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Long Will I Tarry

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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.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t yet light out, but Bard couldn’t sleep a moment longer. Truth be told, he hadn’t slept at all, just lay on his scavenged bed in this borrowed room and listened to the sound of the wind howling through broken parapets, rattling loose boards and snapping the last ragged threads of ancient flags. He listened to the small sounds his children made, as they rolled and mumbled in their beds just down the hall. He lay and listened to the beat of his own heart in its chest, too loud and too fast for what should be a time of calm. It was all quite…unsettling.

Bard missed his own bed. Of all the things to preoccupy him this night, that was the one which weighed most heavily. He missed the bed he had built with his own hands; that he and his wife had lain in together. He missed its heaviness, it’s breadth, the way the children would flop down across the foot of it and curl up to nap whenever the day lulled. He missed the warmth of the blanket his wife had knitted, and the way he’d fooled himself sometimes in the darkness as he’d imagined he could still catch her scent on the pillow.

This house was the one he’d been guided to after the battle. It had been the home of Girion, the last king of Dale, and Bard had disliked it instantly. It was too big for him, even with three children, but people had been insistent that he live there. “It’s symbolic,” Dain had explained to him in a rare moment of quiet between the two of them. “The king must live where the king has lived. Ye think I want to perch my arse on the throne of Thrain? Ha!” He’d shaken his head, thick red braids wagging ruefully. “If all had gone my way, lad, I’d be headed back to the Iron Hills right now and you’d be dealing with Thorin! But,” and he’d shrugged philosophically, “we cannae choose our own destinies. And yours includes that bloody house, so best get used to it.”

Bard rolled over beneath his heavy fur comforter and stared at the crown on his bedside table. It had been a gift from Balin, the only dwarf in the original company with much sense as far as Bard could tell. It was a heavy circle of bright yellow gold, crested by short triangular spires that were studded with diamonds. Just looking at it gave Bard a headache, but it was another thing he’d been unable to refuse. “A crown suitable for a king,” Balin had said when he’d handed it over. “It’s our present for your coronation, and we’d be most delighted if you’d wear it.” Which meant, in diplomatic speak, that if Bard didn’t wear the crown the dwarves had given him that he’d be offending them. The last thing he could afford to do was offend either of his allies.

Bard had more gems now than he knew what to do with, and with less use for them than ever. Balin had also given him the emeralds of Girion, which were…the only thing Bard could hope was that his ancestor had never actually worn them, because they looked too large to be worn. They sparkled too brilliantly; they were too bright, too gaudy. If his advisors declared that he needed to wear his ancestor’s gems along with the crown, Bard would have to stage a revolt. If he and his family still had lacked for money, the jewels would have been a perfect gift, but gold and gems were no longer in short supply for the people of Dale. They would be useful once more trading opened up, but for now a loaf of bread meant more to most of the population than a piece of the dead dragon’s hoard.

Bard sighed and sat up. Pining for sleep was no use; he’d gone close to a week without it once before, he could survive a single day of frippery on none of it. He rubbed his hand over his face, grimacing as he felt the prickle of new hair on his chin and cheeks. He’d have to shave. Hell, he needed to bathe, and then put on the fancy outfit that Maeve, a friend of his from childhood, had sewn for the occasion. How she had found blue silk, soft cotton and supple calfskin on such short notice—

Ah, of course. From the elves. Bard knew that Thranduil thought his reluctance to be king was a bit ridiculous, but Thranduil was an elf, born a prince, who had ruled his people for thousands of years. If anyone could be said to have been meant for a crown, it was Thranduil. Thranduil was a being of pure elegance, graceful and regal. He wore his weighty headdresses like they might as well have been made of starlight, and no gem, not even the Arkenstone itself, looked out of place in his presence.

Hmm. Now there was an idea. The more Bard considered it, the more he liked it. He got to his feet, pulled his plain shirt back on and picked up the heavy emerald necklace from its resting place beside his crown. The virid jewels were couched in golden cradles, three long strands of them coming together just before it fastened at the back of the neck. It was so ostentatious that Thranduil might actually like it. He put it into his pocket, then crept down the hall, checking on each of his children as he passed their rooms.

Tilda had joined her sister in her bed, and they were curled around each other like puppies, although Sigrid was really too big for it now. Bain was sprawled out across his own bed, as if he just stretched a bit more he might become long enough to span it completely. He was more eager than ever to grow up now, while Bard was equally motivated to keep his son a child as long as possible. He sighed again. Responsibility was theirs whether he wished it or not, and he should be grateful that none of them shrank from the thought. He was grateful. He just wished for more for them. More innocence, more time, more love. First their mother died, then the dragon came and now Bard was to become king, and busier than ever before. His children deserved better.

He was what they had, though. Bard continued down the stairs, pulled on his boots and grabbed his cloak from where he’d hung it beside the door earlier. He’d be back before they woke, to help his girls braid each other’s hair in the style that Tauriel had shown them, and to remind Bain of the part he had to play in the ceremony. He would be crowned King Bard the Dragonslayer by the son who had made that title possible, and no one else. Bard unlocked the door, slipped out into the darkness and shut it firmly behind him, making sure the unreliable latch actually caught.

It was bitterly cold, and there was but a sliver of light from the moon to see by, but Bard could have found Thranduil’s tent blindfolded by now. It wasn’t until he got close that he reflected on the strangeness of the hour, and the fact that a visit in the dead of night might be more than a little inconvenient for the elven king. He froze in his tracks a few meters from the heavy cloth of the outer tent, uncertain now as to whether or not his presence would even be welcome.

“My lord,” a shadow spoke up, and Bard was grateful that the cold kept him shivering, to hide his sudden surprise. An elf came forward out of the darkness, just a glimmer of gray against the black. “Please, enter. King Thranduil is expecting you.”

“Of course he is,” Bard muttered. “My thanks.”

Mae l’ovannen, King Bard.” The elf swept aside the heavy cloth and Bard stepped inside, and it felt like dipping his chilled face into a basin of warm water. How a tent could be so well secured against the cold and retain heat like this, Bard didn’t know. Elven magic, perhaps. He tilted his head back and felt his neck crack, releasing the tension in his shoulders. The tent’s inner sanctum was still separated by a long swath of red cloth, which had always been tied back on his previous visits. He wondered if there was a way to knock.

“Do come in, before your indecision leaves you paralyzed,” Thranduil called out from within. Bard’s mouth quirked despite himself, and he lifted the fabric up and ducked under it. It was even warmer within, and Thranduil looked as relaxed as Bard had ever seen him before. Not relaxed enough to be undressed or lying about in bed, but his crown was set aside on the table, and his heavy outer robes were draped across the back of his chair. When their eyes met he smiled at Bard, and Bard had to smile back.

“You were expecting me, hmm?” he asked as he unwound his cloak from his arms and chest.

“I would have been surprised if you had found much respite in sleep,” Thranduil replied. “The prospect of your coronation has weighed heavily upon you. I thought it best to be available, in case you wished to relieve your uncertainties.”

“That’s a very elaborate way of saying that you knew I’d be worrying myself into a frenzy and planned accordingly.”

“Not untrue,” Thranduil allowed. “Would you care for wine?”

Bard chuckled and shook his head. “No, I’d better not. I mustn’t be stumbling drunk at my own coronation.”

“I would keep you from embarrassing yourself.”

“I think you underestimate my potential when it comes to embarrassing myself.” Bard sat down in the second chair—the chair he’d come to think of as his, as time passed. He’d seen no one else sitting in it, not even Gandalf. Speaking of whom…

“Is Gandalf still here?”

Thranduil leaned back in his chair, still elegant, but without the edge of haughtiness that was his usual accompaniment. “He and the hobbit are both leaving right after the ceremony. They will return to the Greenwood with me, in fact, and travel through with an escort on their way west.”

“Is it safe for them to travel all the way back to the Shire at this time of year?”

“Traveling with a wizard is never free of hazards, but the halfling could not find a more capable companion for the journey,” Thranduil grudgingly allowed. “They will be safe enough.”

“I’ll miss him,” Bard said, then smiled again when Thranduil raised a disdainful brow. “Not Gandalf, I could do without his meddling, but Bilbo. The dwarves love him, and he’s a very sensible person. One good word from him does more to benefit my people than an hour’s audience with Dain would likely get me.”

Thranduil was silent for a long moment before finally saying, “Your generosity of spirit is admirable, but your self-deprecation does you no good. Dain recognizes you for your own merits; you have no need of Bilbo Baggins to put in a good word for you. For myself, on the other hand…” He let the words trail off, and Bard nodded understandingly.

“I suppose we should be grateful you’ve already merit enough not to need a hobbit advocate.”

“I would not be averse to having him longer in my kingdom,” Thranduil allowed. “He is good enough company when he isn’t stealing dwarves out from under my nose, but his heart will never heal here. He needs to return to his home to be truly at peace.”

Bard thought of the stillness in Bilbo’s features whenever Thorin was mentioned, or how he looked at the ground when someone spoke of Fili or Kili. Guilt was there, carefully concealed, as well as anger. Beneath it all was a deep affection, especially for the lost king. Bard commiserated with that sense of loss all too well. “It must be hard for him, to be so removed from everything he’s always known.” He thought of his own strange bed and peculiar new home. “I’ll be pleased to see him again before he leaves.”

“And with a crown on your head, nonetheless. A far cry from the simple bargeman that the hobbit first met.”

Bard snorted. “Not that far a cry. And that bloody crown is heavy. I expect I’ll wear it as little as possible.”

Thranduil frowned. “While I commiserate with your sense of taste,” and the curl of his lip left no doubt as to how he felt about a dwarvish crown, “I also must urge you to reconsider. A crown is a symbol of your authority that your people, and those who visit you, will expect to see.”

“Then they will have to resign themselves to disappointment,” Bard replied firmly, “because I cannot work with my head wrapped in metal, and unless the occasion specifically calls for mindless formality I will not bother with it.”

“Perhaps a compromise, then?” Before Bard could ask Thranduil was on his feet, gliding over to a small chest on the far side of the table. “It’s just as well that I came prepared.”

“Prepared for what?” Bard asked as Thranduil opened the chest. His eyes widened as the elven king drew out a slender circlet, two pieces of silver wound together like young branches with a small white gem in the front.

“Prepared for any eventuality.” Thranduil turned the circlet over once in his hands, then stepped around the table to stand in front of Bard. “You have accepted a crown from the dwarves, and it is just as heavy and cumbersome as your alliance with them will likely be. Now accept this one from me.” He extended his hands toward Bard, who could only stare at him in shock. “It’s quite light,” he added gently.

Bard shook his head to clear it and restart his tongue. “It’s yours,” he protested. “I cannot take it from you.”

“I’m gifting it to you, there is no taking involved. It will be easier to wear on a daily basis, as you must accustom yourself to,” Thranduil reminded him. “It would honor me if you wore it.”

“Thranduil…”

“Please.”

There could be no refusal in the face of that entreaty. Bard hung his head ruefully. “And here I thought I would be the one doing the gifting tonight.” At Thranduil’s curious expression, Bard stood up and reached into his pocket. The chains were slightly tangled as he pulled them out, but the emeralds shone as bright as ever in the candlelight. Thranduil looked from the necklace to Bard and back again, clearly captivated.

“I’ll wear your crown,” Bard said, wishing his voice didn’t sound so rough and tired. “If you’ll wear these. They don’t suit me, and my children have no need of them. I would rather this heirloom of my line go to a friend than be locked up or traded away.”

Thranduil was silent for long enough that Bard began to wonder if he’d made a mistake. Just before he pulled his offering back, Thranduil raised his hands and set the circlet down over Bard’s head. He barely even felt the pressure of it, but was still acutely aware of its presence. “Agreed,” Thranduil said once it was settled in place and he’d lowered his arms. He turned around and lifted the long, pale length of his hair out of the way. Bard jolted into motion, only slightly awkward as he fitted himself close to Thranduil’s body to drape the necklace across his chest. Bard’s fingers felt strangely clumsy as he struggled with the fastener, less than an inch from the nape of Thranduil’s neck. The skin there looked so soft and smooth, and bright as a sliver of moonlight. Finally he succeeded in closing the little latch and backed away.

Thranduil turned around and Bard was pleased to see a smile on his face. “This is a very fine gift. Le fael, Bard.”

“They look very well on you,” Bard said. He felt antsy, and wished dearly for a bow in his hands to work off this sudden surge of energy. “I’d best get back to the house, the children will be waking soon.”

“Of course.” Thranduil inclined his head. “All will go well today, my friend. Don’t worry.”

“I’ll try not to. See you later, then.” He turned and left before what he felt inside began to show on his face, a confusing welter of emotion that began with the warmth of friendship and ended somewhere Bard couldn’t yet see, and didn’t want to delve into now. The chill as he stepped out of the tent seemed refreshing now, and there was the barest hint of light limning the horizon.

A shadow moved again, and the guarding elf spoke up. “My king must think very highly of you, Bard Dragonslayer.”

“I…” I’m afraid he does. I don’t know what to do with such regard. I don’t know how to handle my own feelings for him. “I’m very fortunate.”

“Indeed.”

Bard straightened his back and marched off toward his house. He had a coronation to prepare for, and no time to waste on contemplation today. Whatever he felt, whatever he thought, it could wait.

Chapter Text

In the end, the coronation was a relatively small affair. The only other royalty there to take part in it was Thranduil himself, and Dain Ironfoot. Several kings of men had sent representatives bearing messages of congratulation and gifts, but the rest who were to witness it were all people of Laketown, Bard’s people. Thranduil could see relief in every line of Bard’s sturdy frame as he beheld the crowd that filled the royal hall, barely habitable despite the labor his people had poured into it before the event. Almost everyone there was a friend to him, and would have joyously seen him crowned had he been wearing nothing but sackcloth and twine.

It was a pity there weren’t more people to admire him in what he was wearing, Thranduil thought as he watched Bard walk toward them. Bard looked uncommonly fine in the long blue tunic, embroidered with black arrows around the collar and cuffs, and his new boots were soft leather that clung to his calves. His skin was smooth and clean, his dark hair tied neatly back, framing the few elegant strands of gray at his temples. He moved with purpose, not rushing but not dragging as though he were marching to his doom, either.

His son Bain stood on the dais at the front of the long room, determinedly flanked by his sisters, the golden crown clutched in both his hands. As Bard’s closest allies, Thranduil, along with Dain and Balin, took their places on the dais as well. There had been an argument over what was to come next, but Thranduil had prevailed. Naturally. And if he had angled himself so that the light hit Girion’s emeralds a bit more brightly, just to enjoy the frown seeing them put on the dwarves’ faces, that was his own business.

As Bard reached the end of the hall he stopped before the dais and looked up at Thranduil. There was a glimmer of amusement in his eyes, and it took more restraint than Thranduil had reckoned on not to respond in kind. This was, after all, supposed to be a somber ceremony.

“People of Dale,” Thranduil began, and his voice carried over the gusts of wind that still beat through the unfinished chamber, drowned out the whispers and murmurs of the observers like they weren’t even there. “Hear me now. Behold, one has come to claim kingship among you. Here is Bard the Dragonslayer, descended from Lord Girion, the last liege of Dale. He has led you through fire and destruction, to great victory in battle and a new life in this resurrected city. He is beloved of his family, an elf-friend, and an ally to the King Under The Mountain.” Thranduil saw Bard’s blush begin along his neck, mostly hidden by the high collar his seamstress had devised. It was endearing, that he was so shy about his own titles. “All of these claims are well deserved,” Thranduil continued with a faint smile. “Is it your will that he shall be king?”

A great cry of “Aye!” went up in the hall, echoing beyond into the streets where more people braved the cold to support Bard. “It’s about time!” one of the nearest people added, and Bard shut his eyes for a moment.

“Then so shall it be.” Thranduil stepped aside and Bain came forward, his young face determined as his father knelt down on one knee before him. Bard bent his head and Bain settled the crown there, and probably only Thranduil heard the sigh that then emerged from the new king’s lips. By the time he stood up again there was nothing of that heaviness on his face, though. He squeezed his son’s shoulder, kissed both his girls on the forehead, then turned to face the crowd.

“I promise you that I will always do my best, for you and for Dale, for as long as I bear this honor,” he said simply, and there was more cheering. “My thanks to our friends and allies, for joining us to bear witness today.” Suddenly a smile broke out over his face. “Now let’s get to the feasting, it’s bloody cold in here!” That got the largest cheers of all, and then people broke ranks to come over and congratulate him, to touch his fine clothes and shake his hand, and the new king had a kind word for every one of them.

It was an unusual way to end a coronation, but perfectly fitting for Bard, Thranduil thought.

Their particular feast was hosted in the main room of Bard’s new house. It was large enough to fit all of the dwarves, elves, traveling emissaries and Bard’s closest friends, as well as his children. Food had been provided for the rest of the townspeople, and Thranduil had donated half a dozen barrels of wine to the cause. No doubt they would be the source of much suffering come morning, but for tonight, all were happy. Except the dwarves, who’d brought their own ale to drink, but there was no pleasing some people.

Others it was entirely too easy to please. The room where they were settled was packed with revelers, each of them seemingly trying to outdo their neighbors with regard to volume. Thranduil was flanked on one side by dwarves and on the other side by Tilda, who thankfully had better things to do than be tediously loud. She had lost the greater part of her awe of elves thanks to exposure to Tauriel, and tonight she seemed too excited to remember to be bashful around their king.

“They’re coming undone!” Tilda mourned, holding up one end of her hair. The elaborate braids her sister had woven there earlier were indeed falling apart, thanks in no small part to their bearer’s endless energy. She had charmed her way through the tables’ ranks before her father reminded her to eat, and now she was finally noticing the results of her exertions. She turned and looked up at Thranduil. “Will you put them back in?”

Thranduil pretended to consider the request for a moment, but he had already pushed his chair back to make space for Tilda to stand in front of him. “I suppose I might do that, for a princess of the realm,” he said, and she started to giggle. “But only if she holds still.”

“I’ll be still,” she promised, and indeed she was as he quickly unwound her braid and began to refashion it. It had been ages since Thranduil had touched another’s hair like this. Once upon a time he had braided his wife’s hair every day, and then, for a brief period, his son’s as well. The loss of one had led to the end of that tradition with the other. He was almost surprised that his fingers still knew how to be gentle with young tresses.

“So,” Balin began, and Thranduil braced himself internally. This dwarf was wilier than his king, and more intelligent than he looked. “We thought you should know that the problem of King Bard’s secretarial duties has been taken care of. There’s no need for you to fret or put yourself out, for we’re giving Bard Ori to assist him until someone here can be trained up to do the job properly.”

Thranduil had to remind himself not to clench his hands into fists. No one got under his skin as quickly as dwarves, and Balin was deliberately using the circumstances to upstage Thranduil where he could not respond as firmly as he would like to. So he chose to respond in kind.

“How fortunate for King Bard,” he replied smoothly. “It seems we think alike, as I will be providing a tutor for his children.” It was a gesture that Thranduil had considered offering for some time, but now he was certain of his decision.

Balin frowned. “To teach them what, hair braiding?”

Tilda looked offended on her hair’s behalf. “It’s beautiful!” she protested, and Balin gave her a smile.

“Aye, so it is,” he said as Thranduil finished the last braid and tucked her hair back into place. “Very lovely.” Tilda, gratified by his agreement, reached out and patted Balin’s hand.

“Languages, music, artistry…my people have much to offer,” Thranduil continued.

“Of a type, certainly, of a type.” Balin stroked his white beard, which was finally growing out now that he’d seemed to let go of the sorrow of his past. “Perhaps we should do the same. The wee ones would learn their numbers well from us, and we can instruct them in a style of fighting better suited to smaller, sturdier limbs.”

Such impudence. “I assure you, our bodies do not lack for strength, and my warriors are second to none.” Thranduil smiled thinly. “Not even the Dragonslayer himself. His children would be well served learning to use elven arms.”

“Be that as it may—” A little squeak from Tilda interrupted Balin’s reply, and they both looked down at the girl, whose eyes were open wide, both hands pressed to her mouth. She was practically vibrating.

“What is it, my dear?” Balin asked kindly. Tilda waited for a nod from Thranduil before she took her hands away and said, in a much louder voice than she’d probably intended, “Are you really fighting over my da?”

Thranduil sat back, nonplussed by the outburst. All conversation at their table stalled as the rest of their company turned curious gazes at the three of them. Thranduil was beyond feeling anything so crass as embarrassment, but he admitted to himself that he would greatly have preferred keeping this conversation limited to the two of them. Three, including Tilda.

Bard, thankfully, took it entirely in stride. “Are they really?” he asked his daughter, who came running over to him with a grin. She nodded as he lifted her up onto his lap. “Well, I think there’s only one way to decide who wins.”

Thranduil knew that Bard wasn’t about to suggest anything as ludicrous as a trial by combat, but for a moment his heart leapt at the possibility of a way to prove to these dwarves once and for all that Bard and his family were first and foremost under the protection of the King of the Woodland Realm. Balin, for his part, looked rather ill at ease. “Now then, I never meant to suggest—”

“There must be a drinking contest,” Bard interjected firmly. Balin and Dain beside him both relaxed, and Thranduil saw Bard smirk at him from around his daughter’s head. He returned the expression. A drinking contest. How quaint.

“Glass for glass!” Dain cried out, getting to his feet. “Our ale versus your wine.”

“I would never dream of sacrificing my palate to your ale,” Thranduil said, remaining seated. “But I doubt it’s as strong as Dorwinion wine. Do you seek to gain unfair advantage over me in this contest?”

“Wine, then!” Dain roared, and Balin rolled his eyes and cast Thranduil a remonstrating look, which Thranduil happily ignored. “King versus king!”

“Agreed.” Thranduil’s personal guardsman Avophen rolled up the new barrel himself, and filled the first glasses for them both.

“To King Bard!”

Hîr vuin.” They tipped the glasses back and drank, finishing at about the same time. Thranduil savored the rush of sweet, strong wine across his tongue, and licked his lower lip to cleanse it before handing his glass back to be refilled. Dain did the same, and they drank again.

It took five full glasses for the dwarf lord to finally admit his defeat in the form of suddenly slumping face-first onto the table and without so much as a pause beginning to snore, much to the raucous amusement and consternation of his fellow dwarves. Thranduil stayed at the table for a moment, enjoying the rush of defeating an opponent, however foolishly, and the way that the wine seemed to course through his veins, lending him a languidness he didn’t often let himself feel. Then he set down his glass and looked straight at Bard. “I believe that means that I win.”

“So it does,” Bard agreed, grinning just like one of his children. “You’ve won a battered bargeman, a decent bowman and an entirely novice king. May you get much use out of your prize.”

I intend to. It was on the tip of his tongue, but Thranduil bit the words back and only inclined his head before standing and walking out of the room. He needed some fresh air.

It was bracingly cold outside, and Thranduil closed his eyes and disregarded the wind whipping his hair into disarray. He needed occupation, he needed something to dwell on other than the mischief in Bard’s dark eyes and the way so much wine made strange things seem possible. Such strange things…

He was instantly aware of his company, and not overly pleased by it. “Mithrandir.”

“Lord Thranduil,” Gandalf replied with a little huff as he wrapped his arms tighter around himself. “Is the cold bringing you to your senses, then?”

“Which senses would you like me to dwell upon?”

“Your attachment to the new King of Dale.” Thranduil opened his eyes and stared at the wizard, who did not look away. “The enemy has retreated for now, but we are heading into dark times. All your attention should be on the preservation of your realm, and the destruction of Dol Guldur.”

Thranduil’s mouth twisted at the mention of that place. The spiders still came, slower now, but the Greenwood was ever fading. “You would set me on the scent and call me back to heel like a loyal hound, when you have not even bothered to share your own experiences in that desolate ruin.”

“When have I had the time to do so?” Gandalf demanded. “In between funerals and coronations and the pyres of too many dead to light? No, it has not been feasible before now. We will speak further of this in the safety of your halls, before Bilbo and I head on our way.”

“You lavish much attention on the halfling, and yet you begrudge me my own diversions.”

“Bard is not meant to be a diversion,” Gandalf said, and the kindness in his voice tore through Thranduil’s defenses. “He is a kind man, with an attentive family. Does he deserve to be no more than a diversion to you, with so many of his own cares to handle? Be his ally. Be his friend, even. But do not be more than you should be to him.”

“What I should be,” Thranduil said stiffly, “is loyal to my own heart first. You think you are wise, you think you know well the ways of my people, Mithrandir. But you do not know me.” He turned to look into Gandalf’s eyes, and whatever the wizard saw there made him take a small step back.

There was folly in what Thranduil said, he knew that. Gandalf wasn’t incorrect in urging him to be wary. An emotional connection to a mortal…it was doomed from the start. Thranduil could see how their association would end, and it was with death, always death. But if his falling out with Legolas had shown him anything, it was that the present, no matter what it consisted of, was precious. To take it for granted, to waste it, was more foolhardy than anything else. “You do not know me,” he repeated. “So you will have to trust my judgment in this matter, just as I will trust yours on the subject of Dol Guldur.”

“As you wish.” There was a note of respect in Gandalf’s voice that had been missing a moment ago. “Might I suggest, though, that we make out farewells soon? I would rather Bilbo spend the night in a bed than on the trail.”

“Of course.” Thranduil headed back inside and saw the hobbit leaning against the far wall, with Bard beside him, listening as he spoke. It was still loud, but Thranduil’s ears were sharp enough that he could make out the tenor of their conversation.

“…who knows?” Bilbo was saying with somewhat forced cheerfulness. “I may come round this way again. See the sights, slay some spiders, dodge some dragons…where else can I get that kind of entertainment?”

“Nowhere else, surely,” Bard replied. “Although I hope that you might at least give the dragons a miss next time. I fear I’ve hit my limit for bagging fire-drakes in this life.”

“I should certainly think so.” Bilbo held out his hand and Bard shook it warmly. “You’ll make a good king. It’s been a pleasure knowing you.”

“I would dearly love to see you again if you do come back this way. You will always have friends in Dale, Master Baggins.” They parted, and Bilbo headed straight for Thranduil and Gandalf.

“All right, we can leave now,” he said quietly. “I’ve said my goodbyes to the dwarves already, they understand. I just…can we go?” He looked hopefully between the two of them, and Thranduil nodded.

“I will join you in a moment.” He let Gandalf shepherd Bilbo out and made his way over to Bard, who seemed pensive.

“You’re leaving then?” he asked gruffly.

“If we leave now, we will make it back to my hall before the dark slows our travel.” The winter sun was a weak and tremulous thing, but its light still graced the sky.

“When will you return?”

“For myself, I cannot say,” Thranduil replied. It depended on what he learned of Dol Guldur. “For my emissary, not long. After all, I promised you a tutor for your children.”

“I thought you promised more than that,” Bard said, and his voice was very low now.

“My kingly prize, you mean. Yes. Never fear.” He leaned in and tilted his head so that his lips nearly brushed Bard’s ear. “I will not forget it,” he murmured, and he felt a shiver travel through Bard’s frame. Thranduil wanted to feel it again, but he had a wizard and a hobbit to attend to. “Be well, my king. Na lû e-govaned vîn.”

Bard swallowed hard, then cleared his throat. “What does that mean?”

Thranduil smiled. “Until we meet again.”

Chapter Text

 

It was a long and damaging winter for the people of Dale. Not desperate, not quite, but certainly destructive in its own way. For all the help that the kings of Mirkwood and Erebor had given, there was still a shortage of housing, of food and of heat. Those things in and of themselves could have been managed with work gangs and foraging parties if it had been safe to do either. The winter was one of the coldest in memory though, freezing the lake near solid and making it almost impossible to chip through the ice in order to fish. Venturing outside meant bundling up in every article of clothing a person had, which made it hard to move, much less hunt. The dwarves offered them coal for their fires, but they had plenty of their own problems with food shortages, and little extra to give.

