The moment Bard saw the young man making his way through the crowded infirmary he knew what was coming. He'd gotten very good at picking out the signs—the slightly hunched shoulders, the mix of embarrassment and indignation. They were trademarks of an encounter with the only person in Dale who was capable of stripping a man's self esteem faster than a wolf tearing flesh from a bone. The youth—who was likely a man grown, by necessity if not by age—caught sight of Bard and immediately made his way over.
He heard Sigrid sigh beside him. "Well da, looks like duty calls."
"We don't know that," Bard lied, folding another weathered shirt and setting it aside. For most of the day Bard and his daughter had been working to patch and distribute the extra clothes to all who had need of it. Bard had little skill with a needle, but it had to be done and there were few enough hands to do it. Sorting through all the wood, furniture and clothing that could be salvaged from the shores of the Lake was a massive task, but at least it was simple. Bard found that he valued simplicity more and more these days. By the look on the approaching messenger's face, it would have to wait.
"Lord Bard," the messenger said, coming to a halt in front of them. "I've come to tell you that—"
"—Lord Thranduil would like to see me," Bard finished with a sigh. "Is that correct?" The young man nodded. "Thank you. You may return to your duties." The man nodded and hurried away, leaving Bard to reflect on what exactly the Elvenking might want this time.
He turned to Sigrid. "Perhaps we should finish sorting these first?" he said, a tad forlornly.
Sigrid shook her head. "Better to not keep the elves waiting."
"They can certainly afford to more than we can," Bard muttered, but he set down the shirt he had been trying to mend with a sigh. "You're right, of course. I think you might be better this than I am. I ought to appoint you king in my place."
Sigrid laughed with a roll of her eyes. "No thanks, da. Now go on." She smacked him on the arm playfully. "Go do your kinging."
Bard wrapped his arm around her shoulders and squeezed her into a half-way hug. "Your wish is my command, Lady Sigrid."
Her laughter followed him as he made his way out of what had become Dale's infirmary. It was one of the few buildings which required little work to make it livable, unlike most of the other dwellings in Dale. Still, space was scarce, and this building was largely occupied by the weak or injured. Bard nodded to the few he recognized as he passed, offering a word of comfort where he could. It was never enough, he knew. But he had to do something. No matter what he did, there were always more stones to be moved, more food to be distributed, more injured to comfort. It was exhausting, and there was no end in sight.
The air outside felt raw in his throat as he walked, the chill settling deep. Winters here were long, and brutal. Time was running out on the reconstruction efforts if they hoped to have shelter before the first snows swept through. If Bard was to be honest, the only reason they had lasted this long was in thanks to a certain King of Mirkwood, bringing food and medicine in their darkest hours like the answers to their prayers. But Thranduil was no deity, no matter how he might style himself, and Bard did not doubt that his aid would come with a price.
Bard had yet to decide whether his actions were those of an ally, or simply an opportunist. The cart of supplies had arrived just in time to feed the hungry refugees from Laketown—and give them strength to die in a fight which was not their own. Before the battle, his strange and sudden partnership with the Lord of Mirkwood had held fast under the pressure of an oncoming slaughter; the choice was to stand together, or be rent apart. But and the battle had passed, and now what held them together was less clear. Thranduil did not see the type to try to keep friends—or people close to him of any sort, for that matter. Yet Bard could scarcely go a day without being summoned to the Elvenking's tent to finalize every trade and tax detail between their two realms for the next five hundred years.
He made his way through the tent city which had sprung up in the unused courtyards until he came to Thranduil's tent, the largest and most ornate of all of them. The guards outside knew him well by now, and Bard did not hesitate before throwing aside the tent flap and stepping inside.
Thranduil was, predictably, pouring himself a glass of wine, his back turned to Bard. His robes were of as fine a make as any, silver and charcoal grey, entwined with the pattern of vines. As much as the Master had enjoyed his finery, he had never managed to come close to the ease that Thranduil displayed with displaying his wealth. Thranduil wore it as if it were his right to do so, and that set Bard on edge.
"My Lord Thranduil," he said when the elf did not immediately acknowledge him. "I believe you asked after me."
