scars wove themselves thickly down Thranduil's throat and when he slid up his left sleeve Bard could see they encompassed most of his left arm.

"I - " Bard stammered.

"You what?"

Bard didn't know. He didn't have the words to express the roaring he felt in his chest. There was anger at himself and need to protect and a desperate need to touch - need to soothe but they all got jumbled up in his chest and left Bard standing mutely, unsure of what to do.

Eventually, Thranduil sagged, "They get worse every time, you know," he said quietly. "Each time it happens they grow faster and hurt more. One day, they might swallow me up."

Bard stepped forward, "Thranduil..."

"Don't," Thranduil said softly. "Please, just... Just end this."

"But your scars - "

"My scars will heal eventually," Thranduil cut him off.  "They always do. It's for the best."

Bard's heart sank (he's right, you know he's right, don't fight this just let it - ) "Is that what you want?" he asked eventually.

Thranduil shook his head, he'd turned away from Bard again, "It's what should be."

This was it then, Bard thought. This was the end, this was what he had wanted, wasn't it? The easier path. There would be no scandal to worry about, no need to worry about how Thranduil would fare when he died. It really was the best option.

So why did he feel so empty?

It wasn't sorrow or anger or loss it was nothing. A gaping chasm in his chest.

This was wrong.

He looked at Thranduil, facing half away, left arm unconsciously pulled to his chest. He still wouldn't look at Bard. Bard wondered how long it would be before the scars receded. Months? Years? How long before he could move freely? How long before he smiled again?

How long before he let someone else in?

"When you came to my chambers that night," Bard found himself saying. "What were you going to say?"

Thranduil looked across at him, looking faintly alarmed, "I..." he flushed slightly. "It hardly matters now."

"No, it does," Bard insisted. "It really does."

Thranduil was silent for a few moments then he gave a sad little laugh, "I had intended to tell you I wanted - " he broke off, cleared his throat. "That I would be willing to... that I... " he broke off again and turned away. "I don't want this to end," he said very, very quietly.

"Neither do I," Bard admitted, taking a few more steps towards him. "So where does that leave us?"

Thranduil glanced back at him, "It changes nothing."

"Shouldn't it?"

"No."

They were close now, if Bard reached out, he could take Thranduil's hand, "I don't want you to be alone."

Thranduil gave what Bard assumed was supposed to be a derisive snort though it sounded a little like an aborted sob, "I have been alone before and survived."

Bard reached out, "But you shouldn't have to be."

Thranduil didn't jerk away from the touch, "You'll die," he said.

"Yes," Bard said evenly. "That's why this has to be your decision. Tell me to go and I will, we'll never need to speak of this again. We'll sign the treaties and be done with it."

Thranduil was silent, eyes downcast.

"Thranduil," Bard prompted gently. He took a step closer, "Do you want me to stay?"

"I can't, why don't you understand - "

"Do you want me to go, then?"

"I - " Miserably, Thranduil shook his head.

Despite it all, Bard smiled a little, "What do you want, then?"

"I want," Thranduil shook his head and to his great surprise Bard realised that he was smiling too. "I want this to be happening to someone who doesn't have to worry about what his kingdom will say when it is found out."

"Shall we run away?" Bard said softly, "Go somewhere no one will recognise us? You'll have to stop dressing in robes though, and leave your elk behind."

Thranduil laughed quietly, "What about your children?"

"Oh, we'll bring them of course; Tilda would track us down if we didn't. Where shall we go? I've always wanted to see Rohan. Or the Shire. Do you think we'd stick out too much amongst the hobbits? I'm sure Bilbo wouldn't mind putting us up for a few days while we settle in."

Thranduil had moved closer while Bard spoke and he leant down, to press their foreheads together, "That sounds nice," he said faintly. "I wonder what Legolas say. He's not ready to be a king."

"I'm sure Tauriel will help keep him on the straight and narrow," Bard assured him.

Thranduil chuckled, "Oh, I'm sure she would. Whether he wanted her to or not."

They were quiet for a few moments, Bard rubbed circles into the back of Thranduil's good hand, "Do you want me to leave?" he asked, softly.

Thranduil shook his head.

-

Bard awoke to Tauriel standing over him, looking equal parts proud and disgusted. For a few moments he had no idea where he was but then, someone on the bed beside him shifted.

"Must you wake me so early?" Thranduil drawled, throwing an arm up dramatically to shield his face from the sun.

"Yes, my Lord. Especially when you happen to be abed with."

Thranduil smirked, though the tips of his ears were bright red. Tauriel herself looked as though she was barely holding back her laughter.

"You'll be pleased to know that I sent the guards to patrol so the camp will be nice and empty for your hasty retreat, King Bard," she said, bowing.

"Excellent work, Guard-Captain," Thranduil said. "Now, if you would be so kind as to give my companion and I some privacy so that we may get ready for the day?"

She bowed again, "As you wise, my Lord," and left rather hurriedly.

Thranduil stared after her rather blankly, "Wonderful," he said, more to himself than to Bard. "Now I shall never be rid of her."

Bard laughed a fraction too loudly and Thranduil shot him a disapproving look. "Sorry. You wouldn't want to be though, not really. What would you do without her?"

"Well, I certainly wouldn't be - how did she put it? 'Abed with a human King who is very much not supposed to be here.' So, I'd probably be enjoying a nice, uncomplicated existence," he lay back down with a sigh. "In a much comfier bed."

Bard smiled, "Would you rather be there?"

Thranduil reached out to brush a few locks back from Bard's forehead, "Oddly enough, no. Though I'm sure that's also her influence."

"Good," Bard said, shifting over and clambering on top of the King. "Then I suggest we make the most of the mostly empty camp while we can."