“In the spring we expect a caravan from our kin in the Blue Mountains,” Dain said to Bard in one of their rare face-to-face meetings that winter. “They’ll come with plenty of food and medicine, and better yet seeds for planting. Our people can trade for a good deal of what we need, but it’s better to be as near self-sufficient as possible, in case we’re cut off again.” He pointedly didn’t mention the invasion of orcs that had almost ended both of them, inviting Bard to politely ignore the whole thing as well. He almost did, but couldn’t help but ask, “Who of your kin is in the Blue Mountains?”

“Lady Dis, first and foremost. She’s Thorin’s sister, mother to Fili and Kili.” Dain’s voice was heavy with sorrow. “I wasn’t sure she’d come, t’be honest with ye. She’s made a home in the Blue Mountains and there’s little here for her but painful memories, but she insisted. At least she’ll be able to visit the boys, in the stone.”

“You bury them in rock?”

“We come from the stone, m’lad. It’s where we must all return to eventually. It’s what’s right, for a dwarf.”

“Would it be…wrong of me, to ask to visit their tombs?” Dain looked a little surprised at the request. Bard looked up for a moment, gathering his thoughts. “I feel I should pay my respects. I was unable to be there for their funerals, and Fili did particular service to my family, helping to protect my children while his brother recuperated. They were honorable dwarves, and even Thorin…in the end, he did what was right. I cannot fault him for that.”

“Nothing wrong with that,” Dain said, and he actually smiled a bit. “A bit of company would be good for them. It’s always good to let our dead know that they’re not forgotten. But it’s a fair walk from here, and you’ve got little ones waiting for you at home. First thing on your next visit, I’ll take you to them.”

“Thank you.”

“No need to thank me, lad. Off with ye now, give your family greetings for me.”

“I will,” Bard said, and turned to leave Erebor. He barely made it out of the throne room before a pair of dwarves fell in beside him, dwarves he recognized. He paused, but they didn’t say anything, just looked at him expectantly.

“Was there something you wanted…” Bard finally asked. Oh, what was this one’s name, taller, tattoos… “Dwalin?”

“Gloin and I’ll be escortin’ ye back to your home,” the dwarf replied, as taciturn as anything.

“I’m sure that’s not necessary. It’s a quick enough ride.”

“Not the point.”

Bard frowned. “What is the point, then?”

“Kings need escorts,” Gloin spoke up. He was a burly dwarf, not as huge as Dwalin but broad and strong, with bright red hair and an elaborate beard. “In case of unexpected things happenin’. Strange, you not havin’ one yet, but I’ll have a talk with ye’re guards when we’ve got ye back home.”

“I have no guards.”

Both of them seemed taken aback. “Even that ponce Thranduil has a personal guard,” Dwalin all but growled. “Are you goin’ t’let that elf better you in kingin’, then?”

Bard bit back a smile. “Well, he has been at it a lot longer.”

“Ye just have to catch up is all,” Gloin said. “Guards are dead useful. Get them to carry ye’re things, have ye’re back when ye need it. Ye never know when an orc might appear.”

“Surely you exaggerate.”

The matching glares Bard got from each of them told him very firmly that no, they weren’t exaggerating. “We’ve killed over a dozen since the freeze set in,” Dwalin told him. “Remnants from that filth Azog’s army, staying close in hopes of catching an easy meal.”

That was disconcerting. “I’ve seen no sign of them, nor have any of my men,” Bard said.

“Well, you wouldn’t, as we’ve been taking care of ‘em for ye,” Gloin reasoned. “But one might slip past. It’s better to be prepared, eh?”

Bard had to agree with them on that. “Well, then. I hope you gentlemen have mounts,” he told them. “Because I’m not walking home.”

“We’ve ponies, we’ll do well enough.”

‘Well enough’ was apparently just about proficient at clinging to the saddle. Dwalin grumbled about how he preferred his ram, but it had been lost to the orcs, and Dain’s enormous hog mounts did poorly in the cold. So ponies it was, hearty, shaggy ponies that Bard knew all his children secretly yearned to ride. When Ori came to visit twice a week he came on a pony, and if the weather had been only slightly better Bard’s children would have been begging him to ride it. As it was, though, Bard had forbidden them from going out unless absolutely necessary, and that urgency didn’t include riding lessons.

They covered up and headed out into the cold toward Dale. There was no wind today, but the cold seemed all the more intense for it, brittle and white and deadening. Every exposed patch of skin felt like it was burning after a few minutes, and Bard pulled his heavy wool scarf closer to his head, peering through the tiny slits of his eyelids with great care. It took half an hour to get home, and he felt every step of it. Good thing no orc had attacked them, because as cold as it was Bard wasn’t sure his fingers could have nocked an arrow, much less pointed it in the right direction. The dwarves bore it better, or at least with perfect stoicism. Bard was a bit envious of their constitutions.

Reaching his own home at last was a blessing, especially when he went to stable his horse and found another one already there, covered in a blanket and munching away on a newly appeared bale of hay. Bard grinned to see it as he took care of his own mare, careful to make sure she had some of the sweet hay for herself before he headed inside. The dwarves had tied their ponies outside the front, as they weren’t to be staying long.

In fact, they’d barely made it past the entrance. Bard almost ran into them as he entered and shut the door fast behind him.

“Da!” Bain called out from the fireplace in the central room, where the children tended to cluster to guard themselves from the cold. “Look, Avophen has come!”

“He brought us presents from Tauriel,” Sigrid said, one arm around her little sister’s shoulders as she lifted her free hand up to show Bard a tiny wooden flower, carved with beautiful skill and painted white and gold. Tilda had caught a cold early in the winter that was slow to pass, lingering in her lungs and wracking her tiny frame with coughs. She seemed happy now though, looking with good cheer between the elf, who stood next to them at the hearth, and the newly arrived dwarves.

Avophen looked perfectly ageless, as all elves did, but there were lines around his mouth that spoke of more moments of laughter than was usual. His hair was dark and pulled back into a simple braid, and he was dressed in elegant clothes that had to be warmer than they looked, Bard reasoned. Unless elves were immune to the cold. “And there is a letter from my king for yourself,” Avophen said, his voice a pleasant tenor.

Ah. Bard forced himself not to ask for it immediately. The letters were a poor substitute for seeing the king in person, but Bard treasured every bit of information that came his way. “Is Thranduil well?” Bard asked as he hung up his outer layers and came over to the hearth to greet his children. Sigrid and Tilda welcomed his kiss and Bain endured it. Tilda reached for him, clinging a bit, and Bard picked her up.

“Well enough, my lord. He is engaged in battle against a new influx of spiders from Dol Guldur, but so far we have successfully pushed them back.”

“Spiders,” Dwalin muttered. “Ye’re off pokin’ at eight-legged beasties while we’re mopping up orcs.”

“Are you indeed?” Avophen raised an eyebrow in a move very reminiscent of Thranduil. “How many have you encountered?”

“About a score,” Dwalin said. “Mostly solitary, but they’re getting bolder in this bloody weather.”

“I would hear more of this, if you feel like sharing it with me.” Avophen turned back to Bard and handed over a slender scroll. “I am happy to wait for you to compose a reply before I take my leave, my lord.”

“You cannot leave yet!” Bain insisted to the elf. “You must tell me all about fighting spiders in the woods!”

Bard hesitated, wanting to go and open the letter but not here, in public. Tilda was a heavy weight, already growing sleepy, and he could ask Sigrid to bed her down but it wasn’t fair to pull his daughter away from the tales when she looked so interested, and had spent so much time already caring for her sister.

“Here, give me the lass,” Gloin spoke up suddenly. “I’ll sit with her by the fire, make sure she’s comfortable. Ye can put her to bed once ye’re done reading the elf king’s little letter.”

“Are you sure?”

“Oh, aye. I miss havin’ my own little one around, honestly.” Bard handed Tilda over and, despite their relative sizes, Gloin seemed to bear her weight easily enough. “My lad’s probably outgrown this sort of thing by now. Gimli was desperate to come on the quest with his cousins, poor lad. Better for all that he stayed home, though.” Gloin sat down on the bench by the fire and shook his head. Tilda murmured drowsily and curled her hands in his beard, but he didn’t seem to mind the tug. “He and his mother’ll be comin’ with the caravan from the Blue Mountains.”

“What caravan is this?” Avophen asked, and Dwalin suddenly looked about twice as sour as before, which was a real feat. Bard would have stayed to watch the ensuing show, but the letter in his hand seemed to demand that he read it as soon as possible. After all, he didn’t want to keep Avophen waiting.

He went upstairs and down the hall to his bedroom. It was chillier there, almost cold, but some of the heat from the lower hearth bled through the floor, and at least there was some privacy. Bard broke the wax seal, unrolled the letter and settled in to read.

My friend,

I hope this finds you and your family in good health. I have not heard of sickness in Laketown, but such things can strike quickly, especially when supplies are scarce. I fear I have not been as good a neighbor as I meant to be, but my realm has been threatened by agents of Dol Guldur, and we must meet them swiftly in order to prevail against them.

Tell Avophen if you have any particular needs and he will strive to meet them for you in my stead. If one of those needs happens to be seeing me, then I apologize in advance for his failure. As soon as I am able to come to you myself, rest assured that I will. This winter has been long, and feels even longer for the lack of your presence. Be safe, I entreat you.

Na lû e-govaned vîn,

Thranduil

It was just as well that Bard was alone, for he could not have controlled his reaction, the flush of hot blood that suddenly warmed him. This was Thranduil’s third letter, and all had been written in a similar, familiar style that called to mind their last parting, the way Thranduil had closed the distance, the tone of his voice as he murmured in Bard’s ear.

It was ridiculous to harbor feelings like this, foolish, soft feelings for an elf—not just an elf, a king among them. Thranduil was immortal and majestic and terribly old, and if he were writing these things to Bard simply for his own amusement then the elves were a crueler race than he could credit them with. It was inappropriate, it was intimate; it lit a candle in Bard’s heart, a heart he had thought full before this. He did want to see Thranduil. He wanted to visit with him late at night, to share wine and company and conversation. He wanted to see if his hair was as soft as the cornsilk it resembled, and touch that place at the back of his neck that Bard had only admired before. Bold thoughts, base thoughts to have for such a person, but Bard couldn’t lie to himself about their existence.

He shook himself out of his reverie. The day was waning and Avophen and the dwarves had their own homes to get back to. He drew his parchment and ink near, pushed his hair back from his face, then reached for his quill.

He didn’t yet know what he would write, but whatever words came to him, they would be from the heart.

Chapter Text

 

Thranduil’s forces didn’t even get close to Dol Guldur.

Although Gandalf had been very clear about what had happened there, that the spirit of the Necromancer had been driven out of the ruins by Lady Galadriel when the White Council fought against him and the Nine, that had not turned the place from a haven of darkness into one of light. Creatures both large and small, and all of them so steeped with evil it was hard to look upon them, had taken advantage of the spirit’s absence to stake their own claims on the land. Goblin scouts, some remnants of the mighty orc army, and seemingly innumerable spiders kept Thranduil and his force more than busy barely fifty miles from his own halls. Pressing on to Dol Guldur would only have resulted in loss of life, and Thranduil couldn’t bear that, not now. Not when his people were so recently diminished.

That the Greenwood had come to this, so wild and so fierce, Thranduil was ashamed. He had locked himself behind his gates and ignored the signs, content to keep the peace as he saw fit and protect the lives of his people by restricting them. It had worked, by in large, but he hadn’t reckoned on the cost. Mirkwood was more of a reality every day, the verdant depths he had been accustomed to giving way to greyness and sickness and death. After the first week of fighting, Thranduil knew there was no way to turn the tide in his favor. He would not, however, give up the fight just yet. Not when there was some good that could be done here, and not, he admitted in the quietude of his own mind, when he craved the distraction of combat. And he wasn’t the only one.

Tauriel fought with a ferocity born of loss and pure hatred. She loosed arrow after arrow, each one delivered with powerful and deadly accuracy. In the beginning she had shot to kill instantly, but as the fight wore on, Tauriel seemed to lose her sense of distance from her enemies. She shot to wound, to maim, and as whatever creature was unfortunate enough to bear her arrow writhed, she would cross the distance and finish the kill in close. It was painful, and dangerous, and more than once Thranduil found himself protecting Tauriel’s back as she became blind to all but the kill at hand, forgetting that there were more creatures in the woods than the one she faced.

Thranduil hadn’t needed to come here. He could have stayed in his halls and sent his troops out to purge the menace from his forest without him, as he had done before. But the recent combat had reawakened a long-dormant ferocity in him, something he’d almost forgotten in the many centuries since the Battle of Dagorlad. In one fell stroke he had lost his father Oropher to death, lost his fairness to dragon-fire, and gained a prominence he had never anticipated ascending to. Thranduil had turned away from fighting, from blade-work and archery, and looked inward toward preservation and life. He had married, had Legolas, and then lost his world all over again upon his wife’s death. It had been easier to look away, by then. It had been kinder to forget.

But he was king, and among the elves of the Woodland Realm his skill was supreme. None of his people would die for want of his protection. He fought with all the excellence he had in him, fearless and watchful. He was growing tired, however, of Tauriel’s self-neglect.

“You must mind yourself better,” he told her after another close call left a bleeding gash on her back. Thranduil took advantage of his position as her healer to speak with her, because all other times he had tried, she’d made quick excuses and left him. Even now he felt her tense, as though she would get up. “No,” he added, pressing a hand firmly on her shoulder. “Stay. I am nearly finished.”

“Then why do you keep talking?” Tauriel grunted. “Finish it and let me go, my lord.”

“I cannot simply let you go so that you live to court death another day. That is not you, Tauriel. That is your grief.”

Her back stayed as stiff as an ossified oak beneath his palm. “What do you know of me?” she demanded. “Or of my grief?”

It would be easy, so easy, to lapse into anger. Thranduil’s court knew better than to bring up his past, but all knew what he had faced, and what he had lost. Tauriel was young and bold, though, and Thranduil could not wish her to be another way. “I know what you looked like as a child,” he told her gently as he mixed herbs in a smooth alabaster bowl. “I remember how you and you alone were brave enough to reach out to my lonely son and bring him into your games. I know how deep your kindness runs, and how extraordinary your heart is, to make yourself so vulnerable for a mortal.

“I do not feel your personal grief, but I mourn for your loss alongside you.” He mixed fresh water with the herbs, blending it into a paste. “And I would not see such a loss matched by your own death. Surely if Kili was worth fighting for, he is worth living for.”

Thranduil watched a tear seep from the inner corner of Tauriel’s eye, crawl over her nose and disappear onto the blanket beneath her. “I do not know how,” she confessed breathlessly. “I never expected it to hurt so much. I don’t see how I can bear it.” A sob stuttered in her chest, making her grit her teeth with pain as moving jostled her wound. Thranduil laid the paste across it and covered it with a clean cloth as he murmured a healing incantation, and a moment later Tauriel’s tension eased.

“You do what you can,” Thranduil said, keeping his voice soft. “You fight if you must, or carve your love’s likeness in a tree so you can watch them grow, or sing for them when the stars are bright overhead. You take solace how you can, and slowly you learn to live with them inside of you, rather than in front of you. It is hard,” he added, laying a cloak across her back and giving her some space. “But it is the most honorable way forward.” Tauriel sat up slowly, not crying now, but looking at him like she’d never seen him before.

“Fine advice,” she said at last, “for a king to give to a lowly Silvan elf.”

“There is nothing low about you,” Thranduil replied, accepting the gentle chastisement.

“Have you ever loved a mortal?”

Thranduil thought about it for a moment. In truth, many of his memories were locked away, carefully partitioned so as not to drive him to distraction. He barely remembered the battle where he had been so grievously wounded, or the color of his wife’s hair. Even thinking her name was a challenge for him now. And that, he realized, was a failure. If he could not hold the goodness of his past close, what hope had he to treasure anything good that might befall him now?

“I cannot remember doing so,” he said at last. “But my own beloved was untimely slain, so I do understand what it is to lose that.”

“Do you think you ever will?”

Thranduil looked at Tauriel silently for a long moment, wondering what she was getting at. She didn’t seem to be referencing Bard specifically, simple curiosity overlaying her sadness and pain. If his mind jumped to Bard first, Thranduil told himself wryly, that was his own doing.

“I may,” he said. “In the future.” In the not so distant future.

Tauriel sighed and stood up. She bowed her head respectfully. “If you do so, then when the day comes that you lose them, I will mourn your loss alongside you, my lord.”

It was a tacit promise to take better care of herself, and Thranduil accepted it with a gracious nod. “Go and rest now. We aren’t done here yet, and I will need you by my side as soon as you are healed.”

Tauriel left his tent and Thranduil’s gaze strayed to the leather pouch where he kept the letters that Avophen insisted on bringing all the way to him. His guardsman had just delivered the most recent one yesterday, and while he had kept his expression carefully tranquil as he’d handed it over, Thranduil had read smugness in every line of the elf. It was odd, how quickly Avophen had taken to the people of Laketown.

Or perhaps, Thranduil thought as he took out that letter and sat down to read it yet again, Avophen was merely mirroring his king. Thranduil had met great leaders of men before, but none had touched his heart the way Bard did, so intensely in such a short amount of time. Bard was not the greatest of those men, not in lineage or knowledge or even in deed, although none of the others could claim to have slain a dragon. But there was something about him, something so immediate and real and compelling, that Thranduil couldn’t stop thinking about him.

 

Thranduil,

We’re well enough here. Tilda’s illness was mild and has almost completely passed now, and there have been only two deaths among us this winter. Considering the weather, that’s not so bad. The dwarves help where they can, and are generous with their time.

That line made Thranduil frown, and he skimmed past it.

Don’t worry, we can manage ourselves for a bit. Keep your wits about you, I’ve no desire to hear that the elven king was outsmarted by a spider.

Avophen is kind and attentive, and good with the children, but he isn’t you. I do want to see you, as soon as you’re able to come. We all do, but myself especially. I…

Here there was some blurring of the first few letters, as though Bard weren’t exactly sure what he was trying to write.

I think of you often. Some days it is all I can do not to stare at the woods and wonder if you will appear there out of nothing. When I’m caught out I feel foolish, but when I’m alone you are on my mind more often than not.

When the cold breaks and the ice begins to thaw, I will look for you again. Perhaps my vision will finally be a true one.

Please take care of yourself.

Until we meet again,

Bard

 

The parchment smelled faintly of smoke, and it had been sealed with plain, unscented beeswax, smoothed down with Bard’s own finger. If he looked carefully, Thranduil could see the ridges of Bard’s imprint there, the whorls of his skin laid down like a miniature landscape. Thranduil refolded the letter and tapped it gently against his chest, in time with the beating of his own heart, and wondered if perhaps he hadn’t accidentally lied to Tauriel. If he were not already in love with Bard, his reaction to the man’s words was enough of a warning sign that Thranduil suspected he soon would be.

What would it be like, to catalogue Bard’s body as he had his letters? To run his fingers over Bard’s forehead, soothe away the lines of worry and fatigue with every caress? To explore every inch of his body, mortal and vital, flawed and beautiful as it was? Thranduil felt his pulse speed up as his body began to quicken, and he opened eyes that he didn’t remember closing and forced those thoughts aside. Now was not the time. He had skirmishes yet to fight, and it had been longer than Thranduil cared to remember since he had indulged in that sort of physical pleasure. He could wait a while longer, if it meant experiencing it anew with Bard.

Which he certainly would; it was clear that Bard was interested. The path of isolationism was barred to Thranduil now, and if he were going to open his kingdom to new alliances, he would not restrict that to the political sphere. He wanted Bard. He wanted everything he could get of him. He wanted him naked and bathed in moonlight, dappled with the shadows of a glade of young trees. He wanted him wrapped up by his family, welcoming Thranduil into the fold of that tender affection. He wanted him tired and bloody and alone, if that was the only way he could have him.

He wanted Bard. And Valar willing, Thranduil would have him.

Chapter Text

 

It was almost a shock, the day the river began to run again. Bard had grown so used to the absence of water and waves now that they lived in Dale that he had ceased to listen for those sounds. Instead he tuned his ear to the crick-crack of breaking ice that meant someone was drawing water from the well nearby, its use on a constant rotation. If the people of Dale allowed the ice to build up over the wells, they were nearly impossible to get any use from. With each draw the ice had to be broken anew, fractured into slush over the useable water, just one more sound that meant winter still had its icy hand clasped over the land.

It was that sharp, splintering sound first that drew Bard from his uneasy rest. He rose with the sun, which wasn’t really very early at this time of year, but still early enough that his children slept on unawares. Today, as he struggled out from beneath his furs and shivered as he pulled on his shirt, a new sound greeted his drowsy ears. It was barely a murmur, not a variant on the cacophonous wind that he’d become so familiar with, and he stood beside his boarded-up window and paused just to listen. Faint but steady, a mere trickling, it had to be—

“The River Celduin.” Of course it was the river, the river which had been his lifeblood for many years. It seemed an age since he’d heard it last. Now that Bard knew what he was listening for, though, he could tell that it wasn’t the first sign of spring on the horizon. The air was chill as ever, but without the brutally bitter edge that made his stomach clench. The sky was free of the clouds that had hung over it for months now. Perhaps in another few weeks the birds would return, songbirds and not the ubiquitous ravens that the dwarves of Erebor had such a rapport with. A thrush or two would be a welcome sight.

So too would Thranduil, but the elven king had yet to appear. The fighting, it would seem, was fierce within his kingdom. Avophen brought news when he could, even if there was no letter to be had. Bain demanded tale after tale of the elves’ prowess with their bow, and it was Sigrid who finally looked up from her copying—she had insisted on being of use, and so was learning to write in a more courtly style than Bard would ever manage—and asked why Thranduil was never mentioned in the stories Avophen told.

“Is he not an archer like the rest of you?”

“My king is a great archer, but he prefers the use of his swords,” Avophen replied.

“Why does he use two?” Bain demanded, easily drawn onto a different track now that it had been brought up. “When the rest of you only have one?”

Avophen paused, seeming to really think about what to tell them. “His personal sword is Eirdeth, which was made for him during the First Age. Its name means ‘eternally sharp.’ For most circumstances one sword is enough, but to go into battle my king also carries Kethre, which was his father Oropher’s.”

“‘The Binding Wind,’” Ori murmured from his place at the desk. He had taught much of his trade to Hekla, a merchant-turned-survivor who Bard had prevailed upon to work as his secretary, but that hadn’t stopped him from returning each week to bring news from Dain, or advise the children on the shape of their runes. He was a welcome addition to the household, one more way for Bard to keep his brood safe and entertained, and if they learned something along with it? So much the better.

Right now Ori was the subject of numerous raised eyebrows. He shrank in against the wall a bit, his eyes wide.

“You speak Sindarin?” Avophen asked after a moment.

“Well, just the basics,” Ori prevaricated, looking down at his hands as his fingertips fretted at the edges of his woolen gloves. “I never had much chance to practice, you know, and I couldn’t find very many elven texts, especially not with any sort of translation, and there aren’t very many commonalities between Sindarin and Westron, so I had to…extrapolate a lot? Um. But I tried my best.”

“That isn’t anything to be ashamed of,” Bard said. “I’m more than a little envious, actually. It seems a handy language to know, these days.” He very carefully didn’t look at Avophen, who was smiling like he knew something none of the rest of them did. Which, in all fairness, was probably true.

“I want to learn it!” Tilda announced. “I want to learn to speak all the languages!”

“You are at a good age to begin learning,” Avophen told her. “All of you. Even your aged father,” and there was no mistaking the mischief in his eyes now, “could still learn to speak like a true Wood Elf.”

Bard scowled comically. “Watch who you’re calling ‘aged,’” he warned.

“My apologies, my king.” Avophen bowed his head, then turned back to Ori. “I would be very willing to instruct you along with the children.”

“Well…well, I don’t know. None of the others, you know, ever found out that I…and I wouldn’t want to…”

Bard smiled and leaned over to clap Ori on the shoulder. “I think we’re all willing to keep your secret, my friend. No other dwarf need know you’re learning to speak like an elf.”

Tilda looked puzzled. “Why wouldn’t they all like to learn?”

“Because they’re enemies,” Bain told her. “They have been ever since the dragon came.”

“Since well before that,” Bard heard Avophen say under his breath, but no one else seemed to notice. “Would you be willing to share some of your own language in turn?” he asked at a more normal register. “Khuzdul can be rather esoteric for someone who lacks the cultural background to understand it.”

Ori looked positively dumbfounded by the hopeful faces staring at him. “I…I suppose I could do that.”

The interracial harmony found within Bard’s home was, thus far, the only place in their corner of Middle Earth that it seemed to flourish. There was no direct contact between Thranduil and Dain as far as Bard could tell, and there were days he felt more like a messenger than a king, with one side telling him, “Be sure to let that pasty bastard know…” and the other saying, “If you would pass on to the King under the Mountain…” They weren’t actively arguing with each other, which had to count for something, but it wasn’t until the first delicate snowdrops began to poke their heads up from the soil that Bard got confirmation of contact between the two parties, from Thranduil himself.

Or, not Thranduil. Not in person. It was another letter, and as much as he treasured them Bard was beginning to loathe them as well, because each one signified another delay. That all of those delays were inescapable was a small comfort, but Bard felt like a pot set to simmer and then left on the flame, never calm, never quite tipping over into a boil. He wanted to set eyes on the elf king, he wanted to be in the same space as him, find a quiet room and close the door and…

Bard sighed and opened the letter.

 

My dear friend,

The Lady Dis and her caravan are at the outskirts of the forest. I have been requested by Dain Ironfoot to provide her with an escort—a discreet one, since the lady herself has stated to her cousin that she has no desire to see us, or to step foot within my halls. I understand the wellspring of her distaste, but by accommodating this request I am necessarily drawn to oversee her passage. These woods are not yet safe, and I will not allow another traveler to be harmed when it is in my power to prevent it.

There was a history there that Bard had gleaned bits and pieces of from Ori, something about a spider ambush and Bilbo being the only reason any of them had survived. Bard wasn’t surprised that Thranduil was fulfilling the request; the elf’s dedication to better securing his own realm over the winter had proven his intent, but the rest of it…

I will give her a day to situate herself and her people within Erebor before I arrive with my own entourage. I fear that because of this I will not be graced with your presence until we meet again within the Lonely Mountain. This is far from how I had envisaged our long-awaited reunion.

Well, that made two of them. Now Bard would have to hold back every feeling that made his blood smolder, every thought that had been such a sweet torment during the long, cold nights when he finally had a moment to himself. He wasn’t sure what exactly he wanted to have happen when he first saw Thranduil again, but it wasn’t having to keep a formal face on, that was for certain.

Rest assured, no matter what the dwarves have to say on the occasion, I will neither let them drive me away nor shock me with unexpected courtesy. Rather I will say my piece and return swiftly to the Greenwood, unless, of course, I am invited back to Dale. I would enjoy seeing the progress your people have made there, as well as greeting your children. I confess, I also wish to remind myself of the color of your eyes by candlelight, and the sound of your voice when you are so close to me I can feel the warmth of your breath against my cheek.

Na lû e-govaned vîn, Bard. It will not be long now.

Thranduil

 

It could not be soon enough, as far as Bard was concerned.

 

Less than a week later, the caravan from the Blue Mountains rolled in to Dale. Bard admired the dwarves’ determination to get to Erebor so early; it was no small distance, and they had traveled much of it through terrible weather. Still, the Lady Dis rode proud at the head of a caravan of nearly two hundred other dwarves, along with their wagons, animals, and equipment. Bard had already been prevailed upon by Dain to personally escort her the rest of the way to the mountain, and he’d readily agreed to do so. He changed into his coronation clothes, the best set he owned, checked that the mail shirt beneath them didn’t show, and finally set Thranduil’s circlet on his head. He could appear kingly if he must, he thought wryly. A pity that Thranduil was not here to see him in his finery.

Not yet, at least.

Bard collected his family and met Dis in the town square, which was mostly restored now, and bowed to her. “Welcome to Dale, my lady.”