"I did." The Elvenking did not turn his attention from his wine, and Bard did not press with formalities. Wary he may be around the elf-king, but bowing and scraping had never been Bard's strong suit.
"A bit early for a drink," he commented instead.
"I have had many long years in which distill knowledge into wisdom," Thranduil said in his low, measured voice. Bard braced himself for a lecture on the values of Elvish culture—but when Thranduil turned back to him he held two cups in his hand. "One thing which I have learned is that it's never too early for a drink."
Bard accepted the cup with a half-incredulous, half-conceding raise of his eyebrows. Thranduil took a seat on the rudimentary throne, watching Bard with an expression that said that he was an elf and he would stare if he wanted to. Bard returned it unflinchingly, sipping his wine and letting the silence drag on. Still, it was all Bard could do not to grimace. The wine was very, very strong.
"You know, you really should stop enlisting my men from their duties to run your errands," Bard said at last.
"Attending to you is one of their duties," Thranduil replied.
Bard repressed a sigh, deciding not to push the issue. "So, is it export taxes on exotic fruits that we're discussing this time? Or did we finally lay that to rest?"
"I suppose our current agreement will stand," Thranduil said. "Although you mistakenly included raspberries in your previous document. For your future reference, berries fall under the same category as nuts."
"Wonderful," Bard muttered. "I will be sure to remember that."
Thranduil tilted his head. "As for today, I had hoped to discuss what type of crops you intend to raise—only for the next decade, of course. A preliminary estimate is all I require, so we may begin deciding on whether the old tariffs will stand."
Bard stared at him blankly. "It's nearly winter. We can't start planting for months."
Thranduil sighed. "I suppose that means you have not yet decided." He stood up and meandered over to a table near the center of the room, spread with crinkling maps. The elf perused one of them while drinking wine. "Dale has grown both wheat and corn historically, if memory serves. We can base our negotiations on buying seed off of that, at the very least."
Bard couldn't help but scrutinize the elf more closely as he was absorbed in his maps. It was easy to forget the span of years he must have witnessed, the fact that he could draw up information from centuries ago by simply visiting his memory. It was not difficult to imagine how such a creature could disregard the plights of Man in favor of glittering jewels. Such treasures would remain unchanged for as long as the elf could live, while Bard and his people would become little more than another memory to be idly reviewed, or simply forgotten. And this was the person whose fortunes Dale largely depended on. It was not a comforting thought.
"As for the crop export tariffs for trade between our kingdoms," Thranduil continued, "the exact percentages will remain flexible with the market. But we should agree on a baseline to begin with. I am willing to take suggestions."
Bard realized Thranduil was looking for input. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "Ah, I know not. How about ten percent?"
His suggestion was met with a blank stare. He cleared his throat a tad nervously. "I take it that wasn't a good answer."
Thranduil sighed. "Eight percent might be acceptable."
Bard nearly laughed until he realized the elf king was serious. "My lord," Bard said, fighting the note of frustration in his voice, "With all due respect, I fail to see how debating two percentage points of a currently meaningless tax will benefit my people."
Thranduil stared at him. "The difference of a single percent may seem insignificant over a year, but in two hundred years the cumulative effect will be much more evident. Assuming your kingdom lasts that long."
"What good is it to assure them that their grandchildren will live in a city whose tax laws have all been agreed on, when they don't even know that they will survive the winter?" Bard asked in irritation.
"These decisions will effect whether your peoples' grandchildren live in a prosperous society or a tenuous one," Thranduil replied. "Trade and diplomacy are the cornerstones of all great nations. I promise yours will not thrive without them."
Bard did not comment on the fact that Thranduil had the means to enforce that promise, if he chose to cut off ties of diplomacy with Dale. Better to simply give the elf what he wanted and be done with it. Instead he leaned back and swished the wine around his cup with an idle gesture. "I will agree to eight percent, then. Was there some other important business to discuss?"
Thranduil seemed satisfied that he had won whatever bout Bard had unwittingly partaken in. "There is the matter of the dwarves. They too are requesting rations of food for the winter."
A wry smile sprung to Bard's lips in spite of himself. "I would not have expected King Thorin to unbend his pride enough to ask for help from the elves."
