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The Well-Worn Path of Words

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Bard returned home from the meeting with a headache and a newfound dislike of dwarves. It would have likely been easier to negotiate trade routes with a rock. At least rocks couldn't speak, or imply that Dale only survived the battle due to the intervention of the dwarves, and therefore should pay double taxes to Erebor for the next twenty years. Bard settled down at his desk with a sigh, propping his elbows up so he could slowly massage his temples. Diplomacy was a nightmare. He'd take the dragon again any day.

When he finally cracked his eyes open, he was staring at the letter.

It was a very nice looking letter. That was the first thought that crossed Bard's mind as he reached down to pick it up from the desktop in front of him. The paper was creamy and thick, the seal of golden wax. There was no name or note to suggest who it was from.

"Sigrid," Bard called to the other room. "Did someone leave me a letter?"

"Oh, sorry da!" her voice called. "An elf stopped by while you were gone, said to leave this for you. He said it wasn't urgent."

Bard frowned ever so slightly. A letter from the elves. It had been almost two weeks since Thranduil had taken his troops home, citing the coming winter and a desire to get far from the dwarves as soon as possible. Bard could sympathize, but he would be lying if he said he was glad to see the elf go. In fact, he rather wished he had stayed just a while longer. But dwelling on such feelings was pointless now.

Bard ripped open the seal.

 

To the Lord of Dale,

As we each must attend to our separate kingdoms, it seems that paper and ink are the best manner in which to continue our correspondence. I hope such methods are agreeable to you.

I am writing this letter to ensure that the rebuilding of Dale is proceeding on schedule, and that you and your people are confident in your supplies for the winter. I trust that negotiations with Erebor are going as well as we predicted (Bard snorted). If they should give you any trouble, do not hesitate to call for me. It would be my pleasure to remind Lord Dain whose efforts it was which truly saved his wretched mountain.

Should you wish to respond to this letter, my courier will remain lodged in Dale at your convenience.

 I hope that you are well.

               King Thranduil

 

Bard mouth twisted wryly as he read—the elf certainly spared no simple word when an elaborate one would do. The script seemed to flow across the page like water in the elf's precise handwriting. Bard read it over twice to ensure he wasn't missing any meaning, his fingers gently running over the lines as he imagined Thranduil's hand gliding across the paper. He had not expected to hear from the elf so soon—in some level he feared he would not hear from him at all. Their friendship had been quick to bud, and so often the early blooms wilted the fastest. But from his letter, it seemed Thranduil intended to keep up their relationship. Even if it was without the benefit of his company.

After a quick search Bard managed to root up a spare piece of paper, quill and ink. The paper was not nearly as pleasing as that from Mirkwood, and his penmanship looked more like an accidental ink-splatter than the scrolling letters of the Elvenking, but all the same Bard plunged ahead.

 

Lord Thranduil,

It pleases me greatly to hear word from you, be it only in the form of a letter. While I doubt these letters will compare to our in-person meetings, silence would be much worse by far.

Dale continues to make her living, though as you said in your own letter Erebor has been of little help. They send the gold and jewels owed to us from Thorin's promise, but with that satisfied they have decided to make every other mutual decision thrice difficult. It is lucky that we do not fully rely on them for aid—your supplies should help us through the winter, and though it will be a lean one, I don't doubt that we will see it through.

As satisfying as it would be to have you with me in my talks with Dain, I do hope that will not become necessary. If our last meeting together was any indication, their king might take it as an act of war if he saw your face anywhere near his mountain again.

May the winter in your kingdom be a mild one.

King Bard

 

Bard sealed the letter without delay, thinking he would take it to the courier directly. It was only a day's ride from Mirkwood. He could hear back from the Elvenking as early as two days from now, if he was prompt. Not that there was any particular reason for him to be so eager for Thranduil's response. This was a matter of diplomacy, Bard reasoned. Diplomacy was very important.

 

 -

 

It was over two weeks before Bard received another letter.

Bard tried not to be too concerned—Thranduil was a busy man, and would have better things to do than write idle messages to Dale. Yet when his thoughts turned to the letters, Bard found himself struggling to think of anything he might have written in his own letter which could have caused the Elvenking offense. He had told Thranduil his presence was not needed for negotiations. Could the elf have taken that to mean Bard did not want him around? Perhaps he should write another letter to assure the Elvenking that his company was more than welcome—but no, Bard's first letter could have been lost or delayed, and to send a second so soon would seem desperate. So Bard waited, distracted himself with his duties, and tried to put the Lord of Mirkwood from his mind.

At least, until he returned home to find another beautiful letter waiting for him at the desk.

He picked it up and was about to tear into it without so much as sitting down when a surge of misgivings churned his stomach. He'd waited for what felt like an eternity for this letter to arrive, yet now that it was here Bard found himself inexplicably nervous. He set the paper down, walked a few paces away, turned around and stared at it hostilely from across the room. This was ridiculous. It was only a piece of paper, and no harm could come of it. Thus resolved, Bard strode back over to it, sat down, and peeled the letter open with deliberate care.

 

My Lord Bard,

Your description of Dain's behavior is little worse than I expected. I do not believe that Dale may look to Erebor as a steadfast ally in the coming days. Your city will no doubt benefit from trade with the dwarves, but only as long as it benefits them as well. Such is the way of the world, or at the very least, the way of the dwarves.

I fear your wishes for a mild winter are not to be fulfilled. The frosts are not so brutal as those near the Lonely Mountain, but the colder air and longer nights gives many of the dark things in these forests boldness that they lack when the sun stays high. I am extending patrols further towards Dale in the hopes that such troubles will not become your own. However, travel between our two realms will undoubtedly be more treacherous as long as the cold lasts.

I do not believe that Dain and his 'acts of war' will keep me from my diplomatic visits to Dale once the winter loosens its hold. Either way, it is a risk I am willing to take.

Thranduil

 

There was a second note further down the page, seemingly penned at a later time:

 

I apologize for the lateness in which you will undoubtedly receive this letter. Important preparations were in order, the results of which will become apparent shortly after this letter arrives. 

