The first time Thranduil delayed his departure from Dale, he told himself it was because he and his people were still needed. Winter was coming, after all, and without his assistance the men of Dale wouldn’t be able to do everything that needed to be done to save themselves from the bitter cold that would soon sweep down from the Lonely Mountain and freeze all in its path. They were hearty people, accustomed to a challenging life in Laketown, but now they had none of their resources, none of their stores. It did not take much adversity for difficult to become impossible when one was forced to live so close to the line.
The dwarves helped as they could but they had their own problems, and Thranduil’s pride would not allow him to be of less use to his human allies than the mountain’s mercurial inhabitants. He would stay a while longer, just long enough to help them ensure there was adequate housing for the survivors of the Battle of the Five Armies, enough food to see them through the cold months, wood for their fires, and medicine for the sick. The barest of essentials, that wasn’t too much for Dale’s new king to ask of him, and Thranduil felt the pain of loss in his heart ease a bit at the thought of being so sought.
His son was gone now, seeking his own path far away from his father and all he had grown up with. Thranduil was surprised at how much it had hurt, watching his son depart. Legolas had left without pausing for an embrace, with barely more than a word of farewell. The physical distance between them now was a reflection of the emotional isolation that Thranduil himself had enforced, had felt was best at the time. If it hurt him, he had only himself to blame. And he did blame himself, in the quiet of the lengthy, darkening nights, alone in his tent with no one to disturb the damning silence. He spent long hours doing nothing but that, until he felt equally tattered within as he was without. His glamours could hide the ruin of his face, but no glamour could patch the space where Thranduil's comfort at Legolas' nearness had rested.
Working with the men of Dale was a distraction Thranduil’s heart desperately needed as it accustomed itself to its new, diminished state. If working with King Bard was a particular source of pleasure, well...that gentling wasn’t something Thranduil felt like denying himself now. At the very least, he derived no small amusement from Bard’s continued protestations that he was, in fact, the worst choice for king that his people could have made.
“I am simply a bargeman with good aim,” Bard griped one evening when he’d agreed to join Thranduil for a glass of wine after a long day’s work. Dorwinion wine was potent, all the more so for someone who wasn’t used to it, and Bard had learned to limit himself to a single glass after an ill-advised evening had left him prostrate for most of the following day. Still, one glass was enough to loosen his tongue and bring color to his lips, and Thranduil enjoyed seeing the taciturn man relax somewhat. “It’s all I can do to care for three children, how can they expect me to do a decent job of caring for an entire town’s worth of folk?”
“They can expect it by virtue of the fact that you did, indeed, care quite well for three children on your own,” Thranduil said, lacing his long fingers together as he watched Bard sip his wine. His throat moved soundlessly, the skin around his collar stained with a day’s worth of dirt and sweat. Thranduil had to stop himself from offering the use of his bath; he knew Bard would not appreciate him bringing attention to his less than kingly demeanor. “Now you make all of your people your children, and care for them likewise. You exhaust yourself on their behalves on a daily basis, everyone sees it. I do not think the people of Dale could have made a better choice.”
“If the work of kinging stopped with the labor of my hands, I would have little to complain about,” Bard replied. “But there are expectations I do not know how to respond to. Titles to be borne, impressions to be managed, correspondence…the letters alone that I must field now are almost enough to send me running. I have no formal learning, I am not…” He shrugged uneasily. “Composing missives to other kings is not where my strength lies.”
“Then you appoint a secretary to do so for you.”
Bard shook his head. “And pay them how? How can I pull another set of hands from the work of rebuilding? No, it’s my problem, I must find a way deal with it.”
“But not alone,” Thranduil stressed. “Your years of strife have made you independent, Bard Bowman. Too independent, I fear. No one expects you to manage all of your new duties by yourself. It would be far better to ask for assistance than to fail due to your reluctance to accept help. I daresay Sigrid has told you this already.” Sigrid was the oldest of Bard’s children, and she took her responsibilities seriously. While she lacked the curiosity of her brother Bain and the lighthearted joy of her sister Tilda, she was very well suited to aiding her father in his new position of authority.