“Well met, King Bard,” Lady Dis replied. She had all the hauteur of her brother Thorin, whom she strongly resembled, right down to the neatly trimmed black beard. Underlying all of that was a deep sense of sorrow, though, and the peculiar quietude that accompanied it. She wore a dark blue dress edged with wolf fur, and set with sapphires around the collar and cuffs. Bard heard Tilda gasp from behind him as she saw Dis, which drew the lady’s attention.

Bard motioned his family to him and drew them close. “My children,” he said. “Sigrid, Bain and Tilda.”

Lady Dis came forward to meet them, and there was no mistaking the gleam of tears in her eyes now. She held them back, though, and managed a smile. “I’m pleased to meet all of you.”

“You’re very pretty,” Tilda told her. “I like your beard.”

Dis chuckled, and the tension between them eased. “I’m a bit surprised to hear that. I know that human women don’t have beards like we do.”

“Oh, Ori is teaching us all about dwarves,” Bain put in. “He came to greet you as well!”

“Ori?” Dis’ eyes widened a bit as the dwarf came out from the crowd of people and bowed his head. “It’s you…”

“My lady.” He bowed so low his head almost touched the ground, and said something in Khuzdul that Bard didn’t recognize, but clearly meant something to Dis. She went over to him and lifted him up, then clasped his face and brought their foreheads together gently.

“Dear cousin,” she said, and Ori gasped wetly and clung to her wrists. They spoke a bit more, but Bard didn’t watch, preferring to give them at least the semblance of privacy. He looked over the rest of the caravan instead, a mass of dwarves all bristling with weaponry, and among them another one slightly out in front, with bright red hair and a barely-there beard holding two smallish axes and scowling familiarly.

Ah, Bard thought, and walked over to the dwarf. “You must be Gimli.”

The dwarf looked up at him suspiciously. “How d’ye figure that?”

“You look a lot like Gloin.”

The suspicion eased a bit. “Ye know my father?”

“I fought alongside him in battle,” Bard said, which was generally true. He’d done more fighting here in town than he had down on the plain where the main battle had taken place, which was where the dwarves had been clustered. “I count him a friend,” he added, and that was more specifically true. Of all the dwarves in Erebor, Gloin was one of the few who he’d really taken to. Dwalin was too taciturn, Balin was more of a politician than Dain, and Dain himself was too busy to form a true bond with. Ori had been easy to bring into the fold, and Gloin was the other one that Bard’s children sought out. He told them stories and taught them how to hold an axe, and Bard could see Gloin’s influence in his son, who was smiling now.

“He’s fierce as a Balrog, my dad,” Gimli said, beaming. “Taught me all about fighting. I wanted to come along on the quest, but…” and now he sighed heavily, “Mum and Lady Dis wouldn’t let me.”

“I’m sure there shall be others,” Bard replied, and Gimli scuffed his boot on a cobblestone.

“But no more with Thorin,” he muttered. Bard didn’t know what to say to that. Fortunately, the Lady Dis made it so that he didn’t have to.

“King Bard,” she called out. “Are we to press on to Erebor or spend the night in Dale?”

Oh, there was no way they were all spending the night here. “We can leave now, my lady.” He turned to get his horse, and surprisingly it was Sigrid who clung to his sleeve.

“Da, let us come with you,” she whispered. “Please!”

“We’re not staying, love,” he reminded her. “I won’t be there long.”

“I know, just please, take us with you? I want to see the mountain all readied for her arrival!”

“I want to see Gloin!” Tilda added.

“I want to learn to throw an axe, and Dwalin said he would show me the next time I came to the mountain,” Bain said.

Bard squeezed his eyes shut tight for a moment. “You three…”

“They would be welcome.”

Bard turned and looked at Lady Dis, who regarded him and his brood with a slight smile. “I’m sure you have more than enough to occupy yourself with, without my children running around the mountain distracting you.”

“You all would be most welcome,” she repeated, and that was as good as an order in diplomatic speak. Bard sighed.

“Then they can come. But just for today,” he added sternly. “This isn’t an invitation for you to make yourselves at home in Erebor whenever you feel like it.”

“Thank you, Da!” He got three rapid-fire embraces, and then his children were being ushered into Lady Dis’ wagon by Gimli, who politely offered to let Bain hold one of his axes and, just as insightfully as Lady Dis, declined to give one to Tilda when she asked. She pouted a bit, but it was half the size of her and probably nearly as heavy. Bard prayed for a moment that none of his children would accidentally lose a limb on this little trip.

He mounted his own horse and slung his bow more comfortably across his back, then fell in beside Dis’ pony as the caravan wound through town. His four-man guard, who Bard still felt strange about having, fell into line behind them. Before long they were out of the city, and starting across the barren plain leading up to the mountain. It wasn’t a long distance but it was a bleak one, still spotted here and there with carcasses that Bard reminded himself needed burning now that the weather was fairer, and further back were still the gaping, enormous holes left by the tunneling worms the orcs had commanded.

“It appears there is still much to be done here,” Lady Dis commented as they walked along.

“We had little time to take care of every loose end before winter locked us indoors,” Bard said. “But you’re right, there is yet much work ahead of us.”

“Have you spoken to Dain about rigging machines to assist with your recovery back in Dale?”

“No.” Bard had no idea what she was referring to. “What kind of machines?”

“Ah, then he hasn’t offered yet.” She smiled thinly. “But he will. Blocks and hoists and numerous other things that make lifting heavy objects much easier. It will greatly aid in your rebuilding.”

“That…would be much appreciated.”

“It would be a pleasure. Neighbors must help their neighbors.” Her tone was grim. “If I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned that.” She spared Bard having to answer by glancing up at the sky. “The ravens are swirling. They’re here to welcome us home.”

There were tiny black shapes high in the sky, but…Bard squinted and looked carefully. Not all of them were ravens. Even as he watched, two dots piled on a third, ripping feathers from it. It crumpled and fell, finally landing in a broken heap twenty feet ahead of them. Bard stared at it for a moment, then up again.

“Bats,” he breathed. “There are bats fighting those ravens.” And if the bats were there… He turned back to the caravan. “Arm yourselves!” he yelled. “And ride faster, we’re not safe here!” His children were here, exposed, his children.

“What is it?” Dis demanded.

“Lady, there is no time, just—” That was when he saw the first of them emerge from a tunnel halfway up the east side of the ridge. He had agreed with Dain that dwarf sappers should collapse them, once the weather was good enough for them to work. Too late now, too late. Bard drew an arrow and let it fly, taking the charging warg right through the neck. Its rider was thrown to the ground. “Go!” he yelled, and urged the ponies pulling the cart into a gallop. “Go, go! To the mountain!”

“Da!” Tilda screamed, looking back at him with fear in her eyes. Sigrid held her tight, and Bain looked conflicted, like he wanted to jump down and help but couldn’t quite make his legs move. Bard had never wanted to see such terror in his children’s faces again. He turned to his guards. “Stay with their wagon,” he ordered, and three of them immediately cantered forward to catch up, bows at the ready.

Only one hesitated, a fellow fisherman who’d known Bard for all his life. “My king, should one of us not stay—”

“Go, Aric!” He finally obeyed, and Bard breathed just a little easier as he watched his children ride toward safety. More wagons and carts rumbled by, dropping dwarves by the dozen as their passengers brandished their axes with savage glee.

The horn of Erebor sounded, and Bard hoped that meant reinforcements, because he had no time to look right now. There were twenty…no, closer to thirty warg riders emerging from the tunnel. Not an enormous party, but the orc didn’t need much to wreak havoc in this small, battle-worn corner of the land. He shot again, and again, targeting any beast who turned toward the mountain and the wagon that was carrying his family away. Gimli at least was with them as well, and Dis…

No, Dis was here, pulling an axe out from its place behind her saddle and standing firm with her warriors. “Baruk Khazâd!” she bellowed, and a hundred dwarves echoed it. Just before their attackers reached them the dwarves charged forward, throwing their small axes flying with deadly accuracy at riders before slicing their larger weapons toward the wargs’ legs and chests.

Well, it was a strategy. Bard stayed on his horse and kept firing, missing only once when his horse shied to the side to avoid a collision he hadn’t even seen coming. He kept out in front of the fleeing wagons, encouraging their ponies to greater speeds, and shot down any rider who came within a hundred paces of the caravan. It worked well, until he ran out of arrows.

“Curse it,” Bard muttered, and he dropped his bow and switched to his longsword. He had little training with the weapon; he’d meant to practice more but something had always come up, something had always been more important. Now lives might depend on his indifferent skills, and Bard was not at all sure they were what they needed to be.

He clashed with a rider, the momentum almost enough to throw him from the saddle. His panicked horse had not been bred for war, while the warg was nothing but. Bard scored a lucky hit on the rider that had it screeching and dropping its weapon, but the warg snapped at his horse so fiercely that it reared, just as Bard had let go of the reins to strike another blow. He fell back off the saddle and onto the hard, stony ground, the impact knocking the breath from him.

 The warg was on him before he could recover his feet, its jaws closing around the left side of his chest, and then it bit down hard. Bard screamed as he felt his ribs contract and creak, like shards of fire in his lungs. He still had just enough range to bring his sword around and drive it up into the side of the warg’s mouth, thrusting hard with his last ounce of strength as it tried to flail back, pushing until the blade was so deep that it stuck. The warg whimpered and let go of him, and Bard wanted to get up and fight but hitting the ground again was like being set ablaze, an intense and merciless pain that his mind decided, for better or for worse, he should not be awake for. The sky went black, the world went silent, and Bard fell into unconsciousness.

 

Chapter Text

 

There was just so much shouting.

Sigrid and her siblings stood off to the side of the dwarf king’s throne, mostly forgotten as the argument between Dain, Dis and Thranduil raged. Tilda trembled between her and Bain, gripping both their hands so hard her fingertips were white, and Bain was uncharacteristically silent, almost expressionless as they listened to the royals fight over their father’s life.

It didn’t seem real, yet. It didn’t seem like something that could actually have happened. Da was invincible: he had slain the dragon, he had battled orcs and trolls and hordes of enemies and triumphed, he had been made king! How could he have fallen in a skirmish right outside of Erebor, barely past the gates of Dale? It was impossible, except for how terribly possible it had become. Sigrid had caught a glimpse of her father as he was carried into the mountain on a litter, one blood-stained arm trailing over the side. She had called out to him, and he hadn’t answered her. If he’d been all right, he would have answered. He hated to worry her. So it was serious, then.

The dwarves hadn’t allowed any of them to see Da, had taken him straight to their best healer, Oin, and kept the three of them away from him ever since. Sigrid and Bain had argued and begged, Tilda had cried, but the dwarves hadn’t yielded. An hour had passed and still they had him cloistered away, and that was when the elves showed up.

Thranduil was incandescent with fury when he heard what had happened. He had arrived at the mountain demanding to see Bard, and once the situation had been tersely explained by Dain, his anger only grew stronger. The air seemed almost to crackle around him, and for a moment Sigrid thought she saw chasms appear in the left half of his face, raw and vicious. They vanished a moment later, and she knew she had likely been mistaken, but the impression left her shaken. So she stood, and held onto her trembling sister and brother, and listened to their world fall down around them.

“King Bard is receiving the best of care, he has no need of elvish magic to save him!” Dis snapped. She more than anyone else was against Thranduil’s interference, and not afraid to show it.

“He would not need your care in the first place had you properly secured your own borders,” Thranduil shot right back. “Warg riders within plain sight of your mountain—”

“You dare speak to us of security, when your own forest is riddled with spiders!”

“Not one of which touched you or your people on your way across my realm. If you could have brought yourself to accept my hospitality in the first place, my warriors would have accompanied you to Erebor and ensured the safety of your convoy. Instead, you—”

“Safety! Assurances! When has your word been anything other than pretty lies to trap the unwary with? Your word means nothing to a dwarf.”

“Now, Dis—” Dain tried to interject, but she would have none of it.

“You watched our people and Bard’s alike burn the day the dragon came, with no attempt to fight with us. Why should we lower ourselves to accept your charity, when everything you offer is steeped in poison?”

Thranduil’s expression was rigid, barely containing whatever emotion longed to leap free. “Who drew the dragon in the first place, with such greedy wealth? Who invited in the chaos, with a mad king at the helm that none would say no to? Your people lied to me, they deceived me, and they stole from me. To ask me to fight on your behalf after such treatment, against such impossible odds? It was you who spurned me afterwards, too proud to accept my aid as you fled. I am willing to let the past lie where it belongs, but I will not allow you to steal the future from me.” His hand fell to the hilt of his sword, and the elves behind him squared their shoulders. “Either you let me through to tend to Bard’s wounds, or I will cut my way across your mountain to reach him.”

The dwarves were on their feet now, shouting and reaching for their weapons, and Thranduil really did look ready to carve a bloody swath through their ranks. Sigrid couldn’t let that happen, she couldn’t let everything end in such an awful way. What would Da do?

Steeling herself, she ran out onto the stone causeway and reached for Thranduil’s hand. He started at her touch, as though he hadn’t even seen her approach, his focus was so intent on the dwarves. “Don’t,” she said, barely able to force the word past her lips. “Please.” She waited breathlessly for him to pull away from her, but he did not, and none of the dwarves attacked. They all seemed too surprised for the moment to move, and that meant she had this one chance to capitalize on their confusion. She took it.

“King Dain,” she said, looking up to the throne where he stood, grim-faced. “Please, let Thranduil try to help my father. He is a great healer,” that much she had learned from Avophen, “and should not every effort be made to save the Dragonslayer? If you must be angry about it,” and now she looked at Lady Dis, whose lips were pressed hard together, “then be angry at me, for demanding it. But he’s our father.” Tears slipped down Sigrid’s cheeks now, and she didn’t bother to wipe them away. “He’s all we have, and we need him.”

There was a long moment of silence, and then Dain sighed. “Of course, if that’s what ye want. Dwalin!” The hulking dwarf stepped forward. “Take the Mirkwood king to where Oin’s got Bard. He’s to have anything he needs in treatin’ him.” Dwalin didn’t seem to like it, but he nodded, and Sigrid felt like she might collapse with relief.

She expected Thranduil to leave immediately, but instead he knelt down beside her and held both her hands in his. His pale, penetrating gaze met hers, but it didn’t make Sigrid shrink with fear. There was warmth and kindness there, and immense gratitude. “You,” he told her, “may be the wisest person here, hên. I will do all that I can for Bard.”

“I know,” Sigrid said quietly. She had seen how her father’s face changed whenever he got one of Thranduil’s letters, how he had smiled without knowing it, how eager he had been to read them. She was relieved that the favoritism went both ways.

Thranduil stood up and strode toward Dwalin, an unmistakable lead me to Bard or get out of the way air to him, and Dwalin might glower, but he moved fast. A moment later they were gone, and Sigrid blinked, then looked up as Avophen put a hand on her shoulder.

“Are you all right?” he asked. Sigrid looked at her brother and sister, who were being tended to by Ori and Dis now, and cautiously nodded.

“I think I will be.”

 

Chapter Text

 

The room stank of blood.

A thousand smoky visions of pain and injury had whipped through Thranduil’s mind the moment he learned that Bard had fallen during the raid. Sword wounds, dismemberment, impalement, trampling, broken bones and paralysis…to say that Thranduil was prepared for the worst was not an understatement. If the dwarves would not let Bard’s own children see their father, knowing how much it would mean to them, then it had to be bad. And that they had tried to keep him from helping, tried to hold him on the causeway as they wasted time and breath in argument…

It would not have been wise, drawing his weapon, but Thranduil was tired of being wise. Wisdom had led him to isolation, to loss of prestige and perspective and family. Wisdom had dictated the safest path for his people’s preservation and he had followed it blindly. Now, for the first time in an Age, Thranduil valued the auspices of his heart over those of his head, and his heart clamored for Bard.

He had thought himself prepared to see Bard again, knowing he was damaged, knowing they had spent a season apart and time wrought change quickly in mortals. Thranduil had not strengthened himself enough, though, for as soon as Dwalin opened the door and Thranduil stepped inside, he felt for a moment like his legs would not be able to hold him up.

Bard was laid out on the bed, stripped bare to the waist and unconscious, thankfully. His torso was a massive bruise, the purple coloration so deep it was black in places, his discolored skin smeared with blood. His ribs on the left side had been partially crushed, leaving his chest oddly bent, and he had puncture wounds here and there that yet bled sluggishly. His breath was a thin whistle, too wet-sounding to be healthy, and the white haired dwarf beside him looked on grimly as he plucked another piece of chain mail from Bard’s flesh. It had been driven completely through the top layer of skin.

The dwarf looked up as Thranduil entered, a resigned expression on his face that quickly gave way to surprise. “King Thranduil.”

“You are Oin?” Thranduil said stiffly as he unclasped his cloak and laid it over the nearest chair. He couldn’t afford to get tangled up in his own clothing while he worked a healing.

“Aye. It’s good ye’ve come.”

Well, that wasn’t quite the welcome Thranduil had expected. He’d anticipated an argument, but the dwarf—Oin—seemed nothing but relieved.

“He’s farther gone than I can retrieve,” Oin continued, looking pensively down at Bard. “His ribs are in pieces on this side, some of them stuck in the lung. I slowed the bleeding, inside and out, but it’s too late to stop it entirely. It’s only thanks to Bard’s own stubbornness that he’s still breathing, t’be honest.”

“We must give thanks that he has such stubbornness, then,” Thranduil said. He left his silver tunic and his sword by the chair as well and finally knelt next to the low bed, which was far too short for Bard—his bare feet stuck out over the end, incongruously clean amongst all the detritus of his injury. They were surprisingly slender feet for a man, with thick veins running over the top and around the jut of the ankle, and high arches that curved his sole like a crescent moon.

Thranduil looked away quickly, refocusing on the wounds. He reached out and placed his hands lightly on Bard’s chest, so light most would not even have felt it, but Bard suddenly choked in his unconsciousness, blood spattering out of his mouth and onto the pure white pillow beneath his head. Thranduil forced himself to ignore it, closed his eyes and concentrated. Bits and pieces, yes, he could feel the shards swimming around in blood and lymph, lodged in muscle and soft organs, in the quiescent lung, the dogged, laboring heart. Its rhythm was a broken thing, no longer even and steadfast as it should be. It hurt to hear it but Thranduil made himself listen, sent the barest tendril of his magic inside and searched for answers, for the right path.

It would cost him, healing Bard. There would be a cost in energy and strength and magic, a cost so dear he could not remember the last time he had paid it. Perhaps not since he’d expended himself for his wife, a futile, hopeless effort at the end of her life that prolonged her past bearing, yet not nearly long enough. It would cost him his glamour, that was certain. For a time at least, he would be bared to the eyes of all, his face’s mutilation, his milk-eyed blindness on the left side. How the dwarves would mock him, once they saw. How Bard’s children would shudder to behold the beautiful elven king’s true face, how his own people would avert their eyes. And Bard…what would Bard do, when he saw the truth behind Thranduil’s beauty? Would he even still want him?

Thranduil would never know the answer if he let Bard die, and the pain of that thought was worse than any shame he might feel at the hands of the ignorant. Bard was a grown man, he was reasonable, logical. He knew better than to expect perfection. Surely he wouldn’t demand it from Thranduil. Even if he was disappointed, he would understand. Of that, Thranduil was certain.

“Leave us,” Thranduil said, and Oin, who had stood by silent as Thranduil evaluated Bard, nodded his head and left the room. He took Dwalin with him, who had stood glowering by the door the whole time. Once the door closed again, Thranduil settled onto the bed beside Bard and knelt over him, pressing a bit harder with his hands and letting his magic suffuse Bard’s whole body, a formless power for now, nothing but potential as Thranduil mapped his path, felt out what needed to be done and what could be accomplished by Bard himself once the worst was past.

Fixing Bard entirely would take too much, and Thranduil might exhaust himself so entirely that his own heart stopped. Last time, Avophen had been the one to bring him back from death. Thranduil had hated him for that for several centuries before he was able to set that hurt aside and see it as an act of love. This time, he would simply have to be more careful. Thranduil closed his eyes, chose his first target, and drew like to like. The uppermost of Bard’s ribs suddenly snapped back into place, shards and all, and a moment later was fused back to wholeness. There were still cracks but nothing would break free, and Thranduil took a deep, fortifying breath before moving on.

Different elves used different methods of healing. Some were herbologists, combining their magic with the latent power of special plants to affect healing. Some specialized in the mind, others in the spirit. Lady Galadriel of Lothlorien was said to be able to make someone whole with as little as a look, and she could reach across great distances to restore hope and health and even sanity. Thranduil, however, used the techniques that his father had taught him, which relied more on personal strength than anything else. It was a powerful method of healing, but also could be quite dangerous. When he could he amplified his abilities with herbs, as he had with Tauriel, but now…there was no time. Nothing mattered but making Bard live.

The ribs were the hardest by far. They had been utterly shattered in places, and pulling the many pieces together, then holding them in place as he set them, was intensely difficult. Thranduil felt it the moment his glamour failed, leaving his cheek raw and exposed, barely held together with ropey tendon and still-tender flesh. Dragonfire burned with a life of its own, hotter and fiercer than any man or elf or even dwarf could match, and sometimes it still felt like it was burning. His eye had been the worst, a lingering pain that speared through his head unexpectedly even now. Thranduil had learned to bear it once and he would do so again, gladly, in exchange for Bard’s life now.

Even once he was done reconstructing the bones Thranduil wasn’t certain he’d found every chip that the warg’s teeth had ripped free, but Bard’s heart was starting to falter. He needed breath, literal and figurative, and Thranduil would provide it. He leaned over, tilted Bard’s head back, and pressed their lips together. Thranduil didn’t pause to think about how right it felt, being fitted together like this: he just exhaled, long and steady, and as Bard’s wounded lung was forced to open, Thranduil’s magic filled the cracks. Three breaths was all it took for Bard’s heart to steady, for his chest to rise and fall evenly once more. It wasn’t easy, and it wouldn’t be without pain, but he could heal himself now.

He would have to. Thranduil felt exhausted, barely able to hold himself up with his own trembling arms. He wanted to do more, wanted to seal the bloody bite marks that marred Bard’s skin, and rub out the indentations left by the chain mail. He wanted, but he could not, and his strength finally gave out entirely. He had just enough awareness left to roll himself to the side, curling around Bard’s head on this small, ridiculous bed, before the stars swimming in front of his eye overwhelmed him, and the world became nothing but light.

 

 

“Ah, gwador.” A familiar voice rang soft in Thranduil’s ears, and gentle hands pulled him up and back until he leaned against a warm, firm chest. Power filled him, not his own but welcome all the same, and a moment later Thranduil blinked his eyes open, the worst of his fatigue falling away.

“You spent much of yourself on the king’s behalf,” Avophen said, and there was no judgment in his voice. “Nearly too much. You must learn to ask for help, my brother. How will I face Tínulor in the halls of Mandos if I let you work yourself to death?”

Tínulor. It had been so long since Thranduil had heard her name. None of his people spoke it, on his orders, but Avophen had always been indifferent to that rule. It figured, Thranduil supposed. To most of the elves of the Woodland Realm, Tínulor had been queen. To Avophen, she had been sister first, queen second. If any could mention her with impunity, it was him.

Avophen tried to give him more of his strength, but there was a limit to what Thranduil could absorb from another elf. His glamour was still down, his magic still exhausted, but he could see clearly now, and sit upright on his own. He set his hand over Avophen’s and patted it once, then pulled away. Avophen let him, and a moment later they were back to king and subject, a comfortable distance between them again.

“Will the king live?” Avophen asked.

Thranduil looked at Bard again, only with his eyes, but that was enough to be reassured. Bard’s color was back—he was pale, but not the ghastly gray he had been when Thranduil first arrived. The puncture wounds remained but did not bleed, and the body beneath them was whole again, if not entirely hale. “He will live,” Thranduil affirmed.

Avophen sighed with open relief as he went to pour a cup of water from a forgotten pitcher on the table against the wall. “That is very good news. His children would be inconsolable otherwise.”

“You are fond of them,” Thranduil observed. Avophen handed him the water and he drank deep, finishing it and another cup before the thirst he hadn’t realized he felt was quenched.

“They are good children,” Avophen replied quietly. “And Bard is their sun, the greatest source of warmth and affection in their lives for many years. It would pain me to see that warmth extinguished.” He cocked his head at Thranduil. “Are you not also fond of them, my king?”

“It would be pointless to deny it,” Thranduil said. “It is strange, how quickly I—” He faltered, not quite knowing how to finish it. How quickly he fell in love with Bard? How quickly he wanted to make things better for Bard and his family, how quickly the children had become dear to him?

“It is well, brother.” Thranduil met Avophen’s eyes for a long moment, and seeing nothing but approval there eased a worry he hadn’t wanted to acknowledge to himself over the idea of being with Bard. Of moving on, at last, of letting go of his wife’s memory enough to consider loving someone else. Never to stop loving her, no, but to make room in his heart for someone else. Thranduil nodded slightly, then pushed to his feet. It was hard, but not impossible as it would have been minutes ago.

“Send Oin back in. He will need to take care of the rest.”

“Yes, my lord.” Avophen left to fetch the healer and Thranduil bent to lay his palm against Bard’s cheek, just for a moment, before pulling himself upright again.

Bard would live. The rest would come with time.

Chapter Text

 

When Bard was ten years old, he almost drowned in the River Celduin.

He had gone exploring with a group of children, daring each other to go deeper and deeper into the forest, following the river up where the canopy thickened and began to block the bright light of midday. In one place the river actually coalesced into a waterfall, white and foaming as it sped over boulders and down toward the lake. The pool below it looked deep and inviting to those who didn’t know any better. Bard was the third child to jump in, but the first to do it from the top of the cascade.

The force of the falling water had pushed him deep down into the pool, until he was crushed against the rocky bottom. It had felt like someone was beating him with a hammer, and he’d been blinded by the roiling bubbles, unable to see anything beyond the stone right beneath him. He’d barely restrained his panic, held his breath and clawed his way along the rock until the pressure lessened and he could finally push toward the surface. Bard had broken the water gasping and delirious, blood streaming down a cut on his face, and it was only thanks to a helping hand from a friend that he didn’t sink right back down again.

Waking up now felt a lot like surfacing from that pool. The first thing Bard was aware of was the fierce ache in his chest, sharp but not impossibly painful. That seemed like something that should surprise him, and might have if his lungs hadn’t seized at just that moment, forcing a cough out of him that turned “sharp” into “agonizing” and spawned an actual coughing fit that drove tears to his eyes as he struggled to clear his airway, to roll to his side, anything that might calm his body.

A strong hand insinuated itself beneath his head and helped to lift it, followed by an arm beneath his shoulders. Sitting upright was its own form of agony, but with a few gentle shifts in position Bard found himself leaning sideways against someone who held him gently, but firmly enough that he didn’t have to hold himself up. His coughs diminished, and a moment later a metal cup seemed to dance in front of his waterlogged vision.

“Drink, Bard.” The cup helpfully brought itself to his lips, and Bard managed a few blissful sips before he had to stop to breathe.

“Bloody fuck,” Bard muttered, his throat feeling terribly raw, and the person holding him chuckled.

“You have quite a mouth on you, King of Dale.”

It was…could it really be him? Bard blinked his tears away and focused on the hand that was holding the cup. Long fingers, pale and unmarked, the elegant edge of one embroidered cuff that was stained the color of rust… “Thranduil?”

There was a momentary pause, and then—“Yes.”

Oh, thank the Valar. Bard turned his face into the shoulder supporting him and just breathed, shallowly and carefully. He had almost forgotten this scent, fresh like moss and rich like ambergris, only slightly soured by the scent of old blood. He breathed, and Thranduil breathed in perfect harmony with him. It was such a relief that Bard felt tears flood his eyes again, only this time not from pain. He shook his head at his own foolishness and gingerly brought a hand up to wipe the evidence away.

“What is it, meleth nîn?”