 

Bard set the letter down, a warmth springing up in his chest even as worry creased his brow. It sounded as if Thranduil was under a great amount of strain defending his lands and borders. And to hear that it was unlikely they would see each other until after the winter ended—Bard tried to quell his disappointment, arguing that it was only natural for great leaps of time to span between their meetings. They were two rulers of their respective kingdoms, and could hardly be expected to make frequent social calls. Bard would have to get used to it.

Still, Thranduil said he was willing to risk incurring Dain's wrath in order to visit. That had to be something. Bard shook his head ruefully. Being placed higher in preference to a dwarf was probably not a distinctive mark of favor when it came to the Elvenking. Still, Bard had to hope.

A hurried rap on the door drew his attention from the letter. When he answered it, one of Dale's messengers was standing on his doorstep looking excited and out of breath.

"Lord Bard," he panted, "I've only just run to tell you—there's a cart just arrived from Mirkwood, laden with food and medicines. The elves said to tell you it was a token of goodwill from King Thranduil."

A wide smile crept its way across Bard's face as he thanked the man and sent him on his way. Standing in his doorway a moment longer, Bard's eyes wandered over the city to the rambling line of the forest beyond. It seemed this winter wasn't to be a lean one after all.

 

 -

 

The next letter Bard took his time with. He didn't want to seem too eager, after all. He waited a few days, pondering over what he might say in response to the Elvenking's generous gifts. He spent many hours pacing his study in thought, words curling behind his eyes in long strands. He set out his paper, ink and quill neatly on the desk, then left them there untouched for as long as he could bear. Finally, he could wait no longer. He sat down and began to write.

 

Thranduil,

Once again I find myself experiencing your generosity. The supplies arrived just after your letter, as you said, and it will ensure that my people do not go sick or hungry this winter. I am more indebted to you now than I can ever hope to repay. I have little to give but thanks, yet I give them with all my heart. If there is anything I can do for you in return, you need only—

 

Bard stopped, cursing quietly. He didn't want to sound as if he was throwing himself as Thranduil's feet, even if his words were true. He should keep it professional, kingly. Crumpling up the old sheet and tossing it away, he pulled out a fresh sheet of paper, and began again.

 

My Lord,

Your gift of provisions has been received, and I thank you heartily for them. I know that in the past you have called my gratitude misplaced, but I hope that it brings you some happiness to know that your actions have ensured my people will not be in danger of going sick or hungry this winter. While such a debt cannot be repaid, I hope that if there is something I might offer you in return you will not hesitate to ask.

Your reports of the incursions on your land are very troubling. I know you will do everything to keep your people safe, yet I hope you will take care to protect yourself as well. It would bring me great grief to hear that any harm had befallen you after the trials we have already shared. I have little aid to extend in the manner of soldiers, but know you have an ally in Dale—even if a rather toothless one.

Bard

 

Bard quickly sealed the letter before he could second-guess any more of it. He would take it to the courier directly, he decided. It would be good to get some fresh air—his study seemed too warm and close all of a sudden.

It did not take him long to locate the courier at one of the residences which had been restored in the reconstruction of the city. The elf accepted his letter with a respectful nod of his head, but seemed to scrutinize Bard with a meaningful glance when he thought the man wasn't looking. Bard wondered if he would report back to Thranduil with something along the lines of "the human looked strangely flustered today." Best not to think about such things.

 

 -

 

The next letter was delivered while Bard was at home, the expression on the elf's face slightly judgmental at the eager smile which split Bard's face. Bard thanked him nonetheless as he accepted the letter, fighting down his excitement. It had only been a few days since he had sent his last letter back. He wondered if Thranduil looked forward to Bard's letters the same way. It was hard to imagine the Elvenking expressing any emotion other than cool apathy, but Bard had glimpsed such things beneath the surface of his reserve. But there was no point in speculating about what he could find out in a few moment's time. Bard opened the seal.

 

 Bard,

He immediately stopped reading, looking away from the paper with his chin resting in his palm, hiding the tiny smile that sprung up at the use of his first name alone. Bard shook his head and cleared his throat. When did he start acting like such a fool? He returned to the letter.

 

Bard,

Your concern for my well-being is touching, but unnecessary. I did not survive the great battle to be brought down by overgrown spiders. It is more your people I worry for—though you wrong to call yourself 'toothless'. Weakened you may be, but soon I expect the defenses of Dale will be as formidable as ever. If what I witnessed of your people in the battle is any indication, then there is strength left in men that I had not thought to look for. Especially under such a worthy captain.

The aid I sent you was given freely. Do not concern yourself with attempting to repay me—I know that Dale has more need of food and gold than I do. I merely hope you take it as a token of our alliance, from one friend to another. That is all I could ask of you.

Thranduil

 

"What are you reading?"

Bard jolted, quickly folding the letter closed. Sigrid was standing in the doorway, her arms folded over her chest, a knowing smile on her face.

"Nothing, darling," Bard said in what he hoped was an easygoing tone. "Just some diplomatic matters."

"I've never seen you smiling like that while reading your other papers," Sigrid said matter-of-factly. Bain and Tilda appeared behind her a second later, drawn out by challenge in Sigrid's voice.

"That's one of those special letters," Tilda piped up traitorously. "The ones the elf brings."

"Is it from the King of Mirkwood?" Bain asked excitedly, hurrying forward with Tilda. "Can I see it? Is he fighting off legions of orcs and spiders and monsters?"

"Read it to us, da!" Tilda cried, tugging on his arm. "What did the elf say?"

"He wrote to me about the troubles his soldiers have been having this winter, and the food they sent," Bard said quickly. "You would probably find it very boring."

Bain squinted over Bard's shoulder. "What is your well-being touching?"