"I believe Thorin is too busy fighting to survive the injuries he sustained in the battle to make any decisions on how to run his kingdom," Thranduil said. "We should take advantage of the time before he heals to do as much work as possible. I doubt he will as reasonable as his advisors, especially if the dragon sickness does not break its hold on him."
Bard nodded. "So they've asked you for aid," he mused. "And you would have me advise you on whether or not to give it to them?"
"Actually, I had hoped to hear your opinion on how much to charge them for it," Thranduil said lightly. A slight frown creased his brow. "Is it acceptable to let them starve?"
Bard pinched the bridge of his nose. "No, Lord Thranduil. That would be immoral."
Thranduil looked vaguely disappointed. "Very well. They will have their food, for a price."
Bard tapped his fingers on the side of his cup. "Charge them what you would have asked of Laketown in exchange for your supplies."
"I would rather charge them twice that, now that they have little choice but to accept."
"Then we clearly have two very different ideas about diplomacy," Bard commented. He shook his head ruefully. "Conduct your business with the dwarves as you would. But as for my people, we cannot afford to incur any animosity from Erebor. If the winter should prove too harsh, and the reconstruction too slow, it may be Thorin's goodwill which saves our people."
Thranduil looked at him in mild surprise, something less pleasant stirring beneath. "You would seek shelter with the dwarves?"
"If it becomes necessary, yes."
Thranduil fixed Bard with that discerning stare again. It was frustrating to feel as if the elf could skim the thoughts from his mind and toss them away without interest, simply by studying his face. All the same, Bard refused to look away and give in to the elf's intimidation.
"A piece of advice," Thranduil said at last. "It is not wise for a leader to put his people and kingdom wholly in the power of another. If you give Thorin that leverage, he will use it for everything its worth. If you wish for your people to remain in a sovereign nation, you would do well to avoid that mountain."
Bard smiled, but there was no warmth in it. Of course, the elf had a point; but Bard did not miss the fact that Thranduil had his own reasons to discourage closer ties between Erebor and Dale. Bard could recognize when he was being used as a game piece on a board, played against Thorin so that Thranduil could enjoy the profits. "For once, I find myself agreeing with you, Lord Thranduil. It is not wise for one ruler to be at the mercy of another. I will think on your advice most thoroughly."
He rose to his feet, draining the rest of his cup in a long draft and instantly regretting it, pretending not to feel the buzzing in his fingertips and the growing heaviness behind his eyes. Stepping forward, he set his empty cup on the table beside Thranduil with an ironic smile. "If that is all? As I said, there are many things I must attend to."
Thranduil stared at him with something that could have been hostility, or apathy, or perhaps he was debating what to have to dinner. Bard could scarcely tell. "You may go," he allowed, as if Bard had been waiting for permission. "I will call on you when necessary."
"And I will happily respond. If, of course, I am not busy." Bard said it too pointedly for Thranduil to ignore. The elf only responded with a cool smile, as unreadable and provoking as ever. Bard turned and stepped out of the tent before his loose tongue could get the better of him.
The cold air outside cooled Bard's face, warm from the wine and the closeness of the tent. He pulled his coat closer to his body, shooting a look at the two elven guards before making his way back towards the armory. There was much work to be done, especially after spending so long with the Elvenking when he could have been patching, building, using his hands to help others as he had his whole life. His duties as king belonged in a world Bard did not recognize, a world of honeyed words and bright silver, hidden meanings and cold, blue eyes. He'd lived his life steering through the ruins on the lake, the gentle swaying of his boat not so much as kissing the stones as it passed; now he couldn't help but feel that he'd run aground in unfamiliar waters. He shook the feeling off. Thranduil was not his main concern. At the very worst, all Bard had to fear were more inconvenient summons.
He did not have to wait long.
Bard woke up in the small building he had claimed for his family with a heavy cold lingering in his limbs. Looking up blearily, he saw that Tilda, Bain and Sigrid were huddled together in the other makeshift bed across the room. They, at least, seemed to be sleeping soundly. Admitting there was little chance of falling back asleep, Bard climbed to his feet as quietly as possible and began dressing. There was little else in their new home, a room with piles of bedding and a room with a salvaged table covered in the maps and documents Thranduil had given him to look over. He had scarcely had time to touch them. He spared them a look now, eyes darting over the characters and lines which were somehow important. What seemed more important now was the pit of hunger in his stomach. He set the map down. He would make sure there was something for his children to eat when they woke. Outside there was only quiet—the first light was only just upon them. Bard picked up his bow and quiver and stepped into the streets, heading for the forest.