“Nothing,” Bard said. “Nothing, I just…I’m pleased. That you’re here. That I’m still here.” He furrowed his brow as he thought back to the fight, how he fell to the ground, how the warg had approached and crushed its teeth around his body like a pike snapping a trout in two—

“Be calm now, calm.” Thranduil stroked his cradling hand across the top of Bard’s shoulders, relaxing the tension that he hadn’t even realized was creeping back into his body. “It is over now, finished and done. Ironfoot is collapsing the tunnels as we speak, and there have been no more attacks.”

Bard began to relax, but just as suddenly tensed again as he remembered, “My children! What of my children?”

Thranduil didn’t even pause, still stroking his hand in gentle circles across the knotted muscles of Bard’s back as he answered, “They’re here. They’re all well, completely unscathed. You were one of the battle’s only casualties.”

“Hmm.” Bard could have collapsed to the bed with relief, only he was certain that doing so would just cause him pain. Instead he let Thranduil soothe him, let himself hide against soft cloth and warm skin until he finally asked, “How am I still alive?” Because he remembered it: the sound of his own bones breaking, the horrible scream that had been ripped from his throat. It seemed unbelievable that he’d lived through such a thing, much less that he could tolerate sitting up now even though he had survived it.

“You were recovered from the field and brought into Erebor. The dwarves did their best to treat you, but once I arrived I took things into my own hands.”

That could only mean one thing. “Magic?”

“Healing magic,” Thranduil agreed. “Alas, the process is imperfect, and I could not entirely heal your wounds. It was all I could do to save your life.”

To think that he sounded apologetic for that…Bard felt around the bed for Thranduil’s other hand and laid his on top of it, lacing their fingers together. “How could I ask for anything more?” He closed his eyes, lost for a moment in the memory. “I thought I was dying. I thought I had seen my children for the last time, that I would never see you again. If I must mend from whatever damage is left on my own, well, the blessing is that I can. I have the chance to, thanks to you.”

“Yet I would have done so much more, if I could have.”

For all that he held Bard as tenderly as any lover, Thranduil’s voice seemed strangely subdued. Bard craned his neck to look up at him, but all he could make out in the dim candlelight was Thranduil’s elegant profile, his eyes averted from Bard. “What aren’t you telling me?” A terrible thought struck him. “If you’re injured, if you hurt yourself for me…Thranduil, tell me you didn’t.”

“The hurt was done long ago, Bard. It is only that for a time, I am unable to mask it. You will see me as I really am.” Still he didn’t turn his face, leaving Bard to fear the worst.

“Why does that make you afraid?” he asked quietly. He didn’t want to make demands that would make Thranduil uncomfortable, but Bard could see that the elven king was already unhappy. Bard couldn’t change that until he knew the reason for it.

“I am far from what you’ve grown accustomed to, when I am like this.”

“I want to see you anyway.”

For a moment Bard thought Thranduil was going to ignore his request, but then slowly, glacially, his head turned. His profile gave way to a frontal view, and Bard frowned and blinked, making sure tears weren’t blurring his vision as he took in the scarred, clouded left eye. Thranduil’s expression was completely blank, nothing done to emphasize the fierce mutilation Bard saw along his left jaw, but not hiding it either. Bard looked his fill and Thranduil bore it, and finally Bard asked, “Does it pain you still?”

“Not greatly.”

“You use your magic to cover it?”

“I do. Surely you can see why,” Thranduil added, and Bard heard the undertone of bitterness there.

“And you think such a thing would turn anyone with any sense away from you?”

Thranduil finally met his gaze. “Will it not?”

“Not me,” Bard replied. “But then, I’m an eminently sensible person. And it was never just your pretty face that intrigued me, so there’s little loss there.”

Thranduil’s lip twitched. “Pretty face?”

“Terribly pretty. Like a maiden out of some ridiculous story. I will not say this is better,” he added judiciously, because it didn’t take a wizard to realize that Thranduil must despise his wound to conceal it so completely. “But it is not a bad thing. Nothing about you ever could be.”

Thranduil shook his head. “You know very little of me.”

“I would know more. I would know everything about you.” There, Bard had said it, all out in the open, straight to Thranduil’s face. No more prevaricating, no couching his emotions in florid phrases and masking them in ink. Just the truth, ungilded and plainspoken. Just his heart, laid out like a supplicant before its deity.

Still Thranduil held back. “You need not feign interest in me with the idea of repaying me for saving you, Bard.”

Oh, how he would have laughed if he thought his chest could bear it. “I’m too bloody tired to feign anything.” That was the truth, too. Bard couldn’t even feign a modicum of strength instead of this all-encompassing weakness. He couldn’t pretend, not even to himself, that he was held together by anything other than Thranduil’s goodwill. Bard felt fragile, within and without, like everything he was and everything he had was stretched to its breaking point. One false move, one wrong step, and he would plummet from the rocks into the water below, and he was too tired to drag himself out this time.

Part of him even balked at the prospect of seeing his children, because he was supposed to be strong for them, damn it. He was supposed to be unassailable, always reliable, always there for them. Seeing him like this would hurt them, and he was too tired to be reassuring.

“In that case…” Thranduil reached around Bard’s face and tilted his chin up. They looked at each other for a moment, ice blue eyes connecting with bloodshot hazel, before Thranduil suddenly closed the distance. His eyes shut as their lips met, but Bard struggled for a moment to keep looking, to absorb everything about this before he gave in to the sweeping inevitability of it and stopped looking, and just felt.

Thranduil’s eyes might seem cold but his lips were warm, his soft hand cradling the curve of Bard’s jaw as they kissed. The gesture was as sweet and chaste as such an intimate embrace could be, but still incredible enough to send heat shooting through Bard’s chest and out his limbs. He hadn’t touched someone like this since his wife Ameline, and Bard had missed it, missed the little gestures of affection that came with loving someone. Thranduil’s thumb smoothed across Bard’s cheekbone, unconsciously caring, and Bard felt like his heart might burst, it was so suddenly and wholly consumed by Thranduil. They broke apart only to come together again, and again, and each one was better than the last and Bard wanted it to go on forever, except that the ache in his chest was sharpening again. Finally he couldn’t hold back a grunt of pain, and Thranduil pulled away.

His lips were red now, parted like they didn’t know how to fit together again without Bard’s against them. Thranduil’s eyes were wide, and for the moment it seemed he had forgotten completely about his scars, which made Bard feel a bit smug beneath all the exhaustion.

“You should rest,” Thranduil murmured at last, and lowered Bard back to the bed before he could object. Honestly he didn’t really want to object, at this point, but when Thranduil began to pull away Bard couldn’t stop himself from grabbing his wrist.

“Don’t go.”

“I am merely going to bring in your children,” Thranduil said with a little smile. “They were very anxious about you. It will do them good to speak with you.”

“Come back with them,” Bard insisted. “Stay. Please, I want you to stay.” Stay, always stay.

“Oh, meleth nîn.” Thranduil leaned back in and kissed the side of his mouth, the soft pocket where lip ended and cheek began. “You could not entice me to leave you now.”

Chapter Text

Thranduil didn’t have to go far to find the children. He barely had to go anywhere at all—the moment he opened the door between Bard’s bedroom and the sitting room beyond it, the three of them were on their feet, clamoring to enter. Thranduil stood back and made room for them, careful to keep his face tilted just so. That they would inevitably witness his ruin, he knew, but there was no reason to trouble them with it before they saw their father. The three of them came inside and Sigrid ran instantly to Bard, trembling slightly as though it took all her strength not to throw her arms around him. Bain followed, kneeling on the bed beside his father and looking desperately relieved, like he couldn’t quite believe it.

Tilda was the last inside, followed by the worried-looking scribe—Ori, Avophen had called him. Tilda didn’t run to Bard like the others had. Her eyes wouldn’t settle, gaze tracking all over the room, from the bloodied rags of Bard’s clothing in the corner to the stains that lingered on the sheet beneath him. Thranduil silently cursed himself for not having the foresight to get a dwarf to clean the place before he let Bard’s children inside the room. It was not an easy thing to be reminded of how close he had come to death, especially since he didn’t look that far from it right now. Bard was alive, true, and he would recover well, but for now he was pale and thin, worn and weak. Tilda looked at him like she barely recognized him, and didn’t trust that he was real.

“Tilda, love,” Bard said, and she started when she heard him say her name, so hoarse and rough. Bard grimaced, but stretched a hand out toward her all the same. “It’s all right, darling. Come here.”

“Da?” she whispered, twisting her hands in the edge of her dress. More dwarves pushed in behind her, crowding the area around the door, and Thranduil had to repress a scowl. Could the King of Dale not have a moment to recuperate without an entire audience?

“Tilda.”Bard might have said more, but Bain leaned in at just that moment and pressed his knee into his father’s side. The movement wasn’t hard, but it was enough to make Bard squeeze his eyes shut and groan.

“I’m sorry!” Bain said instantly, and Sigrid, who had been shifting toward her little sister, turned back to Bard instead.

“So is he going t’live or not?” one of the interlopers asked far too loudy, and Tilda’s little hands clenched into fists.

“And by Durin’s beard, what happened to your face?” another dwarf, who had moved further into the room, demanded as soon as he set eyes on Thranduil. Thranduil did not have a chance to rebuke the fool before Tilda had scooted around to see him. Their eyes met, and her face went completely white. She screamed, and the sound cut through Thranduil with the deadly swiftness of a Morgul blade, shattering to pieces in his heart. This was what he had feared, when his magic failed him: that he would become an object of terror, one more nightmare to haunt the children with. He gathered himself to leave the room, to spare her the sight of him, but then she turned around to face a red-haired dwarf and shouted, “You told us we were safe here!”

“I—well, we are, we—”

“Liar!” Tilda pushed past the crowd and ran out of the room. Two of the dwarves stirred to follow her, as well as Sigrid, but now that he had already been exposed…

Stop.” Thranduil had not been king for an age without knowing how to command a room. No one, not even Bard, moved as all eyes fixed on him. “Enough damage has already been done here tonight. I will recover the king’s daughter. The rest of you, if you are not actively seeing to the comfort of the Dragonslayer or his family, will leave. You—” he pointed at Oin, who alone of the dwarves didn’t look surprised to see him, “advise his children on his injuries.”

Oin nodded. “Dragon fire?” was all he asked. Thranduil didn’t reply, but his silence was as good as an answer, and Oin nodded. “Ah.”

Sigrid touched Thranduil’s sleeve, and he turned to face her. She was the only one apart from Oin who had maintained her composure upon catching sight of his face. “I can go, if you want,” she offered, and there was nothing but honest worry and care in her voice.

“Stay with Bard,” Thranduil advised gently. “There should be someone he trusts here to oversee this rabble.”

“Hey, now!” one of the dwarves objected, but Thranduil was through listening. He moved and the dwarves parted for him, until he was out of the suite of rooms and in the long stone corridor. There were doorways at regular intervals on either side, but Thranduil doubted Tilda had fled into any of those. She was upset, she was afraid, she would find the first place she could fit to hide in, dark and small and protective.

Thranduil headed for the stone arch at the end of the hall, where intricate carvings delved deep into the rock around the base. He stopped once he was there, listened carefully, then turned to the right and got down on one knee. He looked into the recessed niche just behind the arch, and there was Tilda curled into a ball on her side, her hands pressed tight to her face. He could hear her heartbeat, fast like a rabbit, and smell the salt of her tears. It distressed Thranduil as much as her scream had, to see her so beside herself.

“Tilda.” She whimpered, but didn’t answer. “Henig.” Still no movement. What did Bard say to his children? “My darling.”

Slowly, Tilda’s hands crept far enough down her face that she could see again. She didn’t scream this time when she saw him, but her heart beat even faster. “How did the orcs get you too?” she whispered, and Thranduil’s suspicion was confirmed.

“This,” he gestured at his face with one hand, “did not happen within the mountain.”

“But I saw you, you were fine before!”

“I still am.” Thranduil set aside the remnants of his useless dignity and sat down cross-legged on the floor, right beside Tilda’s hiding place. “Will you not come out and sit with me? It would be easier to explain to you that way.” He thought she might refuse, anticipated having to work harder to convince her, but Tilda only seemed to be waiting for the invitation. She crawled out from under the arch and immediately moved to Thranduil’s lap, wrapping her arms as far around his chest as she could reach. She had grown some in the winter he’d been gone, as the children of men so swiftly did, but she was still small enough that he could engulf her in his embrace, a shield between her and whatever it was she feared was roaming the halls of Erebor right now.

“The mountain is safe, and you are safe within it,” he told her gently, stroking one hand across her sweaty forehead. She was too hot, had worked herself into a fever of fear. “There is nothing here that will hurt you. My wound is an old one, which I prefer to conceal with magic.”

“Where did your magic go?” she asked.

“I spent it on your father, to make him well again. He’s going to be fine,” Thranduil assured her. “He will recover and so shall I. And then you won’t have to see me like this again.”

“I don’t mind that,” Tilda said, which surprised him. “I just…no one would speak to us, and then Da in bed and he looks so sick, and you aren’t fine anymore, and it’s scary! I hate fighting,” she choked out, “and I hate that Da must do it and that you must do it, and everyone says I have to learn but I don’t want to!”

“Then you will not. Not beyond the basics,” Thranduil amended, because there was being soothing and being foolish. “There are other things you can learn to do.”

“I want to make people better, like you did with Da.”

“Then you shall.” Tilda lapsed into silence, still holding on tight, and Thranduil sat with her and wondered for a moment if he had ever done this before, comforted a child plagued by fear. He could just barely recall…it was with Legolas, just after his mother’s death. Thranduil had not wanted to even acknowledge it, but Legolas has been so young, still small like this and utterly devastated. Thranduil hadn’t been able to ignore his son’s tears, but he hadn’t been a great help to him either. He could only offer comfort without explanation then, could not stomach the answers to his son’s burning questions, and eventually Legolas had stopped asking, then stopped coming to him for affection altogether.

A quiet sound drew Thranduil out of his memories, and he raised his head and saw Lady Dis at the far end of the corridor, staring directly at him. She didn’t speak and neither did Thranduil, only shared a silent, stern communion that ended with her walking away briskly.

Thranduil was too preoccupied to wonder about her intent right now. He rose to his feet, still balancing Tilda in his arms. “Shall we go back to your father?” he asked her. “I know he wants to see you.”

“Yes,” Tilda murmured, but she made no move to let go, so Thranduil carried her back to Bard’s rooms, which were happily cleared of the earlier crowd. Another bed had been brought in, large enough for all three of Bard’s children so that they could stay close but not endanger him with unintentional shifts during the night. There was fresh food on the small table, hot bread and roasted chicken and more cups for water, and Bain and Sigrid were only accompanied by Oin, who had just finished re-bandaging Bard’s chest.

Bard looked immeasurably weary, like he would fall directly into unconsciousness without the strength of all of his will keeping him awake. He saw them enter and his face lightened, and he smiled for Tilda, who smiled cautiously back. Thranduil set her down and she went to her father’s side, let him carefully tug her closer. He kissed her forehead, and she curled beside him and said, “I’m sorry for running away, Da.”

“It’s all right,” Bard told her. “I think I understand. Good thing we had an elf king handy to bring you back, hmm?”

Tilda nodded earnestly. “Yes! He said he gave you his magic and that he’ll get it back when you’re better.”

“Did he now?”

“Yes.”

“Well, that’s very kind of him.”

“He’s very kind,” Tilda said. Thranduil saw Oin’s shoulders tense, but he couldn’t care less what the dwarf’s opinion of him was.

“Da says you were injured in a great battle long ago,” Bain said from where he sat on the spare bed.

“Very long ago,” Thranduil replied. “I will tell you of it another day,” he added, forestalling the eager boy’s next words. “For now, you all must be tired. You should sleep.”

Tilda looked at him and frowned. “You can’t leave!”

“I already promised your father to stay. I would never go against my word.”

“Good.”

“I’ll just be out there,” Oin said, collecting his things and pointing toward the antechamber. “Ye’ve only to come and get me if ye need anything through the night.”

“Thank you,” Sigrid said for all of them. Her hair was let down now, a smooth mahogany wave that framed her face, so young yet so serious. “Both of you.” She looked steadily at Thranduil, and he resolved to speak to her about how she understood him before everyone else as soon as they had a moment alone.

Bard had already nodded off, sleep finally welcome now that his youngest was back, and Thranduil was almost glad he could avoid the need to say goodbye, even for just a night. Too much, too close and he wouldn’t want to leave, and he wasn’t ready to explain his reticence to the children. Oin was already gone, and Thranduil followed with the intention of finding Avophen and evaluating the time it would take to make a supply run back to the forest.

Instead, he found not Oin but Lady Dis waiting for him, alone, in the next room. Thranduil shut the door quietly, and the air between them filled with unspoken accusations. Thranduil would not be the first to break, though, and eventually Dis said, “If you expect me to pity you for that, I don’t.”

“I have no need of anything of yours, much less your pity,” Thranduil all but snarled at her.

“And you should know,” she continued as though he hadn’t spoken, “that while you may have the esteem of King Bard, his opinion of you means nothing to me. Dain insists that we work with you, but for as long as I live I will never welcome you in Erebor.”

“It is fortunate, then, that you do not rule here.” Dis’s eyes shuttered for a moment, and she drew her shoulders back.

“More fortunate for you that I do not,” she said darkly. “Regardless of my feelings toward you, khulum, I will cause no trouble for you as long as Bard is here, provided you behave appropriately.”

Thranduil raised one impressive eyebrow. “You seek to instruct me in my behavior?”

“In these halls? Yes. You and your people will keep out of the treasury, the library, the forges and the kitchens. You will let my people do their work without interruption, and you will conduct yourselves like grateful guests, not little lords.”

As though Thranduil cared to wander about this enormous tomb. “I have only one interest here, and it rests in that room right now.”

“So you say.”

“It is the truth. Dain has already made reparations,” and clearly Dis was unhappy with that, Thranduil could see it in every inch of her stiff bearing, “and I have no need of more of your gold or gems.” The hoard still stank of dragon anyhow.

“Then we have an understanding.”

“We do.”

Though the Valar only knew how long it would last.

Chapter Text

Bard had thought, quite foolishly in retrospect, that the hardest part of his enforced stay in Erebor would be mending physically. He was used to being active, and enforced bed rest was a trial for him at the best of times. It had driven his poor Ameline mad, trying to get Bard to rest when he suffered chilblains from doing his work in water riven with ice, or to take a day off after he’d nearly crushed two fingers of his left hand in an “accident” engineered by the Master, who had moved his boat into the waterway that Bard was guiding his own barge down at just the wrong time.

“If the children all take after you I shall be mad before I’m thirty,” she’d told him crossly that same evening, eight months pregnant with Tilda and feeling the effects of it in her swollen feet and aching back. Bard had offered to rub them for her but she’d refused to let him continue to use his hand, instead splinting it carefully and kissing the bandage once she was done. Bain, who had been three then, had demanded a matching splint so he could look like his father, and Ameline had obliged him before serving dinner with Sigrid’s able help. Even at five, their eldest was more responsible than many adults.

“They’ll never be as hardheaded as I am,” Bard had joked with her. “Not with such a sensible mother to guide them.”

“We shall see,” Ameline had replied primly, then laughed as Bard had pulled her over into his lap, hand be damned, and pressed kisses to her cheek, her chin, the smooth curve of her shoulder and finally her swollen belly. Another child, another blessing, no matter how hard things might be at times. Ameline had been excited, eager to add to their family.

In the end the number stayed the same, as Bard welcomed Tilda into the world, then lost his wife that same night. It had been a dark time for him, a near-hopeless time when the only lights in his life were his children, and the only motivation he had to go on was ensuring that they wanted for as little as possible. Bard had forgotten how to rest, in the years that stretched past that night of gain and loss. He had refused to acknowledge weakness, refused to bow to the whims of his fractured body and ailing spirit. He had lived for his children alone, until the dragon returned to Laketown and he ended up fighting for everyone, not just for them. Then he had met Thranduil, and his life had changed forever, although he hadn’t known that at the time.

And now, being on enforced bedrest in Erebor with Thranduil by his side, Bard was developing a whole new appreciation for how well his wife had tolerated his own ridiculous stubbornness.

In fairness to the elven king, there was plenty of stubbornness to go around. He had, he’d explained to Bard while the children were off eating breakfast with the royal family, spoken with Lady Dis. “She has laid restrictions upon my movements within this cave of theirs,” Thranduil said, with such an elevated air of disdain that it must have taken centuries to perfect. “Which I will abide by while you are their guest. Fortunately, my guards and I have not been barred from the training grounds.”

“And that’s particularly good because?” Bard prompted.

Thranduil shrugged elegantly. He was in fresh garb provided by Avophen, no bloodstains to be seen, but he’d left the heavier layers aside. He had one leg crossed over the other, their slender lengths on perfect display, and Bard quietly marveled to himself that Thranduil was his to touch now, to pull close and explore and worship as they both saw fit. If he ever bloody recovered enough for Thranduil to do more than kiss him, that was.

“It is good,” Thranduil continued, “because my people are entitled to their distractions. Combat is as good an outlet for that energy as anything else. It isn’t as though we would be of much use crawling through the ground and collapsing tunnels that our mutual enemy could use to attack us again.” Thranduil was still sore about that, and not afraid to let those around him know it. “So, we hone our skills.”

“Don’t frighten the dwarves.”

Thranduil tilted his head in that mock-concern way that Bard was fast coming to identify. “You wound me! I would not. Indeed, they would be the first to tell you that no elf could frighten them at all.”

“I think they underestimate your skill.” That got him a kiss, Thranduil leaving his chair to sit beside Bard and press their warm mouths together, lips parting to make room for the flow of their breath and the soft press of their tongues against one another. It was sweet, tender, and as far as Bard was concerned, a promising start. It was also very distracting, which was not something Thranduil was likely above considering as he did it. “They might also underestimate your connivance,” he added when the kiss ended.

“There is no connivance,” Thranduil said, trailing his lips past Bard’s cheekbone, then his ear. “No wrongdoing. No dwarves will be harmed, I can assure you.”

Naturally later that day Bain came back to Bard with tales of the elves making impossible shots with their bows in the training grounds, splitting the hairs on people’s heads, throwing gold coins in the air and perforating them right down the center with an arrow. “It’s fantastic!” he crowed to Bard. “I want to learn to shoot like that!” And of course, Avophen offered to teach him.

This proceeded to cause a diplomatic scuffle because Bard’s children weren’t learning a dwarvish way of fighting, instead taking lessons from elves, here, in the dwarves’ very own mountain! It wasn’t to be borne, apparently.

“It is a mockery of our skills and our willingness to share those skills,” Balin told Bard when they met three days after his injury, once he was actually able to stabilize himself in a sitting position for a time. That didn’t mean it didn’t hurt, and Bard was in no mood to be scolded but couldn’t afford to offend Balin by telling him where he could stick his affront. “You must instruct your children to learn from us as well.”

“I will not force my children to learn anything they don’t wish to, particularly when it comes to fighting,” Bard said. “Tilda is still traumatized from the battle, and you would have me hand her over to Dwalin to learn to kill?”

“Of course not,” Balin replied calmly. “But you must admit that it doesn’t look good, you and your family ignoring our offer of instruction. It is a rare thing, for an outsider to be taught the ways of our warriors.”

“And have you spoken with my children directly yet?” Bard asked, wincing as he chanced a slightly deeper breath. “Because I think that if any of you were to offer, at least Bain might be interested in taking you up on it.” Balin looked down at his folded hands. “Or did you come straight to me? For as much as I’d like to be of assistance here, I am not fit to learn dwarvish fighting myself right now.”

“Of course not.” Balin stood up and bowed. “I’ll certainly take your advisements into consideration, King Bard.” He left, and Bard hoped he hadn’t just ruined something delicate without knowing it.

Fortunately, Sigrid was more than eloquent when it came to understanding and explaining the politics involved. He spent that evening alone with her, Thranduil riding briefly back to Mirkwood to convene with Tauriel and the other children eating dinner with Gloin and his family. Dis had stopped by to check on him and bid him good evening, but she hadn’t stayed, despite him offering a place to her. She was grave here in Erebor, always solemn, and Bard hadn’t found a chance yet to ask her about paying his respects to her lost family. She might not take his request as kindly as Dain had, and he wasn’t whole enough to walk yet anyway, so it was as well put off as anything.

“Lady Dis and King Dain are still coming to an understanding,” Sigrid said after the lady in question had left. “He says that he wishes to include her as much as possible, but they have different priorities. She feels he doesn’t do enough for those who aren’t warriors, and hasn’t prepared to plant crops at all. She also told him that he gives Thranduil too much leeway here, while Dain thinks that she deliberately misunderstands the situation between the three of you.”

“What situation is that?” Bard asked around a mouthful of dark, sweet bread.

“A balance,” Sigrid said slowly, thinking her answer through before she spoke. “A careful one, because I think Dain feels that you would side with Thranduil if things deteriorated too badly, especially after what happened with the attack on Lady Dis’ caravan, while Lady Dis says the attack was obviously meant for her and you were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, and would not let it damage your political alliances.”

“She’s right about that.”

“But she does know that you and Thranduil are closer than she would like. All the dwarves do. That’s why we have to be so careful how we split our time.” Sigrid spoke with perfect seriousness. “So we’re taking lessons in Khuzdul while we’re here, official ones, and Bain and I are learning some axe work while Tilda spends one hour a day with Oin. Then we practice shooting with Avophen, and how to speak Sindarin.”

“All of that?” Bard felt guilty for pushing so much of his own peacekeeping efforts onto his children. “I’m sorry, darling. That doesn’t leave you much time unspoken for.”

“We’d be just as busy at home,” she replied with a shrug. “Just on different things. Here at least we’re not cooking and cleaning. Not that I mind that,” she added quickly.

Bard’s sense of guilt only intensified. “I will get help for us at home,” he said. Maeve had tried to convince him of it months ago and he’d refused, as fiercely independent now as he’d ever been even though there was no good reason for it. Perhaps Bard had his own damnable share of stubbornness to overcome. “You should have time to do whatever interests you, not what you feel compelled to do to keep our hosts happy.”

“None of us mind, Da. Tilda is excited to learn healing, and Bain would train all day if we let him. And I like learning new languages. Avophen is teaching us from the Lays of Beleriand, and Ori has laid out the entire history of the Durin line. It’s fascinating, Da!”

The fact that she seemed genuinely enthusiastic soothed Bard somewhat. He’d always known that Sigrid, for all her ruthless practicality, had a creative mind and an intelligence that put her father to shame. He hadn’t been able to teach her much himself beyond her basic letters, and to see her finally able to move past that was deeply gratifying. “Good, darling,” he said, and carefully leaned over to kiss her forehead. “That’s good. I’m very proud of you, you know.”

“I know. But don’t hurt yourself, Da,” she chided, even though she looked pleased to be the sole recipient of her father’s attention for once. “Thranduil won’t be happy if he comes back and you’re worse off than when he left.”

“He isn’t happy here in the mountain at all.”

“He is when he’s with you,” Sigrid said with a faint blush, and Bard had to concede that she was right. Thranduil seemed perfectly content to sit with Bard for hours on end, even when he was tiresomely asleep and unable to converse. Bard would wake up and Thranduil would be there, holding his hand, quieting whatever nightmare had set Bard tossing and turning before he disturbed the children with his distress.

“Is that all right with you?” Bard asked, genuinely curious now. None of the children seemed bothered by the growing intimacy between Bard and Thranduil, as truncated as it was for the moment, but of all of them Sigrid had the only clear memories of her mother. If she was discomfited, Bard wanted to know.

“Of course it is.” Sigrid looked like she was a little surprised he was asking. “He’s been very kind to us, and you like each other. Are you all right with it?” she asked a bit hesitantly.

“Fine,” Bard said automatically, because oh, he truly was. “Perfectly fine with it, darling.”

“Ma would understand.”

Bard had to laugh, cautious but real. “I can’t even fathom how your ma would take news like this. An elven king and a bargeman of Laketown.”