"Right, come here you cheeky little—" Bard said with a grin, scooping a giggling Tilda up in one arm as he deftly tucked the letter into his coat. Bain ducked away from him with a laugh, leading Bard in a chase around the study with Tilda squealing with laughter in his arms, Sigrid shaking her head from the doorway. When Bard managed to chase his two younger children out of the room with a comical growl and grimace, Sigrid waited behind. A small smile was on her lips.

"Da, what's going on?" she asked quietly.

Bard smiled against the uneasiness in his stomach. "Nothing's going on. Nothing special, at least."

Sigrid's eyes darted to the incriminating tip of the letter sticking out of his coat. "Is the elf-king going to be coming back to visit soon?"

Bard 's heart felt slightly punctured, but he merely shook his head. "No, I don't think so."

Sigrid's smile turned shrewd. "Perhaps you should ask him to." With one last meaningful look, Sigrid ducked out of the room after her siblings and left Bard alone.

He settled back into his chair with a sigh, pulling out the now-crinkled letter. Thranduil had called him a friend. He supposed that wasn't too incredible—after all, they had shared wine, conversation, and a mutual dislike for their newfound dwarvish allies. It wasn't so strange that Thranduil would call him a friend. And yet the word seemed to draw them closer like a length of string, binding them together, yet still so fragile. Sigrid seemed to know something that he did not, or had yet to admit to himself. She was always the perceptive one, the first person to realize Bard was tired or unhappy, often before he had realized it himself. And it wasn't so strange to suggest the Elvenking pay a visit to his mutual ally, was it? Perhaps she was right.

Bard glanced at the desk where his writing supplies waited patiently. After a moment, he turned away. He needed time to think of what he was going to say, which were the proper words to invite a king to Dale, and which to invite a friend. He lay awake in bed that night for a long while, letters seeming to scroll down the ceiling of his room, the beautiful curling script so unlike his own imprinted on the back of his eyes even when he closed them.

 

 -

 

Days had passed when at long last he found the time to sit down and write. Dain was requesting rations of food for his people in Erebor, but demanding unreasonably low prices as a sign of the allegiance between their two cities. It had been a hard day, and when Bard finally found himself alone in his study he could not help remembering those short weeks when he would retire to the Elvenking's tent after each meeting, and exchange sly digs about Dain's negotiations until both of them felt better. With that in mind, Bard finally resolved to write. If his heart ached slightly as he put the quill to paper, he would ignore it.

 

Thranduil,

I admit your words have given me heart. It has been long since there has been one I could call 'friend'. I hope that such a title will be an enduring one between us.

I cannot help but think of the time we spent together in the weeks after the battle. Those were hard times, yet I still look back on them with fondness. At times it was only a cup of your wine and a few short words which managed to get me through the day. I wish that you would come to visit, if only for a day. The debt I owe you is for so much more than two carts of supplies—

 

Bard broke off, stared at the page for a long minute, and then violently crossed out everything he had written. It was wrong. He couldn't say these things, even if he meant them. Likely Thranduil would read them and laugh, or worse, stop sending letters. Bard took a steadying breath and pulled out a new piece of paper.

 

Lord Thranduil,

 You pay me high praise, perhaps more than I have earned. All I wish is to do right by my people—and my friends. I am glad to count you among them now.

It seems too long since we have spoken in person, and Dain has been especially tiresome lately. If time permits it, perhaps you could make the journey to Dale for a brief time. A cup of wine with a friend would be much appreciated to fight off the winter's cold.

Bard

 

He sighed, setting his pen down. The words felt stiff, formal, but they would have to do. This time he asked one of his men to take the letter to the courier. Though the elf waited patiently and without complaint between every letter, Bard was beginning to find the strange looks he gave him disconcerting. Bard shook his head with a rueful smile. Perhaps he and Sigrid were in league.

He did not need to wait long for the reply, which was lucky, for it was difficult for Bard to think of little else when he allowed his mind to wander. He scarcely had time to thank the courier before taking the letter from his hands and retreating to his study to read it.

 

Lord Bard,

I find that here in my kingdom, the wine is in no short supply—friends and their conversation, however, are something harder to find. I believe an excursion to Dale for such commodities would be well worth the trip. The spider infestation can wait.

I will not write much more here—soon enough I will be able to tell you in person. I expect I will be arriving in a matter of days, no more than two by my estimation. I am much looking forward to it.

Thranduil

 

His disappointment at the fact that Thranduil had reverted to calling Bard by his title was undercut by the excitement that he would be coming to Dale in a manner of days. There would be plenty of time once he arrived to ensure the elf-king knew Bard meant no coldness or offense. Two days was little time to prepare any sort of reception, but with their limited resources they would not be able to muster much anyways. Bard doubted Thranduil expected much from him, but he wished to greet the king properly, monarch to monarch. Bard sent for one of the more opulent spare bedchambers in his apartments to be cleaned and prepared for a guest, as well as the smaller residences for any guards Thranduil might have to accompany him. If his children noticed him in a slightly better mood, none of them commented on it—but Sigrid did shoot him meaningful glances every so often.

Two days passed with no sign of Thranduil.

Bard told himself that there must have been some minor delay, a setback of only a day, nothing too important to write about in advance. When a third day came and went, Bard began to grow worried. He considered sending his own message to Thranduil asking after him, but thought to wait one more day first. Surely he would arrive by then, and they could laugh about Bard's concerns together.

On the fourth day, Bard awoke to find the world had been obliterated by a thick white blanket of snow, heavy and sticky and up to his shins before the sun reached its peak behind the curtain of grey clouds. It wouldn't be safe to send a messenger until the weather cleared, and only if the snows were not too brutal for travel. Even if Thranduil was fine, Bard would not soon know it. Bard thought of all the horrible scenarios that could have led to Thranduil's absence, about him being stranded out in the snow while the wind beat senselessly at the stone walls of Dale. There was nothing to do but wait.

It was nine days before Bard heard the knock on his door, and opened it to find an elven courier waiting patiently in the snow. She was a different one than usual, sterner in the face.

"Lord Thranduil sends his apologies," she said, thrusting forward her cargo.  There was a package along with the letter this time, something heavy and wrapped in brown linen. As soon as Bard accepted them she turned to leave.