He passed through the city quickly, noting the piles of rubble and gaping holes in the roofs that were still a common sight. The building efforts went on slowly, far too slow for Bard; it was hard to believe they would have nearly enough of the city remade in time for the first front of winter. But somehow they would have to. Beyond the tumbling stones, the rich fabric of the Elven tents nestled in the nearby courtyard. Bard spared them little more than a glance.
He nodded to the watchman at the front gate, who immediately stood up straighter and clamped down on his yawn. The wild landscape around the city awaited him, rocky and unforgiving, snow still sheltering in between the crags. Hunting was scarce, but he was lucky—he came across a warren and shot three rabbits, and made it back to the city as the sun was beginning to wash the cobblestones. Bard returned home with a feeling of accomplishment—their lives may be crumbling around them, but at least he could provide for his family.
That goodwill vanished as soon as he stepped back inside to see Sigrid sitting at the table. Her posture was stiff, awkward—as soon as she saw him she leapt to her feet.
"Da," she said quickly.
Bard's heart plunged. "What is it? Are Bain and Tilda—"
"Your children are all well." The voice was cold. He slowly turned to see Thranduil standing on the other side of the room, his hands clasped behind his back, radiating a remote sort of contempt. His dark, opulent robes were in stark contrast to the grime of Bard's current dwellings. It was hard not to be keenly aware of how bedraggled Bard must look in comparison, how the exhaustion must be so much more obvious on his face.
Bard faced him warily, Sigrid close by his side. She looked ready to take up arms, but relaxed when he squeezed her shoulder. "It's alright. Take your brother and sister to Marta and have her cook these up," he said softly, handing her the rabbits he had caught.
Sigrid nodded, leaning into the other room to gesture for Bain and Tilda. She ushered them out of the door with one final glance of suspicion at Thranduil, leaving Bard and the elf alone. The silence seemed to stretch out between them until it cracked like river-ice. Bard eventually looked away, meandering over to the table and gesturing at one of the chairs. "Please, take a seat. I'm afraid I have no wine to offer you."
Without a word Thranduil moved to take a seat. As usual his movements were smooth and precise, like the movement of a snake on the surface of the river. Sitting at a table that still smelled like the lakewater they'd pulled it out of, he looked utterly out of place—yet somehow he still managed to occupy his seat with an air of regal contempt. Bard sat down across from him, the unread documents laid on the table like damning evidence between them.
"I did not expect to find you here," Bard said at last.
"I did not expect to find you gone," Thranduil replied. Bard could hear the tension in his voice, tightly reigned back.
Bard gestured at the other room, now empty and silent. "My children needed food—"
"I brought you food," Thranduil snapped. "You don't have time to be scuttling around the countryside. Your talents are wasted in such menial work."
Bard allowed himself a short laugh. "You give me more credit than is due, my lord. Perhaps you forget that I spent my entire life doing such 'menial work' as that."
"Yet you are a king now," Thranduil reminded him. "That life is behind you."
"It was the people of Laketown who gave me that title," Bard said, sharper than he had intended. The shouts of the crowd on the shores of the lake rang as fresh as ever in his mind. He remembered how quickly he'd pulled away when the calls of 'King Bard' first rang out—but it seemed, not quickly enough. "Whatever I may accomplish, it will be with their interests and safety in mind."
Thranduil smiled coldly. "You understand so little of power."
Bard sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Was there something you needed, my lord, or are you merely here to criticize me?"
Wordlessly, Thranduil dipped his fingers inside of the robes he was wearing and produced a folded sheet of paper. He tossed it onto the table between them, where it joined the countless other documents.
"A historical review of previous border disputes between Dale, Erebor, and my people," Thranduil said. "I had planned to go over it with you in case the dwarves tried to make claims to any land that was not theirs by right—but it seems you are busy."