“Da.” Sigrid shook her head like he was hopeless. “You’re a king too. You never seem to remember that.”

“Oh, I remember it,” Bard told her. “I just can’t forget where I came from, either. I wouldn’t want to, honestly. If I had the same sense of entitlement that the rest of these royals do, nothing would ever get done.”

“I’ve thought that sometimes too,” Sigrid said quietly, and they shared a smile.

Healing was slow but at least it was steady, and after a week Bard could walk, with Thranduil’s assistance, to the training grounds to watch Bain shoot with the elves. He had nothing like their range, or their preternatural sense of aim, but for a boy of eleven he shot with great accuracy. He showed off for Bard, looking at him after every shot to see that he had his attention, and Bard made sure to give it to him, never taking his eyes from his son. That didn’t mean he couldn’t spare his breath to speak with Thranduil, though.

“Did you do this?” he asked. “With Legolas? Teach him to shoot, watch him fill targets with arrows?”

“On occasion,” Thranduil murmured, his voice pitched low and intimate. His face had regained its perfection, but that didn’t keep curious dwarves from casting glances at him every chance they got. Knowing how private Thranduil was, it didn’t surprise Bard that he wanted to keep any mention of his son soft between the two of them. “But only when he was very young, and still had something to learn. Legolas’ interest in the bow has always exceeded my own. He has a degree of expertise with it now that only Tauriel among my people can match.”

Bard was almost reluctant to ask his next question, but he had to know… “Have you heard anything from him?”

Thranduil smiled, but it was a small and bitter thing. “Not a whisper. But he is well, I know that much. I would feel it if he were otherwise.”

They were out in the open, under the eyes of all manner of people, and Bard couldn’t give Thranduil the comfort he longed to. He made do with lilting sideways as though he were suddenly tired, and letting his shoulder bump into Thranduil’s. It gave the elf an excuse to set hands on him and lift him up again, and if Thranduil’s hand lingered a moment too long against Bard’s lower back, well, Bard didn’t damn well care.

“Da!” Bain ran over to him once his quiver was empty. “Did you see it all?”

“Every shot,” Bard assured him. “Your form is better than ever.”

“Avophen has helped me, and he promised that when Tauriel is back she shall help as well.”

“Avophen is braver than I, to speak on her behalf,” Thranduil said quietly, but there was humor back in his voice.

Bain caught his eye and asked, a little hesitantly, “Would you care to shoot as well? Avophen says you prefer your swords, but that you are a great archer too.”

“Avophen tells you all sorts of things,” Thranduil remarked. “He must find you a very promising student. As for shooting,” he surveyed the range, which was at this point liberally littered with arrows, “I think perhaps tomorrow. None of these bows are mine, after all. But if you can convince Avophen,” he added before Bain had a chance to be downcast,” he and I might show you some swordplay.”

“Really?” Bain looked like his birthday had come early. “I will ask him!”

He ran off again, and Bard said, “You don’t have to indulge him if you don’t want to.” In all honesty though, he was looking forward to seeing Thranduil exert himself.

Thranduil seemed to stare right through Bard, plucking the thoughts from his head like he would seeds floating through the air. “I would not deny you the pleasure of such an indulgence either,” he said, and Bard knew he was blushing now, to Thranduil’s amusement.

“Very kind of you,” he muttered. Bain was coming back with Avophen in tow, and Bard waved Thranduil away. “Go on, then, make a display out of yourself.”

“You might wish to be seated for such a display, King Bard,” Thranduil said as he stepped out onto the rough stone of the training grounds. His elves had stopped their shooting, and even the dwarves who were working to the left had ceased their activity so they could watch. “I would hate for you to be overcome,” he added over his shoulder as he made for the center of the enormous room.

“I’ll show you overcome,” Bard said under his breath, but he did sit, carefully, on a beautifully carved stone bench and made sure he had a good view. Bain stood well out of the way with another elf, unwilling to let go of his bow but rapt with attention, as the two met in a black stone circle in the center of the vast room.

Thranduil carried only one sword now, matching him to Avophen. He was a bit taller, but Bard had seen Avophen move with incredible swiftness. He barely breathed as he watched them draw their weapons and incrementally move them into a ready position, neither of them taking their eyes from the other as they went.

When the stillness finally fell away it was impossible to tell who struck first; they moved in perfect concert, glimmering blades clashing in a whirlwind of activity and never letting up. They did not press forward at all costs, driving with the ferocity of a dwarf, but neither of them backed away either. It was more like they circled each other, darting in before slipping sideways, Avophen a blur of brown and green, Thranduil of white and silver.

Avophen leapt above Thranduil’s head, twisting as he came down and bringing his sword about in a beautiful, brutal arc, but Thranduil was already moving, spinning down to one knee and sweeping his guardsman from his feet the moment after they touched the ground. Avophen recovered quickly but now Thranduil was controlling the attack, his long blade weaving a complicated pattern of offense and defense as he sought a weakness in Avophen’s guard. It truly was beautiful to watch, and Bard appreciated every newly-revealed extension of Thranduil’s body as he struck and parried.

“He fights very well.”

Bard swore his heart almost stopped beating for a moment as he suddenly registered the person standing next to his seat. “Lady Dis,” he managed. “Forgive me, you startled me.”

“Forgive me for doing so.” She didn’t look at him though, just kept her cool gaze on Thranduil. “He is masterful with a blade.”

“He is,” Bard agreed, then diplomatically added, “He has had many more years to practice than most, I suppose.”

“You need not hide your favoritism from me, King Bard.” Still she didn’t look at him. “I know you have little reason to esteem my people, and perhaps me least of all. I would only ask that you treat with us fairly in the future. We are not elves, but we are worthy allies nonetheless.”

Bard was confused. “Why would I treat with you differently in the future? You’ve done nothing to warrant my anger.”

“You are to be the elf king’s consort, are you not?”

Bard almost choked on his own spit. “Ah—hah, no,” he managed after a cough or two. “No, nothing like that. That I am close to him I won’t deny, but consort? I am more than content to be a king; I have no need of additional titles.”

Dis finally met his eyes. “I would not diminish anyone’s love by failing to recognize it. Not even if it is the love of a Mirkwood elf.”

“Nor would I seek to diminish what I feel for him,” Bard said, and he meant every word of it. He loved Thranduil; he felt it more every day. He wanted him, and some day this damn century he was finally going to have him. “But I won’t allow my feelings to compromise my alliances, or cause me to treat my allies any differently than they merit.

“Besides, I have great esteem for your people. Your son Fili saved my children’s lives, did you know? He fought for them with Tauriel, one of Thranduil’s warriors, and with Legolas. He protected them, and he protected his brother, and that is all the reason I ever needed to esteem him, and you, more highly than the stars.”

Dis did not cry, but her eyes glistened perilously. “Truly?”

“Upon my honor, it’s true.” Bard wished he knew enough of Dwarvish custom to offer better comfort than mere words, but when Dis finally turned to look at him she wore a serene expression.

“That is good to hear. A faint comfort, but far better than nothing at all,” she said. “Dain seems to think I will be overcome if I speak of them, but it would be far better to hear their names echo through these halls than to pretend that they never existed.”

“If you’re feeling particularly open-minded, you might speak with Tauriel if she comes to Erebor,” Bard suggested, praying that he was doing the right thing. “She was there, in the thick of it. She could recount the scene better than I, and she was with Kili…at the end.”

“I’ll consider it.” Dis tucked a stray lock of shining hair behind her ear and straightened her back. “Don’t let me distract you any further, King Bard. I believe the match is almost over.”

Bard turned back to the training grounds just in time to watch Thranduil strike at Avophen three times in quick succession, culminating with a powerful overhead blow that Avophen blocked, but that drove him down to his knees, taking away his mobility. He lowered his blade and bowed his head. “Agorel vae, hîr vuin.

Thranduil lowered his sword, slowly sheathed it, then offered Avophen his hand. “Agorel vae, mellon.” He helped Avophen to his feet and they did that strange salute Bard had seen before, one hand sweeping fluidly from chest to inclined head.

“That was amazing!” Bain was in raptures from the sound of it. “You’re both so fast!”

“Elves must be fast,” Thranduil said, and he barely sounded out of breath, while Bard felt like he’d taken a kick to the chest just watching him move. Thranduil’s pale skin glowed with exertion, glistening ever so slightly at his temples, and if Bard had thought he was capable of it he would have charged out there and dragged Thranduil off somewhere out of the public eye. On second thought, it was probably good he wasn’t that well. It wouldn’t have been a very subtle move.

“And light on their feet,” Thranduil continued. “We might not be the strongest of all the races, but we understand our advantages and how to use them against an opponent.” He glanced over at Bard, and whatever he saw must have caught his attention, because he said, “Bain, forgive me, but I must take your father back to his rooms now. He needs to rest before dinner.”

“Oh, right.” Bain looked at Bard and Bard nodded, just to indicate he was all right. Bain turned back to Avophen and a moment later Thranduil was there, his warm handing lifting Bard to his feet this time.  Bard felt many things in that moment, but tired wasn’t one of them.

It wasn’t a long walk back to his rooms, but it seemed to drag on forever. The moment the door to the antechamber shut and they ensured that neither of the girls was inside, Bard fell against Thranduil like a dying man, clinging for his very life as he kissed him fiercely, tangling his fingers in Thranduil’s hair and holding him still as he drowned in sensation, every touch burning brighter, every caress making him hotter. “You,” he growled against Thranduil’s lips, “are barely possible. How can you be here, as magnificent as you are, and be for me?”

“There is no one else I would rather be with,” Thranduil replied, his voice so low it seemed almost to vibrate in his throat. “Dragonslayer. King among men, bargeman and bowman and the best of all your people, utterly captivating for all that you,” he bit at Bard’s throat here, not quite hard enough to bruise, but Bard tipped his head back and groaned at the sensation, “try to deny it.”

“More,” Bard pleaded as Thranduil began to move back, “no, don’t stop, stay!”

“Oh no, my king,” Thranduil said, drawing out every word with wicked pleasure. “I will not have you here. One week gone from a fight with death, too fragile yet to take you the way I wish to, too delicate to bend you the way I wish to bend,” he gripped Bard’s wrist and pinned it to the wall beside his head, pushed the other one down by his hip and held him fast, “Too broken now for me to break again. When I have you at last, I will have everything, without worry that a dwarf will overhear or a child will come running. The sounds you will make when I have you at last will be mine alone.” He kissed Bard’s mouth again, more gently this time, and then stepped back.

Bard stared at him incredulously. “You want to wait?”

“Precisely.”

“You’re determined to put this off?”

Thranduil smiled wide. “The delay shall make it all the sweeter, meleth nîn.

Bard could have wept with frustration, but he wasn’t about to give his cheeky lover the pleasure of seeing him driven mad. For his health, for privacy, honestly. “I’ll have you begging me,” he promised darkly. “Begging on your knees for me, Lord of the Woodland Realm. And we shall see if mercy moves me to grant you favors then.”

Thranduil smiled even wider. His obvious glee made him look younger, somehow, less ethereal and more real. The mess that Bard had made of his hair helped somewhat too. “I look forward to seeing you try. Now,” he tugged Bard off the wall, and Bard grimaced as he realized that his ribs did actually ache rather intensely at the moment. “Come and lie with me, and tell me what Lady Dis had to say to you.”

“It was a private conversation, none of your business,” Bard said loftily, and he felt a surge of satisfaction at Thranduil’s sudden frown. “She did say that you fought very well,” he added as Thranduil helped him to get prone without straining himself. It was a relief to be flat again, he had to admit.

It was even better when Thranduil stretched out beside him, unselfconscious about how his feet dangled off the edge, more interested in laying his head close to Bard’s. “Even she cannot deny the proof of her own eyes,” he said smugly.

“Your humility is overwhelming.”

“Why feign it when there is no need?”

“I suppose not.” Bard leaned over and kissed the very tip of Thranduil’s nose. “You’re the prettiest pointy-eared lordling with a sword she’s ever seen.”

Thranduil narrowed his eyes. “She did not say that.”

“No, that one’s all me.”

“My lover mocks me. We are off to a splendid start.”

Bard truly couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so…not necessarily happy, for he was certainly feeling the ache of unmet needs, but he was…content. Perfectly, gloriously content. Perhaps not since Ameline was alive had he felt so complete. “I think we are.”

Chapter Text

 

It was another full week before Bard could leave the mountain and return to Dale, and Thranduil spent all but one evening of that with him.  The needs of his own people, and the brutal necessity of their fight against the incursion into the Greenwood, was a continual goad to Thranduil’s conscience, but he could not make himself go for good yet. It was as though Bard himself was a lodestone, and Thranduil but a shard caught in its pull. He felt no desire to depart, even Bard’s unconsciousness more appealing than the thought of leaving him to someone else’s watchfulness.

Still, there were moments when Thranduil had to work himself, had to move, he was so filled with an unexpected wellspring of energy. It was something he hadn’t experienced before outside of the heat of an impending battle, when cool blood burned and calm miens gave way to quicksilver rage against the enemy. Perhaps it was a side effect of falling in love with a human, someone who felt all things both quickly and deeply, if not always wisely. It was so different from his courtship with Tínulor, which while brief by the standard of an elven existence had nevertheless been measured, delight and desire tempered with the knowledge of an eternity together. They had been well suited, he and his beloved, but they had been far more similar than Thranduil and Bard were now, and Thranduil knew it.

He sparred every day with Avophen, or with two of his other guards at once. He was watched, always a spectacle no matter what he thought of it, but when it was Bard’s eyes on him he could not bring himself to mind the scrutiny. Not when it affected the man so much, darkening his pupils and quickening his breath and the beat of his heart. Bard ran hot, ever heated from his passions, whether they were on behalf of his people, his kin or for Thranduil himself. It was no wonder men exhausted themselves in less than a century, when they raged like volcanoes inside, so fierce in their emotions it was dizzying.

When they were alone Thranduil could not keep himself from touching Bard, a kiss, an embrace or just a hand to support him. Thranduil would not let himself tip over the edge yet, though. It was too much, the mountain was too strange, and he wasn’t comfortable here. Bard didn’t protest—much—rather smiling ruefully and saying something like, “It’s been years since I’ve been with anyone at all. I think I can stand to wait a while longer.”

It had been centuries for Thranduil. Longer. And as much as he wanted Bard, as fervently as he desired him, that was a consideration that he had to take into account.

Two days before Bard was to leave Erebor, Thranduil went back to his halls to meet with Tauriel. She had continued the assault on the creatures of Dol Goldur in his absence, as capable a captain as he could ask for, but he could not—would not—leave her to pursue it without his guidance. Tauriel’s mood seemed to have stabilized somewhat, no longer throwing herself into the fight with a single-minded disregard for her own safety, but Thranduil could not live in contented ignorance now. He would have her as hale as could be, and that meant seeing her face to face to weigh the truth for himself.

It felt good to settle back onto the high seat of his throne, calming in a way nothing else was recently. Tauriel approached with a steady stride and a bow, and he inclined his head in return. “What news, hest?”

“We have reduced the radius of the spiders’ attacks, my king, though not eliminated them completely. They are well entrenched in Dol Goldur, but there are far fewer webs a mile beyond the fortress, and their presence this far north is almost negligible now. Occasional scouts, but nothing more.”

“Well done. You have planned well and fought hard.”

Tauriel didn’t say anything, but her smile spoke volumes. Thranduil matched it, but his was a bit more devious than hers. After all, he deserved his amusement where he could get it.

“In fact, I feel you deserve a reprieve. So tomorrow, you will accompany me back to Erebor for a feast they’ve planned as both a farewell to Bard and a celebration of his recovery.”

Tauriel’s smile melted away. Her glare might have stripped the light from the lamps, it was so fierce. “My king, surely there are better things for me to spend my time on than to attend a feast.”

“If I myself will be there, then how can there be any better use for the time?” Thranduil let her glower at him a moment later before saying, more gently, “Your presence was specifically requested, actually. By Lady Dis herself. She would know the valiant captain who fought with her sons.”

Tauriel went pale, her cheeks losing their bloom as she stared in horror at Thranduil. “What does she—how does she—did you—”

“I said nothing to her,” Thranduil assured her. “It was Bard who explained the role you played in protecting his children, and naturally her own came into the conversation. She does not know the depth of your feeling toward Kili, nor his toward you. It will not be an interrogation, Tauriel, nor a condemnation. You need not say any more than you wish to, but it would ease her heart to speak to you. Given that her influence in the mountain grows daily, it would be well for us to cultivate it instead of spurning it.”

“And so you leave this task to me?”

“Tauriel.” Thranduil leaned forward and captured her gaze with his own, as honest as he could be. “There will forever be a barrier between the dwarves and myself, especially those who remember the coming of the dragon. Lady Dis and I will never find common ground beyond our common allies. You have a chance to do something that I never could. I will not force you to,” although he could, “but it is my wish that you join me in Erebor tomorrow.”

“My king…” Tears had welled in her eyes, though they did not fall. They glittered more brightly than any of the gems in the mountain, a gift of remembrance beyond compare. Thranduil rose to his feet and walked to Tauriel, and though he didn’t reach out to touch her, his sense of companionship with her grew regardless.

“If you feel that you can come with me tomorrow, then do so,” he said. “If not, then I will make any apologies that the lady deems necessary. She shall certainly enjoy the process,” he added, and Tauriel smiled despite herself.

“It’s just—to speak of him so soon, with someone who was so dear to him—I don’t know if I shall be able to contain myself,” she said, and Thranduil understood. Oh, how he understood.

“Decide tomorrow,” he told her. “Take the evening to relax and recover.”

“Yes, my king.” She bowed and left him, and Thranduil tried not to think of her and her dilemma as he worked through his neglected duties and correspondence. There was nothing from Legolas, of course. It was foolish to let himself expect something, more foolish to feel let down when those expectations weren’t met. Thranduil had meant what he’d said to Bard, that he would be able to tell if something was wrong with his son. He had felt it immediately when Tínulor was—

His heart squeezed tight with remembered pain, an indescribable sense of sudden loss. It still hurt to think of her, but not as impossibly as before. Remembering her, the fond angles of her face, the richness of her laughter—the pain was tempered now with the sweetness of the memories. He had not honored his wife as he should have, all these years. He had not done right by her, or properly celebrated everything she meant to him. This…this was something Thranduil needed to remedy, something he had to acknowledge, before he could fully give his heart to another. It would not be a whole heart, otherwise, and Bard deserved more than a piecemeal devotion.

Bard is not meant to be a diversion. Gandalf had said that, and he had been right. Thranduil would give his lover the respect he deserved.

***

When he left with his escort to return to Erebor the next day, Tauriel did not leave with them. Thranduil did not send for her, but he was gratified when she finally fell in beside the company as they reached the edge of the woods. She did not speak, and neither did he, but he motioned her up beside him and they rode side by side to the mountain, where an uncertain reception waited for them.

Or perhaps not so uncertain, given that Bard and his family were still there.

“You’re back!” Naturally it was Tilda who waited for them, her smile wide on her little face. “And Tauriel has come!” She ran through the gates, to the evident displeasure of the dwarves guarding them, and met them on the causeway. “Tauriel!” She reached up and Tauriel dismounted and accepted Tilda’s embrace, no doubt a welcome distraction from the turmoil inside of her. Tauriel had learned faster than Thranduil how to accept human signs of affection, carefree touches and hugs, and when Tilda took her hand to lead her into the mountain Tauriel held it easily.

It might have been Tilda’s grip on Tauriel’s hand that kept her from fleeing back to the Greenwood when King Dain and Lady Dis, along with an honor guard of their own, met them in the throne room.

“Welcome back, King of the Woodland Realm,” Dain said perfunctorily. “Again.”

Thranduil smiled coolly. “My thanks. Your hospitality, as ever, is exquisite.”

“Indeed it is,” Dain agreed. Dis didn’t say anything, just looked at Tauriel and Tilda like she’d just had a question answered. “The feast is ready. Let’s not let the food get cold.” Dain led the way but made room for Thranduil to walk beside him if he chose to, which of course he did.

“Where is King Bard?” Thranduil was a bit surprised he hadn’t come to meet him at the gate.

“He’d have been here already, except he got a bit of a surprise a while ago. Had to go to the forges.”

“A surprise?” What sort of surprise would take Bard to the forges?

“Aye. Gimli found his crown on the field and brought it back to him not an hour ago. It was a bit bent out of shape, but Bard wanted to wear it, so.” Dain shrugged. “He was off to the forges and found a proper smith to fix it.”

“I could have fixed it for him,” Thranduil said.

“True, but then he’d have had to wait to wear it, and that king’s been without a crown long enough. Not,” Dain added, “that he doesn’t have a nicer one back in Dale, but he’s been a bit stubborn about wearing it.”

Thranduil nodded but didn’t speak, too busy thinking about Bard wearing his circlet yet again. In truth Thranduil hadn’t given its loss much thought, since he’d been far more invested in Bard’s health. That it was not only found, pried up out of the blood-stained battleground and returned to him by a dwarf…now that he let himself consider it, Thranduil longed to see Bard so adorned. To see him wearing the symbol of his leadership and achievements, and something that Thranduil had gifted him himself.

He got his wish a moment later as they entered the great hall where the tables were laid, the air redolent with the scent of roasting meat. Thranduil would not partake in it, but he found after some exposure that he didn’t mind it so much anymore. He much better appreciated the sight of Bard walking toward him, finally dressed with regard to his station in the same clothes he’d worn for his coronation, with Thranduil’s gleaming circlet atop his head, sparkling brightly in his mane of dark hair. He moved well now, with barely a hint of pain, and the sense of relief that Thranduil felt at Bard’s wholeness was consuming.

Bard smiled, and Thranduil matched it helplessly. “You’re back just in time.” He bowed to Dain and Dis, greeted Tauriel cordially, then retrieved his daughter and sent her off to the table before holding his hand out to Thranduil. “Sit with us.”

Thranduil wanted nothing more, but he looked at his captain first, to ensure that she did not feel she was being abandoned. She was still pale, but seemed to have control of her emotions, and her slight nod freed him to join Bard without regret.

“You look very well,” he murmured as they moved to their seats, side by side along the head table.

“I thought you’d think so,” Bard said teasingly. “I’m very grateful to Gimli for finding the crown, I’d thought it lost for good.”

“I’m grateful also,” Thranduil clarified, “but that is not what I refer to when I say you look well.” Bard blushed, to Thranduil’s delight, and then they took their seats and kept the children from leaping all over Tauriel, and the feast commenced.

There was food, of which Thranduil ate little. There was drink, from which he abstained. There were speeches, and he nodded when appropriate but gave them little thought otherwise. All he could think of, here with Bard, was how badly he wanted to bring him home, back to his halls in the Woodland Realm. He would not be able to right now, he knew it; Bard had much to do in Dale, work on rebuilding the city and reestablishing himself among his people. He would be collaborating closely with the dwarves for a time, assembling their engines and refitting battlements, towers and houses. It would be better for him to have time, to get the work well started and reassure himself as to his people’s wellbeing.

And Thranduil…he had things of his own to prepare now. A proper remembrance of Tínulor, and a proper welcome for Bard to his halls. The thought of bringing him there, into the heart of his society, into the place that had been Thranduil’s home for an age and bore all the signs of his long rule, set his soul yearning. To see Bard there, keep him even briefly…everything would be well. Everything would be right, and that was what he needed.

Absently Thranduil kept track of Tauriel, watched her speak with Lady Dis stiltedly at first, then gradually with more fluidity. She kept her reserve, but the truth shone like a beacon in her eyes. There was no telling how much Dis saw there, but she did not seem upset or angered, so that was something. Thranduil listened to Sigrid speak Sindarin to Avophen, halting but understandable, and to Bain tell his father how far his arrows had flown today. He listened to Tilda chatter about how to properly wrap a bandage (very snugly—her Da had let her practice on him and he feels better now, don’t you Da?).

“Much better, darling,” Bard said with a smile, then when Tilda was distracted he added in a murmur that only Thranduil could hear, “Though I did have to loosen it a bit or give up on breathing for the evening. She’s learned all this from Oin. Dwarves are made of sterner stuff than men, it seems.”

“You are made as you are meant to be,” Thranduil replied. “It could not be improved upon, in your case.”

“Flatterer.” He was pleased, though, Thranduil could tell. It was a delight, how easily Bard’s emotions showed in his face and voice. There was no deception in him, the opposite of Laketown’s venal Master; Thranduil was a bit surprised that he’d managed to smuggle Thorin and his company into the town, when it went so strongly against Bard’s moral grain. Then again, he had a family to provide for, which had been much more in question at that time. Now that his children were safe and secure, Bard could rise to become the man he had always been meant to be.

They got through the feast and the speeches, and by the time the ale was broken out Thranduil was more than ready to leave. The children wanted to stay and dance; apparently the dwarves of Ered Luin and those of the Iron Hills had an ongoing argument as to whose dances were more vigorous, and a contest was imminent.

“I will check and make sure you’re in your rooms later,” Bard warned his children, who had been moved into a suite of their own as his condition improved. “So don’t stay up too late.”

“Yes, Da.”

“Yes, Da.”

“But it’s our last night! We can’t go to bed!”

Bard sighed and looked at his recalcitrant offspring. “You can and you will.”

“I will watch after them,” Lady Dis offered. By her side Tauriel looked still solemn, but not pained. “And ensure they retire at an appropriate time.”

“My thanks, Lady Dis.”

They left together, for once the commotion going on too much for most people to care to watch them go, and headed back to Bard’s rooms. The antechamber was warm, a fresh fire burning in its grate, and Bard ensured they were alone before he shut the door. He came to Thranduil and took both his hands, looked down at them silently for a long moment, then asked, “Where were you tonight?”

“What do you mean, meleth nîn?”

“Your mind was miles away. Has there been more trouble in the Greenwood?”

Of course Bard could tell when Thranduil was distracted. Did he watch Thranduil as closely as he himself was watched, savoring every movement, following every breath? “No, there is no trouble. The battle goes well, although we may have reached a standstill for now.”

“Is it something with Legolas, then?”

Thranduil’s head jerked up. “Why do you ask that?”

Bard stroked the backs of Thranduil’s hands with his calloused thumbs. “Because whatever you are thinking on, it has you greatly preoccupied. And I would know the cause, even if you think it is something that might hurt me.”

Ah, no. No, that was the wrong direction entirely. “I am not,” Thranduil said with great distinction, “thinking about how to leave you, or tell you my mind and my heart have changed. They have not. Elven hearts…they are loyal and enduring, like the sun in the sky.”

“The sun sets every night,” Bard pointed out, not meeting his eyes. “And I am just a man.”

“You are not just anything, Bard. That is what occupies my mind so.”

“What do you mean?”

It was difficult to explain, more difficult than Thranduil had reckoned on, but he tried. “You know I was wed once.”

“Yes, to Legolas’ mother.”

“Yes. For a very long time, she and he were all I ever wanted. All I ever thought I would want. When I felt my heart open to you, it was a great surprise to me. A welcome one, but a surprise nevertheless.”

Bard looked at him now, really looked, and then said, “You know, I already told Dis I wasn’t going to be anyone’s consort. It would be a little awkward to go back on that now.”

Thranduil smiled. “No, that would not be appropriate. You are the ruler of your own kingdom, your loyalty must not seem divided.”

“What is it that’s making you think so hard, then?”

Thranduil closed his eyes for a moment, took in the warmth of the room and the greater warmth of Bard’s hands in his, the unique scent of his skin mingled with the smoke from the fire. Thranduil would always associate fire and smoke with Bard. “What is hard is that I want to take you with me to the Woodland Realm and keep you there. I want to carve your portrait where I will see it every day, and hear your footsteps move within my home. I want to adore you and have all of you, take everything from you and give only myself back until there is no difference between us. I want to make you happy, and make your family feel loved and safe.”

Bard opened his mouth, but Thranduil shook his head. “I cannot do these things yet. I have too many things to prepare, and an unintended disrespect that must be remedied before I can welcome you the way you deserve. And you have a city to rebuild and work to get done, and that will be hard enough without the distraction I would provide.”