"Wait," Bard called after her, unable to stop the plaintive note from creeping into his voice. The elf turned around. "Lord Thranduil, is he well?" Bard asked.

The elf studied him closely. "The letter will explain." She seemed ready to leave it at that, but her expression softened. "Fear not. The king lives."

Relief washed over Bard as the courier turned to leave. He turned his eye to the package and letter, hurrying them both inside to his study, his heart beating fast. He could not make himself wait until his chest didn't feel so tight. The moment he sat down at his desk, he tore open the letter and devoured it with starving eyes.

 

Bard,

It pains me to make you wait so long for an account of my absence, but I'm afraid it could not be helped. Let me first say that you should not be alarmed—I am well, and expect to remain so. Now I believe I owe you an explanation.

As planned, I left my palace with a small contingent of guards nine days ago, expecting to arrive at Dale before sunset. It seems that luck was not on our side, for it was scarcely midday when we encountered a nest of the same creatures I had warned you of in my previous letters. The ensuing conflict was short, yet brutal. Half of my soldiers were injured, one of them fatally so. I myself sustained some minor wounds, enough to make pushing on to you impossible.

 

Bard swore quietly to himself. If he knew Thranduil at all, the Elvenking would underplay the gravity of his injuries. If it was enough to prevent the elf from doing something he wished to do, they must have been more than minor. Bard forced himself to read on:

 

I am now well enough to write you this letter, I hope before my absence has caused any undue distress. In that time as you have undoubtedly seen, the snows have grown thick and treacherous on the passage to Dale. It seems that our meeting must be further delayed.

Though it may be your inclination, I ask you not to attempt to make the journey yourself. No matter your concerns for me, I would not thank you to put yourself in any danger for my behalf.

I'm afraid I grow tired, and cannot write much more even though I may wish to. I have sent a gift along with this letter that I hope will alleviate the cold until the break of spring allows our reunion. I hope you find it an adequate substitute.

To your health, my friend.

Thranduil

 

Bard sat back, staring at the bottle of red wine on the desk and feeling strangely empty. Thranduil had been right to say Bard's first inclination was to saddle a horse and ride all night to get to Mirkwood himself. If Thranduil was hurt, Bard wanted to be there with him—no matter how minor the injuries might be. The only thing stopping him from finding someone to run the city for a few days and waking his children to kiss them goodbye was Thranduil's warning not to come.  Bard had a mind to ignore it. But if he were to show up to Mirkwood and find himself unwelcome—what then? Perhaps Thranduil did not want to see him at all.

Bard shook his head. Now he was being ridiculous. But that thought couldn't stop the sinking in his heart, the coldness that settled over his limbs. He looked again to the bottle of wine. An adequate substitute, indeed. Thranduil did not seem to realize that it wasn't his wine Bard was missing. He touched the neck of the bottle, felt the cool glass under his fingertips. It was hard not to feel useless, sitting here alone with a bottle of wine while the person he wanted to share it with was lying injured miles away. He had told Bard not to come. Bard would honor that wish, if he must, though it left a pit in his stomach. It seemed he suddenly felt his loneliness like a knife pressed up to his throat. His hand tightened on the bottle of wine. If he had to be alone, he would take what comfort he could.

The wine tasted thick and sweet on his tongue, and before long his body felt warm and heavy. With every sip he was brought to a memory of a time not so long ago, when the same taste had mingled with a laugh on his tongue, and a pair of blue eyes had sparkled at him as the days grew darker outside. But now the joy he had felt brought him nothing but sadness, and a strange sense of longing he could not seem to place. He drowned it in wine instead.

 

 -

 

Bard awoke the next morning feeling as if someone had split his skull with an axe while he slept. His back was practically too stiff to move, joints creaking as he slowly rose his face from the desk where he had slumped into unconsciousness the night before. A blanket was draped around his shoulders—Sigrid must have found him here, he realized. She would be worried about him. The sweetness of wine had soured to the feeling of sand coating his tongue. He could scarcely move without a pang of pain or nausea from some part of his body. When he lifted his hands to cradle his head, he realized his fingers were sticky. Forcing his eyes to focus, he held his hands in front of his face—they were splattered with something black. Bard looked down at the desk and immediately saw the upturned ink pot, the crumpled papers in front of him.

With a quiet groan, he righted the ink and tried to rescue the paper. Most of it had been blank, but the one on top had been written on. He couldn't remember writing anything last night, but he couldn't remember much of anything once the wine started doing its work. Bard squinted at it. It was nearly illegible, but there was no doubting it was in his own hand. Some parts were smeared, others crossed out. As he began to make out the words that weren't blotted with ink, his stomach began to plummet.

 

Thranduil,

Don't make me stay away. I don't want your wine. It leaves bitter memories on my tongue——————-starting to sound like you. You sound ridiculous sometimes. I wish you were here so I could tell you that to your face, see you —— I think you like it when I challenge you. Is that ——?

I do not———————————————————————— and you? I miss your company more than I understand. I wish I knew what you wanted from me, or I from you. I know that I care about you. This is all tripe. See what you have done to me.

You won't see this letter. Right now I am very drunk on your wine. Was that your plan? ——————will burn it after writing this. I doubt I will remember a thing once the fire's taken it. ———better this way for both of us.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

 

Bard let the letter fall from shaking fingers. There was no doubt that he had written those words. Yet how could he have? It sounded nothing like him, and the things he was professing… Bard seized the paper, crumpling it in his hands, searching for somewhere he could cast it that it would never come to light. After only a moment his grip relaxed and he settled back into the chair in defeat. He couldn't destroy it. Whatever was on this paper was real, and to destroy the evidence of it would be to deny the truth. Even if it was a truth produced under copious amounts of wine, this was something Bard would have to confront. He hurriedly stuffed it into his coat, making sure no incriminating edges stuck out. In a waiting basin of water, he took a rag to his hands to scrub at the ink stains until his fingers were red and raw. He would face this. But not now.