“Sigrid should not be thinking of such things.” It was a quiet lament, and Thranduil saw the lines around Bard’s mouth tighten slightly. “She is too young to be so burdened.”
“None of us can change the past,” Thranduil said, and if he thought of Legolas as he spoke then Bard need never know it. “Let her help. She will not be happy any other way.”
“You speak with great familiarity,” Bard noted.
Thranduil raised one impressive eyebrow. “And am I not familiar with your family yet, King Bard?” He pointed to a scrap of parchment on the table, where Tilda had drawn a scratchy likeness of his elk. It was a simple gift, a childish one, but Thranduil found he was loath to throw it away.
Bard smiled. “I suppose you are.” He set down his glass and brushed the edge of the picture with his fingertips. “You are good to them.” He looked up again, and Thranduil was struck by the earnestness in Bard’s eyes, and the open appreciation in his face. “Thank you for that.”
It took a moment for his tongue to work again. “It is no hardship,” Thranduil murmured at last.
The second time Thranduil delayed his departure, it was only briefly. The snow threatened and he and his people needed to return to the safety of his halls, yet there was no way he could miss Bard’s official coronation. He sent the majority of his forces back with Tauriel, only keeping a small guard for himself.
“I will rejoin you in a week,” he told her the evening before the coronation. “It will give me enough time to help Bard settle a bit into his new role.”
Tauriel, who had been so grim since the death of the dwarf Kili, actually smiled at him. It was a small thing, but genuine. “He is important to you.”
“Anyone who would be my ally when it comes to arguing with recalcitrant dwarves is important,” Thranduil dissembled, but Tauriel would not let it lie.
“No, my lord. He is important to you. The king himself.”
Thranduil pulled his shoulders back as he readied a volley of denial, but the words curdled in his chest. He could not deny it. Not to Tauriel, who had lost so much so quickly, who was the only one who dared to speak her mind to him now that Legolas was gone. Thranduil found that he despised her for her insight almost as much as he appreciated her for her boldness. He said nothing, and after a moment Tauriel bowed and left him to his newly discordant thoughts.
Bard, important to him? As more than an ally, as…what, a friend? Thranduil could barely remember an age where he had cultivated friendship with anyone. He was a king; it was his duty to rule, not to befriend. His subjects needed his composure and his unfettered decisiveness, not his friendship. He had not been a friend to his son; he had barely been a father to him. The king had ruled, and his subjects had obeyed. Until, suddenly, two of them had stopped obeying.
Now here he was, more alone than he had ever been, and yet he took solace in the presence of a human. Bard Dragonslayer, the reluctant King of Dale, who looked at Thranduil with gratitude and trust. Bard Bowman, who cared for his children above all else, who worked tirelessly for his people and thought that he had not earned his right to rule. As if anyone else could ever take his place in his subjects’ hearts.
Tauriel was right. Thranduil had found something to admire in Bard, and it was more than the simple pleasure that came from having his ego regularly flattered by the man. Bard’s forthrightness did not allow for doublespeak, or a chance to misconstrue his words. When Bard said that Thranduil was good, he meant it with his whole heart. Goodness was wholesomeness to him, care and support, the same manner of goodness that Bard embodied when it came to his family and his people. It was something that Thranduil had never thought himself capable of, or even considered desirable. Kings were meant to be above their subjects; how else could they capably rule them?
But Bard was not his subject. Bard was a king himself now, or soon would be. Even though his kingdom was small and bloodied, it was also fierce and tenacious. Without Legolas here with him Thranduil was adrift, his emotions unmoored and unsettled. He could give in to longing for his son, or wall off his heart with more and more ice until he became entirely unfeeling. Or…perhaps…he could find a third path. A new type of emotion, a new sort of interaction. Friendship, with a human. Not long ago it would have seemed impossible.
Now, it felt more like a blessing from Eru Ilúvatar.