Bard sighed, but it wasn’t a bitter thing, just slightly resigned. “Is this your way of telling me that we’re going to be taking this even slower?”

“Not that slowly,” Thranduil said soothingly. “No more than a few weeks, a month at the most. Until I can have you in my kingdom with yours on the mend, and nothing to distract either of us for a time. Then I would give you everything I have promised you, and more.”

“This is serious, isn’t it?” Thranduil met Bard’s eyes, which looked a bit…awed. “This is very serious for you.”

“Very.”

“Good.” Bard smiled a bit crookedly. “I’d hate for it to be just me.” He closed his eyes and stretched his head back for a moment, his neck clicking as he did. “Fine. Whatever feels right to you, that’s what we’ll do. I’d wait a dozen years if I needed to.” He looked sternly at Thranduil. “That’s not a suggestion, by the way. The begging you’re going to be doing? It may go on for days at this rate.”

Thranduil laughed. “I will bear it as best I can.”

“Too right you will.” Bard stepped in close, so that their chests touched. “I’m glad that we have tonight, though. I missed having you beside me.”

“So did I.” Bard couldn’t know how much.

Chapter Text

 

Dwarves were not made to be forgiving.

Perhaps once they had possessed a greater capacity for tenderness toward other races, back in the First Age, the age of Durin and Thingol, great leaders of dwarves and elves both. It wasn’t until the coming of the rings that their relationship truly disintegrated, although elves being what they were, they had always been inclined to see themselves are more than anyone else. More beautiful, more powerful, more worthy, and with a greater capacity for insincerity and contempt than Dis had ever suspected as a child.

Her youth had been privileged, Dis knew that. She was the only daughter of the crown prince of Erebor, granddaughter to the king, and thanks to their wealth she hadn’t had to tolerate anyone looking down on her, not even Thranduil of the Woodland Realm. That he and her grandfather had quarreled over something she knew, but she hadn’t cared what. Before the dragon came Dis had been ignorant of her true place in the world, how her race was regarded by others. After the dragon, though…

The shame. The shame she had felt, greater than even her dismay, more powerful than her rage. The shame of being driven out of their home, one of the greatest pillars of dwarven craftsmanship and might, and forced to leave it by a filthy fire-drake. The shame of being seen as unworthy of the elves’ effort, Thranduil’s entire army come to the brink of their kingdom in its moment of need, and then leaving just as solemnly. The shame of wandering the wilderness, mounting the ultimately unsuccessful Battle of Azanulbizar, the awful loss of her brother Frerin and the madness of her father Thrain…

It was shameful, to be brought so low. Painful, to see her proud brother Thorin forced to toil as a simple blacksmith for any men or dwarves would give him the work. He had swallowed his pride and slaved, for her sake. He had accepted her husband as best he could accept anyone who was not of Erebor, and welcomed the coming of her children with a love and a fervor that made Dis feel, for the first time in a long time, like their shame might be over. Like they might be content in their new life in Ered Luin, a life that could be filled with pride: simple pride in a day’s work and a life well lived, in her children, in their little family.

The wizard had dashed all of Dis’ simple hopes and left only room for great ones. Destroy the dragon, retake Erebor, reclaim your rightful place in its halls. Thorin had always kept his pride better than Dis had, and it had only taken a few words and that bloody map and key to rekindle his lofty dreams. He would go, there was no gainsaying him, and her boys were to go with him.

They were so young, for Khazâd. So brave, everyone said it, but Dis didn’t need to hear tales of her sons’ valor and fierceness in battle to know they were brave. She had seen it in them every day, in their watchfulness for each other, in Fili’s desperate desire to make his family happy and in Kili’s ardor for adventure. Now, no more. No more bravery, no more devotion, no more laughter and tricks and love from them, her boys. And no Thorin to blame and hate and rage at, no big brother to cling to and share her tears with, to join her in her consuming grief. They were all gone to Mahal, and Dis alone was left of their branch of the line of Durin. Alone now, and alone forever.

Dain tried, but he was no substitute for her dear ones. No one could be. How was it possible that all others in Thorin’s company had lived but her family? The Durins had been too proud, too stubborn, and too rash, and Dis, she had been…too late. She had spoken against the trip but not strongly enough, had caved to Gandalf’s honeyed words, and this was the result. Tharkûn might one day beg her forgiveness, but Dis would never give it, not for all the gems in Erebor.

She wanted to despise Thranduil as well, for all that he and his people had come through in the end. She did, in fact, hate him, but there were two things that prevented her from expressing her feelings toward him with her axe. The first was the King of Dale and his family. Bard was a surprisingly humble individual for the man who had slain Smaug, and he had been injured protecting her people. She respected him, and his family was a painful, guilty delight to Dis. The sight of his children, so different and yet so similar to her boys, and so comfortable with dwarves…it moved her. They could not thaw her completely but she was not inclined to hurt them, and so she let the children play in her ancestral home, and let their fondness for the elves guide her silence toward them.

The second thing holding back Dis’ wrath was that among the elves of Mirkwood was a captain by the name of Tauriel, who had saved her son Kili’s life again and again, according to the company. That Kili had been fond of the elf Dis didn’t doubt; Kili alone had shaken off the weight of their ancient distrust and left his tremendous heart unfettered, to roam where it would. According to Oin, there had been more than fondness between then, and it had seemed to be reciprocated, which…

She couldn’t think it. Dis could not let herself think of it, for fear of hardening her heart even further. Her prejudices were longstanding, the result of more than a century of ill-use—there could be no overcoming such things in a single season. And the elf had to be older than she, and similarly prejudiced. How could one such as she look at Kili and see beyond enmity, to the beauty of his spirit? Dis did not think that elves had it in them to see beauty in anything but themselves. Selfish, insular creatures with delusions of superiority. None of them could be worth her son’s love, none.

But…Dis could not shut away her curiosity. She had spoken to Bard, and through him to Thranduil, and now the captain in question was here, somber and subdued. She was a typical elf, beautiful in a leggy, hairless way, and she moved like a warrior. Her face, though, her demeanor…those seemed anxious, almost afraid. Afraid of Dis? Or afraid of her judgment?

There were things that Dis was not ready to let herself think, it was true, but she was also prepared, for the memory of her sons, to overlook others. After Bard’s youngest led the elf king away, Dis prepared herself to confront the captain. To her surprise, it was the elf who made the first move.

“My Lady Dis.” She did not just bow, she knelt down to one knee, her eyes low. “I am honored to meet you.”

Dis inclined her head. “Thank you for coming to Erebor. Will you sit with me?”

“Of course.” Tauriel rose and followed Dis to the head table, where they sat to Dain’s left. He glanced at Dis warily, a look she ignored in favor of pouring ale for herself and her guest. Tauriel did not refuse the drink, which Dis had half expected. A point in her favor.

“I’ve heard much of you, Tauriel of the Woodland Realm,” Dis said, in that carefully cultivated tone of voice that was both strong and soft, intended for one person’s ears only. “My people say you are a fierce fighter.”

“I…it has been…that is, it is my calling, my lady. Dis. My lady Dis.”

Despite herself, Dis found the elf’s discomfort a bit amusing. It moved her to want to ease that discomfort, where in the face of haughtiness her tongue would have turned harsh. “Just Dis is fine.” She took some food, and watched Tauriel do the same. No pride to stop this one, or perhaps she had swallowed it for the sake of making a good impression. “I understand that you fought alongside my sons in the final battle.”

“Yes, Lady Dis, I had that honor.”

“I’m also given to understand that you threw my sons in prison not long before that.”

Tauriel froze reaching for her flagon, and swallowed hard. Dis was genuinely surprised that she could discomfit Tauriel so; what did she care what Dis thought of her for doing her duty? “I was one of their guards,” Tauriel said after a moment.

“Is that where you and Kili struck up your friendship?” Dis could go that far, though no more; had she not seen other strange friendships in motion here since her arrival, between Ori and Avophen, between Oin and Tilda?

“Yes,” Tauriel said, softly, then repeated, “Yes. We spoke, and he showed me a token. A rune stone that…that he told me you gave him.”

“Ah.” It was all Dis could say; her heart stopped beating for a moment as she realized her son had shared such a private thing with Tauriel. She had given such tokens to both her sons, inscribed slightly differently; they had been the labor of her own hands, carved late at night while they slept. Kili’s had read Innikh Dê. Return to me.

“He told me you gave it to him to remind him of his promise to you.”

Oh, she had. Mahal, she had, and it hurt to remember how earnestly he had given his word to her, and how eventually it had been broken regardless, sundered along with his flesh. “Yes,” Dis managed. “I did. For what little effect it had in the end, I did.”

“It meant a great deal to him,” Tauriel said, and Dis had to acknowledge her bravery. It was clear she was not certain of how her words would be received, that she was nervous, perhaps even afraid, but she went on anyway. “He spoke of you, and his love for you shone like the light of the stars. Deep and everlasting.”

Dis could hear no more of that, not right now. To think about everything she had lost, the warmth of her children’s love, the strength of their regard…she could not. She cleared her throat. “You saved his life with your medicine.”

“I did.”

“You saved Bard’s family from attack as well.”

“I assisted in that. Your other son, Fili, he fought valiantly for them. And he would not leave his brother’s side.”

“No, of course not.” Fili, her loving, caring boy. Ever looking after his younger brother, even if it cost him his life. The same could not be said for Thorin; so close to the mountain, the weight of damnable prophecy hanging over his head, he could not be waylaid, not even for his nephews. Dis had to press on, before the sorrow inside of her drowned her voice. “You fought alongside Kili, at the end. You saw his death.”

“Yes.” Her voice was a bare breath of air, hardly audible over the noise of eating and carousing. “I was with him. He saved my life, that time, more than once. I could not…in the end, I was not strong enough to save him back. I was not swift enough, not skilled enough.” She looked at Dis, and her mouth seemed to tremble. “I have never regretted anything more.”

Oh, Mahal. Too much, it was too much. Too honest, too close to overwhelming the walls that were all that kept Dis’ heart from crumbling into a million shattered pieces. Dis stared sightlessly at her plate, all conversation forgotten as she worked to shore up her defenses. She would not collapse under the weight of her grief for all to see, especially not the Mirkwood king.

“Forgive me.” The words were low but earnest in her ear. “Forgive me, I did not mean to hurt you, please forgive me.”

It was helpful, actually, to hear someone else’s need mirror her own. Tauriel needed Dis to speak, to grant her absolution for an act that was not her fault. It was unnecessary, but Dis would not refuse her. “I do,” she said, and her voice sounded like iron, rusty but still firm beneath it. “I do forgive you, for speaking of something that pains me. It is better to know though, even if it hurts.”

Tauriel met her gaze. “Please believe that if I could have given my life for him—if I could have saved him, even if it meant my own death—that I—” Now her voice was the one to stop, the words choking in her throat, and Dis could not help but feel compassion for the elf maid.

“Later,” Dis said. “Tell me later, when it is not so raw. Hold onto your truths, save them for me. We will share it all eventually. I would seek your company again, if you would permit it.”

“Any time,” Tauriel said instantly. “You have but to send word and I will come.”

“You’d best check with your king before promising such things, had you not?”

Tauriel lifted her chin. “My king knows better than to cross me in this. I am loyal to him, but I must be loyal to my own heart first.”

Dis’ own heart throbbed, but there was satisfaction there now, a tendril of happiness that radiated out from Tauriel’s own disobedience. To set whatever she felt for Kili above what she felt for her own king…that was something with true worth. “Thank you,” she said. “For speaking with me tonight. For understanding some of this.”

“Thank you for asking me,” Tauriel replied just as quietly, and they reached for their flagons and shared a silent, heartfelt toast to the dead, and to the strength of their memories.

Chapter Text

 

                Leaving Erebor was a decided relief. Bard was grateful to the dwarves for the care he’d received and the attention to his family, but the strain between his hosts and Thranduil had grown on a daily basis, until Bard sometimes wondered if the air between Dis and Thranduil might catch fire, it was so heated with things left unsaid. Bard had stared down a dragon, but he wouldn’t have wanted to be on the receiving end of either of those glares. Besides, the weight of everything he’d left undone in Dale, all the work that had yet to be planned to say nothing of completed: the planting, the fishing, the repairs, it weighed heavier on him every day.

No, leaving Erebor was a relief. Leaving Erebor with a crew of dwarvish masons and woodworkers who were prepared to build engines that would shift the rubble of his city and spare his peoples’ backs, that was a pleasure, and mostly due to Lady Dis’ intervention with Dain. Not that the new king hadn’t been prepared to offer such assistance, he said while pointedly not looking at his cousin. “But we’ve ample trials of our own ahead of us, laddie, and much to repair and renew here in Erebor in the coming months.”

“Thankfully with the arrival of my convoy, such workload cares have been alleviated,” Dis said pleasantly, also not looking at Dain. It reminded Thranduil of when Sigrid and Bain had been much younger, and refused to talk to each other for a week after Bain had gotten pitch in the end of his sister’s braid. They’d tried to communicate through Tilda, but at three years old and easily distracted, their messages had ended up a garbled mess more often than not.

“I thank you,” Bard said, cutting whatever else they might snipe about off. “You know that I appreciate your assistance, and Balin has already spoken to me about the food share percentages, and we’ll have ample time to discuss the boundaries of particular crops in the coming week as the ground finishes thawing.” Balin was quite possibly the most organized dwarf in Erebor, and had an unwholesome love for contracts and paperwork. It was fortunate that Bard had Hekla to assist him, as the man was a canny merchant who was more than conversant at discussing trades and tariffs and whatever other obscure jargon flowed from Balin’s lips. “I hope when next we meet, both of us will have plenty of successes to report.”

“Aye! Ye’re looking on the bright side of the coin, I appreciate that. Fare thee well then, King Bard. Don’t trip over any orcs on your way back to Dale.” Dain turned to acknowledge Thranduil and his company, who were also leaving that morning. “You too, Lord of Mirkwood.”

Well. That was about as cordial as Dain got, and probably the best Bard could expect. Thranduil, to his credit, simply inclined his head before turning and leading the way out of the mountain. Bard made sure his children were gathered—Tilda was just kissing a gruff Oin goodbye—and they left as well, his escort in tow.

The children were in high spirits to be returning at last to Dale, and they and the fact that there were ten dwarves accompanying him back home were all that kept Bard from embarrassing himself when it finally came time to part from the elves. He had woken up positively wrapped around Thranduil, the ache from his broken bones completely replaced by the one in his heart. How could it hurt so badly, just the prospect of time and distance apart? It made Bard feel like a youth again, nervously courting Ameline, who in such a short time had gained such power over Bard’s happiness. He was way too old to feel such a flutter inside.

Then again, Thranduil didn’t look too pleased at their parting either, and he was infinitely older than Bard, so how did it make him feel? Bard brushed his concerns aside and closed the distance between them. They were both on horseback, so there could be no real intimacy, which was for the best. Truly. Really.

“Two weeks, then,” Bard murmured to Thranduil. “A month on the outside. More than that and I’ll persuade Avophen to bring me to your halls unannounced and frighten the wits out of you when your guard is down.”

“My guard is never down,” Thranduil replied, but his demeanor seemed a bit softer. “And the time will pass quickly.”

“It had better.” Today’s, at least, was flying. Bard glanced up at the sky and saw how far the sun had already progressed. He’d barely have time to settle in before night fell at this rate. The children had already said their goodbyes, the dwarves were not his to borrow forever and needed to begin their work, and he needed to go. “Be well, my king.” Bard’s fingers itched to reach out, but he restrained them.

Na lû e-govaned vîn, Bard.”

Bard smiled. “I remember that one. Until we meet again.” And then, even though it felt almost impossible, he turned his horse away and rejoined his family and escort, and headed down the road toward Dale. He did not look back until he was sure he wasn’t going to do something ridiculous. The only sight left to greet his eyes was Tauriel, alone at the edge of the woods, one arm raised in farewell. Bard matched her for a moment and then she was gone, and he was left almost wondering if he’d even seen her at all.

Blessedly, Bard found that for the most part, Thranduil had been correct. The amount of work he had waiting for him on his return was just as encompassing as he’d feared, but instead of approaching it with loathing he tackled it with a vengeance, even the paperwork. The dwarves built their engines with astonishing speed and skill, and with Gloin and Ori’s help Bard was able to identify the places that needed to be recovered first, and teach the cleverest of his own people how to work the machines and understand the weights and balances involved so they could do so as safely as possible.

The numbers behind it all, more complicated mathematics than Bard was comfortable with, appealed to Bain, surprisingly, and he sat with Ori every morning and learned how to write equations and solve for obscure variables. Sigrid learned as well, but she was more interested in statecraft, and Tilda practiced a different and astonishingly tight bandage on Bard each new day. His people got used to seeing him with his wrist splinted, his arm in a sling, or his head wrapped with cloth. Kind folk that most of them were, they even declined to mock him, which was pleasant. Through it all Bard wore Thranduil’s circlet, more reluctant than ever to take it off, and did his best not to dwell on its original owner’s absence.

Bard could ignore his latent needs for the most part. He wasn’t afraid of physical labor; he wouldn’t have stood for doing nothing, honestly. He needed to feel the strain in his muscles, needed the snap of the bow to sing in his ears, needed the sting of his calluses to ground and center him. His body had atrophied somewhat during his long convalescence, and it was a full week after his return to Dale before he could handle his bow with even a semblance of his former skill and control.

The first full draw was agony, accompanied by a pounding in his heart, ragged flapping of his lungs and shrill scream of every muscle in his chest and arms. He hit the very outer edge of the target, a genuinely pathetic shot, and lowered the bow with a grin so wide it made his cheeks cramp. This, this was good. This was a goal Bard could work toward, something personal, something just for him. He would push himself to recover his old skill, and in doing so hopefully exhaust himself beyond all reason. It might be the only way he would sleep.

Avophen came and found him late one afternoon, after a morning spent clearing a fallow field of rocks and negotiating with Dain for the construction of decent plowshares. Bard was on his third quiver-full, and after eating a midday meal with his children, he’d come out to train his archers. The corps had finished over an hour ago, but Bard stayed, firing over and over, recovering his arrows and then continuing. It was methodical, meditative, and his head felt clear for the first time in days.

“Be careful you do not overwork yourself, my lord,” Avophen cautioned him. “You are still recovering. There is no need to risk a setback in your health.”

“I know my limits with a bow,” Bard said curtly, and in the sudden, deafening silence he felt a little guilt creep in. Still… “When I shoot, that’s all I think about. I find I appreciate the peace that it gives me.”

“I would never try to instruct you on how to care for yourself,” Avophen said, and Bard barely help back a snort of disbelief. “But I do wish the very best for you, in all things. Occasionally that includes a wish for restraint. You push yourself quite hard, now that you are back in Dale.”

Bard lowered his bow and looked at Avophen. He seemed as inscrutable as ever but Bard was getting better at reading elves, and Avophen appeared determined. “Isn’t it the duty of a king, to push himself?” Bard asked. “Doesn’t your own king do the same?”

Avophen considered for a moment before he spoke. “You have come into your rule during a time fraught with danger. Life has tumbled you and yours from trial to tribulation with hardly a moment to breathe in between. You lived a life of bare subsistence before the dragon came, and that hasn’t quite changed, not yet. Your days are colored with desperation, whether they deserve that kind of effort or not.

“And I am not saying it’s unwarranted,” he added when Bard opened his mouth to argue. “But under different times, during a year or a decade or even a century of peace, it is the place of the king not to exhaust himself, but to rule justly and maintain that peace within his kingdom. My own lord has known both extremes, but in neither instance would I ever say that he was lesser for his personal exertions or lack thereof. Nor would I, or anyone else, think less of you if you did not work every minute of every day from before sunrise to well after sunset.”

Bard shook his head. “Perhaps it’s different with elves, but to me that sounds like a lazy way of ruling. How would I be any better than the Master if I didn’t trouble myself to rise with my own people, to work beside them? Dale isn’t large enough to be a great kingdom of men, but I would have it be a good one, a happy one.”

“And it shall be,” Avophen assured him. “You might not be able to envision it yet, but I remember Dale from its glory days. A city tall and proud, with stonework more delicate than Erebor but sturdier than the great trees of Erys Galen, and filled with a prosperous people. Dale will be great again under your and your family’s rule, my king. But such greatness would be hollow without you around to see it, so have a care for those who love you and let us ease your burdens as best we are able.”

“Let’s not speak too loftily of love,” Bard joked, but Avophen seemed perfectly serious.

“You are beloved of my lord, and I would see that preserved for as long as possible.”

“Have you always been so solicitous of Thranduil?”

“For more than an age,” Avophen replied, and Bard was struck by how other Avophen looked in that moment, distant and elevated and ancient beyond even what Bard had glimpsed in Thranduil’s eyes at times. “From the moment he and my sister were wed, I devoted myself to a life of service in his name. Her loss did not alter my goals, it merely made me more dedicated. I have watched over him, seen to his comforts and guarded his interests as best I am able, and I will continue to do so for as long as I possibly can.”

More than an age…there was a bond between Thranduil and Avophen that Bard couldn’t touch, much less understand, but he gathered from Avophen’s words that the elf considered Thranduil’s happiness his perview. That he felt the best way to ensure that was to be here in Dale, rather than back in the Woodland Realm…Bard felt humbled. And sore. He rolled his shoulders out and smiled a little ruefully. “I apologize for my defensiveness. I’m not used to being looked after by anyone other than my family.”

“In due course, you will come to realize that we are family,” Avophen said calmly. “Now. If you are insistent on putting your body to the test, then I would be pleased to review your longsword work. I believe you said that you intended to improve your skills with it.”

Bard groaned but set his bow aside. “And you think this will be easier on me than the bow? Your jest is in poor taste.”

“I have trained far worse pupils than you in my time, my king. I know how hard to push, and as long as you follow my directions I can promise you no injury.” He smiled suddenly. “Except, perhaps, to your pride.”

“Very well, then.” Bard accepted the blade Avophen passed him. “Wound me.”

Sword work was a new kind of challenge, one that required more focus thanks to Bard’s unfamiliarity with it. To hit a target with an arrow, well, that was second nature at this point. To anticipate an opponent’s movements and respond with an appropriate counter, that was hard. It was easier learning with Avophen in some ways, though, because the elf was so obviously expert, so incredibly comfortable with his own weapon, that Bard was actually able to let go of his pride. There was no one to judge him for his performance, no one to say that the Dragonslayer should be better than he was. He felt satisfied by his efforts, marginal as they might be, and Avophen had nothing but constructive things to tell him throughout. It brought Bard back to his home that night tired yet satisfied. He ate heartily, listened to his children talk about their days activities, went over official documents with Hekla and Ori and reviewed the state of repairs with Gloin, and felt that same control that had come over him during archery settle in nicely. He would sleep tonight, he was sure of it, no restless dreams of Thranduil to keep him awake.

All of that, of course, was before Bard went to his room and saw the letter sitting on his table, illuminated by the light of a single candle. A letter which must have come with Avophen that morning, but which the elf had decided to delay bringing to his attention. Bard wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or indignant even as he crossed the room and tore it open. He sat down on the edge of the bed and pulled the candle closer, so he could see more clearly.

The ink was a golden brown that flowed elegantly into words, nothing like Bard’s scratchy scrawl. No one would ever treasure his writing, but he devoured Thranduil’s, gripping the paper so hard that he creased the paper’s edge around his fingers.

Meleth nîn,

My work is nearly complete. Within another week I will be ready to welcome you as you deserve to the Greenwood, and to my home. I know you have spent our time apart wisely, which is well, for once I have you here I will put an end to wisdom and do my utmost to empty your mind of everything but me.

How could he write such things? Bard could barely read the words for the heat that rose in his face, but he couldn’t look away either. That was all of it, except for a farewell and Thranduil’s signature, curling and coiling like the circlet Bard still wore around his head. He was encompassed by Thranduil for all that they were apart, riveted by his words for all that they had not been spoken. His tiredness fled, his hand shook, and Bard’s blood surged. He shut his eyes for a long moment but it didn’t help, he had the thought of his lover in his mind now, the sound of his voice in his ears, and the merest suggestion of being together, alone with him…

Damn it all. Bard set the letter aside and lay back on his bed, jerking his trousers down and out of the way. He hadn’t needed this sort of relief very often since Ameline’s death, too busy supporting his family to spare a moment for his physical urges. It felt like a fire had been kindled in his gut, though, spreading through his limbs and heating him relentlessly. He closed his own rough hand around his length and bit his lower lip, trying not to think about how much longer Thranduil’s fingers were, how much smoother they would feel on his slick, sensitive skin. Bard was already hard, so hard, just thinking about Thranduil lying next to him, or better, on top of him, all long limbs and silken hair and that mouth, those facile, mobile lips pressed against his cheek, the point of his jaw, down his neck and chest and finally lower, across his belly and hips and settling at last on top of—

Bard came with a bitten-off curse, choking it back so he wouldn’t be heard, wouldn’t embarrass himself in his own household as he spilled like a boy into his hand. His legs writhed against the blanket beneath him, the fur clinging to his sweaty skin, and it was both a relief and a disappointment when Bard recovered himself enough to remember that he was indeed alone, and would be for a while yet. He got up, cleaned himself quickly, then blew out the candle and got back into bed. He turned his face resolutely into the pillow and let his mind empty, let his fatigue finally carry him away into sleep. He had thought quite enough about the elf king for one day.

The next day Bard didn’t mention the letter to Avophen, but he did make his companion push him harder at sword work than he had before. Bard woke even earlier and went to bed later, and still he couldn’t stop himself from rereading the letter at night, anxious and heart-hungry and so full of relentless desire that relief was almost as much a torture as ignoring it. He wanted, he wanted so much it drove him to distraction, and the only remedy was continual mental and physical engagement.

And then, a week later, Avophen arrived with a new letter for Bard, one that bore only three words.

Come to me.

 

Chapter Text

 

                Thranduil was not usually given to considering the passage of time. For much of his life it had been an abstraction, an ephemeral property that flowed like water around everything he loved, leaving him and his inviolate. Time was something for mortals to concern themselves with, its endless crawl nothing more than a faint scratch along the edge of his consciousness, signified by the falling of leaves and the changing direction of the wind, but little more.

                The first moment when Thranduil became desperately acquainted with time was during the Battle of Dagorlad, where he and his father Oropher fought against Sauron’s forces. Oropher might have been Thranduil’s elder but he was twice as reckless, and he had sounded a charge without orders from their commander. That charge had led to his death, and the complete shattering of their people. Thranduil had seen, then, how the arc of his life could change in so little time—it took barely the blink of an eye to extinguish his father’s spark, and bury its ashes in pain and horror and defeat. Time went from an abstraction to an enemy, a condemnation of Thranduil’s own slowness, how he had failed to save his father, his people, even himself. He would have borne much greater pain if it had meant bringing Oropher home alive, but it was not meant to be.

                Thranduil did his best to ignore time again, secluding his people in the Greenwood and letting the years roll by uncounted, until he and Tínulor welcomed Legolas into the world. All of a sudden time took on a new meaning, a gentle, bittersweet one. It seemed impossible that his little son, his baby, with ears so big and eyes so bright, could grow to lead his parents on a merry chase through the halls of Erys Galen before Thranduil had had long enough to cherish his infancy. It wasn’t uncommon for an elven couple to stop after a single child, or to have none at all, but Tínulor had been just as enamored of their child as he was, and thought she would like to have another. And then…

                New battles. New deaths. The loss of his wife, his beloved, and a despondency that only Legolas could bring him out of, and then only grudgingly. Every new inch of their child’s growth was another milestone that Tínulor would never see, and it was sometimes hard to look upon their son, so much his mother’s in heart and mind, and see the reflection of the time that he loathed so deeply. Eventually Legolas stopped changing and Thranduil’s heart beat a little easier, for all it still ached.