He went through his duties that day like someone half-asleep, struggling through headaches and muscle pain and the not-so-occasional bout of nausea. Worse than the fact that his body seemed to be falling apart at the seams, he couldn't keep the letter tucked into his coat off his mind. It was like walking around with a glowing ember in his pocket, a constant painful heat pressing against his body. He did his best to keep his mind off it, but it was little use. His own words came back to mock him.

When he finally dragged himself home the desk in his study had been cleared, the ink mopped up and the papers separated to dry. Bard had scarcely sunken into his chair when Sigrid appeared in the doorway, hovering just over the threshold as if she was afraid to come in. Bard met her gaze, forced a tired smile that drew her into the room. She walked up to where he was sitting and leaned down to give him a tight hug, her face buried in his shoulder. He stroked her hair for a moment, saying nothing, until she let go to step back and look him in the eye.

"Da, are you okay?" she asked. Bard's heart seemed to crack painfully in his chest at the fear in her voice. It wasn't fair of him to let her see him this way. He had always been his family's source of stability, sometimes its only one. Yet Sigrid looked as if she was ready to take care of him.

"I'm fine," he managed, reaching out to squeeze her hand. "I'm sorry that you found me like that in the morning. It won't happen again."

She offered him a hesitant smile. "Will you read Tilda a story before bed tonight?"

Bard nodded gratefully. "Of course. Will you listen too?"

Sigrid rolled her eyes. "Da, I'm a bit old for bedtime stories."

Bard smiled, tugging on her arm playfully. "Oh, come on. We'll get Bain as well, and make a night out of it. You're never too old for a good story."

She couldn’t stop the smile that broke over her face as Bard raised his eyebrows pleadingly the way he used to do when she refused to eat her vegetables. "Fine," she groaned with a dramatic toss of her hair, but when Bard stood up to kiss her on the top of the head she pulled him in to another hug.

He left the ink and paper alone that night, sitting with his children and telling stories of princes and monsters, magic and love. When he lay in bed trying to sleep, it was with the rustle of his letter under his pillow whispering in his ear all night.

 

 -

 

A day passed, and another, and Bard still had not written to Thranduil in reply. He was not sure now that he could. A few times he had tried, sitting at his desk with a pen to the paper, but each time it was as if he were back in that night, the bottle of Dorwinion wine at his elbow and his true feelings leaking onto the page in front of him. Each time he would set the pen down again. He knew he should at least send something vague to thank Thranduil for the wine and wish him a speedy recovery, but the words seemed to tangle themselves up into snarls on the page that it was too painful to pick apart. Every polite expression he tried to pen down ended up spiraling out of his control into territory Bard could not trespass. And so the days stretched into weeks, and still he didn't write. The longer he went, the harder it was to even try. Eventually he began avoiding his study altogether. And when no more letters arrived from Thranduil, Bard could only assume that the elf was not waiting to hear from him.

So instead, he worked to forget. He devoted most of his free time to his children, helping Bain practice archery and coming up with new stories for Tilda every night. He threw himself into his work, forced himself to sit through the endless meetings with Dain with no one to complain to afterwards, and put his paper and sealing wax somewhere he wasn't likely to find them.

The winter months trudged onward, bringing more snow and wind and frigid air. The people of Dale huddled inside against the cold and waited for the winter to pass. Just when it seemed the world could get no colder, the weather broke—the sun shone through the clouds for the first time in weeks, turning the snow a blinding white and the sky as clean a blue as the surface of the lake in summer. Birds became little patches of shadows flitting between white-laden tree branches, and one morning when Bard looked to the forest he saw a deer stepping on spindly legs over the frozen ground. He did not look towards Mirkwood very often these days.

Which is why, when a rider detached from the tree line and trotted up to Dale's front gate, the first Bard knew of it was a knocking at his door.

He had taught himself to stop hoping. There was only so much he could take, and jumping at the sound of someone at the door every time had quickly grown too much to bear. So when he opened the door and saw the familiar face of the elf courier on his doorstep, he felt it like a physical blow to his chest.

"Letter from the King," the courier announced, holding a letter out as if only a week had passed since the they had last seen each other. Bard stared at it as if it were a poisonous snake before slowly reaching down to accept it. The look on the elf's face seemed the usual brand of apathetic boredom, but there was something behind it that weighed and measured Bard with a practiced eye. "I will be remaining in Dale for three days after this, should you wish to send a reply."

Bard nodded in reply. "Thank you." With one last look, the elf turned and left Bard alone in his doorway, the letter clutched in numb hands. He stared down at it mutely, as if he could absorb the paper's meaning simply by proximity to it. He stepped away from the door and closed it behind him, trying to quiet his heart. The letter was still in his hand. Bard was not certain he could bring himself to read it. He had three days in which to do so, and if he was able, to write a response. Time enough to brace himself for whatever Thranduil might have to say to him, be it words of friendship or contempt. Bard was not sure which would be worse.

He crossed the threshold of his study for the first time in weeks, and tucked the letter into one of the compartments of his desk. Even for the brief moment he was inside, the air in the room seemed to shrink around him like some physical thing. He left quickly and closed the door behind him, shutting the letter out of his sight but not out of his mind.

Two days saw him frequenting the doorway to his study, facing the desk across from it like it was some wild beast that had broken into his home. He'd really come to hate that piece of furniture. Perhaps he would have it chopped to pieces, and replace it with a simple table with no nooks and crannies to hide incriminating papers in. But to do that, he'd have to step back inside. And even night fell on the second night, such a simple action seemed beyond him.

He found himself pacing the hallway outside, hands clasped behind his back, trying to quell the racing of his mind with every footstep as the night marched on. Time was running out. Though of course, if he simply waited, the problem would resolve itself. He would not respond to the letter, and perhaps he would not even have to read it. Such an idea was folly, of course. It might contain some important political information. But the courier had said 'if' Bard wished to reply, which implied that there was an option in the first place.