Without another word, Thranduil stood up. Bard followed suit, watching as the elf paused just before the door. Thranduil's eyes travelled over the room, taking in the decrepit stonework and the dirt scraped hastily into the corners. "In the time of your forefathers, the king of Dale took up residence in the city's central keep. You would do well to follow his example—and in the meantime, I suggest you find yourself some clothes more suited to a king than a bargeman."
He swept out of the room before Bard could think to reply, the two guards stationed just outside falling into step behind him. Anger seared in his heart like a brand, but it mingled with a sense of deep resignation. It was all too much. Bard sank back into his chair and stared blankly at the wall for a long moment, his fingers twitching half-heartedly towards the paper Thranduil had left before reaching up to press against his face wearily. He still had to ensure the food was being distributed properly, and that the wounded were being cared for, the rubble cleared…
"Da?" Bard's head snapped out of his hands. Sigrid was standing hesitantly in the doorway, her eyes pinched with concern.
"Where are Tilda and Bain?" Bard asked her with a hoarse voice.
"I left them with Marta," Sigrid said, stepping inside. "Are you alright?"
Bard managed a weak smile. "I'm fine, Sigrid. Nothing but the concerns of old men."
"You're not old." Sigrid settled down across from him, where Thranduil had sat moments earlier. Where his eyes had been harsh with judgment, hers were soft and forgiving. She had seen so much in her time already. Bard had seen her harden up, just as he had seen her break, but she had never forgotten her kindness. That must have been her mother in her. When she smiled at him now, Bard could see it so plainly it hurt. "What did the elf want?"
Bard shuffled the pile of papers in front of him into something resembling an orderly pile. "To help, supposedly."
She paused. A mischievous smile twitched on her lips. "He seemed like a bit of an ass."
"Sigrid!" Bard looked at her in disbelief, but he couldn't stifle a grin. "Where did you learn to speak like that?"
"Am I wrong?" she asked with a quirk of her eyebrow.
"I won't speak poorly of our noble ally." His smile said otherwise, though it did not last long. It seemed any levity in these times was always short lived.
Sigrid's eyes wandered to the papers in front of him. "It's hard, isn't it?"
Bard rubbed his brow. "Harder than I could have imagined."
Sigrid hesitated. "Da," she said at last. "You can't do everything, you know. You always try to. Ever since—back then." Bard looked up and saw that Sigrid had lowered her eyes, her jaw set. Bard felt a sharp pang in his chest when he looked at her then. She didn't need to specify. After Bard's wife died, he had almost let it destroy him. Things had not been so bad since then, and he had hoped that Sigrid had forgotten. But the pain in her eyes said otherwise.
"You worked yourself so hard back then," Sigrid said, the emotion in her voice tightly controlled. "And there was only the three of us then, Tilda Bain and me, and now everyone needs you, and I just don't want it to—for you to—you look so tired, Da," she whispered, breaking off with a tightening in her jaw.
Bard was on his feet and by her side in an instant, pulling her into a tight embrace, kissing the top of her head fiercely even as he squeezed his own eyes shut. "It’s alright," he murmured. "I'll be fine. I promise." Sigrid clung to him like she had when she was just a little girl—she was still just a girl, but it was so easy to forget. No sobs shook her body. He knew she would push them down, bury them inside of herself. He could hardly fault her. That much she had learned from him.
When she finally pulled back, he smiled at her as genuinely as he could manage. "Now, come on," he said, nudging her chin with his knuckles. "Let's go find your brother and sister, and make sure they don't eat all the rabbit stew without us."
Sigrid smiled back, and clung to his arm as they walked through the streets. Bard thought back on the times that she would talk for hours on end about the dresses Frigga could make her, or how she would save up enough money to buy a boat just like his. He had never wanted these cares to weigh on her mind, for her to worry about him. But for all the promises he could make, he knew that he couldn't stop. As long as people needed help, he couldn't sit by idly. At the very least, he could do a better job of keeping his exhaustion from his children.
His eyes wandered to the Elven tents as they passed by, though there were no signs of movement inside. He wondered if there had ever been a time when Thranduil had agonized over his people's troubles, driven himself to exhaustion trying to ensure everyone was taken care of. Memories of the elf's cold, apathetic face floated through his mind, and Bard's mouth tightened. If there had been such a time, he couldn't imagine it.