                Now, though…Thranduil did not think he’d ever experienced time the way he was now. One month should have felt like nothing to him, a pittance in the long span of his years, barely long enough to get done everything that he needed to do. He needed the time for remembrance, to put long-forgotten skills to use, make things that he planned to show his lover—in good time, of course. He needed it to put to rest his ghosts and make room in his life for a new beginning, and new path. He should have been so occupied that he didn’t even notice the days going by.

                He felt every second of it.

                Thranduil had mastered himself enough that he could do the things he needed to do regardless of his state of focus, but it was…an irritance. An annoyance. A goad in his mind, ever whispering closer, closer, sooner, soon when he least wanted it to. He worked in his grove, more grateful now than ever that Tínulor had encouraged him to plant it, but even when surrounded by that which should have reminded him of nothing but her, thoughts of Bard crept in.

                Tínulor would have laughed. She would have had an explanation, of course she would have. What could you expect, meleth nîn? You love like you are loved, smoothly and sweetly with those who live as you do, quickly and fiercely with those who live such fast lives. Perhaps if you had fallen in love with a dwarf, your love would be cool and steadfast like the mountains themselves.

                Thranduil grimaced to himself as he rose from the ground, the last curls of wood falling away from his blade. That was exactly the sort of thing she would have said; she had loved to tease him, ever light-hearted and more appreciative of the outside world than Thranduil had ever been, before the Battle of Five Armies. Before Thorin Oakenshield and Bilbo Baggins, before Bolg and Azog, before Bard. After Bard…well, Thranduil’s priorities had dramatically changed.

                Bard was coming to him now. Just the thought of it made Thranduil’s hands tremble ever so lightly, a reaction he couldn’t control. It fascinated and repulsed him to be such a slave to desires he could barely name, to be beholden to the passage of time in body and mind. He felt it, felt the time pressing on him, every breath of it an agony of anticipation. At the very least he knew he was not suffering along; Avophen had told him of Bard’s continual exertions, how he drove himself harder than he should. Exhaustion was Bard’s respite from this creeping, clawing thing called time. Thranduil’s body was harder to lay waste to, so instead he worked his mind. He sang songs that hadn’t passed his lips in centuries, laments to the stars for the glorious dead, and the halls that awaited all his kind. He wrote to his kith and kin, updating them on the situation between the three kingdoms here. He carved and shaped and remembered, and he held his anticipation tight, until it was finally time for his lover to arrive.

                Propriety demanded that he meet Bard in his throne room, as one king to another. Decorum announced that they should speak of politics before pleasure, of the situations in their kingdoms that might affect both of them. Etiquette insisted that he throw a feast, that he ignore the solitude he longed for, that he share Bard’s attention with others.

                All those things could go jump from the highest boughs of the tallest tree, for all Thranduil cared. He had given directions to Avophen that Bard was to arrive through the side gate, not the front. It was smaller, more private, and led more directly to where Thranduil wanted Bard, which was his private chambers. He could almost hear his father laughing at his impatience, throwing the lack of a virtue he’d always prized in his face. Well, let the memory of Oropher laugh, let any of his people smile to themselves as they realized why he was abandoning protocol. He did not—could not—care for that at all. Thranduil knew what he wanted, and more importantly, he thought he knew what Bard wanted too.

                Still, the relief he felt when he finally registered Bard’s footsteps in the corridor outside his rooms, heavier than an elf’s and slightly hesitant, was so intense that it almost consumed his voice. Still, he found it in time to say, “Enter.” The door opened, and at last Thranduil saw the face that had haunted his every moment for the past month.

Bard looked stronger than he had, not so thin, but the lines around his eyes were still tight, the creases beside his lips a bit deeper than before. His hair was half-pulled back, the few strands of grey turned to gold in the soft light of the glowing lanterns. He wore his coronation clothes, so fine on him, the blue so striking. His eyes burned bright like drops of amber held against the setting sun, full of fire, full of heat and passion and life.

Thranduil only had time to raise one hand up, beseeching, before Bard had crossed the room and taken his hand, taken all of him, embracing him so hard that Thranduil almost heard the sigh of his own joints. One hand found its way into his hair, grasping and turning his face so that their eyes met, and Bard’s fire passed to Thranduil. Its heat obliterated his nervous shivers, replacing every enervating sensation of waiting with beautiful purpose. “You’re here.”

“Here at last,” Bard breathed, and then he pulled Thranduil down into a kiss so consuming that Thranduil barely remembered to keep his feet, leaning instead into his lover and giving as good as he got. Thranduil could have consumed Bard, tried to, drew him as close as possible and held him fast as he devoured his mouth, the sweetness of his lips, the little moan of desire that turned Thranduil’s grasping hands into claws, desperate for more.

“Cruel creature,” Bard murmured, pulling away just to dive into the kiss again. “Wicked king, to let me miss you for so long.”

“You’re here now,” Thranduil said in place of confessing that the separation had pained him just as much. “We are together.”

“I think I could be with you for the rest of my days, and it would not slake my thirst.” There was so much honesty in Bard’s declaration, enough that Thranduil couldn’t let himself think about yet, and so he didn’t. He focused on the pleasure of reunion, the intensity of his response to Bard, and let it carry away the last shreds of his doubt and worry.

“You have not yet let me begin to try,” he teased, and Bard let his head fall back as he laughed, easy and free. “Shall we see how long your desire can keep pace with mine? For I warn you, my king, I have so many designs on your virtue it may take days to get through the least of them.”

“My virtue,” Bard said with a faint snort. “My virtue, aye, you should dispel it as quickly as possible, I think. A little less virtue and I might finally be able to think about something other than how desperately I have wanted to be in your bed for the past month.”

Thranduil stroked his hands over Bard’s broad shoulders, tracing down the curve of his strong back and finally resting on his waist, slim for a man’s and tight with long, lean muscle. “And what did you picture us doing together, in our bed?” For as soon as Bard’s head hit the pillow it would be theirs; Thranduil would not be able to think of it otherwise.

The way Bard glanced to his mouth told Thranduil far more than his words, although the thrill that rushed down his spine when Bard hissed, “Everything,” was undeniable. “Everything, anything, as long as we are finally—finally—curse it, why do you wear so damn many clothes?” Bard demanded, his hands stumbling over the folds. Thranduil had taken to wearing less when he was alone with Bard in Erebor, both for comfort and for practicality. Now he was wearing his traditional garb, and he agreed that it was a mistake. He pulled back just long enough to unfasten his cloak and jacket while Bard stripped off his own belt and fine blue coat, leaving them both in shirtsleeves and breeches and little else.

Lying with Bard in their too-small bed in Erebor had been a dream, sweet and quiet and full of pleasurable comforts. Tumbling Bard onto his back on this bed, their bed, more than big enough for the two of them and as soft as moss, watching his chest rise and fall with harsh, rapid breaths, seeing his eyes go dark as they roved over Thranduil’s body, fixing on his face at last with such a look of longing…

It was too much. Too fierce, too full, Thranduil couldn’t hold himself back even if he’d wanted to. He needed to be closer, more intimate, to have Bard not just with him but in him. Thranduil knelt between his lover’s legs, ran his hands up Bard’s thighs and over the points of his hips and absorbed every rapturous sigh, every clench of Bard’s hands and nip of his own lower lip. When Thranduil settled one heated palm over Bard’s erection, the sound his lover made drove a spike of desire straight through him.

“Touch me,” Bard pleaded. “Touch me; I dreamt of your hands on me, I thought of them when I was alone at night.”

Thranduil wanted to tease again, to remind Bard that he had promised to make Thranduil beg, not to beg himself, but the words crumbled in his throat. He hungered, and Bard wanted, and Thranduil would wait no longer. He untied the laces of Bard’s trousers, pulled them down just enough to free Bard’s length, flushed and full, then wrapped that hardness with his hand and stroked him firmly.

Bard’s stomach seemed to collapse inward, his knees and shoulders rising from the bed in reaction to being worked so. His thighs tightened around Thranduil’s waist, holding him in place, and he groaned with pleasure. “Thranduil…”

“Bard,” Thranduil murmured, watching every reaction avidly, letting them feed his own sense of satisfaction. He gripped Bard like he would hold his swords, handling him with surety and appreciation for the beauty in his grasp. Thranduil slid his thumb over the slick head and felt it pulse beneath his fingertip, watched Bard’s sac tighten as his body prepared for release, and he didn’t even try to fight the sudden urge to bend down and take Bard into his mouth, work him with his hand and soften his throat and savor the sound of Bard’s sudden cry as he began to come, legs squeezing tight, his hands finding Thranduil’s shoulders and cupping the back of his head and pulling him closer, ever closer.

He barely felt it when Bard tugged at him, Thranduil was so intent on cataloguing every quiver that racked Bard’s frame, on how his cock barely softened in Thranduil’s mouth after he came, blood and desire still flowing through Bard’s veins. Eventually he did recognize it though, Bard’s hands insistent, and he lifted his head and stared up at his beloved, who looked beautifully wrecked and still desperate. “Come up here,” Bard said through hitched breaths, and Thranduil was helpless to do anything else.

He came and Bard reached for him, one hand pulling him in for a kiss while the other delved beneath the waist of his trousers and found him, hard and aching. He touched Thranduil now, his movements stilted due to the confinement of the cloth but it were enough, it was still so good and Bard was kissing him, tasting himself in Thranduil’s mouth and not shying away. Heat and pressure and the pull of Bard’s legs wrapped around his back, grinding him down against Bard’s groin—these things pulled Thranduil over the edge at last, gave him the release he hadn’t sought until meeting this man, this brilliant, beautiful man. It left him shuddering, breathless, his face pressed hard to Bard’s neck as he desperately fought to regain control of himself, until he heard—

Le melin, Thranduil.

There was no question of restraint then, nothing to regain, just the sound of Bard’s declaration in his head, something he’d already know but hadn’t heard before this. Love, of course, and to say it in Thranduil’s language…

Le melin, Bard,” Thranduil murmured against his lips before capturing him another bruising kiss. “I love you. I love you.” I always will.

Chapter Text

 

                Bard was first to wake the next day, blinking his eyes open to peer about Thranduil’s enormous bedroom in the grayish light of dawn. He tried not to move much, just rolled his head from side to side on the pillow, taking it all in. To the right were the remains of the meal they’d shared last night, once their desire had been slaked enough for other things. Simple foods: fresh berries and a bit of lembas with water, but Bard had taken every bite from Thranduil’s fingers. His boldness had surprised his lover that time but it wasn’t long before Thranduil catered to it, covering Bard’s body with his own and asking, so softly, whether he could take him.

                It hadn’t been a hard question. Bard was, first and foremost, a generous lover. When he had been with Ameline he’d been intent on giving her pleasure first, with his mouth or member or hands, it didn’t matter. He still remembered their first time together, her little tremors and his nerves, and how it had been an exploration, slow and careful for both of them. It had been good, and they’d gotten much better with practice, but he’d never been with someone so full of effortless confidence as Thranduil. Everything he did to Bard was designed to please, every touch was electrifying and delightful and there was scarcely any thought of better, because Bard had a hard time imagining how things could be as good as they were to begin with.

                So when Thranduil asked Bard assented, naturally. It would likely be enjoyable for him, for both of them, and if he didn’t care for it, well, he would say so. He felt his latent awkwardness rise again as Thranduil positioned him on his back, knees bent up toward his chest, but his embarrassment melted away when Thranduil touched him, reverence in every slide of his slick fingers, and a hunger that was as flattering as it was satisfying.

                Gentle circles became the intrusion of one long finger, slow and steady. Bard breathed through the momentary discomfort and the faint unease in the back of his mind that quietly questioned his sanity. What was he, so recently just another poor inhabitant of Esgaroth, widower and perpetual thorn in the side of authority, doing thinking that he could have this? This attention, this care and the novelty of the act itself…how had he come to deserve it? How could he even imagine that he truly did?

                Bard’s thoughts scattered when Thranduil added a second finger, then curled them until they brushed against something that froze Bard’s breath in his lungs, a deep, teasing pleasure that resonated fiercely. “Do I have your attention now, Dragonslayer?” Thranduil asked with a knowing grin, and Bard would have sassed him back but he hit that spot again, that spot, and it was so sensitive that it almost hurt but if that was pain then Bard would endure it, because it was so intensely good at the same time.

                “More,” he said, begging again despite himself, and Thranduil gave him more. The stretch was painful but the pleasure more than made up for it. Bard moved before he was really aware of it, pressing down harder on Thranduil’s hand, wanting it deeper, harder. Thranduil obliged him in perfect silence, his lips parted as he watched his fingers disappear into Bard’s body. In no time Bard was completely hard, and ready for something new.

                Losing those fingers left him empty, his body suddenly closed around nothing at all, stretched and wet and itching inside for something to fill him. Thranduil leaned down close against him, lifted Bard’s hips easily—elven strength was a marvel—and slowly, smoothly, began to press inside of him. It felt like it took forever, his lover so careful with him, too careful, he wasn’t going to break—and then he was flush to him, and Thranduil’s eyes were so wide, so bright and astonished and full of love that Bard could barely stand to look into them, he felt so much in return.

                They kissed each other, and Bard was grateful for time’s restoration of his agility, his strength and especially now, his stamina. He winnowed his hands into Thranduil’s hair, something he already knew his lover adored, and ravaged his mouth as he tightened his body provocatively. Thranduil said something harsh in Sindarin against Bard’s lips, and Bard smiled when he realized he’d probably just driven the elf to swear.

                “Move,” Bard murmured, “or I shall move you.”

                Thranduil’s eyes narrowed, and all of a sudden he was pulling back, nearly gone, and Bard’s breath caught and then left him in a rush when Thranduil pressed back in, not just moving but moving with purpose. The shift felt strange at first, not unwelcome but more odd than pleasurable, and Bard writhed in Thranduil’s arms as he tried to move so that Thranduil hit that spot again, that terrible, wonderful little—

                “Ahh!

                “Is that the sort of movement you had in mind?” Thranduil purred, nipping at Bard’s collarbone as he thrust steadily, owning every inch of the body beneath him. “Hmm? Is it too much? Because I can stop—”

                “Don’t you dare stop, you bloody, oh…” And Thranduil didn’t, but he changed the angle so that he wasn’t hitting the spot head-on, just scraping by, and that was different and a little less intense. But there was pleasure just in being filled like this, stretched so wide for Thranduil, open to him and giving him what he wanted and seeing how that pleased him. Then he changed it again and Bard had to stop looking, just let go in the presence of such overwhelming sensation. His head fell back and his own hand snuck between them, and in a few short strokes he was coming hard, back arched and taut with agonizing pleasure. Thranduil responded to Bard’s own urgency, thrusting deeper half a dozen times before he let go with a guttural groan. Bard forced his own eyes open again just as Thranduil’s closed, lost to his own need. Bard watched raptly as his lover came, and pulled him down close as he slowly collapsed afterward, still sheathed inside Bard’s body.

                That was hours ago now, and Bard looked at Thranduil with fresh eyes after some sleep. Thranduil looked a mess, his hair a tangled white skein of silk, his neck and shoulders dotted with bruises from Bard’s fingertips and teeth, his limbs akimbo where he sprawled across the bed. It was good that it was a large one, because clearly Thranduil was used to taking up most of it. He was less elegant than ever, and Bard had never loved him more.

                Bard shifted, feeling the slickness still between his legs, the remnants of their lovemaking and the thick, clinging oil that Thranduil had used to ease the way. They’d cleaned up some, enough to fall asleep without sticking to each other, but Bard still felt the aftereffects of his body’s use. He liked it. Moving slowly, he reached a hand down between his legs and felt his hole carefully. It was a little sore, but his own finger moved easily inside, the guardian muscle much more relaxed. He felt his cock start to rise, and rolled his eyes at himself. This was worse than being a youth again, because he’d been naïve to pleasure then, his hand fulsome enough to stroke himself off with no thought given to the rest of his body. Now, though…

                Now, he wanted Thranduil again. Only it would be different this time around.

                Bard dipped his hand in the small bowl of slick beside the bed, then leaned over and kissed Thranduil’s lips. Once, twice, and at last his lover awakened with a sigh. “Bard.”

                Bard smiled. “Thranduil.”

                “You are quite real, then.”

                “Oh, quite.”

                “It’s been so long since I slept, I thought I might have dreamt you.”

                So Bard hadn’t been alone in his restlessness. He’d suspected it, but it was nice to have confirmation. “Not a dream.”

                “Hmm, yes,” Thranduil said languorously as Bard closed his slippery hand around Thranduil’s cock and worked it slowly. “I can feel that.” He thrust gently into Bard’s grip, already moving closer with intent, and as much as Bard wanted it he had to forestall it too.

                “I want to try a different way.”

                “Oh?” Thranduil raised one expressive eyebrow. “Would you like to be inside of me, then?”

                Bard felt his mouth fall open. He knew gaping was unlovely but it was all he could do for a moment, and the sight of it made Thranduil laugh. “I offer myself to you,” he murmured, and oh, this was going to be hard, but…

                “Next time.”

                “You are determined, meleth nîn.”

                “I am that,” Bard agreed, and he levered himself over and up onto Thranduil in one motion, pressing the elf king down onto his back and positioning himself carefully, and then slowly—ah, it stung but it felt incredible—lowering himself down until he was finally astride Thranduil’s hips, full and aching and blissful. And the way it made Thranduil’s jaw drop was quite satisfying too.

                Bard moved slow and easy, not trying for anything right now, just wanting the experience of it again. He trailed his fingers over Thranduil’s bare chest and abdomen, grinning as the muscles sprang into relief when he touched them. “Ticklish?” he murmured.

                “Impatient,” Thranduil replied, and shifted to get his feet under him. Bard shook his head, though.

                “None of that,” he said. “Nothing but this for now. For me.”

                Thranduil exhaled heavily. “This is your revenge, then.”

                “Mm, I said I would have you begging.” Bard braced his hands on Thranduil’s chest, leaned down and whispered in his ear as he clenched around him. “And I meant it.”

                “You will have to work harder, then.”

                “So I shall.” It was the most pleasurable work Bard could imagine, rougher yet slower than their first time, and Bard reveled in being in the position of control. Every time Thranduil started trying to thrust Bard stopped moving, and only began again when his lover had quieted. As long as he was careful he could control his own need and focus solely on drawing sounds from Thranduil, quiet moans with faster shifts of his body, gritted teeth and shocked sighs when he tightened his muscles and squeezed. After some minutes, doing both at the same time finally made Thranduil call his name.

                “Bard…”

                “Yes, love?” Bard said, breathless but grinning.

                “Let me touch you.”

                “No, not yet.” He ground down against Thranduil’s hips, relishing the way the move forced him just that little bit further open.

                “Bard!” Ah good, there it was, that note of desperation that Bard wanted to hear. Good thing too, he was starting to lose his focus. “Please, let me touch you.”

                “Not—not good enough, love, try again.”

                “Le iallon, I beg of you, let me touch you!”

                Well, that was very pretty, and Bard couldn’t doubt his lover’s sincerity, not when he was so flushed, his hands bunching the bedclothes beneath them. “Go, then,” he said, then gasped when Thranduil’s hand, so warm and broad, wrapped around his cock. His hand wasn’t slick but it wasn’t rough either, just determined. The combination of feelings, inside and out, merged into absolute necessity before long, and Bard rocked his hips a few more times before he slammed down hard and made a mess of them both. As soon as he’d caught his breath Thranduil bent his knees, gripped Bard’s waist and picked up the pace to something dizzying, something that shouldn’t possibly feel as good as it did. Bard had nothing left to give but he didn’t want it to stop, and when Thranduil came at last Bard almost thought he could feel it, deep inside.

                It’s nice to be the one on top, Bard thought as he lay sprawled across Thranduil’s chest a little later. Let someone else bear the weight. And if anyone could bear it, it was Thranduil. He sighed contentedly as Thranduil kissed his forehead, the only part of his body currently within reach.

                “That was a pleasant way to wake,” Thranduil said.

                “I agree. We should do it as often as possible.”

                “Are you sure you won’t reconsider the consort option? It does come with much more intimate access than being a mere king will get you.”

                Bard laughed. “Tempting, truly tempting, but I’m afraid not. You shall have to take me as I am now.”

                “So I shall.” Thranduil didn’t sound upset about that, but there was something in his voice… Bard pulled back to look at him. He met Bard’s eyes, and there was a depth of emotion in his gaze that Bard couldn’t begin to fathom.

                “What’s wrong?”

                Thranduil shook his head. “Nothing at all. I’m happy with you, meleth nîn.”

                Bard wanted to argue it, but he didn’t know how to. He changed the subject instead. “I believe you promised me a bath last night, and we never quite made it there.”

                “Hmm, so I did.” Thranduil stroked Bard’s back for a moment, then reluctantly let him go. “I think you will enjoy it.”

                “I think I would enjoy anything you cared to show me, at this point.” Bard stood up out of the bed and watched Thranduil follow, incredibly graceful despite all their exertions. He was perfection, whether he was striding through the city in full battle armor or emerging from their covers nude and lovebitten. “Lead the way, my king.”

               

Chapter Text

It was an unexpected delight, having Bard in his most intimate quarters. Not that Thranduil hadn’t expected to be pleased with him, to enjoy his company and attention, but he had underestimated just how pleased he would be to have Bard here, in rooms that had only held his own family before now. Thranduil’s suite was situated closer to the outer world than Avophen preferred; his guardsman wanted his king deeper down in the rock on which his kingdom had been built. Dwarves were not the only beings in Middle-Earth with an ability to work the hard elements, though they had a greater affinity for it than most.

                But Thranduil had wanted the light of the sun and the moon, and Tínulor had loved the stars so much that he could not bear to deny her the sight of them. So their rooms edged the forest, where they could see out into the world. Back then, Thranduil had wanted the pleasure of observing it. Even if he did not move to engage with it often, the world had been a beautiful place from which he did not want to remove.

After her death…well, the habit of years pressed hard upon Thranduil, and Legolas had been young and soothed by familiarity, so they had stayed. The joy of living there had left Thranduil, though. He had walked his halls, stones slightly worn by centuries of his family’s footfalls, with no thought to spare for them. He lost track of the smooth spot on a bannister where Tínulor had liked to rub her hand back and forth as she stared up at the sky on clear nights. He forgot the notches that Legolas had carved in the wall outside his bedroom, tiny measures of his ever-increasing height, and he ignored the fountain that graced the center of his bath, hand-carved by Avophen as a wedding gift.

                Thranduil had forgotten many things, but watching Bard discover them now felt like rediscovering them himself. He watched Bard breathe in deep at the window, filling his lungs with sweet, moss-scented air, and felt his own lungs expand unconsciously. He watched Bard’s bare feet slide over stone and dug his own toes in, pressed down and grounded himself in the strong, sturdy roots of his home. He looked at his lover relax in the cool bath, Bard’s eyes jumping appreciatively from the fountain to the mural on the wall, a mural Thranduil had stopped seeing long ago, and finally recalled the scene it depicted: his father’s refusal of the Valar’s offer to depart Middle-Earth, and his people’s subsequent journey to the Greenwood.

                “How can you bear to tear yourself away from this place?” Bard asked, and Thranduil refocused on him. He ducked his head beneath the water and came up dripping, hair plastered back against his head like some sort of perilous sea creature, designed to tempt Thranduil to follow him across the distant ocean. He was indescribable; Thranduil’s mind grasped for words but they flowed across him like mist, there and then gone, leaving him helpless to explain Bard’s immense charm. Not that the man seemed to have any idea what he was doing to Thranduil; he smiled and shook his head briskly, sending droplets of water everywhere, including Thranduil’s face.

                “You looked pensive,” he said cheekily when Thranduil mock-glared at him. “I thought I would provide you with a distraction.”

                “You are distraction enough without wetting me down.”

                “But what is the point of a bath if you’re not going to get wet?” Bard crossed the pool to him and draped his warm arms over Thranduil’s shoulders, and it was all Thranduil could do not to tighten his matching grip to the point of discomfort. He could not remember ever feeling so wild outside of battle. “At least you left off your crown for this,” Bard teased. “I wondered how far your kingly reserve extended.”

                “There are a few things in life that merit setting aside the symbol of my rule,” Thranduil said. “I think you’re going to be responsible for most of them in the future.”

                “I will consider it both a duty and a pleasure to get you to forget your great responsibilities as often as I can.” Bard kissed him, not the hungry, desperate kisses of earlier, just…just a kiss, light and pleasant and soft. It was a siren lure, this tenderness, this more than frantic coupling, this as well as desire. It was gentle and calming and home, and Thranduil responded with all the emotion in him, the love and the joy and the hint of despair that he was trying to hold back. How could this be so good? How could he have something so wonderful, and know that it must end? No despair, he mustn’t let himself feel it, yet the thought of Bard leaving the circle of his arms for any reason, much less one so final as that which Thranduil hated to contemplate, was hard to ignore.

                “What is it?” Bard asked, not trying to get away, pulling back just enough so he could speak. “What troubles you?” He set his hand on Thranduil’s chest, stroking lightly. “Did I hurt you somehow?”

                “Not at all.” Not in the way you think. Thranduil didn’t want to speak of it, truly, but Bard deserved the truth. “It is nothing you’ve done, meleth nîn. I have yet to accustom myself to living in the moment, however. I cannot hold myself fast against the face of the years to come as I have done, for then I would lose all time with you. It requires…an adjustment. That’s all.”

                “Hmm.” Bard didn’t try to say that he understood, and Thranduil was grateful for that. “Is there anything I can do to make this easier for you?”

                Stay with me always, and never leave. But that was impossible, and Thranduil would not ask for it. Not now. Later, when Bain was old enough to rule, then he would ask for Bard’s continual presence in his halls. Ten years, perhaps fifteen. Bard was young yet in the span of men’s lives, he would last and they would have their time together, eventually.

                There was something that Thranduil could do, though, to give Bard a sense of what this meant to him. The depth of his love, the breadth of his devotion. He had planned on showing it to Bard anyway, but now perhaps the meaning would be clearer to him. “I want to take you somewhere.”

                “All right,” Bard said agreeably. “Is it far enough to require clothes, or can I just follow you around like this?”

                “Clothed, I think,” Thranduil said after a moment’s consideration. Bard’s eyes widened slightly, and then he laughed.

                “I wasn’t being serious about walking around in the nude! I don’t mind eyes on me, but I’d prefer they be yours alone.”

                “And so they would be,” Thranduil agreed. “No one is allowed into these rooms without my express permission, and they always inform me of their arrival before entrance. But we will be exposed to the forest, and it might be a bit cold for your soft human sensibilities.”

                “These soft sensibilities shot down a dragon, I’ll have you know. In the middle of winter, surrounded by snow and ice. I believe I can handle a walk in the forest.”

                “Have I offended you, Dragon Slayer?” Thranduil asked. He lowered his voice to a murmur. “Shall I sink to my knees before you and beg your forgiveness for my flippancy? Did you like it, hearing me beg for you?” He brushed his lips over Bard’s ear. “I would do so again, if it pleases you.”

                It turned out that it pleased Bard very much, and they spent another half hour in the baths discovering just how much before finally removing themselves before their skin began to crease from exposure to the water. When they finally headed down the hall, both clad in simple robes, Bard held onto Thranduil’s hand, unwilling to relinquish a physical claim on him even when they were alone. The sign of possessiveness was a delight, and Thranduil felt much better now as he led his lover to the grove.

                It was a small place, carefully planned out, every tree slender and tall with silver-touched bark that lightened in the sunshine. The grove was designed to be walked as a circle, moving from portrait to portrait, and though most of the trees were yet empty, Thranduil now knew how they would be filled. It was a good time of day to be here, the sun directly overhead, strong and warm. The leaves rustled with the gentle breeze, and Thranduil listened to Bard’s breath catch as he caught sight of the first carving.

                “Is that…Legolas?”

                “Yes.”

                “Amazing.” Bard moved to look closer and Thranduil let him go, pleased by his reaction. “It looks just like him.”

                “I began to shape it when he was a baby. It’s grown up with him, and with this tree.”

                Bard turned to Thranduil, a look of astonishment on his face. “How did you manage that?”