Bard stopped in his tracks and leaned back on the wall with a quiet groan, dragging his hands down his face. This was ridiculous. He had slain orcs, giants, and one very angry dragon, but he was letting himself be cowed by a single piece of paper. Tearing himself away from the wall, he stalked through the hallway and to the door of his study, fumbling with the handle and pressing through before he had the chance to stop himself. He collapsed into his chair, dug out the letter, and ripped open the seal, only pausing to take one steadying breath before putting his eyes to the page.

 

Bard,

I hope that you do not find this letter an intrusion. When I did not receive a prompt response from either of my previous correspondences, I thought it best to allow you some time without my interference. I did not wish to impose on your time—I know well that running a kingdom is no small task.

Yet as I thought more on the reasons behind your silence, I began to fear I had caused  offense in the content of one of my previous letters, some slight that I had heretofore been unaware of. You know me well enough by now to understand that on occasion I can be cruel without malice or intent. If you had suffered the effect of this predisposition, I knew I could not sit by idly while you smarted from a blow I did not feel myself.

Know that, if that is the case, to insult or offend was never my intention. I hope that if I have done any harm to you, you will find yourself able to forgive me. It is ever my wish for our two kingdoms to remain bonded by friendship. —No, I dissemble. I wish for us to remain friends, not just for the benefits of our kingdoms. But if you have deemed such a relationship between us inappropriate, I will of course step away and not trouble you with such sentiments again. You need not fear any repercussions for the diplomatic ties between our realms if that should be your wish. Furthermore, have no fear for protecting my feelings. I urge you to speak only from the heart on this matter.

I have instructed my courier to return to you three days after receiving this message, should you wish to reply. I will understand if you should decide not to. If I do not hear back from you, I will merely assume that you wish the bond between us severed, and wish you well. But I admit I hope dearly to see your response, even if it contains only a written confirmation of that fear. One last letter may be too much to ask for, but all the same, I ask it.

Forgive my impertinence, if you can find it within yourself.

Thranduil

 

Bard sat back in his seat with a ragged sigh, dragging his hand over his mouth. It seemed he had done more harm than he knew by refusing to answer the Elvenking's letters. That Thranduil thought he wished to put distance between them—it would have made Bard laugh with the absurdity of the idea, if the reality wasn't so much more painful. If Thranduil knew what sentiments Bard truly desired from him, he had no doubt the Elvenking would be the one to sever bonds of fellowship between them.

"Da, why do you look sad?"

Bard jolted out of his thoughts to see Tilda standing in the doorway, her doll clutched limply in her hand, wide eyes staring at him almost in reproach. Bard broke into a smile and beckoned her over, pulling her into his lap and stroking her hair.

"I'm not sad, darling. I'm just thinking."

"Were you thinking about something sad?"

Bard cupped her cheek lightly. "Why yes, actually. I was thinking about how sad it was that I wasn't going to get a hug from you today."

Tilda's mouth split into a toothy grin as she threw her arms around Bard's neck with a giggle. "Don't be sad, da," she said. Bard rubbed her back gently, his eyes rising to see Bain and Sigrid lingering in the doorway. His oldest daughter kicked Bain meaningfully, who then approached Bard and Tilda as she was extracting herself from his embrace.

"Come along, Tilda," Bain said, shooting his father a glance. "Let's go play dragonslayer before bed. I'll even be the dragon this time."

Tilda's face lit up. "Really? You always make me be the dragon!"

Bard smiled at her. "Run along, then. Remember to aim for the belly." Tilda poked Bain in the stomach with a delighted giggle, making Bain cast a long-suffering look over his shoulder as he led the younger girl off. Sigrid leaned on the doorframe after they left, a perceptive look on her face.

"Is that letter from the Elvenking?" she asked.

Bard nodded. "Yes, it is."

Sigrid stared at him as if she could see directly into his head. There was no judgment on her face, only calm understanding. Slowly, a reassuring smile dawned across her lips. "You should write back, da."

Before he could think of a reply, she slipped down the hallway out of sight.

Bard stared at the blank paper before him. Sigrid was right, of course. Bard knew what he had to do. But to actually do it—that was another matter. All the words he might say, the reassurances and apologies he could make, seemed bottled up behind his fingertips as he slowly lifted the pen. His options were simple now: either gather his courage to write, or let Thranduil think he had forsaken him. It was no option at all in the end. With a steadying breath, Bard put the pen to paper.

 

Thranduil,

Your letters have never been, and will never be, an intrusion. I am as happy to receive your letter now  as I ever have been. In truth,

 

Bard stopped. The words he had wanted to say for so long seemed to ghost out in front of his pen on the page, but he could not bring himself to make them a reality. No, the truth was not welcome here, as much as Thranduil might assure him it was. Bard continued.

 

In truth, things have been very hectic here in Dale with the heavy snows, and sitting down to write has become more and more difficult. I took no offense from any of your previous messages, and hope to receive more in the future.

Your friend,

Bard

 

Bard set his quill down with an ache in his heart. He knew such paltry words would hardly be any comfort to Thranduil. It was sterile and dry, but it was all Bard could manage. Even signing it as 'your friend' had sent a painful twinge in his heart, for it felt like such a lie. If he allowed himself any more leniency with his emotions he feared he would simply spill them all out onto the page. His duty was to preserve this friendship, and if to do that he had to hold back his heart, then hold back he would.

He into fitful dreams that night, chasing specters down dark hallways whose walls were covered with words. The next morning he woke feeling scarcely more refreshed than the night before, but he dragged himself out of bed and dressed all the same. He could not be sure when the courier would come to collect his reply, but it scarcely mattered. Though the empty words of his letter rang dully in his head, he could bring himself to neither read it again himself or amend it at all. Once he sent this letter there would be no going back for him—he doubted Thranduil would ask for his emotional honesty again, and Bard would not push him to. It simply had to be this way. Better for Bard to accept it.

When the knock at the door came, Bard rose to answer it with heavy feet. The courier was waiting, an expectant expression on his face. When Bard produced the letter, the elf's eyes softened somewhat—but only slightly.

"I will see this is delivered to Thranduil's hands directly," the courier said with a sharp bow.

"Thank you," Bard said. The elf paused, as if expecting something more, but then just as quickly turned to leave down the street. Bard watched his retreating back, pain twisting in his chest. The thought of Thranduil opening that letter full of dust was almost too much. Crossing his arms over his chest, he froze at the crinkle he felt from inside his jacket. Slowly dipping his hand into one of its pockets, he pulled out the wrinkled, ink-stained copy of the letter he had written so long ago. His eyes lingered over the words before he could stop them, bringing up fresh pangs of shame—but also resolution. Suddenly, he knew what he had to do.

"Wait!" he cried out to the courier's back, stopping the elf in his tracks. He turned around with an irritated expression as Bard waved him back. "There's one more thing!" Bard cried. He slogged through the snow until he reached the courier, his heart beating hard in his chest. Bard pressed the letter into his hand with a firmness the elf seemed not to expect.

"Please ask Lord Thranduil to read this letter after the other," Bard said. "Tell him… I'm sorry. It's the closest to the truth I could come."

The elf merely nodded, tucking the letter into the folds of his coat and turning to leave once more. Bard let him go, feeling as if a piece of himself was being slowly extracted from his chest, like a long string unwinding and stretching into the cold distance. One letter without feeling, and another with far too much. Idly, he wondered what he had done. Whatever happened now, there was no one to blame but himself.

 

 -

 

For the first time in what must have been months, with the passing of each day Bard felt next to nothing. He was not afraid, merely resigned. The weight had been lifted from his chest as he sent the letter away, but now it seemed he was floating in a void. There was nothing left to wait for, to be nervous or excited about—all he had were his duties before him, and of course his children. Sigrid made no more mention of the letters, except for asking him if he had sent a reply. Bard had told her he had, and she had nodded in a businesslike way and given him a smile, but after that she would return to asking him if she could visit Erebor, or go horseback riding in the snow. Bard started using his study again, though the paper and ink remained safely away unless he needed them. Things returned to a semblance of comfort, even if it was a hollow one. Bard knew that soon would pass. It might be some time before he could look toward Mirkwood without a tight pang in his heart, but given time, the ache would fade.

So he thought. Until, late at night, there was another knock on Bard's door.

He scarcely heard it, poring over the most recent copy of the transit agreement from Erebor that would allow traders from Dale into its markets. It wasn't exactly thrilling work, and Bard was close to nodding off over the section about revenue limitation when the quiet knocking jolted him out of it. He froze, listening closely, loath to get up and leave his work for nothing because he knew he wouldn't be able to focus on it again. But sure enough the knock sounded again, louder this time, and with a quiet grumble Bard stood up and went to answer the door. If someone was calling on him at this hour, it must have been too important to ignore.

When he opened the door, Thranduil was waiting for him.

Bard stared. The Elvenking had forsaken his usual robes for something more suitable to riding, a dark tunic and leather vambraces, with a simple grey cloak covering his shoulders. As Bard opened the door he smiled and pushed the hood back, revealing his hair shining silver in the faint moonlight. Flecks of snow drifted through the air from the wisps of cloud ahead. The world seemed to be shrinking around him, obliterating the streets and the house and the flecks of snow in the air, leaving no one but Thranduil and him.

"Thranduil," he said in a voice so hoarse with astonishment it was practically a whisper. The part of his mind that was still functioning observed that this was the first time Bard had neglected to use the Elvenking's title face-to-face. An even more distant part of him enjoyed how good the name felt on his tongue again. But mostly, Bard could feel nothing but shock.

Thranduil smiled, a fleeting thing. "Bard. I hope I am not interrupting."

Bard stood in the doorway, gaping. "You weren't expected."

The smile on Thranduil's lips faltered for an instant. "Forgive me. I did not think to send word ahead."

Bard snapped back into reality at that, stepping aside hastily to let the elf-king pass. "No, and there was no need to—please, come in. Disregard my rough manners. It's been a long day."

Thranduil stepped inside and Bard closed the door behind him. They stood in the semi-darkness, facing each other, Bard painfully aware that he was staring yet unable to tear his eyes away. Thranduil was here, in his house. It seemed an insane idea, too much for even his imagination to fabricate. Which meant of course it must be real.

"Where are your men?" Bard asked after a moment, struggling to do more than stare dumbly at his guest.

"I came alone," Thranduil replied.

Bard frowned, confusion muddying his thoughts. "But the road is dangerous this time of year, as you said. It would be—"

"I did not want anyone to slow me down." Thranduil's eyes seemed to pin Bard to the opposite wall. "May we speak in private?"

Bard nodded wordlessly, guiding Thranduil down the hallway to the first door—his study. As Thranduil stepped inside and Bard shut the door, Bard tried to force his mind to catch up with the present situation. It was the first time he had seen Thranduil in person since those few short weeks after the battle. Standing before him now, it was as nothing had passed between them since then, and yet—Bard could scarcely reconcile the man before him now, exuding cool reserve and control, with the one who had written letters with such restrained passion and vulnerability. Yet they were one and the same.

At the thought of the letters they had exchanged, Bard felt his skin go cold. The expression on Thranduil's face was impossible to decipher, the touch of a smile on his lips as enigmatic as ever. Before, Bard would have happily commented on it, needled the elf into dropping his façade. But now he could only stand there, waiting for Thranduil to speak, for he had not the words himself.

"You look well," Thranduil began. A slight smirk played over his lips. "I see you have updated your choice in clothes."

Bard tugged at his tunic, the dark finer cloth a stark change from his rougher wear Thranduil had last seem him in. He had been wearing such garb for so long he had forgotten. "I seem to recall you mentioning that a king should look the part. There are many talented tailors in Dale who appeared to agree."

"And you may give them my compliments." His eyes swept up and down Bard's form, briefly enough to easily slip his notice if Bard hadn't been paying excruciating attention. Except that he was paying, very, very close attention. When Thranduil's eyes met his again, he no longer looked as if he was laughing at his own private joke.