                “Many, many years of labor. A curl of the knife here, a shave from the plane there. The tree helped, of course.” Thranduil had done his best to leave the tree whole, unaffected by his work, and it had thrived under his attention. “It was my wife’s idea, a method for me to express my memories in a way that would preserve them, and let me experience them enough to understand them without pain.”

                Bard frowned. “Why would the thought of Legolas bring you pain?”

                “Legolas I carved as an expression of love, not pain. His face was not the first, though.” Thranduil led Bard a bit further down, where a larger and much older tree stood. This one had reached its full height and would grow no more, its bark hardened and resistant. The face within it was a familiar one to Thranduil, so he watched Bard’s face instead, saw him take in the features and the challenging expression and venture, finally, to say, “Is this your father?”

                “Yes. Oropher of Doriath. He was the founder of this kingdom, slain in battle against Sauron during the Battle of Dagorlad.”

                “You favor him.”

                “Perhaps. Or perhaps I misremembered him by the time my wife convinced me to carve this, and made him look more like myself than is correct,” Thranduil allowed. “I cannot even recall my mother’s visage, she passed so long ago into the West. Truly though, the accuracy is less important than the act itself.”

                “He looks…” Bard shook his head. “He looks as if he might emerge from the tree at any moment, sword in hand. You carry his sword, don’t you?”

                “I…yes.”

                “Then you honor him every day.” Bard smiled. “What more could anyone want from their family, than to be remembered so?”

                Thranduil had to continue before he let himself think about it too much. “I just finished another portrait. Or began it, truly, it isn’t settled in the wood yet. Come.” This one was a little further back, the tree mature but still blossoming. On its surface Thranduil had painstakingly carved the likeness that had haunted him for so long. Her long hair, braided like Legolas’, framed her heart-shaped face, a bit rounder than most elves, with a smile that brought out the apples in her cheeks. She was merriment embodied, blessing and wisdom and love, and to look upon her was a sweet agony. “This was my wife, Tínulor.”

                “Ah.” Bard looked at her softly. “She’s beautiful.”

                “She is. I had not let myself think on her for an age, before I met you. Then I found I could not stop.” Thranduil moved in behind Bard and wrapped his arms around his waist. Bard leaned back against him. “I could not bear the thought of finding new love without celebrating the old, and she deserves to be remembered here.”

                “Do all elves do this for remembrance?” Bard asked.

                “Not all. I learned the practice from Tínulor. It is a gift from her that I cherish all the more now, because one day…” Thranduil forced himself to speak. “One day you will leave me. And when you are gone, instead of banishing you to the dark places in my mind, I will have a memory of you to cherish here with me for as long as I remain in Middle-Earth. You, and Sigrid and Bain and Tilda, all of you belong here with the memories that matter the most to me.” Thranduil buried his face in the curve of Bard’s neck. “It makes me melancholy to contemplate that day, so I prefer not to mention it at all, but I wanted you to see this. I wanted you to know exactly what you mean to me.”

                “Thranduil.” Bard turned in his arms and embraced him tightly, and Thranduil let himself fall a bit, just a bit, relaxed his guard enough to let Bard hold some of the weight for a moment. He had to pack away sadness, turn aside contemplation of the future. Thranduil was determined to get as much out of the time they had left together as he possibly could, and that meant a certain amount of willful blindness.

                At least this time, he would not be blind to the things that mattered most.

Chapter Text

 

                The children arrived the day a day later, escorted by an honor guard led by Tauriel. Bard was grateful for the time that he and Thranduil had had alone—grateful for many reasons, and not all of them pertaining to the bedroom—but he had to confess he was relieved to see them. He didn’t ever like being separated from his children, but since the orc raid and his own brush with death he’d preferred to keep them close. The feeling seemed to be mutual, although the children were slowly emerging from their absolute need for nearness at last, reassured by time and Bard’s obvious health, and by the care that their neighbors lavished on them.

Bard was fairly certain his children were too old now to be easily spoiled. It was just as well, because for the first time in their lives they wanted for nothing, no material desires going unfulfilled. If Sigrid had asked for a dress made from Eastern silk and edged in silver and gold, Thranduil would have had one measured for her. If Bain asked for another throwing axe, Dis would have had one made to his exact specifications. If Tilda wanted dolls and sweets, both sides would have outdone themselves to present her with the greatest toy, the most intricate doll, the most tantalizing sweet known to Middle Earth.

As it was, his children simply didn’t ask for such things. Bain still used the bow that Bard had made for him last year, even if the arrows he shot were far finer now. Sigrid had endless supplies of paper and ink that pleased her more than any beautiful dress ever could. And Tilda was never without a new person to try her latest cure on, even if it involved mud compresses and mold pills (truly, Bard was convinced that Oin was making half of this up just to have the pleasure of seeing Tauriel walk around Dale in Tilda’s enthusiastic bandaging).

Still, bringing them here to the Woodland Realm was a special treat, and Bard smiled with delight at the sight of his children’s wide eyes as they rode through the front gate, past straight-backed Silvan guards and into a place that looked like something out of an ancient story. Sigrid and Bain rode together while Tilda sat in front of Tauriel, and she waved her arms so vigorously when she caught sight of Bard that she almost smacked Tauriel in the face.

“Careful, love, mind your reach,” he called out to her, and she lowered her hands quickly. Her enthusiasm had hardly waned, though.

“Da!” she exclaimed, clearly in raptures. “It’s so beautiful here!”

“Isn’t it?” he said, reaching up and helping her down from the horse. Tilda hugged him tight around his waist and he hugged her back, aware he was grinning like a fool but unable to stop himself. Bard was astonishingly, deliriously happy; almost everything he wanted was within his grasp, and the pure joy it gave him would not be gainsaid. He kissed Sigrid’s head and pulled Bain in for a fast embrace before the boy got it in his head to run off looking for an archery range.

                “Thank you for bringing them,” Bard said to Tauriel, who also dismounted and sent her horse off with another of the guards.

                “It was my pleasure. I always enjoy their company.”

                “I suppose they have their good points,” Bard agreed mildly. “Deep, deep down somewhere.”

                “Da!” Tilda frowned and Sigrid smiled and Bain looked around like he couldn’t wait to start exploring, so Bard figured it was best to bring them to their host before he lost their attention entirely.

                “Let’s go say hello to Thranduil, hmm?”

                “Is he here?” Tilda looked around like she expected him to pop out of the woodwork at any moment. “Why didn’t he come to meet us?”

                “He had to meet with one of his guardsmen about something,” Bard said. Tauriel caught his eye and tilted her head questioningly, and Bard mouthed spiders to her. Her lips thinned but she didn’t respond beyond that, and Bard led his children into the center of the Woodland Realm where Thranduil’s elaborate throne rested.

                Thranduil wasn’t seated on his throne, for the moment; he was at the foot of its stairs in serious conversation with a pale-haired elf, but as soon as he saw them Thranduil changed his focus. He dismissed his warrior as well as his worry, for his smile when he looked at the children was gentle and carefree. “Welcome to Erys Galen, the Woodland Realm.”

                “It’s so pretty,” Tilda said seriously.

                “You didn’t hunt the elk whose antlers make up your throne, did you?” Bain asked, and Thranduil shook his head.

                “All died of natural causes, or from wounds they sustained in battle. Go and look more closely, if you wish to.”

                “Take your sister with you,” Bard added, because Tilda looked like she wanted to follow in her brother’s footsteps but was just a bit too shy to, confronted by Thranduil in all his kingly glory. Bain grabbed Tilda’s hand and led her up the steps, and Thranduil turned to Sigrid.

                “Thank you for your hospitality,” she said formally. Thranduil frowned.

                “There is no need for thanks; it’s my pleasure to have you here.”

                “Are you sure we’re not...I mean…” She glanced between Bard and Thranduil. “I thought that we might be…interrupting something.”

                Bard at once cursed the fact that he had such an insightful daughter and blessed her sense of subtlety. “Darling, you know that you and your siblings are never an interruption,” he told her seriously. Thranduil concurred.

                “There will always be a place for you in these halls, Sigrid. You need never worry about being unwanted, or unwelcome.”

                “I know, I mean, I was pretty sure of that,” Sigrid said, but she was already more at ease than she had been. “Thank you for inviting us. Tauriel told me you have a wonderful library.”

                “It is extensive,” Thranduil agreed. “And the Valar know it could use someone to show an interest in it these days. My son was never much of a student. He always preferred running through the forest to studying quietly at a table.”

                “Like Bain,” Sigrid said with a smile. “Do you have any books in Quenya? Avophen says I’m coming along very well in Sindarin, but I’d like to start on Quenya as well.”

                Bard couldn’t resist pulling Sigrid in close and kissing her head again. “You are too clever by half, you know. Can’t I simply make you the king? It would save me so much trouble.”

                “I don’t want to be king, Da,” Sigrid said with a sly little smile. “I’d rather still be able to have fun.”

                Thranduil chuckled. “You have a better grasp of ruling than many rulers do, Sigrid. But there are compensations for wearing the crown.” He glanced at Bard. “Occasionally.”

                “Da! Look at me! I’m the queen of the elves!”

                Well, apparently one of his children didn’t seem to have a problem with ruling. Bard looked over at the throne and saw Tilda perched in it, far too tiny for such a massive seat, with Bain grinning beside her. He checked to make sure Thranduil wasn’t offended, but his lover only seemed amused.

                “And what will your first order be, your highness?” he asked her smoothly.

                “Um…savo ‘lass a lalaith! Da, that means you should laugh and be happy,” she added for Bard’s sake, which was just as well because he’d had no idea what she’d said. Thranduil seemed pleased, though.

                “I can see I’ve got a lot to learn,” Bard said, a bit taken aback. “Otherwise I’ll be the only one in my household who can’t speak Elvish.”

                “Sindarin,” Sigrid corrected him. “And Da, we’re also learning Khuzdul, so you should learn that too or else we’ll still have a secret language that you can’t understand.”

                “Good point.” He had a lot of work ahead of him, it seemed, but it would be worth it to be able to speak to Thranduil in his own language.

                “Sigrid, you’re not supposed to tell him that!” Bain objected. “Otherwise we won’t have any secrets at all!”

                “I approve of that,” Bard said. “No secrets from me for the rest of your lives sounds just about right.”

                “But Da!”

                “King Bard,” Avophen said from behind them, and Bard gratefully turned. “The children’s rooms are ready. I’d be happy to show them there.”

                “New rooms?” Tilda hopped down from the throne. “A room all for myself?”

                “A room I don’t have to share?” Bain added eagerly.

                “With a desk?” Sigrid asked.

                “All of these things and more,” Avophen promised with a smile. “With your leave, my king, I will take them to settle in.”

                “Go on, then,” Bard told his kids, and watched them fall in behind Avophen like ducklings, eager to see more of the place that Bard hoped they would come to love as much as he already had. Once they disappeared through the tall door at the far end of the hall he turned back to Thranduil. Tauriel drew close as well. “Poor news from your scout?” Bard asked.

                “There are signs of a resurgence by our enemy,” Thranduil said solemnly. “Fresh webs were sighted less than a league from here. Not large ones yet, but the spiders of Dol Goldur are making their presence known.”

                “We beat them back and they press us yet again,” Tauriel said, anger written in every line of her body. “My lord, please release me to—”

                “There will come a time to fight soon enough,” Thranduil assured her. “But for now, I want you here. My first concern is the safety of Bard and the children, and you are my finest warrior. After this visit, once they’re safely back in Dale, then we shall turn our eyes to the south once more.”

                Tauriel inclined her head. “Yes, my lord.”

                “Go and speak with Nodir, he will give you the details.” Tauriel bowed, then left at a fast pace, striding with purpose. Thranduil watched her go until she could no longer be seen.

                “I work her hard,” he said quietly.

                “She wants it,” Bard said, for that much was as clear as day. “Idleness isn’t in Tauriel’s nature. Give her meaningful work and she’ll find contentment with that.”

                “I wish more for her than mere contentment.”

                “That can only come with time, I suspect.”

                “Wise words.” Thranduil stepped close and wound his arms around Bard’s waist. “You speak as one who knows.”

                “How do you think I dealt with being apart from you?” Bard asked before he leaned in for a kiss. It came, of course, just as he knew it would, a gentle press of warm lips that left him yearning for more. “Thank you,” he added.

                “For what?”

                “For…wanting all of us, I suppose. For welcoming my children here are you welcomed me. Or well, not really like that,” he corrected with a little smile. “But it means everything to me that you will have us with you.”

                “Is your memory so short?” Thranduil murmured. “I will always want you. All of you. There is no part of you that I would shrink from.”

                Bard sighed and leaned into his lover. “I know that,” he said. “I do know it.”

                “Then trust to it.” Thranduil kissed him again, then said, “Now. Should we go and rescue Avophen from the children?”

                “He’s used to them,” Bard replied. “He can handle them by himself for a while longer. Give me another moment with you, just you.” Because as happy as he was to have his children with him again, Bard knew he would miss the solitude he’d shared with Thranduil for the past few days, the wordless intimacy that sprang from such continual companionship, the touches they would have to forestall, the pleasures he would have to restrain. It was worth it, of course, but that did not mean that Bard wouldn’t take such moments of simple togetherness as he could find them.

                “Of course.” Thranduil pulled Bard closer and nuzzled against his temple, right where Bard knew the gray was starting to show. He didn’t much care for that spot, but Thranduil seemed enamored with it, and Bard was enamored with letting Thranduil have what made him happy. “We can wait a bit more.”

Chapter Text

                Endings, Thranduil reflected, never lost their bitterness. Great or small, they were a distortion in the smooth fabric of his life, jarring him from what should have been endless spans of contented contemplation into watchfulness. It was like returning again and again to the field of battle, even if no blood was being shed. Such watchfulness wore on his mind, although he did his best to devote himself wholly to the present, to being there with Bard and the children. If they noticed anything amiss they did not say so, and if Bard dedicated himself each night to abolishing every notion from Thranduil’s mind, well…that was no burden, it was a blessing.

In the end the King of Dale and his family stayed a week in the Greenwood, far less time than Thranduil had hoped for considering how long Bard had been lain up with the dwarves, but more than Bard could really spare him. There was an immensity of work to be done in Dale yet with rebuilding, with planting what crops could still be expected to produce something before the season was past, and with salvaging what could yet be saved of Lake-town. Bard received new messages from his secretary every day, missives from the dwarves that droned on and on in endless rolls of parchment, letters from established rulers seeking to know him better, looking for alliances, inquiring after his daughters. That, at least, had provided some amusement.

“Amenable to an alliance to be sealed by the union of…they can’t be bloody serious!”

It was just as well the children were off with Tauriel, because Bard’s mood had been deteriorating for the past hour or so as he busied himself with his paperwork. That he had little patience for it Thranduil knew, but it was another thing entirely to see that temper in the works. Bard had yet to direct it at him, which was just as well, but he spared the lords who wrote to him none of his wrath. “She is fourteen!” Bard continued angrily. “I’ll not be signing away the future of my daughter to some bastard my own age just so I can have an ally to the east! They’ll be my ally whether they marry into my house or not, or they’ll live to regret it.”

“I think,” Thranduil said, treading delicately, “that it is meant to be an opportunity for you to marry into their house. Women traditionally follow the path their husband sets, do they not? A formal alliance would mean access to a greater capacity for warriors for your side, and a possible advantage with the wealthy dwarves of Erebor for theirs. Your friendship with King Dain is talked about far and wide, it seems.”

“The last thing I need is to marry one of my children off to someone she’s never even met before. I don’t need their warriors and they overestimate my traction with Dain, so they can forget it.” He threw the letter aside in disgust. “It’s not how I did it, you know? I met Ameline when we were both young, watched her grow into a woman I knew I could love and courted her accordingly. There were no formal arrangements, no dowries, no expectations, just her and I and love. I cannot expect any different from Sigrid, no matter our station in life now.”

“Such freedoms are more common when one is not curtailed by the expectations of a kingdom.”

You have no room to talk,” Bard chided him. “You and Tínulor weren’t an arranged marriage, I know that much. You loved your wife.”

“I did,” Thranduil agreed. “Of course I did.” How he had loved her, more and more every day they were together. “But she was also of an appropriate station in our society. It was something I felt I needed to consider, and fortunately my desires aligned with my design.” He still felt a wash of guilt when he considered what he had said to Tauriel with regards to Legolas. His dismissiveness had nearly cost him both of them, and had certainly cost him his son’s regard. Whether he would ever regain it again remained to be seen.

“It doesn’t matter.” Bard shook his head. “I don’t care if expectations are different for kings and queens, I’ll never do that to my children. Sigrid will marry whomever she chooses, as long as he treats her as well as she deserves. The same goes for Bain and Tilda. If it is to a fishmonger or a blacksmith or a farmer, so be it. I am no better than that, so why should I disdain any man or woman for their station?”

Thranduil knew in his heart that Bard was far, far better than he gave himself credit for. He did not see the venality of his fellows as readily as other eyes could, and he was blind to his own graces as only a truly humble person could be. The more Thranduil complemented him though, the more reticent Bard would become, and so Thranduil simply said, “I’m sure your children will choose well.” It seemed the right response, as Bard smiled gratefully at him.

“This one will need some sort of reply that’s a bit more than, ‘Go jump in a lake,’” Bard said with a grimace as he looked back at the letter. “What should I tell him?”

Thranduil arched an eyebrow. “Tell him that you thank him for his offer, but that you have no need to barter for allies with the willing might of two neighboring kingdoms by your side.”

“Oh, aye?” It was Bard’s turn to cast a sly look at Thranduil. “You would flock to my aid in my time of need, your majesty?”

“I would come to you day or night, through snow and fire, if I had to cut down a thousand enemies to reach your side,” Thranduil said. It was a bit painful to bare his soul so completely, but worth it to see how Bard responded to him, slightly helpless in his admiration, awed by his own love. Thranduil basked in the warmth that the evidence of that love gave him.

Bard cleared his throat. “You should have been a poet, my king.”

“Perhaps I’ll devote some time to it. You might do the same.”

“Only if you want your ears to shrivel into your head would you wish my poetry on yourself.”

Thranduil reached out and picked up Bard’s hand, turned it over in his own and pressed a kiss to his fingertips. “You are more suited to bestowing your adoration in other ways, I think.”

“Aye, I am. Let me show you.” Bard pushed his chair away from the table, pulled Thranduil in so close that he had no choice but to settle against his lover’s lap, then proceeded to help them both forget all about impertinent letters for a while.

Thranduil split his time as best he could between the necessities of ruling and spending time with his guests, but he enjoyed the evenings the best, when they all came together in his private quarters to eat dinner. On their last night with him, the mood at the table was rather subdued, and that wasn’t how Thranduil wanted the children to leave. He drew out what troubled them one by one, Sigrid’s quiet sigh over missing his library, Tilda’s distress at leaving the baby birds she had found while out with Avophen, and Bain…in a way, his worry was the most distressing.

“Tauriel is already talking about going after the spiders again,” Bain mumbled, stabbing desultorily at a piece of squash on his plate. “By the time I’m grown enough to help they might be all gone, and then what will I do to prove my bravery?”

Bard frowned. “What need have you to prove anything to anyone? You helped to kill a dragon!”

“But I didn’t kill the dragon, Da, you did! I only helped, that isn’t good enough! I want to be…I want to be more than a single act for my whole life. I want to be brave, I want to fight!”

“One might say that your one act of help showed bravery enough for an entire lifetime,” Thranduil said, and he bore Bain’s glare calmly. “But if you’re truly worried about the darkness in this world evaporating before you come of age, then I must tell you that your fears are unfounded.”

Bain looked puzzled. “What do you mean? The battle is over, we won.”

“A single battle was won. It was against an admittedly mighty foe, but it was not unique. It was not even the greatest battle of this age, and the true enemy of Middle Earth did not show his face for it. He bides his time yet, and until he comes out of the darkness to be defeated once and for all there will always be another spider, another orc, another murdering beast to subdue.” Thranduil was aware his voice was cold, but he could not temper it. Bain needed to understand. “There are no shortages of battles in this world, Bain, and they will come to you whether you will them or not. There is no need to seek them out.”

“Who’s the enemy?” Tilda asked, not unaware of the tension at the table but fiercely bright despite it.

“It’s Sauron,” Sigrid spoke up. “I read a bit about him…he was the servant of Morgoth, wasn’t he?”

“He was, but he cast off that role and assumed the place of his lord when Morgoth was captured and returned to Valinor,” Thranduil said. “He has fought for control of Middle Earth in every age, and while some say he is no more, there are worrying signs of a growing vitality that cannot be dismissed. The spiders are a part of that, as are the masses of orcs. There are rumors of a nameless evil lurking in the deep places of the world, longer and longer shadows cast forth from the ruins of ancient fortresses and the mountains he made his own. Until Sauron is defeated once and for all, there will always be the means of war close at hand. And I fear that moment of defeat has not yet come to him.”

The table was worryingly silent, and Thranduil wondered for a moment if he’d gone too far. “Is this something we should be preparing for?” Bard asked at last.

Thranduil shook his head. “Not yet. Not beyond the sort of preparations any kingdom should make in a time of uncertainty. Build your strength, guard well your people and your friends and watch for signs of the encroaching dark. I will keep you informed, but,” he set his hand lightly on top of Bard’s, “it could be decades, even centuries before such calamitous times befall us. It is nothing to let yourself get distracted by. You and yours have enough to concern themselves with.”

Bard made an effort to smile. “Well. That’s true enough. And you’ll be here when it happens in any case, so we’ve that to be thankful for.”

Thranduil wasn’t sure whether he thought that was something to be thankful for or not. It necessitated thinking about a time when Bard would likely no longer be with him, and threatened to swamp him with sadness. But he already knew that he was bound to this family surrounding him, as surely as he loved them. He would see things through, see them well, no matter what. “Yes. I’ll be here.”

That last night with Bard was desperate and tender all at once, Thranduil drawing his lover into his body and riding him hard, hard enough that he would feel it for some time. He wanted to feel it forever, wanted to keep the evidence of Bard’s love bites and bruises stark against his skin, dark constellations that could settle in his heart. That was impossible, and so he demanded as much as Bard could give him and Bard, oh, he gave and gave, not giving in to Thranduil’s sense of desperation but understanding it.

“I will come to you again,” he promised Thranduil after, when they lay sated in each other’s arms. “Again and again, I promise. This isn’t an ending, meleth nîn. This is just the beginning of our time together.”

And Thranduil couldn’t say, I wish you never had to leave. A day apart is too long when then span of our time together can be measured in mere decades. Stay here with me and let me adore you, let me love you and your family, let me make you mine as best I can, let me have you. I miss you already, and you’re still in my arms. How will I bear it when you go? He couldn’t say it because he knew it would make Bard unhappy, so he just said, “I suppose I’ll just have to visit you when the distance becomes unbearable.”

“You always have a place in my home,” Bard agreed. “Always. You…there won’t be anyone else, Thranduil. I hope you know that.”

He had known it, but it still felt good to hear Bard articulate it. “As it should be,” Thranduil murmured, spreading his legs and pulling Bard in between them, delighting in his lover’s groan as he began to rise yet again.

“You will exhaust me so much I won’t be able to ride away tomorrow,” Bard accused.

“What a pity that would be,” Thranduil replied, and proceeded to coax Bard into a third round that left both of them gasping and exhausted.

Thranduil escorted them to the edge of the forest the next day. The children were merry, pleased to have had a little adventure but happy to be going home again. Bard was quieter, contemplative, and that suited Thranduil just fine. Tauriel kept the children occupied until it was time to go, and then there were kisses from the girls and an eager hug from Bain, and one last shared embrace with Bard before the King of Dale’s escort reached them.

“Within the month,” Bard said quietly. “Once things have calmed down in Dale, I’ll be back. Write to me. Please.”

“Every day,” Thranduil promised.

“I know I’ll see you again soon.” Bard’s eyes glistened, bright and fierce, in the sunshine. “Why is it still so hard?”

Because endings are always hard. “Love can be treacherous at times, my king.”

“Then I shall endure its treachery with a glad heart,” Bard replied. He closed his eyes and kissed Thranduil, just once, then turned and gathered up his family. Thranduil watched them go with an outwardly calm mien, waving back at Tilda’s frantically moving arm before she was out of sight.

The return to his halls was a blur. Thranduil was grateful that Tauriel was with him, for he would have been useless in a fight in something had happened along the way. He ignored his throne and headed toward his private rooms, only stopping at the door to look back at Tauriel, who had followed him. “You have my permission to take your squad out to fight, if you wish to,” he told her.

“Tomorrow will be soon enough,” she replied. “Are you well, my lord?”

“Well enough.” It was almost true.

Tauriel hesitated. “I…am here if you need me. For anything, even if…I know it is presumptuous of me to offer to listen, but…”

Thranduil shook his head. “It is a kindness you offer me, Tauriel. I cannot accept it right now, but I do appreciate it.”

She nodded, then bowed. “I will leave tomorrow morning, then.”

“Be back within a week’s time to report your progress.”

“Yes, sire.” She left, and Thranduil entered his rooms, shut his eyes and resisted the urge to sink to the floor. He was glad he had refrained when a voice spoke out from the corner.

“You look unwell.”

“Avophen.” Thranduil sighed. “What are you doing here?”

“Keeping you from diving headlong into a needless melancholy.”

“I am not melancholy.”

“Nor will you be, with adequate distraction.” Avophen raised up a sealed letter. “I thought we might start with this.”

Thranduil walked over and took it, inspecting the seal. “From Elrond…” He had a sudden, aggravating insight. “Have you been keeping this in reserve against the time of Bard’s departure?”

“Spare me your anger for the deception of a single day, gwador. I have the feeling there is plenty in here to occupy your mind.” Avophen reached out and briefly laid his hand on Thranduil’s shoulder. “I will return with your evening meal shortly, but tomorrow you should come and eat in your great halls again. Your people miss the sight of their king.”

“They see me every day.”

“Ah, but now they will not have to share you for a while,” Avophen replied with a smile before taking his leave.

Thranduil sat down beside Tínulor’s favorite window, broke the seal and began to read. Greetings, an acknowledgement of the information that Thranduil had passed on, new details about the necromancer fleeing Dol Goldur and Saruman’s assurances that he was gone for good—Thranduil wondered about the accuracy of that—and then…

Your son Legolas joined us in Imladris a week ago. While his arrival was unexpected, he is certainly most welcome here. Elladan and Elrohir pester him for tales of your recent battle, and Arwen teases him like he is another of her brothers. My ward Elessar is also quite impressed with him, and they are becoming fast friends. Legolas asks that I relay his continued good health to you. Why he does not write to you himself I do not know and will not ask, but I am more than willing to act as your messenger for a time. Family is always challenging, and children more than anything.

Keep your eyes on Dol Goldur. I have a feeling that not everything has emerged from that fortress yet.

There was a little more, formal farewells, but Thranduil only had eyes for the news of Legolas. His son was safe. Legolas was safe, and that was all that mattered. There was no better place for him than Rivendell, under the watchful eyes of Elrond. Legolas was grown, an accomplished fighter and an archer with few equal to his skill, but Thranduil’s mind was filled with visions of his son as a small child, still as soft and light as Tilda, with Sigrid’s calm demeanor and Bain’s passion for improving his skills.

It helped, somehow, that comparison. Bard’s children were unique, worlds apart from Legolas, but the threads of similarity between them were steadying. Perhaps by the time Bard’s children had grown to adulthood, Thranduil’s own son would be ready to return to him.

He looked out the window, and absently rubbed his hand across the smooth part of the frame. Soon it would be dark. He would take one night, just one, to wish for things he couldn’t have. Today was an ending, but tomorrow would be a fresh start. Bard was close by, Legolas was well, and there was plenty to occupy his time. Thranduil would make good on his promise to write to his lover every day. He would write back to Elrond, he might accompany his warriors on a sortie against the ever-present enemy. He would live, and he would not forget.

If right now was the only time Thranduil could count on, then he would seize it by both hands.