"I read your letters," he said softly.

Bard's voice nearly failed him. "Before we speak of that, would you let me say something first?" Thranduil looked surprised, but inclined his head in acceptance. Bard turned to slowly walk towards his desk, resting a hand on it with his back towards Thranduil before facing him again. "I wish to begin by saying that I am sorry," Bard said, his voice firm. "I never intended for you to know many of the things I professed, yet I could not bring myself to pull away from you. The closest I was able to come to any sort of honesty was in the last letter you read. I had believed I was capable of hiding such things from you and simply maintaining our friendship—I was wrong. I'm not strong enough for that." Bard looked away.  

 "And what," Thranduil said slowly, "exactly, are the sentiments you claim to feel towards me? You'll forgive me for asking. It seems your letter left some of the spaces blank."

If there was amusement in Thranduil's voice, Bard certainly couldn't hear it. He took a ragged breath as he met eyes with the Elvenking. In the faint light of Bard's study, the elf looked neither perfect nor ethereal; he looked real, and therefore all the more painful. The words that had remained bottled in Bard's chest seemed to come clawing up his throat at last, bitter and sharp. If he could not bring himself to lie on a piece of paper, he certainly couldn't do it now. "That I have missed you," Bard said in little more than a whisper. "That I have found a friend in you I never expected to need. That you're the most interesting person I've met, and an utter arse at times. That waiting for your letters was agonizing, and going without them unbearable. That I lied when I called you my friend."

Thranduil took a step closer, his head tilting to the side. "And if I am not your friend, what I am?" he said quietly.

Bard shrugged helplessly. "I don't know. Or I do know, and just can't say it."

Thranduil was standing right before him now, that strange smile back on his lips. Bard supposed he was laughing at him. "I did not know you felt such things."

Bard laughed without mirth, looking away. "I did my best to keep it that way."

Thranduil's fingers seized his chin, gently directing Bard's gaze back into his own. The elf's eyes were bright. "If I had known, I would have come sooner."

Bard stares at Thranduil in shock as the meaning of his words settled in. The smile on Thranduil's face had gone from coy to unrestrained, his hand sliding up to rest on the side of Bard's face, his thumb idly stroking Bard's cheek.

"Well?" he said. "Don't you have anything to say to that? I believe you owe me quite a few words at this point. About two month's worth, by my guess."

Bard laughed in spite of himself. His hand darted up to touch Thranduil's arm, run up to his shoulder hesitantly, then fall away. "I never did know what to say," he whispered.

Thranduil shook his head disapprovingly, but his smile only grew. "Very well. I suppose we'll forgo the words for now."

The moment seemed to hang suspended, surreal, as Bard felt Thranduil moving closer. He stepped into Bard's space, closing the distance ever so slowly, his gaze drifting down to Bard's lips and then back up again. They were only inches apart now, Thranduil's hand had slid into Bard's hair and tangled there, their breaths mingled between them as Thranduil gently pulled him in. Thranduil's lips scarcely brushed his own before pulling away a fraction, but the contact shot through Bard like a lightning strike on the surface of the lake.

Thranduil lingered a while longer, his other hand creeping up to caress the side of Bard's neck as he continued to touch those maddening feather-light kisses to Bard's lips. Bard began to respond, chasing Thranduil's mouth to hold each kiss a little longer, press a little harder. The heat was rising in his chest, a hunger he didn't know he had opening up where the pain had lived for so long. Bard's hands tightened in the shoulders of Thranduil's cape as he pulled him closer, crushing their lips together. A groan escaped the back of his throat when he felt Thranduil's kiss open to his own, muttering a quiet curse which hung between their lips.

Thranduil pulled pack for a moment, amusement shining in his eyes. "So this is what it takes to get you talking, is it?"

A moment later he felt Thranduil's hands in the fabric of his tunic, shoving him backwards until the backs of his legs hit the desk. Thranduil pressed him down until he was sitting there, pushing forward to stand between his knees and tilt Bard's head back with a rough hand in his hair. The amusement had gone out of his eyes as he sucked at Bard's lips, breathing hard between each kiss.

"Do you know how long I've thought about doing this?" Thranduil whispered, pausing to nibble at Bard's ear.

Bard struggled to keep his breathing even, and failed. "How long is that, exactly?" he managed as Thranduil's lips brushed over his throat.

Thranduil hummed thoughtfully in the back of his throat. "Oh, I don't know… perhaps the first time you compared Dain's face to his pig's backside."

All at once Bard caught Thranduil's face and forced his gaze into his own. "Are you telling me you've felt this way for me since before you even left?" Bard said in disbelief.

A slight frown creased Thranduil's brow. "Yes?"

Bard groaned again, leaning up to kiss Thranduil between every word. "So we could have been doing this for the past months instead of stewing in our respective misery?"

He felt Thranduil's laughter against his lips. "I suppose we have a lot of lost time to catch up on."

"Then I can't see the sense in waiting any longer." Bard tangled his fingers in Thranduil's and stood up, leaning in for one more kiss before pulling Thranduil towards the door. "My chambers. Right now."

Thranduil's fingers were tight in his own, the feeling of his lips still on Bard's face. Bard came to a stop at the door, turning back to face the elf another time. He stood staring at Thranduil with a sense of quiet wonder, that this could truly be happening, that both of them were really here. "We are going to talk about this later," Bard warned him, unable to keep the smile off his face. "We're going to sit down and have a proper conversation. No pen and paper involved."

Thranduil ran his hands over Bard's chest with a tenderness Bard would not have expected, pressing his body closer until their were lips were a hairsbreadth apart. "But this first."

Bard leaned forward and kissed him until they were both breathless once again, Thranduil's hair mussed and the color rising in his cheeks. "This first," Bard agreed. He opened the door to his study and led Thranduil out by the hand, tugging him down the dark hallway towards what lay beyond, their fingers warm and tightly laced, all the words that would pass between them spilling out behind their heels as they went.